People - Ancient Greece: Pindar
(ca. 522–443 BC) He was an Ancient Greek lyric poet.
Pindărus in Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities (1898)
（Πίνδαρος). The greatest of the Greek lyric poets, son of Daïphantos, was born at or near Thebes, B.C. 522. He belonged to a noble and priestly family and was carefully educated. His musical training was received from the best masters of the time, among whom is mentioned, perhaps without sufficient warrant, Lasos of Hermioné, the regenerator of the dithyramb. Familiar is the story of his unsuccessful contest with Corinna, and of the advice which she gave the youthful poet when he crowded the opening of one of his hymns with mythological figures: “Sow with the hand and not with the whole sack.” Pindar began his career as a local poet early in life, and the Tenth Pythian, which is said to have been composed when he was only twenty years old, shows all the elements of his future greatness. By the time of the Persian War Pindar had risen to the position of a national poet, and though he was a good Theban and a stanch aristocrat, though he was bound by the ties of his family, which belonged to the old nobility, and by the ties of his people, who sided with the Persians, he was too true a Greek, too thoroughly Pan-Hellenic not to be proud of the victory of the Greeks of Attica over the Persians, and the victory of the Greeks of Sicily over the Carthaginians. According to the well-known story the high praise which he bestowed on Athens as the ‘Stay of Greece’ roused the indignation of the Thebans, who imposed on him a heavy fine, which the Athenians reimbursed twofold, adding, as is further reported, a statue and other honours. Like the other lyric poets of his time, Pindar travelled far and wide in fulfilment of his calling, though, doubtless, he often sent his song instead of going himself. A long sojourn in Sicily is beyond a doubt, and Aegina, which he loved only next to Thebes, must have been to him a second home; nor is it unlikely that he knew Macedon in the North and Cyrené in the South. He was received everywhere with veneration and bore himself as a peer of princes. And not only was he honoured by the highest on earth, but the gods themselves are said to have shown him special favour and to have sent him at last the boon of a swift and easy death as he rested his head on the lap of his favourite in the theatre or in the gymnasium of Argos. The date of that death we do not know with certainty, but his life can hardly have been prolonged much beyond the middle of the fifth century. The reverence felt for the poet in his lifetime was paid to his genius after his death, and when Thebes was pillaged and destroyed by the Macedonian soldiery in the next century, the house of Pindar was spared by the express order of Alexander the Great, whose ancestor he had celebrated in song.
Pindar was a consummate master of the whole domain of lyric poetry, as is shown by the fragments of his hymns (ὕμνοι), his paeans (παιᾶνες), his dancing-songs (ὑπορχήματα), his processional songs (προσόδια), his songs for choruses of virgins (παρθένια), his songs of praise (ἐγκώμια), his drinking-songs (παροίνια) and catches (σκολιά), his dithyrambs (διθύραμβοι) and dirges (θρῆνοι). These show the breadth of his genius; the height of it we must estimate by the one group of his poems which we have entire, the Songs of Victory (ἐπινίκια or ἐπίνικοι), composed to celebrate the successful contestants in the great national games of Greece, Olympian (Ὀλυμπιονῖκαι, sc. ὕμνοι), Pythian (Πυθιονῖκαι), Nemean (Νεμεονῖκαι), Isthmian (Ἰσθμιονῖκαι). In these poems, which were delivered by trained choruses, the poet is the spokesman, and this is an important point for the appreciation of the often intensely personal tone of the lyric chorus as compared with the chorus of the drama. A victory at one of the great games was a matter of joy and pride not only to the victor himself and to his kindred, but also to the community, so that there is a peculiar blending of the private with the public, of intimate allusion with wide scope. The elements are many: festal joy, wise and thoughtful counsel, the uplifting of the heart in prayer for prince and for people, the inspiration of a fervent patriotism; but the victory is the dominant theme, and that victory is raised to the high level of the eternal prevalence of the beautiful and the good over the foul and the base; the victor is transfigured into a glorious personification of his race, and the present is reflected, magnified, illuminated in the mirror of the mythic past. The epinician becomes the triumphal song of Hellenism and the triumphal song of idealized humanity. To understand this it is necessary to understand also the deep religious and ethical and artistic meaning of the great games of Greece, of which the Olympian Games were the crown; so that whatever else a man might achieve or suffer, an Olympian victory was sunshiné for life. ‘To spend and to toil’—this is the motto of him who would attain; a motto that means self-sacrifice, submission to authority, devotion to the public weal; and this motto is incarnate in the Pindaric Heracles, who is held up as the type of achievement and endurance in obedience to the divine will. Heracles is the Doric ideal, and Pindar his last prophet. Pindar still lives in the world of the old gods, still believes in the array of their shining forms, and if he rejects a myth that dishonours god, his faith is intact, the priestly temper conquers. Life was a serious thing to him. The melancholy strain that is not absent from Homer, that dominates Hesiod, makes itself heard in Pindar. We hear over and over again of the shortness and the sorrowfulness of human life, the transitoriness of its pleasures, our utter dependence upon the will of an envious god. And yet it is not a melancholy that degenerates into doleful brooding. It is ‘a spur that the clear spirit doth raise’ to noble action. But for noble action noble blood is necessary. Pindar is an aristocrat, and to him the blood of the gods is the true channel of the grace of the gods. Government fitly reposes only in the hands of those who are endowed by nature for the work of the ruler, and what is true of government is true also of art. Art is divine, and the eagle, the bird of Zeus, is its chosen symbol. Ineffectual chatter is all that can be expected of crows and daws. But the divine right of government, the divine right of genius, is not absolute, and is to be exercised only in obedience to divine law. Native endowment being god-given involves the duty of self-restraint, which is imposed by the giver. And this “measure,” which is the summary of Pindaric ethics, brings with it the recompense of reward in that other world which Pindar sees and makes us see with a startling sense of reality.
