Theognis Analysis


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.


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

Theognis is remembered only for his poetry.


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

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.


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.


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.


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Sea and Sailing Imagery

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...

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Pederastic Poems

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...

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(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...

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