Pindar’s Eighth Nemean Ode celebrates the foot-race victory of one Deinias or Deinis of Aegina and also, retrospectively, that of his deceased father Megas in the same event. The most striking part of the ode is a seeming digression by Pindar on the reception his telling of “new things” is likely to provoke. He fears that envious people will attack his poem and cites what befell Ajax in the award of arms. Much has been made of the theme of φθόνος in the poem (Miller, Bulman) in spite of the fact that this noun has to be supplied as the subject of ἅπτεται and ἐρίζει (22) out of φθονεροῖσιν (21), which several people have said is a long shot to impossible. Unnoticed is the fact that the description of the award of arms to Odysseus contains no hint that the outcome was the result of envy: rather, what is emphasized is that Ajax lacked speaking skill and that Odysseus was brilliant at throwing dust in people’s eyes. There are real grounds for doubting that Pindar is highlighting envy in telling this story. So what is the point of the Ajax exemplum?
Another oddity is the rather indirect and anfractuous way Pindar reaches the subject of Deinis’ victory. Usually the victory is the second or third topic (if it is not introduced right away) from the beginning of the poem. Here Pindar begins with youthful beauty and the effect it has on those who see it; moves to the concept of ‘best erotes’; finds in Zeus’s love for Aegina an example of this; describes the fruit of their union, Aeacus; and addresses a supplication to Aeacus on behalf of Aegina and her citizens. This is a long journey. The mention of the Lydian headband he brings in honor of Deinis’ victory comes in a participial phrase. Even then we are not fully settled on the victory since the next sentence explains why Pindar is supplicating Aeacus, not why he is celebrating Deinis. The supplication for the welfare of Aegina has a prominence that is hard to explain (unexplained by Kurke, who notes it).
I have two theses. (1) The supplication for Aegina and her citizens implies that the island’s prosperity is somehow in danger. This, I argue, is not from external enemies but from internal strife, in particular, a challenge to noble families like the Chariadai to which Deinis and Megas belong (46). Pindar presents himself as Aegina’s friend (13) as well as Deinis’s (42), and he seems to be reminding the Aeginetans that the Chariadai have been bringing glory to the island for at least a generation. The point of the Ajax exemplum is how badly wrong things can go if skill in speaking counts more than inherited arete, which often happens when the demos attempts to take power from the hereditary nobility. Ajax, of course, is the grandson of Aeacus. Pindar contrasts him as possessor of τὸ λαμπρόν with Odysseus, whom he describes a one of the ἄφαντοι who are given a spurious glory by πάρφασις, persuasive or deceptive speech. Deceptive rhetoric, not envy, is the theme that the Ajax story illustrates. (2) The view of 21-2 in which φθόνος is to be conjured out of φθονεροῖσιν is wrong. The text is corrupt (as has already been suggested by Stone, Vauvilliers, and Henry), and the words to be challenged are δὲ λόγοι, which are omitted in some manuscripts. I suggest that in their place we need a masculine singular word (cf. κεῖνος in 23) meaning ‘obloquy’ or ‘dispraise’: it is dispraise that is a treat to the envious, and dispraise by Odysseus arguably caused the mis-awarding of the arms. More than one suggestion is possible, so certainty is unobtainable. But if this is the meaning of the passage, there is coherence between it and the rest of the second triad.
Poetics, Politics, and Religion in Greek Lyric and Epinician