Theognis Analysis


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Virtually nothing is known about Theognis’s (thee-AHG-nuhs) life. Ancient authorities debate his birthplace, referencing a Megara in Greece or Sicily. The former seems to be the better candidate, despite the fact that he wrote an elegy about Syracuse. Other fragments imply that he merely visited Sicily. What can be discerned through the fragments of his surviving works is that he belonged to aristocratic circles. Many of his poems are relevant to the symposium, such as drinking songs, political expositions, and pederastic love songs. His political views seemed to have put him at odds with the leaders of a democratic revolution. Betrayed by one of his friends, Theognis found himself bereft of his property and exiled. His travels took him to Euboea, Thebes, Sparta, and eventually Sicily. His poems, many addressed to his friend Cyrnus, are filled with invective against his enemies, the bemoaning of his state of poverty, and lampoons. Also, in some poems he attempted to give political and moral advice to his friend.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Despite the loss of much of his work and the doubtful authorship of some Theognic fragments, the ancient authors placed him on par with Hesiod and Solon. He appears to have been a prominent voice for aristocratic concerns during a century of political transition.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Theognis is remembered only for his poetry.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The words of Theognis the Megarian transcend their age, occasion, and audience. Although his images, assumptions, and advice were based on an archaic value system, much of what he wrote still has currency today. Theognis predicted the universal acceptance and immortality of his poetry. Time has proved him an accurate seer. After all, poverty is still painful; youth is still fleeting; ships of state are still capsized; true friends are few.

The Skolia

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

As Plato’s Symposium (c. fourth century b.c.e.) suggests, after the consumption of food and along with the consumption of wine, demonstrations of cleverness contributed to the entertainment on such occasions. The poems of the Theognidea agree in tone and content with the drinking songs, or skolia, collected in the Deipnosophists (second century c.e.; learned men at dinner) of Athenaeus. Some are riddles; some make observations on the symposium itself: A man who chatters all the time is a nuisance and is invited only by necessity. A guest should not be forced to go home or forced to stay. One who drinks too much also talks too much and makes a fool of himself. He who has drunk very much but is still sensible is unsurpassed. A symposium is pleasant when everything is said in the open and there are no quarrels. When drunk, the wise and foolish are indistinguishable. Wine shows the mind of a man. At a banquet, it is good for one to sit beside a wise man and to go home having learned something. Drink when people drink; when sad, drink so no one will know. Many are friends over food and drink, but few can be relied on in a serious matter.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The task of distinguishing true friends from false requires the versatility of Odysseus. The poet adjures his heart to cultivate a changeful character, to be like his companion, to have the temperament of the octopus, which looks like the rock to which it clings. The poet frequently advises testing a friend before trusting him in a serious matter. The antitheses of tongue and deed and tongue and thought are marked; men love deceit. Kyrnos should, therefore, speak as if he were a friend to all but become involved with no one in anything serious. A man who says one thing and thinks another cannot be a good friend. Some friends are counterfeit; the poet longs for a touchstone. Blessed is he who dies before having to test his friends.

Theognis’s apparent pessimism concerning friendship is part of a more general pessimism typical of archaic poetry. In the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.), a generation of men is like a generation of leaves. The best possibility for man is a mixture of good and evil. Theognis says that the best thing for those on Earth is not to be born; for one born, it is best to die as quickly as possible. Death is preferable to oppressive poverty, and poverty forces men into wickedness. Wealth confers honor; wealth and poverty should be distributed according to personal worth, but they are not. Divine favor gives money even to one completely worthless; few have virtue.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Since wealth does not belong only to the good, it cannot carry a completely positive valence. The wealth of wicked men who lack sound judgment and are unjust leads to excess, to hubris. Examination of the passages in which hubris appears reveals that in the diction of the Theognidea, the context of hubris is always, although not always overtly, political. The greatest danger of hubris is that it causes the destruction of cities. For private gain, the bad give unjust judgments and injure the people; from hubris comes factionalism, internecine killings, and tyrants. On the other hand, the gods give political moderation, gnome, as the best thing for mortals; all things are accomplished through moderation.

Theognis uses many other terms for political moderation. The most familiar, sophrosune, is explicitly opposed to hubris, but Theognis’s most striking call to political moderation begins with the phrase meden agan. The phrase meden agan (nothing in excess) was carved on the entrance to the temple of Apollo at Delphi and was associated with the wisdom of the Seven Sages. Gnothi sauton (know yourself) was inscribed with meden agan; the two warnings against hubris are important for interpreting much of classical Greek literature, especially tragedy and the History (c. 430 b.c.e.) of Herodotus.

