Dithyrambs for Athens

Leofranc Holford-Strevens

  • Soliciting Darkness: Pindar, Obscurity and the Classical Tradition by John T. Hamilton
    Harvard, 348 pp, £17.95, April 2004, ISBN 0 674 01257 7
  • The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets by Michael Schmidt
    Weidenfeld, 449 pp, £20.00, April 2004, ISBN 0 297 64394 0

The Theban poet Pindar (c.520-446 BC), though he wrote much else, is principally known for his magnificent odes, known as epinicians, in praise of athletic victories by aristocrats and tyrants, nowadays esteemed less than Athenian democrats and Macedonian monarchs, but no worse than their counterparts in later ages who patronised poets, painters and composers still admired. In his day as in ours adulation was bestowed on sporting champions, who were held to confer glory on their cities as their modern counterparts do on their countries, though there was no shift from noble amateurs to plebeian professionals such as we have seen within the last hundred years. Pindar’s language is sometimes obscure to those who have not ventured beyond tragedy and Homer, since they need to look up rather more words; his thought is frequently compressed.

For these reasons he has often been considered difficult; those of us who blame other people’s intellectual deficiencies, or the loss of background information, are rebuked by John Hamilton: ‘Preposterous as it may sound, this book earnestly considers the possibility of Pindar’s obscurity’ – that is to say, deliberate obscurity. However, though Hamilton is not afraid to engage with Pindar, he is more concerned with more recent authors. When, for example, the greatest classical scholar of the German Empire, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, complains that Pindar was silent about Ionian science and ‘the power and greatness of the fatherland’, Hamilton examines the complexities of Wilamowitz’s position, but not the merits, or rather demerits, of the charges. Pindar had no occasion to mention Ionian science; and the concept of a Greek nation, opposed to barely differentiated barbaroi, owed so much to the Persian War that it could not be decently proclaimed by a poet whose own fatherland of Thebes had fought actively on the anti-national side. In Sicily, on the other hand, where that city’s conduct mattered less, without using the word barbaros, he represented the defeat of an Etruscan fleet off Cumae as a triumph of civilisation over brutishness, and the rescue of Hellas from grievous slavery, to be celebrated in the victor’s city as he would celebrate Salamis in Athens and Plataea in Sparta – the battles ‘in which the Medes of the bent bows fell’.

At times Hamilton emulates Pindar’s wide-ranging digressions and abrupt transitions. Thus he proceeds from Spengler’s post-World War One disillusion with humanistic classicism to Wilamowitz’s dissociation of Pindar from modern minds, leaps back in time to mockery of him in Attic comedy, and returns to consider the contradictions in Wilamowitz’s view of the poet. The quotations from comedy do not entirely bear out Hamilton’s point: Eupolis is said to state that popular philistinism has caused Pindar’s poetry to go unheard, but the playwright’s words – or rather his character’s – survive only in Eustathius’ medieval summary of (for all we know) Athenaeus’ paraphrase (c.ad 200); and the parody in Aristophanes suggests that the Athenian audience was supposed still to have some familiarity with its target.

Nevertheless, of all Pindar’s epinicians only two are for Athenian victors, and those are among his slightest works, whereas 13, including some of his finest, are for Aeginetans, both before and after their island became a victim of Athenian imperialism. He might have been commissioned to write dithyrambs for Athens, since he was the best in the business, but in a city that appropriated its richer citizens’ wealth to communal purposes, grand victory odes for athletes were politically suspect (Bacchylides’ one ode for an Athenian is distinctly flat); and few will suppose that Pindar found its increasingly restless and aggressive democracy as much to his taste as the conservative quiet of aristocratic Aegina. When Wilamowitz made Pindar address ‘mein heilig Athen’, the possessive speaks for the translator, not the poet.

As Hamilton observes, Pindar’s lost aristocratic values are lamented by Renoir’s characters in La Grande Illusion; Camus, expounding his ‘general thesis of the absurd’, and Valéry, in evocation of a passing world, both cite the resigned realism of the Third Pythian. If the society that vanished in 1914 may still be apprehended through art, why not Pindar’s aristocratic civilisation? It is hardly more remote, for an English-speaker, than the experiences that gave rise to Continental absurdism.

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