BMCR 1996.02.03

1996.2.3, Willcock, Pindar Victory Odes

, , Victory odes : Olympians 2, 7, 11 ; Nemean 4 ; Isthmians 3, 4, 7. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. viii, 181 pages ; 19 cm.. ISBN 9780521430555. $19.95.

Willcock (hereafter W) does not say for whom this book is destined, but one deduces that it is for “beginners.” There are 111 pages of commentary for 450 lines of Teubner Pindar, about 4 lines per page of comment in large type. Commentary on Pindar is very much a matter of judgement by the writer as to what is suitable for the intended reader. W has not in the past contributed notably to research on Pindar, but since he cites in his bibliography the helpful surveys by D. Gerber, it is to be assumed that he has an overview of the literature, even when not cited.

The book begins with an introduction of 26 pages, divided into 10 sections: Greek Lyric Poetry; Pindar’s Life; games; victors; genre; Pindar’s thought; Pindar’s style; language; metre; and the text and scholia. The text of the selected poems follows. It differs from the Teubner text in about 28 places. The apparatus also differs from the Teubner, according in my view too much importance to readings of byzantine scholars: the variants are listed on p. 29. There are two appendices, one on the triple division of Rhodes, and the second on the fragments of the dirges dealing with the afterlife. A brief and idiosyncratic bibliography of four pages and an index of general terms and Greek words close the volume. No price is indicated, but the paperback is within the reach of students.

The introduction is necessarily brief, and suitable for the beginner. W seems (p.14) to opt for choral singing, with some odes being solo. But the section on Pindar’s thought is deficient at least in part because of W’s lack of familiarity with the genre, and this shows in the commentary; see below. However, W is generally with the moderns, and concludes nicely “that the odes have regained a feeling of unity of composition which they were in danger of losing when it was thought that Pindar habitually introduced his own concerns when he felt like it.”

Most will wonder why W chose these poems to introduce beginners to Pindar. He gives his reasons on p. vii. “The forty five surviving victory odes of Pindar may for convenience be divided into categories: (a) short poems… (b) those composed for victors from the island of Aegina, (c) those for the tyrants of Syracuse and Akragas, and the king of Cyrene, (d) other show pieces… (e) others…” He adds reasonably: “it is sensible to begin with the more straightforward poems and progress toward the more complex.” This means, he argues, avoiding the “now discredited” biographical order, or starting with the first Olympian or Pythian. The order of difficulty is thus established as: Ol. 11; I. 7; I. 4; I. 3 in that order!; N. 4; Ol. 7; Ol. 2.

I doubt if this will convince many. The divisions are clearly arbitrary, and a short poem is not self-evidently easier than a long poem. Ol. 11 is said to be the most obvious example of a poem composed for the immediate victory, since we “possess the full length O. 10, explicitly sent later.” That is simply not true, but since we do not have Ol. 10 here, discussion is eliminated. In fact, Ol.11+10 plunge us into the “encomiastic future” and into the relation between poem and performance. W agrees with Bundy that Ol. 11 does not promise O. 10, but while he writes in his introduction to the poem that Ol. 11 is “the most secure example” of a poem “being produced on the spot, at the games, rather than for future performance …”, yet he comments on line 16: “sunkomaxate“: “An address to the Muses … invites them to share the celebration when Hagesidamos returns home. For the komos, see Heath; Pindar uses the term for the public celebration of the victory after the victor has returned home, at which his ode was regularly performed by a choir.” This is confused, and nothing here merits such certainty: we remember that two, three and even more poems were commissioned for victory celebrations. The argument is circular, designed to defend the hypothesis without discussion. In fact, unless I have missed something, the imperative” “komaxate” has been held by everyone from the scholiasts to Bundy to be addressed to Muses, but largely on the basis of an emendation rejected here, and the scholiast’s paraphrase and a non-parallel in N. 9.1. In fact it should be taken as the idiomatic Selbstanrede typical of choruses; it does not refer to the future; the komos is the present one, and so we need not refer the imperative to the Muses or to Olympia (or I. 7.20 to Thebe; contrast the note on N. 4.36 and the muddle at Ol. 7.92). We have in fact no idea what the relationship is between the two poems. Not therefore the easiest of poems, and I wonder why W includes I. 3 and 4 together, a notorious and insoluble conjunction? The encomiastic future gets five lines on p. 22 of the introduction; self-address gets no mention; discussion of Bergk’s unnecessary and rejected emendation in Ol. 11.17 gets 23 lines. This is perhaps not the balance a beginner wants; on the other hand a glance at the alternative commentary on Ol. 11 (Verdenius [1988], listed in the apparatus but perhaps justifiably ignored) immediately demonstrates the superior common sense of W.

