The Preface of the Poem:
Recently, I’ve been reading one of Mary Renault’s historical novels of ancient Greece, “The Praise Singer,” about the poet Simonides, one of the nine lyric poets of that age (you might also recognize Sappho, Pindar, and Bacchylides), who wrote and sang their songs from the seventh to the fifth centuries BCE. Many of these are mentioned by Plato and some fragments of their poetry survive to this day.
One of the remarkable stories told by Renault, verified through Herodotus and other ancient sources, is the story of Kimon (some early sources spell his name as Cimon).
In the ancient Olympics, played every four years on the sacred plain of Olympia, the Greek cities met to compete in athletic events. Women were generally not allowed to even view the games as spectators. Everyone took a sacred oath of peace and non-violence during the games, which evolves to this day as an event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition.
One of the highlights of the games was the chariot race. This was considered the premier of all equestrian events. Each chariot was pulled by a team of four horses, and a huge racecourse was constructed, the Hippodrome, the remains of which was only recently discovered by satellite, buried under centuries of sediment.
In 536 BCE, Kimon won the race with a team of white horses, each of which was three years old. Four years later, he won the laurel crown again, but forfeited the honor to the reigning tyrant of Athens so that he might return from exile. In 528 BCE, Kimon entered the Olympic chariot races a third time with the same team of horses as before, now eleven years of age. Against all odds, he became the first in history to win three times—all the more remarkable was that he won all three victories with the same team of horses.
The crowd went wild. He became the hero of the hour. In the long history of the games, there was never another victory such as this: three victories running with the same team. Forever, men would speak of this triple victory. Celebrations broke out that lasted far into the night. Songs were composed that survive to modern times of this remarkable event.
That night, while returning to his tent in the darkness, Kimon was murdered by men hired by Hippas, son of Pisistratus, the tyrant of Athens, who also had had a team of horses entered in the chariot race. The Sacred Truce had been violated. The judges of the games decreed that Kimon be given a public funeral and a great tomb was prepared on the Valley Road, the cost of which was borne by Athens. Tens of thousands of people gathered at the conclusion of the games at the time of the full moon to watch the grand funeral procession. All the great Hellene cities sent embassies with offerings to the gods. After Kimon was laid in his tomb and the stone placed upon the vault, the four mares were also sacrificed, their blood poured upon the ground and they were entombed alongside the victor.
For some reason I cannot fully explain, I was stunned and enormously saddened by this ancient tale of tragedy. It was yet another variation of the myth of the Hero cut down in his prime, at the very moment of triumph. All that was sacred had been cast aside in the name of vengeance, hatred and destructive envy.
I wrote the following poem in honor of Kimon, who breathed his last breath over 2,538 years ago. May his spirit be honored through the ages.
The Glory of Victory
In Honor of Kimon, son of Stesagoras
The wind slowly winds
Through darkness down the Sacred Way.
Stillness on the dusty plain
Yields to weeping from awakened sleep.
No more shall Kimon blaze across the finish line,
Nor hold the reigns, guide the steeds
Past bronzed dolphins to win
Laurel crown upon his furrowed head.
How brightly heralds sound the trumpets!
Give glory to the beauty of the hour:
Three times upon Olympia’s valley floor—
All paths of victory lead to death tonight.
Notes of praise, sung in morning light
As thousands held their breath—
Fleets of chariots raised the yellow dust.
Gods watched, as even gods must.
Eleven years he ran his dauntless mares,
Stroked the living empire of their flanks,
Eyes as dark as wine-cast seas,
Now sacrifice their blood upon his breast.
His history is read within the people’s eyes.
Songs of joy turn to wails of lamentation.
Who could fathom this same night
Assassins turn to darkness Hero’s sight?
At the tomb we contemplate his fate;
Women wail their woes and men relate
A lingering tale that killed a glorious day.
Forever, death sweeps the sparking dew away.
With dirge, we watch him slowly borne.
Crazed, forlorn, we stand beside his grave.
No more travels his countenance upon the Earth.
Approach and know the cost of human birth.