Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.03.34

Anne Pippin Burnett, Pindar. Ancients in Action.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2008.  Pp. 175.  ISBN 9781853997112.  $23.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Maria Pavlou, University of Cyprus (

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

Burnett's new book on Pindar is a welcome addition to the Duckworth Ancients in Action series, the aim of which is 'to introduce major figures of the ancient world to the modern general reader, including the essentials of each subject's life, works, and significance for later western civilisation'. The book includes an Introduction and Conclusion, four chapters, a shortish Bibliography and an Index.

The Introduction opens with a biographical note on Pindar's life and oeuvre, followed by a brief sketch of his reception in antiquity and, especially, in modern times, and a tiny list of thorny issues which have troubled students of Pindar within the last century such as his elitism, and the unity and performance (choral or monodic) of his odes [Needless to say that Burnett, and Chris Carey, have been the...χορηγοί of the so called 'choral group']. Even having regard to the restrictions imposed by the book's purpose, as an introductory handbook for novices, this section is extremely compressed and, most importantly, marginalizes dominant current trends in Pindaric scholarship (e.g. re-performance, new historicism etc). In my view, a more extensive and informative treatment of Pindaric criticism, as well as a short section on the epinician genre, its forms and conventions, would have been expedient here.

Chapter 1 opens with an overview of the festivities held for victorious athletes upon their return to their homeland. Burnett prefers to see these celebrations as closed and private gatherings among members of the elite rather than as banquets open to the whole city (21), in spite of the fact that scattered evidence in the Epinicians testifies to both contexts (see e.g. Ol.13.49). She underlines the social and political dimensions and implications of athletic distinction in the crown-bearing Panhellenic games for the victor and his family; and she does not omit the importance of praise song for the preservation of one's name and κλέος. As she remarks, the victory song was 'an act of genial reciprocity. On behalf of victorious hosts, it offered to share the gods' gift of κῦδος with equals and friends, and through them with the whole locality, while on behalf of those who received it, the ode voiced the praise that would repay such an exalted benefaction' (20-21). The chapter closes with an inspection of Pindar's poetic arsenal and briefly discusses some of the epinician conventions and Pindaric techniques, such as the pretence of spontaneity, speech-acts, opening invocations to gods, prayers, proverbial wisdom, reminders of immortality and fragmentary mythical episodes. All this, Burnett emphasizes, served to turn each performance into a unique experience both for the victor and the celebrants.

The second chapter focuses on epinicians composed for boy victors. It opens with a brief note on the boys' education, supervised training and participation in institutionalized contest sports, while special mention is made of the four trainers that we come across in the Epinicians: Orseas (Isthm.3/4), Ilas (Ol.10), Menander (Nem.5) and Melesias (Ol.8). Nevertheless, Burnett is reticent about the complexities and problematic nature of references to these professionals, a topic which has been extensively dealt with by Nigel Nicholson in a recent book - surprisingly not included in the bibliography.1 Burnett classifies 16 of the 45 epinicians as odes for victors between 12 and 18; and she assumes that all Aeginetan odes are for boy athletes, a contested thesis which she put forward more rigorously in her 2005 book Pindar's Songs for Young Athletes of Aegina. As she observes, songs for boys share many features with songs for men in terms of scale, form and function (39). At the same time, however, they display some distinctive features such as: a) invocations to female deities/powers; b) adjectives describing youth; c) a playful air of juvenility indulging in child-like exaggeration; d) references to trainers (40). Even though Burnett fleetingly admits that in the odes for boys the implication of the victor's entire familial line is more apparent (47), she makes no further comment on the unequivocally more prominent role that family, and especially the victor's father, plays in this group of odes.

Chapter 3 opens with a sketch of the four crown-bearing games at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea and Isthmus, laying particular emphasis upon the ability of festival contests to control and temper raw violence and aggression immanent in many sports - especially combat sports. Burnett briefly discusses how this 'civilizing aspect of victory' is played out in the Pindaric myths by looking closely at Pyth.9 and Ol.9. According to her, one of the features which distinguish poems for men from poems for boys is the notion of envy, in so far as athletic distinction of a well-known mature athlete is more liable to evoke the envy of his peers, even the envy of gods. Ol.7 for Diagoras of Rhodes is offered as an apt example of Pindar's attempt to respond to this challenge with gnomes and references to the contingency and vicissitudes of human life sprinkled throughout the poem (81-88). The rest of the chapter deals with equestrian events, showy elitist sports accessible only to the powerful and rich. Burnett declares that 'equestrian events were less meaningful than the trials' (88) - a controversial thesis if we consider the prestige of such events, as well as the significance which powerful rulers laid upon their equestrian achievements - and underlines their political dimension. Based on the fact that out of the six odes celebrating equestrian victories of ordinary citizens (Ol.4; Ol.5; Ol.6; Pyth.7; Isthm.1; Isthm.3) only two (Ol.6 and Isthm.1) are on a grand scale, she contends that non-rulers usually chose to celebrate their winning horses, mule-carts and chariots with a certain reserve in order to prevent any suspicion of tyrannical aspirations. (90).

