Three Running Poems from Ancient Greece
BY ROGER ROBINSON
From his new book Running in Literature
Note: Poets' Corner continues a great tradition of poetry about running that goes back nearly three thousand years. Greek poets described and celebrated running. The translations below are new, written specially for the book Running in Literature. Where many translations make the events seem remote and idealized, I have written as a runner for runners. Greek poets show Greek runners as runners really are, sweaty and fallible and sometimes funny.
Pindar's Victory Odes are songs of praise for successful athletes, written to be chanted or sung, with music and dancing, on the winner's return to his home city. Usually they are more concerned with the glory of the city and ancestry of the family (who were paying the poet) than with the sporting event itself. One of the few I really like is about a winner who found his way to the Greek mainland only because of civil war in his own country (a land famous for its springs). He gained recognition through his running. And I think of many in our own time who escape turmoil at home, and find success in a new land. They are racing all over America at this moment.
Great runner, four times victor at the Games,
Pindar, Olympian Ode 12, 460BC
The Victory Odes of Bacchylides give us more of the action. This one gives a vivid account of high-pressure racing on the up-and-down straights of a Greek track (no bends, just posts at each end). Then it moves into comedy, as the winner, smeared with oil as Greek athletes were, runs on into the crowd.
You quick Greek, Aglaus,
Bacchylides, Isthmian Ode, for Aglaus of Athens, Footrace, 5BC.
Although the Greeks' Games had religious significance, that did not mean (as the later part of the previous poem shows), that writers had to take running over-seriously. Here is a poem that satirizes Charmus, a runner so slow that he finished seventh in a field of six. I have changed the names a little. Remember that Greek athletes competed nude.
Charley's Great Race
One day, six starters lined up for a race,
Nicarchus, Satire, AD 1
Roger Robinson's Running in Literature extends from ancient Greece to newly published poems of 2003, and everything in between, including modern running novels, non-fiction, and children's running stories. Hardback, 304 pages, it is published for $22 by Breakaway Books, obtainable from bookstores, running stores, online book suppliers, or from www.breakawaybooks.com.
Roger Robinson is a professor of literature, author, senior
writer for Running Times, and former Boston and New York Masters