Other Literary Forms
Pindar is remembered only for his poetic achievement.
Pindar’s victory odes are among the greatest achievements of ancient Greek poetry, but they are also probably the most consistently misunderstood. Composing in a genre (epinikion) and mode (choral lyric poetry) foreign even to later Greek audiences, Pindar stands alone as the chief archaic Greek poet whose works survive in any bulk. The archaic age itself—that period from the time of Homer in the eighth century to the rise of classical literature in fifth century Athens—is relatively obscure. The events, manners, and traditions of the period were not those of later times, so that it is hard to extrapolate from literary activity at Athens when analyzing the work of Pindar a generation earlier. The additional difficulty of having little to compare with Pindar’s work in his own genre (only some poems by his contemporaries Bacchylides and Simonides) means that any assessment of his achievement is necessarily limited. What comparison one can make shows Pindar to have a distinctive style, complex and exciting. So highly compressed is the style, in fact, that the general opinion of Pindaric odes, from antiquity on, can be summed up in the remark of the English poet Abraham Cowley: “If a man should undertake to translate Pindar word for word, it would be thought that one madman had translated another.” Yet Cowley is only one among a number of poets who have been fascinated by Pindar, in whom they have found a model for “inspired” verse (Pierre de Ronsard and Friedrich Hölderlin are among the great poets deeply influenced by Pindar). Even Horace, the astute transposer of old Greek lyric verse into Roman poetry, failed to get beyond the fixation on Pindaric style, which later led to Pindar’s image as that of a rather wild, raving, “natural” bard:
Rushing down like a mountain stream
Which rains have swollen over its known banks,
Unmeasurable Pindar boils and flows, deep mouth. . . .
Pindar’s legacy, then, has little to do with his real achievement. His imitators dwelt on style; divorced from the context and conventions of the poetry, this style is bound to seem odd at best and at worst, incomprehensible. In his own terms, however, Pindar might best be judged by determining whether he has achieved what he set out to do. In that case, he has been a successful composer of epinikia, because he has fulfilled the promise that lies behind this genre: He preserves the names and victories (often otherwise unknown) of fifth century aristocrats who desired the prestige of Pindar’s poetry to commemorate their participation in the Panhellenic games. Pindar, like the epic poet Homer before him, conferred immortality on heroic deeds, this being the ideology behind his poetry as expressed in Nemean Ode 7:
. . . if a man succeeds in an exploit, he casts
a delightful theme upon the streams of the Muses
for great deeds of strength, if they lack songs,
are sunk in deep obscurity.
Little is known about Pindar beyond what has been recorded by ancient scholars in elucidating the circumstances of composition for various poems. This produces a sort of lifelong itinerary around the Greek world rather than a clear biography of the poet. Clearly, his life was spent in aristocratic circles. He was born into a socially superior family having connections with the Aegid clan, a far-flung kinship group that included members of the Spartan ruling elite. Ancient tradition records that Pindar went to Athens for schooling in the art of choral poetry; the district of Boeotia was apparently backward in such matters (as Pindar implies, referring to the old insult “Boeotian sow,” that his poetry has cast aside). Pindar’s first recorded poem, Pythian Ode 10, was written when he was about twenty and performed in Thessaly for an aristocratic patron.
Pindar’s later life was ruled by this pattern. He traveled throughout the Greek world at the invitation of local tyrants, self-made absolute rulers (not despots, as implied by the modern sense of the word) who were at that time in the process of replacing hereditary kings as the supreme authority in the Greek city-states. They needed the prestige that an internationally known poet such as Pindar could bring to their accomplishments—not only athletic, but military and political as well. Pindar was not the first poet to be patronized by tyrants: The sixth century poet Ibycus and, later, Simonides and Bacchylides also celebrated the deeds of these wealthy and powerful men. All, including Pindar, were certainly paid for their efforts, in money and lavish hospitality.
