Pindar 518 B.C.-c. 438 B.C.
Pindar has been admired as the supreme lyric poet of Greece since ancient times. His surviving works consist primarily of choral odes celebrating the athletic prowess of victors at the four great Panhellenic games; each displays bold imagery coupled with dazzling verbal virtuosity. Scholars imperfectly understood the epinicion genre, or victory ode, until the 1960s, when they recognized that the treatment of mythological and ethical themes in Pindar's odes derives from an established tradition which reflected the culture and religion of his times. As the most eloquent and original representative of the Greek archaic age, Pindar has been a wellspring of poetic inspiration for centuries.
Little is certain about Pindar's life. He was born in the city of Thebes in the province of Boeotia, where his family belonged to the aristocracy. As a young man, Pindar received training in music and song at Athens, and he wrote his first poem, "Pythian 10," in 498 B.C. for a powerful Thessalian family. During his fifty-year career as a professional poet, Pindar traveled throughout the Greek world and developed a Panhellenic attitude, witnessing the Persian threats to Greek independence in the early fifth century B.C. and the subsequent rise of Athenian democracy and power. Consequently, Pindar achieved renown for his verse; numerous aristocratic patrons regularly commissioned his poetry, most notably Hieron I of Syracuse, members of Sicily's ruling family, and the nobility of the island of Aegina, for which he seemed to have a particular affection. Pindar also immortalized in verse the victors of the Olympic, Nemean, Pythian, and Isthmian games. These events featured athletic competitions and religious festivals, during which a sacred truce was observed throughout the Greek world. Pindar's last surviving work "Pythian 8," which honors the victory of a wrestler from Aegina, was written in 446 B.C. Pindar is said to have died in Argos about 438 B.C. at the age of 80.
Pindar's body of lyric poetry is among the best-preserved of ancient Greece. Although the great library at Alexandria had poems by Pindar of many types, including encomia, hymns, dirges, and paens, only his epinician odes survive intact. These are grouped as Olympian, Nemean, Pythian,
and Isthmian, according to which games the various odes relate. Epinician odes were originally performed to musical accompaniment by a trained chorus who sang and danced, although some recent critics claim that the odes were intended for a soloist. These choral odes feature an intricate metrical and syntactical structure, based on aeolic and dactylo-epitritic rhythms, and follow a conventional pattern of praise (although Pindar so mastered the form their variety is remarkable). Pindar's epinician odes espouse an essentially religious viewpoint, underscoring the poet's belief that talent and success are god-given. Notable among Pindar's forty-four extant odes are the "Olympian 1," which celebrates the victory of Hieron's horse Pherenikos in 476 B.C.; "Olympian 2," which is unique among epinician odes for its theme of reincarnation and judgment after death; and "Olympian 7," which honors Diagoras of Rhodes, an athlete who claimed victory at all four games. "Olympian 8," "Pythian 8," "Nemean 3-8," and "Isthmian 5, 6, 8" relate the heroic stories of Aeacus and his descendants, the mythological forebears of Aegina, while "Isthmian 7" describes the mythical grandeur of Pindar's native Thebes. In addition, a number of fragments of poems survive, including parts of a hymn to Zeus and a paean for Thebes to Apollo.
Highly regarded during his lifetime, after his death Pindar was referred to as an authority by the classical authors Herodotus and Plato. Perhaps a more remarkable indication of Pindar's fame in the ancient world occurred when Alexander the Great ordered his troops to spare Pindar's house during the destruction of Thebes in 335 B.C. His status as the preeminent lyric poet of Greece persisted during the days of the Roman empire, when the poet Horace attempted to imitate Pindar's "Olympian 2" in his Odes, and Vergil imitated "Pythian 1" in his Aeneid. During the Middle Ages Pindar's poems were unknown except in Byzantium. After Aldus Manutius published the first modern edition of the poet's works in Venice in 1513, Italian imitations appeared later that century. Pindar's most eminent Renaissance imitator was the French poet Pierre de Ronsard, whose synthesis of French and Greco-Roman poetry inaugurated a school of elevated lyric verse on the Continent similar to the development of the Pindaric ode in English poetry by such seventeenth-century poets as Abraham Cowley and John Dryden. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Pindar's odes influenced many European poets, notably Thomas Gray, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Friedrich Holderin, and Victor Hugo. Nineteenth-century German scholars elucidated many historical and philological complexities of Pindar's works in an attempt to discover thematic unity in individual odes. By the 1960s the conventions of choral poetry were better understood, and American and English scholars have demonstrated the nature of Pindar's religious outlook, his handling of myth, and the social context of the athletic victors for whom his odes were written. By analyzing individual odes with reference to their social and religious underpinning, late twentieth-century scholars have fostered a new appreciation of Pindar's worldview and imaginative power.