BMCR 2008.11.23

The Value of Victory in Pindar’s Odes. Gnomai, Cosmology and the Role of the Poet. Mnemosyne Supplementa, 285

, The value of victory in Pindar's odes : gnomai, cosmology and the role of the poet. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007. 1 online resource (x, 230 pages).. ISBN 9789047422822 $125.00.

Table of Contents

Hanna Boeke’s monograph examines gnomai in Pindar as vehicles of cosmological ideas and how they serve the encomiastic purpose of each ode. Already in chapter one, the author (henceforth B.) establishes the scope of her thesis, which is the examination of the value assigned to victory within a particular cosmological context and of how the purpose of each ode unfolds and is accomplished within that context. After briefly discussing the divide between Pindar’s private person and poetic persona and asking to what extent a contemporary reader should take the mores in Pindaric epinikia at face-value and attribute them to the historical persona of the poet, B. presents the notion of the term “cosmology” as T. Oudemans and A. Lardinois explain it. She subsequently shows how this notion conforms to the main principle of the epinician already specified by Bundy, i.e. the primary encomiastic intent of the ode, combined with the value of victory and the glory it confers.

In chapter two the author undertakes the onerous task of pinning down a specific definition of gnome according to modern scholarship. After a concise review of the literature, Lardinois’ definition is chosen as the methodological cornerstone, while the function of gnome is argued on the basis of moral-didactic intent as defined by J. Russo and enriched by W. Spoerri and W. T. Wilson. Credit is also given to the field of ethno- and sociolinguistics for analyzing the forms and contexts in which gnomai occur in archaic Greek poetry. In addition, B. provides us with an informative review of the way ancient authors such as Xenophon, Isocrates, Aristotle, Anaximenes of Lampsacus, and Aeschines perceived the study of literature, the educational purpose they attributed to this study, how they defined gnomai, and the differences between Aristotle’s and Anaximenes’ viewpoint on this matter.

As a result of this overview, the scope of the survey is narrowed and its main question is posed, i.e. “whether the pronouncements contained in proverbs and gnomai can be used as the basis for describing the cosmology of the society in which Pindar worked.” This question is framed by a brief review of the literature on the existence of a cross-cultural tradition of wisdom teachings, which draws on W. Slater and K. Bielohlawek, and with an extended reference to D. Shimkin and P. Sanjuan’s modern anthropological study, which analyses the proverbs of three pre-revolutionary Russian communities in order to establish “the major attitudes and psycho-dynamic patterns common to relatively homogeneous communities.”1

Chapter three forms the core of B.’s systematic survey by combining the concept of cosmology with the concept of morality in order for the first “to include, besides a description of the world and man in the world, recommendations for living in the world thus described.” Moreover, by combining Oudemans/Lardinois’ six cosmological categories with Shimkin/Sanjuan’s three socio-psychological dimensions, she limits her classification to two main categories, i.e. a) philosophical orientation and b) man in society. Under the first category fall views on elemental forces (fate, god, nature) and man’s relation to them, as well as views on the human condition (life and death, the implications of mortality). The second category hosts views on the nature and obligations of different human relationships, such as those with family, fellow citizens and enemies, as well as views on human nature as it reveals itself in a social context. Her procedure is to start off with a general statement and then to analyze it by looking more closely at the text.

In dealing with the first category, the author finds that “fate” is represented either as an active force that steers human life or as that which is allotted. Its central characteristic lies in its ineluctability. Fate as an agent in the world appears in the form of personified πότμος, μοῖρα and τύχα. To μοῖρα is also attributed control over human life, while the characterization of μοῖρα as θεοῦ, poses the question of the relationship between god and fate, and whether one of these is supreme. B. is critical of Thummer’s view of a fate dependent on and subordinated to god, and favours Greene’s idea that there is no real distinction between personal gods and a less personal power like μοῖρα. Therefore, she argues for an interchangeability between god and fate.

B.’s discussion of the notion “god” in gnomic utterances starts off with the much-debated opening statement of Nemean Six ἓν ἀνδρῶν, ἓν θεῶν γένος; ἐκ μιᾶς δὲ πνέομεν || ματρὸς ἀμφότεροι.2 Her discussion is based on D. E. Gerber’s unitarian interpretation of vv. 1-2, but it also extends his interpretation of vv. 2-3, since it lays emphasis on the key difference between man and the gods, which is mortality and immortality and their consequences for human life.