The middle way is urged in several poems beginning with meden agan: Do not in any way strive too eagerly; the middles of all things are best. The opportune moment is best for all the deeds of men. Do not in any way too much glut your heart with difficulties or rejoice too much in good things, because it is the mark of a good man to bear everything. Comparison with other injunctions shows the pattern of the negative command followed by a reinforcing positive statement. These reinforcing statements are separable from the particular commands, and both are reusable. Since the diction of Solon, Hesiod, Homer, and others shows the same pattern, similarities of Theognis to other poetry can be attributed to the traditional nature of the language and the general importance of moderation in the archaic value system.

Sea and Sailing Imagery

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

That the dominant metaphors in the Theognidea concern the sea and sailing is perhaps natural, because Greece is surrounded by water, and the major archaic city-states all founded colonies overseas. Not only was sailing vital to Greek economic life, but also, as the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.) suggests, it was vital to the Greek psyche. On the wings of Theognis’s poetry, Kyrnos will be universally known, borne easily over the boundless sea. The poet advises that doing a favor for a bad man is like sowing the sea. A bad man should be avoided like a bad harbor. Like a ship, the poet keeps his distance from one whom time has exposed as a counterfeit friend. A boy was rough but relented; after the storm, the poet rests at anchor with night coming.

The ship can also be the ship of state. The first extant examples of this image are found in two fragments of the Greek poet Alcaeus; the best known is in the Augustan poet Horace. Theognis is an important link in the transmission of the metaphor. It appears in verses 575 to 576 and verses 855 to 856, but it receives extended treatment in verses 667 to 682. The wealth of the poet is not equal to his character. The state is beset by difficulties that could have been foreseen but were not. The skilled helmsman has been displaced. There is no order, no concern for the common good. The bad rule over the good. The ship is in danger of being swallowed by the waves. The poet calls his extended metaphor a code to the good, but one comprehensible even to a bad man if he is wise.

Pederastic Poems

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Pausanias’s encomium of Eros in the Symposium of Plato sheds much light on the pederastic poems of the second book of the Theognidea. According to Pausanias, pederasty is acceptable in a context of moral improvement. The lover aims to make the young man better; the beloved gratifies his lover in the hope of becoming better. In Theognis, the situation is much the same. Through his association with the poet, the young Kurnos learns how to conduct himself, how to interact with his own kind, and what attitudes to adopt toward social inferiors. Because the role of beloved can be played for only a short time, he learns the part of the lover also, able to take his turn. As an institution, pederasty tightened the bonds of aristocratic solidarity.

Many of the pederastic poems are facetious, befitting their sympotic setting. A boy is advised to quit running away, since he will not be of an age for long. As long as the boy’s cheek is smooth, the poet will fawn on him, even if the price is death. Love is bitter and sweet, hard and soft. The poet laments the public exposure of his love for a boy, but he will endure the attacks; the boy is not unseemly. Finally, in verses 1345 to 1350, the poet adduces a mythic exemplum:

Loving a boy has been something pleasant since the son of Kronos, the king of the
immortals, was in love with Ganymede.
He snatched him up and carried him off to Olympus and made him a divinity while he
had the lovely flower of his boyhood.
So do not marvel, Simonides, that I too was shown conquered by love of a pretty boy.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Bing, Peter, and Rip Cohen. Games of Venus: An Anthology of Greek and Roman Erotic Verse from Sappho to Ovid. New York: Routledge, 1991. A wide-ranging sample of verse that runs throughout Greek and Roman literature, but which provides valuable examples and critical insight into the works of Theognis.

Edmunds, Lowell. “The Seal of Theognis.” In Poet, Public, and Performance in Ancient Greece, edited by Lowell Edmunds and Robert Wallace. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Traces the relationship of the poet and his work to his audience, who are seen as less readers and literary enthusiasts than fellow citizens in the polis and friends of the poet’s tribal group. The fundamental effect sought in Theognis’s work is therefore not aesthetic but political.

Figueire, Thomas, and Gregory Nagy, eds. Theognis of Megara: Poetry and the Polis. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. This collection of essays examine a number of topics but focuses especially on the relationship between Theognis’s work and his native city of Megara. The result is a combinaton of poetic, literary, social, and historical insights.

Hudson-Williams, T. Introduction to The Elegies of Theognis. New York: Arno Press, 1979. A reprint of the classic 1910 edition, this provides a still valuable overview of the history of the poet’s works and is especially good in its review of Theognis’s place in ancient literature and literary criticism.

Mulroy, David. Early Greek Lyric Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Sacks, Richard. The Traditional Phrase in Homer: Two Studies in Form, Meaning, and Interpretation. New York: Brill, 1987. The first part of this work focuses on Theognis and the “Homeric phrase,” that is the traditional oral element which is an essential part of Greek epic poetry but which is also key to shorter works including those of Theognis.

West, M. L. Greek Lyric Poetry. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1994.