Pindar and the Poetics of the Athlete

Patrick O’Sullivan
One paradox of the study of ancient Greek athletics is that the epinikian odes of Pindar remain a prime source for us, despite revealing so little about the specifics of the events they celebrate. Much of what the poet does tell us comes by way of a highly stylized art whose primary aim, like that of the epinikian poetry of Simonides and Bacchylides, is the glorification of the victorious athlete and his family, according to certain tropes. [1] Pindar’s odes draw on the epics of Homer in disseminating the glory—κλέος or κῦδος—of their subject, notwithstanding his occasional criticism of the older poet (e.g. Nemean 7.20–24). [2] Homer provides us with the earliest sustained accounts of athletics in Greek literature, the funeral games for Patroklos in Iliad 23 and the games hosted by the Phaeacians in Odyssey 8. Hesiod, too, recognised athletics as a source of men’s glory, or κῦδος (Theogony 435–438). For the two earliest and most influential poets of Archaic Greece, athletic success is already an important gauge of a man’s overall ἀρετή or prowess. [3]
Some have seen Pindar’s praise as part of a complex series of rituals at a time of enormous cultural upheaval when the patrons of epinikion seek to maintain an aristocratic ideology of exchange between themselves and the poet; this ideology transcends simple monetary considerations, and shapes much of Pindar’s imagery which evokes rituals associated with birth, funerals, and hospitality—with this last concept in particular evoking Homeric ξενία. [4] Others have discussed the ethical dimension to Pindar’s epinikians whereby the poet needs to avoid excessive praise of the athlete and patron (Olympian 2.95–98, etc.). [5] Indeed, Pindar continually stresses the broader, cosmological significance of athletic victory, much of which comes in the form of gnomic utterances; as Hannah Boeke puts it: “Since the poems make clear that there is more to life than victory and that the victor is not above the ordinary workings of the world, his glorification concerns … his overall excellence, of which the victory is but an example.” [6]
A further important motif used by Pindar to celebrate athletic victory—more closely related to the present discussion—is the “athlete as hero.” Greg Nagy has argued that for Homer and Pindar, the athlete follows the paradigm of the hero in undergoing the ordeal of the games—both figures experience πόνος (labour, effort) and κάματος (fatigue), and that the heroised athlete is then reintegrated into the community via the medium of epinikian poetry. [7] The same word, ἄεθλος, is used by Homer, Pindar and Bacchylides to describe heroic labours (Homer Iliad 8.363, Pindar Isthmian 6.48; cf. Bacchylides 9.8), warfare (Iliad 3.126) and athletic activity of mythic heroes (Iliad 23.646, Pindar Olympian 1.84, etc.). As a result, hero and athlete (and his ancestors) are figures with a claim to κλέος, and Nagy plausibly sees that the ordeal of the athlete requires the poet to compose an epinikian ode as a λύτρον or ‘compensation’ (Isthmian 8.2, etc.). [8] Indeed, Archaic Greek poetry also extends the nexus between hero and athlete to include the figure of the poet, which Nagy does not discuss but which I will explore here. Mary Lefkowitz’s discussion of the “poet as hero” idea focused on the unreliability of Pindar’s information about himself and its implications for later historians and biographers with their emphasis on ethical intent which makes their subjects serve as moral exemplars or otherwise. [9]
But much more can be said about the poet-hero nexus. As early as Homer (Iliad 9.189) we see the combination of hero and bard when Achilles sings the κλέα ἀνδρῶν (glories of men). This idea is developed over four books of the Odyssey (9–12) when Odysseus, who has just excelled as an athlete (Odyssey 8.97–253), sings of his wanderings to the Phaeacians and receives the following praise from king Alkinoos (Odyssey 11.367–369):
σοὶ δ’ ἔπι μὲν μορφὴ ἐπέων, ἔνι δὲ φρένες ἐσθλαί,
μῦθον δ’ ὡς ὅτ’ ἀοιδὸς ἐπισταμένως κατέλεξας,
πάντων Ἀργείων σέο τ’ αὐτοῦ κήδεα λυγρά.
There is a proper form to your words, the heart within you is noble, when you have told expertly like a singer (ἀοιδὸς) the story of the bitter woes of all the Argives and yourself.
