In Greek known as Pindaros, in Latin Pindarus the greatest lyric poet of ancient Greece, the master of epinicia, choral odes celebrating victories achieved in the Pythian, Olympic, Isthmian, and Nemean games.
Pindar was of noble birth, possibly belonging to a Spartan family, the Aegeids, though the evidence for this is inconclusive. His parents, Daiphantus and Cleodice, survive only as names; his uncle Scopelinus, a skilled flute player, doubtless helped with Pindar’s early musical training. The family possessed a townhouse in Thebes (to be spared by express command of Alexander the Great in the general destruction of that city by the Macedonians in 335 BC). Such a background would give Pindar a ready entr?e into aristocratic circles in other Greek cities, where his manifest gifts as a poet might be valued more highly than in his native Boeotia, which had little enough to offer in the way of precept and encouragement. (Two contemporary Boeotian female poets, Myrtis and Corinna, were of a very different tradition, more primitive and essentially feminine, though Corinna is reported to have criticized the lushness of Pindar’s early style, advising him to “sow with the hand, not with the full sack.") It was natural, then, that Pindar should be sent to neighbouring Athens to complete his training and education. Athens and Thebes were seldom on neighbourly terms, but relationships between noble families transcended such difficulties. Pindar’s horizons would have widened in the exciting atmosphere of a city beginning to realize its destiny, poised as it was on the verge of political and cultural greatness. He must have studied the choral lyric poets of the past, Alcman and Stesichorus in particular, and the work of his elder contemporaries, Simonides of Ceos and Lasus of Hermione. He would have steeped himself in the poetry of Homer and Hesiod, and he must have received detailed and systematic training in the techniques of choral composition in the city where dithyramb (a choral lyric) was cultivated and where tragedy was beginning to evolve from the dramatic ritual dance performed at religious festivals associated with the god Dionysus.
Seventeen volumes of Pindar’s poetry, comprising almost every genre of choral lyric, were known in antiquity. Only four books of epinicia have survived complete, doubtless because they were chosen by a teacher as a schoolbook in the 2nd century AD. Numerous fragments supplement them, and in recent years finds of papyri have helped toward a deeper understanding of Pindar’s achievement, especially in paeans and dithyrambs. All the evidence, however, suggests that the epinicia were Pindar’s masterpieces. These are divided as Olympian, Pythian, Isthmian, or Nemean, the games in which the victories he celebrated were held; the epinicia number 44 odes in all. The earliest surviving epinicion (Pythian ode 10) dates from 498, and Pindar already had an assured mastery of his medium when he wrote it. It would have been quite possible for him to evolve into a cosmopolitan artist like Simonides, welcome all over the Greek world and moving easily from city to city. No doubt Pindar visited the Panhellenic festivals, at Delphi (where the Pythian games were held) and Olympia in particular, to absorb the atmosphere of the games and the victories he celebrated. He would also have seen in person the homes of the aristocrats and the courts of the tyrants whose triumphs he sang. But in general he preferred to remain loyal to his native land and to reside in Thebes: it is Pindar’s characteristic that his standards and values, like his poetry, changed little if at all over the years. Such patriotism meant sacrifices. Thebes, like Delphi, collaborated with the enemy in the Persian War-though admittedly Thebes had little alternative. But whereas Delphi’s prestige was quickly restored after the retreat of the Persians, Thebes’s defection was not lightly forgiven or forgotten. Athens was to dominate the history of the 5th century, and for the first two-thirds of it Athens had very much the better of its long, drawn-out quarrel with Thebes: from 457 to 447 BC Boeotia was virtually an Athenian dependency. And almost everywhere, the aristocratic way of life, integral alike to Pindar’s personality and to his art, was threatened. Politically and economically the monopolies of power by the noble families were broken. The aristocratic code, with its ultimately selfish individualism (summed up in a famous line of Homer, “ever to excel and to surpass other men") was undermined by the radical rationalism of a new age. Choral lyric itself had little future as a separate art form: tragedy absorbed into itself what was most vital in the tradition, and Pindar had no worthy successors. It is a tribute to the quality of Pindar’s poetry that although he must have regarded these contemporary cultural and political developments with disdain, or at best with indifference (apart perhaps from his reinterpretation of some of the traditional stories concerning the gods), he was universally respected and accepted as a major creative artist.
