The ancient Greeks considered Pindar to be one of their greatest poets. Although he lived and worked in a time of war and rivalry among the Greek city-states*, his talent and fame made him a celebrity throughout the Greek world and protected him from the worst of the conflict. Pindar wrote choral lyrics, which were poems sung by choruses, with accompanying music and dance. The composer of choral lyrics created all elements of the performance—words, music, and dance. By the time Pindar wrote his poetry, the choral lyric was becoming a traditional art form. Pindar brought that tradition to its highest point.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
The Poet from Boeotia. Pindar was born in a village near the city of Thebes, in a part of Greece called Boeotia. Although he later traveled widely and lived in other places, he was always known as a Boeotian. Pindar spent much of his life in Thebes. For several centuries after his death, a building in Thebes was identified as “Pindar’s house.” According to legend, when Alexander the Great invaded and destroyed Thebes, he ordered his soldiers not to burn the house where the great poet had once lived.
Little is known about Pindar’s life or his family background. He probably came from an aristocratic* family, since the ideas and values that he expressed in his poems were those of the traditional rural nobility of his time. Pindar received his education and musical training in Athens, an important center of artistic activity in the late 500s and 400s B.C. According to accounts of his life that were written over a century after his death, Pindar married and had two daughters and a son. He may have spent some time at Delphi, a city important to the Greeks as a religious center and the host of one of the four great Panhellenic* festivals.
The earliest of Pindar’s surviving poems is dated from 498 B.C. Although Pindar was only about 20 years old at the time, the poem is the work of a skilled and confident poet. He soon became established as a successful composer of choral lyrics. As a professional poet, Pindar had clients from all over the Greek world. Some of his clients were kings or rulers. Others were wealthy or aristocratic patrons* of the arts who hired Pindar to write choral lyrics for particular occasions, such as a festival, wedding, or the funeral of an important person.
One of Pindar’s clients was Hieron, the ruler of the Greek colony of Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Hieron commissioned several poems from Pindar, and some versions of Pindar’s life say that the poet lived in Syracuse for several years in the 470s B.C. as Hieron’s guest. The city of Athens also commissioned several poems from Pindar. In one of them, Pindar praises the beauties of “violet-crowned” Athens. According to legend, the Athenians were so pleased with the lyric that they rewarded Pindar with the very handsome sum of 10,000 drachmas. When Thebes and Athens went to war in the 450s and 440s B.C., Pindar’s fellow Thebans made him pay a fine as punishment for his earlier praise of Athens. Some of Pindar’s later poems express his loyalty to Thebes and his pride in being Boeotian. Scholars have suggested that in these poems Pindar was assuring the people of Boeotia that, although he had won fame in other regions, he was still one of them. He shared their determination to remain independent of Athens, which had already tried once to conquer Boeotia.
* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class
* Panhellenic referring to all of Greece or to all Greek people
* patron special guardian, protector; or supporter
Pindar’s last dated poem was composed in 446 B.C., although he may have continued to write until his death. More than 100 years after Pindar’s death, scholars at the Library of Alexandria collected his lyrics into 17 books. The poems fell into many categories, including hymns, funeral songs, songs to accompany processions or parades, songs of praise, and victory odes*. Of all Pindar’s poems, only 44 victory odes survive to the present day. More accurately, only the words survive—the music and the dancing that accompanied them have been lost.
* ode lyric poem often addressed to a person or an object
The Victory Odes. Pindar wrote his victory odes, also called epinician odes, to honor winners at the Greek games. Athletes and musicians from all over the Greek world competed for glory at these events. The four largest competitions were the Pythian, Nemean, Isthmian, and Olympic games,each held every two or four years. Because Pindar composed odes for the victors of all four of the major games, his surviving poems are grouped into four volumes—Pythian, Nemean, Isthmian, and Olympian.
A victory in one of these games brought glory not just to the person who won the prize but also to the city in which the winner lived. Since the rulers, governments, or citizens’ committees of those cities commissioned Pindar to write the victory ode, each poem celebrated a city’s history, achievements, and beauties, as well as a particular individual’s talents and efforts.
Most victory odes contain certain similar elements. The poet described the winner and the nature of the event he won. Next, the poem might mention other victors in the winner’s family or in the city’s history. The poet would probably also refer to gods, heroes*, and other mythological or legendary figures who had some connection with either the event or the athlete’s home city.
One distinctive feature of Pindar’s odes is their solemn, religious tone. Pindar’s victory odes contain expressions of great gratitude and awe toward the gods. They reflect the poet’s deep attachment to the traditional religious beliefs and legends of the ancient Greeks:
The race of the gods is one thing, that of men, quite another.
We both get our breath from Earth, our common mother.
Yet the powers of the two races are wholly different, so that one of them is nothing-
while the bronze heaven of the gods stays secure forever.
(Nemean 6.1 -4)
The odes also reveal that Pindar admired those willing to struggle, suffer, and sacrifice in a noble cause. A victor was touched by the gods, and he shared their glory. Pindar spent little time describing the athlete’s training, performance, or victory. To him, these details were unimportant. What mattered was that the athlete’s struggle made him a noble, heroic figure, worthy of comparison to the kings and heroes of legend:
But we can become something like the immortal gods
through greatness—greatness of mind or greatness of body—
though we don’t know from day to day, or night to
night, what course fate has drawn for us to run our race.
(See also Games, Greek; Literature, Greek; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic.)
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
IMITATING THE MASTER
The Roman poet Horace warned that anyone who tried to copy Pindar was doomed to fall in failure like the Greek mythological figure Icarus. Icarus had fallen on wax wings into the sea when he had dared to fly too close to the sun. Despite Horace's warning, European poets many hundreds of years later continued to admire, and to some degree imitate, the structure and imagery of Pindar's odes. |ohn Milton's On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, John Dryden's Alexander's Feast and Ode for St Cecilia's Day, and Thomas Gray's Progress of Poesy all reflect the influence of the Greek master on English poetry of the 1600s and 1700s.