BMCR 2006.01.36

Thucydides and Pindar. Historical Narrative and the World of Epinikian Poetry

, Thucydides and Pindar : historical narrative and the world of Epinikian poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xv, 454 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199249199 $125.00.

In this important book Simon Hornblower aims to show that ‘two hearts beat in Thucydides’ breast and that the prose chronicler of warfare had some of Pindar the poet in him’ (p. 37). Scarcely less impressive is the demonstration that two hearts beat in H.’s breast. We must now take the distinguished modern historian of Greece and commentator on Thucydides seriously as an authority on, and evident admirer of, fifth-century choral lyric.

The central contention of the book is that proper appreciation of Thucydides, whether as a source for fifth century history or as a literary artist, requires him to be seen alongside Pindar. There is in addition a great deal of enduring value in the numerous detailed discussions incidental to the main argument. The main thesis itself has two aspects (one historical, the other historiographical), argued in separate parts of the book. It can be held, however, that H. does not keep these two as distinct in practice as they are in theory.

In the first part (‘Shared Worlds’, pp. 3-266), H. argues that the narrative that modern cultural historians weave of fifth-century Greece should incorporate the choral lyric poets as well as the historians. (In the second part, H. will argue that Thucydides’ own narrative significantly incorporates the lyric poets.) In this part Pindar and Thucydides take centre-stage. But there are bit parts for, among the poets, Bacchylides and Simonides (even Telesilla gets a look in), and, among the historians, Herodotus and Xenophon. H.’s reclaiming of Pindar for the historian represents a further welcome step in scholarship’s increasing emancipation from overly rigorous applications of Bundy’s formalist principles for the study of Pindar (cf. pp. v, 223, 234).1 The execution of his project by H. is characteristically learned, insightful, and suggestive. It is also highly individual (and not the less valuable for that), playing to various (both new and long-standing) interests of H.’s.2

One justification for H.’s pairing of Pindar and Thucydides is that they offer contrasting and complementary perspectives on the fifth century: where Thucydides’ cultural descriptions tend to be ‘thin’, Pindar’s and Bacchylides’ tend to be ‘thick’. Thus, the mythical backdrop to fifth-century history, largely though not wholly obscured by Thucydides, is accessible to us through the choral lyric poets (p.124). Thucydides’ Athenian standpoint is balanced by an allied perspective on Athenian imperialism in the First Peloponnesian War from Pindar (note especially Pyth. 8, where the (choral) voice of vv. 98-100 presents an Aeginetan point of view; cf. H., pp. 234, 247, 262). H. illuminates quite a few themes in fifth-century cultural history through his confrontation of the choral lyric poet(s) with the historian(s): notably stasis (pp. 76-8), kinship diplomacy (pp. 43-4), geography (p. 207), prosopography and onomastics ( passim). This last is especially interesting (cf. p. v), growing as it does out of H.’s long-standing interest in personal names.3 (It is a pity that the generally excellent General Index, compiled by Douglas Matthews, lacks a sufficiently full entry for onomastics, though one should note the two separate entries, not cross-referenced, for ‘names (personal)’ and ‘ Lexicon of Greek Personal Names‘.) H. is at his most dazzling in the final cbapter of this part (and much the longest chapter of the book), on ‘People, Places, Prosopography, and Politics’, where he treats us to a wonderfully rich contextualizing of the persons and places mentioned in fifth-century choral link, tracing out countless unsuspected connections between individuals, clans, poleis, and ethne. The evidence of the poets, the historians, and inscriptions are here made all to dance together, and some of the obscurest corners of the ‘world of epinikian poetry’ receive brilliant and original illumination. H. makes good his claim that ‘Names, whether in Thucydides or Pindar, make people real’ (p. 131); but beyond the more narrow prosopographical interests of this chapter, countless new views on the outlook and activities of fifth-century Greek communities are offered and many old views questioned. Here above all one admires the use H. has made of his unsurpassed breadth of knowledge of the Greek world.

