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Have you ever ventured into the Octagon, which used to be the Queen Mary library, for meetings or lectures and has your eye started wandering around the room? In doing so your gaze may have rested on the gold plated names etched in the base of the dome. These are the names of eight Greek and Roman philosophers and poets that lived in the ancient world, whose works are still read today. This week the focus is on Pindar. A series by Special Collections Information Assistant Anne Marie McHarg.

Title Page of Carmina, cum versione latina

Title page of Carmina, cum versione latina/ et notis a Chr. Gottl. Heyne (1815) [Ref. PA4274.A2 PIN]

Pindar lived c 518-438 BC. He was one of the best known ancient Greek choral lyric poets of high rank and had a special importance in Greek Literature.

Around the time of the 65th Olympiad Pindar was born in Cynoscephalae, a small village near Boeotia, not far from Thebes, and Thebes was itself his home. He was born into an aristocratic family, his parents were Daiphantus and Cleodice.

There is an ancient story that surrounds his name concerning a swarm of bees: it was said, when he was young boy, he was stung on the mouth by bees building their honeycomb upon his lips while he slept. It was believed that this was the reason he became a poet of honey-like verse.

In his early youth he travelled to Athens to further his studies. By the age of twenty in 497 BCE, Pindar had won first prize in the dithyrambic competition (a dithyramb is a choral song in honour of Dionysus) at the Dionysia. After the boost of winning this competition, he was given a commission by the ruling family in Thessaly, to compose his first victory ode, Pythian 10. In the ode’s opening line, he mentions Lakedaimon, the capital of the city state of Laconia, and another name for Sparta, an adversary of Pindar’s home of Thebes.

Blessed is Lakedaimon,

happy Thessaly. Both have kings of one line

from Herakles, best in battle

Greco-Persian Wars

During the early to middle years of Pindar’s life the first of the Greco-Persian wars began, during the reigns of Darius the Great and Xerxes, which ended with the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Later, when Xerxes seized control of Thebes and the surrounding area the citizens loyalties were divided. The city of Boeotia sided with the pro-Persian policy while Athens and Sparta resisted. Many of the Theban inhabitants, perished in the Battle of Plataea. Even though Pindar’s loyalties were to his beloved Thebes, he admired the Athenian resistance, and he gave praise to the city of Athens. This of course did not go down well with his own people and would not be forgotten or forgiven too quickly, which would leave a bitter note on his reputation. 

We know that Pindar attended the Pythian Games in 490BC. While at the games he met the Sicilian Prince, Thrasybulus, nephew of the kings Theron of Acragus and Hieron of Syracuse, both of whom appreciated Pindar’s odes, and his reputation soared. It was with Prince Thrasybulus that a long-lasting friendship emerged and not long after that he spent two years in Sicily from 476-474 BC.

Victory Odes & Works

Pindar was best known throughout Greece for his Victory odes, which are ceremonious poems. In all his poems Pindar used the triadic structure attributed to the Greek poet Stesichorus, from whose name we get the word chorus, consisting of a strophe made of two or more lines repeated as a unit. This is then followed by a metrically harmonious antistrophe, concluding with a summary line called an epode in a different metre. There are three parts corresponding to the movement of the chorus from one side of the stage to the other and their pause mid-stage to deliver the epode.

The below example is from The First Olympionique of Pindar. To Hiero of Syracuse, victories in the Horse race.


Each element to the water yields:

And gold, like blazing fire by night,

Amidst the stores of wealth that builds

The mind aloft, is eminently bright; [….]


The lov’d Syracusan, the prince of the course,

The king who delights in the speed of the horse:

Great his glory, great his fame,

Throughout the land where Lydian Pelops came

To plant his men, a chosen race,

A land the ocean does embrace, [….]

Translation from The Oxford Book of Classical Verse In Translation.

Poetic Influence

Pindar has influenced the western world with his poetry since the publication of two significant books: firstly, four volumes of Pindar’s works by the Italian scholar Aldus Manutius in 1513. Secondly Pierre de Ronsard’s four books of French odes in 1550, written in the long, difficult style of Pindar’s odes. This opened the doors to the English writers and poets also imitating Pindar’s style, such as Thomas Grey with The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, and Abraham Cowley’s Pindarque Odes in 1656, which introduced a looser version known as Pindarics.

Some of the best known and loved odes in our English language are John Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast, William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, Percy Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, Alfred Tennyson’s Ode on the Death of Duke of Wellington, and John Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn.

Death and postmortem

He died at the age of eighty on the island of Argos around 448/7 BCE.  After his death he would be acknowledged as one of the foremost proponents of lyric poetry. A story was told that ten days before Pindar died, the goddess Persephone appeared to him and complained that she, Persephone, was the only divinity to whom he never composed a hymn or ode, so she informed that he would come to her soon and compose one then. There is another version that one of Pindar’s female relatives claimed that he dictated some verses to her in honour of Persephone after he had been dead for several days. I will leave you, dear reader, to ponder which version could be true.

It was said Alexander the Great refused to destroy Pindar's home in Thebes while his Macedonians sacked the city - the house must be left intact out of gratitude for verses praising his ancestor Alexander I of Macedon. After this Pindar’s house became a landmark in the city of Thebes for those who wanted to pay homage to him.

Books in our collection

Olympia, Pythia, Nemea, Isthmia : Adiuncta est interpretatio Latina ad verbum, cum indicibus necessariis

Pindari carmina et fragmenta : cum lectionis varietate et annotationibus

Every Friday our Special Collections librarian Anne-Marie will be introducing you to each of the writers featured in the Octagon in this blog series.



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