Here, poet and the athletic hero become one, and it is this nexus of poet-athlete-hero as cultivated by Pindar that I wish to explore here. Homer, in his spectacular praise of the blind bard Demodokos, not only calls him θεῖος ‘divine’ (Odyssey 8.43–44, 539), but also ἥρως ‘hero’ (Odyssey 8.483). And Pindar continues the heroic aspirations of what it means to be a poet in yearning for κλέος for himself, and referring to the fame of his own songs (Pythian 3.111, 114–115). Amidst the complexities of Pindar’s imagery, a notable strand of ideas emerges uniting the figure of the poet and athlete. Pindar aligns his poetic art to an athletic event by invoking events from the pentathlon, such as javelin or discus throwing, as a metaphor for his song (Olympian 13.93–95, Nemean 9.55, Isthmian 2.35–37, etc.); elsewhere, he will use metaphors from the sprint (Nemean 8.19), wrestling (Nemean 4.91–96) and chariot racing (Olympian 6.22–27, 9.81). [10] Lefkowitz rightly saw in such imagery Pindar’s attempt to see the poet as a kind of athlete; but whether the poet does this in order to “express his friendship” with his patrons and “admiration” for their success, as she claims, is perhaps less clear in the light of Bundy’s pioneering insights into the generic nature of Pindaric epinikion. [11]
Here I will develop the poet-athlete nexus by exploring Pindar’s praise of the qualities of mind of victorious athletes and patrons and how he aligns these to the construction of his own poetic persona; these qualities include intelligence, practical skill and wisdom, the cultivation of the mind, a capacity for hard work and an overall sound ethical disposition. Although this list is not exhaustive, and considerations of space prevent a full analysis of other concepts relevant to poet and athlete, yet within these parameters Pindar conspicuously aligns himself to the athlete; and many of these qualities can be seen to evoke features associated with heroes as well. The resemblances which Pindar builds between poet and athlete, then, goes beyond a shared physical dynamism broached through metaphors of athletic events—important though this concept is. It is generally acknowledged that Pindar sees athletic success as grounded in the following qualities: one must have the right nature and aristocratic pedigree (φύσις), be prepared for hard work (πόνος), enjoy divine favour (θέος), have wealth and willingness to spend it (δάπανα, πλοῦτος); as R.R.R. Smith puts it, for Pindar the most successful athlete will be the one who is: “the biggest, strongest, boldest and bluntest.” [12] To an extent, these views reflect ancient attitudes to athletic contests, but Pindar has much more to say about the nature of athletic success. In addition he makes poet and athlete consistently share many of the same mental and ethical attributes over and above the βίη ‘strength’ and κάρτος ‘(physical) power’, which Hesiod saw as essential to athletic glory (Theogony 435–438). Like Bacchylides, Pindar is not blind to the physical and erotic allure of athletes, so manifest in numerous Classical athletic statues and copies of them. [13] But, as I will argue, the poet’s emphasis on the mental qualities of his subjects is crucial to his depiction of athletics, and in turn aligns with much in his identity as a poet. Beyond having implications for his own poetics, and Pindar’s ethically driven praise of victorious athletes also raises issues for ancient critiques of athletics and athletes which resonate from the Spartan elegist Tyrtaeus in the seventh century BC (fr. 12 W) to Galen (Protrepticus 13) in the second century AD and beyond.

The Sophia & Ethics of the Athlete

A key aspect of Pindar’s poetics is his attempt to establish a bond with his audience, namely, the successful athlete and his clan; Pindar presents himself as a man of intelligence, addressing others of similar intelligence and discernment. Much of this involves the concept of σοφία and cognates, which already designate poetry and poets by the time of Solon (13.52 W) and Xenophanes (B2.12 DK), as well as connoting skill and wisdom. [14] It is true that Pindar uses σοφία to describe what he sees as the deceptive poetry of Homer (Nemean 7.23), but the younger poet frequently uses σοφία and cognates favourably for his own or the Muses’ art and for himself as poet (Olympian 1.9, 1.116, 7.53, Pythian 1.12, Isthmian 1.45, Paean 7b 20, etc.). Notably, in an agonistic appropriation from the terminology of manual craft, Pindar speaks of “wise/skilled … craftsmen”—τέκτονες ... σοφοί—of resounding songs, which spread the fame of Nestor and Sarpedon (Pythian 3.113–114). [15]
In his second Olympian ode, for Theron of Akragas for victory in the chariot race, Pindar unites poet and his ideal audience on the basis of a shared wisdom or intelligence (2.83–86):
          … πολλά μοῐ ὑπ’
          ἀγκῶνος ὠκέα βέλη
          ἔνδον ἐντὶ φαρέτρας
85      φωνάεντα συνετοῖσιν· ἐς δὲ τὸ πὰν ἑρμανέων
          χατίζει. [16] σοφὸς ὁ πολλὰ εἰδὼς φυᾷ·
I have many sharp arrows under my arm in my quiver, that speak to those who understand. But in general, there is need of interpreters. Wise is he who has much knowledge through natural understanding.
We see here the motion imagery, which the poet uses so often for his medium elsewhere, in the “arrows … that speak,” an image repeated a few lines later (89–90). But also important is the compliment to those who understand (συνετοῖσιν) the poet’s words. Pindar identifies these as Theron and his fellow citizens, who, as addressees of the poet, become the specific targets of his poetic arrows; for as Pindar tells us, he bends his bow at Akragas itself (ἐπί ... Ἀκράγαντι 91). Bacchylides uses the same motif when addressing his patron Hieron: φρονέοντι συνετὰ γαρύω ‘I speak to one who thinks intelligent things’ (3.85, cf. 5.3–6). For Pindar, poet and ideal audience—above all his patrons—are σοφοί, and, importantly, are wise/skilled/intelligent by nature (φυᾷ). The conceit of the superiority of natural, as opposed to learnt, wisdom or skill is a widespread topos for Pindar (Olympian 9.100–102, Nemean 1.25–26, 1.40–42, 3.40–42, etc.), reflecting aristocratic prejudices; [17] the poet thus attempts some social climbing here as well. He continues the conceit in the famous contrast he draws between himself as a poetic eagle and the long-winded crows who cry in vain against the bird of Zeus (86–89). Whether or not these crows represent Simonides and Bacchylides, as assumed by the scholiast, the important point here is that these crows are for Pindar “blustering learners” (μαθόντες ... λάβροι), lacking in the natural wisdom of the poet and his patrons. Pindar again unites himself and Theron on the basis of their shared magnanimity (Olympian 2.90–94): the poet announces he will launch his arrows that bestow kleos from his own kindly spirit (ἐκ μαλθακᾶς ... φρενὸς); likewise he claims of Theron that no city of the past one hundred years has produced a man who was a greater benefactor of his friends (φίλοις ἄνδρα … εὐεργέταν πραπίσιν) or who was more generous (ἀφθονέσταρον).