In this part of the book H. makes, I think, an excellent case that Thucydides and Pindar can ‘be fruitfully compared’ (p. v). It is a vein of scholarship that could be mined further; one looks forward to what H. may do with it in the forthcoming third volume of his Commentary on Thucydides. My own Pindar and the Cult of Heroes might be seen as an application of H.’s approach to a specific aspect of fifth-century cultural history, the process of heroizing historical persons.4 My monograph was published a year after H.’s, and in unfortunate ignorance of it. But our concerns overlap at various places, and I had been influenced by earlier publications of H both on Thucydides and fifth-century history.5

One should note (as H. indeed does) that H.’s project in the first part of the book does not encourage us to think in terms of intertextuality between Pindar and Thucydides: ‘we can say only that Thucydides and Pindar have lowered their buckets into the same well’ (p. 74); ‘Thucydides was sometimes working with the same sort of material as Pindar’ (p. 107); ‘an important overlap between [their] worlds’ (p. 207). But, already in this first part of the book, H. is interested in going considerably beyond this. He suggests not only that we should utilize the choral lyric poets as a historical source alongside the historians but that Thucydides also so used them (pp. 127, 128; cf. p. 282). A further — less overt, but more pervasive — coalescence of the book’s two theses is implicit in the rhetoric of H.’s transitions between Thucydides and Pindar: ‘[Pind. Isth. 8.58-62] suggests another remarkable Thucydidean passage’ (p. 47), ‘The Pindaric parallel is made by a nice verbal chime‘ (p. 117), ‘Pindaric epithets lurk beneath Thucydides’ insistence on the equestrian primacy of Syracuse in 415′ (p. 189) (italics mine). Such rhetoric is, I take it, properly a device by which H. directs us from Thucydides’ text to Pindar’s and back. But it sometimes seems to become something more: an assertion that Thucydides himself directs his readers to Pindar’s text, alludes to Pindar. When H. claims Thuc. 4.121.1 as an ‘ allusion to an entire Pindaric world of athletic success and celebration of that success’ (p. 47, again my italics), there is an ambiguity that is fundamental to the book. Is Thucydides evoking the fifth-century athletic world that is (independently) evoked by Pindar, or is he evoking a specific (or generic) Pindaric evocation of that world? These two are not the same thing, unless we take any mention of athletics to be an allusion to Pindar; an interrelationship between texts is entailed only by the second. Keenly aware of this distinction though H. of course is, it seems sometimes to be lost sight of in the detail of the argument.

It is a shame that Herodotus does not feature more in this part of the book. One justification for this is that Herodotus’ narrative is ‘thicker’ than Thucydides’, so we do not so often need to have recourse to the choral lyricists to discover what Herodotus is not telling us. Another justification may be (given that the complementarity of Pindar and Thucydides is, on the face of it, so much less self-evident than the complementarity of Pindar and Herodotus) that H. means to argue his case for the interpenetration of historical narrative and epinician poetry a fortiori : what goes for Thucydides will go all the more for Herodotus. All the same, a much fuller account of fifth-century cultural history could undeniably have been constructed out of the genres of history and epinician if the focus had been on Herodotus, who presents more obvious, more direct, and more extensive overlaps with Pindar, Bacchylides, and Simonides in terms of chronology, geography, prosopography, and many other aspects of cultural history that H. is interested in.6 The alethestate prophasis for H.’s concentration on Thucydides in the first part of the book is surely his intention to argue in the second part of the book for a special literary relationship between Thucydides and Pindar; if so, we have another way in which the agenda of the second part of the book has shaped that of the first — regrettably, perhaps, for readers whose sympathies lie more with the thesis of the first part than the second.

