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date: 29 February 2024

Theognis (1), elegiac poet from Megarafree

Theognis (1), elegiac poet from Megarafree

  • Andrew Ford


The Theognidea is a collection of archaic Greek elegy amounting to nearly 1400 verses; its content is mainly gnomological advice on issues of politics and ethics, with the symposium as the ostensible occasion for its presentation. A passage near the opening of the work announces that these are the verses of Theognis of Megara, who is widely famed for his songs; and yet some of the verses are attested as having been composed by other Greek elegiac poets and the corpus as a whole has clearly suffered from repeated editing and excerpting. If neither the poetry nor the historical traditions about Theognis yield much reliable information about him, the Theognidea remains a valuable anthology of social and political thought among late archaic and early classical Greek elites.


  • Greek Literature

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

Theognis (1) is the nominal author of the Theognidea, a collection of archaic sympotic elegy amounting to nearly 1400 verses. Evidence for Theognis’s life is meagre: the entry on him in the Suda is unreliable (at points apparently confusing him with Theognis (2)), and already in the 4th century bce there was debate about whether he came from mainland Megara or its colony, Megara Hyblaea in Sicily (Pl. Leg. 680a, with scholia).

The evidence from the Theognidea is problematic. Because it is an anthology that was compiled out of several collections, not all of which were confined to Theognis’s poetry, it includes passages that are elsewhere attributed to Tyrtaeus, Solon, and Mimnermus, along with other passages of questionable attribution. In the attempt to sort out which poems in the Theognidea go back to the historical Theognis, many scholars have focused on a passage placed near the beginning of the collection (19 ff.) that is known as Theognis’s “seal” (see sphragis): addressing a younger companion named Cyrnus, the poet identifies himself as Theognis of Megara and proclaims that he is putting a seal on “these verses,” a mark of ownership that will prevent anyone from stealing them without being detected or inserting inauthentic ones. What the seal consists in is a matter of considerable scholarly disagreement,1 but many take Theognis to refer to his addressing his poetry to a certain Cyrnus, a typical way of focalising advice poetry that can be seen in Hesiod’s addressing his Works and Days to Perses (nine times, always in the vocative). On this view, passages addressed to Cyrnus (seventy-seven times in the corpus, always in the vocative) or to Polypaïdes (his presumed patronymic, nine times) are held to be authentic Theognis and as such may be used to outline a biography of the poet, including travels on the mainland and to Sicily, political infighting and betrayal by comrades, loss of property and ensuing poverty and exile.

Such reconstructions must remain hypothetical because their interpretation of the seal is not only debatable but of limited utility: the absence of the vocative proves nothing, since an original Kurne may be lost in the process of excerpting or copying (cf. 429 ff., which has no addressee but is attributed to Theognis by Plato and Aristotle); conversely, the ease with which Kurne could be inserted into a traditional verse in oral performance or in subsequent transcriptions (cf. 1071 with 213 and the two different versions of 156) raises the possibility that some Cyrnus-poems may be pseudo-Theognis.2

Some progress, however, in analysing the corpus may come from assuming that advice poets tended, like Hesiod, to keep to a single didactic addressee: this suggests that the ten passages addressed to other figures come from other authors. For example, a poem addressed to a certain Simonides (469) contains a verse (472) that is credited to the 5th-century elegist Euenus of Paros by Aristotle (Metaph. 1015a28, Eth. Eud. 1223a29; also quoted without a name at Rh. 1370a9) and by Plutarch (Mor. 1102c); on this basis it has been suggested that not only was Euenus the author of the poem in question (467–496 = Euenus fr. 8a W) but also that he should be credited with the two other poems in the corpus that are addressed to Simonides: 667–682 (= fr. 8b W) and 1341–1350 (= 8c W).3

The composite nature of the Theognidea entails other difficulties for interpreters. Lines and couplets are repeated from one part of the corpus to another, sometimes with significant variation that is not easily explained (e.g., 39–42 and 1081–1082b). In addition, the clipped style of gnomic elegy with its frequently self-enclosed couplets can leave modern editors unsure about where a poem begins and ends (e.g., 19–38, the passage containing the seal, has been analysed as one, two, or three separate poems). Such difficulties are partly due to the composite nature of the collection which has been influentially analysed by M. L. West. West identified 19–254 as the most coherent stratum of the Theognidea, with the densest use of Cyrnus’s name and few intrusions of other poets’ verse; this section is also neatly framed, beginning with the seal and concluding with a passage that reads well as an envoi to a poetry book: at 237–254 the singer proclaims that his songs have made Cyrnus famous throughout Greece and that the lad will be celebrated as long as symposia are held. On at least two subsequent occasions this so-called florilegium purum was augmented from other, partly overlapping sources, resulting in the present mixture of complete and fragmentary poems, with some occurring in different versions.4 Finally, a single MS (A, from the early10th century) adds 159 verses on erotic and paederastic themes under the title “Elegies: Book 2” (1231–1389). Framed by short hymns to Eros and to Aphrodite, the songs in this section are predominantly addressed to an unspecified “boy” (eighteen times); Cyrnus and Simonides are each addressed once (1354, 1349), and 1253–1254 is elsewhere attributed to Solon (fr. 13 W). A remark in the Suda that these verses were originally intermingled with the rest of the collection has suggested a theory that some censorious Byzantine editor created Book 2 by extracting the scandalous poems from “Book 1” (though leaving some behind, e.g., 993–996; four couplets—949–950, 1101–1102, 1107–1108, 1151–1152—are found in both books); but it may be that the paederastic collection was originally a separate work by another compiler.5

