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Pindar, Hieron and the Persian Wars. An Intertextual Reading of Pi. Pyth. 1.71-80

Almut Fries

Pindar’s First Pythian Ode, written for Hieron of Syracuse in 470 BC, is not only one of the greatest extant Greek lyric poems, but also a priceless historical document because it provides a unique perspective on the Sicilian victories over the Carthaginians and Etruscans in 480 and 474 BC. This paper explores the relationship between Pyth. 1.71-80, where the battles of Himera and Kyme are set on a level with those of Salamis and Plataea, and passages from Aeschylus’ Persians and Simonides’ Plataea Elegy, which has not been adequately noted in recent literature (e.g. Gentili et al. 1995; Morgan 2015). It is argued that Pindar vied with his poetic contemporaries, both of whom were well known in Sicily, to support the claim that the martial exploits of Hieron and other members of the Deinomenid family matched those of the mainland Greeks.

In Pi. Pyth. 1.71-80 a prayer to Zeus that the Carthaginians and Etruscans may keep quiet after the Syracusans defeated them in defence of Greek freedom, is followed by a priamel, in which Pindar contrasts the gratitude he might earn from the Athenians and Spartans for praising Salamis and Plataea with that of the Deinomenids for his glorification of Himera. In the combination of themes Pindar’s brief description of the sea battle before Kyme strongly resembles Aesch. Pers. 401-28 from the messenger speech that recounts the battle of Salamis: both Persians and Etruscans drown as they are overwhelmed (Pyth. 1.73-4 ~ Pers. 418-28), and the delivery of Greece from servitude is emphasised (Pyth. 1.75 ~ Pers. 401-5).

The second motif, which is one of the main Greek literary topoi relating to the Persian Wars, occurs also in Simonides’ Plataea Elegy, of which significant fragments were only published by Parsons in 1992 (cf. frr. 10-18 West). The relevant couplet (Sim. fr. 11.25-6 W.) is mutilated, but its content has exempli gratia been reconstructed with the help of two pseudo-Simonidean epigrams from roughly the same period (‘Sim.’ Epigr. 16.1-2, 20(a) Page). While there is no proof that Pindar had Simonides in mind here, it is likely, given that he introduces the battles of Salamis and Plataea in the context of winning rewards for (commissioned) praise poetry. In addition to the Plataea Elegy, Simonides wrote an elegy and a lyric poem on the battle of Artemisium (frr. 1-4 W., PMG 533; cf. Pindar’s dithyramb, fr. 77 Sn.-M.) and apparently a lyric poem on the battle of Salamis (cf. West 1993: 2-3 = 2013: 112-13), none of which survive in sufficient quantity. Morgan (2015: 148, 330-1) also observes the shared use of the Trojan War paradigm in Pythian 1 (50-7: Hieron ~ Philoctetes) and the Plataea Elegy (Sim. fr. 10 + 11.1-20 W.: opening hymn to Achilles).

Would Hieron and at least part of the original audience have recongised these similarities? Very probably. I see no reason to doubt the ancient statements that Aeschylus’ Persians was re-performed in Syracuse at Hieron’s invitation (schol. Ar. Ran. 1028f Chantry, Vit. Aesch. 18) and that Simonides spent time in Sicily in the 470s (testt. 55-61 Poltera). He would hardly have failed to present his poetic celebrations of the victories that saved Greece.

Hieron’s ambition to win pan-Hellenic recognition for his achievements, for which Pindar is our original source, has long been recognised. But we also see now a subtle literary game: Pindar not only equates Hieron’s victories with those of the Persian Wars, but also accords him an encomium to rival the works of Aeschylus and Simonides. If, for whatever reason, Hieron’s brother and predecessor Gelon refused to assist the mainland Greeks against Xerxes (Hdt. 7.157-66), Pindar found an impressive way to show that the Deinomenids did their part after all.

Session/Panel Title:

Inscribing Song: Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry

Session/Paper Number

48.4

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