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Selections from Theognis
John Porter, translator

Notice: This translation is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

For Theognis, see the relevant discussion in the Course Notes on The Archaic Age and the Rise of the Polis (Porter). Links in the following passages are to that discussion.

Lines 19-30
Cyrnus, let a seal lie upon these verses, the work
of my clever skill. Never, if stolen, will they escape detection,
nor will anyone substitute a worse for that which is here,
but all will say: "These are the verses of Theognis
of Megara," and my name will be renowned among all men.
Yet not all of my own fellow citizens am I able to please.
No marvel at that, son of Polypas [FN 1]: not even Zeus
pleases everyone, whether he sends rain or withholds it.
But to you I will give kindly counsel — the very sort I myself
learned, Cyrnus, from the agathoi while still a child.
Be prudent: amass not honors, nor renown for aretê,
nor wealth on the basis of deeds that are shameful or unjust.
[Course Notes: Theognis and Cyrnus]

Lines 39-52
Cyrnus, this city swells with pregnancy: I fear lest it bring forth a man
who might be a chastiser of our hybris. [FN 2]
The citizens still are prudent, but the leaders
are poised, ready to fall into great evil.
Never yet, Cyrnus, have men who are agathoi destroyed a city,
but whenever it pleases the kakoi to indulge in hybris,
when they destroy the demos and grant judgments in favor of the unjust,
all for the sake of their own profit and power,
don't look for that city to remain long unshaken —
not even if for the present it lies among great peace and security —
whenever the following becomes dear to men who are kakoi:
private profits attended by evil for the demos.
For thence come civil uprisings and internecine murders
and tyrants. May such never please this city.

Lines 53-62
Cyrnus, this city still is as it was, but the people have changed:
those who before knew neither judgments at law nor civic statutes,
when the rough hides of goats chafed their flanks
and they grazed like deer outside the city's bounds,
these now are the agathoi, son of Polypas, while those who before were noble
now are wretches. Who could endure looking on these things?
They cheat one another, grinning stupidly all the while,
with no sense at all, either of good or evil.
Make none of these citizens your friends, son of Polypas —
not from your heart, and not in any serious business.

Lines 149-50
Money the daimon [FN 3] gives even to the most utterly kakos,
Cyrnus, but a portion of aretê attends few men.

Lines 159-60
Avoid spouting big boastful words, Cyrnus. For no one
of men knows what the next night and day bring to fulfillment.

Lines 173-78
Poverty, more than anything, destroys a man who is agathos,
Cyrnus, even more than palsied gray old age.
Flee it at all costs — toss yourself into the deep-hollowed sea
or, Cyrnus, off sky-towering cliffs.
For a man is broken by poverty, unable to speak
or to do anything, and his tongue is bound fast.

Lines 181-82
Better for a poor man to die, my dear Cyrnus,
than to live worn away by harsh poverty.

Lines 183-92
We search out rams and asses and horses, Cyrnus,
that are of noble birth, and each man wishes his animals to mount
females that derive from noble stock (agathoi). [FN 4] But marriage to a woman who is kakos,
and the daughter of a kakos, causes the noble no concern — if, that is, she brings him money.
Nor does a woman refuse to be the wife of a kakos,
if he's rich: she wants one that's wealthy, not agathos.
It's money they respect: nobility takes the daughters of the kakoi
and the kakoi those of the agathoi. Wealth has confounded our stock.
Don't marvel, then, son of Polypas, that our city's population
is sinking in the mire: the noble is mingling with the base (kakos).

Lines 319-22
Cyrnus, the agathos has sound judgment with him firmly at all times:
he holds fast, whether mired in evils or in prosperity.
But if the god should grant livelihood and wealth to a man who is kakos,
deluded, he is unable to hold his villainy in check.

Lines 1109-12
Cyrnus, those who before were agathoi now are kakoi, while the former kakoi
now are agathoi. Who could endure seeing these things,
the agathoi without honor or position, [FN 5] while the kakoi fall upon
both? And the noble now court as wives the daughters of kakoi.

Lines 1197-1202
Son of Polypas, I heard the voice of a bird calling shrilly,
the messenger for mortals who proclaims
plowing season, and it set my heart darkly aflutter,
since others hold my richly-flowering fields,
nor do the mules, stooping, draw the plow for me
* * * * * * * due to my sea-voyage.


[FN 1] I.e. Cyrnus. [Return to text]

[FN 2] Hybris indicates a violent arrogance of a particular sort. This term is discussed in more detail in the course notes on Solon. [Return to text]

[FN 3] Daimon is a vaguer, somewhat more ominous word for one of the supernatural forces that govern the world. Here the equivalent of theos ("god"). [Return to text]

[FN 4] Here the reference is to good breeding stock, but (like the reference to "noble birth" in 184) the word contains a conscious ambiguity, as the following verses show. [Return to text]

[FN 5] I.e. without timê. [Return to text]

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Copyright John Porter, University of Saskatchewan, 1995.
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