Latest update: 9/1/2004; 6:24:07 AM
quidquid bene dictum est ab ullo, meum est ~ Seneca
~ This Day in Ancient History

ante diem vi kalendas septembres

  • Volturnalia -- Roman festival in honour of the divinity who presided over fountains
  • 479 B.C. -- Greek forces defeat Persian forces under Mardonius at Plataea
  • 413 B.C. -- lunar eclipse which caused hesitation amongst Athenian forces under Nikias in Sicily; the subsequent delay ultimately led to their destruction
  • 303 A.D. -- martyrdom of Honoratus at Potenza
Friday, August 27, 2004 8:01:11 AM

~ William Race on Pindar

One of the many nice spinoffs of having the Olympics in Athens has been all the attention Pindar has been getting. A case in point: Athens News has a feature all about the poet written by Classicist William Race (UNC Chapel Hill). Ecce:

Why would Pindar, the greatest lyric poet of classical Greece, compose a quarter of his poetry to honour athletic victors? And why did those 45 victory odes, alone of all the classical Greek lyric poetry, survive intact? Because athletics were at the institutional heart of Greek life - and are of continual fascination to all cultures touched by ancient Greece.

Of his 45 odes, Pindar (c518-438 BC) composed 14 for Olympic victors, totalling nearly 1,000 verses. These poems stood at the head of his collection, just as Olympia was the apex of contests.

Pindar and his audience inherited from the epic tradition of Homer the view that immortal fame (kleos) alone survived one's achievement (arete) - and that poetry preserved it better than any other form. The victors at the four major game festivals (Olympia, Delphi, Isthmia, Nemea) received crowns of perishable foliage, nothing more - except the opportunity for fame. Lists of victors were proudly kept by cities; winners were rewarded at home with money, free meals and other preferments. Some cities erected statues in their honour. But if they wanted recognition among all Greeks, they could commission a poet such as Pindar to commemorate their achievement and enshrine it in poetry for generations to enjoy.

Pindar was a pan-Hellenic poet. Although born near Thebes, he praised victors throughout the Greek world. His prayer at the end of his first Olympian ode is: "may I join victors whenever they win and be foremost in wisdom among Hellenes everywhere". His Olympian odes celebrate a wide spectrum of cities and individuals.

Nine of the odes are for victors from Greek cities in Sicily and southern Italy. Two come from the islands of Rhodes and Aegina; three from cities in mainland Greece.

At the high end of the social order are Hieron - the king of Syracuse (the Greek city in Sicily that rivaled Athens) and arguably the most powerful man in the world at that time - and his rival Theron, king of Akragas, wealthy owners of the winning horses and chariot teams. At the low end are boy victors; separate events were held for boys under 18 in the foot-race, wrestling, and boxing.

In the middle come three remarkable athletes. Diagoras of Rhodes was one of the most famous boxers in antiquity; and his two sons and grandson became Olympic champions as well. Epharmostos of Opous, by his Olympic victory, gained one of the most coveted distinctions in Greek athletics, becoming a periodonikes, a "circuit-winner" who won at all four major athletic competitions - in some ways equivalent to tennis' grand slam, but even more difficult because the Olympic and Pythian games were held every four years. And there is Xenophon of Corinth, who accomplished the unprecedented feat of winning two victories in one Olympic festival: the foot-race and pentathlon. Pindar declares: "He has attained what no mortal man ever did before."

Since stopwatches were unavailable to establish records based on speed, such athletic "firsts" were based on the number and types of victories won, especially in combinations never before attained. This applies to families as well to individuals: Pindar declares that Xenophon's clan boasts six crowns in the Pythian games and no fewer than 60 victories in the Isthmian and Nemean games, an astonishing record.

How does Pindar commemorate these victors? Unlike modern sportscasters, he rarely provides details of the actual contest. But in one instance he relates that early in his career in the games at Marathon, Epharmostos was denied his status as a boy and required to wrestle against full-grown men. Not only did he defeat all his opponents, but, Pindar boasts, "he subdued all the men without falling once" (three falls of the opponents were required to win).

Instead Pindar usually contextualises the victory by narrating illustrative legends. When praising Diagoras, he outlines the mythical history of Rhodes; when praising Xenophon, he relates the career of Bellerophon, a Corinthian hero. In three odes, Pindar tells about the founding of the Olympic Games themselves. In praising Hieron, he recounts how Pelops won his bride Hippodameia by defeating her father in a chariot race at Olympia. Before the race, in which 13 suitors had already been killed, Pindar has Pelops articulate the Greek heroic code: "Great danger does not call for a coward. Since men must die, why would anyone sit in darkness and coddle a nameless old age to no use, deprived of all noble deeds? No, this contest shall be mine!"

In his ode to Theron of Akragas, he relates how Hercules, after founding the games at Olympia, went to the land of the Hyperboreans (the mythical people beyond the north wind) to bring back the wild olive tree to provide shade and foliage for victory crowns. In another ode, he lists the victors and events in the first games established by Hercules. Among his other poetic gifts, Pindar was a masterful story-teller.