After drawing a succinct outline of the way “nature” is perceived, i.e. as a force threatening civilization but also as a power sustaining both civilization and life, the author discusses divine power over nature and man’s ambiguous relationship with it as reflected in weather phenomena. Moreover, she elaborates on the imagery derived from these phenomena to describe the fluctuation and unpredictability of human fortunes. The same type of analysis is applied in the vegetational imagery denoting man’s integration into the cycle of nature. The last issues discussed in this part are the role of natural ability in human achievement, the supremacy of natural ability over learning, and natural ability as an indication of divine support.

In the last part of chapter three, B. expands the discussion of gnomic reflections on man by taking into account man’s place in the social network , firstly man’s position in the inner circle of “the household and family relationships”, and secondly his position in the wider social circle formed by “relationships outside the οἶκος“. Under the first rubric, B. gathers the gnomic formulations concerning the relationship between parents and children, the obligations of the latter towards the former, children’s duty of preserving the household and its land for the family, the patriarchal nature of the family and its implication for woman’s status, man’s responsibility towards his ancestors, the different responsibilities and privileges of different generations, and, finally, the rewards awaiting a man in old age for the proper execution of his duties as a young man. Under the second rubric “relationships outside the οἶκος“, after sketching the functioning of reciprocity in all relationships, i.e. between ruler and subject, god and man, ξεῖνοι and neighbours, and analyzing thoroughly the conditions defining and governing relationships between benefactor and beneficiary, the author narrows the scope of her analysis and introduces into her discussion the notion of success, interpreted more specifically as athletic victory. In the wider frame of the civic body receiving the excelling individual, she goes on to analyze the appeal made by the poet on the basis of the generally accepted principle of reciprocity in relationships and the portrayal of the victor as a benefactor of his community.

In chapter four, B. focuses on the application of cosmological ideas for encomiastic purposes by considering particular odes. In her introductory note she uses Pythian 7 and Nemean 2, which serve as foils to one another,3 as examples to sketch the context formed by the individual’s justified desire for recognition of the divine, the claims of the divine and the sensitivities of society. In the following three sub-chapters, the author investigates the role of gnomic formulations within the context of each ode, namely Olympian 12, Isthmian 4 and Olympian 13. Each ode is treated as thoroughly as possible through close reading, cross-references to other epinician odes, references to secondary literature, and citation of Homeric parallels. The author’s central argument is that all three odes pose the question of the inherently incongruous relation between a non-native person and his adopted homeland, between “the pankratiast’s performance and his actual appearance”,4 between the need for personal achievement and the priority of a social group.

Chapter Five proves B.’s most fertile contribution, since the author’s focus moves from the text to the poet and the construction of the poetic persona. B. refers succinctly to the problem of the distinction made between Pindar and the narrator of his poems, or, preferably, the agent of the narrative discourse. She favours Felson-Rubin’s distinction between the epinician speaker i.e. the poet figure acting in the so-called Encomium World, and the poet Pindar acting in the real world, whose “purposes change in accordance with the circumstances of the particular victor he is celebrating”. She analyzes Isthmian 4, Olympian 13, Olympian 12, Nemean 2, Isthmian 3, Olympian 5, Pythian 5, Olympian 9 and Nemean 3 under two main principles, a) the poet’s task to praise the victor, and b) the modification of cosmological principles according to the victor’s actuality. This last chapter thus forms the concluding apex of B.’s methodology applied to the interpretation of gnomai in Pindaric epinikia, the cosmological principles underlying these gnomai and, most of all, the role of the poet as mediator and modifier of cosmological ideas according to the agenda set by the athlete’s victory.

In the last chapter, the author recasts in a succinct form the major conclusions of her inquiry.

