Pindar and Anacreon/Pindar/Biographical Sketch

Pindar and Anacreon : Pindar  (1846)  by Pindar, translated by C. A. Wheelwright
Biographical Sketch of Pindar




Pindar was a native of Thebes in Bœotia, or, as some authors, among whom is the geographical writer Stephanus Byzantinus, affirm, of the town of Cynocephali, which was under the Theban jurisdiction. He was the son of the musician Scopelinus, or, according to Suidas, of Deiphantus and Myrto: his birth is stated by the same author to have taken place in the sixty-fifth Olympiad, corresponding nearly with the year 520, A.C. His parents were probably of obscure situations in life, although of illustrious descent; as he asserts in his fifth Pythian ode that they were of the same origin with Arcesilaus, king of Cyrene. It is said of Pindar when verging to manhood, that a presage of his future lyrical eminence was drawn from the circumstance of a swarm of bees having settled on his lips. For his early skill in musical and poetical composition he is said to have been chiefly indebted to the instructions of Corinna; against whom, however, when a competitor for the prize, it was his fate to be adjudged inferior in no fewer than five contests: but this perhaps is as much to be attributed to the personal charms of his fair rival as to her poetical superiority; since in the other Grecian assemblies, which did not allow of female competitors, he was almost invariably declared victorious. He also received instruction from Simonides of Ceos, at that time the most celebrated lyric poet in Greece. He was contemporary with Æschylus, and senior to Bacchylides, having flourished one hundred and fifty years later than Alcman, one hundred after Alcæus, and fifty after Stesichorus, and surpassed them all in lyrical excellence. Of his numerous compositions, consisting of hymns in honour of the gods, pæans to Apollo, dithyrambics to Bacchus, funeral songs, and odes to the victors at the four great festivals of Greece, the latter only have been preserved to us, with the exception of some considerable fragments, one especially of great poetical beauty on the solar eclipse, cited by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and the opening verses of a fine dithyrambic hymn.

One slight effort of Pindar's juvenile muse has also escaped the ravages of time, but not sufficiently considerable to have served, like Pope's Ode on Solitude, or Cowley's Constantia and Philetus, as a presage of that future excellence which placed him, when he had attained his fortieth year, in the first rank of the lyric poets of Greece.

The encomiums which our poet often lavishes on the wealthy have sometimes been mentioned as a subject of reproach; but if Pindar's chaste and decorous muse delighted to panegyrize kings, demi-gods, and heroes, in common with the poets of his time, we shall not be able to find throughout his odes any instance of vice in high station flattered, or prosperous wickedness enriched by the golden dews of poetical adulation. In the sincere and judicious advice which he fearlessly bestows on Micro or Arcesilaus, the reader will be reminded of our own Chaucer, who, in the independent spirit of true genius, concludes his "Ballade sent to King Richard" by this grave admonition to the reigning monarch:—

"Prince, desire to be honourable,
Cherish thy folk, and hate extortion," &c.

It is to the bold and animated language of the Theban bard that we are in a great measure indebted for the feeling and interest that accompany the contemplation of those magnificent festivals which, being interwoven with the structure of the popular religion, hailed by the hopes of the religious and the aspirations of the devout, have no parallel in the history of modern solemnities.

His hymns and pæans in honour of Apollo were frequently chanted in the temples of Greece by the poet, seated in his iron chair, which was afterward placed as a venerable relic in the temple at Delphi; and the priestess herself declared it to be the will of the presiding deity that Pindar should be rewarded with one half of the first fruits which were offered at his shrine.[1]

We are not acquainted with many particulars of his early life, but may collect from the accounts of various authors that the character of the living bard was held in the highest degree of estimation, especially by King Hiero, and his memory after death contemplated with the deepest reverence. It is related of him that he had a particular devotion for the god Pan, and therefore took up his abode near the temple of that deity. He was appointed to compose the hymns which were sung by the Theban virgins in honour of that mystic emblem of universal nature. It also appears from Pyth. iii., 139, that near the dwelling of Pindar stood a shrine or chapel dedicated to the great goddess Rhea, where the nymphs were wont to assemble at the close of day for the purpose of performing their vows to her and to Pan. We further learn from Aristodemus, quoted by the scholiast on this passage, that Pindar himself raised this shrine to the venerable Mother of the Gods. He likewise cites a fragment of an ode or choral hymn addressed to Pan by our poet, invoking that deity, as president of Arcadia, and companion of the nymphs in their dances, to smile propitiously on his songs. Indeed, the piety of the Theban bard is everywhere conspicuous, and worthy of admiration. It is related by Plutarch, in his Life of Alexander, that when, after a most determined and vigorous defence, the city of Thebes was levelled to the ground by that conqueror, the posterity of Pindar were exempted from the hard fate which attended his captive fellow-townsmen.

