Simonides is the legendary Greek poet hailing from the island of Ceos, off the coast of Attica. He lived during the turn of the 6th and 5th centuries BC. As a youth, he left his home on the island and made way for Athens. He may have met Pindar, the great creator of odes among the Greeks, as they both shared a patron, Hieron, the tyrant of Syracuse. Like his fellow poet, Simonides wrote odes to the victors in the Olympic games, and he also wrote a famous epitaph for the Spartans at Thermopylae under Leonidas during the Persian Wars, as recounted in Herodotus. Coupled with the rise of the Greek games and the victories over Persia, lyric poetry rose to prominence under the masters like Simonides and Pindar.
Unlike Pindar, Simonides used an ironic and sometimes playful tone in his poetry, in contrast to Pindar’s high seriousness. He was also apparently known for his greed, in that he demanded pay for his poetry. This brings to mind the demand for pay from the 5th century sophists – proclaimed teachers of wisdom in exchange for money. Simonides was the uncle of Bacchylides, the famous Greek lyric poet.
Simonides was famed for his memory. Cicero in De Oratore recounts a legendary story of Simonides interrupting one of his recitations with a famous king, but he was called outside briefly by two men, only for the building to come crashing down killing everyone inside. Simonides was able to recall the bodies of the people inside based on where they sat, as he believed an orderly mind combined with a pictographic narrative in the mind is the best way to recall things (recall Plato’s Meno). Quintilian gives a similar account and praise of Simonides’s ability to recall.
All that survives of Simonides today are mere fragments.