Pindar was claimed by the ancient rhetoricians as an exemplar of the “austere” style, as belonging to the same order as Aeschylus in tragedy, as Thucydides in history. His style is the grand style, but grand after the antique pattern of grandeur, which combines weight and fulness of meaning with artistic exactness in every detail. The copiousness of Pindar is a commonplace, but the subtle art of Pindar is often overlooked in the earlier characterizations of his poetry, and it is safe to follow the poet himself, who bears ample witness to his own excellences. Opulence, elevation, force, cunning workmanship, vigorous execution—these are all claimed by the poet for himself; and his splendour, his loftiness, his wealth of imagery, his forceful concentration, his varied metaphor, his vivid narrative, his superb diction must be recognized at once, though the admiration of these characteristics is indefinitely enhanced by closer study. But what withdraws itself from the reader is the sequence of thought, the planfulness of the epinician, and yet this is a point which Pindar also insists on. This planfulness, though disregarded or denied by literary people ancient and modern, has been diligently sought after by the best commentators and by the most thoughtful students of Pindar, and while no consensus has been reached, much has been done to show sequence and balance, to reproduce the architectonic principle, to bring out the relations of the myth which forms the heart of every ode to the rest of the organism, to trace the thread of the thought and to make audible the burden of the song as revealed by the recurrence of significant words and significant sentiments. Despite much straining and much overinterpretation, Pindar is much nearer to us than he was ever before. The music and the dance are lost without which the full significance of a Pindaric ode cannot be appreciated, but the rhythm remains, and under the guidance of the rhythm we can penetrate into many of the recesses of Pindaric songs.
The great Pindaric MSS. are, according to Mommsen's notation, A (Ambrosianus A), twelfth century; B (Vaticanus B), also of the twelfth century; C (Parisinus G), belongs to the close of the twelfth century); D (Mediceus B) in the Laurentian Library at Florence, thirteenth or fourteenth century. The inferior MSS. are called Thomani, Moschopulei, Tricliniani, as they represent the editions of Thomas Magister, Moschopulos, and Triclinius. A good reading in them is a lucky accident.
The older scholia to Pindar go back to Didymus as Didymus goes back to an earlier time, and they have a certain value for the constitution of the text; the later scholia have very little value of any kind. A critical edition was begun by E. Abel with Nemeans and Isthmians in 1884.
Bibliography.—The editio princeps is an Aldine, 8vo (1513), followed by the editio Romana (1515). Then the ed. of H. Stephanus, 16mo (Paris, 1560), followed by five other Stephanus editions. Erasmus Schmidt (Wittenberg, 1616), elaborate, learned, with a fair proportion of successful emendations; Heyne (Göttingen, 1773; 2d ed. 1797), who revived the study of Pindar, enriched by the contributions of Gottfried Hermann; (3d ed. 1817) after the death of Heyne (1812). Hermann did much for Pindar, and Pindar was the favourite battle-ground of Hermann and his rival Boeckh, whose monumental edition of Pindar, two volumes in three parts (Leipzig, 1811-22), is still unexcelled for sagacious criticism, wide historical vision, reconstructive power. Metrical science dates from the Metra Pindari contained in this edition. Dissen, who prepared the commentary on the Nemeans and Isthmians for Boeckh, put forth a Pindar of his own (Gotha, 1830). Dissen is over-acute, sees too much, explains too much, analyzes too much. Schneidewin's edition of Dissen's Olympians and Pythians (1847) is a good advance. Bergk in the first volume of his Poetae Lyrici Graeci (4th ed. 1874) gives too much play to his rare acumen and brilliant conjectural talent. Tycho Mommsen (Berlin, 1864), also a small text edition (1866), is a model of completeness and system in the presentation of the critical apparatus. Donaldson's Pindar (new ed. 1868), based on Dissen, has been displaced by the excellent edition of C. A. M. Fennell (Olympians and Pythians, 2d ed. 1893; Nemeans and Isthmians, 1883). Fennell exhibits praiseworthy independence and nice scholarship. Christ's text ed. (Teubner, 1869) shows good judgment; the Latin commentary to his large ed. (1896) is hardly adequate. Mezger's commentary, without text (1880), is useful and suggestive but faddish. An elaborate edition by J. B. Bury is in progress (Nemeans, 1890; Isthmians, 1892). The editor lays too much stress on Mezger's “recurrent word,” and is often the dupe of his own cleverness. To these editions may be added De Jongh's Olympians (Utrecht, 1855); Cookesley's Olympians and Pythians, 2 vols. (1850); Seymour's Select Odes of Pindar (1882); and Gildersleeve's Olympians and Pythians (1885).
Translations.—The best translation into English is the prose rendering of Ernest Myers (2d ed. 1884). The introductions and notes of Friedr. Thiersch's German translation (Leipzig, 1820) are still worth reading. Hartung's Pindar translation and text (Leipzig, 1855-56), contains interesting guesses. Fraccaroli's Odi di Pindaro dichiarate e tradotte (1894) is an important contribution to Pindaric studies.