Indeed, on most major issues, W is sensible and middle of the road, suitably tentative about thorny issues and not dogmatic on questions where caution is warranted. He has little time for biography, and speculation about possible historical events is muted. “We do not know the circumstances, but it might be speculated …” is a typical remark (p. 71.) The “I” problem gets short shrift: “The most convincing answer, at least for this passage, is that it is the voice of Pindar, but not Pindar the private citizen, rather Pindar the public mouthpiece of the Muse …” Fair enough for beginners: but does this apparently pragmatic answer actually mean anything? Who is speaking? Where is the chorus? Who do the audience understand to be the author? But the beginner perhaps need not bother with an issue where professionals still stumble, and that is true for most major problems; it is the right approach here.

But the sensible approach may of course simply bypass issues, that ought to be raised if not answered. The myth of Nemean 4 is treated straightforwardly as a patriotic narrative about the Aiakidai. There is no speculation about further implications, or indication that anyone else has suggested them. The relation of myth to the historical reality of the poem is a central issue in Pindaric studies, as e.g. the unending discussion of P. 4 demonstrates, and not one to be bypassed. Each poem requires its own answer as W realizes (p.13: “there is always some relevance even if we cannot assess it for sure.”). W has been too ready to skirt this particular issue in his book. The first part of the myth tells of the help of Herakles for Telamon, “for one good turn deserves another.” So: a Theban (Pindar) helps an Aeginetan (Timasarchus). “Only someone without experience of contest could fail to understand the point” remarks Pindar. After a break, we return to the rest of the Aiakidai, focussing on the glorious reward of Peleus for successful battle, which demonstrated that rewards and success were inherent in the family of the Aiakidai. The Theandridai are parallel. This is scarcely profound, but certainly a point that other scholars have found to be worth making; in fact N. 4 was a prime example for Kohnken in his appropriately named “The Function of the Myth in Pindar,” and would have been a good model here.

This leads to Ol. 7, which gives W a chance to demonstrate the complex concentric ring composition of the poem and the myth; he dwells on the “clustering of verbal repetitions.” He even quotes Wilamowitz, without translation: “ bleibt kuehl; das Herz des Dichters ist unbeteiligt.” This sudden burst of aesthetics is all very well, and will please the more atmospheric critics; but one hopes the wary student will ask why Pindar tells three myths which “tell of an act which seemed harmful at the time, but led to good in the end.” W says no more, and seeks no explanation. Diagoras and his family were athletically and politically hyperactive, for which they paid with exile and worse, and the greatest poet of the Greek world thought it appropriate to compose for them an Olympian ode with three myths, all about “losers” who did somewhat better in the end than they deserved. Does anyone think that Diagoras of Ialysos really commissioned Pindar to tell him for its own sake or as an “ornament” a cut-off aetiology about fireless sacrifices at Lindos? No answer; certainly as W writes earlier of a different problem: “… the uncertainty affects only us. The audience at the time knew perfectly well…” Yes they did; we do not; but that is no reason not to hear the question, and every reason to raise it, and to contemplate how much we do not know. “Do not conceal the common seed of Kallianax,” is Pindar’s summary: we do not know who he is, or who they were, though we can be sure that the imperative is not addressed to either Zeus or Diagoras, as W thinks. But just as the audience knew very well who Kallianax was, is it not legitimate to conclude that they could grasp why it was important for Pindar to tell his three myths. Or do we just admire the myths and their structure, imagery, and so on and go on our way rejoicing?

On the actual context of the poem, W can sound like Bowra: “we may deduce that Pindar is urging Diagoras … to accept his position in the state and trust to his popularity with the people.” One hopes he did not listen; this family of oversized boxers and bruisers was exterminated by democrats, arguably in a preemptive strike. Ol. 7 seems to me to raise in an unavoidable way the question of how much we do not know, and I do not think we know enough to understand this poem. It is a reaction to historical circumstances, most immediately an Olympic victory, a series of arguments for and against, before an involved audience. At one time scholars filled the gaps in our knowledge with inventive assertions; those are discredited. But it is an abiding subterfuge to pretend that what we do not know, we do not to need to know, or to adopt its complacent corollary, that the poet tells us everything we need to know for the comprehension of the poem. We have at least to be aware what is missing, or as Sterling Dow once pungently put it: it is what is not on the stone that is important. David Young once remarked to me that the less one knew about Pindar the easier it was to write about his poems. The danger of the antique line-by-line commentary is that commentator can become a philological katobleps, snuffling along from word to word, unable to see beyond what is on the page. In Pindar, as often, learning to ask the right questions is the most difficult lesson. All the poetic unity of structure and integrated imagery that hardworking scholars have discovered will not make our ignorance disappear.

