Text | Theognis of Megara: selections

Theognis of Megara

Translated by Gregory Nagy

Lord Apollo, son of Leto and Zeus, I will always have you


on my mind as I begin and as I end my song.

You will be my song in the beginning, in the end, and in the middle.


Hear my prayer and grant me the things that are noble [esthla].

Lord Phoebus Apollo! When the goddess, Lady Leto, gave birth to you


at the wheel-shaped lake, you O most beautiful of the immortal gods,

as she held on to the Palm Tree with her supple hands,


then it was that all Delos, indescribably and eternally, was filled

with an aroma of immortality; and the Earth smiled in all her enormity,


while the deep pontos of the gray Sea rejoiced.

Artemis, killer of beasts, daughter of Zeus! For you Agamemnon


established a sacred precinct at the time when he set sail for Troy with his swift ships.

Hear my prayer! Ward off the spirits of destruction!


For you this is a small thing to do, goddess. For me it is a big thing.

15 Muses and Graces [Kharites], daughters of Zeus! You were the ones


who once came to the wedding of Kadmos, and you sang this beautiful epos:

17 “What is beautiful [kalon] is near and dear [philon], what is not beautiful [kalon] is not near and dear [philon].”


That is the epos that came through their immortal mouths.

Kyrnos, let a seal be placed by me as I practice my sophiā


upon these epea; that way they will never be stolen without detection,

and no one will substitute something inferior for the good [esthlon] that is there.


And everyone will say: “These are the epea of Theognis

of Megara. His name is known among all men.”


But I am not yet able to please all the citizens.

Which is not surprising, son of Polypaos! Not even Zeus


can please everyone either by making rain or by withdrawing rain.

But I, having good intentions toward you, will give you the kind of advice


that I myself, Kyrnos, learned from the agathoi when I was still a boy.

Be aware! Do not drag the things of tīmē or aretē or wealth


in the direction of deeds that are base and shameful or without dikē.

39 Kyrnos, this city [polis] is pregnant, and I fear that it will give birth to a man


who will be a straightener [euthuntēr] of our base hubris.

41 The citizens [astoi] here [in the city] are still moderate [sōphrones], but the leaders [hēgemones]


have veered so far as to fall into debasement [kakotēs].

43 Men who are noble [agathoi], Kyrnos, have never yet ruined any city [polis],


but when people who are base [kakoi] decide to behave with hubris,

45 and when they ruin the community [dēmos] and render judgments [dikai] in favor of the unjust [= persons or things without dikē],


for the sake of private gain [kerdos plural], and for the sake of absolute power [kratos],

47 do not expect that city [polis] to be peaceful for long,


not even if it is now in a state of great serenity [hēsukhiā],

49 once the base [kakoi] decide on these things,


namely, private gains [kerdos plural] entailing public damage.

51 From these things result acts of discord [stasis plural], killings [phonoi] within local groups of men,


and one-man rulers [mounarkhoi]. May this city [polis] never decide to accept these things!

My thūmos! Keep turning and showing a new side of your versatile nature in each encounter with every philos.


Keep mixing your temperament to match that of each philos.

Have the temperament of a complex octopus,


who always looks like whatever rock he has just clung to.

Now be like this; then, at another time, become someone else in your coloring.


It is true to say that sophiā is better than being atropos.1

I gave you wings with which over the boundless sea [pontos]


you will fly, soaring, and over all the earth,

with ease. You will be there at all banquets,


on the lips of many,

and young men will sing of you to the accompaniment of clear-sounding pipes,


delightful young men, in good arrangement [kosmos], beautifully and clearly.

And when you go under, down to the recesses of dark Earth


to the mournful halls of Hādēs,

you will never, not even in death, lose kleos, but you will be on the minds of men,


having a name that is unwilting [aphthiton] forever,

Kyrnos, as you go about the land of the Hellenes and over their islands too,


crossing the unharvested fish-swarming sea [pontos];

and this time you will not be sitting on horseback, but you will be propelled


by the splendid gifts of the violet-garlanded Muses.

You will be a song for everyone who has song on his mind, both for those who are now and for those who will be,


so long as there will be Earth and Sun.

But I do not even get a little respect from you,


and you deceive me with your words as if I were some small boy.

May Zeus grant me repayment of the philoi who love me,


and that I may have more power than my personal enemies [ekhthroi].

Thus would I have the reputation of a god among men,


if my destined death overtakes me when I have exacted repayment.

O Zeus, Olympian, bring my timely prayer to its ultimate fulfillment!


Grant that I have something good happen in place of misfortunes.

But may I die if I find no respite from cares brought on by misfortunes.


And may I give harm in return for harm.

For this is the way it was destined, and yet I see no repayment on the horizon,


no repayment of the men who robbed me of my possessions by force [biē].

But I am a dog and I cross the stream


with its wintry torrent. I am about to exact repayment for everything.

