Among his odes, the earliest can be approximately dated to 481 or 479 BC; the latest date is fixed by the recently found fragment of the Olympic register to 452 BC. He would thus have been some 49 years younger than his uncle Simonides, and some 15 years younger than Pindar. Elsewhere Eusebius states that Bacchylides "was of repute" in 431 BC; and George Syncellus, using the same phrase, 428 to 425 BC.
If they are right, it would appear that Pindar regarded the younger of the two Cean poets as a jealous rival, who disparaged him to their common patron, and as one whose poetical skill was due to study rather than to genius. Pindar and Bacchylides wrote odes of the same kind in his honour; and there was a tradition that he preferred the younger poet. It is noteworthy that, whereas in 476 and 470 both he and Bacchylides celebrated Hiero’s victories, in 468 Bacchylides alone was commissioned to do so; although in that year Pindar composed an ode (Olymp. vi.) for another Syracusan victor at the same festival. But, whatever may have been the true bearing of Pindar’s occasional innuendoes, it is at any rate pleasant to find that in the extant work of Bacchylides there is not the faintest semblance of hostile allusion to any rival.
Plutarch (de Exilio, p. 605 c) names Bacchylides in a list of writers, who after they had been banished from their native cities, were active and successful in literature. It was Peloponnesus that afforded a new home to the exiled poet. The passage gives no clue to date or circumstance; but it implies that Peloponnesus was the region where the poet's genius ripened and where he did the work which established his fame. This points to a residence of considerable length; and it may be noted that some of the poems illustrate their author's intimate knowledge of Peloponnesus.
The first and most general quality of style in Bacchylides is his simplicity and clearness. Where the text is not corrupt, there are few sentences which are not lucid in meaning and simple in structure.
Another prominent trait in the style of Bacchylides is his use of picturesque detail. This characteristic marks the fragment by which, before the discovery of 1896, he was best known — a passage, from one of his paeans, on the blessings of peace (fr. 13, Bergk, 3, Jebb); and it frequently appears in the Odes, especially in the mythical narratives. He often uses similes; an example is the touches with which he elaborates the simile of the eagle in Ode v., and that of the storm-tossed mariners in Ode xii.
There are occasional flashes of brilliancy in. his imagery, when it is lit up by his keen sense of beauty or splendour in external nature. A radiance, "as of fire," streams from the forms of the Nereids (xvi. 103 if.). An athlete shines out among his fellows Like’ the bright moon of the mid-month night ‘ among the stars (viii. 27 if.). The sudden gleam of hope which comes to the Trojans by the withdrawal of Achilles is like a ray of sunshine "from beneath the edge of a storm-cloud" (xii - 105 if.). The shades of the departed, as seen by Heracles on the banks of the Cocytus, are compared to the countless leaves fluttering in the wind on "the gleaming headlands of Ida" (v. 65 if )--an image not unworthy of Dante or of Milton.
Among the minor features of this poet's style the most remarkable is his use of epithets. A god or goddess nearly always receives some ornamental epithet; sometimes, indeed, two or even three. Such a trait is in unison with the epic manner, the straightforward narrative, which we find in some of the larger poems. On the other hand, the copious use of such ornament has the disadvantage that it sometimes gives a tinge of conventionality to his work. This impression is somewhat strengthened by the fact that many of the epithets are long compound words, not found elsewhere and (in some cases at least) probably invented by the poet; words which suggest a deliberate effort to vary the stock repertory.
