A Song from the Old Days

The famously troublesome opening lines of Pindar’s second Isthmian Ode turn on a contrast between past and present poetic practices. In the noble past, Pindar says, poets spontaneously composed their songs when passion moved them. In the degraded present, however, they produce commissioned work when the fee is right.

A scholiast supposed that Pindar’s condemnation of his poetic contemporaries was chiefly a condemnation of Simonides. This isn’t particularly convincing given that Pindar himself “worked on commission” for an assortment of tyrants, and the lines in question belong to a commissioned work!

I suspect there’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to Pindar’s critique:

Isthmian Ode 2 (lines 1-10)

In the old days, Thrasyboulus,
Men mounted the gold-wreathed Muses’ chariot
To partake of the glorious lyre.
Effortlessly they let fly sweet-voiced hymns to boys,
Provided one were beautiful
And had that most agreeable ripeness
Which calls to mind gorgeously throned Aphrodite.

Back then, the Muse was not a lover of profit,
And neither was she a working girl.
Sweet-voiced Terpsichore, Muse of the gladdening dance,
Did not sell her sweet soft-toned songs,
Their bodies covered in silver.

But Nowadays, she says observe the Argive’s maxim
As it best approximates truth:
“Money, money makes the man,” he said,
As he lost his wealth and lovers at the same time.

(Note: “Their bodies covered in silver”: the phrase may mean something like “wholly commercialized,” “completely bought and paid for,” etc. In contemporary language we might say “covered in dollar bills” or something of the like.)

In the old days, Pindar wrote at least one of those “hymns to boys.” Ancient sources regarded the lyric as autobiographical–something, as it were, which arose “effortlessly” from authentic feeling.

But praise poems of this type were highly conventional; I’m disinclined to read the fine fragment 123 below as verse confession. I’m sympathetic to scholars who suspect that the lyric was, like the poetry of “nowadays,” commissioned and paid for by a patron.

Pindar Fr. 123: Encomium for Theoxenus of Tenedos, Son of Hagesilas

You must pluck love in season, my heart,
At the fit age. Yet, a man who sees the sparkling rays
of Theoxenus’s eyes but doesn’t swell with lust
Has a black heart, one forged in a cold flame
From iron or steel. Aphrodite’s slighted him,
She of the curving eyelids,
So he works like mad for money,
Or he’s enchained to the impudence of women
And led down an altogether frigid path.

But I, by the grace of the goddess,
Melt like sacred bees-wax stung by the hot sun
When I see the fresh young limbs of boys.
In Tenedos, it’s true, Persuasion and Charm
Dwell in the son of Hagesilas.

Isthmian Ode 2 (lines 1-11)

οἱ μὲν πάλαι, ὦ Θρασύβουλε, φῶτες, οἳ χρυσαμπύκων
ἐς δίφρον Μοισᾶν ἔβαινον κλυτᾷ φόρμιγγι συναντόμενοι,
ῥίμφα παιδείους ἐτόξευον μελιγάρυας ὕμνους,
ὅστις ἐὼν καλὸς εἶχεν Ἀφροδίτας
εὐθρόνου μνάστειραν ἁδίσταν ὀπώραν.
ἁ Μοῖσα γὰρ οὐ φιλοκερδής πω τότ᾽ ἦν οὐδ᾽ ἐργάτις:
οὐδ᾽ ἐπέρναντο γλυκεῖαι μελιφθόγγου ποτὶ Τερψιχόρας
ἀργυρωθεῖσαι πρόσωπα μαλθακόφωνοι ἀοιδαί.
νῦν δ᾽ ἐφίητι <τὸ> τὠργείου φυλάξαι
ῥῆμ᾽ ἀλαθείας [ ] ἄγχιστα βαῖνον,
‘χρήματα, χρήματ᾽ ἀνήρ,’ ὃς φᾶ κτεάνων θ᾽ ἅμα λειφθεὶς καὶ φίλων.

Fr. 123: Encomium for Theoxenus of Tenedos

Xρῆν μὲν κατὰ καιρὸν ἐρώτων δρέπεαθαι, θυμέ, σὺν ἁλικίᾳ·
τὰς δὲ Θεοξένου ἀκτῖνας πρὸς ὂσσων
μαρμαρυζοίσας δρακείς
ὃς μὴ πόθῳ κυμαίνεται, ἐξ ἀδάμαντος
ἢ σιδάρου κεχάλκευται μέλαναν καρδίαν
ψυζρᾷ φλογί, πρὸς δ᾽ Ἀφροδίτας ἀτιμασθεὶς ἑλικογλεφάρου
ἢ περὶ χρήμασι μοχθίζει βιαίως
ἢ γυναικείῳ θράσει
ψυχράν φορεῖται πᾶσαν ὁδὸν θεραπεύων.
Ἀλλ᾽ ἐγὼ τὰς ἕκατι κηρὸς ὥς δαχθεὶς ἕλᾳ
ἱρᾶν μελισσᾶν τάκομαι, εὖτ᾽ ἂν ἲδω
παίσων νεόγυιον ἐς ἣβαν ·
ἐν δ᾽ ἂρα καὶ Tενέδῳ
Πειθώ τ᾽ ἒναιεν καὶ Xάρις
υἱὸν Ἁγηςίλα.

Bust of Pindar. Roman copy of a mid-5th century BC original. Napoli, Museo Archeologica Nazionale.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

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