Again at Olympian 14.5–7 Pindar implicitly aligns poet and laudandus; it is through the Graces that any man (τις) is wise/skilled (σοφός) or handsome (καλός) or splendid (ἀγλαὸς). It is typical of Pindar’s treatment of σοφία that it is inseparable from other aristocratic conceits such as good looks and splendor; the τις in this instance blessed by the Graces can equally be poet and athlete. Similarly elsewhere (Olympian 9.28–29), the men (ἄνδρες) who become “good and wise/skilled” (ἀγαθοὶ δὲ καὶ σοφοὶ) at the behest of the divine (κατὰ δαίμονα) can equally include athletes and poets; for immediately before this pronouncement Pindar has stated that as his blazing songs light up the home town of the laudandus, he will send his message quickly aided by “a certain skill granted by destiny” (τινι μοιριδίῳ παλάμᾳ) and by the Graces who bestow “pleasure” (τὰ τέρπνα: Olympian 9.21–28). At times Pindar’s language has a neat ambivalence about it whereby the success of the poet and athlete arise from the same causes (Olympian 11.7–10):
ἀφθόνητος δ’ αἶνος Ὀλυμπιονίκαις
οὗτος ἄγκειται. τὰ μὲν ἁμετέρα
γλῶσσα ποιμαίνειν ἐθέλει,
ἐκ θεοῦ δ’ ἀνὴρ σοφαῖς ἀνθεῖ πραπίδεσσιν ὁμοίως. [18]
My praise here is set up for Olympian victors in abundance. While my tongue wishes to shepherd these praises, yet from a god a man flourishes similarly (ὁμοίως) in (or by) the wisdom/skill of his mind.
The scholiast (10c), followed by most commentators, takes these lines to mean that poet and athlete similarly (ὁμοίως) rely on a god’s help for success. Whatever the textual uncertainties, it is clear that what applies to the athlete also applies to the poet whether we choose to read ὁμοίως here or not, since the adverb simply emphasises the point being made: that success comes from a god (ἐκ θεοῦ). Apart from divine assistance, in this instance it is “wisdom/skill of mind” σοφαῖς … πραπίδεσσιν (7.10), which the poet and athlete also need to “flourish” (ἀνθεῖ); the datives σοφαῖς … πραπίδεσσιν could be instrumental, locative or both. The language recalls Homer’s praise of the artisan god Hephaistos and the skill with which he produces his works, including the great shield of Achilles, which are made “with his cunning mind” ἰδυίῃσι πραπίδεσσιν (e.g. Iliad 1.608, 18.380, 482). That the poet appears as a skilled craftsman of sorts has long been recognized as an important topos in Archaic and Classical poetics; [19] here, however, we can now see that Pindar underscores the link between himself and his patron by presenting the athlete as a kind of craftsman by virtue of his σοφαῖς … πραπίδεσσιν.
Pindar calls his Seventh Olympian ode an ἄποινα (16), a term which in Homer means “ransom” (Iliad 1.111, 24.137,etc.)—something considered of equal value which can be exchanged for something else. The ode, then, reflects the ideology of gift exchange between poet and patrons, or compensation, as many have recognized. [20] An important aspect of how this exchange works in this ode is Pindar’s equation of athlete and poet for their σοφία and ethical integrity. Pindar naturally refers to the physical powers of the laudandus, the legendary boxer, Diagoras of Rhodes, praising him as a εὐθυμάχαν ... πελώριον ἄνδρα ‘straight-fighting man of towering strength’ (Olympian 7.15–16). [21] After the lengthy account of the mythic founding of Rhodes by Herakles’ son Tlapolemos, Pindar lists Diagoras’ victories at Delphi, Nemea, Thebes, Athens and elsewhere (80–86), yet the lasting impression of this famous athlete is that of a man of sound ethics (87–92):
87      … ἀλλ’ ὦ
          Ζεῦ πάτερ, νώτοισιν Ἀταβυρίου
          μεδέων, τίμα μὲν ὕμνου τεθμὸν Ὀλυμπιονίκαν,
          ἄνδρα τε πὺξ ἀρετὰν εὑ-
          ρόντα. δίδοι τέ οἱ αἰδοίαν χάριν
90      καὶ ποτ’ ἀστῶν καὶ ποτὶ ξεί-
          νων. ἐπεὶ ὕβˈριος ἐχθρὰν ὁδόν
          εὐθυπορεῖ, σάφα δαεὶς ἅ τε οἱ πατέρων
          ὀρθαὶ φρένες ἐξ ἀγαθῶν
But, O Zeus father, ruler over the slopes of Atabyrion, honour a hymn set down for victory at Olympia and the man who has found success in boxing. Grant him gracious respect both amongst citizens and foreigners, since he walks a straight path that spurns hubris, having learnt clearly what the upright minds of his noble ancestors have decreed for him.
Scholars have rightly seen that Pindar makes Diagoras a figure of moral virtue who has achieved success/excellence (ἀρετὰν) thereby spurning hubris or arrogance/insolence and who is now deserving of αἰδοίαν χάριν ‘gracious respect’. [22] But the poet also tells us literally that Diagoras “walks straight” (εὐθυπορεῖ) along road hateful to hubris. Here is an echo of the athlete described earlier in the poem as εὐθυμάχαν ... πελώριον ἄνδρα. It is possible, of course, to take “straight-fighting” in a strictly literal sense referring to the hard, direct style of punching, but the metaphorical nuance behind εὐθυπορεῖ suggests that Pindar is telling us that Diagoras fights in a fair, metaphorically “straight” fashion as well. Just as it would be banal to see εὐθυπορεῖ as referring to Diagoras as simply walking in a straight line, it is equally so to deny an ethical concept behind Pindar’s earlier use of εὐθυμάχαν for Diagoras. [23] Athletes, Pausanias tells us, were compelled to swear an oath of fair play in the Bouleuterion at the ancient Olympics (5.21.2); and the importance of honest competition was brought home to them as they entered the Olympic stadium confronted by the Zanes—statues of Zeus wielding a thunderbolt paid for by fines imposed on cheats and which, according to Pausanias, struck the most fear into dishonest athletes (5.24.9–10). Pindar, then, makes explicit in the final epode what is implicit in the earlier appearance of εὐθυμάχαν. The final conceit also draws on the aristocratic notion of inborn excellence; Diagoras understands what his ancestors’ ethically sound minds or thoughts (ὀρθαὶ φρένες) have ordained for him. Again, the athlete is praised not only for his good bloodline—as elsewhere in Pindar [24] —but for his intelligence and ethics, and his fighting which could be described as “hard but fair.”
