Episode 25: Lyrical Ballistics

The work of Sappho, Pindar, and other remarkable Greek lyric poets makes us question everything we think we know about poetry, what it is, and what it does.

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Sappho, Pindar, and Archaic Greek Poetry

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 25: Lyrical Ballistics. And welcome back to Ancient Greece. We’re going to be here for a while.

Today we’re going to talk about a genre called Greek lyric poetry. Greek lyric poetry is most often associated with the years from 750-500 BCE, a period which historians call Greece’s “Archaic Age.” Today, the most famous Greek lyric poet is probably Sappho, a native of the island of Lesbos, who lived from the late 600s to the early 500s – maybe 630-570. The runner up is probably Pindar, who lived from 518 to about 443 BCE, about a century after Sappho. Let’s not get too academic right away, though. That really wouldn’t do with Greek lyric poetry. Let’s bracket the names and dates for while, because we’re going to go to a party. [music]

Partying it Up in Boeotia

Boeotia’s location within Greece. Map by Felipealvarez.

It’s a sunny evening in the year 582 BCE. We’re standing on top of a stone wall in a place called Boeotia. To the east and west of us rises green hill country, and to the north, a plain that ends in more pale green hills, with the dark blue sheen of a freshwater lake between them. The hills bloom with perennial grasses, plane trees, oaks, and an occasional poplar. Orchards and vineyards quilt the lowlands, and on rocky ridges and peaks in the distance, you can see the wind-bent shapes of cypress trees, curved into sickles and cones by the press of the inland breeze.

Close by where we’re standing, the oak trees touch the ends of their boughs to the earth, and beneath them, small creatures forage for acorns, pulling off their caps and grinding through their shells to get to the precious pastel meal inside. Where there are no oaks, there are bushes, and the shrub lands near the walls are filled with woodpeckers, quail and pheasant. As far as the eye can see, everywhere the grass has come up, bursts of yellow flowers catch the light of the fading afternoon. Later, when the moon rises, the flowers will turn a paler yellow, and all around us, the beige rocks on mountains, the distant lakes, and the neatly cut stonework beneath our feet will brighten, and glow, and shimmer in the starlight. Also, we’re going to get really drunk. Or, I should say, even more drunk.

Thebes our setting for greek lyric poetry

Ruins of the ancient city of Thebes. Photo by J. Matthew Harrington.

It’s the twelfth day of Anthesterion, and we’re in the middle of a three day party called Anthesteria, a festival in honor of the city’s patron god, Dionysus. This party is a ritual celebration of the opening of last year’s wine, and the whole town is going to get rowdy. The city in question is Boeotian Thebes, a place about forty miles northwest of Athens, not to be confused with the more famous Egyptian Thebes. The year, again, is 582, and Boeotian Thebes, like many other cities in the Aegean world, is up and coming. Thebes is trading with its neighbors, Eretria, Platea, Corinth and Athens, and at this particular juncture Athens is no more prominent than a dozen other advantageously located towns in Archaic Greece. At this juncture, actually, Thebes seems like it might just shoulder its way to prominence amidst its neighbors. Let’s – just for a moment – let’s pretend that we are Thebans. It’s pretty cool to be a Theban in 582 BCE. Our city is the legendary birthplace of Heracles. Thebes is close to Delphi, and Mount Halicarnassus. We have expansive fresh water lakes to the north. Our legendary founder, Cadmus, was a monster slayer in league with Perseus and Heracles – Cadmus supposedly brought the Greeks the phonetic alphabet and slayed a legendary dragon. And much more recently, our most famous poet, Hesiod, has written poetry that’s famous in certain circles throughout the Aegean world. In short, as Thebans, we have a lot going for us.

And, as Thebans, we’re well aware that something momentous has happened recently in Ancient Greece. Now, granted, in the 580s, in the ancient world, all kinds of stuff is going on. Way over in southwestern Iran, a king named Astyages has come to power over the Medes, a legendary king whose long tenure on the throne will consolidate a power balance between Mesopotamia and the Eastern steppe lands. In Canaan, in the 580s, Babylon has just besieged and crushed the city of Jerusalem, taking many of its moneyed citizens captive, including the prophet Ezekiel. The prophet Jeremiah, who has written and will continue to write a vast swath of the Bible, has in the 580s gone down to Egypt, where a pharaoh called Wahibre Haaibre is reeling under a military mutiny and the rise of a rival pharaoh. Against this rival phraoh, Wahibre will unsuccessfully send an army of Greek soldiers who have established a settlement called Naucratis in the western Nile Delta. In the 580s, in short, the civilizations we’ve met in this podcast so far were coming into increasingly close, and increasingly tumultuous contact with one another.

So as we stand on that stone wall in peaceful Boeotia in the year 582 BCE, looking out over the oak trees, with the fading afternoon light spilling into our wine cups, what do we talk about? The rise of a new power in the Mesopotamian east? The Babylonian conquest of Israel, maybe? What about the Greek mercenaries down in Egypt, working on behalf of the pharaoh? That seems exciting and culturally relevant to us. But no. We don’t talk about any of that stuff. We’re at a party. We want to keep things light. And so we talk about sports. [music]

The New Pythian and Isthmian Games

Every four years, for generations, we Thebans have sent our athletes far to the west, to the city of Elis, where they compete with other city states in the Panhellenic Olympic Games. But at our party tonight, everyone is talking about something new – something exciting. Just recently, a new set of games, the Pythian Games, have been established at Delphi in honor of Apollo. These new games – and we’re super excited about this – involve musical competitions as well as athletic competitions. But, even more excitingly, these new Pythian games are, again, at Delphi, are only fifty miles to the west of us, and not a hundred fifty miles away, like the big Olympic held way over in the Peloponnese. As if that’s not cool enough, this year – just this year – mind you, yet another set of recurrent games has been set up, games called the Isthmian Games, named after the Isthmus between mainland Greece and the Peloponnese, which is also much closer to us than the traditional Olympics. This means, quite simply, that there will be far more sporting competitions, that we can go to more of them, and that you and I, as Thebans, will be able to watch our city’s athletes compete more often and show them our support. And that’s something to celebrate.

Something additional to celebrate, I mean. Because it’s already the second day of Anthesteria. All around us, people are dressed up like satyrs and fauns and nymphs. Inside the Theban palace, guys are having drinking competitions to see who can drain cups most quickly. One of the many fun things about Anthesteria is that slaves are allowed to participate, and so, whoever we are, lowborn or high, we can stand shoulder to shoulder, look out over the olive orchards, and talk about the electrifying changes in sports going on all over Greece. There will be chariot races, discus throwing, wrestling, foot races, and hurls of the javelin. Everyone is talking about who Thebes will send to the new games – how we’ll distinguish our city during this particular round. A middle aged man, a bit red in the face, who fancies himself a runner, sprints through the courtyard and stumbles into a fountain, and everyone laughs. Oops! Sober up, someone says, and lose that paunch. But another man, a slave, is taken a bit more seriously. He says he can hurl a discus as far as anyone, and to prove it, finds a disc shaped stone and flings it far out over the olive orchard. Onlookers eye the powerful throw appreciatively, a man recollects a throw of Odysseus in the Odyssey, and an influential aristocrat puts into words what everyone is thinking. “That guy,” he says, “needs to go to the Pythian Games to represent us, the Thebans!” Everyone agrees, and vast quantities of wine are consumed in order to celebrate.

