Deeds Speak Louder than Looks: Pindar's 'Isthmian' 4
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In the aristocratic milieu of the Panhellenic games beauty was regarded as an outward manifestation of the ability to perform noble deeds. This connection is made explicit in several of Pindar’s odes to victors in the combat sports, e.g. in Olympian 8.19, where it is said of the boy wrestler Alkimedon that “he was beautiful to look at, and with his efforts did not dishonour his appearance”. Against this background the unflattering remarks about the appearance of Melissos of Thebes in Isthmian 4 come as a surprise. Why does Pindar find it necessary to refer to his unimposing physique when his succes in the games has provided plenty of material for praise? If one considers the norm for the appearance of combat sports athletes as portrayed in the odes, there seems to have been contempt rather than admiration for the victory of an apparently ugly little man. It is proposed that one of the objects of the poem is to defend Melissos against these perceptions and show that he is a worthy winner. Pindar uses several strategies to achieve this. As Homer restored Aias’ honour after his suicide by immortalising his noble deeds, so Pindar hopes to light an unquenchable fire of hymns for Melissos and cover him in “delightful grace”. He can do this because Melissos shows that deeds determine the worth of a man, not appearance.