The second part of the book (‘Thucydides Pindaricus’, pp. 269-372) is ‘an intertextual inquiry’ (p. 373) which sets out to demonstrate that Pindar is a pervasive and significant intertext for Thucydides. H. is aware that this is a much more controversial thesis, and develops it over some hundred pages. I can offer only a summary appraisal. The two key passages of Thucydides discussed (demonstrating H.’s thesis on small and large-scale narrative sections respectively) are the Lichas episode (5.49-50) and the Sicilian expedition (books 6-7).

First, the Lichas episode (pp. 273-286). According to H., ‘here if anywhere [Thucydides] shows himself the prose Pindar’ (p.277). H. argues that Thucydides’ dubbing of Lichas as ‘the son of Arkesilas’ recalls Pindar’s practice of including the victor’s patronyomic when the victor’s father was himself an athlete; and that the name Arkesilas recalls the homonymous victor of Pindar’s Pyth. 4 and Pyth. 5. Other features of the passage claimed by H. as Pindaric are ring composition, negative expression, ‘appositive summary’, neologism ( agonisis is a Thucydidean coinage), and concentration on the moment of crowning rather than the actual competition. Interesting as these coincidences may be, it is hard to see that they amount to a case for allusion (specific or generic) to Pindar. To the extent that ‘Pindar can help with the elucidation of one unusually rich and detailed section of Thucydidean narrative’ (p. 286), this may be more a case of ‘shared worlds’ (a consequence of Pindar and Thucydides both dealing with the same, athletic, material) than of ‘Thucydides Pindaricus’.

Second, the Sicilian expedition (pp. 330-353). H. suggests that ‘the Sicilian books are a depiction of an agon or struggle of the kind celebrated by Pindar’ (p.329). In particular, H. suggests that Thucydides’ Sicilian narrative corresponds to Pindar’s ‘Argonautica’ in Pyth. 4 (a mythical narrative, but one with strong parallels with athletic competition). H. points to various specific correspondences between these Thucydidean and Pindaric narratives, including the following.

(i) Thuc. 6.32.1 (the trumpet blast and libations at the departure of the Athenian fleet) corresponds to Pind. Pyth. 4.193-6 (the libation and thunder-clap before the departure of the Argo) (pp. 40, 331-4), a parallel that (H. notes) had already been drawn by Charles Segal. It seems problematic, however, that these pre-voyage libations are a customary feature of both Greek life and literature (as H. acknowledges, p.332). H. further assimilates the detail of Thucydides’ trumpet blast to Pindar’s thunder-clap with the help of a Homeric metaphor ( Il. 21.388 ‘the great heaven trumpeted’, i.e. ‘it thundered’).

(ii) Thuc. 6.24.3 (the pothos of the Athenians for Sicily) corresponds to Pind. Pyth. 4.184-5 (the pothos of the heroes for the Argo) (pp. vi., 40, 334-5). The word pothos, a hapax in Thucydides, is certainly striking. But it is common in Herodotus, and does not seem marked as distinctively Pindaric.7

(iii) Thuc. 6.13.1 dyserotas ton aponton (of the Athenians vis-à-vis Sicily) corresponds to Pind. Pyth. 3.20 erato ton apeonton (of Koronis) (pp. 60, 73, 335). Cornford suggested that this was a ‘quotation’ of Pindar by Thucydides; dyserotas is, interestingly, another non-prose word. Yet the gnomic sentiment is typical (as H. again recognizes, p.335), and it is problematic that the link between Thucydides’ Sicilian narrative and Pindar’s Argonautica is mediated by a third, albeit Pindaric, text ( Pyth. 3).

(iv) The agonistic vocabulary ( agon, agonisma) in Thucydides’ seventh book recalls, H. argues, epinician poetry in general (pp. 336-42). But similar agonistic vocabulary is also found in Herodotus, passim.8 The regent Pausanias’ reference to the ‘impending agon‘ in his exhortation before the battle of Plataea (Hdt. 9.60.1) seems particularly close to the exhortations of Nikias and Gylippos before the sea-battle at Syracuse (Thuc. 8.61.1, 8.66.1), thus complicating the question whether Thucydides is (primarily) dependent on Pindar (or epinician) here.