The poems contained in the works of Bacchylides found (see below) in 1896 are of two classes:
The Ode of Victory was properly a song in praise of a deity. Stesichorus (c. 610 BC) seems to have been the first who composed hymns in honour, not of gods, but of heroes; the next step was to write hymns in celebration of victories by living men. This custom arose in the second half of the 6th century BC, the age in which the games at the four great Greek festivals reached the fulness of their popularity. Simonides (c. 556 BC) was the earliest recorded writer of epinikia. His odes of this class are now represented only by a few very small fragments, some twenty lines in all. Two of these fragments, belonging to the description of a chariot-race, warrant the belief that Simonides, in his epinikia, differed from Pindar in dwelling more on the incidents 01 the particular victory. The same characteristic is found in the epinikia of Bacchylides. His fifth ode, and Pindar’s first Olympian, alike celebrate the victory of the horse Pherenicus; but, while Pindar's reference to the race itself is slight and general (vv. 20-22), Bacchylides describes the running of the winner much more vividly and fully (vv. 37-49).
The manuscript contains fourteen epinikia, or thirteen if Blass be right in supposing that Odes vi. and vii., as numbered by Kenyon in the editio princeps, are parts of a single ode (for Lachon of Ceos). Four (or on the view just stated, three) of the odes relate to the Olympian festival; two to the Pythian; three to the Isthmian; three to the Nemean; and one to a Thessalian festival. This comes last. The order in which the manuscript arranges the other epinikia seems to be casual; at least it does not follow (1) the alphabetical sequence of the victors’ names, or of the names of their cities; nor (2) chronological sequence; nor (3) classification by contests; nor (4) classification by festivals’except that the four great festivals precede the Petra-ea. The first ode, celebrating a victory of the Cean Argeios at the Isthmus, may possibly have been placed there for a biographical reason, such as because the poet treated in it the early legends of his native island.
A mythical narrative, connected in some way with the victor or his city, usually occupies the central part of the Pindaric ode. It serves to lift the poem into an ideal region, and to invest it with more than a local or temporary significance. The method of Bacchylides in this department of the epinikion is best illustrated by the myth of Croesus in Ode iii., that of Heracles and Meleager in Ode v., and that of the Proetides in Ode x. Pindar's habit is to select certain moments or scenes of a legend, which he depicts with great force and vividness. Bacchylides, on the other hand, has a gentle flow of simple epic narrative; he relies on the interest of the story as a whole, rather than on his power of presenting situations. Another element, always present in the longer odes of victory, is that which may be called the "gnomic". Here, again, there is a contrast between the two poets. Pindar packs his maxims into terse and sometimes obscure epigrams; he utters them in a didactic tone, as of one who can speak with the commanding voice of Delphic wisdom. The moralizing of Bacchylides is rather an utterance of quiet meditation, sometimes recalling the strain of lonian gnomic elegy.
The epinikia of Bacchylides are followed in the manuscript by six compositions which the Alexandrians classed under the general name of Dithyrambs. The "dithyramb," first mentioned by Archilochus (c. 670 BC), received a finished and choral form from Anon of Lesbos (c. 600 BC). His dithyrambs, produced at Corinth, belonged to the cult of Dionysus, and the members of his chorus personated satyrs. Originally concerned with the birth of the god, the dithyramb came to deal with all his fortunes: then its scope became still larger; it might celebrate, not Dionysus alone, but any god or hero.
Several other classes of composition are represented by those fragments of Bacchylides, preserved in ancient literature. Among these we hear of are:
The papyrus containing the odes of Bacchylides was found in Egypt by locals, and reached the British Museum in the autumn of 1896. It was then in about 200 pieces. By the skill and industry of Mr F. G. Kenyon, the editor of the editio princeps (1897), it was reconstructed from these lacerated members. As now arranged, the manuscript consists of three sections.
It is impossible to say how much has been lost between the end of column 29 and the beginning of column 30. Probably, however, Ode xiv., if not the last, was nearly the last of the epinikia. It concerns a festival of a merely local character, the Thessalian Herpaia, and was therefore placed after the thirteen other epinikia, which are connected with the four great festivals. The same lacuna leaves it doubtful whether any collective title was prefixed. After the last column (39) of the MS., a good deal has probably been lost. Bacchylides seems to have written at least three other poems of this class (on Cassandra, Laocoon and Philoctetes); and these would have come, in alphabetical order, after the last of the extant six (Idas).