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Pindar ( , 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".


Modern tastes also have tended to vary between either enthusiasm or polite disinterest, especially since the discovery in 1896 of some poems by Pindar's rival Bacchylides, which allowed for useful comparisons. Till then, it was assumed by many scholars that Pindar's work was not only abstruse but also of questionable value artistically. Comparisons however led to the realization that some peculiarities of composition, evident in his Victory Odes, were typical of the genre rather than of the man. The brilliance of his poetry began then to be more widely appreciated and yet there are still idiosyncracies in his style that challenge the reader and he continues to be a largely unread, even if 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)


Biography

The main events in Pindar's life are here set out in reverse chronological order, a device frequently employed by Pindar himself in his narratives.

Every night after the poet's death, the priest of Apollo at Delphimarker used to intone as he closed the temple doors: Let Pindar the poet go unto the supper of the gods. Pindar had himself been elected to the priesthood there and the iron chair, on which he had always sat during the festival of the Theoxenia, long remained one of the temple's prized exhibits. He had lived in an era when poets were considered to have an almost priestly function as interpreters to men of their place in the world and thus one of his odes, composed in honour of the athlete Diagoras of Rhodes, is said to have been copied in letters of gold on a temple wall in Lindosmarker.

Pindar lived to about eighty years of age and died sometime around 440 BC while attending a festival at Argosmarker. It is said that his musically-gifted daughters, Eumetis and Protomache, took his ashes back home to Thebes. Nothing is recorded about his wife and son except their names, Megacleia and Daiphantus. The poet's house was located near a shrine to Alcman, the oracular son of the hero and oracle, Amphiaraus. Pindar seems to have stored some of his personal wealth there and he records in one of his odes (Pythian 8) that he had recently encounted Alcman on a journey to Delphi and received from him a prophecy - though he doesn't say what was prophesied. The house became a Theban landmark, especially when Thebesmarker was demolished about a century later on the orders of Alexander the Great, the conqueror sparing the poet's house in gratitude for the verses he had composed in praise of his ancestor, king Alexander I of Macedon.

Pindar's fame as a poet introduced him to the troubled world of Greek politics, where he was often required to tread subtly between conflicting interests. His poems often reflect this, as in the following examples.
  • Athens was a major, expansionist power and a long-term rival of Aegina, where he had many patrons, friends and admirers - about a quarter of his Victory Odes were commissioned by Aeginetans. In one of his last odes (Pythian 8), commissioned by Aeginetan patrons, he refers to the downfall of the giants Porphyrion and Typhon and this is thought to be a subtle celebration of a recent defeat of Athens by Thebes at the Battle of Coronea. The same ode ends with a prayer for Aegina's freedom, long threatened by Athenian ambitions, yet there is no open condemnation of Athens.
  • Pindar was possibly the Theban proxenos or consul for Aegina and/or Molossia, as indicated in another of his odes (Nemean 7). The ode celebrates the heroic virtues of their legendary hero Neoptolemus. Pindar seems to have composed it in order to allay any ill feelings over his portrayal of Neoptolemus in an earlier poem (Paean 6) commissioned by the priests at Delphi. The paean had depicted the hero's disgraceful death, killed by the priests of Delphi in a fight over sacrificial meat.
  • Pindar celebrated Greek victories against foreign powers, as in his first Pythian ode, which includes mentions of the Athenian and Spartan-led victories against Persia in the Battle of Salamis and Battle of Plataea, as well as victories by the western Greeks, led by the kings Hieron of Syracuse and Theron of Acragas, against Carthage at the Battle of Himera and against the Etruscans in the Battle of Cumae. His own countrymen in Thebes however had sided with the Persians and they had incurred many losses and privations as a result of their defeat. Consequently they looked with disfavour on Pindar's friendship with rich foreign kings like Hieron. One of his odes (Pythian 11), composed shortly after his return from a visit to the court of Hieron, includes a denunciation of the rule of tyrants (i.e. rulers like Hieron) and praise of moderate, co-operative government (such as existed at Thebes), and this was probably an attempt to disarm his own critics in Thebes.
  • Thebes was a long-term rival of Athens and the poet's praise of Athens, the liberator of Greece, with such epithets as bullwark of Hellasmarker (fragment 76) and city of noble name and sunlit splendour (Nemean 5), is said to have induced his annoyed countrymen to fine him 5000 drachmae, which the Athenians are sais to have subsequently offset with a gift of 10000 drachmae.


Pindar also appears to have used his odes to advance his personal interests and those of his friends. 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. Branches of the Aegeid clan were found in many parts of the Greek world, intermarrying with ruling families in Thebes, in Sparta and in colonies established by Spartamarker, such as Cyrene. 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.