Here again we may see a link to the poet. Before embarking on the final epode extolling the virtues and ethics of Diagoras, Pindar draws our attention to his own medium as a hymn which he calls on Zeus himself to acknowledge: τίμα … ὕμνου τεθμὸν Ὀλυμπιονίκαν ‘honour a hymn set down for victory at Olympia’ (88). [25] Pindar is thus inviting us to think about his art, and does so again, albeit subtly, in referring to Diagoras’ understanding of his ancestors’ precepts. Pindar describes Diagoras as σάφα δαεὶς—“having learnt clearly”—what these precepts are, and the language here echoes what Pindar says about σοφία earlier in the poem. In lines 50–53 Pindar refers to the glorious statues made by early inhabitants of Rhodes who learnt their skill from Athena. Having praised these early creations, the poet, however, continues:
          … δαέντι δὲ καὶ σοφία
53      … μείζων ἄδολος τελέθει.
But to the one who knows δαέντι (or: ‘in the hands of one skilled’), undeceptive art is even greater (or: ‘art that is even greater is undeceptive’)
Typically, these lines have invited a range of translations and interpretations; but one plausible reading is that Pindar, for all his praise of these life-like statues, is suggesting that his own art (σοφία) is ultimately superior (μείζων) for not being deceptive (ἄδολος) and this is recognized by the cognoscenti (δαέντι). [26] We have seen above that Pindar unites himself and his audience on the basis of their shared σοφία, and the pithy sentence at Olympian 7.53 can be seen to reassert this idea.
The final description of Diagoras at the end of Olympian Seven can be read in the light of the earlier passage, too. Pindar praises Diagoras, for his straight-fighting (εὐθυμάχαν) and straight-walking (εὐθυπορεῖ) ways, just as he elsewhere presents himself as a poet whose τόλμα ... εὐθεῖα ‘straightforward daring’ impels him to speak (Olympian 13.11–12). [27] Pindar also aligns himself with Ἀλάθεια or “Truth” (Olympian 10.3–6) and contrasts his own tales with the lies of other storytellers and poets, even on occasion Homer (Nemean 7.20–3; Olympian 1.28–30, etc.); indeed, he announces earlier in Olympian Seven that he wishes “to give a correct account” (διορθῶσαι λόγον) (7.21) of the origins of the arrival of Herakles’ descendants on Rhodes. [28] Pindar describes Diagoras as σάφα δαεὶς—“having learnt clearly”—what his ethically-minded forebears have decreed for him. Here δαεὶς (90), applied to Diagoras, echoes δαέντι (53), [29] which can refer to the poet and/or one who understands the superiority of the poet’s art. Pindar, I suggest, pays Diagoras the compliment of understanding the poet’s work just as he understands the all-important precepts of this ancestors. At the end of this rich ode to one of the most celebrated athletes of antiquity, Pindar aligns himself to his patron on many levels: poet and athlete are skilled, have integrity and genuine understanding of ethics and the poetic art. Pindar’s claim here is that his artistic achievement puts him on the same plane as Diagoras’ athletic achievement, which reflects the boxer’s mental qualities no less than his physical prowess. Pindar’s description of his ode as ἄποινα (Olympian 7.16) for Diagoras’ victory expresses this conceit beautifully.

From Sophia to Ponos and Back Again

Pindar often links σοφία with the idea of hard work (πόνος) and expense (δαπάνα), which combine with excellence (ἀρετή) as necessary both for athletic and poetic achievement. In Olympian 5 for Psaumis of Kamarina, winner of the mule-cart race, the poet intones (Olympian. 5. 15–16):
αἰεὶ δ’ ἀμφ’ ἀρεταῖσι πόνος δαπάνα τε μάρναται πρὸς
κινδύνῳ κεκαλυμμένον· εὖ δὲ τυχόν-
τες σοφοὶ καὶ πολίταις ἔδοξαν ἔμμεν.
Always toil (πόνος) and expense (δαπάνα) strive with excellence for an achievement hidden in danger; but those who succeed are held to be wise (σοφοὶ) even (or especially) by their fellow citizens.
That the poet and his audience are σοφοί has been already been noted (Olympian 2.86); Pindar also sees successful athletes as εὖ … τυχόντες, and considered σοφοί. Nagy has shown that the concept of πόνος is both a heroic and athletic attribute, [30] and here we may also see that it goes hand-in-hand with the idea of successful athletes as σοφοί. Scholars have seen that δαπάνα (expense) or πλοῦτος (wealth) is another essential quality for athletic success, along with divine favour (Olympian 11.10, Isthmian 4.19–23, 6.10–13, etc.) and natural ability (e.g. Olympian 2.86–87 above). [31] It is all the more interesting, then, that Pindar should praise expense and natural ability when the mule-cart race had a rather dubious status in the ancient games. Aristotle (Rhetoric 1405b) tells us that Simonides felt it beneath his dignity to celebrate victories in this event, but changed his mind when offered a higher payment; according to Pausanias (5.9.1), the mule-cart race ceased to be an event at the Olympic games by 440 BC, having been introduced only sixty years earlier. In any case, Pindar’s gnomic utterance at Olympian 5.15–16 can be seen to apply to himself as well, since πόνος is necessary for his own art, as for the athlete (Olympian 6.9–11, Isthmian 6.10, 8.8, etc.); in his third dithyramb Pindar refers to the πόνοι χορῶν ‘toils of the dances’ (3.16).