Aids.—Tafel, Dilucidationes Pindaricae (Berlin, 1824) has a great wealth of matter, relevant and irrelevant; Rauchenstein, Zur Einleitung in Pindars Siegeslieder (Aarau, 1843), excellent; Leopold Schmidt, Pindars Leben und Dichtung (Bonn, 1862), an attempt to reproduce the development of the poet; Alfred Croiset, La Poésie de Pindare (2d ed. Paris, 1886), a work of exceptional merit; Bindseil's concordance (Berlin, 1875); Rumpel, Lexicon Pindaricum (Leipzig, 1883). For the metres, besides Boeckh, see J. H. H. Schmidt in his Eurythmie (vol. i. of the Kunstformen, Leipz. 1868), and Moritz Schmidt, Ueber den Bau der Pindarischen Strophen (Leipzig, 1882).
Pindar in Wikipedia
Pindar (Greek: Πίνδαρος, Pindaros; Latin: Pindarus) (ca. 522–443 BC), was an Ancient Greek lyric poet. Of the canonical nine lyric poets of ancient Greece, Pindar is the one whose work is best preserved. Quintilian described him as "by far the greatest of the nine lyric poets, in virtue of his inspired magnificence, the beauty of his thoughts and figures, the rich exuberance of his language and matter, and his rolling flood of eloquence".
However, not all the ancients shared Quintilian's enthusiasm. The Athenian comic playwright Eupolis is said to have remarked that the poems of Pindar "are already reduced to silence by the disinclination of the multitude for elegant learning".
Pindar's 'elegant learning' has often discouraged modern interest as well, particularly up until the end of the 19th century. The discovery in 1896 of some poems by his rival Bacchylides then allowed for useful comparisons and it was found that some idiosyncrasies, evident in Pindar's Victory Odes, were typical of the genre rather than of the poet himself. From then on, the brilliance of Pindar's poetry began to be more widely appreciated by modern scholars and yet there are still peculiarities in his style that challenge the casual reader and he continues to be a largely unread, even if much admired poet.
Pindar is the first Greek poet whose works reflect extensively on the nature of poetry and on the poet's role. Like other poets of the Archaic Age, he reveals a deep sense of the vicissitudes of life and yet, unlike them, he also articulates a passionate faith in what men can achieve by the grace of the gods, most famously expressed in his conclusion to one of his Victory Odes:
Creatures of a day! What is a man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days. (Pythian 8)
Pindar's poetry illustrates the beliefs and values of Archaic Greece at the dawn of the classical period.
Five ancient sources contain all the recorded details of Pindars life. One of them is a short biography that was discovered in 1961 on an Egyptian papyrus dating from at least 200 AD (P.Oxy.2438). The other four are historic collections that weren't finalized until some 1600 years after Pindar's death:
* Commentaries on Pindar by Eustathius of Thessalonica;
* Vita Vratislavensis, found in a manuscript at Breslau, author unknown;
* a text by Thomas Magister;
* some meagre writings attributed to the lexicographer Suidas.
Although these sources are based on a much older literary tradition, going as far back as Chamaeleon of Heraclea in the 4th century BC, they are widely viewed with scepticism today: much of the ancient material is clearly fanciful. Scholars both ancient and modern have turned to Pindar's own work – his victory odes in particular – as a source of biographical information: many of the poems can be dated accurately and they often touch on historic events. However even the poems began to seem unreliable sources after the 1962 publication of Elroy Bundy's ground-breaking work Pindarica. For Bundy, and for a generation of scholars influenced by him, the odes do not commemorate Pindar's personal thoughts and feelings but are public statements "dedicated to the single purpose of eulogizing men and communities." It seemed that scholars pre-1962 had been seduced by a "fatal conjunction" of historicism and Romanticism and yet the pendulum of intellectual fashion has now swung back at least some of the way: a limited and cautious use of the poems for biographical purposes is considered acceptable again.
The biography in this article is an amalgam of old and new approaches – it is naive in its reliance on the odes as biographical sources and it even includes a few clearly fanciful elements from ancient accounts. Some of the problematic aspects of this traditional approach are then illustrated in notes at the end of relevant paragraphs. Moreover, the biography progresses backwards in time as an example of Pindar's unique literary methods – he often demonstrated particular themes by narrating episodes from traditional myths, sometimes in reverse chronological order.
Greeks long cherished the memory of Pindar. His house in Thebes became one of the city's landmarks, especially after Alexander The Great demolished every other house there — he left the poet's house spectacularly intact out of gratitude for some verses praising his ancestor, king Alexander I of Macedon. Some of Pindar's verses became a scenic attraction in Lindos, Rhodes, where they were inscribed in letters of gold on a temple wall. At Delphi, the priests of Apollo exhibited an iron chair on which the poet used to sit during the festival of the Theoxenia. "Let Pindar the poet go unto the supper of the gods!" they intoned every night while closing the temple doors (he had once been elected to the priesthood there). One of his female relatives claimed that he had dictated to her some verses in honour of Persephone — after he had been dead for several days!
Death and old age
Pindar lived to about eighty years of age and died sometime around 440 BC while attending a festival at Argos. His ashes were taken back home to Thebes by his musically-gifted daughters, Eumetis and Protomache. Nothing is recorded about his wife and son except their names, Megacleia and Daiphantus. In one of his last odes (Pythian 8), celebrating a victory by an athlete from Aegina, Pindar reveals that he lived near a shrine to the oracle Alcmaeon and that he stored some of his wealth there. He says in the same ode that he had recently received a prophecy from Alcmaeon during a journey to Delphi — "...he met me and proved the skills of prophecy that all his race inherit" — but he doesn't reveal what the long-dead prophet said to him nor in what form he appeared.
Note: Pindar doesn't necessarily refer to himself when he uses the first person singular. A large proportion of his 'I' statements seem to be generic, indicating somebody engaged in the role of a singer i.e. a 'bardic' I. Other 'I' statements articulate values typical of the audience and some are spoken on behalf of the subject celebrated in the poem. The 'I' that received the prophecy in Pythian 8 might thus have been the athlete from Aegina, not Pindar. In that case, the prophecy probably concerned his victory in the Pythian Games and the property stored at the shrine was just a votive offering.
