BMCR 2020.04.21

Studies in the reception of Pindar in Ptolemaic poetry

, Studies in the reception of Pindar in Ptolemaic poetry. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, 76. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. xiv, 454 p.. ISBN 9783110641400 €129,95.


Pindar’s influence on Hellenistic Poetry is well documented, though no systematic study of more than a few poems has been done. Now, Alexandros Kampakoglou’s book provides a much more thorough overview of Pindar’s impact on four Alexandrian poets—Callimachus, Theocritus, Posidippus of Pella, and Apollonius of Rhodes. The study is in three parts and the whole bracketed by a brief introduction and an Afterword. Part I, “Epinician Poetry and Discourse” includes three chapters: “The Performance of Praise” (which concentrates on Callimachus’ epinicia), “The Reception of Pindar in Posidippus’s Hippika”, and “Epinician Echoes in Apollonius’s Argonautica”. Part II, “Encomia and Hymns” contains two chapters that treat Theocritus’s Idylls 17 (an encomium of Ptolemy II) and 24 (on the infant Heracles), followed by three chapters, respectively on Callimachus’s hymns to Zeus, Apollo, and Delos. Part III, “Myth and Poetry”, contains one chapter on Pindar and Apollonius as “The Poetics of Experience: Generic Hybridization and the Argonautic Myth.”

Kampakoglou’s preface states that his is a reception study based on the strategies of intertextuality as articulated by Pasquali, Conte, and Barchiesi, who see it not as a matter of  authorial intent but as an inherent part of generic discourse; and by Martindale and Hinds that it is at the point of reception that the reader generates meaning from perceived intertexts (p. 3). He continues with a caveat about our limited knowledge of both performance and readerly audience in Hellenistic Alexandria and expresses the intention of extending intertextuality to include the generic myths and motifs of epinicia. In addition, he claims to consider the cultural stakes that encourage these poets to turn to Pindar as a model. Despite these claims, we find many invocations of authorial intent: e.g., “what Posidippus is trying to say here” (p. 83) or “Polyphony is certainly one of the effects Apollonius has in mind” (p. 127) or “…is an example of the songs Theocritus has in mind here” (p. 166). Nor is there much discussion of cultural context: it is left to brief and repetitive summaries to restate why praise poetry was important for the throne (the case was efficiently made on p. 21 and restatements do not add depth to the essential point).

Callimachus is the obvious place to begin this study because he wrote two epinicia for chariot victories at crown games (for Sosibius and for Berenice II) that have clear Pindaric roots. Kampakoglou identifies a number of Pindaric motifs that Callimachus adopted with some success: he considers the performance of an Archilochean κῶμος in the Sosibius in light of Isthmian 6 (7–9); he reads the Victory of Berenice as a bridal gift (ἕδνον) in light of Olympians 7 and 9; and he has very useful insights on the ways in which Pindar has influenced Callimachus’ authorial positioning in his epinicia and on markers of performance and reperformance. He links this Alexandrian poetic interest in equestrian victories to the Ptolemies’ use of athletic events to enhance the image of the throne. This conclusion is surely unassailable after publication of the epinician epigrams of Posidippus that celebrate inter alia the victories of members of the royal family at Olympia and Nemea in particular. Both male and female members of the line competed in such events, while the Ptolemies established local games in Alexandria, one of which (the Ptolemaia) was actually designated as is-Olympic (Syll.3 390).

In Chapters 6-8 Kampakoglou addresses the Pindaric affects that occur in Callimachus’ three hymns to male deities: Zeus, Apollo, and Delos. Very little of this material is new. Previous critics have always located the hymns somewhere between their Homeric hymnic models and encomium, and these three hymns are explicit in their connection of their ostensibly divine subjects to reigning monarchs. What Kampakoglou provides is a series of suggestive Pindaric allusions within these poems that reinforce previous interpretations.

Kampakoglou’s treatment of Posidippus was necessarily limited to the poet’s 18-epigram section on equestrian victories (the Hippika). He rightly claims that Posidippus was recreating within his texts the images of monumental victory inscriptions. By virtue of the genre Pindar is likely to be lurking somewhere in the background of these epigrams but claims for specific Pindaric allusion are unpersuasive. Terms like δαπάνη (expense), φυή (inherent excellence), and μνήμα(memorial) are very much part of the standard language of athletic victory and because the Olympic games were widely attended, Posidippus’ audience was more likely to have been familiar with Olympic victory monuments than with Pindar’s texts. In fact, AB 87 is a pointed response to the epigram celebrating Cunisca of Sparta’s 4th-century victory monument at Olympia (CEG 820), later recorded by Pausanias. The rationale of both Spartan and Ptolemaic epigrams is to assert new dynastic claims via the female line.[1] There is some indifference to historical specificity in this section: e.g., Kampakoglou would like to see an “Artemis-like figure” behind Posidippus’ insistence on παρθένος in reference to Berenice at the opening of AB 80. But if, as Dorothy Thompson has argued, the Berenice in question is Syra, Ptolemy II’s daughter, not Berenice II, the Cyrenean princess who married Ptolemy III, then the description is literal.[2] She would not yet have been married and it becomes harder to make the case for “metapoetic resonance”.

