This paper presents a new explanation for the appearance of Nestor and Sarpedon at the end of Pindar’s third Pythian ode, where they are cited as exemplars of the principle that our knowledge of heroic achievement is mediated by poetry. I argue that Pindar’s use of Nestor and Sarpedon is best understood by fitting it into broader structures of counterfactual narrative within the ode: just as Pindar starts the poem by expressing the unattainable wish that Hieron of Syracuse be restored to health, so he ends it by evoking the characters associated in the narrative of the Iliad with counterfactual moments where the epic toys with the idea that a lost youth might be restored or the fate of death averted.
At P. 3. 112-114, Pindar observes that we know Nestor and Sarpedon, “the talk of men,” through the words that experts have composed. There has long been puzzlement over Pindar’s reasons for choosing these two characters to express this theme. Speculation has covered a range of options, from the suggestion that the names are chosen almost at random (Young: 62), to the notion that they are types of wisdom and courage respectively, to the proposal that they are types of longevity (Miller). Sider has usefully remarked that both heroes exemplify what he calls the non omnis moriar theme: in the Iliad each is aware that they are regarded with particular honor by their countrymen and companions. This evocation of an Iliadic context can be taken further.Homer deploys the heroes in the Iliad to underline the inexorability of death and the relentless advance of old age. Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, is fated to die at the hands of Patroklos.In a famous episode, Zeus laments his forthcoming death to Hera and wonders whether to rescue him from his fate. Hera protests that it would be almost unthinkable to save a mortal who has long ago been doomed to die (Il.16.440-442). Instead of contemplating such an act, Zeus should allow Sarpedon to die and be given honorable burial. This episode acts as a commentary on the issues foregrounded in Pythian 3, where Pindar wishes that he could have come to Syracuse with Chiron and cured Hieron of his illness. Zeus himself wished to save a beloved mortal from death, but did not do so. If Zeus will not even save his son, how much less possibility is there for Hieron to escape the fate of mortals. Like Sarpedon, he will be honored after death, both by physical monuments and by the song exemplified by Homeric epic.
The case of Nestor brings us back to the role played by the unattainable wish in Pythian 3. Pelliccia has already noted that the poem belongs to an established type where a wish is followed by narrative insertion: the(unattainable) wish that Cheiron were alive is followed by the stories of Koronis and Asklepios. He supplies several Homeric comparanda, including, significantly, Nestor’s lengthy narrative interventions, which typically begin with Nestor’s wish that he were as young and mighty as he was when he defeated a certain enemy in battle, a desire that cannot, unfortunately, be fulfilled (e.g. Il. 4.318-323).Nestor’s wish to turn back the clock is closely comparable to Pindar’s wish that Cheiron were still alive.
Both Homer’s Sarpedon, then, and his Nestor are evoked in Pythian 3 because they introduce counterfactual possibilities into Homeric narrative, moments when a character wishes that the current world order could be over-ridden but when the possibility is dismissed because it runs counter to standard divine practice.They resonate strongly with Hieron because fate or weakness or some combination of both has prevented them from achieving all that they might. Just as their counterfactuals prefigure his, so does their fame.