Fame as a poet involved Pindar in the world of Greek politics, drawing him into conflicting loyalties. Athens, for example, was the dominant force in Greece throughout his poetic career and it happened to be a long-term rival both of his home city, Thebes, and of the island state Aegina, whose leading citizens commissioned about a quarter of his Victory Odes. There is no open condemnation of the Athenians in any of Pindar's poems but sometimes he smuggles in some criticism. For example, the victory ode mentioned above (Pythian 8) covertly celebrates a recent defeat of Athens by Thebes at the Battle of Coronea (447 BC), represented imaginatively as the downfall of the giants Porphyrion and Typhon and the poem ends with a prayer for Aegina's freedom (long threatened by Athenian ambitions).
Note: Covert criticism of Athens (traditionally located in odes such as Pythian 8, Nemean 8 and Isthmian 7) are now considered highly unlikely even by scholars who allow for some biographical and historical interpretations of the poems.
Pindar seems to have used his odes to advance his personal interests and those of his friends. In 462 BC he composed two odes in honour of Arcesilas, king of Cyrene, (Pythians 4 and 5), pleading for the return from exile of a friend, Demophilus. In the latter ode Pindar proudly mentions his own ancestry, which he shared with the king, as an Aegeid or descendent of Aegeus, the legendary king of Athens. The clan was influential in many parts of the Greek world, having intermarried with ruling families in Thebes, in Lacedaemonia and in cities that claimed Lacedaemonian descent, such as Cyrene and Thera. The historian Herodotus considered the clan important enough to deserve mention (Histories IV.147). Membership in the clan contributed to Pindar's success as the poet of an international elite and it informed his political views, marked by a conservative preference for oligarchic governments of the Doric kind.
Note: Pindar's claim to be an Aegeid may be doubted on the grounds that 'I' statements do not necessarily refer to the poet. On the other hand, the Aegeid clan did have a branch in Thebes and it is possible that Pindar's reference to "my ancestors" in Pythian 5 could have been spoken on behalf of both Arcesilas and Pindar – the poet might have used this kind of ambivalence to establish a personal link with his patrons.
He was possibly the Theban proxenos or consul for Aegina and/or Molossia, as indicated in another of his odes, Nemean 7, in which he glorifies Neoptolemus, a national hero of both Aegina and Molossia. According to tradition, Neoptolemus died in a disgraceful fight with priests at the temple in Delphi over their share of some sacrificial meat. Pindar diplomatically glosses over this. The ode ends mysteriously with an ernest protestation of innocence – "But shall my heart never admit that I with words none can redeem dishonoured Neoptolemus" – and possibly this was said in response to anger among Aeginetans and/or Molossians over his portrayal of Neoptolemus in an earlier poem, Paean 6, which had been commissioned by the priests at Delphi and which depicted the hero's death in traditional terms, as divine retribution for his past crimes.
Note: This biographical interpretation of Nemean 7 is doubted on a variety of grounds: it is largely based on some marginal comments by scholiasts yet Pindaric scholiasts are generally unreliable; it has no relevance to the poem as a song of praise for the victor of an athletic contest; the fact that Pindar gave different versions of the one myth simply reflects the needs of different genres and does not necessarily indicate a personal dilemma. Nemean 7 in fact is the most controversial and obscure of Pindar's victory odes and scholars ancient and modern have exercised ingenuity and imagination in their attempts to explain it, so far without agreed success.
In his first Pythian ode, composed in 470 BC in honour of the Sicilian tyrant Hieron, Pindar celebrated a series of stunning victories by Greeks against foreign invaders: Athenian and Spartan-led victories against Persia at Salamis and Plataea, and victories by the western Greeks led by Theron of Acragas and by Hieron against the Carthaginians and Etruscans at the battles of Himera and Cumae. Such celebrations were not appreciated by his fellow Thebans: they had sided with the Persians and they had incurred many losses and privations as a result of their defeat. His praise of Athens with such epithets as bulwark of Hellas (fragment 76) and city of noble name and sunlit splendour (Nemean 5) once induced the authorities in Thebes to fine him 5000 drachmae, to which the astute Athenians are said to have responded with a gift of 10000 drachmae. According to another account, the Athenians even made him their proxenus or consul in Thebes, though this claim is now largely discredited. His association with the fabulously rich Hieron was another source of annoyance at home. It was probably in response to Theban sensitivities over this issue that he denounced the rule of tyrants (i.e. rulers like Hieron) in an ode composed shortly after a visit to Hieron's sumptuous court in 476–75 BC (Pythian 11).
Note: Pindar's actual phrasing in Pythian 11 was "I deplore the lot of tyrants" and though this was traditionally interpreted as an apology for his dealings with Sicilian tyrants like Hieron, an alternative date for the ode led some scholars to conclude that it was in fact a covert reference to the tyrannical behaviour of the Athenians, and yet this interpretation too is ruled out if we accept the earlier note about covert references. According to yet another interpretation, Pindar is simply delivering a formulaic warning to the successful athlete to avoid hubris.