Chapter 4 considers Theocritus 17 in light of several tropes used to praise monarchs in Olympian 2, especially how each poet positions his laudandus within a hierarchy of gods, heroes, and men and how Pindaric tropes of εὐεργεσία are reworked to praise Ptolemy as benefactor. For the latter, Kampakoglou adduces useful parallels from the way that Theron is represented in Olympian 2. Chapter 5 turns to the Heracliscus (Idyll 24). Kampakoglou first takes up two Pindaric versions of the myth of the infant Heracles throttling the snakes sent by Hera to kill him. These are found in Nemean 1 and in fr. 52u Snell-Maehler. After teasing out the differences, Kampakoglou argues that Theocritus was following fr. 52u more than Nemean 1. He states that Theocritus shows a far greater interest in realistic depiction than Pindar, to the neglect of the symbolic and ideological (while the former is certainly true, the latter is debatable). Related to this is his claim that Theocritus’ Heracles does not reveal his innate character and true greatness through this ἆθλος (as he does in Pindar) but is a product of upbringing and training. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of mythological marriages arguing that “Pindar was the model that Ptolemaic poets employed to handle” royal marriage (p. 211).

The chapters on Apollonius are the most successful and original parts of this study. In Chapter 3, Kampakoglou demonstrates well how epinician elements especially of Pythian 4, Pindar’s longest and most epic epinician relating the story of the Argonauts, are deployed in the later epic. Comparing Pindar’s use of Heracles and Polydeuces as figures who have attained divine status through their agonistic successes as potential models for or in contrast to the human laudandusmakes sense of their role in the Argonautica in contrast to Jason. A claim that the whole of Apollonius’ poem is figured in athletic terms is surely correct and well supported by his analysis of Jason’s contest at the end of book 3. The final chapter is also devoted to Apollonius, now taking up various features of Apollonius’ narrative that derive from Pindar or from an intersection of Pindar and Homer. This is organized around a series of narrative parallels—double proems, Lemnos and Colchis, Jason and Pelops that provide useful insights for understanding the textual strategies of the epic.

The “Afterword” provides a very brief historical discussion of Alexander’s conquest and the rule of the Ptolemies in Egypt. The salient point is that there is a statue labelled Pindar within a group of other Greek literary figures—Homer, Hesiod, Plato, Thales, Protagoras, and a few others—erected before the temple of Sarapis in Memphis, and this indicates the persistence of his poetic legacy in Hellenistic Egypt. Kampakoglou then reprises his main argument, namely that allusions to Pindar in the Alexandrian poets appear in texts that “deal primarily with the Ptolemies” (p. 411). He has demonstrated this well throughout.

In many respects this is an informative study that opens up the Alexandrian poets to several fruitful areas of further study. But it is not easy to read, most obviously when fragments are at issue. The discussion of Callimachus’ Sosibius  is a case in point. This poem is quite fragmentary and not well known even among Hellenistic scholars (and there are many disputed areas of interpretation). Yet the author prints no Greek text, and this omission requires the reader to have both a text of Pindar as well as of Callimachus at hand to follow and consider the arguments. (The same is true for Pindar’s fr. 52u Sn.-M.) A related problem is that as the author moves from one point to another the logic of the argument often seems to disappear. At times it feels a bit like free association because the hierarchy of information is rarely explicit.

Finally, Kampakoglou’s grasp of Ptolemaic history and cultural practices leaves something to be desired, particularly in the Afterword. He claims that Alexander instituted funeral games for the Apis bull—thus a “Greek institution, funeral games, is used to honor an Egyptian god” (p. 403). Highly unlikely. The source for Alexander and the Apis is Arrian, Anabasis 3.1.4, who states that Alexander “sacrificed there to the other gods and the Apis and held athletic and musical competitions.” There is no reason to assume that the Apis had died or that the Greek contests were in honor of Egyptian gods—Arrian’s “and” suggests that these events were not coupled. On p. 404, we are informed that Callimachus would have accompanied the royal couple to attend the burial of the Apis bull in Memphis (the bull died in 247 BCE). The source for this fanciful statement is not given. Given these difficulties, potential readers are likely to be limited to Hellenistic scholars, although the subject should be of interest to a wide range of classicists.


[1] Dillery, J. 2019. “Cynisca’s Swift-Footed Horses: CEG 820 (IG V.1 1564a) and the Lame Kingship of Agesilaus,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 210, 17–19.

[2] Thompson, D. J. 2005. “Posidippus, Poets of the Ptolemies,” in K. Gutzwiller, ed. The New Posidippus. A Hellenistic Poetry Book. Oxford.