(v) Thuc. 7.70-1 (the Athenians watching the sea-battle at Syracuse from the shore: ‘the Great Harbour as grandstand’) recalls depictions of agonistic spectatorship in epinician (e.g. Pind. Ol. 9.93-4, Ol. 10.72-3, Bacch. 9.35) (pp. 342-6). But agonistic spectatorship is a theme of Homer and tragedy (as H. again recognizes, pp. 343-4). The Iliad had used the imagery of (spectating) athletic competition as a foil for events on the battlefield (e.g. 22.157-166). In the Iliad, we find the key idea of the gods ‘watching men like spectators of a drama or a sporting competition’.9 The literary influence on Thucydides could be epic as easily as epinician, an objection recognized by H., both here and in general (cf. pp. vi, 271, 331). In this case, though, there seems to be an even more striking parallel from Herodotus: Xerxes spectating the sea-battle of Salamis from the shore (Hdt. 8.69, 8.86, 8.88, 8.90). The theme of agonistic spectatorship in the context of a battle narrative in Thucydides’ account is striking; but again it does not clearly refer us (primarily or at all) to Pindar or to epinician.

(vi) Thuc. 4.133.1 (the flower, ‘ anthos‘, of the Thespians, who perished in a battle of 424 BC) is a ‘salute’ to Pind. Pyth. 4.158 (the ‘ anthos of youth’, of Jason) (pp. 44-6). Anthos is another Thucydidean hapax and another poetic word. But it is another common metaphor (as H. notes, p. 44). H.’s argument for intertextuality here again has recourse to a third item, this time to a Thespian casualty list ( IG 7.1888) which specifies as ‘Pythian victor’ and ‘Olympian victor’ two of (probably) precisely the Thespian war dead mentioned by Thucydides. This would constitute a striking external link between the ‘Thucydidean’ world of warfare and the ‘Pindaric’ world of athletics, a real link on which Thucydides’ intertextuality would build. But it is doubtful whether these Thespians were as unique in having their athletic prowess commemorated in the context of death in battle as H. suggests (cf. pp. 45, 51, 375).10 If the external argument for seeing Thucydides’ ‘flower’ metaphor as distinctively athletic loses force, we have little reason to see this poetic, but common, word as pointing us to Pindaric epinician and specifically to Pyth. 4.158.

This whole section of the book contains much fascinating and perceptive discussion, especially of poetic vocabulary in Thucydides. But the claimed intertexts struggle against the standard benchmarks of intertextuality, ‘markedness’ and ‘interest’.11 Regarding the former, it is frequently hard to see that Thucydides’ text refers the reader to either a general or a particular Pindaric context; the alleged links to Pindar are either not as distinctive or not as direct as one would like. A claim like ‘The whole excursus could not be more Pindarically signposted’ (p. 312, my italics), seems to exploit the ambiguity noted above with ‘ Pindaric world’ (p. 47). It might have helped if H. had confronted (more extensively than he does on p. 269) what for him constitutes an intertext or allusion, especially as his appeals to such features as shared styles, techniques, rhythm, and onomastics are not very usual ways of arguing intertextuality. As for the interest of the claimed intertexts, the idea of ‘Sicily as Golden Fleece’ (p. 331) is attractive. In general, H. must be right that we should seek to be inclusive, to open our minds to intellectual and literary influences on Thucydides from epinician as well as epic, tragedy, the medical writings, and Herodotus. It is easy enough to see what historiography might gain from harnessing epinician topoi: themes of the homecoming of victor and defeated, of competition, of phthonos / zelos, of aristocrats in the city would naturally be grist to the historian’s mill. I am persuaded that one could tell an interesting story about history’s incorporation of the genre of epinician; but I am (still) not persuaded that that story can be well grounded in the texts of Pindar and Thucydides.