The same honour had on a former occasion been paid to the habitation of his descendants by the Lacedæmonians; and Pausanias, the Grecian traveller, relates that he had seen the ruins of this house near the fountain Dirce.

The manner of Pindar's death has been variously related by different authors. Pausanias gravely records as authentic the traditionary tale, that while our poet was living in the height of honour and glory, Proserpine appeared to him in a dream, and complained that she alone of all the deities had been neglected in his poems: this defect he promised to supply as soon as he should arrive in the kingdom of Pluto, when he would consecrate a hymn to her honour; and that he died either in the theatre or the gymnasium on the tenth day after his dream.

Another account, by Valerius Maximus, (b. ix., c. 12,) is so far removed from all recorded instances of the departure of illustrious men from the world, as naturally to excite the skepticism of the reader—although it is mentioned by that author as a sign of the favourable regard of the gods, no less than the excellence of his poetic faculty. This event is said to have taken place when the poet had attained the advanced age of eighty-six years. A monument was erected to his memory in the hippodrome at Thebes, near the Prostæan Gate, at the distance of a furlong from the city, and an inscription engraved on it, recording his candid and agreeable manners both to his fellow-townsmen and to strangers.

The reader will perhaps not be displeased if to this short biographical sketch is added, from Heyne's excellent edition, a life of Pindar digested according to the order of years, together with a notice of the victors who are celebrated in his odes.

Olymp. 65,1, A.C. 520, Pindar born.

[Suidas says that he was forty years of age at the battle of Salamis, which account agrees with this.]

Æt. Olymp. Pyth. A.C.
22 70,3 22 498 Hippocleas victor—Pyth. x.
30 72,3 24 490 Xenocrates—Pyth. vi.
Battle of Marathon.
In the same, or in the 25th Pythiad, Midas gains the prize on the flute—Pyth. xii.
32 73,1 488 Epharmostus—Ol. ix.
36 74,1 484 Agesidamus—Ol. x. and xi.
40 75,1 480 Battle of Salamis.
42 75,3 27 478 Hiero conquers in racing—Pyth. iii.
44 76,1 476 Asopichus—Ol. xiv.
46 76,3 28 474 Megacles—Pyth. vii.—Telesicrates—Pyth. ix.
48 77,1 472 Theron—Ol. ii. and Ergoteles—Ol. xii.
50 77,3 29 470 Hiero in the chariot race—Pyth. i.
54 78,3 30 466 Telesicrates—Pyth. ix.
56 79,1 464 Xenophon in the stadic course—Ol. xiii.
58 79,3 31 462 Arcesilaus—Pyth. iv. and v.
60 80,1 460 Alcimedon—Ol. viii.
66 81,3 33 454 Thrasydæus—Pyth. xi.
68 82,1 452 Psaumis—Ol. iv. and v.
74 83,3 35 446 Aristomenes—Pyth. viii.

This, according to Corsini, (Fast. Att.) is the year of Pindar's death, which however is by different authors assigned to various years between the 79th and 87th Olympiad.[2]

  1. See the note on the tenth Olympic ode, line 61.
  2. The various themes on which his prolific muse was employed are thus enumerated by Horace, in his ode beginning "Pindarum quisquis," &c.; which it may not displease the English reader to peruse in the paraphrase of our excellent Cowley:—
    "Whether th' immortal gods he sings
    In a no less immortal strain,
    Or the great acts of god-descended kings,
    Who in his numbers still survive and reign;
    Whether in Pisa's race he please
    To carve in polish'd verse the conqueror's images;
    Whether some brave man's untimely fate
    In words worth dying for he celebrate;
    Such mournful and such pleasing words,
    As joy to his mother's and his mistress' grief affords."