Chapter 10. Theognis: Faceless Exile

Theognis of Megara is a shadowy figure whose poetry offers us some evocative hints about his life; one can only wonder if it is a real life or a stereotypical poet’s life. [1] As early as Plato, we read of the “poet … Theognis, a citizen of Megara in Sicily” (ποιητὴν … Θέογνιν, πολίτην τῶν ἐν Σικελίᾳ Μεγαρέων, Laws 1.630a). Thus, we see that Theognis’ poetry was well known in Plato’s day, but that already Plato is wrong about an important detail of his life, as it is certain that the Theognidean corpus often refers to the mainland Megara. [2] It is possible that the Sicilian Megara was claiming Theognis when Plato visited Sicily. And, of course, the Theognidean corpus may have started with a single poet, Theognis perhaps, but then received later editings and additions, including possible Sicilian accretions to the Theognidea.
As usual, certainty about the historical validity of many details in the poet’s life is impossible; the similarities to the life of Alcaeus are striking, almost suspicious. When such close similarities are found, one often suspects wandering themes.
However, despite these difficulties, we seem to find in the corpus a typical poetic situation: dissatisfaction with leaders, including poetic attacks on them, followed by the exile of the poet. There is tension between the poet and his native city: “And not yet have I been able to please all my townsmen” (24). [3] So he criticizes his town’s political leaders: [4]
Κύρνε, κύει πόλις ἥδε, δέδοικα δὲ μὴ τέκηι ἄνδρα
εὐθυντῆρα κακῆς ὕβριος ἡμετέρης.
ἀστοὶ μὲν γὰρ ἔθ’ οἵδε σαόφρονες, ἡγεμόνες δὲ
τετράφαται πολλὴν εἰς κακότητα πεσεῖν.
οὐδεμίαν πω Κύρν’ ἀγαθοὶ πόλιν ὤλεσαν ἄνδρες·
ἀλλ’ ὅταν ὑβρίζειν τοῖσι κακοῖσιν ἅδηι,
δῆμόν τε φθείρωσι δίκας τ’ ἀδίκοισι διδῶσιν
οἰκείων κερδέων εἵνεκα καὶ κράτεος,
ἔλπεο μὴ δηρὸν κείνην πόλιν ἀτρεμίεσθαι
μηδ’ εἰ νῦν κεῖται πολλῆι ἐν ἡσυχίηι,
εὖτ’ ἂν τοῖσι κακοῖσι φίλ’ ἀνδράσι ταῦτα γένηται
κέρδεα δημοσίωι σὺν κακῶι ἐρχόμενα.
ἐκ τῶν γὰρ στάσιές τε καὶ ἔμφυλοι φόνοι ἀνδρῶν
μούναρχοί τε· πόλει μήποτε τῆιδε ἅδοι.
Kurnos, this city is pregnant, and I fear lest it bear a man
to be a chastiser of our evil outrage. [5]
For these citizens are still wise, but the leaders
have been turned to fall into much evil.
Men who are noble men have never destroyed a city, Kurnos;
but when it pleases base men to commit outrages,
and they destroy the people and give judgments to the unjust
for their own gain and power,
do not expect that city to be quiet for a long time,
even though it remains in complete quiet now,
when to these evil men these things become dear,
gains accompanied by public evil.
For from these things come conflicts and internecine murders
and dictators. May such things never please this city.
οὕνεκα νῦν φερόμεσθα καθ’ ἱστία λευκὰ βαλόντες
Μηλίου ἐκ πόντου νύκτα διὰ δνοφερήν,
ἀντλεῖν δ’ οὐκ ἐθέλουσιν, ὑπερβάλλει δὲ θάλασσα
ἀμφοτέρων τοίχων· ἦ μάλα τις χαλεπῶς
σώιζεται, οἷ’ ἔρδουσι· κυβερνήτην μὲν ἔπαυσαν
ἐσθλόν, ὅτις φυλακὴν εἶχεν ἐπισταμένως·
χρήματα δ’ ἁρπάζουσι βίηι, κόσμος δ’ ἀπόλωλεν,
δασμὸς δ’ οὐκέτ’ ἴσος γίνεται ἐς τὸ μέσον·
φορτηγοὶ δ’ ἄρχουσι, κακοὶ δ’ ἀγαθῶν καθύπερθεν.
δειμαίνω, μή πως ναῦν κατὰ κῦμα πίηι.
… because now we are borne along, throwing down white sails,
from the Melian sea through the dark night,
and they don’t want to bale out water, and the sea is thrown up
above both sides of the ship. Indeed, a man
would only be saved with great difficulty, such things they do. They stopped
the good steersman, who kept watch knowledgeably;
and they seize goods by violence, and order is lost,
and there is no equal division toward the common good;
and porters rule, base men above the noble.
