The Poem

“Philhellene,” which means “a lover of things Greek,” is a short dramatic monologue spoken by a king of one of the puppet monarchies on the edge of the Roman empire in western Asia. “Beyond the Zagros” (mountains that straddle the border between Iraq and Iran), this imaginary kingdom is far from the center of what the king regards as civilization. The time is not specified, although one can assume that it is sometime in or after the first century c.e. The king is addressing either his coin designer or one of his courtiers, a man named Sithaspes, about the design on a planned coin. The poem is in (in the original Greek) a very loose iambic meter, with line lengths usually from eleven to fourteen syllables; such a varied pattern allows the speaker to seem informal and colloquial, but the language is still highly controlled.

The king commands his listener to be careful with the design. Above all, it must be in good taste—that is, Greek. For example, the “diadem” on the coin must “be rather narrow.” Otherwise, it would be too extreme, opposed to the classical Greek ideal of “the middle way.” Indeed, the king adds, almost sneeringly, in an attempt to establish his own Greekness, that the bad taste, the excessiveness, of the neighboring Parthians, at that time a real antagonist of the Romans, does not please him.

The very vehemence of his words reveal the king’s insecurities. He goes on to...

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Forms and Devices

Constantine Cavafy, especially in the poems he regarded as his real poems, avoided language that was flowery, hyperbolic, or expressive of self. Indeed, one could say that his choice of the dramatic monologue as a common device was an attempt to control the language so that it did not become excessive.

One finds few figures of speech in Cavafy’s poetry—especially in this poem—no striking similes or metaphors, no obvious images used as symbols. Even rhymes are rare, if not accidental, here, although he does make use of them elsewhere.

The whole purpose of the poem, at least on the surface, is to create the character of the king, not to be a personal expression of the poet. The poem is not presented as a beautiful object in itself, although in its very restraint it does achieve a kind of beauty. The poem’s language must be simple, within limits, in order to make its effect. Indeed, the essence of Cavafy’s poetry is not in external elaboration or ornamentation, but in a precise control of tone and structure, elements that shift subtly, letting the reader know much more than the speaker says.

Therefore, the king is direct, seeming simply to give orders. He is revealing himself, however, revealing what he regards as beautiful and wise but also aspects of his own ego that perhaps he does not know himself. For example, when he describes the front of the coin, where his own profile will be, he immediately warns Sithaspes about being careful with the inscription, so that the Romans who are the real power will not be offended. In the next line, however, he turns to the design of the coin’s back and once more emphasizes the beautiful—the figure of the discus thrower. Then he returns to his own insecurities, his knowledge that he is not really Greek. It is with this insecurity that the poem ends. Indeed, the last line, with its poignant negatives, emphasizes this: “So we are not un-Greek, I think.”