If one chooses to discuss Ol. 7, then this was worth discussing too. Much the same of course is true for O. 2, where three stories of Bad fortune partially mitigated by eventual Good are told. This time W comments: “Whether Theron himself had suffered dangers and misfortunes, as we might wish to deduce from the examples and the powerful moralizing comments, is not made explicit, but likely enough.” “If these (political) troubles were in Pindar’s mind, he hides them in generalities.” “It is wrong in principle to search the odes for hints and allusions, cross referencing to such historical information as we happen to possess” (though one notes that the same delicacy is suppressed when hunting for the language of mysteries pp. 153-4, 161). W. therefore invokes, but not by name, the dark foil of the vicissitude topos: “victory in the games compensates for any troubles or unhappiness that have gone before.” Dark foil there certainly is in Pindar; but perhaps it is not so wrong and unprincipled to search for its significance. If Pindar did “hide” his meaning, and did not make it “explicit,” that is not a justification for us to pass by on the other side, and admire the verbal flowers in the garden; just possibly what he did not want to make explicit was the most important thing he had to say. On the other hand, several pages are devoted to a sensible discussion of the Pythagorean doctrines mentioned, with the conclusion that we scarcely know enough.

Here and there W. convicts himself of unfamiliarity with the conventional language and thought of Pindar. I give only two examples, where he has underestimated his author badly in matters of moment. “Ta kala” are not in Pindar the “good things in life” (p.59, and contrast 16) but the high principles that victors and their kind espouse (see Gerber on Ol.1.104); without a knowledge of these a man will not undertake great tasks. Ol. 2.51 he finds “the most outrageously difficult sentence in all the epinician odes.” That is because he has not found the parallels and adopts the wrong reading. He cannot believe that Pindar says that success releases the victor from “aphrosyne” and wants “dysphronan“—”gloomy thoughts.” He rejects the direct parallels in Solon/Theognis, and fails to follow the thought pattern in the next lines. But parallels in Pindar are seldom purely verbal, and are not to be found by lexical search; they are parallels of thought. Since the failure to adduce proper parallels is a continuing feature even of lengthy commentaries (Cf. by contrast David Young’s Euripidean parallels at Three Odes, 14ff), I set this out here. The man who aims for athletic glory runs the risk of being considered a fool, especially if he fails. But if his heroic “elpis” (which Pindar goes on to talk about here as “merimna” and cf. Dem. 18.97) is justified and he succeeds, he will be considered sophos and euboulos in retrospect. He will thus be freed from the accusation of folly by his success. This is not only a Pindaric notion: it is general in the ancient world. The nurse in Eur. Hipp. 700 (nothing in Barrett) argues that if she had been successful she would be considered wise; cf. fr. 1017; Heracl, 745 with Wilkins’ comments; Dem., Olynth. 2.20; Plaut., Pseudolus 680 ff (an excellent passage from the Greek, esp. bene ubi quod scimus consilium accidisse, hominem catum [i.e. sophon ] eum esse declaramus, stultum [i.e. aphrona ] autem illum quoi vortit male). Res secundae mirae sunt vitiis obtentui, is quoted from Sallust Hist. 1.55 by Seneca Contr. 11.1.13, cf. Cic., pro Rab. Post. 1; Pliny, Epist. 5.21 and the thought takes many forms, sometimes with “mania” or furor for “aphrosyne“. In Pindar the thought is best found at P.8.73ff (at the last moment I see the new Gentili commentary ad loc. cites the three Euripides passages, and the obvious Ol. 5.16 but not this passage). If we adduce pertinent parallels for Pindar’s thought—rather than citations from Shakespeare, Psalms, Christian hymns, and Scottish ballads,—we can see that his poetry appealed to the normal values of the ancient world, if not to ours. The sentence is therefore perfectly simple, and W’s outrage unjustified. “Success when one attempts contests frees from (the accusation) of stupidity.” Not very English, but good Greek all the same. Disturbing were also intermittent descents into the “translation fallacy:” we are told, e.g. “It is better to translate ‘chatizei‘ as ‘lack’ rather than ‘need'”. With Pindar’s richly associative language, we need to be told firmly that all translation distorts. Yet, if one is prepared to follow W’s choice of poems, this book is full of good sense and judgement. Many will prefer a Teubner and their own commentary, but there is little competition for W’s book at the moment in English.

Jasper Griffin recently reviewed these Cambridge commentaries (TLS April 14th 1995 14): “they show a common-sense abstention from theory of any explicit kind”—certainly a feature of W’s Pindar, but also alarmingly of the village idiot—and has hailed them as “splendidly British.” This lighthearted oxymoron prompts two further reflexions. Whatever advances are represented in W’s Pindar are largely the results of pioneering work by Germans, Italians and Americans; British scholars have produced little and late, and often with more heat than light. Secondly, one notes in W’s Pindar a complete absence of reference to art, archaeology or epigraphy, often the most direct sources of illumination to beginners concerning Pindar’s athletes, their homelands and their values, while philology and metre are disproportionately emphasised. This neglect also strikes one as traditionally British (or mock-British). It is a pity that as the numbers capable of reading Pindar in the original shrink to insignificance (we must even mourn the passing of the fabled “sixth-former” from this blurb), the chance was missed to show how all the disciplines of classical scholarship could be integrated in the illumination of great poems. I note by contrast that my newly-arrived Italian commentary on the Pythians gives me seven colour pictures, starting with Cyrene and ending with a Greek vase. That will strike many as being more in keeping with the spirit of the age and the needs of the times.