Elegies (I), by Theognis


Theognis Burning

This city’s pregnant, Kurnos, and I fear

She’ll bear a man to crush our swelling pride

The people still have sense, but those in charge

Are turning, stumbling into evil ways.

ELEGIES, by Theognis


Theognis of Megara  was a Greek lyric poet, active in approximately the sixth century BC. The work is quite typical of the time, featuring ethical maxims and practical advice about life, while the entire corpus of his work (almost 1400 lines known as the Elegies) is valued today for its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of aristocratic life in archaic Greece.

The themes of the work include advice on choosing friends, behaviour in public, keeping promises,  where you should place your trust, the importance of husbanding resources, and the evils of poverty.  If the text reflects lived experience, Theognis would seem to have  lost his estate due to the duplicity of his friends who worked hand-in-hand with city administrators, while a considerable portion of the text also relates Theognis’ often doomed love affairs with young men, and his subsequent preoccupation with ageing.

Reading the collected Elegies, what is striking to note is a motif of increasing civil strife, corruption and a growing threat from overseas to the polis, which would seem to have manifested in eventual invasion and the complete overthrow of the city state where Theognis resided.

Check out the chronological extracts below to trace the increasing anxiety evidence in the theme of a state falling into moral and civil disorder.

This city’s pregnant, Kurnos, and I fear

She’ll bear a man to crush our swelling pride

The people still have sense, but those in charge

Are turning, stumbling into evil ways.


Gentlemen never yet destroyed a town;

But when the scum resort to violence,

Seduce the masses and corrupt the courts

To line their pockets and increase their power

Then, Kurnos, you may know this tranquil town

Cannot remain unshaken very long.

When wicked men rejoice in private graft

Then public evils follow; factions rise,

Then bloody civil war, until the State

Welcomes a Tsar. God save us from that fate!

Among these citizens don’t take one step

Relying on their friendship, or an oath

From one, not if he offers Great King Zeus

As witness, or the gods as sureties.

No one can please a slanderous town like this.

Poor men have little chance of being spared.


Now ways thought bad by good men have become

Excellent ways to these bad men who rule

With novel laws which wander from the road;

The sense of shame has died, and violence

And wrong have conquered right, and rule the world.

May Zeus in heaven keep his strong right hand

Forever on this town to make it safe,

Likewise, the other blessed deathless gods.

Apollo, guide my singing and my thoughts,

May holy songs be heard from lyre and flute.

Let’s pit libation to the gods and drink,

Enjoying talk and fellowship, without

Any alarm about the Median war.

Lord Phoebus, you who built the towers of our

Acropolis, to place Alcathoos

The son of Pelops, now protect this town

From the outrageous army of the Medes

So that your people, when the Spring returns,

May give you glorious hecatombs, with joy,

Delighting in the cithara and feats

With dancing in your honour, and with cries

Of gladness round your altar. I’m afraid,

Seeing the mindless lack of unity

Which weakens the Greek people. Phoebus, please

Favour this city, keep us in your care.

I heard the fall bird’s shrill alarm, I heard

That call which bids the farmer plough his land

My heart was shattered by that crying bird:

My blooming pastures lie in other hands

A stranger’s mules are yoked to pull my plough –

Our state is led by hateful pilots now.

I come from Aethon’s race, but now I live

In well-walled Thebes, exiled from my own land.



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