These complications notwithstanding, the Theognidea presents a general character that is compatible with the Suda’s dating of Theognis to 544/541, provided a few outlying poems are bracketed: the fear of tyranny expressed in verses 39 ff. more likely reflects a recurrent concern of the age than proves that our poet was writing as early as 640 and predicting Megara’s most famous tyrant, Theagenes (1); conversely, a poem (773 ff.) that prima facie refers to the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 is too late, though it comes from a Megarian milieu (774).6 The entire attempt to seek out an authentic kernel within the Theognidea would be rendered moot on Nagy’s view that Theognis was not a historical person but, like Cyrnus and like Homer on the Parry-Lord hypothesis, a prototypical role that (re)performers would have assumed at Megarian symposia, with the irretrievably mixed Theognidea a monument to such performances from the 7th century through the 5th.7

Numerous self-referential passages indicate that the poems were composed with a view to sympotic performance (e.g., 467–496), not only in Megara but throughout the Greek world (23, 237–252). The reflections on wine, fellowship, ethics, and politics are treated in a way that could speak to elite symposiasts in many archaic cities: the speaker defends an aristocracy of birth (agathoi, esthloi), and deplores the social instability created by baser sorts (kakoi, deiloi), nouveaux riches encroaching on the aristocrats’ prerogatives.8 Moderation in ethics and politics is praised throughout, and a high premium is placed on loyalty in times of political factionalism. The speaker commends frankness among friends and recommends cunning dissimulation toward outsiders.

As a chrestomathy of aristocratic political and social attitudes and as a song-book for elite leisure, the Theognidea enjoyed both a broad and a narrow reception in the following generations. In democratic Athens, Theognis could be quoted from the comic stage (cf. 27–28 with Ar. Av. 1362–1363) and be grouped with Hesiod and Phocylides as a worthy councillor for human life (Isoc. 2.43); Antisthenes (1) wrote a work On Theognis as part of a protreptic on courage and justice (Diog. Laert. 6.16). At the same time he seems to have been closely cultivated in Socratic circles: both Plato (Meno 95d) and Xenophon (Symp. 2.4; cf. Mem. 1.2.20) represent Socrates quoting from the same Theognidean passage (31–38) that commends associating with the good (agathoi, esthloi) and shunning the base (kakoi). Stobaeus (4.29.53) quotes a subtle and suggestive explication of 183 ff. from a work On Theognis that he ascribes to Xenophon, who, however, is nowhere else credited with such a work. Theognis is thus less accessible to us as an historical individual than as a figure shaped by the tastes and interests of the audiences who received and transmitted the poetry associated with that name.

Primary Texts

  • West, Martin, L. Iambi et Elegi Graeci ante Alexandrum cantati. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Young, Douglas. Theognis. 2nd ed. Leipzig: Teubner, 1971.
  • Gerber, Douglas E. Greek Elegiac Poetry. Loeb Classical Library 258. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • West, Martin L. Greek Lyric Poetry: The Poems and Fragments of the Greek Iambic, Elegiac, and Melic Poets. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
  • Hudson-Williams, Thomas. The Elegies of Theognis and Other Elegies Included in the Theognidean Sylloge. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1910.
  • van Groningen, Bernhard Abraham. Theognis: Le premier livre. Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1966. Book 1 only.
  • Vetta, Massimo. Theognis: Elegiarum liber secundus. Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1980. Book 2 only.


  • Bowie, Ewen L. “The Theognidea: A Step Towards a Collection of Fragments?” In Collecting Fragments / Fragmente sammeln. Edited by Glenn W. Most, 53–66. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1997.
  • Bowie, Ewen L. “An Early Chapter in the History of the Theognidea.” In Approaches to Archaic Greek Poetry. Edited by Xavier Riu and Jaume Pòrtulas, 121–148. Messina, Italy: Dipartimento di Scienze dell’Antichità, 2012.
  • Colesanti, Giulio. Questioni Teognidee: La genesi simposiale di un corpus di elegie. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2011.
  • Ferrari, Franco. Teognide: Elegie. I Classici della BUR 696. Milan, Italy: Rizzoli, 1989.
  • Figueira, Thomas J., and Gregory Nagy, eds. Theognis of Megara: Poetry and the Polis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.
  • Lane Fox, Robin. “Theognis: An Alternative to Democracy.” In Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization and Community in Ancient Greece. Edited by Roger Brock and Stephen Hodkinson, 35–51. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Reitzenstein, Richard. Epigramm und Skolion: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der alexandrinischen Dichtung. Giessen, Germany: J. Ricker, 1893.
  • Selle, Hendrik. Theognis und die Theognidea. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte 95. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008.
  • West, Martin L. Studies in Greek Elegy and Iambus. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1974.