Pindar would either write a choral ode for his patrons, then oversee its performance, or send a poem with instructions for the accompanying song and dance, while he himself remained in Thebes. Pindar seems, at times, to have accompanied the victor from the games to his hometown, where the ode would then be performed at festival occasions. It is even possible that a few odes were actually composed extempore at the games. These compositions survive, it appears, because the aristocratic patron families handed down manuscripts as treasured heirlooms. The Alexandrian scholars Zenodotus and Aristophanes helped to collect Pindar’s poetry in the third century b.c.e.
Further, acquaintance with one aristocratic family often led to commissions from others. Thus, after celebrating the victory of Xenocrates at Delphi in 490 b.c.e., Pindar became known to the family and, in 476 b.c.e., was invited to compose epinikia for Xenocrates’ brother Theron and for Hieron, another tyrant, in Sicily. In such a fashion, Pindar’s patrons came to include aristocrats in Sparta, Rhodes, Corinth, Cyrene, and Athens. His international reputation is reflected in the geographical distribution of the epinikia: Only five of the surviving forty-five poems are addressed to victors from Pindar’s home state of Thebes; fifteen are for Sicilians and eleven for victors from the island of Aegina, for which Pindar had a special affection.
The patron-poet bond, however, based as it was on traditional Panhellenic codes of behavior, led to conflicts for Pindar when the political situation during the years of the Persian invasions of 490 b.c.e. and 480 b.c.e. polarized the Greek city-states. Pindar tended to identify his patrons’ families with their homelands. In praising Athens, then, as he did in Nemean Ode 2, the poet risked offending the citizens of Aegina, with whom Athens was at war during the decade after Marathon in 490 b.c.e. Similarly, his continuing affirmations of support for the Theban oligarchy, even when it joined with the Persians against most of the other Greek states, posed problems of loyalty. Nevertheless Pindar, in most instances, was able to reconcile his conflicting affiliations by an appeal to the common Greek ideals and myths; references to both occur frequently in the epinikia. Once, however, shortly after the Persians were repulsed, the jealous rivalry between Thebes and Athens did affect Pindar, resulting in the levy of a heavy fine on the poet by the Thebans after he praised Athens in a dithyramb, calling it “defense of Greece, Athens renowned, divine citadel,” and recalling the Athenian naval victory over the Persians at Salamis in 480 b.c.e.
Although Pindar fascinates historians because of the unusual perspectives he offers on the turbulent events of the fifth century b.c.e., to look to his poetry for reasoned historical judgments would be as much in vain as it would be to seek therein a coherent picture of his life. His poetry was not meant to be either biography or chronicle, but rather a celebration of a series of victorious moments, which, by their semisacred nature, move personal and political history into the background.
Of the seventeen books representing Pindar’s vast production in a variety of poetic genres, only four books of one genre, the victory odes (epinikia), survived antiquity intact. These odes are named for the periodic Panhellenic festival games held at Olympia (the Olympian odes), Delphi (the Pythian odes), Nemea (Nemeans), and Corinth (Isthmians).
The remaining books of Pindar survive as several hundred fragments, some of them only a line long. As was usual in Greek archaic poetry, his compositions were most often meant for public performance, and the now lost books were arranged by third century b.c.e. editors according to the social occasions for which the poems were written: encomia (praise poems), threnoi (dirges), hymns, paians (hymns to Apollo), dithyrambs (to Dionysus), hyporchemata (dance songs), parthenia (maiden songs), and prosodia (processionals). While the modern reader might regret the loss of the huge mass of verse Pindar wrote, the fragments of these other genres make it clear that the Pindaric style known from the epinikia is representative of his works as a whole.
The Greek Games
To understand the epinikia requires an appreciation of both their occasional nature and the nature of those occasions for which they were written. The most prestigious games—Olympian, Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian—occurred at regular intervals and united the independent Greek city-states as few other traditions, with the exception of Homeric poetry, could. So important were these Panhellenic athletic and musical contests that a sacred truce prevailed whenever they were held. To their local communities, victors became heroes; although their immediate reward at the games consisted only of a wreath of laurel leaves, their later perquisites very often included free meals at public expense, statues, coins with their imprint, and inscriptions. In this context, poetry was yet another...