Pindar's poetry also reflects rivalry with other poets, notably Simonides and his nephew Bacchylides. The competition for commissions included denigration of each other's abilities. Thus for example Olympian 2 and Pythian 2, composed in honour of the Sicilian tyrants Theron and Hieron, refer respectively to ravens and an ape, apparently signifying his rivals, engaged in a campaign of smears against him. His original treatment of narrative myth, often relating events in reverse chronolical order, was especially a target for criticism by his rivals. Commissions took Pindar to all parts of the Greek world - to the sites of the Panhellenic festivals in mainland Greece (Olympia, Delphi, Corinth and Nemea), as far west as Sicily, where he had friends among the ruling elite (notably Thrasybulus, the nephew of Theron of Acragas, but also Hieron of Syracuse, whom he probably befriended during a visit in 476 BC), eastwards to the seaboard of Asia Minor, north to Macedonia and Abdera (Paean 2) and south to Cyrene on the African coast.

The Persian invasions of Greece in the reigns of Darius and Xerxes appear not to have had any significant effect on Pindar's career. It is possible that he spent much of his time at Aegina during the Persian invasion in 480/79 BC when Thebesmarker was occupied by Xerxes' general, Mardonius, with whom many Theban aristocrats subsequently perished at the Battle of Plataea. The earlier invasion in 490 BC did not prevent him attending the Pythian Games for that year and it was there that that he first met the Sicilian prince, Thrasybulus. Thrasybulus had driven the winning chariot that year and he and Pindar formed a lasting friendship, paving the way for his subsequent visit to Sicily.

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. He 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 and he is 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)

Pindar 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.

Biographical sources

Apart from the poems themselves, almost all the evidence for the facts of Pindar's life come from four biographical sources, fully compiled at least some 1400 years after his death:
  • Commentaries on Pindar by Eustathius, Archbishop 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 four 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 by modern scholars.

Works

Pindar 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 of several types which, according to a Late Antique biographer, were subsequently grouped into seventeen books by scholars at the Library of Alexandriamarker. They were, by genre:

  • 1 book of humnoi - "hymns"
  • 1 book of paianes - "paeans"
  • 2 books of dithuramboi - "dithyrhambs"
  • 2 books of prosodia - "preludes"
  • 3 books of parthenia - "songs for maidens"
  • 2 books of huporchemata - "songs to support dancing"
  • 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 Egyptmarker. Even in fragmentary form, however, the various genres reveal the same complexity of thought and language that are found in the victory odes.

Victory odes

The victory odes are divided into four books named after the four Panhellenic festivals in ancient Greece: the Olympian, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean Games, held respectively at Olympia, Delphimarker, Corinthmarker and Nemea. This division reflects the fact that most of the odes honour victors in the athletic (and sometimes musical) contests associated with the four festivals. In a few odes, however, former 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 Sicyonmarker and Argosmarker, and Nemean 11 celebrates a victory in a municipal election on Tenedosmarker, though it does include mention of some obscure athletic victories. These three Nemean odes are the final odes in the Nemean book and there is a historical reason for this. 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.

Style

As mentioned in the introduction, Pindar's poetic style is unique and highly individualised even when the peculiarities of the genre are set aside. Key aspects of his personal approach to his craft can be found in the following strophe or stanza from Pythian 2, translated by G.S.Conway:

::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.


Pindar presents himself as a poet/priest with a serious purpose and he boldly condemns the very different approach of Archilochus, a renowned poet of an earlier generation. Archilochus took a sardonic and often humourous view of his own and other people's foibles. Pindar, in contrast, is intensely earnest, preaching to high achievers like Hieron the need for moderation (wealth with wisdom) and submission to the divine will. The sky, the sea, god, Archilochus, Hieron and the human struggle for justice are all comprehended here in a single stanza, and yet this universalizing movement is in stark contrast with highly individual, even eccentric phrasing such as Grown fat on the harsh words of hate. 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. 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 unforgetable. "Pindar's power does not lie in the pedigrees of ... athletes, ... or the misbehavior of minor deities. It lies in a splendour of phrase and imagery that suggests the gold and purple of a sunset sky."

Structure

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. 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. However, the rhythms in Pindaric verse 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, twenty or thirty lines). This adds to the aura of complexity that surrounds the odes.

There is structure also in the way topics are included. Typically, an ode begins 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 briefly narrated myth, usually occupying the central and longest section. The ode usually ends in further 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 celebrated victory was gained is never described in detail but there is often some mention of the hard work needed to bring the victory about. Often the myth serves to exemplify a moral while also alligning the world of the poet and his audience with the world of gods and heroes.

A lot of modern criticism is concerned with finding hidden structure or some unifying principle within the odes to account for their composition, since they can seem otherwise disjointed even in spite of their shared elements. 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.

