In his epinikian odes, of which forty-five survive, grouped under the names of the four great Panhellenic festivals—the Olympia, Pythia, Nemea, and Isthmia—Pindar strives to express what has often been labeled as the Panhellenic ideal. To understand what this means, it is vital to realize that ancient athletic competitions were primarily events of religious and cultural significance, rather than simple displays of physical prowess. The victory ode would originally have been written more or less on the spot by the poet commissioned for the purpose and performed on the evening of the contest; most of Pindar’s, however, were composed after an interval of some time and then delivered to the home city of the victor. In such an ode, the victorious athlete was celebrated as the finest specimen of male virtue available and was associated with the realm of the divine through his achievements. Thus, while it often comes as a surprise to modern readers, an epinikian ode has little to say about the particular athlete’s appearance or how he won his victory crown.
In his poems, Pindar strives to express the religious and cultural traditions that all Greeks shared as a common heritage. The unifying concepts included the two great poems of Homer, the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), the mythological tradition of...
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