I fear, lest somehow a wave swallow the ship.
This use of ship and storm imagery to blame leaders is, of course, reminiscent of Alcaeus. [6]
Theognis attacks the Corinthian tyrants, the Cypselids, who ruled from 655 to 625 BC, ending the extant poem (891–894) with a curse: [7]
ὤ μοι ἀναλκίης· ἀπὸ μὲν Κήρινθος ὄλωλεν,
Ληλάντου δ’ αγαθὸν κείρεται οἰνόπεδον·
οἱ δ’ ἀγαθοὶ φεύγουσι, πόλιν δὲ κακοὶ διέπουσιν.
ὡς δὴ Κυψελιδῶν Ζεὺς ὀλέσειε γένος.
O defenseless me! Kerinthos has perished,
the fair plain of Lelantos is ravaged;
noble men are exiled [pheugousi], and base men run the city.
That Zeus might destroy the race of Cypselids!
Evidently Theognis was exiled himself: “I am Aithon by birth, and I have an abode [oikō] in well-walled Thebes since I have been exiled from my native land” (1209–1210). [8] Nagy argues that oikō is burial, hero-cult diction, suggesting that Theognis/Aithon is “buried in Thebes as an exile from Megara.” [9] This is a suggestive interpretation, though not yet certain. The misery of exile is a theme in Theognis’ poetry: “Surely there is no friend and faithful comrade to an exile; and this is more painful than the exile itself” (209–210). [10] Poverty is a recurring Theognidean motif. [11] The poet’s financial degradation may have been brought about by his exile—as has been pointed out previously, [12] poverty is often linked to the exile in archaic poetry. [13]
Theognis is not precisely a satirical poet, but he is moralizing, and uses blame as a tool. [14] Verses 600–602 constitute another curse poem: “[You were] stealing my friendship. Go to hell [erre], hated by the gods and faithless among men, you chill and clever snake that I nurtured in my bosom.” [15]
… κλέπτων ἡμετέρην φιλίην.
ἔρρε θεοῖσιν <τ’> ἐχθρὲ καὶ ἀνθρώποισιν ἄπιστε,
ψυχρὸν ὃν ἐν κόλπωι ποικίλον εἶχον ὄφιν.
Verses 341–350 form a curse poem that reminds one of Alcaeus, including appeal to divinity and prayer for vengeance: [16]
ἀλλὰ Ζεῦ τέλεσόν μοι Ὀλύμπιε καίριον εὐχήν·
δὸς δέ μοι ἀντὶ κακῶν καί τι παθεῖν ἀγαθόν·
τεθναίην δ’, εἰ μή τι κακῶν ἄμπαυμα μεριμνέων
εὑροίμην. δοίην δ’ ἀντ’ ἀνιῶν ἀνίας·
αἶσα γὰρ οὕτως ἐστί, τίσις δ’ οὐ φαίνεται ἡμῖν
ἀνδρῶν οἳ τἀμὰ χρήματ’ ἔχουσι βίηι
συλήσαντες· …
* * *
τῶν εἴη μέλαν αἷμα πιεῖν· ἐπί τ’ ἐσθλὸς ὄροιτο
δαίμων ὃς κατ’ ἐμὸν νοῦν τελέσειε τάδε.
But fulfill my proper prayer, Zeus of Olympus;
and allow me to experience some good instead of evils.
May I die, if I do not find some rest from these evil
cares. May I give sorrows in return for sorrows.
For it is my allotted right that it should be thus, but I have no vengeance
upon the men who own my wealth, after plundering it by violence …
May I drink their dark blood, and may some good divinity arise
to accomplish these things as I desire them.
There may be influence here; on the other hand, both Alcaeus and Theognis may simply be following the ritual typology of the curse. [17]
We also find in Theognis such standard archaic and Alcaeic themes as military paraenesis [18] and a concern with the wickedness of oath breaking. [19] Theognis’ poetry also shows an interest in the Muses and Apollo. [20]
West sums up what we can know of Theognis’ purported life: “When we survey the whole evidence of the Cyrnus poems, Theognis takes on the colours of an Alcaeus: aristocratic witness of a demotic revolution, betrayed conspirator, and embittered exile.” [21] On the other hand, it is possible that no “Theognis” ever existed, and that the Theognidean corpus was modeled on a typical poetic life. Whichever is true, once more, the poet, whether he be historical or legendary, is exiled. [22]


[ back ] 1. See the scant testimonia on his life in Gerber 1999:166–175.