Elsewhere, in an ode composed for Sogenes of Aigina, winner of the boys’ pentathlon, Pindar sees πόνος as something he must undergo as poet, just like an athlete. In an image made powerful in its terse juxtaposition of two events from the pentathlon, Pindar invokes javelin-throwing and wrestling to describe his own poetics, but with a twist (Nemean 7.70–74):
70      … ἀπομνύω
          μὴ τέρμα προβαὶς ἄκονθ’ ὥτε χαλκοπάραον ὄρσαι
          θοὰν γλῶσσαν, ὃς ἐξέπεμψεν παλαισμάτων
          αὐχένα καὶ σθένος ἀδίαν-
          τον, αἴθωνι πρὶν ἁλίῳ γυῖον ἐμπεσεῖν.
          εἰ πόνος ἦν, τὸ τερπνὸν πλέον πεδέρχεται.
… I swear that I have not stepped up to the line and sent my tongue speeding like a bronze-cheeked javelin, which releases the strong neck from wrestling without sweat, before the body falls under the blazing sun. If there was hard work (πόνος), greater is the delight that follows.
It was possible to win the pentathlon if an athlete had won three of the earlier events, obviating the need to compete in the wrestling, evidently the final event. [32] While the successful athlete could legitimately avoid the most demanding event in the pentathlon, Pindar says he will not metaphorically do the equivalent, as poet. In a move that both implicitly praises the athlete for his outstanding success—in not needing to compete in all events to win—and points to the task ahead of him as poet, Pindar claims that he will endure even more πόνος than did the athlete to celebrate him accordingly. The πόνος of the poet here, in other words, outdoes the πόνος of even the athlete.
But Pindar, albeit tersely again, has more to say. His conclusion that more pleasure (τὸ τερπνὸν πλέον) results from πόνος can be seen as a self-reflexive statement about his own art, since the capacity of poetry to produce pleasure, delight and joy (τέρψις, ἡδονή, χαρά) was arguably its most widely recognized feature from Homer (Iliad 9.186, Odyssey 1.347, etc.) and Hesiod (Theogony 37, etc.) to Gorgias (Encomium of Helen 8, 10), Plato (Republic 10.605c10–d5, etc.) and Aristotle (Poetics 1462a16–b1, etc.). [33] Pindar has elsewhere referred to the Graces, who aid him in his poetic output, as dispensers of τὰ τέρπνα ‘pleasure’ (Olympian 9.28; cf. Olympian 14.5), and refers to ἐμῶν ... ὕμνων ... εὐτερπὲς ἄνθος ‘the pleasing flower of my hymns’ (Olympian. 6.105). [34] Poetry, then, was understood as the pleasure-inducing medium par excellence, not least by Pindar himself, who claims that, due to his own πόνος, it will be become even more pleasurable. Pindar’s celebration of the pleasure resulting from athletic success here thus effortlessly leads to a celebration of the pleasure-inducing qualities of his own medium. If, as suggested above, the endurance of πόνος is one of the key qualities of being a hero, [35] Pindar here is presenting himself as an even more heroic figure than the athlete he celebrates.
When celebrating the success of Herodotus of Thebes in the chariot race at the Isthmian games, Pindar again combines hard work (πόνος) and expense (δαπάνα) as pre-requisites for athletic success, and links them also to intelligence and his own poetic σοφία (Isthmian 1.38–46):
          νῦν δ’ αὖτις ἀρχαίας ἐπέβασε Πότμος
          συγγενὴς εὐαμερίας. ὁ πονή-
40      σαις δὲ νόῳ καὶ προμάθειαν φέρει·
          εἰ δ’ ἀρετᾷ κατάκειται πᾶσαν ὀργάν,
          ἀμφότερον δαπάναις τε καὶ πόνοις,
          χρή νιν εὑρόντεσσιν ἀγάνορα κόμπον
          μὴ φθονεραῖσι φέρειν
45      γνώμαις. ἐπεὶ κούφα δόσις ἀνδρὶ σοφῷ
          ἀντὶ μόχθων παντοδαπῶν ἔπος εἰ-
          πόντ’ ἀγαθὸν ξυνὸν ὀρθῶσαι καλόν.
Now, however, his (sc. Herodotus’) inborn destiny has once more set him aboard the success of old times. But one who has toiled (πονήσαις) also brings foresight to (or with) his mind. If someone is committed with all passion to excellence both with expenses and hard work (ἀμφότερον δαπάναις τε καὶ πόνοις), one must bring to those who achieve it a heroic celebration with no begrudging thoughts, since it is a light gift for a man who is wise/skilled (σοφός), after speaking a noble word in return for labours of all kinds, to raise up something splendid and shared by all.
Pindar attributes Herodotus’ success in part at least to his bloodline: it is his family’s natural prerogative to succeed. But, like Pindar the poet and heroes elsewhere, the athlete must labour for his success as well, so that it comes by way of expense and toil (ἀμφότερον δαπάναις τε καὶ πόνοις). There is no contradiction here between natural prowess and the need for effort. Homer again provides a precedent in the figure of Phemios, the bard compelled to sing for the suitors in the Odyssey; the bard describes himself as inspired by the Muses and self-taught (Odyssey 22.347). Closer in time to Pindar, the sophist Protagoras sees successful education as a result of student’s nature and diligence (B 3 D–K). [36]
Important for Pindar here also is the claim that the athlete’s πόνος is conducive to intellectual prowess; hard work for the athlete brings with it foresight for the mind (νόῳ … προμάθειαν). The poet brings himself into the picture by speaking of himself as a σοφός—a man of skill and wisdom—who will honour the athlete, thus cementing the link between himself and his patron whose mental qualities and diligence he has just been praising. Such qualities of πόνος and intellectual refinement recur in Pythian 6 for Thrasyboulos, son of the laudandus, Xenocrates of Akragas; the younger man is praised for cultivating wealth with his mind (νόῳ: 47), culling σοφία from the Muses (49), demonstrating more πόνος than bees (55) and having a sweet mind (γλυκεῖα φρῆν: 54)—a punning expression that also recalls Pindar’s description of his own benign disposition elsewhere. [37] Yet in the first Isthmian here an interesting distinction emerges between poet and patron, since Pindar says that for him as a σοφός it is a light gift (κούφα δόσις) to speak a good word in return for all kinds labours (ἀντὶ μόχθων παντοδαπῶν) endured by his patron. Nagy’s theory of epinikion as a kind of recompense for the pain of the athlete is in evidence here, but there is more. Athlete and poet are aligned here, it is true, for their shared intelligence and abilities. But, just as Pindar in his seventh Nemean ode presents himself as going beyond the achievement of his patron in terms of πόνος, here he gives himself the edge over his patron once again: Pindar’s ability to compensate the athlete for all his labours and expenses now comes to him as a light gift.