Finally, some typos: p. 11 Χείρωνος Ὑποθήκαι instead of Χείρωνος Ὑποθῆκαι, p. 19 τοῦ λεγοντός ἐστι instead of τοῦ λέγοντός ἐστι, p. 32 αἴσα instead of αἶσα, p. 39, n. 32 γηρας instead of γῆρας, p. 57 καὶ τιν‘ instead of καί τιν‘, p. 60 κεῖτει instead of κεῖται, p. 69 ἵκεται instead of ἵκηται, p. 82, n. 135 (and p.206) Seaforth instead of Seaford, p. 95 θἐσθαι instead of θέσθαι, p. 128 οὺ instead of οὐ, p. 150 χθυσάμπυκα instead of χρυσάμπυκα, p. 151 εὕρων instead of εὑρών, p. 183 κατὰ δαίμον instead of κατὰ δαίμονα, p. 184 ἐπιφλέφων instead of ἐπιφλέγων, p. 187 διδάκτα instead of διδακτά.

Although B. claims to use Snell-Maehler’s (sic) edition of Epinicia (1987) and Maehler’s edition of Fragmenta (1989), unless stated otherwise in a footnote, there is an instance, p. 60, Pythian 8. 76-77, where she adopts Race’s edition without stating it: at the end of line 76, after παρίσχει she follows Race’s punctuation with a comma instead of Maehler’s punctuation with Greek ἄνω τελεία.

The same is true of B.’s introductory claim to use names of ancient authors as abbreviated in OCD, i.e. instead of Isocrates, Socrates, Phocylides, Bacchylides, Sophocles, we read Isokrates, Sokrates, Phokylides, Bakchylides, Sophokles.

In the catalogue of the bibliography cited, in p. 200 the name of David Cohen should be abbreviated as Cohen D., in line with the way the author lists the majority of her secondary material. In p. 206 Rubin, N. F. should be listed according to her first surname, i.e. Felson.

In p. 12, n. 6, I would prefer the anglicized version of “John of Sardis” for “Ioannes Sardianus” instead of “Jean de Sardes”. Likewise, in p. 57, n. 81, I would prefer the designation “Aelius Aristides” to “the sophist Aristides”, and the more common title “On the Four” for his work to “In Defense of the Four”.

There are some bibliographical addenda. One of them was not available to the author due to its being published almost simultaneously with her survey. This is the first chapter of C. Tsagalis, Inscribing Sorrow: Fourth-Century Attic Funerary Epigrams (de Gruyter, 2007; recently reviewed for βμξρ pp. 9-61, entitled “The Use of Gnomic Expressions”. Others are in Modern Greek, and perhaps not easily accessible to her. Two such are articles by D. J. Jakob, the most recent one entitled “Pindar and the Afterlife: Rereading Second Olympian Ode”,5 in Hellenika 55.1 (2005), 7-18, where Jakob offers a new reading and interpretation of vv. 56-83 of the Second Olympian Ode, and an earlier one, entitled “A Koinos topos in Pseudo-Phocylides”,6 in Hellenika 39 (1988), 405-412, where he gathers many parallels for a gnome in Pseudo-Phocylides and adduces among them vv. 15-17 of the Second Olympian Ode. The latter bibliographical suggestion is meant for p. 36 of B.’s survey, the former for p. 56. The third case is a book, also written in Greek, by V. Liapis, Menandrou Gnomai Monostixoi (Athens: Εκδόσεις Στιγμή, 2002) and already reviewed for BMCR, which offers an excellent introduction to wisdom literature focused on gnomai.

Other bibliographical addenda are the article by M. S. Silk, “Pindar’s Poetry as Poetry: A Literary Commentary on Olympian 12”, in S. Hornblower and C. Morgan (eds.) Pindar’s Poetry, Patrons, and Festivals: From Archaic Greece to the Roman Empire (Oxford: OUP, 2007), pp. 177-197, which offers an insightful interpretation of βαστάζεις in Olympian 12; M. Stuligrosz, “Maxims in Pindar’s poetry”, Eos 87 (2000), 153-162; M. S. Funghi (ed.), Aspetti di letteratura gnomica nel mondo antico, vols. 1-2 (Florence: L. S. Olschki Editore, 2003-2004); Chapter Five “Social Charis” and Chapter Six “Epinician Charis” of B. MacLachlan’s, The Age of Grace: Charis in Early Greek Poetry (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 73-123, regarding the semantics and use of the term “Charis”; and J. Stenger, “Apophthegma, Gnome und Chrie. Zum Verhältnis dreier literarischer Kleinformen”, Philologus 150.2 (2006), 203-221. As far as plant and nature imagery is concerned D. Steiner’s, The Crown of Song: Metaphor in Pindar (London: Duckworth, 1986) remains a useful guide. M. Briand’s article, on “Le vocabulaire de l’ excellence chez Pindare”, RPh 76 (2002-3), 203-218, offers a valuable insight on the notion of ἀρετά and excellence in Pindar, and corroborates B.’s main argument on the value of victory, the use of gnomai and the role of the poet.

