Simonides' Foil

Michael W. Boler

Fordham University

In Poem 38 Catullus states, 'paulum quid lubet allocutionis/ maestius lacrimis Simonideis'.  These lines of Catullus, along with other sources from antiquity, illustrate one of the common judgments about Simonides, his mastery of 'pathos'.  With a cursory glance at the surviving fragments this judgment seems to be borne out, most notably in the dirges (PMG 520, PMG 521).  These fragments state that man is weak, his exploits vain, and that the same fate follows both good and wicked men.  Simonides seems to be making a much stronger statement than the typical notion about the vicissitude of human life, a view which stands in stark contrast to his other surviving works.  Simonides' role in the pioneering, if not invention, of epinician poetry, along with his celebratory poems contradict the belief that he saw only despair and futility in human existence.  However, pessimism is not a genre and it is fair to ask for what purpose the poems from which we have such fragments were written.  The above mentioned fragments are agreed by most to be excerpts from dirges.  If Simonides was commissioned to write poems, as he is known to have been, surely his patrons must have expected from him something other than morbid reflections on the frailty of human existence.  What small evidence we do have on the dirge as a genre suggests that consolation and the praising of the dead were integral parts of the form.  I will argue that fragements such as PMG 520 and PMG 521 can be read as foil to encomiastic elements of the poem which did not survive.  Lyric poets whose work has survived in more complete form express the same sentiments as these fragments of Simonides.  The same conclusions could very well be made about specific lines of Pindar (O.1.114, O.3.42-45, O.7.94-95, P.3.104-105) if we did not have the entire poems which give these lines their proper context.  An investigation into a few of the well attested fragments of Simonides will reveal that fragments which appear at face value to be laments on the powerlessness of mankind and the impossibility of accomplishments other than the mere avoidance of evil could in fact be read as foil to the achievements of those whom he praised.  Once the possibility of contrary readings are acknowledged, the gulf in sentiment between the fragments will narrow, and a more balanced view of Simonides will emerge.


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