So there we are, all of us Thebans, the Mediterranean sun setting to the southwest, the long dormant wine and green shoots and leaves all blossoming to life around us. As dusk settles and the braziers roar to life, everyone appears prosperous and timeless, grand and magisterial. Pronouncements and predictions seem to have a special heft as the moon and stars begin to replace the glow of dusk. Thebes’ fortunes, to all, appear to be as limitless as the grand hills and sparkling lake to the north of us, and as we all enjoy a bellyful of wine and talk about sports, what’s next? Foosball? Darts? Cards? No, actually. Poetry. [music stops]

Archaic Greek Lyric Poetry in Performance

Wait, wait, no, don’t leave. This poetry has music. It has some singing. It has extremely graphic sex. [music] Yeah. It does. Yeah, the music started again. Side note, by the way, I’m not kidding about that – some of literature’s first pornography is definitely within the archives of the lyrical poetry of Ancient Greece.

Lyre teacher Petit Palais ADUT00317 n2 greek lyric poetry

A lyre teacher is depicted on this detail from an Attic red figure amphora, dated from 440-430 BCE. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

So, in the middle of our Theban party, as the heady second day of Anthesteria comes to a climax, we turn to the main course of our entertainment for the evening. The moon is up, now, and bats are snatching bugs out of the air, and everywhere is the scent of the Boeotian meadows in early spring – long grass and thick loamy soil. You and I hear some commotion inside and grin at one another, because we know what’s afoot. Arm in arm, maybe pausing, to fill another cup of wine, if you’d like, we sidle through the crowd that’s gathering in the palace courtyard. There, five people are standing on the stage of a small amphitheater, an amphitheater built for just this sort of thing – festivals of wine and starlight, conviviality and laughter, a love for well crafted lines and beautiful music. Who are these people? What do they look like?

There are two girls – maybe slaves, maybe noblewomen, maybe in between. We know what they’ll do. They’ll sing and dance. After all, the word chorus, from which we get the word choreography, meant a group singing set to music, with added dancing. There is a man with a strung musical instrument called a lyre, a medium sized affair maybe two feet long and a foot across, with anywhere from eight to twenty or so strings. He plucks a few notes on it and smiles at the audience. The words “Lyric Poetry” come from the Greek word lyra, so it’s absolutely mandatory to have one of these babies onstage. So, additionally, there is a man who will play the aulos – that double flute so common to Greek music, in which one flute holds a pedal tone or countermelody, and the other plays the principal melody. He, too plays a little ditty and then, flutes still in his mouth so that he looks like a walrus, grins at a man standing across from him. I think the whole thing would sound a little bit like this, as the band warmed up. [sound effect] Sorry, I just really like it when bands warm up, and I was trying to think of what it would have been like to hear one warm up in 582 BCE. So there’s one more figure on stage, and he is at the center of the group, a dignified looking old man with a pointy beard who, by the looks of him, may or may not be lethally intoxicated. He’s the emcee of the production, and seems, as much as anyone in the courtyard, to be in his element.

The semicircular throng tightens around the stage. Around us are the smells of fermentation in cups, olives and cheese, sweat and perfume, oil and incense, joy and sorrow, lust and loss, and torchlight moves along the brass braziers like molten rock. As European villagers will be in fifteen hundred years as they sit on the greensward and watch mystery plays, as Elizabethans will be in two thousand years in London’s Globe Theater, as African Americans will be twenty-four hundred years later in the smoky magic paradises of Harlem’s jazz clubs, we are in a place where pure human creativity is invited, unleashed, and understood, where those onstage are sorcerers and prophets, and we are their apostles. The archaic Greek stage was a place of alchemy, where a few simple instruments joined some of humankind’s greatest poetry, and whatever was spoken, epic recitations or newfangled satire, bawdy ballads or pious hymns – whatever was spoken was graced with the special magic of any given occasion.

So there we are, with considerable blood alcohol levels, and thank goodness an evening breeze spins through the open courtyard roof and cools things off a bit. As if suddenly brought to life by the wind, up onstage, the emcee makes it clear that he’s ready to begin, and a frisson of even greater excitement washes over the audience. The emcee proposes something universally appealing – a toast to the wine god, Dionysus, whose festival we are celebrating, and in whose city we are residing. We clack our wine cups together, thinking of the god watching over us and wholeheartedly approving. The middle aged guy who tried to run earlier is finally put over the edge, and he flops over into a bush and begins snoring, and everyone laughs. He’s going to miss the best part, someone says. And then, the performers begin their set. And how do they begin their set? Why, with a classic, of course.
At last the armies clashed at one strategic point,
they [rammed] their shields together, pike scraped pike
with the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze
and their round shields pounded, boss on welded boss,
and the sound of struggle roared and rocked the earth.
Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.
Wildly as two winter torrents raging down from the mountains,
swirling into a valley, hurl their great waters together,
flash floods from the wellsprings plunging down in a gorge
and miles away in the hills a shepherd hears the thunder –
so from the grinding armies broke the cries and crash of war.1

Did that sound familiar? It might, if you’ve listened to Episodes 9-11 on Homer’s Iliad. It is the first of many great battles between the Greeks and Trojans, and it’s safe to assume that the poem’s highlights found their way into thousands of public celebrations during Ancient Greece’s Archaic period.

Now, let me make a confession. I know what ancient Greek instrumentation was like and have tried to imitate it, and I do understand their modes pretty well. But we don’t have much information about what their songs sounded like, melodically or harmonically. So I’m making the music up. I did it just to show you something that I have tried to make clear again and again and again through shows about ancient literature. It came up when we talked about Hesiod and Homer, Exodus and Leviticus, Psalms and the Song of Songs. And that is that much of this ancient poetry and liturgy that we’ve been exploring was not read. As of 582 BCE, as we watch our performance in Boeotian Thebes, we’re still over 2,000 years away from the invention of the printing press. We are even further away from widespread literacy and the private consumption of poetry and religious scriptures. And so both, whether we’re talking about secular poetry or religious scriptures, as Thebans during the Archaic Age in Greece, our poems, and our sacred legends, are all performed and experienced publically, with music.

So what’s next? That excerpt from the Iliad was pretty good. What will they perform now? [music]

Major Figures in Greek Lyric Poetry

Of course you and I wouldn’t know that. We’re talking about literary and performance traditions that have been out of use for thousands of years. But if we really were Thebans in 582 BCE, we’d have a pretty good idea of the range of content we could expect. Next to Homer, a renegade poet named Archilochus of Paros is likely to come up, a figure famous for poems about military conflicts and political feuds, but maybe even more so for his graphic stories about sexual exploits. Archilochus will almost certainly be performed. He was active during the previous century – the 600s BCE, but his work is still appreciated as nearly on par with Homeric epics at the Theban party we’re attending. Standing in the thick crowd in Thebes in 582 BCE, we might also expect to hear the work of Archilochus’ contemporary, Mimnermus of Smyrna, a writer known for his rousing poems about land wars in western Turkey.

A bit closer to our own times, the great Ionian poet Anacreon is active, and is well known for his meticulously crafted, carefully measured lyrics about living the good life and loving women and boys, topics which, as far as we Thebans are concerned, are agreeable across the board. One rising star in the world of archaic Greek poetry is a man named Stesichorus, a writer who, as of 582, is our contemporary. Stesichorus is likely to come up, because of his epic poems about Heracles, the most famous citizen of our city, Thebes. Everyone within a day’s march is on board with a well spun yarn about Heracles.

So all sorts of poems, and all sorts of poets are likely to be performed as the moon rises and nightingales sing from a nearby tree. And one of them, I am excited to say, is a very distinctive poet from a town called Myteline on the island of Lesbos. A great deal of poetry was coming out of this town during the Archaic Age in Greece, not the least of which was a major figure named Alcaeus, whose fiercely critical political poetry cost him his prosperity and his social position. But while Alcaeus is known mostly to specialists of Greek literature, his contemporary in Myteline on the island of Lesbos is, even today, a household name. As of 582, during our Anthesteria celebration, she is alive and well, less than 200 miles to the northeast of us across the central Aegean Sea. She is a stately, respected figure with a large body of work, some in public circulation, and some reserved for private performances. And her name is Sappho.

Along with Sappho, another lyric poet will eventually emerge with distinction from the very end of the Archaic Age. Standing in the midst of partygoers in the palace courtyard of Thebes in 582 as we still are, a little girl with garlands tumbling down from her hair might be this poet’s grandmother. He will be born in 518 BCE, right here in Thebes.2 The classical Greeks of Athens will rank him the greatest lyric poet ever to have lived. When he’s born, his name will be Pindar, and as Athens begins its experiments with democracy and the Persian Empire rumbles westward into the Aegean, this later poet Pindar will help usher Athens into a literary renaissance that has been famous, ever since.

So that’s a quick introduction to the dramatis personae of Greek lyric poetry. Now that we’re standing shoulder to shoulder with other Thebans, and the band has warmed up, and the show is just about to begin in earnest, I think we’re ready for the main idea of this episode. [music]

Lyrical Ballistics vs. Lyrical Ballads

The main idea of this episode is in its title: Episode 25: Lyrical Ballistics. In 1798, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the most famous proponents of English romanticism alongside William Blake, John Keats, Lord Byron and Percy Shelly – anyway, in 1798, Wordsworth and Coleridge published a book. It is a book that all English majors have encountered, and it’s called Lyrical Ballads. Lyrical Ballads is probably the most famous product of English romanticism, and Wordsworth its most famous practitioner. He is, along with Novalis, Goethe, Thoreau and maybe Chopin, the archetype of the tortured and reclusive artist, an archetype that is still alive and with us today in the twenty-first century.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850), one of the originators of the term “lyrical ballads,” had a very different conception of what a poet was and what a poet did than the audiences and performers of poetry in Ancient Greece.

When we think of a poet in the early 21st century, I think we have a Wordsworthian figure in mind, rather than an ancient Greek figure. We think of poets as people who live at a bit of a remove from the main thoroughfares of modern life. Introverts, maybe. Figures sitting in isolation and penning incisive criticisms of the course of modern society. The kinds of people who’d take a walk at twilight in November and pause underneath a leafless tree to pen a solitary meditation with their sleeves pulled down over their knuckles. We think of poets as specialized writers who in some cases are initiated into a difficult and esoteric world of language, language that’s difficult to understand for normal people like us. Even if we don’t think of the poet as an intellectual, and a removed figure, we’re these days likely to think of poetry itself as something inaccessible, or refined, or private.

There’s a long history as to why we have this modern conception about poetry. Certain echelons of poetry have always been for an in-crowd, an in-crowd who knows a special network of allusions, who has a particular poetic vocabulary, and the kind of conditioning necessary to understand the special language of poetry and appreciate its meters and stuff. But during the 20th-century, as modernism rose, and confessional poetry, and then postmodernism, the critical mass of poetry that was dense, and allusive, and self-referential began to grow. It grew, I think, into something splendid, but also something that never managed to find a wide readership. And so where we’re perched, in the early twenty-first century, we have this conception of poetry as something rarefied and special, and the poet as a figure removed from commercial and popular society. While Wordsworth himself, as those of us who know him understand, championed a poetry that was plainer and earthier than the carefully burnished couplets of the Augustan Age – while Wordsworth’s own poetry is fairly accessible, Wordsworth himself cultivated the reputation of a recluse, a removed wanderer, tucked into hills and dales, a philosophical contemplator concerned, primarily, with the greatest truths.

Wordsworth’s book, that hallmark work of romanticism published in 1798 called Lyrical Ballads, is in some ways the beginning of our thinking about the poet as a faraway figure whose elusive lines are to be contemplated by a more mundane public. Now, let’s bring things back to Ancient Greece. Lyrical Ballistics, again the title of this episode, is a pretty good way to think of the poet’s role in Archaic Greece, between 750 and 500 BCE. During this period the poet was not, generally speaking, a musing hermit. The Archaic Greek poet was a performer. He or she was part emcee, part singer; part rapper, part jukebox – even in some cases part dancer. In all ways, the Archaic Greek poet was an entertainer, a sort of band leader who took the stage on occasions like our boozy, tottering Theban celebration. Wordsworth, particularly in later poems like The Prelude, can be a retiring, misanthropic wanderer, not wanting to dip his toes into the crowd – this side of him is even evident in Lyrical Ballads. But in Lyrical Ballistics – in the poets whom we’re going to hear today – these guys were generally not Wordsworthian recluses. They were more commonly neck deep in the crowd, well apprised of public affairs. They were not, for the most part, detached from the rough and tumble of politics, and wars, and regional feuds. Because of their public stature, the Archaic Greek poets often had local allegiances. They had patrons they worked for – undoubtedly, the pointy bearded guy that we’re watching in this episode is commissioned by the leadership of Thebes. So overall, in differentiating the romantic poet of Lyrical Ballads with the Archaic Greek poet of Lyrical Ballistics, we’re going to need to suspend all of our modern expectations of what poets are and what they do. Because in 582 BCE, they were, without a doubt, the life of the party. [music]

About the Poems in this Show

Just one thing before we get back to that palace courtyard and start sipping wine again. The first is that the Greek lyric poetry that survives is extremely fragmented. Much of it has come down to us in papyrus scraps, or attributed quotations, or has lines and words missing. We are still deep in the ancient world, and so just as the Flood Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh has break points, and missing cuneiform symbols, the tattered manuscripts of Archaic Greek poetry are marred with gaps and puzzling interstices. As much as is possible, as I read you some of this poetry, I’m going to assemble groups of these fragments together to create a sense of unity to some of the poems. In doing so I will doubtless Frankenstein pieces of poems together that weren’t that way to begin with. But the alternative is to say, “Okay, so, the gap between Sappho’s Fragment 5 and 16 may indicate some elapse of time, although some scholars place Fragment 17b before Fragment 16 which helps explain puzzling lacunae in Fragment 17b, and others still see Fragment 31 as the beginning of the sequence.” That, obviously, just wouldn’t work in a podcast. The best I can do will be to sew some Sappho together to give you a sense of what she and her contemporaries may have sounded like at length. If anyone happens to be interested in these rearrangements, bless your academically diligent hearts, all the details of my reassembly work are at literatureandhistory.com.

Now, that said, I’ll also say I’m using three different translations in today’s show. The popular one is the M.L. West anthology called Greek Lyric Poetry, published by Oxford World’s Classics in 1993. I’m also using Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets, translated by Willis Barnstone and first published by Schocken Books in 1962, and Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation, a translation by Andrew Miller, issued by Hackett Publishing Company in 1996. All of these are terrific, well researched books. [lyre, ambient noise; a simulated “performance” begins here in which the host interacts with a Theban audience and emcee of 582 BCE]

Whoa – yeah – it sounds like the performers are itching to get started again. Hey – uh Let’s ask them what they’re going to perform. I’ll just take a drink first. Whew. That Theban Anthesteria wine is strong stuff.

Doug: Hey, uh – emcee guy – you with the pointy beard. How is this performance going to be organized?
Emcee: Well we were going to perform some ancient Greek poems.
Doug: Well obviously, uh, man. But how are they going to be structured?
Emcee: Ah bit of everything. We started with Homer. So I reckon we’ll just go through some of the Archaic Period’s most famous writers.
Doug: In chronological order?
Emcee: Ah, certainly. Are you done with your questions?
Doug: Yeah. Sorry. I just want everyone else in the room to understand – we’re about to hear some Archaic Greek poems – from the years between 750 BCE and 500 BCE, in chronological order.
Emcee: What the hell is BCE?
Doug: Uh, and that some of these poems contain very explicit sex.
Emcee: Well of course they do. They’re poetry! Let’s start with Archilochus.
Doug: Oh, boy. Yeah. That guy. He lived in the early 600s. South part of the Aegean Sea. Let’s see – uh – Archilochus, Archilochus, Archilochus. He’s widely revered here in Thebes in 582. Wrote on a lot of different themes. Maybe most famous as a satirist. But he wrote some really beautiful stuff on the uncertain nature of human existence. Are you going to perform one of those?
Emcee: Well maybe you should, you know it all.
Doug: Sure, sure. I’ll come up onstage. [footsteps, mike ringing] [loud] Can you hear me? [groans] Oh, sorry. Sorry. Okay. Alright, fellow Thebans of 582 BCE, I give you some of the more solemn poetry from Archilochus of Paros, a poet that during antiquity ranked on par with Homer! Poetry that counsels you on how to handle sorrows, and how to cope with life. You guys ready? [music]
Repining at painful sorrows. . .no one among our citizens,
  no, nor the city itself, will find pleasure in festivities:
such were the men whom the waves of the loud-roaring sea
  washed over, and we struggle in our distress
with swollen lungs. But for evils that have no cure,
  my friend, the gods have ordained stern endurance
as remedy. These things go by turns: now it is to us
  that they have shifted, and we groan at the bloody wound,
but soon they will pass to others. . .3
O heart, my heart, churning with unmanageable sorrows,
rouse yourself and fiercely drive off your foes
with a frontal attack, standing hard by them
steadfastly; and neither exult openly if you win,
nor, if you are beaten, fling yourself down at home in lamentation.
Instead, rejoice in what is joyful, grieve at troubles,
but not too much: be aware what sort of rhythm rules man’s life.4
All things are easy for the gods. Often out of misfortunes
they set men upright who have been laid low on the black earth;
often they trip even those who are standing firm and roll them
onto their backs, and then many troubles come to them,
and a man wanders in want of livelihood, unhinged in mind.5

[music, scattered applause] Huh? Hey, how about that, everybody? The wheel of fortune turns, casting the prestigious down and lifting the downtrodden up? Huh? Yeah! You have to be tough, and brave, and endure the sufferings that life throws at you. Yeah. What a great line, huh, “be aware what sort of rhythm rules man’s life?” Yeah. Alright.

DOUG: Yeah, tough crowd.
EMCEE: Listen, man, if you’re going to do Archilochus, you need to do the sex stuff. The seduction stuff.
DOUG: Really?
EMCEE: Yes. Look, I’ll make it easy for you. Just read this.
DOUG: Okay, let me take a look first. “Their nurse brought them along, with. . .[reading].”6 Oh, no way. You want me to read this to them?
EMCEE: Yes, it’s exactly fitting for this occasion.
DOUG: [hesitancy] Okay. Here goes. “Their nurse brought them along, with. . .”

Now, I’m going to stop the party. And we’re going to pretend that I read some of Archilochus’ erotic fragments to them. But I’m not going to read them on this show. I’m sorry. I wrote it all out, and read through it, and decided not to. I just don’t feel comfortable putting full on, graphic and even demeaning pornography in an otherwise PG-13 literature podcast. But suffice it to say that pornography was a genre of Ancient Greek poetry, and that it appears throughout the miscellanies of the Middle Ages and beyond. Maybe you remember Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale – that’s a fairly gentle story in comparison with some of the French fabliaux, and certainly some of the Greek poetry that I’m currently censoring. So, again, sorry for being a prude. If you want to read what I wouldn’t read, find M.L. West’s selection of Archilochus’ Erotic Fragments in the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Greek Lyric Poetry. Okay, now that I’ve probably made too big a deal over a little porn, let’s move on, and we’ll pretend I’m just reading the end of that.
. . .[and then] The virgin priestesses
with cudgels drove you away from the door.
  O fortunate man, to have
such daughters to his name!7

[crowd making raunchy noises]

EMCEE: Yeah, that’s the stuff. Alright, stranger, I was right about the sex. What’s next, hmm?
DOUG: Oh, man, we need to do something clean, now. Something more poetic and profound. Something that doesn’t involve orifices or gushing bodily fluids or large scale orgies. Hey, I know. You guys know Mimnermus – his second fragment. That’s a good one. It’s a – statement about human life. Here goes. [music]
We, like the leaves which come forth in the flowery season
  of spring, when they grow quickly under the radiance of the sun,
like them we enjoy the blossoms of youth for a short time only,
  merely an arm’s span in length, having no knowledge from the gods
either of evil or of good; beside us stand dark Spirits of Doom,
  both the one that decrees for us grievous Old Age
and the other that brings Death. The harvest-time of youth
  comes as quickly as the sun at dawn spreads its light over the earth.8

[crowd gives mediocre applause] DOUG: Hey, come on, guys. The autumn leaves, you know. The transience of mortal life – the beautiful, inevitable churn of generations of men – one of the most recurring images in world poetry – Homer wrote all about that. You know, the leaves metaphor – don’t you ever, like, think about your own life, and how some day no matter what you accomplish – you’ll be – just like the leaves? You know? I’m really blowing it up here. How about – something on Heracles? DOUG: Whoa – geez – alright. Great – that’ll work. Heracles. Okay, a brief piece on Heracles, from the pen of the Archaic poet Stesichorus, on Heracles’ battle with the monster Geryon! [music]
[Late in Heracles’ fight with Geryon, the time had come to bring] loathsome death to pass,
[And so Geryon struggled] with. . .doom about its head, defiled
By blood. . .and gall,

[Heracles brought to Geryon] the torments of the man-destroying
Hydra with its shifting necks; and in silence and with
  cunning [Heracles] thrust [his weapon, coated with the Hydra’s poison] into [Geryon’s] brow,
and it split the flesh and bones by dispensation of divinity;
  and the arrow held its course straight through
to the top of [Geryon’s] head
and stained with crimson blood
  his breastplate and his gory limbs.

Then Geryon’s neck drooped
  to one side, like a poppy
which, disfiguring its tender beauty,
  suddenly sheds its petals. [Thereafter]
Zeus’s son. . .went into [a] grove that laurels shaded. . .
[amidst] many myrtle leaves
And crowns of roses and garlands twined from violets.9

[wild cheering]

DOUG: Alright, what do you guys want to hear next?
[lyre and aulos strike up Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” to cheering]
DOUG: Whoa, whoa, whoa – no – we can’t do that. Think of something else.
[lyre and aulos strike up Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” to cheering]
DOUG: Whoa, whoa, no again – what is this? What kind of a band are you guys – do you travel through time, or something? Something from Ancient Greece!
[lyre and aulos strike up Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine”]
DOUG: What? No! What? I don’t under – I am losing it up here, guys. I need to hear some Ancient Greek instrumental poetry accompaniment! Okay?
[lyre and aulos strike up Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”]
DOUG: Holy [censored]. Alright, stop. Stop, stop. Okay. I need some – you know what? I’m going to go – if you guys don’t want to be historically accurate, I’m going to leave the mike for someone else. [sounds of astonishment] Why are you all looking back there? [Whistles, gasps of astonishment. Voices increasingly saying the word “Sappho.”][music]

Sappho, Myteline, and the Personal Lyric

And with the arrival of Sappho, it’s time to switch out of Boeotian Thebes party mode and back into our traditional format. For one, the last two poets that we’ll cover are major figures in world literature. And secondly, I want to take my time and introduce them a bit more extensively.

Let’s start with Sappho. Sappho was by almost all sources alive and well in 582 BCE, though she was probably living in Sicily by this time, following the blowback from political squabbles on the island of Lesbos, and general heightening tensions between Lesbos and Lydia on the Anatolian mainland. So, she actually could have showed up in Thebes in 582. But let’s back way up, and cover the ridiculously obvious.

Amanda Brewster Sewell’s Sappho (1891). Many or perhaps the bulk of Sappho’s compositions were written for private, small scale performances like the one depicted here.

Sappho is currently most famous for her lyrical poetry expressing love and longing for women. Her home island, Lesbos, is where we get the name “lesbianism.” Now that we’re all grownups, however, we know that the words “gay” and “lesbian” and “straight” are categories of the modern age, and so calling Sappho a lesbian is probably anachronistic. In the ancient world, and Middle Ages, for that matter, people just did stuff with other people – boys and girls, boys and boys, girls and girls, etc. It was no sexual free-for-all, and marriage was still a dominant social institution, and female infidelity was generally punished much more harshly than male infidelity, which was often expected – but anyway, our modern categories for sexual orientation just don’t fit too well in a place like Archaic Greece, where people did stuff without the existence of the homosexual/heterosexual checkboxes. I hope that what I am saying is no longer revisionist history, because it is, really, just history. Anyway, ample evidence in Sappho’s poetry exists to suggest love and erotic longing for women, and for this reason the LGBT community has long held her as a figurehead for homosexual love between women.

In 582 BCE, Sappho’s work was beginning to be known throughout the Aegean world. And as we reach her, we come to a slight complexity that I want you to consider carefully. The general theme of this episode has been “Lyrical Ballistics,” and our main adventure has been to visit a rollicking Theban party where early spring wine and late night poetry are the main courses of entertainment. We’ve heard deep philosophical poetry on how to live your life. We’ve heard graphic erotica – uh – sort of. We’ve heard a narrative about a hero. And in all cases, so far, we’ve seen the poet as a public figure, a person who faces the crowd and delivers entertainment, someone not inclined to privately composed lyrical ballads, but instead inclined to publically performed lyrical ballistics.

The complexity that I want you to consider is this. The idea of the Greek Archaic poet as a public entertainer is a useful way to differentiate the main line of Archaic Greek poetry from what we now consider to be a poet – you know, a private individual, confessing intimate, personal thoughts on paper. Archilochus, Mimnermus, and Stesichorus, whom we’ve already heard – these folks were not Elizabeth Bishops, Robert Lowells, or Sylvia Plaths. The average Archaic Greek poet was facing crowds and often composing on public themes – wars, myths, politics, and even sporting events. Now for the slight complexity. Sappho doesn’t quite fit this bill. Many of her poems were clearly composed for small audiences – coteries of friends and family who knew the situations and people Sappho did. So while it’s important to remember that the main line of Archaic Greek poetry, as far as we can tell, was most often encountered in a performance setting, and that it did engage with sex, politics, and contemporary history, some Archaic Greek poetry doesn’t quite work this way. In fact it’s very possible that quite a bit of private poetry was composed, as well. It’s just that when you have someone like Mimnermus, who had patrons in the eastern city of Smyrna, and this writer is composing nationalistic poems about military conflicts, these poems are more likely to be copied in civic records or etched in stone monuments in town squares than, say, a little monody in which an aristocrat confesses his love to peasant boy, written on a single piece of papyrus and then stuck in a boxwood chest to be forgotten by time. Ah – put plainly, the plentitude of public themed poetry we have from Archaic Greece may be more of a symptom of what’s survived and been copied than represent the full gamut of what people were actually writing. That’s common sense, I guess, but let’s not forget it. To return to Sappho, one of the many things that make Sappho remarkable is some of her work sounds hauntingly like the late modernist and confessional poetry that wouldn’t be popular until two and a half thousand years after she died.

Sappho’s Fragment 1 (“Hymn to Aphrodite”)

Sadly for all of us, only a tiny fraction of Sappho’s writings have survived. Plato honored her by giving her the unique status of being the tenth muse (traditionally there were nine), and of her poetry, only one work survives in a complete form. While ancient biographical fragments about her are generally regarded as dubious, the portions of her poems that survive indicate that she probably had a brother, that this brother may have had a fraught relationship with an Egyptian courtesan, and that Sappho might have had a daughter, as well. So let’s hear Sappho’s only extant poem that survives in full, shall we? It’s a hymn to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. And in it, Sappho recalls asking Aphrodite to come to her, and the arrival and advice of Aphrodite, and then following Aphrodite’s comforting advice, Sappho addresses her lover directly in the poem’s final lines. Here’s the poem. [music]
Immortal Aphrodite on your richly crafted throne,
daughter of Zeus, weaver of snares, I beg you,
do not with sorrows and with pains subdue
  my heart, O Lady,

but come to me, if ever at another time as well,
hearing my voice from far away,
you heeded it, and leaving your father’s house
  of gold, you came,

yoking your chariot. Graceful sparrows
brought you swiftly over the black earth,
with a thick whirring of wings, from heaven down
  through the middle air.

Suddenly they were here, and you, O Blessed,
with a smile on your immortal face
asked me what was wrong this time, and why
  I called you this time,

and what in my maddened heart I wanted most
to happen. “Whom shall I persuade this time
to welcome you in friendship? Who is it,
  Sappho, that wrongs you?

For if she flees now, soon she shall pursue;
if she refuses presents, she shall give them;
if she does not love, soon she shall love
even against her will.”

[Now you] Come to me now as well; release me from
this agony; all that my heart yearns
to be achieved, achieve, and be yourself
  my ally in arms.10

And that was quoted from the book Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation, published by Hackett Classics. So there was the only surviving full poem of Sappho. Several aspects of it bear a second look. The description of Aphrodite’s chariot, pulled by sparrows with “whirring wings,” is particularly famous for its vivid details. The assurance of Aphrodite is also often commented on for the neat parallelism of its promises: “For if she flees now, soon she shall pursue; / if she refuses presents, she shall give them.” And also, it needs to be said, the speaker, goddess, and nameless addressee are all women. Sappho’s full surviving poem isn’t like so many Renaissance sonnets, in which a garrulous male speaker waxes on and on about a mute female heartthrob. In Sappho, the lover, the loved, and the deity of love are all of the same gender. We don’t really see such a unique cast of characters in ancient literature, and that’s one of the many things that makes Sappho’s surviving full poem a very special occurrence in world literature.

Sappho’s Fragment 31 (“To me he seems like a god”)

Let’s look at two more from Sappho. These are two of the longer fragments that survive from Greece’s Archaic Age. The first is a famous description of Sappho admiring someone – maybe from afar, and maybe someone out of reach. In the opening lines, Sappho lays out the situation – a handsome man is talking to a person (a woman, it’s generally assumed) that Sappho has feelings for. The “you” in the second line of the poem, the addressee, is this woman. Here’s our second poem from Sappho – it’s pretty simple, actually. [music]
To me he seems like a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh

in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you my voice
is empty and

can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire is quick
under my skin. My eyes are dead
to light, my ears

pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse, greener than grass,
and feel my mind slip as I
go close to death.11

In these lines, the speaker, presumably Sappho, is obviously expressing love, adoration, and lust for the addressee. The exact situation of the poem isn’t clear, and various experts have advanced their own theories. What we can say with some confidence, though, is that within the triangle of characters in the poem, Sappho is hidden, and observing. A conversation between a man and a woman is occurring, and Sappho is recording her private reactions to it – her heartbeat, her feeling of speechlessness, the numbness of her tongue, the pallor and prickly feeling over the surface of her skin, the sweat, and the fading of her vision and hearing. It’s long been recognized as a powerful description of feeling hopelessly in love with someone.12 But for our purposes today, it’s particularly interesting in that it’s the confession of a concealed observer – it’s the anguished admission of a private experience.

Maybe, this fragment of Sappho’s – Fragment 31, by the way, was performed in front of an intimate audience of her close acquaintances. And maybe it really was put up on stage with the work of Homer and Archilochus. But in comparison to abstract philosophical musing, or recitations of military campaigns, or mythical tales, or political defamations, or hyperbolized erotica, or praises of great athletes, Sappho’s confession seems intensely personal and confidential. So that’s the second poem from Sappho.

Sappho’s Fragment 16 (“Some say a host of horsemen”)

Now, the last poem of Sappho’s that we’ll look at is perhaps the most interesting of all, because in it, she carefully differentiates the public and the private spheres, and unequivocally favors the world of close personal acquaintances over the distinctions and spectacles of public life. So this last poem of Sappho’s, Fragment 16, is a love poem that is at once philosophical and personal. At the core of it, Sappho imagines Helen of Troy leaving her reputable husband and forsaking all of her civic obligations, all because Helen was desperately overtaken by the asocial powers of love and passion. Here’s Fragment 16. [music]
Some say a host of horsemen is the most beautiful thing
on the black earth, some say a host of foot-soldiers,
some, a fleet of ships; but I say it is
  whatever one loves.

Wholly easy it is to make this intelligible
to everyone, for she who by far surpassed
all humankind in beauty, Helen [of Troy],
  forsook her husband,

noblest of men, to sail away to Troy;
neither of child nor of parents
did she take thought at all.

[And]. . .now [these thoughts of Helen have]. . .brought Anaktoria to my mind,
though she is absent:

I would rather see [Anaktoria’s] lovely step
and the glancing brightness of her face
than Lydian chariots and foot soldiers
  arrayed in armor. 13

This isn’t a complicated poem, is it? In Sappho’s lines, the face of a loved one, and the gracefulness of her step are more beautiful than an armada at sea, or warriors gleaming in armor. If you’ve ever been in love, you know the story. Look into the eyes of the person you love, and you do often see something as radiant as ships at sea, or moon rises, or shooting stars. But there are two more specific ways we can read this poem.

When Sappho says that her beloved Anaktoria is lovelier than soldiers, or ships, or chariots, or the gleaming armor of an infantry formation, it’s easy to see this comparison as prizing the feminine over the masculine. Anaktoria is lovelier than all those dudes and all their ships and stuff. They can all go take a hike, because none of them have anything to do with Sappho, or her female lover. A straightforward feminist interpretation of this famous poem rightly reads it as imagining the world of female love as more vibrant and self-sufficient than the male world of sails and soldiering and shiny breastplates. That’s a good reading.

Personal Love Lyrics in the Context of the Polis

But let’s also read Sappho’s poem in the context of Archaic Greece. This was a time of heavy personal association with one’s city, or polis. You remember how much pride those Thebans had in their city, and their athletes competing in athletic games – their local myths about Heracles and their place in the Aegean world. The world of the city-state, which will dominate the next major section of this podcast, is tough for us to understand. Most of us in the twenty-first century live in large, cosmopolitan nations. We don’t see our leaders in person. The mechanisms of our governments are sufficiently complex that we can’t even imagine the oceanic bureaucracies required to maintain them. Even our states and counties and provinces are large, and often decentered. Our consciousness of being citizens of a specific place is far different than that of the average citizen of an Iron Age city state. During Sappho’s lifetime, and particularly afterward, as the Persian and later Peloponnesian wars made allegiance to one’s city state a daily concern, the average Greek’s identity was much, much more rooted in her city, and her government, and her military than most of ours are today. As an Athenian, or a Spartan, or Corinthian, or Theban looked out at ships in her harbor, or soldiers performing drills beyond her city walls, she knew that these forces were the thing that stood between her and the very viable possibility of death and destruction.

Alexandre Isailoff - Sappho greek lyric poetry

Alexandre Isailoff’s Sappho (late nineteenth century). The painting captures the poet’s desire to depict the private world of psychological experience in her work.

So when Sappho dismisses “horsemen,” “ships,” “chariots,” and “foot-soldiers arrayed in armor,” and when she recollects how Helen abandoned her Greek husband for a Trojan lover at the cost of a cataclysmic ten year war, Sappho is doing more than simply prizing a feminine world over a masculine one. Sappho is prizing the world of impetuous, passionate personal love over the world of disciplined allegiance to one’s nation. She is also saying that over and above the obligations that she might have to her city-state and its military apparatus, she chooses the private world of personal relationship. This was not a choice that any ancient Greek would have made lightly.

To many critics, the birth of what are called “monodies,” or songs for single singers, and the fact that these monodies began to share the stage with “choruses,” or songs for group singers with dancers, signifies a great cultural transition in Ancient Greece. To William McCulloh, the difference between the age of Homer and the age of Sappho demonstrates that “The conflict between monarchy and aristocracy had begun. . .[M]ost importantly for poetry, the poet had begun to emerge as an individual speaking for himself, not an impersonal celebrant of glory and doom.”14

In fact, to McCulloh and others, the asymmetrical development of poetry in Archaic Greece was a result of the wider and richer cultural influences in the Eastern Aegean, where Sappho lived. Again, McCulloh writes,
It seems to have been the regions of the Eastern Greeks, the Aeolians and Ionians of Asia Minor and the islands, which proved most receptive to the new spirit. Meanwhile at Sparta, the heart of the younger Western, or Dorian branch of Greek culture. . .the Spartans were the nearest approximation among the Greeks to the collectivistic mentality. It is therefore fitting that their gift to the Lyric Age should have been the most collective. . .form, the choral ode. . .Significantly, most of the earlier of these [Lyrical] poets were from the East, the older and subtler culture.15

So if we follow this cultural analysis, then the existence of Sappho’s more personal, more individualistic poems is of course evidence of great personal creativity. But in general, the turn to more autobiographical, personally reflective poems may have been the result of a widespread cultural transition from politically adhesive groups like monarchies and tyrannies to capitalist city states. In a monarchy, your personal experiences are subject to the collective’s greater good. Even Achilles, in the opening book of the Iliad, is told by Athena that killing his king is wrong. But as commerce and trade made aristocrats get wealthy through luck and innovation, all of a sudden individuality, and the importance of individual experience and wisdom must have seemed newly valuable during the 600s and 500s BCE in the Aegean world. So Sappho’s love lyrics, timeless as they seem to us, may have partly been the outcome of economic and cultural events taking place in eastern Greece, and western Anatolia, during the decades that she lived.[music]

Pindar and His World

Now, we have one more thing to do in this episode. We’re going to bring in one more figure – a man who will both help round out our picture of Archaic Greek poetry, and at the same time introduce the course of the next group of episodes on classical Greek literature. His name, which I mentioned before, is Pindar.

If Sappho is one of the more private and personal figures in Archaic Greek poetry, the final person we’re going to talk about in this show is possibly the opposite. Pindar, who was born in our very own Boeotian city of Thebes, lived from 518 to about 443 BCE – a century or so after Sappho. And while Sappho is most famous for personal love lyrics, Pindar is most famous for something else.

Pindar performing Greek lyric poetry Giuseppe Sciuti

Giuseppe Sciuti’s Pindar Exalts a Winner at the Olympic Games (1872). The color, the light, animation, social posturing and overall activity of this scene are what I imagine to be the backdrop of Greek lyric poetry, far from the solemn, solitary atmosphere in which we read and write poetry today.

Remember earlier in this episode, when you and I were gulping down that Anthesteria wine? Do you remember what we were talking about as we stood there, looking out over the Boeotian countryside? Before the poetry started, before Sappho showed up and blew everybody out of the water? We were talking about sports. We were discussing the two new Olympic Games that proliferated in the 580s – the Pythian Games that are now taking place over in Delphi, and the brand new Isthmian Games, which just this year, 582, got started. Yeah, we were talking about sports.

Now, Pindar, the final figure in our pantheon of Archaic Greek poetry, made his living from sports. Imagine if Shakespeare worked for a sports broadcasting company – or, more appropriately, if Shakespeare bounced around from country to country that won the World Cup, writing victory pieces for the greatest teams and players, and you have Pindar, the widely successful sports poet of the ancient world. Now, if we wanted Pindar to show up at our Theban poetry hin dig of 582 BCE, we would need to wait another century or so. And when he did show up, he would have most definitely delivered a piece from a genre of poetry that we call “victory odes.”

These victory odes frequently have the same structure. They first extol the athlete and his hometown. A subsequent section often includes moral philosophizing. A third section – often the longest, is a myth concerning gods and heroes, a myth adapted to the victorious athlete and his hometown. And the last section of a typical Pindaric ode includes a brief selection about the poet, performance, and occasion at hand.

Pindar’s odes are traditionally thought of as very difficult reading material. The main reason for this is that, like Elizabethan drama, Roman comedy, or the work of, say, Dante, Pindar’s odes assume that you are familiar with a large group of deities, geographical locations, people, and political and historical events that, as of the 21st century, you are not. But beyond the often unfamiliar names and places in Pindar’s odes, there’s another reason they’re difficult. These odes were a form of Greek poetry called “choral lyrics.” This means that a chorus of singers performed them to musical accompaniment. So while a victory ode by Pindar comes to us as dry black words printed on a white page, shot through with esoteric references, if you had encountered them in, say, Thebes, in the early 400s BCE, I think you’d have been just as moved as Pindar’s audiences must have been.

Imagine having a great civic pride in your athletes, and their performance. Imagine that one of these athletes won a trouncing victory over your city’s rival athletes. And then, to top it off, imagine that your city’s leadership paid the most famous and talented writer of victory odes to come to the city for a musical performance celebrating the occasion! I think anybody would be pretty excited at that.

So let’s hear one – one last work of the Greek lyric poets for this show, set to musical accompaniment. Here’s the deal. We’re standing again on that wall of Thebes. Only, it’s about a hundred years later. And again, we’re probably a few cups of wine into the night. We’re celebrating. Thebans are exceptionally proud, because our star athlete, a man named Herodotus (not to be confused with the more famous historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus) – anyway, we’re really excited, because our star athlete Herodotus has won a great victory in chariot races. He’s won this victory at the Isthmian Games down near Corinth. And everybody loves the chariot races.

Ancient Greek racing chariot

A 1908 illustration of a ancient Greek man getting ready to race his chariot.

So we’re all standing around talking about this powerful chariot racer named Herodotus, and then, as before, we hear the lyre warming up, the singers all getting together, and the nervous excitement of the gathering crowd. And then someone breaks the news. Herodotus is actually in the city! He’s in the courtyard! Holy Zeus and Apollo, let’s go see him! And so we hurry through the throng, and there, standing in the middle of the courtyard, is our star athlete, surrounded by fans and singers. As if this isn’t exciting enough, the emcee with a pointy beard – or, you know, his grandson, or whatever, says that the great Theban poet is there, and that he’s written a special song for the occasion. A handsome guy in the back – many of us Thebans recognize our native son Pindar – a handsome guy in the back raises a wine cup and offers the audience a general nod of greeting. The singers hum a note. The great grandson of the lyre player from before plucks a chord. Then you and I clack our wine cups together, take a drink, and prepare ourselves for awesomeness.

It’s going to be a song about a heroic athlete. And it’s going to be a song about us – Thebans, and our city. By the way the song that I’m going to sing is made of the core of Pindar’s long ode, with some ellipses added in occasionally for the sake of meter and creating a manageable length. This text of this is taken from the book Pindar: The Complete Odes, translated by Anthony Verity and published by Oxford University Press in 2007. And here again is Pindar’s famous first Isthmian Ode, to the great chariot racer Herodotus, delivered before an assembly of Thebans. [Pindar’s ode is then sung in mostly mixolydian to lyre and aulos; lyrics and music are below.]
[I]t is for Herodotus. . .I fashion a gift of honor,
for his four-horsed chariot, and. . .his handling of its reins. . .
with his own hands; and I wish to associate him
with. . .the mightiest charioteers of [Sparta] and Thebes [, who]
put their hands to the greatest number of contests,
and graced their [cities] with. . . [trophies] and golden bowls.


[The] excellence [of athletes] shines out with brightness
in both naked races and in. . .contests where armed men run,
their shields [held high and] clattering; and [as they’re throwing] javelins
. . .they [fling] discuses of stone. . .[using just their hands alone]
and appeared in glory beside [the spring of Thebes].

Different rewards bring pleasure to [different] men,
the shepherd, [and] the ploughman, the. . .trapper, [and the sailor]. . .
for all men strain to keep. . .hunger from their bellies.
But the greatest profit [of all] is earned by the man
who wins splendid glory in war or in the games[!]. . .

But to give a full account of. . . [Herodotus’] successes
is precluded by the brief measure of [this] song.
May [Herodotus], lifted up on [the Muses’] bright wings,
[Always] wreathe his hand with prized garlands. . .
from [the lowest to the highest point in all of Greece]
[always] bringing honor to [our] seven-gated Thebes[!]16


That again was Pindar’s first Isthmian ode, an ode to the great Theban charioteer Herodotus, set to music. Now, I didn’t quote it in full, and I took some liberties with arranging meter and the verses of the ode, so you can bet that what you just heard is quite a bit different than what you would have actually heard in Thebes, between, say, 500 and 480 BCE.17 But still, I think you get the idea. A Pindaric Ode was not a poetic composition encountered in solemn solitude on the printed page. It was a public event, and probably a really exciting one, with all the ballistics of singing, musical instruments, and dancing that could be mustered up for the occasion. [music]

The Polis and the Individual

So, folks, we’ve covered a lot of material in this show. But through it all, we’ve really had two themes – put simply, private life, and public life. And over the next handful of episodes this tug-of-war between private and public will be at the center of our discussion of Ancient Greek drama.

The plays of the four most famous Greek dramatists – these are Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes – the plays of these four writers were mostly created during the 400s BCE, in and around the city of Athens. This was a century bookended by terrible wars – the Persian Wars against Darius and Xerxes in the beginning of the 400s, in which Aeschylus fought, and then the Peloponnesian War of the last quarter of the 400s, which Aristophanes tirelessly criticized and lampooned. And it was a century during which a form of democracy spurred the creation of a navy and army staffed not by slaves or foreigners, but by enfranchised, native Athenians. These Athenian citizen-soldiers, when they went into battle, gripped their shields and their oars with a sense of belonging, pride, and civic identity that human history had never before seen in such a volume. These Athenians had, in short, a sense of being part of a collective – a place – a rhizome of ideas and decisions in which each soldier, and each sailor, had a say, and each citizen mattered.

City states in the time of Pindar, Aeschylus, and the later Athenian dramatists were nothing new. We met them all the way back in Episode 1, in Iraq, in 3,000 BCE. But the historical records we have from the 400s of Ancient Greece show something novel – a sense of interdependent collectivism that began around 508 BCE and was quickly hammered into something extraordinary by the fires of the Persian Wars. By all rights, the small, fledgling experimental political system of Athens shouldn’t have stood a chance against its first existential threat – the equally brilliant and novel world empire of the Persians. And often the wars between Athens and its Persian nemesis have often been imagined as a battle between red blooded, freedom loving Greeks and mindless subjects of Persian despotism. This is the story of Herodotus of Halicarnassus. But history is never so simple, is it?

Fifth-century Athens, in the Athens of Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, – fifth-century Athens may have been a city-state with a brand new democracy, and caste of enfranchised voters. But it was also a city state where influential men could, and did achieve disproportionate amounts of political power, and used this power for their own self-aggrandizement and profit. Themistocles and Aristides, Pericles, Nicias, Cleon, and Alcibiades – as unique and extraordinary as some of these men were – they were also the separate-but-equal superiors of the common citizen soldier. And to bring things right back to Archaic Greek poetry, that tension between the poet’s role as a public entertainer and a private individual, between his public civic duties and his private emotions and ambitions, this tension leads us neatly into one of the most famous epochs of ancient history – that of Classical Greece.

During this epoch, the average Greek citizen faced dual and often contradictory obligations – the obligation to self, and the obligation to city, or polis. It would be laudable, maybe, if we as humans could relinquish our sense of personal entitlement and dedicate our lives purely to the general good of the collective species, or country, or city. But we’re not quite built to do this. There are those of us who will conscientiously put personal good, or a desire for knowledge, or the pursuit of material gain above the wellbeing of our neighbors, and even our families. To the Classical Greek, this was a crime called hubris. But hubris, the Greeks knew, could sometimes work to the advantage of the state. In the wars fought by Classical Athens, it was not just the inventive new scheme of democracy that put spirit into the city’s navy and army and helped them prevail. Athens also succeeded because of the fierce ambition of an inner cadre of elite citizens, citizens whose ambition and covetousness, sometimes by chance, and other times on purpose, greatly strengthened the city’s power and security. [music]

On to Ancient Greek Theater

So in upcoming shows, as we read the great stories of Orestes, of Oedipus and Antigone, of Medea, of Lysistrata, running through all of these tales is one of the core themes of Ancient Greek literature, and Ancient Greek history, and that is the paradoxical obligation that we have to act as citizens of a collective body, and to serve ourselves and those close to us at the same time. This whole episode on Archaic Greek poetry – that rollicking party that we went to in Thebes – and the excitement that we felt as Thebans to go to a performance, hear of our city hero Heracles, hear of our great charioteer in a Pindaric ode – this whole episode can serve as an introduction to the extent to which Ancient Greeks had a much more pronounced sense of regional identity than most of us do today. But as with any citizens of any city or state, ancient or modern, Ancient Greeks had their own personal imperatives to balance against the collective good. And so the crowd pleasing victory odes of Pindar had a place in Archaic Greece. And so, too, did Sappho’s more personal love lyrics, and maybe a whole library of similarly private compositions that have been lost to history.

I had a blast going to a Theban party with you in this show. And in fact, we’re going to do something similar in the next show. While this episode covered a sprawling period between 750 and 500 BCE, the next episode will cover just twenty minutes of time. We will go back to exactly 8:45 AM on April 2nd, 458 BCE. And we will take a twenty minute walk through Golden Age Athens over to the south side of the Acropolis, to the theater of Dionysus, where one of the most famous theatrical trilogies in world literature is about to premiere. We’re going to learn about what’s going on in Athens, now that the Persian Wars are over. We’re going to walk by key landmarks in Classical Athens – the Agora, Aeropagus, and Acropolis, and learn about them. And then, we’re going to make our way into the Theater of Dionysus, look around, and learn about the history and conventions of ancient Greek theater, in Episode 26: Ancient Greek Theater. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ll see you next time.

1.^ Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles and with an Introduction and Notes by Bernard Knox. New York: Penguin Books, 1991, p. 160. Link.

2.^ The date is debated, but cited from Pindar. The Complete Odes. Translated by Anthony Verity, with an Introduction and Notes by Stephen Instone. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics. Kindle Edition, 2007.

3.^ Archilochus. Fragment 13. Quoted in Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation.. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Andrew Miller. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Classics, 1996, location 253.

4.^ Ibid. Fragment 128. Location 355.

5.^ Ibid. Fragment 130. Location 368.

6.^ West, M.L., ed. Greek Lyric Poetry. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1993, p. 5. Link.

7.^ Ibid, p. 6. 8.^ Mimnermus. Fragment 2. In Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Andrew Miller. Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Kindle Edition, 1996, Kindle Locations 981-91.

9.^ Stestichorus. Fragments S15 and S17. Quoted in Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation, locations 2436-2481.

10.^ Sappho. Fragment 1 (the “Hymn to Aphrodite.”) Quoted in Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation, locations 1678-1710.

11.^ Sappho. Fragment 31. Quoted in Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets. Translated by Willis Barnstone and with an Introduction by William E. McCulloh. New York: Schocken Books, 1988, pp. 67-8.

12.^ Even Longinus, the itinerant Greek literary critic who lived in the first centuries of Christianity, admired this fragment. “Observe,” writes Longinus, “how her sensations contradict one another – she freezes, she burns, she raves, she reasons, and all at the same instant. And this description is designed to show that she is assailed, not by any particular emotion, but by a tumult of different emotions.” Longinus. On the Sublime. Translated by H.L. Havell. London and New York: Macmillan and Company, 1890, p. 23.

13.^ Sappho. Fragment 16. Quoted in Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translation Locations 1678-1710.

14.^ McCulloh, William. “Introduction.” In Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets. New York: Schocken Books, 1988, p. 2.

15.^ Ibid, pp. 8-9. 16.^ Pindar. Excerpts from the First Isthmian Ode. Quoted in The Complete Odes. Translated by Anthony Verity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 121-3.

17.^ That said, an ode simply means a song. Archaic Greek poetry is, in fact, where we get a lot of our modern words for genres of poetry. From ôide, which means “song,” we get the word “ode.” From thrênos (which means “dirge,” we get the word “threnody.” From paian (hymn) we get “paean.” From hymenaios (wedding song), we get “epithalamium.” I don’t know if prosôdion (processional song) or epinîkon (song honoring athletes) have modern equivalents, but enkômion (song praising a great person) has come down to us as “encomia,” and dithurambos as “dithyramb.” Monody (song for a single vocalist) has the same meaning now as it did in the lifetime of Sappho.