Lyric verse was conventionally accompanied by music and dance and Pindar himself wrote the music and choreographed the dances for his victory odes. Sometimes he trained the performers at his home in Thebes and sometimes he trained them at the venue where they performed. Commissions took him to all parts of the Greek world – to the Panhellenic festivals in mainland Greece (Olympia, Delphi, Corinth and Nemea), westwards to Sicily, eastwards to the seaboard of Asia Minor, north to Macedonia and Abdera (Paean 2) and south to Cyrene on the African coast. Other poets attended the same venues and vied with him for the favours of patrons. His poetry sometimes reflects this rivalry. Thus for example Olympian 2 and Pythian 2, composed in honour of the Sicilian tyrants Theron and Hieron following his visit to their courts in 476–75 BC, refer respectively to ravens and an ape, apparently signifying rivals engaged in a campaign of smears against him – possibly even the celebrated poets Simonides and his nephew Bacchylides. Pindar's original treatment of narrative myth, often relating events in reverse chronological order, is said to have been a favourite target for criticism. Simonides was known to charge high fees for his work and Pindar is said to have alluded to this in Isthmian 2, where he refers to the Muse as "a hireling journeyman".
Note: It was assumed by ancient sources that Pindar's odes were performed by a chorus – this has been challenged by some modern scholars who argue that the odes were in fact performed solo. It is not known how commissions were arranged, nor if the poet travelled widely: even when poems include statements like "I have come", it is not certain that this was meant literally. Uncomplimentary references to Bacchylides and Simonides were found by scholiasts but there is no reason to accept their interpretation of the odes. In fact some scholars have interpreted the allusions to fees in Isthmian 2 as a request by Pindar for payment of fees owed to himself.
Adulthood to infancy
The early to middle years of Pindar's career coincided with the Persian invasions of Greece in the reigns of Darius and Xerxes. During the invasion in 480/79 BC, when Pindar was almost forty years old, Thebes was occupied by Xerxes' general, Mardonius, with whom many Theban aristocrats subsequently perished at the Battle of Plataea. It is possible that Pindar spent much of this time at Aegina. His choice of residence during the earlier invasion in 490 BC is not known but he was able to attend the Pythian Games for that year, where he first met the Sicilian prince, Thrasybulus, nephew of Theron of Acragas. Thrasybulus had driven the winning chariot and he and Pindar were to form a lasting friendship, paving the way for his subsequent visit to Sicily.
Pindar was about twenty years old in 498 BC when he was commissioned by the ruling family in Thessaly to compose his first victory ode (Pythian 10). He studied the art of lyric poetry in Athens, where his tutor was Lasos of Hermione, and he is also said to have received some helpful criticism from Corinna. It is reported moreover that he was stung on the mouth by a bee in his youth and this was the reason he became a poet of honey-like verses (an identical fate has been ascribed to other poets of the archaic period). He was probably born in 522 BC or 518 BC (the 65th Olympiad) in Cynoscephalae, a village in Boeotia, not far from Thebes. His father's name is variously given as Daiphantus, Pagondas or Scopelinus and his mother's name was Cleodice.
Pindar's original and strongly individual genius is apparent in all his extant compositions but, unlike Simonides and Stesichorus for example, he created no new lyrical genres. He was however innovative in his employment of the genres he inherited – for example, in one of his victory odes (Olympian 3), he announces his invention of a new type of musical accompaniment, combining lyre, flute and human voice (though our knowledge of Greek music is too sketchy to allow us to understand the full nature of this innovation). He probably spoke Boeotian Greek but he composed in a literary language fairly typical of archaic Greek poetry, relying on Doric dialect more consistently than his rival Bacchylides, for example, but less insistently than Alcman. There is an admixture of other dialects, especially Aeolic and epic forms, and there is an occasional use of some Boeotian words. He composed 'choral' songs yet it is by no means certain that they were all sung by choirs — the use of choirs is testified only by generally unreliable scholiasts. Scholars at the Library of Alexandria collected his compositions in seventeen books organized according to genre:
* 1 book of humnoi – "hymns"
* 1 book of paianes – "paeans"
* 2 books of dithuramboi – "dithyrhambs"
* 2 books of prosodia – "processionals"
* 3 books of parthenia – "songs for maidens"
* 2 books of huporchemata – "songs for light dances"
* 1 book of enkomia – "songs of praise"
* 1 book of threnoi – "laments"
* 4 books of epinikia – "victory odes"
Of this vast and varied corpus, only the epinikia — odes written to commemorate athletic victories — survive in complete form; the rest survive only by quotations in other ancient authors or from papyrus scraps unearthed in Egypt. Even in fragmentary form, however, the various genres reveal the same complexity of thought and language that are found in the victory odes.
Almost all Pindar's victory odes are celebrations of triumphs gained by competitors in Panhellenic festivals such as the Olympian Games. The establishment of these athletic and musical festivals was among the greatest achievements of the Greek aristocracies. Even in the 5th century, when there was an increased tendency towards professionalism, they were predominantly aristocratic assemblies, reflecting the expense and the leisure needed to attend such events either as a competitor or spectator. Attendance was an opportunity for display and self-promotion, and the prestige of victory, requiring commitment in time and/or wealth, went far beyond anything that accrues to athletic victories today, even in spite of the modern preoccupation with sport. Pindar's odes capture something of the prestige and the aristocratic grandeur of the moment of victory, as in this stanza from one of his Isthmian Odes, here translated by Geoffrey S. Conway:
If ever a man strives
With all his soul's endeavour, sparing himself
Neither expense nor labour to attain
True excellence, then must we give to those
Who have achieved the goal, a proud tribute
Of lordly praise, and shun
All thoughts of envious jealousy.
