Choregic poetry

Choregic poetry

Perhaps the best known of the choregic poets, Pindar (522–443 b.c.e.) drew inspiration from the early history of Greece, the Dorians, Mycenae, and the Achaeans. Pindar was part of the great generation of Greeks who had turned back the Persian invasions of Darius I and Xerxes I and witnessed the great victories of Marathon against Darius (490 b.c.e.) and Salamis against Xerxes (480 b.c.e.). After such victories, poets like Pindar could look back with pride on the Mycenean Age, and the Homeric epics that celebrated Agamemnon, Ulysses, and the fall of Troy.

Pindar produced some 15 books of poetry, of which unfortunately only his Epinikia (Victory odes) have survived. The papyrus texts in Egypt were most likely brought there after its conquest by the Greek general Ptolemy II, who took Egypt after the wars of succession that followed the death in Babylon of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c.e.

The Epinikia were written largely to celebrate the athletic competitions that formed such a great part of Greek culture, much like the events found at the Olympic Games. The very term marathon came from the runner who carried the news of the great victory of Marathon back to Athens, after which he collapsed and died from exhaustion.

Under the choregic system, Pindar’s greatest poetic rivals were Simonides and Bacchylides. The rivalries were not just for glory but because rulers like Hiero I (478–467 b.c.e.) and Theron were wealthy  patrons, who amply rewarded the poets who lauded their athletic prowess. Simonides of Ceos (c. 556–469 b.c.e.), for example, found a patron in Hipparchus of Athens. After the assassination of Hipparchus in 514 b.c.e., he fled to Thessaly where the aristocratic Scopadae and Aleuadar families befriended him. After Marathon, Simonides returned to Athens but only stayed briefly. He then journeyed to Sicily at the invitation of Hiero, where he lived until his death.

Simonides is best remembered for his poetry, and even early in his career wrote paens to the sun god of the Greeks, Apollo. He was an intimate of Themistocles, the architect of the great naval victory at Salamis. Themistocles could be considered the father of ancient Greek naval power.

His Greek patriotism was reflected in his verse. Simonides’ philosophy was earthy and practical, as one might expect from one who had seen the best and worst of men in war. One of Simonides’ best known surviving works is “The Lamentation of Danae,” in which “Danae and her infant son were confined by order of her father Acrisius in a chest and set adrift on the sea. The chest floated towards the island of Seriphus, where both were rescued by Dictys, a fisherman, and carried to Polydectes, king of the country, who received and protected them.” Danae’s infant son Perseus would grow up to slay the monster gorgon Medusa, who had snakes for hair and whose gaze could turn a man into stone.

Bacchylides, interestingly enough, was the nephew of Simonides: His mother was the sister of the poet. Compared to Simonides and Pindar, biographical data on Bacchylides is sparse. Among his odes the earliest can be approximately dated to 481 or 479 b.c.e.; the latest date is fixed to 452 b.c.e. Like Pindar and Simonides, he went to the court of the ruler of Syracuse, Hiero. Indeed, it appears that the rivalry between Bacchylides, Pindar, and Simonides was acute at the Syracusan court. Out of the work created by Bacchylides, some six dithyrambs, poems based on mythological themes, and 14 epinikia are known to have survived.

Considering that Hiero’s victories took place in the Olympic Games, the poetry of Pindar and Bacchylides became known throughout the oecumene, the Greek speaking world. Hiero’s victories involved horse racing, showing the importance of the horse in Greek culture and warfare. Bacchylides wrote two works on the life of Theseus, who according to Greek mythology killed the Minotaur, the half man, half bull monster who lived within the labyrinth on the island of Crete.
Choregic poetry Choregic poetry Reviewed by Ajit Kumar on 8:49 PM Rating: 5

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