The victory odes of Pindar

Odes for successful athletes formed a separate genre within Greek poetry. It is characterized by a very difficult scheme of verses. An athlete who had been victorious at one of the major games ordered such an ode from a famous poet, for a considerable pay. The clients were rich aristocrats, such as Diagoras of Rhodes or the Sicilian tyrants. A victory song, performed by a choir of young men, accompanied by the music of a kithara or a flute, was for them an ideal way to announce their victory to the Greek world, for a poem was far less linked to one place than a statue.
The genre was developed in the second half of the sixth century BC and flourished in the first half of the fifth century BC. The most important poets were Simonides, Pindar and Bacchylides. In the second half of the fifth century, only Alkibiades still ordered a victory poem, probably from Euripides. Around 300 BC, the fifth-century victory odes inspired the Ptolemaic royal family to have their sport achievements celebrated by the poet Kallimachos. Their other court poet, Poseidippos, wrote in a completely different genre, which imitated inscriptions.

Pindar, the most famous poet of victory odes, wrote between circa 498 and 446 BC. He wrote poems in several genres, but only his victory odes have been preserved. Hellenistic scholars divided them in four groups, one for each of the games of the periodos, where the celebrated victory had taken place. His poems do not describe in any detail what actually happened at the games. The practical information (name, family, city, earlier victories, games) comes disguised in literary formulas. The poem is about the victory, not the match, and about the aristocratic values connected with it. Pindar uses many mythological tales to give the victory an extra dimension. In this way, he connects the present with the past, the particular with the general.

Example: the third Olympian ode

© KU Leuven, 2012