To a poet's mind the gift is slight, to speak
A kind word for unnumbered toils, and build
For all to share a monument of beauty. (Isthmian I, antistrophe 3)
His victory odes are grouped into four books named after the Olympian, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean Games – Panhellenic festivals held respectively at Olympia, Delphi, Corinth and Nemea. This reflects the fact that most of the odes were composed in honour of boys, youths and men who had recently enjoyed victories in athletic (and sometimes musical) contests at those festivals. In a few odes, however, much older victories and even victories in lesser games are sometimes celebrated, often being used as a pretext for addressing other issues or achievements. For example, Pythian 3, composed in honour of Hieron of Syracuse, briefly mentions an old victory he had once enjoyed at the Pythian Games, but it is actually intended to console him for his chronic illness. Nemean 9 and Nemean 10 celebrate victories in games at Sicyon and Argos, and Nemean 11 celebrates a victory in a municipal election on Tenedos (though it includes mention of some obscure athletic victories). These three odes are the final odes in the Nemean book of odes and there is a reason for their inclusion there. In the original manuscripts, the four books of odes were arranged in the order of importance assigned to the festivals, with the Nemean festival, considered least important, coming last. Any victory odes that lacked the aura of a Panhellenic subject were then bundled together at the end of the book of Nemean odes.
As mentioned in the introduction, Pindar's poetic style is unique and highly individualised even when the peculiarities of the genre are set aside. The odes typically feature a grand and arresting opening, often with architectural metaphor or a resounding invocation to a place or goddess. He makes rich use of decorative language and florid compound adjectives. Sentences are compressed to the point of obscurity, unusual words and periphrases give the language an esoteric quality, transitions in meaning often seem erratic, and images seem to burst out – it's a style that baffles reason and which makes his poetry vivid and unforgettable.
"Pindar's power does not lie in the pedigrees of ... athletes, ... It lies in a splendour of phrase and imagery that suggests the gold and purple of a sunset sky." – F.L. Lucas
"He has that force of imagination which can bring clear-cut and dramatic figures of gods and heroes into vivid relief...he has that peculiar and inimitable splendour of style which, though sometimes aided by magnificent novelties of diction, is not dependent on them, but can work magical effects with simple words; he has also, at frequent moments, a marvellous swiftness, alike in the succession of images, and in the transitions from thought to thought; and his tone is that of a prophet who can speak with a voice as of Delphi." – Richard Claverhouse Jebb
His odes were animated by..."one burning glow which darted out a shower of brilliant images, leapt in a white-hot spark across gaps unbridgeable by thought, passed through a commonplace leaving it luminous and transparent, melted a group of heterogeneous ideas into a shortlived unity and, as suddenly as a flame, died." - Gilbert Highet
Such qualities can be found, for example, in this stanza from Pythian 2, composed in honour of Hieron:
God achieves all his purpose and fulfills
His every hope, god who can overtake
The winged eagle, or upon the sea
Outstrip the dolphin; and he bends
The arrogant heart
Of many a man, but gives to others
Eternal glory that will never fade.
Now for me is it needful that I shun
The fierce and biting tooth
Of slanderous words. For from old have I seen
Sharp-tongued Archilochus in want and struggling,
Grown fat on the harsh words
Of hate. The best that fate can bring
Is wealth joined with the happy gift of wisdom.
The stanza begins with a universalizing movement, taking in the sky, sea, god and the human struggle for justice, then abruptly shifts to a darker, more allusive train of thought, featuring a highly individual, even eccentric condemnation of a renowned poet, Archilochus with curious phrasing such as Grown fat on the harsh words of hate. Archilochus took a sardonic and often humorous view of his own and other people's faults – a regrettable tendency from the viewpoint of Pindar, whose own persona is intensely earnest, preaching to high achievers like Hieron the need for moderation (wealth with wisdom) and submission to the divine will. The reference to the embittered poet appears to be Pindar's meditative response to some intrigues at Hieron's court, possibly by his personal rivals, condemned elsewhere as a pair of ravens (Olympian 2). The intensity of the stanza suggests that it is the culmination and climax of the poem. In fact, the stanza occupies the middle of Pythian 2 and the intensity is sustained throughout the poem from beginning to end. It is the sustained intensity of his poetry that Quintilian refers to above as a rolling flood of eloquence and Horace below refers to as the uncontrollable momentum of a river that has burst its banks. Longinus likens him to a vast fire and Athenaeus refers to him as the great-voiced Pindar.
Pindar's treatment of myth is another unique aspect of his style, often involving variations on the traditional stories. Myths enabled him to develop the kind of themes and lessons that pre-occupied him – in particular mankind's exulted relation with the gods via heroic ancestors and, in contrast, the limitations and uncertainties of human existence – but sometimes the traditional stories were an embarrassment and they needed to be carefully edited, as for example: "Be still my tongue: here profits not / to tell the whole truth with clear face unveiled," (Nemean 5, epode 1); "Away, away this story! / Let no such tale fall from my lips! / For to insult the gods is a fool's wisdom," (Olympian 9, strophe 2); "Senseless, I hold it, for a man to say / the gods eat mortal flesh. / I spurn the thought," (Olympian 1, epode 2). His mythical accounts are also edited for dramatic and graphic effects, usually unfolding through a few grand gestures against a background of large, often symbolic elements such as sea, sky, darkness, fire or mountain.
Pindar's odes typically begin with an invocation to a god or the Muses, followed by praise of the victor and often of his family, ancestors and home-town. Then follows a narrated myth, usually occupying the central and longest section of the poem, exemplify a moral while also aligning the world of the poet and his audience with the world of gods and heroes. The ode usually ends in more eulogies, as for example of trainers (if the victor is a boy), and of relatives who have won past events, as well as with prayers or expressions of hope for future success. The event where the victory was gained is never described in detail but there is often some brief mention of the hard work needed to bring the victory about.