Pindar has long been recognized for endowing his athletes and patrons with heroic qualities—developing ideas from Homer—and many studies have demonstrated the poet’s acute self-consciousness as a singer, proud of his medium, which he often assimilates to an athletic event. [38] What I have tried to show here is that an important feature of Pindar’s epinikian odes is the alignment of poet and athlete along ethical and intellectual lines. The poet never loses sight of the importance for athletic success of divine favour, wealth, and natural, physical ability—all of which were so central to the construction of aristocratic identity. But Pindar frequently takes the celebration of his patrons’ prestige to further levels by attributing the same qualities of mind and character to the victorious athlete and himself as poet. Pre-eminent among these are concepts of skill/wisdom, intelligence, generosity, even modesty, and a heroic capacity for endurance and hard work. Not all of these qualities would be readily assumed to be necessary for athletic success in the ancient or modern worlds, and many inscriptions and monuments survive which amply attest to the bombast and arrogance of successful athletes—something that hardly ended with antiquity. [39] Moreover, ancient critiques of Greek athletics constantly focus on the uselessness, greed, laziness, over-indulgence, stupidity and at times even murderous violence of athletes either individually—and the prodigious wrestler Milo of Croton attracts a lot of attention here—or in general. [40] This trend is evident already by the time of Tyrtaeus (fr. 12 W), and continues with Xenophanes (B2 DK), in plays by Euripides (e.g. Electra 387–389, fr. 282 Autolycus), the Platonic Socrates (Apology 36d–e) through to Cicero (De Senectute 9.27), Galen (Protrepticus 13) and beyond. [41]
Pindar’s odes to his patrons obviously contrast with these depictions, but of particular interest are the lengths he goes to in his praise, which include ensuring his recognition as a poet. [42] Such an approach enables Pindar to enrich what it means to be an athlete and poet: he extends what is at stake in athletic competition for his aristocratic patrons by making them ethical and intellectual paradigms while also elevating his status as a performance artist. This compelling technique gives force to those images where Pindar sees himself and the successful athletes as equals embarking on a joint enterprise, whatever his personal feelings about his patrons. [43] In Olympian 6.22–29 Pindar urges the charioteer Phintis to yoke the victorious mules to his chariot of song so they can drive to Pitana and celebrate the lineage of Hagesias, who, like so many Pindaric athletes, has won victory through πόνος (Olympian 6.9–11); for Bacchylides, by contrast, πόνος hardly matters at all as an ingredient for athletic success, being mentioned only once in his extant corpus (13.56). [44]
Pindar’s pioneering alignment of poet and athlete also makes more comprehensible those tendencies in the later fifth century and beyond which saw athletic terminology being applied to intellectual life; the sophists Protagoras (B 1 DK) and Thrasymachus (B 7.3 DK) use wrestling terms for their own rhetorical theories—Protagoras even wrote a book on wrestling (A1)—and Plato (Republic 403e) calls the Guardians of his ideal state “athletes in the greatest of contests.” Pindar’s nuanced treatment of poet and athlete also has implications for modern discussions which see a simplistic brain versus brawn or μῆτις–βίη dichotomy at work in ancient athletics as early as Homer. [45] Unlike Xenophanes, who attempted to reduce athletics to acts of physical strength or ῥώμη, inferior to his own σοφίη (B 2.12 DK), Pindar even presents physical prowess as a manifestation of mental acuity. [46] Nor is it far-fetched to see that Hellenistic poets such as Callimachus and Theocritus owe something to Pindar for the importance of πόνος within their own poetics. Pindar’s legacy is a topic for another occasion but it, too, provides evidence of the importance of his uniting the realms of athletics and poetics. In Pindar’s hands, athletic and poetic kleos become one.

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[ back ] 1. As widely acknowledged since Bundy 1962, who also applies this to Bacchylides (p. 3). Overviews of the history of Pindaric scholarship, with modifications of Bundy’s thesis, can be found in Heath 1986, Pfeijffer 1999:2–18 and Boeke 2007:1–9.
[ back ] 2. See Nagy 1979:16–18, 35–41, 94–106 and id. 1990, esp. 147–152, 199–206, Nisetich 1989, Goldhill 1991:69–166, esp. 128ff., Kurke 1991:17–19, 142–145, Currie 2005:71–84. Sotiriou 1998 lists verbal parallels between the two poets but without extensive analysis. On the κῦδος of the athlete, see Kurke 1991:204–209, and 1993, who, following Benveniste 1973, emphasizes that κῦδος has an almost talismanic power, conferring benefits for a king, or entire community as well as the athlete or hero.
[ back ] 3. Athletics in Homeric epic is a topic beyond the scope of this paper, but useful discussions include the following: Richardson 1993:201–271, Müller 1995:45–72, Golden 1998:88–95, Kyle 2007: ch. 3, Potter 2012:13–33, and the papers by Nagy and Scanlon in this collection.
