Masterpieces of Greek Literature (1902)/Pindar

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The different kinds of Greek literature during the classical age existed not so much side by side as successively. In modern times, Tennyson and Goethe composed not only lyric and dramatic poems, but also epics on a small scale, but in Greece no single poet tried his powers in these three classes of literature; still less did he compose not only all kinds of poetry, but also artistic and scientific prose. Probably lyric poetry, songs in praise of the gods, songs of love and of war, songs of joy and of grief, preceded epic poetry in Greece as in India; but these earliest lays have all perished. Greek lyric poetry as we know it was in its beginning when the light of epic poetry was waning, and it passed its highest glory before dramatic poetry reached its zenith. And though the drama had but a short life, its glory was passing before the historian's art was perfected, and this in turn yielded to oratory and the dialogues of Philosophy. Bucolic poetry was the only new kind of literature to be developed after the middle of the fourth century before the beginning of our era.

Greek lyric poetry had two main divisions,—the Aeolic personal poetry of Asia Minor, that of Sappho and Alcaeus, which served as a model to the Roman Horace; and the choral poetry which flourished particularly among the Dorians, and from which Attic tragedy with its choral songs was developed. To the latter division belongs the poetry of Alcman, Simonides, and Pindar.

Pindar, the greatest and the last of the great lyric poets of Greece, was almost the exact contemporary of Aeschylus, the earliest and the most lyric of the great dramatic poets. He was born near Thebes in the summer of 522 B. C., and studied music and poetry at Athens, where he must have known Aeschylus.

The works of Pindar were collected by the scholars of the Alexandrian library and divided into seventeen "books" or parts. Of these, three books are extant and probably most of a fourth, all but two or three of the forty-four odes being in celebration of victories in the national games of Greece,—the Olympian held in Elis, the Pythian at Delphi, the Isthmian at Corinth, and the Nemean at Nemea. The ode does not in any case describe the contest in which the victory was won, but only indicates it. The games, like all the festivals of the Greeks, were religious in their origin, being held in honor of some god, and the odes of victory are very like Greek hymns. The heart of each of the longer odes is formed by a myth, which if possible is connected with the family or home of the victor, or if not, at least with the foundation of the games themselves.

Not every victory could be celebrated by a Pindaric ode, and naturally Pindar's patrons were for the most part princes or men of wealth. None but men of Greek blood could take part in these Greek games, and the princes of Sicily and Cyrene seem to have been particularly eager to bind more firmly and openly the tie which bound them to their kinsmen in Greece by taking part in the contests at least by proxy, sending a saddle horse or a chariot and four horses to contend in the races. Thus Hiero of Syracuse, who was a patron of literature and drew to his court also Aeschylus and Simonides, Thero of Agrigentum, and Arcesilaus of Cyrene called the "Theban eagle" to celebrate their victories, and by his songs he built for them "monuments more enduring than brass."