A lot of modern criticism is concerned with finding hidden structure or some unifying principle within the odes. 19th century criticism favoured 'gnomic unity' i.e. each ode is bound together by the kind of moralizing or philosophic vision typical of archaic Gnomic poetry. Later critics sought for unity in the way certain words or images are repeated and developed within any particular ode. For others, the odes really are just celebrations of men and their communities, in which the elements such as myths, piety and ethics are stock themes that the poet introduces without much real thought. Some have concluded that the requirement for unity is too modern to have informed Pindar's ancient approach to a traditional craft.
The great majority of the odes are triadic in structure – i.e. stanzas are grouped together in threes as a lyrical unit. Each triad comprises two stanzas identical in length and meter (called 'strophe' and 'antistrophe') and a third stanza (called an 'epode'), differing in length and meter but rounding off the lyrical movement in some way. The shortest odes comprise a single triad, the largest (Pythian 4) comprises thirteen triads. Seven of the odes however are monostrophic (i.e. each stanza in the ode is identical in length and meter). The monostrophic odes seem to have been composed for victory marches or processions, whereas the triadic odes appear suited to choral dances. Pindar's metrical rhythms are nothing like the simple, repetitive rhythms familiar to readers of English verse – typically the rhythm of any given line recurs infrequently (for example, only once every ten, fifteen or twenty lines). This adds to the aura of complexity that surrounds Pindar's work. In terms of meter, the odes fall roughly into two categories – about half are in dactylo-epitrites (a meter found for example in the works of Stesichorus, Simonides and Bacchylides) and the other half are in Aeolic metres based on iambs and choriambs.
Modern editors (e.g. Snell and Maehler in their Teubner edition), have assigned dates, securely or tentatively, to Pindar's victory odes, based on ancient sources and other grounds. The date of an athletic victory is not always the date of composition but often serves merely as a terminus post quem. Many dates are based on comments by ancient sources who had access to published lists of victors, such as the Olympic list compiled by Hippias of Elis, and lists of Pythian victors made by Aristotle and Callisthenes. There were however no such lists for the Isthmian and Nemean Games – Pausanias (6.13.8) complained that the Corinthians and Argives never kept proper records. The resulting uncertainty is reflected in the chronology below, with question marks clustered around Nemean and Isthmian entries, and yet it still represents a fairly clear general timeline of Pindar's career as an epinician poet. The code M denotes monostrophic odes (odes in which all stanzas are metrically identical) and the rest are triadic (i.e. featuring strophes, antistrophes, epodes):
Estimated chronological order
Date BC Ode Victor Event Focusing Myth
498 Pythian 10 Hippocles of Thessaly Boy's Long Foot-Race Perseus, Hyperboreans
490 Pythian 6 (M) Xenocrates of Acragas Chariot-Race Antilochus, Nestor
490 Pythian 12 (M) Midas of Acragas Flute-Playing Perseus, Medusa
488 (?) Olympian 14 (M) Asopichus of Orchomenos Boys' Foot-Race None
486 Pythian 7 Megacles of Athens Chariot-Race None
485 (?) Nemean 2 (M) Timodemus of Acharnae Pancration None
485 (?) Nemean 7 Sogenes of Aegina Boys' Pentathlon Neoptolemus
483 (?) Nemean 5 Pythias of Aegina Youth's Pancration Peleus, Hippolyta, Thetis
480 Isthmian 6 Phylacides of Aegina Pancration Heracles, Telamon
478 (?) Isthmian 5 Phylacides of Aegina Pancration Aeacids, Achilles
478 Isthmian 8 (M) Cleandrus of Aegina Pancration Zeus, Poseidon, Thetis
476 Olympian 1 Hieron of Syracuse Horse-Race Pelops
476 Olympians 2 & 3 Theron of Acragas Chariot-Race 2.Isles of the Blessed 3.Heracles, Hyperboreans
476 Olympian 11 Agesidamus of Epizephyrian Locris Boys' Boxing Match Heracles, founding of Olympian Games
476 (?) Nemean 1 Chromius of Aetna Chariot-Race Infant Heracles
475 (?) Pythian 2 Hieron of Syracuse Chariot-Race Ixion
475 (?) Nemean 3 Aristocleides of Aegina Pancration Aeacides, Achilles
474 (?) Olympian 10 Agesidamus of Epizephyrian Locris Boys' Boxing Match None
474 (?) Pythian 3 Hieron of Syracuse Horse-Race Asclepius
474 Pythian 9 Telesicrates of Cyrene Foot-Race in Armour Apollo, Cyrene
474 Pythian 11 Thrasydaeus of Thebes Boys' Short Foot-Race Orestes, Clytemnestra
474 (?) Nemean 9 (M) Chromius of Aetna Chariot-Race Seven Against Thebes
474/3 (?) Isthmian 3 & 4 Melissus of Thebes Chariot Race & Pancration 3.None 4.Heracles, Antaeus
473 (?) Nemean 4 (M) Timisarchus of Aegina Boys' Wrestling Match Aeacids, Peleus, Thetis
470 Pythian 1 Hieron of Aetna Chariot-Race Typhon
470 (?) Isthmian 2 Xenocrates of Acragas Chariot-Race None
468 Olympian 6 Agesias of Syracuse Chariot-Race with Mules Iamus
466 Olympian 9 Epharmus of Opous Wrestling-Match Deucalion, Pyrrha
466 Olympian 12 Ergoteles of Himera Long Foot-Race Fortune
465 (?) Nemean Ode 6 Alcimidas of Aegina Boys' Wrestling Match Aeacides, Achilles, Memnon
464 Olympian 7 Diagoras of Rhodes Boxing-Match Tlepolemus
464 Olympian 13 Xenophon of Corinth Short Foot-Race & Pentathlon Bellerephon, Pegasus
462/1 Pythian 4 & 5 Arcesilas of Cyrene Chariot-Race 4.Argonauts 5.Battus
460 Olympian 8 Alcimidas of Aegina Boys' Wrestling-Match Aeacus, Troy
459 (?) Nemean 8 Deinis of Aegina Foot-Race Ajax
458 (?) Isthmian 1 Herodotus of Thebes Chariot-Race Castor, Iolaus
460 or 456 (?) Olympian 4 & 5 Psaumis of Camarina Chariot-Race with Mules 4.Erginus 5.None
454 (?) Isthmian 7 Strepsiades of Thebes Pancration None
446 Pythian 8 Aristomenes of Aegina Wrestling-Match Amphiaraus
446 (?) Nemean 11 Aristagoras of Tenedos Inauguration as Prytanis None
444 (?) Nemean 10 Theaius of Argos Wrestling-Match Castor, Pollux
The great Latin poet, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, was an eloquent admirer of Pindar's style. He described it in these terms in one of his Sapphic poems, addressed to a friend, Julus Antonius:
Pindarum quisquis studet aemulari,
Iule, ceratis ope Daedalea
nititur pennis vitreo daturus
monte decurrens velut amnis, imbres
quem super notas aluere ripas,
fervet immensusque ruit profundo
Pindarus ore... (C.IV.II)
Translated by James Michie:
Julus, whoever tries to rival Pindar,
Flutters on wings of wax, a rude contriver
Doomed like the son of Daedalus to christen
Somewhere a shining sea.