The concluding chapter of the second part (ch. 12 ‘Thucydides and Pindar: A Stylistic Comparison’, pp. 354-72) examines stylistic affinities between Thucydides and Pindar. Stylistic relationships are particularly difficult to demonstrate. H. looks at asyndeton, the avoidance of periods, hyperbaton, ‘polyinterpretability’ as distinctive features of both authors (in sum, both Pindar and Thucydides are consciously difficult authors). H. builds his case on the ancient critics Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Marcellinus (‘that there was some sort of relationship or at least similarity was obvious to ancient literary critics’, p. v; ‘ancient literary critics were much more open to the idea that there might be a similarity or even a direct connection between the two writers’, p. 355; ‘Dionysios… offers us Thucydides the prose Pindar‘, p. 357: my italics). Here again there is a crucial ambiguity about what H. is asking us to accept. Are Thucydides’ ancient critic and biographer recognizing that Pindar was a stylistic model for Thucydides, and were they, in H.’s view, correct to do so? Or are they just holding up Pindar and Thucydides as exemplars of the same (austere) style? In the latter case, Thucydides and Pindar will just have dipped their buckets in the same literary well. Then the comparison of the two would have a heuristic value, helping us to see more clearly features of Thucydides’ style; this would constitute another case of ‘shared worlds’, though of literary rather than of cultural worlds. In the former case, we would have direct influence, and a genuine case of ‘Thucydides Pindaricus’. However, Dionysius’ precedent should probably not incline us to accept Pindaric influence on Thucydides, unless we are prepared also to follow him in accepting Sapphic influence on Isocrates (cf. Dion. Hal. Comp. 23). H. in fact shies away from putting Thucydides’ adoption of the ‘austere style’ explicitly down to Pindaric influence (cf. pp. 39, 357). But his inclusion of chapter 12 within part two of the book — given over to the investigation of a ‘literary relationship’ (p. 5) and ‘an intertextual inquiry’ (p. 373) — and H.’s billing of this chapter as ‘the culmination and in a sense the justification of my thesis’ (p. v), suggest that H. would indeed like us to see it in this light. Or does H. intend something more modest: that just as our understanding of Thucydides as a historian is enriched by comparing him with Pindar (Part ἰ, so too our understanding of Thucydides as a literary artist is enriched by the same comparison (chapter 12)? In that case, chapter 12 would argue a weaker form of ‘Thucydides Pindaricus’ than the other chapters of Part II, where direct influence or intertextuality is claimed.

This is a deeply learned, wide-ranging, and original book, which identifies for the first time and addresses authoritatively a large complex of important historical and literary questions arising from the confrontation of Thucydides with Pindar. And it is not a book which ducks problems. Almost all the specific objections made above are anticipated by H. My own assent to the book’s main theses is partial: shared cultural worlds, yes; shared literary and stylistic worlds, maybe; Thucydidean debts to Pindar (whether a matter of Thucydides using Pindar as a historical source, as an intertext, or as a stylistic model), these I doubt. But even this qualified assent is predicted by H.: ‘I hope that even those who deny any awareness and conscious imitation will agree with what is after all a more important proposition, namely that the text of Thucydides can be understood better by comparison with that of Pindar’ (p. 269). To this ‘more important proposition’, I can give my unqualified assent. It is no small achievement of H. to have made this prima facie quite unlikely proposition seem not just important but true.


1. Cf. E. Bundy Studia Pindarica (Berkeley, 1962). Here, H. is treading in the footsteps of Eveline Krummen, Leslie Kurke, and Ila Pfeijffer (whom he cites).

2. Cf. index entries for ‘Pindar’ in The Greek World 479-323 BC (3rd edn., 2002 [first publ. 1983]), and for ‘athletes’ and ‘athletics’ in the two volumes so far published of the Commentary on Thucydides.

