For Hieron of Syracuse
Single Horse Race
476 B. C.
Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth. But if, my heart, you wish to sing of contests,
look no further for any star warmer than the sun, shining by day through the lonely sky, and let us not proclaim any contest greater than Olympia
. From there glorious song enfolds the wisdom of poets,1
so that they loudly sing
the son of Cronus, when they arrive at the rich and blessed hearth of Hieron,
who wields the scepter of law in Sicily
of many flocks, reaping every excellence at its peak, and is glorified
by the choicest music, which we men often play around his hospitable table. Come, take the Dorian lyre down from its peg, if the splendor of Pisa
and of Pherenicus placed your mind under the influence of sweetest thoughts,
when that horse ran swiftly beside the Alpheus, not needing to be spurred on in the race, and brought victory to his master,
the king of Syracuse who delights in horses. His glory shines in the settlement of fine men founded by Lydian Pelops
with whom the mighty holder of the earth Poseidon fell in love, when Clotho took him out of the pure cauldron, furnished with a gleaming ivory shoulder. Yes, there are many marvels, and yet I suppose the speech of mortals beyond the true account can be deceptive, stories adorned with embroidered lies;
and Grace, who fashions all gentle things for men, confers esteem and often contrives to make believable the unbelievable. But the days to come are the wisest witnesses.
It is seemly for a man to speak well of the gods; for the blame is less that way. Son of Tantalus, I will speak of you, contrary to earlier stories. When your father invited the gods to a very well-ordered banquet at his own dear Sipylus, in return for the meals he had enjoyed,
then it was that the god of the splendid trident seized you,
his mind overcome with desire, and carried you away on his team of golden horses to the highest home of widely-honored Zeus, to which at a later time Ganymede came also,
to perform the same service for Zeus. But when you disappeared, and people did not bring you back to your mother, for all their searching, right away some envious neighbor whispered that they cut you limb from limb with a knife into the water's rolling boil over the fire,
and among the tables at the last course they divided and ate your flesh.
For me it is impossible to call one of the blessed gods a glutton. I stand back from it. Often the lot of evil-speakers is profitlessness. If indeed the watchers of Olympus
ever honored a mortal man,
that man was Tantalus. But he was not able to digest his great prosperity, and for his greed he gained overpowering ruin, which the Father hung over him: a mighty stone. Always longing to cast it away from his head, he wanders far from the joy of festivity.
He has this helpless life of never-ending labor,
a fourth toil after three others, because he stole from the gods nectar and ambrosia, with which they had made him immortal, and gave them to his drinking companions. If any man expects that what he does escapes the notice of a god, he is wrong.
Because of that the immortals sent the son of Tantalus back again to the swift-doomed race of men. And when he blossomed with the stature of fair youth, and down darkened his cheek, he turned his thoughts to an available marriage,
to win glorious Hippodameia from her father, the lord of Pisa
. He drew near to the gray sea, alone in the darkness, and called aloud on the deep-roaring god, skilled with the trident; and the god appeared to him, close at hand.
said to the god, “If the loving gifts of Cyprian Aphrodite result in any gratitude, Poseidon, then restrain the bronze spear of Oenomaus, and speed me in the swiftest chariot
, and bring me to victory. For he has killed thirteen
and postpones the marriage
of his daughter. Great danger does not take hold of a coward. Since all men are compelled to die, why should anyone sit stewing an inglorious old age in the darkness, with no share of any fine deeds? As for me, on this contest
I will take my stand. May you grant a welcome achievement.” So he spoke, and he did not touch on words that were unaccomplished. Honoring him, the god gave him a golden chariot
, and horses with untiring wings.
He overcame the might of Oenomaus, and took the girl as his bride. She bore six sons, leaders of the people eager for excellence.
Now he has a share in splendid blood-sacrifices, resting beside the ford of the Alpheus, where he has his attendant tomb beside the altar that is thronged with many visitors. The fame of Pelops
shines from afar in the races of the Olympic festivals,
where there are contests for swiftness of foot, and the bold heights of toiling strength. A victor throughout the rest of his life enjoys honeyed calm,
so far as contests can bestow it. But at any given time the glory of the present day
is the highest one that comes to every mortal man. I must crown that man with the horse-song in the Aeolian strain. I am convinced that there is no host in the world today who is both knowledgeable about fine things and more sovereign in power,
whom we shall adorn with the glorious folds of song. A god is set over your ambitions as a guardian, Hieron, and he devises with this as his concern. If he does not desert you soon, I hope that I will celebrate an even greater sweetness,
sped by a swift chariot
, finding a helpful path of song when I come to the sunny hill of Cronus. For me the Muse tends her mightiest shaft of courage. Some men are great in one thing, others in another; but the peak of the farthest limit is for kings. Do not look beyond that!
May it be yours to walk on high throughout your life, and mine to associate with victors as long as I live, distinguished for my skill among Greeks everywhere.