Simonides Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Nothing is known of Simonides’ (si-MON-ih-deez) childhood or parentage other than that he was born near Iulis on the island of Ceos, fifteen miles (24 kilometers) from the southeast coast of Attica. He left Ceos after studying poetry and music and spent most of the remainder of his life in Athens. In addition to Pisistratus, the archon of Athens, his main patrons were the leaders of Syracuse and Thessaly. Simonides was chiefly known for his invention of the victory ode, a dithyramb offered to celebrate a prize won by a competitor at the religious or athletic festivals of ancient Greece. He was also famous as a maker of epigrams, the most famous of which is carved on a stone celebrating the successful defense of Thermopylae against the Persians: “Tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here we lie, obedient to their commands.”


The choral forms that Simonides developed and popularized were widely used to celebrate the Greek victories over Persia and the ideals of Classical Greece after the war.

Further Reading:

Bowra, C. M. Greek Lyric Poetry: From Alcman to Simonides. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Volume of criticism and interpretation includes bibliography and index.

Bowra C. M., and T. F. Higham, eds. Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation. Rev. ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1972. Contains the largest selection of Greek verse in a single source; more than seven hundred items with good notes that cite parallels and explain content.

Hutchinson, G. O. Greek Lyric Poetry, a Commentary on Selected Larger Pieces: Alcman, Stesichorus,...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

Simonides Biography

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek lyric poet{$I[g]Greece;Simonides} Having advanced the quality of Greek lyric poetry through his elegies and epigrams, Simonides brought the dithyramb and Epinician ode to a level of perfection comparable only to that of Pindar.

Early Life

One of the epigrams of Simonides (si-MON-ih-deez), number 203, reveals both its author’s place and year of birth; it is in this poem that he celebrates a victory prize he won at the age of eighty in the archonship of Adeimantus. Other ancient sources confirm these dates, and one can be certain that Simonides lived to the age of eighty-nine or ninety or even longer, if one believes the testimony of Lucian.

Unlike many of the Greek lyric poets, a surprisingly complete genealogy remains extant for Simonides. His father’s name was Leoprepes, and his maternal grandfather’s name was Hyllichus. His paternal grandfather, also named Simonides, and a grandson known as Simonides Genealogus were poets as well. In addition, the dithyrambic poet Bacchylides was his nephew. It is clear that literary inclinations ran deeply in Simonides’ family.

According to traditional accounts, the family of Simonides held some form of hereditary post in connection with Dionysus, and this would account for Simonides’ early access to music and poetry festivals held in that god’s honor. Supposedly, while still a boy, Simonides instructed the choruses and celebrated the worship of Apollo at Carthaea. Pindar, who became Simonides’ bitter rival, criticized both Simonides and Bacchylides for these early involvements, castigating them both as tous mathontas (“the teachers”), with the implication that they were pedants.

Sometime after 528 b.c.e., the tyrant Hipparchus invited Simonides to his court at Athens, and it was here that the poet acquired his first major celebrity. The poets Anacreon and Lasus, the teacher of Pindar, were present at Hipparchus’s court at this time. Simonides appears to have had only minimal contact with Anacreon. The relationship between Simonides and Lasus appears, however, to have been contentious from the outset. They engaged in a number of poetry contests filled with personal invective, and Lasus’s student Pindar would carry on this enmity to the final years of Simonides’ life.

Based on encomia attributed to him, Simonides appears to have weathered the political storms that resulted from the murder of Hipparchus and the expulsion of his successor Hippias. With consummate irony, an inscription attributed to Simonides praises the tyrannicide committed by Harmodius and Aristogiton and calls the death of his patron “a great light rising upon the Athenians.” This inscription probably appeared at the base of a publicly displayed statue of Harmodius and Aristogiton. The point at which one might consider the career of Simonides to be established, approximately 510 b.c.e., thus coincides with the death or expulsion of those who had helped him achieve recognition.

Life’s Work

The unstable situation in Athens following the overthrow of the Pisistratids probably led Simonides to seek the patronage of the Aleuads and the Scopads in Thessaly. If the assessment of the poet Theocritus is correct, the names of these ruling families escaped oblivion only through the encomia that Simonides wrote in their honor to celebrate the victories of their horses at the sacred games. Most noteworthy among the extant works of Simonides is the substantial fragment of the Epinician ode on the victory of the four-horse chariot of Scopas. Plato preserves and comments on this poem (number 13) in his Prōtagoras (399-390 b.c.e.; Protagoras, 1804). “Fragments on the Fall of the Scopads” (number 46) and “Antiochus the Aleuad” (number 48) are among Simonides’ most familiar works. It is even possible that a threnody on Danae is a poem originally written for one of the Scopads.

Despite this considerable involvement with the tyrants of Thessaly, it seems that Simonides’ relationship with them was never an easy one. The region was rugged, and the arts, praised as they might have been in the abstract, always took second place when it came to the granting of subventions. Cicero, in De oratore (56 b.c.e.; The Orations, 1741-1743), cites the poet Callimachus as his authority for the story that Scopas, having heard Simonides’ Castor and Pollux ode, gave the poet only one-half the agreed payment, telling Simonides that he should request the other half from the Tyndarids, because they had received half the praise in Simonides’ poem. The tale assumes a somewhat fantastic character at this point. Having received a message that two young men wished to speak to him, Simonides, just humiliated by Scopas’s behavior, left the hall to see the two young men supposedly waiting for him at the entrance to the banquet hall. When he left the hall, however, he could find no one, but he heard a sudden crash, and the entire hall fell on Scopas, killing him and the other revelers who had ridiculed Simonides.

It is, of...

(The entire section is 2100 words.)