[ back ] 2. See scholiast on the Laws passage. The Suda places Theognis in 544–541 BC, which is probably about one hundred years late, cf. Cobb-Stevens, Figueira and Nagy 1985:1; Figueira 1985:298; Oost 1973. For Theognis’ native land and dubious historicity, see Figueira and Nagy 1985 passim; older studies, Hudson-Williams 1910:4–12, a useful gathering of the ancient data; Harrison 1902:268–305; Trever 1925:129n1. For Plato and Theognis, see Figueira 1985:112–158, 124–127. For the weak biographical tradition on Theognis, see ibid., 121–124.
[ back ] 3. ἀστοῖσιν δ’ οὔπω πᾶσιν ἁδεῖν δύναμαι.
[ back ] 4. Cf. Okin 1985:17.
[ back ] 5. Verses 1081–1082B are very similar, but the second line changes: “Kurnos, this city is pregnant, and I fear lest it bears a man / who is violent [hubristēn], a leader of a harsh faction. / For these citizens are still wise, but the leaders / have been turned to fall into much evil.” Cf. Cerri 1968:8; Dovatus 1972; Trever 1925:127–128.
[ back ] 6. See also 257–260; 291–292; 797–798; 855–856; 1081–1082b; 1203–1206. For Alcaeus’ use of ship and storm allegory to criticize leaders, see above, ch. 9.
[ back ] 7. For the curse, see above on Archilochus, ch. 3. For the historical background of this poem, cf. Figueira 1985:289–290. For the curse in Theognis, Watson 1991:66–69. Other curses in Theognis: 600–602, 869–872, 1087–1090, 341–350.
[ back ] 8. Trans. Nagy, in Figueira and Nagy 1985:76, Αἴθων μὲν γένος εἰμί, πόλιν δ’ εὐτείχεα Θήβην / οἰκῶ, πατρώιας γῆς ἀπερυκόμενος. Nagy interprets Aithon as meaning ‘burning [with hunger]’, “an epithet suitable to characters primarily known for their ravenous hunger” (123).
[ back ] 9. Nagy 1985:78. For the theme of the grave of the hero found far from his homeland, see above, Ibycus and Stesichorus, ch. 7; ch. 2 (Aesop) and ch. 6 (Hesiod).
[ back ] 10. οὐδείς τοι φεύγοντι φίλος καὶ πιστὸς ἑταῖρος / τῆς δὲ φυγῆς ἐστιν τοῦτ’ ἀνιηρότερον. Theognis 332a–b repeats this, changing it slightly. Having no reliable friend is “the most painful aspect of exile” (my emphasis): τῆς δὲ φυγῆς ἐστιν τοῦτ’ ἀνιηρότατον. Theognis also instructs Cyrnus never to befriend an exile (333–334)!
[ back ] 11. See 173–178; 181–182; 267–270; 277–278; 351–354; 383–392 (poverty is mēter’ amēkhaniēs ‘mother of perplexity’, 385; amēkhaniē is a constant theme in these passages); 393–398; 523–526; 619–620; 649–652; 667–668; 683–686; 750–752; 903–930; 1062; 1114A–1114B; 1129.
[ back ] 12. See above, ch. 3, Archilochus and ch. 6, Hesiod.
[ back ] 13. See West 1974:69, who accepts Theognis and his poems as historical; he notes the similarity of the Theognis story, as derived from the poems, to the Alcaeus vita, 1974:71. For the experience of exile as expressed in Theognis’ poetry, see Doblhofer 1987:24; cf. Seibert 1979:285–286.
[ back ] 14. Cf. 1271–1272. On praise and blame in Theognis, see CobbStevens 1985:173–174; cf. Theognis 873–876.
[ back ] 15. Reading hon and eikhon, Sintenis; mss.: hos and eikhes. Cf. 894.
[ back ] 16. Watson 1991:69.
[ back ] 17. Cf. Alcaeus 129V, see above, ch. 9; Murray 1965; Nagy 1985:81; Watson 1991:66. Seibert links this with the theme of exile (1979:285). The poem also has obvious echoes of Sappho 1, another impassioned prayer for redress.
[ back ] 18. See 1003–1006; 865–868. Cf. Suda s.v. Theognis, which reports that Theognis wrote paraenetic poems, parainetikas; also Stephanus of Byzantium Lexicon, s.v. Megara; Dio Chrysostom 2.18.
[ back ] 19. See 1139; 1195; cf. 811, 600–602; West 1974:69; see above on Archilochus, ch. 3.
[ back ] 20. Muses: 15–18 (an invocation); 237–250; 769–770; 1055–1056. Apollo: 1–10. See Edmunds 1985α:96–111, 100–101.
[ back ] 21. West 1974:71.
[ back ] 22. Thus we have the following themes in Theognis’ life: 10a, exile. 10b, death in a far country? 13, hero cult? 22, blame themes in poetry; 24, conflict with political leaders; 22e, curse as poetic theme; 26a, martial paraenesis as poetic theme. For such a shadowy vita, this is a fuller list than might be expected.