3. Cf. S. Hornblower and E. Matthews (eds), Greek Personal Names: their Value as Evidence (Oxford, 2000).

4. Pindar and the Cult of Heroes (Oxford, 2005).

5. My project, like H.’s, involved considering passages like Thuc. 4.121.1 and 5.11.1 (with, especially, H. ad loc.: ‘It is remarkable that Brasidas, [who received] posthumous cult at Amphipolis…, should also get rapturous and semi-religious treatment at Skione during his lifetime’, Commentary on Thucydides, vol. ii (1996) p. 385) alongside odes of Pindar where the semi-religious treatment accorded to the living athletic victor was balanced with the posthumous hero cult offered to mythical or historical personages (esp. in Ol. 1, Ol. 7, Pyth. 2, Pyth. 5, Nem. 7, Isth. 7). Even here Pindar’s odes are ‘thicker’ than Thucydides’ narrative, and the combination of the two types of evidence is extremely interesting for the cultural history of the 5th century. I argued similarly that Pindar’s odes can also complement Diodorus’ historical narrative for our understanding of an incipient ruler cult of the 5th-cent. Sicilian tyrants ( Pindar and the Cult of Heroes, pp. 170-1, 287-8), where again I took my cue from Hornblower (cf. his The Greek World, p. 44). In H.’s present book, H.’s concerns and mine converge — and diverge — especially at pp. 89-95 (cf. Pindar and the Cult of Heroes, pp. 31-46, 71-84, 344-405, and passim) and pp. 200-1 (cf. Pindar and the Cult of Heroes, pp. 167-70, and chapter 9 passim).

6. For example: (1) mythical kinship diplomacy: Aigina-Thebe (Hdt. 5.79ff., Pind. Isth. 8.16-23); cf. H. p.118. (2) Prosopography (cf. H. p. 262 ‘In the case of Aegina, the prosopographical links are with Herodotus rather than Thucydides…’): Krios (Sim. 507 PMG, Hdt. 6.50.3), cf. H. p. 23; Lampon son of Pytheas / Pytheas son of Lampon (Hdt. 9.78, Pind. Nem. 4.4); Hieron / Gelon (Hdt. 7.153ff., Pind. Ol. 1, Pyth. 1, etc.); Theron (Hdt. 7.165-6, Pind. Ol. 2, Ol. 3); Alexandros (Hdt. 5.22, 8.140, etc., Pind. fr. 120 SM, Bacch. fr. 20b μ cf. H. pp. 180-1; and Asopodoros (Hdt. 9.69.2, Pind. Isth. 1.34), cf. H. pp. 165-6. (3) Colonization: Cyrene (Hdt. 4.150ff., Pind. Pyth. 4, Pyth. 5), cf. H. pp. 107-13. Other overlaps not considered by H. might include: (4) cults of Zeus Eleutherios instituted after a tyrant’s fall (Hdt. 3.142.2, on 6th-cent. Samos; Pind. Ol. 12, on 5th cent. Himera); cf. H. pp. 193-4. (5) Aristocratic family mythical traditions of theoxenia (Hdt. 6.127.3, Pind. Nem. 10.49-50).

7. Cf. (now), conveniently, Lexikon des frühgriechischen Epos, instalment 20 (2004), s.v.

8. Hdt. 1.77; 3.85, 6.45, 7.11, 7.104, 7.209, esp. 8.3, 8.11 (x2), 8.15, 8.16, 8.76, 8.88, 8.100, 8.102, 8.108, 8.142; cf. esp. 9.33 for the military metaphor ( areioi agones) and 9.60.1, 9.63.2, 9.89.2.

9. J. Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford, 1980) 182.

10. See my Pindar and the Cult of Heroes, pp. 151 with n. 182.

11. See e.g. D. P. Fowler, Roman Constructions (Oxford, 2000), p.122.