Simonides of Ceos
Simonides of Ceos (ca. 556 B.C.E. – 469 B.C.E.), Greek lyric poet, was born at Ioulis on Kea. He was included, along with Sappho, Pindar, and others, in the canonical list of nine lyric poets by the scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria. Although, like many of the canonical nine lyric poets, much of Simonides' works are lost, he is nonetheless considered by scholars of the period to be one of the most important of the ancient lyricists. He is believed to be one of the earliest authors to write odes, and he was perhaps the most accomplished of all the ancient poets in the realm of epigrammatic and elegaic poetry. Although he is not as well-known to modern-day audiences as his contemporaries Pindar and Sappho, he is considered by scholars to be just as important a figure in understanding the myriad literature of ancient Greece.
Very little is known definitively about Simonides' life, and what is known cannot necessarily be taken as accurate. During his youth it is believed that he taught poetry and music, and composed paeans for the festivals of Apollo on the small island of Kea. Finding little scope for his abilities at home, he went to live at Athens, at the court of Hipparchus, the patron of literature. After the murder of Hipparchus (514 B.C.E.), Simonides withdrew to Thessaly, where he enjoyed the protection and patronage of the Scopadae and Aleuadae.
Cicero (De oratore, ii. 86) tells the story of the end of his relations with the Scopadae. His patron, Scopas, reproached him at a banquet for devoting too much space to his rival, the Dioscuri, in an ode celebrating Scopas' victory in a chariot-race. Scopas refused to pay all the fee and told Simonides to apply to the Dioscuri for the remainder. Shortly afterwards, Simonides was told that two young men wished to speak to him; after he had left the banqueting room, the roof fell in, crushing Scopas and his guests. Although Cicero's version is almost certainly embellished, there seems no doubt that some disaster overtook the Scopadae that resulted in the extinction of the family. After the Battle of Marathon, Simonides returned to Athens at the invitation of Hiero I of Syracuse, but soon left for Sicily, at whose court he spent the rest of his life.
His reputation as a man of learning is demonstrated by the tradition that he introduced the distinction between the long and short vowels (ε, η, ο, ω), afterwards adopted in the Ionic alphabet that came into general use during the archonship of Eucleides (403 B.C.E.). He was also the inventor of a system of mnemonics according to Quintilian.
So unbounded was his popularity that he was a power even in the political world—it is told that he reconciled Hiero and Thero on the eve of a battle between their opposing armies. He was the intimate friend of Themistocles and Pausanias the Spartan, and his poems on the Greco-Persian Wars no doubt gave a powerful impulse to the national patriotism overtaking Greece at that time.
Simonides is believed to be the first poet on record to write poems on commission for a fee. His poems he could command almost any price: later writers, from Aristophanes onwards, accuse him of avarice.
Of Simonides' poetry we possess two or three short elegies (Fr. 85 seems from its style and versification to belong to Simonides of Amorgos, or at least not to be the work of Simonides of Ceos), several epigrams and about 90 fragments of lyric and choral poetry. The epigrams written in the usual dialect of elegy, Ionic with an epic coloring, were intended partly for public and partly for private monuments.
There is strength and sublimity in the former, with a simplicity that is almost architectural in its intricateness, and throughout his poetry Simonides demonstrates a complete mastery over the rhythm and forms of lyrical expression. The elegies on the heroes of Marathon and the Battle of Thermopylae are the most celebrated:
- Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
- κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
- O xein', angellein Lakedaimoniois hoti têde
- keimetha tois keinon rhémasi peithomenoi.
- Tell the Spartans, passer-by,
- here, obediently, we lie.
Thomas Bullfinch wrote that Simonides "particularly excelled" in the genre of elegy: "His genius was inclined to the pathetic, and none could touch with truer effect the chords of human sympathy." 
In the private epigrams there is more warmth of color and feeling, but few of them rest on any better authority than that of the Greek Anthology.
The lyric fragments vary much in character and length: one is from a poem on Artemisium, celebrating those who fell at Thermopylae; another is an ode in honor of Scopas (commented on in Plato's, Protagoras); the rest are from odes on victors in the games, hyporchemes, dirges, hymns to the gods and other varieties.
In addition to his gifts as a poet, Simonides, through his verse, also contributed to the development of ethical philosophy in ancient Greece. In general, Simonides' philosophy advocated a sort of ethical realism, arguing against an impossibly high standard of moral perfection. "It is hard," he writes,
...to become a truly good man, perfect as a square in hands and feet and mind, fashioned without blame. Whosoever is bad, and not too wicked, knowing justice, the benefactor of cities, is a sound man. I for one will find no fault with him, for the race of fools is infinite. ... I praise and love all men who do no sin willingly; but with necessity even the gods do not contend.
Yet Simonides is far from being a hedonist; his morality, no less than his art, is pervaded by that virtue for which Ceos was renowned—self-restraint. His most celebrated fragment is a dirge, in which Danaë, adrift with the infant Perseus on the sea in a dark and stormy night, takes comfort from the peaceful slumber of her babe. Simonides here illustrates his own saying that "poetry is vocal painting, as painting is silent poetry," a formula that (through Plutarch's De Gloria Atheniesium) became Horace's famous "ut pictura poesis."
Of the many English translations of this poem, one of the best is that by J.A. Symonds in Studies on the Greek Poets. Fragments T. Bergk, Poetae lyrici Graeci; standard edition by F.W. Schneidewin (1835) and of the Danae alone by H.L. Ahrens (1853). Other authorities are given in the exhaustive treatise of E. Cesati, Simonide di Ceo (1882); see also W. Schroter, De Simonidis Cei melici sermpne (1906).
This entry is adapted from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Molyneux, John H. Simonides: A Historical Study. Wauconda, Ill: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1992. ISBN 0865162220
- Oates, Whitney Jennings. The Influence of Simonides upon Horace. New York: Haskell House, 1974. ISBN 0838311199
All links retrieved January 29, 2023.
- Thomas Bullfinch, Simonides from the Age of Fable (at Bartleby.com).
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