Pindar’s early poems have almost all been lost; it is probable, however, that what gave him a growing reputation beyond the borders of Boeotia were hymns in honour of the gods. Pindar was born at the time of the Pythian festival, and from his youth he had a close connection with the Pythian priesthood, which served the oracular shrine of Apollo at Delphi. Pindar and his descendants, indeed, enjoyed special privileges at Delphi, where his memory was cherished in later times and where an iron chair, in which it was said he had sat to sing, was exhibited. The first commissions for epinicia came mostly from aristocratic connections: the Aleuads in Thessaly (Pythian ode 10; 498 BC); the Alcmaeonids in Athens (Pythian ode 7; 486 BC); Agesidamus of Epizephyrian Locri (Olympian ode 11; 484 BC); and above all the Aeacids of the island of Aegina (the series begins with paean 6, dating from 490 BC, and continues with Nemean ode 7). Progress in winning recognition seems to have been steady, if slow. A significant breakthrough came when Pindar established a link with the court of Theron of Acragas through the tyrant’s brother Xenocrates, whose chariot won the Pythian contest (Pythian odes 6 and 12; both 490 BC). But the Persian invasion of Greece came before the promise of this new connection could be fulfilled. Pindar faced a crisis of divided loyalties, torn between a sense of solidarity with the aristocracy of Boeotia, who followed a pro-Persian policy, and a growing appreciation of Spartan and Athenian heroic resistance. Pindar was first and foremost a Theban and stood by his friends, many of whom paid for their policy with their lives. But it was Simonides, not Pindar, who wrote the poems of rejoicing at Greece’s victories and of mourning for its glorious dead.
It took Pindar some years to re-establish himself: fortunately, his friends in Aegina were staunch (Isthmian ode 8; 478 BC). It is virtually certain that he visited Sicily in 476?474 BC and was made welcome at the courts of Theron of Acragas and Hieron I of Syracuse. They were to elicit much of his greatest poetry, and it was through these connections that Pindar’s reputation spread all over the Greek world so that commissions flowed in from the mainland, the islands, and also from the remoter outposts of Hellenism. Promising new contacts were made with the royal houses of Macedon and Cyrene (Alexander of Macedon, Fragment 120; Arcesilas of Cyrene, Pythian odes 4 and 5; 462/461 BC). Theron and Hieron respected and admired Pindar, but his aristocratic temper made him dangerously outspoken. Diplomatic tact and finesse were not among his qualities, and his adroit rivals, Simonides and Bacchylides, were more pliant and adaptable (Bacchylides, not Pindar, celebrated Hieron’s Olympic victory in the chariot race in 468 BC). Echoes of Pindar’s bitter resentment sound in his poetry. So, too, Pindar’s intervention on behalf of Damophilus, a noble exile from Cyrene (Pythian ode 4, 279 ff.), seems to have been taken amiss, and he was not invited to commemorate Arcesilas’ triumph at Olympia in 460 BC. Nevertheless, these were the years of supreme achievement, and Pindar found a growing demand for his poetry and a growing appreciation of his skill. His debt to Athens was amply paid in a famous tribute (Fragment 76) that the Athenians never tired of citing, one that earned the poet special honours in that city (and, according to ancient tradition, a fine at Thebes). It was probably in this period that Pindar married.
The subsequent decade of Athenian domination in central Greece coincided with a period when Delphi was controlled by Phocis in northern Greece. These were dark years for Pindar, and his poetic output dwindled. But he continued to celebrate Theban victories (Isthmian odes 1 and 7); and he found inspiration in the achievements of his Aeacid friends of Aegina, though their days of nominal independence were clearly numbered (Isthmian odes 5, 6; Nemean odes 3-8; all celebrate Aeginetan successes). Pindar’s last extant poem (Pythian ode 8) appropriately commemorates an Aeacid victory.
The tradition that Pindar lived to the age of 80 may be true, but there is no surviving poem from later than 446 BC.
