You are here

The Snake-Throttler in Saffron Clothes. Baby Herakles in the Hippodrome (Pindar, Nemean 1)

Claas Lattmann

Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel

Since antiquity, Pindar’s epinician odes have puzzled readers and scholars alike (see Young 1970; cf. Lloyd-Jones 1973: 109–117; Most 1985: 11-41). Two of the most pressing problems concern their unity and their relation to the extratextual situation. One instructive example is Nemean 1, a victory ode for Chromios of Syracuse who won in the chariot race at Nemea (see Braswell 1992; Carey 1981). This ode consists of two parts of roughly equal size, one of which is devoted to general musings and self-reflexive, often boastful statements the speaker makes about himself (on this part of the song, see Petrucione 1986; Slater 1984; also Waring 1982); while the other part tells a seemingly unrelated myth of Herakles battling two snakes when he was a baby, of his subduing the Giants when he was a grown-up, and his eventual marriage of Youth (Hebe) (on this part of the song, see Cusset 1999; Rose 1974; Segal 1974; also Gerber 1962). How these two apparently disparate parts could belong together and, thus, how Nemean 1 could be read as one, unified poem has been a matter of scholarly debate; so far, no satisfying answer has been put forward (cf. Newman & Newman 1982; Radt 1962; Rosenmeyer 1969).

In this paper, I will propose an integrative reading of the whole ode. In so doing, I will show that the semantic space set up by the song itself brings about a substantive indirect praise of the victor, which would not have been possible by way of direct praise, neither in extent nor in scope: Chromios is represented as the hero Herakles of his own times.

The starting-point for this reading is the observation that Herakles’s victory over the snakes is narrated in such a way that it appears as similar to a victory in a chariot race: the two snakes are depicted as reins, the chamber is likened to a hippodrome, Herakles is shown in charioteer’s clothes, and in the battle, Herakles demonstrates his strength and wisdom, given to him by his father Zeus by birth. All subsequent achievements were similar to this first fight of his. By implication, during the whole of his career as a hero, Herakles demonstrated nothing but the skills of a “charioteer.” They eventually allowed him to subdue the Giants and thus to secure his greatest success, for it procured him a place among the gods, immortality and never-ending youth.

In the first part of the ode, on the other hand, the Nemean victor Chromios is shown to have the same skills, i.e. strength and wisdom, and as having possessed them since he was born. This lets him appear as similar to Herakles, and, in consequence, his Nemean victory as parallel to Herakles’s victory over the Giants. Chromios, therefore, turns out to be a “Herakles,” who has secured himself a place among the gods, too, including immortality and never-ending Youth (Hebe). Due to his chariot victory, he has become god-like, that is, as a human, a “hero.”

Herakles’ marriage celebration with Youth (Hebe), with which the song ends, accordingly turns out to be a mirror to the current victory celebration. Not only are both celebrations similarly generous feasts, but during the current celebration, the speaker is similarly generous with his praise. Neither the speaker nor Chromios keeps his wealth to himself, but both spend it for their friends. In so doing, the speaker represents himself as similar to Chromios, and this implies that his praise will be as victorious as Chromios’s chariot-race, leading to never-ending bliss and immortality for the hero Chromios.

This paper has three steps: first, I will give an overview of Nemean 1 and discuss the interpretative problems it raises. Second, I will explicate my reading of the song. Third, I will sketch some of the ramifications this interpretation has for our understanding of Pindar’s epinician odes in general.

Session/Panel Title

Lyric from Greece to Rome

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy