Pindar, Pythian Odes

LCL 56: 264-265

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Pythian 4

Arcesilas IV was the eighth ruler in a dynasty that began with Battus I, who colonized Cyrene from Thera c. 630 b.c. Under the Battidae, the city became a powerful commercial center, whose main export, an extract from a plant known as silphium, had medicinal properties. Since Cyrene was also famous for its doctors, the many references to healing in this poem are especially appropriate.

The ode is by far the longest in the collection, owing to its epic-like narrative of Jason’s quest for the golden fleece, a topic relevant to Arcesilas because the Battidae claimed Euphamus, one of the Argonauts, as their ancestor. A surprising feature is the plea at the end for Arcesilas to take back Damophilus, a young Cyrenaean living in exile. The closing remark about Damophilus’ discovery of a spring of verses while being hosted in Thebes suggests that he commissioned the ode. The date of the victory was 462; within a few years Arcesilas was deposed and his dynasty came to an end.

The Muse is asked to celebrate Arcesilas and Apollo, who had once prophesied that Battus would colonize Libya and fulfill Medea’s prediction uttered seventeen generations before (1–11). Medea’s words to the Argonauts are quoted at length (11–56). Pindar announces his intention to sing of Arcesilas, victorious at Pytho, and of the golden fleece (64–69).

An oracle had warned Pelias to beware of a man with



one sandal (71–78). When Jason arrives in the agora at Iolcus, his appearance stuns the onlookers (78–92). Pelias hastens to meet him and Jason declares that he has come to reclaim the kingship Pelias had usurped from Jason’s father. He recounts that when he was born his parents feigned his death and sent him to be raised by Chiron (93– 119). After celebrating with his relatives, Jason goes with them to confront Pelias (120–136). Jason offers to let Pelias retain the herds and property, but asks for the scepter and throne (136–155). Pelias agrees, but requests that Jason first bring back the golden fleece (156–167).

Many heroes, inspired by Hera, join Jason and the expedition sets sail (171–202). After passing through the Symplegades, they reach Colchis, where Aphrodite devises the iynx for Jason to seduce Medea (203–219). With Medea’s help, Jason accomplishes the task set by her father, Aeetes, of plowing with the fire-breathing bulls (220– 241). Aeetes tells Jason where the golden fleece is kept, but does not expect him to retrieve it, because it is guarded by a huge serpent (241–246).

Pressed for time, the poet briefly recounts that after Jason slew the serpent the Argonauts slept with the women on Lemnos on their way home. From this union came the race of Euphamus, Arcesilas’ ancestors, who eventually colonized Libya (247–262).

To lead up to the mention of Damophilus, the poet proposes an allegory for Arcesilas to ponder: an oak tree stripped of its boughs can still perform service as firewood or as a beam (263–269). Arcesilas has an opportunity to heal the wounds of his disordered city (270–276). The poet reminds Arcesilas of the virtues of Damophilus, who wishes to return in peace to Cyrene, bringing the song he found while a guest at Thebes (277–299).

DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.pindar-pythian_odes.1997