In the final chapter Burnett discusses the odes for the tyrants of Sicily, Theron, Hieron and his general Chromius, as well as the two Pythians which Pindar composed for Arcesilas, king of Cyrene. As she points out, these celebrations differed from those of ordinary athletes both in terms of form (guests were greater in numbers and the choruses more numerous (104)) and function (here the song is not offered to the victor's peers 'to be shared as their due' (104)). In terms of themes and structure, for Burnett there are two main traits which distinguish the odes for rulers: a) that they did not 'reflect the same joyous exchange of glory given and praise returned that regularly enlivened songs made for athletes of the mainland' (104); b) that they 'were less prodigal in leveling maxims and self-deprecating jokes; they still pretended to spontaneity, but generally they give up the trade-mark suggestion of error' (105). In the analysis of the 10 odes, which occupies most of this chapter, Burnett also identifies differences in the way in which Pindar approaches and treats each of these rulers: for instance, she notes that in the odes for Hieron the praise is 'more urgent and purposeful' because 'the ruler and his court recognized the bitter possibility of civic dissatisfaction' (117), while in the more genial court of Theron the praise has a different tone and flavor (106-117).

The book closes with a few general remarks on commissioned poetry, the notions of envy and praise, the importance of Pindar's song in the preservation of one's name and good reputation, as well as with a note on the way in which aristocracy is portrayed and presented in the epinicians.

Burnett's book is readable and accessible to the general reader. Her clear and elegant style, however, is blemished by the way in which she organizes and structures her material. Whereas the chapters encompass a wide range of issues, many of these are not fully developed, while other themes are scattered throughout the book, thus making it difficult for the reader with no previous experience in the area to form a comprehensive and relatively coherent idea of Pindar's style, and the rhetoric, form and function of his encomiastic poetry. Although many samples of Pindar's work are included, their brief and superficial treatment, although informative, does not manage to communicate their force, vehemence and kaleidoscopic nature. It would have been preferable if Burnett had included fewer poems followed by more comprehensive and detailed analyses that would enable the reader to grasp their complexity, richness, density and dexterity. Moreover, even though the book targets the 'general reader', I would expect that at least some key terms which point to recurring themes in the epinicians (such as φυά, ποικιλία, σοφία, ἡσυχία) would be given in Greek as well. There are only 10 Greek transliterated words throughout the book, all found in the Conclusion. Last but not least, I appreciate that in an introductory handbook bibliography cannot and should not be extensive and exhaustive; but the bibliography is deficient. Important and thought-provoking recent books on Pindar are conspicuously absent.2 The aforementioned objections aside, however, this book provides a good introduction to Pindar for undergraduate neophytes and the general reader. Whereas it offers only a few new insights to readers familiar with Pindar, Burnett's idea of classifying the odes into the three aforementioned categories and the identification of the differences among them in terms of function and style can be potentially fruitful and contribute to a better understanding of Pindar's victory songs, inviting us to think and reflect more carefully on pragmatics and the codes that Pindar uses in order to convey his meaning successfully.

Table of Contents

Introduction 9

Chapter 1: Praising a Victorious Athlete 16

Chapter 2: Celebrations for Boys (Pyth.10; Nem.7; Isthm.8 Nem.3; Nem.8) 34

Chapter 3: Celebrations for Men (Pyth.9; Ol.9; Ol.7; Isthm.1; Ol.6) 69

Chapter 4: Celebrations for Rulers (Ol.3; Ol.2; Pyth.6; Ol.1; Pyth.1; Pyth.2; Pyth.3; Nem.1; Pyth.5; Pyth.4) 101

Conclusion 161

Select Bibliography 167

Notes 169

Index 173


1.   N. J. Nicholson, Aristocracy and Athletics in Archaic and Classical Greece (Cambridge 2005).
2.   See, e.g., B. Currie, Pindar and the Cult of Heroes (Oxford 2005); C. Mann, Athlet und Polis im archaischen und frühklassischen Griechenland (Göttingen 2001); A. D. Morrison, Performances and Audiences in Pindar's Sicilian Odes, BICS Supplement 95 (London 2007); Nicholson (n.1).

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