Like the spiral outward from "our town" to the universe, Pindar places the victors in an ever greater context - consisting of their family's achievements, their city's history, the world of mythology, and, above all, the ever-present gods. The actions and influence of the gods are present in all of Pindar's odes, especially as the pre-eminent games were part of religious festivals in sacred areas where the resident god was worshipped: Zeus at Olympia, Apollo at Delphi, Poseidon at Isthmia, and Zeus at Nemea.

Pindar's athletes move and live in a world of divine forces. In his ode to the boy victor Hagesidamos, he acknowledges four elements required for success: natural talent, skilful training (families hired professional trainers for their boys, several of whom Pindar praises in his odes), hard work, and divine help. The last is indispensable. Just as the gods help the heroes like Pelops, Hercules and Bellerophon, in the myths Pindar relates, so they help athletes achieve their victory, the realisation of arete (excellence).

In the odes, athletes and athletics are shown to be an integral part of the Greek world, from Sicily to Rhodes, from earliest history to the present, from boyhood to adulthood, and in timeless myths, in a cycle of festivals continuing as long as their gods are worshipped. Where other civilisations marked their beginnings with a dynasty or a decisive victory, the Greeks began their reckoning with the first footrace at the first Olympic Games in 776 BC. The games continued for another 11 centuries. Historical time, mythical time, and the present all come together in the moment of victory, when an individual can stand out as this festival's winner, honoured with a crown that would be desiccated by the time the next festival came around.

Pindar's poetry also contains frequent reminders of the transience of human existence, of how the soaring moment of victory disappears unless it is commemorated, immortalised in verse. As he tells the boy victor Hagesidamos, "when a man who has performed noble deeds goes without song to Hades, in vain has he striven and gained for his toil but brief delight".

Pindar's poems are elaborate works of art, designed to be sung and danced in the victor's city - by a chorus dressed in finest garments and accompanied by music of lyres and woodwinds. But they were also read throughout Greece: a copy of his ode for Diagoras, inscribed in gold letters and dedicated in the temple of Athena at Lindos. In this way, they celebrated the athletes and pan-Hellenic values and culture they represented.

The poems are the apex of Greek choral lyric, in their own right as complex and breathtaking works of art as Bach's organ fugues. And like Bach, Pindar came at the end of an era. In the decades following his death, the Greek world was convulsed by the Peloponnesian War and the genre of choral lyric died with its greatest practitioner. Pindar's pan-Hellenic vision could not be sustained. When Alexander the Great destroyed Thebes a century later, he left only Pindar's house standing, a tribute to the poet who spoke for all Hellas.

Friday, August 27, 2004 7:26:32 AM

~ Iliad as Protest

Interesting little tidbit from the Scotsman in an article about assorted protest events planned for the Republican convention:

A reading of Homer’s Iliad is Promised at dawn in the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Plaza. It is billed as "the most compelling anti-war story ever written" and delivered in memory of victims of the Iraq war.

I wonder if they're readind the whole thing ...

Friday, August 27, 2004 7:17:15 AM

~ The Ephebic Oath Lives On

The American Enterprise has a piece on educational reform which profiles assorted model schools, among which is Townsend Harris High School in Queens, New York. The first thing that caught my eye was the requirement of two years of Classical Greek or Latin; the second was this detail about the principal:

When the school looks to the past for inspiration, however, it usually gazes much further back in time—to ancient Greece. Largmann keeps a small bust of Socrates in his office, and the Ephebic Oath, a citizenship pledge from ancient Greece, is prominently posted at the entrance to his third floor suite. On Founders’ Day, seniors traditionally administer a pledge to freshman in which they promise like good Athenian citizens: “I shall never bring disgrace to my city…. I shall fight for the ideals and sacred things of the city…. I shall not leave my city any less but rather greater than I found it.”

The school webpage has the full version. Poking around the infobahn, I find that Brooklyn College seems to have a recital of the Ephebic Oath as part of its graduation exercises (.pdf) and that there's a high school organization called the Ephebian Society which has recitation of the oath as one of its induction requirements. I can't say that I disapprove ...

Friday, August 27, 2004 7:10:28 AM

~ Naumachia in Beirut

The Daily Star reports on an upcoming naval display, courtesy of some Spanish cultural group, which includes, among other things, a naumaquia (sic). Here's the ClassCon bit:

One drama, based on the myth of Prometheus - who stole the secret of fire from the gods to give it to mankind - in addition to a "history of evolution creation," will be played out on the decks of the Naumon.

The organizers mentioned that all of the shows and activities will be free of charge, including one epic piece of Roman theater, called "Naumaquia," which recreates several ancient sea battles. That show is expected to draw an estimated audience of 30,000 person per evening.

According to the vessel's captain, the "Naumaquia show is beyound explanation."