Pindar assimilates the epinicion form, which in Simonides’ hands seems to have evolved into a relatively simple poem of rejoicing enhanced by touches of realism and humour, to the religious hymn. The praise and worship of the god whose festival is being celebrated set the tone, and thanksgiving is an integral part of the structure. A second constituent element is the myth, impressionistically treated in a series of short, sharply visualized scenes and meant to link the glorious present to the yet more glorious past, to give a new dimension to the transient moment of victory. A third ingredient is the aphoristic moralizing, often in Pindar of extreme beauty, even sublimity, in which the dangers of excessive pride in achievement are repeatedly stressed. The emotional impulse throughout stems from the aristocratic ideal of self-assertion, competition, and leadership -an ideal expressing itself most finely in battle but also finding fulfilment in athletic contests, in which the palm goes to superior physique and morale deriving from superior birth. His metrical range is exceptionally wide, with no two poems being identical in metre, and he controls difficult and involuted techniques with consummate professional mastery. His dialect is literary and eclectic, with few Boeotian elements; the vocabulary is enriched, poetic, and highly personal. Each poem is fused into a unity by the fire of Pindar’s poetic inspiration, by a sweep and soar of imagination that give his poetry power and magnificence, by the shaping and controlling discipline of a fastidious art expressed in an intensely personal style. Delphic religious teaching found in Pindar a ready pupil, and he constantly spiritualized his material, turning away from the cruder traditional stories of the gods, avoiding the mundane details of the contest, striving to catch the fleeting radiance that plays about the moment of supreme endeavour when a man transcends his own limitations of physique and character and so proves worthy of his birth and ancestry. Delphi also profoundly influenced his style, which is frequently cryptic and oracular. He regarded himself as the Muse’s prophet: she is the pythoness and he is the priest who puts her inspired message into intelligible shape.
The only other major poet produced by Boeotia was Hesiod, who had flourished in the 8th century BC. The two are poles apart in background and temperament, but they share a deep religiosity, a groping toward something more profound and satisfying than contemporary cults could offer, a fondness for abrupt and violent transitions in thought and mood, and a forthright pungency of speech. A somewhat muted epitaph preserved in the Greek Anthology (7, 35) describes Pindar as the servant of the Muses, welcomed by strangers, beloved by his fellow citizens. Perhaps the poet would have regarded it as adequate.
Pindar’s odes make great demands on the modern reader, and it is only in recent times that his art has begun to be appreciated for what it is. (The so-called Pindaric ode has had a long and distinguished history in English literature, but it derives from an almost total misunderstanding and misapprehension of Pindar’s own style and technique.) Even so, much essential evidence is missing. The musical settings that he composed to accompany his words are lost forever, though in view of the quality of the poetry it is probable that the words dominated the setting (as must have been the case in most Greek lyric). It is therefore impossible to re-create even in imagination the approximate sound of a Pindaric ode, or indeed to reconstruct visually the appearance and constitution of the choir: how many participated; what range of voices was employed; whether the singers were static, moved in procession, or danced-these are questions that cannot now be answered. Nor is it possible to picture at all clearly the festive occasion that was the background for the poetry. Yet efforts to understand the odes are rewarded by at least a glimpse of the poet behind them. The aristocratic society and standards, which meant everything to Pindar, were dead or dying. But in his art he re-created them, giving them new and permanent existence and value.
The tradition of Greek choral lyric culminated with the odes of Pindar. These are not easy to evaluate and appreciate, but it is still more difficult to comprehend and assess the poet who composed them. Even to his contemporaries, Pindar must have seemed an aloof and somewhat enigmatic figure. As an aristocrat he would more naturally have been a patron of poetry than himself a poet; he came from a part of central Greece that had made a relatively small contribution to literature and the arts. Because ancient biographies, dating from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, are highly unreliable and of little help, any approach to the poet must be made through his poetry, and this involves a consideration of the historical setting, the religious usages, and the literary conventions that helped to shape his art. A modern reader needs a sympathetic insight into the nature and traditions of Greek aristocratic society before he can begin to understand how Pindar’s subject matter-victory in an athletic contest or in a chariot race-could inspire poetry characterized by high seriousness and deep feeling. Pindar cannot, indeed, speak across the centuries with the directness of Homeric epic poetry or Sophoclean tragedy, but he does create, with disciplined mastery of a sophisticated and complex art form, a choral lyric of unsurpassed splendour and sustained nobility.