Bacchylides, Greek lyric poet, was born at Iulis, in the island of Ceos. His father's name was probably Meidon; his mother was a sister of Simonides, himself a native of Iulis. Eusebius says that Bacchylides "flourished" (ἤκμαζεν) in Ol. 78. 2 (467 B.C.). As the term ἤκμαζεν refers to the physical prime, and was commonly placed at about the fortieth year, we may suppose that Bacchylides was born circa 507 B.C. Among his Odes the earliest that can be approximately dated is xii.,[1] which may belong to 481 or 479 B.C.; the latest is vi., of which the date is fixed by the recently found fragment of the Olympic register to Ol. 82. 1 (452 B.C.). He would thus have been some forty-nine years younger than his uncle Simonides, and some fifteen years younger than Pindar. Elsewhere Eusebius states that Bacchylides "was of repute" (ἐγνωρίζετο) in Ol. 87. 2 (431 B.C.); and Georgius Syncellus, using the same word, gives Ol. 88 (428-425 B.C.). The phrase would mean that he was then in the fulness of years and of fame.

There is nothing improbable in the supposition that he survived the beginning of the Peloponnesian war.

Bacchylides, like Simonides and Pindar, visited the court of Hiero I. of Syracuse (478-467). In his fifth Ode (476 B.C.), the word ξένος (v. 11) has been taken to mean that he had already been the guest of the prince; and, as Simonides went to Sicily in or about 477 B.C., that is not unlikely. Ode iii. (468 B.C.) was possibly written at Syracuse, as verses 15 and 16 suggest. He there pays a high compliment to Hiero's taste in poetry (ver. 3 ff.). A scholium on Pyth. ii. 90 (166) avers that Hiero preferred the Odes of Bacchylides to those of Pindar. The Alexandrian scholars interpreted a number of passages in Pindar as hostile allusions to Bacchylides or Simonides. If the scholiasts 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 (schol. Pyth. ii. 52 f.), and as one whose poetical skill was due to study rather than to genius (Ol. ii. 91-110). In Olymp. ii. 96 the dual γαρύετον, if it does not refer to the uncle and nephew, remains mysterious; nor does it admit of probable emendation.[2] One would gladly reject this tradition, to which the scholia so frequently refer; yet it would be rash to assume that it rested merely on surmise.

The Alexandrians may have possessed evidence on the subject which is now lost. It is tolerably certain that the three poets were visitors at Hiero's court at about the same time: Pindar and Bacchylides wrote odes of the same kind in his honour; and there was a tradition that he preferred the younger poet. There is thus no intrinsic improbability in the hypothesis that Pindar's haughty spirit had suffered, or imagined, some mortification. It is noteworthy that, whereas in 476 and 470 both he and Bacchylides celebrated Hiero's victories, in 468 (the most important occasion of all) 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. Nor is it difficult to conceive that a despot such as Hiero, whose constitutional position was ill-defined, and who was perhaps all the more exigent of deference on that account, may have found the genial Ionian a more agreeable courtier than Pindar, an aristocrat of the Boeoto-Aeolic type, not unmindful of "his fathers the Aegidae," and rather prone to link the praises of his patron with a lofty intimation of his own claims (see, e.g., Olymp. i. ad fin.). 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.

Nay, one might almost imagine a compliment to Pindar, when, in mentioning Hesiod, he calls him βοιωτὸς ἀνήρ.

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. Thus in Ode viii., for Automedes of Phlius, he draws on the legends connected with the Phliasian river Asopus. In Ode x., starting from the Argive legend of Proetus and Acrisius, he tells how the Arcadian cult of Artemis Ἡμέρα was founded. In one of his dithyrambs (xix.) he treated the legend of Idas (a Messenian hero) and Marpessa in the form of a hymenaeus sung by maidens of Sparta.

The Alexandrian scholars, who drew up select lists of the best writers in each kind, included Bacchylides in their "canon" of the nine lyric poets, along with Alcman, Sappho, Alcaeus, Stesichorus, Ibycus, Anacreon, Simonides and Pindar. The Alexandrian grammarian Didymus (circ. 30 B.C.) wrote a commentary on the epinikian odes of Bacchylides. Horace, a poet in some respects of kindred genius, was a student of his works, and imitated him (according to Porphyrion) in Odes, i. 15, where Nereus predicts the destruction of Troy. Quotations from Bacchylides, or references to him, occur in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Strabo, Plutarch, Stobaeus, Athenaeus, Aulus Gellius, Zenobius, Hephaestion, Clement of Alexandria, and various grammarians or scholiasts. Ammianus Marcellinus (xxv. 4) says that the emperor Julian enjoyed reading Bacchylides. It is clear, then, that this poet continued to be popular during at least the first four centuries of our era. No inference adverse to his repute can fairly be drawn from the fact that no mention of him occurs in the extant work of any Attic writer.