At the end of chapter two a slight objection could be raised as regards the use of the term “proverb”, since this term shifts the focus of the survey which lies on gnomai.7

In chapter four, the author omits to mention that according to modern scholarship, Olympian 12 actually celebrates a Pythian victory, an innovative view introduced by Barrett and now widely accepted, although she is aware of Barrett’s redating of the ode.8

Summa summarum, the book is largely successful. B. had to deal with the diverse nature of the material. In addition, she had to debate with the long philological tradition on the subject and meet the challenge of answering philosophical and sociolinguistic questions. Compared to previous philological efforts on the same subject such as H. Bischoff’s Gnomen Pindars, B. offers an enriched discussion and a contextualization of each passage, informed by the social agenda set by the potential audience of each ode. In other words, she does not sidestep the methodological principles underlying works like Bischoff’s, i.e. close reading of the text, tracking parallel passages and analyzing each passage. Moreover, it is definitely a step forward, since the author exploits critically all the achievements of modern Pindaric scholarship, δρέπουσα κορυφὰς ἀρετᾶν ἄπο πασᾶν, to answer in a clear-cut way complex issues such as the construction of poetic persona or the poet’s “I” and how this affects the use of cosmological ideas in the encomiastic context of epinicia.


1. At this point, it should be stressed that the use of this combined method, i.e. enriching the analysis of ancient texts with methods applied to modern literary artefacts is well known and welcome in the field of classical scholarship, provided this fusion is not at the expense of the analysis of primary ancient material. See recently P. Kyriakou, “Epidoxon Kydos: Crown Victory and its Rewards” in Classica et Mediaevalia 58 (2007), 119-158.

2. The standard reference for a full discussion of the problem is D. E. Gerber, “Pindar, Nemean Six: A Commentary”, HSCP 99 (1999), 33-91, esp. pp. 45-46.

3. In the fourth chapter Η μνημείωση του κλέους της πόλης of L. Athanassaki’s, Ἀείδετο πᾶν τέμενος, ( Ηράκλειον· Πανεπιστημιακές Εκδόσεις Κρήτης, forthcoming), the author offers an analysis of the politics of Pythian Seven in comparison to Nemean Two.

4. W. H. Race, Style and Rhetoric in Pindar’s Odes (Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1990), p. 191.

5. Ο *Pi/ndaros kai h metaqana/tia zwh/: canadiaba/zontas ton deu/tero Οlumpio/niko.

6. Ένας κοινός τόπος στον Ψευδο‐Φωκυλίδη.

7. Although there is a lengthy secondary literature on the distinction between proverb and gnome, A. Jolles’ contribution, Einfache Formen: Legende, Sage, Mythe, Rätsel, Spruch, Kasus, Memorabilie, Märchen, Witz (Halle: V. M. Niemeyer Verlag, second edition 1956), pp. 124-140, remains useful. R. P. Martin, “Gnomes in Poems: Wisdom Performance on the Athenian Stage”, Princeton/Stanford Working Papers on Classics, May 2005, 1-25, uses invariably both terms (online address:, date of online access: 2008/03/28).

8. W. S. Barrett, “Pindar’s Twelfth Olympian and the Fall of the Deinomenidai”, JHS 1973, 23-35; W. J. Verdenius, Commentaries on Pindar, vol. 1: Olympian 3, 7, 12, 14, Mnemosyne Suppl. 97 (Brill, 1987), p. 89. In her review of B. Gentili, C. Catenacci, Polinnia: Poesia greca arcaica, Terza edizione (Firenze: G. D’ Anna Casa, 2007) in BMCR 2008.04.23, L. Athanassaki favours Barrett’s redating. For archaeological evidence combined with literary interpretation see R. Hamilton, “Olympian 12 and the Coins of Himera”, Phoenix 38.3 (1984), 261-264; for a more recent interpretative approach see M. S. Silk (cited above), esp. p. 181.