The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 520 words.)