Pindar in English Verse (Way 1922)/Introduction

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Though it is quite possible, and indeed probable, that the Epinician Odes do not represent Pindar's highest achievement in the realm of pure poetry, the student of history has every reason to be thankful that, of all his works, it is these that have escaped the ruin that has overtaken the rest. For they furnish us, perhaps more fully and more convincingly than any other remains of antiquity, with a solution of a problem which has troubled historians. Some of these have exclaimed against what they consider the narrow, short-sighted, parochial spirit of the Greeks generally, in failing to see that their material prosperity, their safety and true independence would be best secured, if not by frankly enrolling themselves under the hegemony of one strong state (preferably Athens), at least by a close federation as binding on each member as that of the United States of America. Still more writers have denounced what they consider the unpatriotic selfishness of the aristocratical party in the several states, their unscrupulous plottings and alliances with the enemies of their respective cities, and, when they gained the upper hand, their ruthless treatment of the democracies.

Does not Pindar furnish us with the key to this jealous isolation, by showing us how each city cherished a belief in its divine origin, how the first parent of each state, or its founder, was a divine being, whose very name it perpetuated—for in Pindar the name of the goddess-founder and that of the state are interchangeable—Thebe, Aegina, Cyrene; or how its founders were demigods who settled there in obedience to divine commands? To subordinate this heavenly guardianship to other powers might well seem sacrilege. And the tradition of the sacredness of an independence thus hallowed, when once established, might well survive the age of unquestioning faith.

For the families of the aristocracy, to whom a thousand memories called far more powerfully and insistently than to any other order of nobility in the world's history, there were incentives to political exclusiveness whose cogency we cannot appreciate unless we take the Olympian hierarchy as seriously as Pindar did. The chronique scandaleuse of Olympus, which shocked Plato, inspired Pindar. While repudiating belief in anything derogatory to the Gods, he does not consider their amours with mortal women (or even their pæderasty) in that light. The men whose praises he sang had in their veins the blood of Gods: their human ancestors were half divine, and their achievements were worthy of their high descent. The sons of the great houses whose lineage was from Herakles, Aeacus, Perseus, counted themselves of different clay from the common herd: they recognised in their hearts that they owed no duty to a democratic constitution: they never ceased to chafe under the yoke of equality with beings whom they held scarce fit to be their servants, and to intrigue against a system which placed their personal liberty at the mercy of the caprice of the "base," and allowed their wealth to be exploited for purposes with which they had no sympathy. No wonder that they accepted with complacency the poet's digressions into the old heroic myths that to us are but fairy tales: for them these were unassailable fact. Their records in song were the charter of their superiority to the world around them, of their right divine to govern their fellow-men.

It must also be remembered that these high-born men were superior to the lower classes not only in pride of lineage, but they bore about with them the witness to this in their bodily development. The aristocrat was a stronger man, and far more skilled in the use of that strength for personal encounters than the average democrat. He was a man of leisure, and we may say that practically all such men made it their aim, their daily practice, to perfect their physical condition in the gymnasiums which were in every town. In many states, perhaps in all which belonged to the Peloponnesian League, a small organized body of aristocrats kept the far more numerous commonalty in subjection, solely by their fighting superiority.[1] We must not lose sight of the transcendent importance of bodily vigour in an age when all fighting was hand-to-hand, and where the numbers on each side were so small that a few abnormally strong men might, by breaking the enemies' line, decide the issue. Each successful champion in the great athletic contests means a large number of men who went through a course of training in which they were wrought up to the highest pitch of perfection not only of muscular development, but also of pluck and endurance.

Among reasons which have been assigned for the discursiveness of these triumphal odes, in which a very small space is given to the victor, and none to the details of the contest, perhaps the most important was this: excessive praise was universally regarded as mischievous to its objects, as tending directly to provoke the jealousy of the Gods, and to invite their nemesis. In the mouth of an enemy it was malicious, tactless in that of a friend. Hence the praise in an ode was distributed widely: the bard celebrated the champion, his family, former victors, the city or island of his birth, his ancestors, the ancient heroes of the land, so that the φθόνος might fall heavily on none, especially as all success was ascribed to the Gods, to whom the competitors sacrificed before engaging in the contest. A religious halo surrounded the Great Games. "Not unto us" is the burden of more than one ode, in which success is expressly attributed to the help of a God, as Poseidon, and often to the Graces.

A feature of the Games which strikes us moderns unpleasantly is the absence among the Greeks of what we call the sporting spirit. While no praise was too high, no reward too splendid for the victor, his unsuccessful competitors neither expected nor obtained any sympathy even from their fellow-townsmen. Even the victor was sometimes assailed by envious disparagement, especially where a state was rent by political factions; while the vanquished had to hide his head from the storm of derision which greeted his failure.

  1. Cf. the speech of Brasidas to his soldiers: 'You are not to be cowed by any numerical superiority of your foes, since you do not come from states in which such a lesson is learnt. You come from those in which the masses do not lord it over the select few, but where the minority rule the majority—a supremacy which they acquired by nothing save fighting superiority.'—Thucydides, IV, 126.