Chronological order

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 (doubt is indicated by a question mark). The result is a fairly clear chronological outline of Pindar's career as an epinician poet:

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 Xenocrates of Acragas Chariot-Race Antilochus, Nestor
490 Pythian 12 Midas of Acragas Flute-Playing Perseus, Medusa
488 (?) Olympian 14 Asopichus of Orchomenos Boys' Foot-Race None
486 Pythian 7 Megacles of Athensmarker Chariot-Race None
485 (?) Nemean 2 Timodemus of Acharnaemarker Pancration None
485 (?) Nemean 7 Sogenes of Aeginamarker 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 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 Locrismarker 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 Locrismarker Boys' Boxing Match None
474 (?) Pythian 3 Hieron of Syracuse Horse-Race Asclepius
474 Pythian 9 Telesicrates of Cyrenemarker Foot-Race in Armour Apollo, Cyrene
474 Pythian 11 Thrasydaeus of Thebesmarker Boys' Short Foot-Race Orestes, Clytemnestra
474 (?) Nemean 9 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 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 Rhodesmarker 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, Troymarker
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 Camarinamarker 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 Tenedosmarker Inauguration as Prytanis None
444 (?) Nemean 10 Theaius of Argosmarker Wrestling-Match Castor, Pollux


Horace's tribute

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
::::nomina ponto.


:::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...


References

  1. Quintilian 10.1.61; cf. Pseudo-Longinus 33.5.
  2. Noted in Deipnosophistae, epitome of book I.
  3. 'Some Aspects of Pindar's Style', Lawrence Henry Baker, The Sewanee Review Vol 31 No. 1 January 1923, page 100
  4. ibid.
  5. 'A Companion to the Greek Lyric Poets', Douglas E. Gerber, Brill 1997, page 261
  6. 'A Short History of Greek Literature', Jacqueline de Romilly, University of Chicage Press 1985, page 37
  7. 'Pindari Carmina Cum Fragmentis, Editio Altera', C. M. Bowra, Oxford University Press 1968, Pythia VIII, lines 95-7
  8. 'The Odes of Pindar', translated by Geoffrey S. Conway, Everyman's University Library, 1972, page 144
  9. 'The Odes of Pindar', Geoffrey S. Conway, J.M.Dent and Sons (1972), Introduction and Notes
  10. 'Pindar', Francis David Morice, Bibliobazaar, LLC (2009) pages 31-8
  11. Plutarch, Life of Alexander 11.6.; Arrian, Anabasis Alexandri 1.9.10
  12. 'The Odes of Pindar', Geoffrey S. Conway, John Dent and Sons (1972) page 138
  13. 'Thucydides and Pindar: Historical Narratives and the World of Epinikian Poetry', Simon Hornblower, Oxford University Press (2004), pages 177-80
  14. 'The Odes of Pindar', Geoffrey S. Conway, John Dent and Sons (1972) page 158
  15. T.K.Hubbard, 'Remaking Myth and Rewriting History: Cult Tradition in Pindar's Ninth Nemean', HSCP' '94 (1992), page 78
  16. 'The Odes of Pindar', Geoffrey S. Conway, John Dent and Sons (1972) pages 10, 88-9
  17. 'The Odes of Pindar', Geoffrey S. Conway, John Dent and Sons (1972), Introduction page XIII
  18. 'A Companion to the Greek Lyric Poets', Douglas E. Gerber, Brill (1997) page 253
  19. 'Pindar', Francis David Morice, Bibliobazaar, LLC (2009), page 211-15
  20. 'A Companion to the Greek Lyric Poets', Douglas E. Gerber, Brill (1997) page 253
  21. Douglas E. Gerber, 'A Companion to the Greek Lyric Poets', Brill (1997) page 255
  22. M.M. Willcock: Pindar: Victory Odes (p. 3). Cambridge UP, 1995.
  23. Ewen Bowie, 'Lyric and Elegiac Poetry' in The Oxford History of the Classical World, J.Boardman, J.Griffin and O.Murray (eds), Oxford University Press (1986) page 110
  24. Geoffrey S. Conway, 'The Odes of Pindar', J.M. Dent and Sons (1972), Introduction page xx
  25. Geoffrey S. Conway, 'The Odes of Pindar', J.M.Dent and Sons (1972), pages 92-3
  26. C.M.Bowra, 'Pindari Carmina cum Fragmentis, editio altera', Oxford University Press (1968), Pythia II 49-56
  27. Jacqueline de Romilly, 'A Short History of Greek Literature', University of Chicago Press (!985), page 38
  28. Geoffrey S. Conway, 'The Odes of Pindar', J.M. Dent and Sons (1972), Introduction page xx
  29. Douglas E. Gerber, 'A Companion to the Greek Lyric Poets', Brill (1997) page 255
  30. Geoffrey S. Conway, 'The Odes of Pindar', J.M. Dent and Sons (1972), Introduction page xx
  31. Ewen Bowie, 'Lyric and Elegiac Poetry', in The Oxford History of the Classical World, eds. J.Boardman, J.Griffin and O.Murray (1986) page 108
  32. Douglas E. Gerber, 'A Companion to the Greek Lyric Poets', Brill (1997) page 255
  33. The Odes of Horace James Michie (translator), Penguin Classics 1976


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