A river bursts its banks and rushes down a
Mountain with uncontrollable momentum,
Rain-saturated, churning, chanting thunder –
There you have Pindar's style...
Manuscripts, shreds and quotes
Pindar's verses have come down to the modern age in a variety of ways. Some are preserved only as fragments via quotes by ancient sources and papyri unearthed by archeologists, as at Oxyrhynchus – in fact the extant works of the other canonic lyric poets have survived only in this tattered form. Pindar's extant verses are unique in that the bulk of them – the victory odes – have been preserved through a manuscript tradition i.e. generations of scribes copying from earlier copies, possibly originating in a single archetypal copy and sometimes graphically demonstrated by modern scholars in the form of a stemma codicum, resembling a 'family tree'. Pindar's victory odes are preserved as a single corpus in just two manuscripts but various incomplete collections are located in many others, all dating from the mediaeval period. Some scholars have traced a stemma through these manuscripts, as for example Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, who inferred from them the existence of a common source or archetype dated no earlier than the 2nd century AD, while others, such as C.M. Bowra, have argued that there are too many discrepancies between manuscripts to identify a specific lineage, even while accepting the existence of an archetype somewhere. Otto Schroeder identified two families of manuscripts but, following on the work of Polish-born classicist, Alexander Turyn, Bowra rejected this also. Different scholars have interpreted the extant manuscripts differently. Thus Bowra for example singled out seven manuscripts as his primary sources (see below), all more or less featuring errors and/or gaps due to loss of folios and careless copying, and one arguably characterized by the dubious interpolations of Byzantine scholars. These he cross-referenced then supplemented or verified by reference to other, still more doubtful manuscripts and even to some papyral fragments – a combination of sources on which he based his own edition of the odes and fragments. His general method of selection he defined as follows:
"Where all the codices agree, there perhaps the true reading shines out. Where however they differ, the preferred reading is that which best fits the sense, meter, scholia and grammatic conventions. Wherever moreover two or more readings of equal weight are found in the codices, I have chosen that which smacks most of Pindar. Yet this difficulty rarely occurs and in many places the true reading will be found if you examine and compare the language of the codices with that of other Greek poets and especially of Pindar himself."
Selected manuscripts – a sample of preferred sources (Bowra's choice, 1947)
Code Source Format Date Comments
A codex Ambrosianus C 222inf. paper 35x25.5 cm 13–14th century Comprises Olympian Odes 1–12, with some unique readings that Bowra considered reliable, and including scholia.
B codex Vaticanus graeca 1312 silk 24.3x18.4 cm 13th century Comprises odes Olympian 1 to Isthmian 8 (entire corpus), but with some leaves and verses missing, and includes scholia; Zacharias Callierges based his 1515 Roman eddition on it, possibly with access to the now missing material.
C codex Parasinus graecus 2774 silk 23x15 cm 14th century Comprises odes Olympian 1 to Pythian 5, including some unique readings but also with many Byzantine interpolations/conjectures (Turyn rejected this codex accordingly), and written in a careless hand.
D codex Laurentianus 32, 52 silk 27x19 cm 14th century Comprises odes Olympian 1 to Isthmian 8 (entire corpus), including a fragment (Frag. 1) and scholia, written in a careless hand.
E codex Laurentianus 32, 37 silk 24x17cm 14th century Comprises odes Olympian 1 to Pythian 12, largely in agreement with B, including scholia but with last page removed and replaced with paper in a later hand.
G codex Gottingensis philologus 29 silk 25x17 cm 13th century Comprises odes Olympian 2 to Pythian 12, largely in agreement with B (thus useful for comparisons), including Olympian 1 added in 16th century.
V codex Parasinus graecus 2403 silk 25x17 cm 14th century Comprises odes Olympian 1 to Nemean 4, including some verses from Nemean 6; like G, useful for supporting and verifying B.
Influence and Legacy
Pindar was much read, quoted and copied during the Byzantine Era. For example, Christophoros Mytilenaios of the 11th century parodied a chariot race in his sixth poem employing explicit allusions to Pindar .
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