(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Named after Theognis, the Theognidea is a collection of elegiac poetry addressed to aristocratic audiences of archaic Greece. The poems are paraenetic and didactic; that is, they seek to give counsel and to teach. One ancient name for the collection is Gnomology, a compilation of gnomic statements or maxims. Theognis’s favorite terms, “the good” and “the bad,” originally had connotations relating to birth, status, and politics; nevertheless, they are not tied down by names, events, or places. Because his advice was adaptable to time and circumstances, he spoke to “the good” everywhere.

Many of Theognis’s observations are now so familiar as to seem clichés. Most were traditional wisdom even for the poet: There is no place like home; youth is fleeting; poverty is painful. On the other hand, some seem fresh. For example, the increasingly widespread phenomenon of coined money made an impact on Theognis’s poetry. Not found in Homer and Hesiod are such derivative images as Theognis’s counterfeit friend and need for a touchstone to test purity of character, images which were developed by Plato and others.

Theognis is often cited for confirmation or quibbling in the works of ancient and medieval authors. The poems of the Theognidea, however, were transmitted through medieval manuscripts rather than from scattered citations, as was the case with most archaic elegiac, iambic, and melic poetry. The perceived usefulness of the counsel undoubtedly...

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