[ back ] 4. See Kurke 1991: passim, esp. 62–159, also Kurke 1993. She suggests that epinikion was a ‘counterrevolution’ against certain civic rituals instituted by Solon to eclipse lavish aristocratic display at funerals and other occasions (1991:258–259). Thomas 2007:147, 164, however, doubts any connection between the victory ode as a genre and political developments. Richardson 2005 passim (esp. 214–215) argues at length for the aristocratic ideology of epinikion as a form of gift-exchange between patrons and the poet, as opposed to commodity exchange.
[ back ] 5. E.g. Lefkowitz 1991:167, Goldhill 1991:128–166, Mackie 2003: esp. 27–37, 77–106, who also notes Pindar’s need to avoid insufficient praise of athletes.
[ back ] 6. Boeke 2007 passim, esp. 9.
[ back ] 7. Nagy 1990:117–145. Mackie 2003:95–105 argues that the ode is a form of thanks to the gods and thus a form of “exchange” evoking the concept of χάρις, on which see Kurke 1991:85–107. For the influence of hero-cult on Pindar’s celebration of the laudandus, see also Currie 2005 passim; like Nagy, he sees that the typical career for a hero—especially its πόνοι and ἄθλα—could serve as a paradigm for the victorious athlete (2005:59).
[ back ] 8. Nagy 1990: 142; Willcock 1995:17 makes much the same point without invoking the idea of ritual (cf. also Isthmian 7.16–19, Nemean 4.1–8, etc.).
[ back ] 9. Lefkowitz 1991:111–126.
[ back ] 10. For further discussion and references, see Lefkowitz 1984 and 1991:161–168; O’Sullivan 2003:79–85, who discusses the agonistic nuances of such poetic imagery; cf. also Bundy 1962:82.
[ back ] 11. Lefkowitz 1984:11; cf. Bundy (above, n1).
[ back ] 12. Smith 2007:109–112, esp. 111; see also Willcock 1995:15.
[ back ] 13. E.g. Olympian 8.19, Nemean 3.19, Isthmian 7.22; cf. Bacchylides 9.27–36. For discussion, see Steiner 1998, Scanlon 2002, esp. 199–273, 292–298 on eros and athletics generally (esp. 222–226 for Pindar on the erotic appeal of athletes), Smith 2007: passim, esp. 108–112. Contests in male beauty were held, such as the εὐανδρία at the Panathenaia mentioned by Aristotle (Constitution of the Athenians 60.3) and Athenaeus (13.565f–566a); see Scanlon 2002:404n24 for a useful overview of the literature on what this and other related contests might have involved.
[ back ] 14. Xenophanes’ reference to his own σοφίη comes as part of his (in)famous criticism of athletics to which I will return.
[ back ] 15. For Pindar’s agonistic engagement with visual monuments, see O’Sullivan 2003 and 2005n29 for further references.
[ back ] 16. Translation of this sentence remains controversial, with many plausibly seeing a contrast (signified by the adversative δὲ) between the select cognoscenti and the less sophisticated masses; cf. Horace (Odes 3.1.1). But, since the meaning of ἐς δὲ τὸ πὰν as “for the majority” is unparalleled, others translate it as “in general” or “for the whole subject” (Race 1997a:73); for discussion, see Willcock 1995:161–162 ad loc. In any case, the point about Pindar’s praise of himself and his audience as naturally σοφοί remains.
[ back ] 17. See Richardson 2005: passim.
[ back ] 18. Most editors, including Maehler read ὁμοίως here which appears as a lemma in the scholion (10c), while the variant ὅμως ὦν appears in the Vatican recension ζ. The oldest MSS omit the phrase altogether. Apart from Maehler, see also Willcock (1995) 57–58; Race 1997a:177n1; cf. Verdenius 1987:91.
[ back ] 19. Found from Homer (Odyssey 17.383–386) and Hesiod (Works and Days 25–26) to Democritus (B 21 DK), Aristophanes (Frogs 1004) and beyond; cf. also Thesmophoriazusae 52–57, where it is taken to comic extremes in the lampooning of the poet Agathon. Schmitt 1967:296–298 and Nagy 1979:297–300 see such analogies as reflecting Indo-European traditions likening poetry to carpentry and craft; for further discussion of the motif in Pindar and elsewhere, see Gentili 1988: esp. 50–60 with notes., and Ford 2002: esp. 93–130.
[ back ] 20. Above, nn.4 and 7.
[ back ] 21. Beyond his career Diagoras’ reputation continued to gain in stature as the father and grandfather of outstandingly successful athletes (Paus. 5.6.7–8, 6.7.1).
[ back ] 22. Scanlon 2002:19–20; Miller 2004:236–237.
[ back ] 23. As Verdenius 1987:61 notes in reference to εὐθύν at Olympian 7.33 (apropos of Apollo’s order to Tlapolemos to sail ‘straight’ to Rhodes): ‘the idea that a straight way is the best one is a topos in Pindar.’ Cf. Olympian 6.103, etc. Elsewhere Pindar praises the trainer of pankratiasts, Pytheas, both for εὐθυπορῆσαι ‘guiding straight’ the athlete Phylakidas and for being χερσὶ δεξίον, νόῳ ἀντίπαλον ‘adept with his hands and with a mind to match’ (Isthmian 5.59–61).
[ back ] 24. E.g. Olympian 9.100: τὸ δὲ φυᾷ κράτιστον ἅπαν ‘but what comes by nature is altogether supreme’; see above on Olympian 2.83–86.
[ back ] 25. Verdenius 1987:83–84 ad loc. rightly saw in effect a periphrasis here, paralleled elsewhere in Pindar (Olympian 6.69, 13.26, etc.), and plausibly takes τεθμὸν to mean “the thing performed according to a fixed rule”; cf. LSJ s.v. 1. The translation by Race 1997a:133 also brings out this nuance correctly: “honor the hymn ordained for an Olympic victory.” To see Ὀλυμπιονίκαν as referring to Diagoras leaves the genitive ὕμνου unexplained and renders ἄνδρα τε πὺξ ἀρετὰν εὑρόντα tautological.
