Pindar: A Guide to Selected Sources

Correlate the sources mentioned in the guide to those listed in the margin using the mouse.

Nicholas Boterf and Erika Taretto

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The ‘I’ in Pindar’s Poetry

Like other lyric poets, Pindar (518-438 BC) frequently speaks in the first-person, but the persona he constructs does not necessarily reflect Pindar the historical individual (see e.g. Lefkowitz 1991, 2012; D'Alessio 1991). Ancient commentators, however, often did not separate the historical poet from his constructed persona, and assumed that a historical biography could be extracted from his poems. Often their interpretations sought to explain the circumstances of performance, sometimes even tracing intertextual links between poems. For instance, Pindar’s claim in Nemean 7.102-4 that ‘my heart will not ever say that it has savaged [the hero] Neoptolemus with inflexible words’ was interpreted as an ‘apology’ to the Aeginetans Schol. Pind. Nem. 7.102 because of the poet’s damning treatment of Neoptolemus in Paean 6.

Ancient commentators were also eager to connect Pindar to his professional rivals, Bacchylides and Simonides. Passages that describe ‘a pair of crows who sing in vain against the divine bird of Zeus’ (Olympian 2.87-8) or an eagle catching its prey ‘while the chattering jackdaws keep below’ (Nemean 3.82) were interpreted as barbs against Pindar’s contemporaries Pind. Nem. 3.82 Schol. Pind. Ol. 2.87.


The sources unanimously say that Pindar was a Boeotian born in Thebes or in the nearby Cynocephalae. Pindar himself said so in his poetry: in this regard, for example, ancient commentators Schol. Pind. Ist. 1.1 mentioned the opening lines of Isthmian 1, where the poet calls Thebes his ‘mother’.

Ancient readers perceived a strong association between Pindar and his native city and often imagined the city as the setting for Pindar’s life. The poet, in fact, often praises Thebes in his work (e.g. Isthmian 1; fragment 194.4-6, 195, 198ab). However, the tradition also mentions tensions existing between the poet and Thebes: the Ambrosian Life Vit. Ambr., for example, says that the poet received his lyrical instruction in Athens and that he praised the city in his poetry. Because of this praise, the Life continues, the Thebans imposed a fee on the poet, which the Athenians paid.

Genealogy and Poetic Inspiration

Pindar’s father is named differently according to different traditions: the ancient Lives variously list Daiphantus, Pagondas, and Scopelinus. Scopelinus was the most debated character: the Ambrosian Life Vit. Ambr. claims that it was uncertain whether he was the father or uncle of the poet, and the Suda Suda s.v. 'Pindar' states that he was father to a Pindar different from the famous poet. The mother of Pindar was said to be either Cleodice Vit. Ambr. (probably a speaking name, suggesting the idea of fame in relation to justice) or Myrtis Vit. Thom. (the Greek word for ‘myrtle’, also used for making wreaths; cf. Isthmian 8.68). The poet was also said to have a brother, Eritimos Vit. Metr., a skilful hunter and boxer.

Pindar’s genealogy is sometimes related to the poet’s first steps in poetry. According to one tradition, Scopelinus was said to have taught Pindar the basics of flute-playing Vit. Ambr. Vit. Thom.; according to the Suda, Myrtis was Pindar’s teacher Suda s.v. 'Pindar'.

Alongside the secular explanations of Pindar’s poetic talent, Pindar was also thought to be divinely inspired. According to the Ambrosian Life, which follows here Chamaeleon and Ister, two biographers of the early Hellenistic age, Pindar, as a young boy, once fell asleep in the middle of the day. Bees flew to his lips and built a honeycomb there; according to some, the Life also adds, the episode was a dream Vit. Ambr.. Pindar used the imagery of bees in his poetry (e.g. Olympian 6.46-7; Pythian 4.60, 10.54; fragment 158), sometimes as a metaphor for poetic activity. This biographical episode may have originated from the poet’s own verses.

The ancients gave differing answers as to where this episode, the initiation, occurred. According to Chamaeleon and Ister, the bees settled in Pindar’s mouth while he slept on Mount Helicon, where Hesiod had allegedly met the Muses (see Hesiod: A Guide to Selected Sources). Pausanias Paus. 9.23.2 extends the Hellenistic tradition and imagines the scene in detail, but this time the poet is described as falling asleep by the roadside on his way from Thebes to Thespiae. Philostratus Phil. Im. 2.12.1 says that Pindar was still a baby when the bees arrived at his cradle made of myrtle (cf. the name of Pindar’s mother, Myrtis) and laurel. In an unexpected final twist, he states that the divine bees came from the Hymettus, an Athenian mountain, thus suggesting an Athenocentric claim on Pindar’s poetry.