Information provided by the organizers states that the earliest recorded Naumaquia show dates back to 46 BC, and was held in honor of Julius Caesar.[the whole thing]

Friday, August 27, 2004 6:42:48 AM

~ Overview of Roman History

The Canadian periodical Tandem News (which, as I've mentioned before, I have never seen on a newsstand but which seems connected somehow with Corriere Canadese) has a lengthy what-have-the-Romans-done-for-us piece which begins by making one think it's all about Globalization, then meanders into other ClassCiv 101 type topics (it sounds like a B- first year paper from a summer course). Here's a bit from the beginning (of the printable version):

Globalization wasn't born a decade ago, when the whole world opened itself to the free market following the collapse of market-denying Communism. Its birth goes back some 18 centuries, to 212 C.E., when Rome granted its citizenship to every free resident of the Empire.

That was no small event. Provincial boundaries were abolished (the Empire stretched from the tip of Spain to the Urals, from Britain to North Africa and the Middle East), and with them custom duties and excises. This created a great state where all free citizens (regardless of race, place of birth or mother tongue) had the same rights and obligations. Rome was not the ruthless capital ruling the Empire, but the patria communis, everybody's homeland.
The idea of globalization, free market, cosmopolitan society, shared culture - even though often mistaken for recent discoveries - are part of the inheritance that Rome left to Europe, and therefore the world.

It has been written that Rome took that initiative in order to rein in the restlessness and independent temptations of the peoples it had submitted. That is true, but Rome did so with laws, as it was keenly aware of the fact that weapons could not achieve the same effects in the long run. In order to prevent the possibility of losing the conquered territories, Rome offered to share a common project with their inhabitants. In short, it established a policy. Here is another aspect of our Roman heritage: making policies, i.e. passing laws that establish reasonable juridical rules.

The Romans were pragmatists. Unlike the Greeks, who liked to theorize on everything, they never lost sight of the reality surrounding them. They improved that reality by modifying it according to their needs. From this standpoint, laws are nothing but tools that the Romans used to improve their quality of social life. [the whole thing]

Friday, August 27, 2004 6:27:56 AM

~ The Odyssey on Radio 4 Again

Yesterday we mentioned that BBC's Radio 4 would be broadcasting a production of the Odyssey this weekend ... today, the Telegraph has a some details about the production. Here's a bit from the middle:

And yet Armitage acknowledges that he isn't a classicist. His previous experience of bringing Greek culture to British audiences has been a consciously innovative version of Euripides called Mister Heracles. He says of that drama, "The language there was quite anarchic, and I was drawing on every language pool from 3,000 years."

With Homer, he has been much more reverential. There are occasional modern phrases – mentions of "just war" and "the mother of all punishments", for example – but on the whole, Armitage has tried not to bring too much contemporary baggage to the old work.

"I wanted to stand square in front of the task this time, put myself on the line and rise to the challenge of telling that great, great story."

The most famous parts of that story are the travels, such as the encounters with the Cyclops and the witch Circe, who turns Odysseus's men into pigs, then detains them and their master for a year. Both these episodes offer Armitage, the actors and the producers great opportunities for radio – the men cramped into the Cyclops's cave; the rolling rock that bars their escape; the way that magic turns their speech to oinks. "I was thinking about the most acoustic moments in the poem," he says.

Then, as he points out, "There's not a lot of dialogue in The Odyssey." So he has broken up the big speeches with crowd interjections. In doing so, he's deployed the higher registers of his own poetry, and tempered it with something more prosaic. "In the speeches, when people puff out their chests and pull themselves to their full height I think there's definitely a sense of verse; and when people are squabbling, or the common men are bantering, then it looks like prose on the page."

Armitage is emphatic that he wants "to involve the common listener". "That's something that I've always been keen to do with my own poetry. And with this, you've got to assume that a large number of people either won't know, or be interested in, The Odyssey, and it's your job to make them interested."

It might be easier to engage us with a radio version than with a book that one can put down and forget to pick up; but the medium presents its own challenges. "The idea of trying to keep an audience with you for four hours – it's not like The Lord of the Rings, where you have a captive audience strapped into their cinema seats and they might only go out for popcorn and a pee.

It's a huge challenge. To be absolutely honest, I don't think many people will set down and listen devotedly to the whole thing." [the whole thing]

Friday, August 27, 2004 6:04:02 AM

~ AWOTV: On TV Today

8.00 p.m. |DTC| The Cult of Order
Roman culture still weaves influence through western art, architecture, medicine, and urban planning. This enormous empire was a reflection of the multicultural world it encompassed, as excellence gave way to excess and decline.

9.00 p.m. |DTC| The Fall
From the reign of Diocletian to the sack of the Eternal City in 410 A.D., abusive political elite, complacent military, and an eroding cultural identity placed the Roman empire in an inexorable decline.

DTC = Discovery Times Channel

Friday, August 27, 2004 5:57:10 AM

1. n. an abnormal state or condition resulting from the forced migration from a lengthy Classical education into a profoundly unClassical world; 2. n. a blog about Ancient Greece and Rome compiled by one so afflicted (v. "rogueclassicist"); 3. n. a Classics blog.

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