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  • Pindar, Theoxenus, and the Homoerotic Eye
  • Thomas K. Hubbard

One must pluck loves, my heart, in due season and at the proper age.Ah! But any man who catches with his glanceThe bright rays flashing from Theoxenus's eyesAnd is not tossed on the waves of desire,Has a black heart of adamant or iron [End Page 255] Forged in a cold flame, and dishonored by Aphrodite of the arching browEither toils compulsively for moneyOr, as a slave, is towed down a path utterly coldBy a woman's boldness.But I, by the will of the Love Goddess, meltLike the wax of holy bees stung by the sun's heat,Whenever I look upon the fresh-limbed youth of boys.And surely even on the isle of TenedosSeduction and Grace dwellIn the son of Hagesilas.1

Pindar fr. 123 S.-M.

This splendid little poem, quoted by Athenaeus, is usually taken as Pindar's personal declaration of love for the boy Theoxenus. Through an examination of the conventions of first-person discourse in Greek poetry, we intend to suggest that the poem was more likely commissioned by the boy's erastês for delivery as a symposiastic skolion, and should be understood in the context of the symposium and athletic competitions as homosocial institutions. This context will be delineated through parallels both from Pindar's other poetry and from contemporary vase painting. Finally, an analysis of the poem's visual dynamics will suggest that the traditional phallocentric reading of Greek pederasty, foregrounding the active agency of the adult erastês as the privileged term in a relationship of fundamental power asymmetry, is too reductive to provide an adequate understanding of its actual complexity.

I. The "I" of the Poem

Pindar's encomium for Theoxenus has long been appreciated as a choice specimen of pederastic verse. This is the poem that Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, the early twentieth-century German gay rights pioneer, called "one of the most perfect love songs in the Greek language."2 The picture of an aged lover melting away for a fair youth inspired the story recorded by Valerius Maximus (9.12 ext. 7) that Pindar died in Theoxenus's arms. Of [End Page 256] course, this anecdote can easily be dismissed on both chronological and geographical grounds.3 What then is the motivation and social context of this short poem? The famous opening of Isthmia 2 (verses 1-11) distinguishes between the present age of writing poems for hire and the poets of old, who composed pederastic songs out of personal enthusiasm. This dichotomy has led some to view fr. 123 as just such an effusion of personal feeling; Athenaeus, our source for the poem, took it as such, as have several modern commentators.4 However, Isthmia 2 implies that Pindar, in the 470s, already considered this kind of poetry obsolescent, more common in the generation of Anacreon and Ibycus than in the present age of commissioned song.5

I believe that a preliminary step toward unraveling the mysteries of the Theoxenus ode may lie in a reexamination of the use of the first person in the poem. Even if this poem is monody, as seems probable,6 the first person here need not be understood strictly as the poet's own persona, but may be better viewed as the conventional "first person indefinite," shown by Fraenkel, Young, and others to be a common feature of the epinicia: a generalized, gnomic first person that includes poet, patron, audience, and all men who [End Page 257] participate in the same community of values.7 A typical example is Pythia 11.50-54:

      I would prefer good things that come from god,Desiring what is possible for a man of my age.In political matters, I find that the middle station has flourishedWith a longer-lasting prosperity, and I disapprove of the lot of tyrants.I have been intent on shared accomplishments; thereby the envious are held off.

Here too, as at the opening of fr. 123, we have a reflection on doing what is appropriate for one's age. Contrary to the common assumption that the speaker of...