Theognis of Megara

Listen to the poem in Ancient Greek

Read by Katerina Filopoulou

Theognis of Megara (fl. 550 BCE)

Greek text of Theognis poem

Translation by Douglas Gaber

197-208

Whatever possession comes to a man from Zeus and is obtained with justice and without stain, is forever lasting. But if a man acquires it unjustly, inopportunely, and with a greedy heart or seizes it wrongly by a false oath, for the moment he thinks he’s winning profit, but in the end it turns out badly and the will of the gods prevails. The minds of men, how­ ever, are misled, since the blessed gods do not punish sin at the time of the very act, but one man pays his evil debt himself and doesn’t cause doom to hang over his dear progeny later, while another is not overtaken by justice; before that ruthless death settles on his eyelids, bringing doom.

Biographical Information

Information about the life of Theognis is sketchy and uncertain. Theognis was probably from the mainland Greek city of Megara. He is believed to have lost his aristocratic social status – and probably whatever wealth he had – as a result of a popular revolution. Because of this, he most likely went into exile, perhaps to the island of Megara on Sicily. 

Many of his poems are addressed to a young aristocratic friend, Kurnos/ Kyrnos (the name is spelled with the Greek vowel upsilon, which was variously transcribed as u or y). Theognis’ poems were assembled into collections at some point, and used in later times as political propaganda for aristocrats. It may have been circulated on the sly among members of Athenian oligarchic clubs.

Historical Information

Theognis’ tone in his poetry is often heavily ironic, much like that of the Roman poet Juvenal. A typical Theognian sentiment can be found in his lines 1117-1118: “Hail, Ploutos [the Greek god of wealth, not to be confused with Pluto, the Latin name for Hades], finest of gods and most beloved! With you a serf becomes a gentleman.” Theognis’ work reflects the political views of a typical 6th century BCE aristocrat. His poetry sometimes questions the justice of Zeus (an important stage in Greek religious thought); it reveals the distress and confusion of people living in an age of transition from the values of an agrarian hereditary nobility to those of a society based on the city and on wealth. His verses reveal his strong opinions, strong emotions, and strong enmities.

Much of Theognis’ poetry is admonitory: he gives frequent advice about how to behave properly, i.e., how to act justly according to the tenets of his society. One notable aspect of Theognis’ poetry is his use of metaphor, as in lines 847-850, where he complains that his fellow citizens are excessively swayed by demagogues: he compares them to domesticated oxen, all too willing to endure the yoke of servitude. His poetry shows that Theognis had a rather unlikeable personality: “savage, paranoid, bigoted, bitter, narrow, pompous, self-pitying….” (Wender, p. 92) Theognis frequently reproaches Kurnos and other friends for either being unfaithful to him, deceiving him, or somehow disappointing him. Even though in Theognis’ view the aristocrats are “the good people” – as opposed to the “bad” lower classes – the aristocrats are for him frequently a disappointment. 

    It’s better never to be born, second best to die young. Nothing ever works out 
    the way you planned it. Good men suffer; bad men thrive. Old age is an 
    unalloyed disaster, and death is vile and frightening. (Wender, pp. 92-93)

Theognis holds ambivalent feelings towards money, sometimes complaining about people being too ambitious about getting it, other times complaining about the evils of poverty. He constantly bewails the loss of his own fortune, calling on the gods to help him recover it and to help him get revenge for its loss. Theognis is likewise inconsistent in his attitude towards being consistent, sometimes advocating vacillation and duplicity, other times complaining about people who behave thus.

Wender argues that Theognis’ paranoid tendencies about being persecuted may have contributed to his being badly treated. She points out that “Theognis’ attitudes were not so pathological in his culture as they would be in ours” (p. 93f.); the ancient Greeks considered it quite acceptable to boast or to lament one’s misfortunes. It was typical of the culture to be pessimistic about life and about human nature. 6th century BCE Greece saw universal class hatred between the aristocrats and the working classes (at least on the part of the aristocrats). Prior to the teachings of Socrates in the late fifth century, the Greeks considered a desire for revenge against any sort of perceived injustice to be natural and proper. 

Theognis of Megara (fl. 550 BCE?)

Ancient evidence suggests that during Alcaeus’ childhood, his older brothers fought along with the aristocrat Pittacus to overthrow the then-current tyrant Melanchros. At some point Pittacus became the ruler of Mytilene, probably circa 600 BCE, and held power for ten years. We know that Alcaeus fought alongside Pittacus in battles between Mytilene and Athens over the town of Sigeum, located at the entrance to the Hellespont and hence a site of some strategic importance. Alcaeus relates in a poem that in one battle he had to make a quick retreat and leave his arms behind him – they ended up as spoils of war in the temple of Athena in Sigeum.

After peace was established over this conflict, the aristocratic factions on Mytilene renewed their internal strife. Alcaeus seems to have been involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the new ruler of Mytilene, Myrsilus. When a planned attack on Myrsilus failed, his conspirators fled to Pyrrha, another settlement on Lesbos. Pittacus had originally been part of the conspiracy, but had switched sides and allied himself with Myrsilus. Because of this, Alcaeus blamed Pittacus: they had sworn at a sacrifice to stick together, but the “fat-guts” Pittacus had forsworn his oath and had become the murder of his city. 

Another of Alcaeus’ poems also contains complaints about the bitterness of exile. In the poem. In the poem blaming Pittacus, Alcaeus mentions the sworn purpose of the conspirators (hetairia) to liberate the people; in the complaints-from-exile poem, Alcaeus wants to be living among his fellow-citizens even though they do evil to one another. There are two surviving verses from a song celebrating the death of Myrsilus, but Alcaeus’ joy at this was premature: the Mytileneans chose Pittacus as regent (aesymnetes). We know little about Alcaeus’ life at this time, but it seems like that he spent at least parts of it in exile again. Fragments of poems include a warning against the man who will destroy the already crumbling city in his hunger for power, and a reproach to the citizens of Mytilene for lacking courage — presumably the courage to oust Pittacus. Some surviving lines of a poem depict Alcaeus greeting his brother Antimenidas, who has been serving with distinction in the Babylonian army: Alcaeus may have been welcoming his brother home to Mytilene.

Sources

Hesiod, and Theognis. Hesiod and Theognis (Penguin Classics): Theogony, Works and Days, and Elegies. Translated by Dorothea Wender, Reprint edition, Penguin Classics, 1976.

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