Custom, Violence, and Law

Pindar fr. 169a [=P. Oxy. 2450 (26, 1961), vv. 6–62; = Plato, Gorg. 484b]

“Custom, the king of everything,
Of mortals and immortal alike,
Guides them with the final hand
To the most violent kinds of justice.
I’ll prove this
With the deeds of Herakles
Since he drove the cattle of Geryon
To the Cyclopean gates of Eurystheus
Unpunished and unpaid.

Νόμος ὁ πάντων βασιλεύς
θνατῶν τε καὶ ἀθανάτων
ἄγει δικαιῶν τὸ βιαιότατον
ὑπερτάτᾳ χειρί. Τεκμαίρομαι
ἔργοισιν Ἡρακλέος·
ἐπεὶ Γηρυόνα βόας
Κυκλώπειον ἐπὶ πρόθυρον Εὐρυσθ̣έος
ἀνατεί τε] καὶ ἀπριάτας ἔλασεν

Plato, Gorgias 484a-b

“But when a person comes around with sufficient nature, he shakes off and shatters all these things [laws], escaping them. He tramples all over our precedents and edicts, our pronouncements and all the laws that a contrary to his nature, and our slave rises up to become our master and clearly shows the justice of nature. This is what Pindar seems to indicate in that song when he says…”

ἐὰν δέ γε, οἶμαι, φύσιν ἱκανὴν γένηται ἔχων ἀνήρ, πάντα ταῦτα ἀποσεισάμενος καὶ διαρρήξας καὶ διαφυγών, καταπατήσας τὰ ἡμέτερα γράμματα καὶ μαγγανεύματα καὶ ἐπῳδὰς καὶ νόμους τοὺς παρὰ φύσιν ἅπαντας, ἐπαναστὰς ἀνεφάνη δεσπότης ἡμέτερος ὁ δοῦλος, καὶ ἐνταῦθα ἐξέλαμψε τὸ τῆς φύσεως δίκαιον. δοκεῖ δέ μοι καὶ Πίνδαρος ἅπερ ἐγὼ λέγω ἐνδείκνυσθαι ἐν τῷ ᾄσματι ἐν ᾧ λέγει ὅτι…

Fragmentary marble relief sculpture with bearded figure looking forward holding a boar's carcass on his shoulder
Roman; Relief of Herakles and the boar; Stone Sculpture

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.

Effusive Praise for an Emperor With Homer

Greek Anthology, 15.9: Ἐγκώμιον εἰς Θεοδόσιον τὸν βασιλέα (by the Poet Cyrus)
[A praise-poem for the Emperor Theodosius]

“You bear all of *Aiakos’ grandson’s famous deeds
Except for his illicit love; you shoot like Teucer,
But you weren’t born a bastard; you have a gorgeous form
Like Agamemnon, but wine doesn’t make you insane.
I compare your understanding to divine Odysseus in every way,
But you abstain from evil tricks. And you pour out a honeysweet voice,
King, equal to that of the old **Pylian, but before
You witness time wearing out a third generation of men.”

Πάντα μὲν Αἰακίδαο φέρεις ἀριδείκετα ἔργα,
νόσφι λοχαίου ἔρωτος· ὀϊστεύεις δ᾿ ἅτε Τεῦκρος,
ἀλλ᾿ οὔ τοι νόθον ἦμαρ· ἔχεις δ᾿ ἐρικυδέα μορφήν,
τὴν Ἀγαμεμνονέην, ἀλλ᾿ οὐ φρένας οἶνος ὀρίνει·
ἐς πινυτὴν δ᾿ Ὀδυσῆϊ δαΐφρονι πᾶν σε ἐΐσκω,
ἀλλὰ κακῶν ἀπάνευθε δόλων· Πυλίου δὲ γέροντος
ἶσον ἀποστάζεις, βασιλεῦ, μελιηδέα φωνήν,
πρὶν χρόνον ἀθρήσεις τριτάτην ψαύοντα γενέθλην.

*Achilles
**Nestor

Disco o Missorium Teodosio MPLdC.jpg

Effusive Praise for an Emperor With Homer

Greek Anthology, 15.9: Ἐγκώμιον εἰς Θεοδόσιον τὸν βασιλέα (by the Poet Cyrus)
[A praise-poem for the Emperor Theodosius]

“You bear all of *Aiakos’ grandson’s famous deeds
Except for his illicit love; you shoot like Teucer,
But you weren’t born a bastard; you have a gorgeous form
Like Agamemnon, but wine doesn’t make you insane.
I compare your understanding to divine Odysseus in every way,
But you abstain from evil tricks. And you pour out a honeysweet voice,
King, equal to that of the old **Pylian, but before
You witness time wearing out a third generation of men.”

Πάντα μὲν Αἰακίδαο φέρεις ἀριδείκετα ἔργα,
νόσφι λοχαίου ἔρωτος· ὀϊστεύεις δ᾿ ἅτε Τεῦκρος,
ἀλλ᾿ οὔ τοι νόθον ἦμαρ· ἔχεις δ᾿ ἐρικυδέα μορφήν,
τὴν Ἀγαμεμνονέην, ἀλλ᾿ οὐ φρένας οἶνος ὀρίνει·
ἐς πινυτὴν δ᾿ Ὀδυσῆϊ δαΐφρονι πᾶν σε ἐΐσκω,
ἀλλὰ κακῶν ἀπάνευθε δόλων· Πυλίου δὲ γέροντος
ἶσον ἀποστάζεις, βασιλεῦ, μελιηδέα φωνήν,
πρὶν χρόνον ἀθρήσεις τριτάτην ψαύοντα γενέθλην.

*Achilles
**Nestor

Disco o Missorium Teodosio MPLdC.jpg