Pindar and the Gods

Ancient sources emphasized that Pindar enjoyed an unusually close relationship with the gods. Specific songs were imagined as motivated by encounters with deities, whether it was Demeter in a dream or a sighting of Pan Vit. Ambr. Vit. Thom. between Cithaeron and Helicon. In these stories Pan is also heard singing the songs of Pindar, an exceptional honour for a mortal. In the version found in the Thoman Life he was even singing very specifically Olympian 1 Vit. Thom., the first poem of both ancient and modern editions (cf. Irigoin 1952: 43-4). Pindar was also imagined as a founder of a cult in his own right. The Hellenistic Alexandrian scholar Aristodemus describes how Pindar saw a vision of a statue of Cybele Schol. Pind. Pyth. 3.77-8 while instructing another musician in the mountains. As a result, he established a shrine to the Great Mother near his house. The Thebans consulted the oracle about this mysterious turn of events, and they too were instructed to establish a shrine. When specifying ‘near his house’, Aristodemus was probably elaborating on the Pindaric passage where the poet describes girls singing praises to Cybele and Pan ‘outside his doorway’ (Pythian 3.77-8).


Aristodemus was not the only ancient reader to refer to Pindar’s house. We are told that, when destroying Thebes, the Spartan general Pausanias saved the house of the poet Vit. Ambr.. A sign Vit. Ambr. Dio Chrys. De regn. 2.33 was allegedly put up on the house to prevent anybody from burning the poet’s house. In 335 BC, when Alexander the Great Plin. NH 7.29.109 Arr. 1.9.9-10 Ael. VH 13.7 Dio Chrys. De regn. 2.33 razed Thebes after its revolt, the house was supposedly saved again, along with the descendants of the poet and the local priests. This account may well derive from the first Alexandrian historians used by Arrian and others in their own presentations of Alexander. The house at some point became a site of Pindaric memory, regardless of the historicity of the story (on which cf. Slater 1971, contra Bosworth 1980: 91).

Part of the impetus to save the house likely came from the fact that the site was more generally associated with religious activities. The sophist Philostratus says that even before Pindar was born ‘cymbals resounded’ in his house and the ‘drums of Rhea were heard.’ Both Philostratus and Aelian add that Pindar was inspired as a poet in front of his house Phil. Im. 2.12 Ael. VH 12.45. Pausanias describes his own visit to the sanctuary Paus. 9.25.3 by the house of the poet. The author of the Ambrosian Life adds that the house had become Thebes’ Prytaneion.

Corinna and Pindar

Modern scholars are divided about the dating of Corinna of Tanagra: some place her in the late third-century, while others accept the fifth-century date the ancients themselves report (e.g. Allen and Frel 1972; West 1970, 1990). In any case, ancient commentators believed Corinna to be a contemporary of Pindar and to have defeated him in a poetic contest. Corinna’s victory in this competition became a point of local pride. Pausanias describes a painting he saw in Tanagra of Corinna binding her head Paus. 9.22.3 after her victory over Pindar. Ancient sources (e.g. Pausanias 9.22.3 Paus. 9.22.3; Aelian, Historical Miscellanies 13.25 Ael. VH 13.25) attribute her victory not to the quality of her poetry, but to her beauty, her parochial dialect (local Boeotian, rather than the panhellenic Doric of Pindar’s poetry), and even the boorishness of the audiences (cf. Larmour 2008). As a woman and a relatively parochial poet, Corinna is depicted as the underdog both socially and poetically against the internationally renowned Pindar. This tale is structurally similar to the Contest between Homer and Hesiod insofar as the underdog achieves a surprising victory against a more celebrated poet.

Corinna is also reported by Plutarch as reprimanding Pindar Plut. De glor. Ath. 347f-348a for his too liberal use of grandiloquent mythological references: ‘One should sow with the hand, not the entire sack.’ Once again we can see a contrast between the rustic, simple Corinna and the bombastic Pindar.

Death and Honours

One version of his death Vit. Ambr. claims that a set of ambassadors asked the oracle of Ammon on behalf of Pindar ‘What is the best thing amongst men?’ and that he died soon after. Pindar mentions Ammon several times in his poetry, which probably motivated this story (e.g. Pythian 4.16; fragment 36). A more romantic answer to the same question is given by another version of Pindar’s death: after praying that the finest thing be given to him, Pindar died publicly at the feet of his lover Theoxenus Suda s.v. 'Pindar' Val. Max. 9.12.(ext.)7, for whom he wrote erotic poems (see fragment 123).

Pindar was the recipient of extensive cultic honours. At Delphi shares of the sacrifice were put aside for him, and the priest invited Pindar to feast with Apollo himself (see e.g. the Ambrosian Life Vit. Ambr.). Multiple sources even indicate that he received these honours while he was still alive Vit. Metr. Paus. 9.23.3.


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  • Bosworth, A. B. 1980. A Historical Commentary on Arrian's History of Alexander. Oxford.
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  • Irigoin, J. 1952. Histoire du Texte de Pindare. Paris.
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    • 2012. The Lives of the Greek Poets (1st edn 1981). Baltimore.
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    • 1990. ‘Dating Corinna.’ CQ 40: 553-7.
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