[ back ] 26. For full discussion of this passage and issues of translation, see O’Sullivan 2005.
[ back ] 27. At Pythian 2.86 Pindar tells us that the εὐθύγλωσσος ἀνὴρ ‘straight-talking man’ excels in all political situations.
[ back ] 28. Such claims to truthfulness are not, however, as banal as they might seem, as falsehoods and poetry were associated from an early stage in Greek thought and not always with disapproval. Hesiod speaks of the Muses as purveyors of truth and “lies that are like the true things” (Theogony 27); Parmenides enjoins his hearers to listen to the κόσμον … ἀπατηλὸν ‘deceptive order’ of his words (B 8.52 DK); Simonides (Plutarch De Audiendis Poetis 15c), Gorgias (B 23 DK) and the Dissoi Logoi (3.10 DK) see ἀπάτη ‘deceit’ as an acceptable, even desirable, aspect of poetry. For discussion, see Detienne 1996:89–134; Walsh 1984:80–106.
[ back ] 29. The only other occurrence of this verb in Pindar’s extant corpus is fr. 166.
[ back ] 30. Above, n8; see also Pindar, Nemean 6.23–24.
[ back ] 31. See also Willcock 1995:15, Smith 2007:111 for references.
[ back ] 32. The scholiast on Aristeides Panathenaic Oration 3.339 (195.18.4–5 Dindorf) tells us that three victories in the pentathlon were sufficient to secure victory overall; Pindar’s words here seem to bear this out; Bacchylides praises the victorious pentathlete, Automedes of Phlius, as a winner in three events: discus, javelin and wrestling (9.27–36); cf. also the story of Tisamenos told by Herodotus (9.33) and Pausanias (3.11.6). Other evidence, such as Simonides (Ep. book 16.3 Beckby) and the dedication on a halter by Akmatides of Sparta, c. 500 BC (IAG 8), suggests all five events needed to be won to secure victory. It is possible that the administration of the pentathlon varied from one set of games to the next. There is no modern consensus on how the pentathlon was scored, or the order of events; Sweet 1987:56–59, and Golden 1998:69–73 give useful overviews of the issues.
[ back ] 33. As Gentili 1988:54 writes: “The notion of pleasure or ‘delight’ (hedoné) as the effect that words in combination with song, gesture, and dance may produce on their audience was fundamental to all Greek poetics from Homer to the tragedians.”
[ back ] 34. Pindar elsewhere associates poetry and/or music with sweetness (ἡδονή) and pleasure (τέρψις): Olympian 10.76, 10.93–94; Nemean 7.21; Isthmian 3/4.92b; Paean 14 fr. 52o.34; Threnoi fr. 129.7.
[ back ] 35. Esp. Nagy 1990:139; see also above, n8.
[ back ] 36. Pindar here broaches an issue central to the nomos-phusis controversy explored by sophists of the fifth century and fourth centuries, which also appears in Herodotus (3.38.3–5, who famously refers to Pindar), tragedy, Plato (Gorgias 483d, etc.) and elsewhere.
[ back ] 37. At Olympian 2.90 Pindar tells us he will launch his poetic arrows from his own kindly spirit (ἐκ μαλθακᾶς ... φρενὸς).
[ back ] 38. Above, n10.
[ back ] 39. E.g. Ebert 1972: no. 15, 16, 20 (for Ergoteles, celebrated by Pindar in Olympian 12); for more examples and discussion, see Thomas 2007:155–159.
[ back ] 40. On Milo’s gluttony and pointless exhibitionism, see Athenaeus (10.413c), Galen (Protrepticus 13); on the perceived arrogance of athletes like Milo and Polydamas of Skotoussa leading to their death, see Pausanias (6.5.1–9, 6.14.5–8); for the story of murderous Kleomedes of Astypalaia, later to be honoured as a hero (Pausanias 6.9.6–7); see also Fontenrose 1968. For discussion of ambivalent attitudes to athletics in later authors of the “Second Sophistic” such as Dio Chrysostom, Lucian and others as including Galen, see König 2005; esp. 2–22, 45–96, 132–157, 291–300. For modern discussions of ancient criticisms of athletics in the Archaic and Classical periods, see next note.
[ back ] 41. There is no space here to analyse fully these well-known critiques; for discussion, see, for instance: Kyle 1987:124–154 and 2007:136–137, 236–237; Poliakoff 1987:93–103; Müller 1995:69–108, focusing on Tyrtaeus, Xenophanes and Euripides.
[ back ] 42. Whatever his aristocratic posturings, Pindar realizes that his livelihood depends on his craft (Pythian 11.38–45, Nemean 1.19–24, etc.). Xenophanes in the sixth century called Simonides, often considered the founder of epinikion as a genre, a κίμβιξ “skinflint” (B 21 DK); and Aristophanes parodied the mercenary tendencies to which epinikion could tend (Birds 904–967, esp. 936). On the origins of epinikion, which have sometimes been traced to Ibycus (s221 SLG) or Archilochus (fr. 324 W), see Golden 1998:77. Useful discussions of the social standing of archaic poets can be found in Svenbro 1976:173-86, Gentili 1988:155-76, Kurke 1991, esp. 240-56.
[ back ] 43. Above n11.
[ back ] 44. As Pfeijffer 1999:277n71 notes.
[ back ] 45. E.g. Dunkle 1987. Pindar’s 13th Olympian ode focuses largely on the physical prowess of the Corinthians and figures from their heroic past, as well as extolling their μῆτις and σοφίσματα. For discussion, see the famous study by Detienne and Vernant 1978: 187-213, who also discuss μῆτις in Homeric athletics (1978: 11-26); Boeke 2007: 138-42.
[ back ] 46. See also Harris (2009) for recent discussion of Xenophanes and Socrates on athletics.