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Theognis

(fl. 552—541 bc)


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Elegiac poet, of Megara. Chronographers dated him c.550–540 bc; historical allusions have been held to point to a much higher dating (c.640–600). A corpus of some 1,400 lines survives in manuscript tradition, labelled as Theognis' work, but it seems to be a composite from two or three ancient (Hellenistic) anthologies of elegiac excerpts, Theognis being only one of many poets represented. The corpus divides into five clear sections. 1–18: addresses to gods, gathered at the beginning. 19–254: nearly all addressed to his friend Cyrnus, serious in tone, with the first and last excerpts chosen to serve as prologue and epilogue. 255–1022: a much more diverse and disorderly collection, with a few Cyrnus‐blocks here and there. 1023–1220: similar in character, but with a high proportion of couplets duplicated elsewhere. (1221–1230: added by editors from other sources.) 1231–1389: amatory poems, mostly addressed to boys.

The addresses to Cyrnus, plus a few pre‐Hellenistic citations naming the author, allow us to identify some 308 lines as Theognis'. Some of the rest may be his, but it is prudent to treat the greater part as anonymous and to call the corpus ‘the Theognidea’, not ‘Theognis’. Theognis addresses Cyrnus in three roles: adviser, lover, and confederate. He makes many allusions to political turbulence. He appears as a man of standing in Megara, but subject to criticism and hostility, eventually betrayed by those he trusted, dispossessed of his estates in a civic upheaval, and forced into exile, where he dreams of revenge. He expects his poems to circulate at banquets everywhere, far into the future. Many of the anonymous Theognidea too were clearly composed for convivial gatherings (see symposium; symposium literature). Drinking and merry‐making are frequent themes. Other pieces are reflective or philosophic. The amatory poems at the end are often banal, but sometimes touching. The collection as a whole contains many delightful things. It may be taken as a representative cross‐section of the elegiac poetry circulating in social settings between the late 7th and early 5th cent., and it is our best source for the cultured man's ideas about life, friendship, fate, death, and other matters. See elegiac poetry, greek.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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