May I drink their black blood! And may a noble [esthlos] daimōn look on at all of this,


who may bring these things to their ultimate fulfillment, in accordance with my noos.

I fear, son of Polypaos, that hubris will destroy this polis


—the same hubris that destroyed the Centaurs, eaters of raw flesh.

I must render this dikē, Kyrnos, along the straight line of a carpenter’s rule and square,


and I must give to both sides their equitable share,

with the help of seers, portents, and burning sacrifice,


so that I may not incur shameful blame for veering.

My philoi betray me. A personal enemy [ekhthros] would have been no problem, since I could steer clear of him,


much as a helmsman [kubernētēs] steers clear of the reefs in the sea.

Ah, wretched Poverty! Why do you weigh upon my shoulders


and debase both my body and my noos?

Forcibly and against my will, you teach me many base and shameful things,


though I am one among men who understands what things are esthla and beautiful.

If I had the wealth, Simonides, that I used to have,


I would not be distressed as I am now at being together with the agathoi.

But now my possessions have passed me by, even though I was aware, and I am speechless


because of my lack of wealth, though I am aware of one single thing much better than many other things:

that we are now being carried along, with white sails lowered,


beyond the pontos of Melos, through the dark night,

and they refuse to bail, and the sea washes over


both sides of the ship. It is a difficult thing for anyone

to be saved, what with the things they are doing. They have deposed the kubernētēs,


the noble [esthlos] one, who was standing guard, with expertise.

They seize wealth by force [biē], and order [kosmos] has been destroyed.


There is no longer an equitable division of possessions, aimed at the collective interest,

but the carriers of merchandise rule, and the kakoi are on top of the agathoi.

Let these things be allusive utterances [ainigma pl.] hidden by me for the agathoi.


One could be aware of even future misfortune, if one is sophos.

A man who consults the Oracle must be more straight, Kyrnos, being on his guard,


than a carpenter’s pin and rule and square

—a man to whom the priestess of the god at Delphi


makes a response, revealing a sacred utterance from the opulent shrine.

You will not find any remedy left if you add anything,


nor will you escape from veering, in the eyes of the gods, if you take anything away.

Everything here has gone to the ravens and perdition. And not


one of the immortal and blessed gods is responsible to us for this, Kyrnos,

but the violence [biē] of men and their baneful desire for gain [kerdea] and their hubris


have plummeted them from much good [agatha] into debasement [kakotēs].

Often has this polis, because of the kakotēs of its leaders,


run aground like a veering ship.

1081 Kyrnos, this city [polis] is pregnant, and I fear that it will give birth to a man


who will be a hubristēs [= perpetrator of hubris], a leader [hēgemōn] of dire discord [stasis].

1082a The citizens [astoi] here [in the city] are moderate [sōphrones], but the leaders [hēgemones]

1082b have veered so far as to fall into debasement [kakotēs].

hubris has destroyed the Magnesians and Kolophon


and Smyrna; and it will completely destroy all of you, too, Kyrnos!


Do not remind me of my misfortunes! The kinds of things that happened to Odysseus have happened to me too.


He came back, emerging from the great palace of Hādēs,

and then killed the suitors with a pitiless heart [thūmos].


while thinking good thoughts about his duly wedded wife Penelope,


who all along waited for him and stood by their dear son


while he [= Odysseus] was experiencing dangers on land and in the gaping chasms of the sea.

I heard, son of Polypaos, the sound of a bird making its resonant call,


the bird that comes as a messenger of plowing for men,

plowing in season. And it roused my somber heart,


for other men now possess my flowery fields,

and my mules no longer pull my curved plow


all because of that other sea-voyage that is on one’s mind.

I am Aithōn by birth, and I have an abode [oikos] in well-walled Thebes,


since I have been exiled from my native land.

The Corpse of the Sea is now calling me home.


It is dead, but it calls with a mouth that is alive.

Appendix to Theognis

  1. And another person is taught by the Olympian Muses their gifts,
    thus understanding the nature of delightful sophiā
    And yet another person is made a seer by lord Apollo the efficacious,
    and he is aware of a bad thing, even when it comes to a man from afar.

    Solon F 13.51–54

  2. In matters of great importance, it is difficult to please all.Solon F 7
  3. I wrote down the laws for kakos and agathos alike,
    fitting a straight dikē for each.

    Solon F 36.18–20

  4. But in an oligarchy, where many men are competing for aretē in public life, intense personal hatreds are bound to break out. For each of them wants to be on top and to have his proposals win the day, and so they end up having great hatreds against each other. From which arises strife [stasis pl.] from which in turn arises killing [phonos], from which in turn it all comes down to tyranny [monarkhia]—and in this there is proof for how superior is monarchy!Herodotus 3.82.3
  5. And we, men of overweening violence [biē], settled Kolophon,
    we leaders of baneful hubris.

    Mimnermus F 9.3-4

  6. But the noos of the leaders of the community [dēmos] is without dikē.
    What awaits them is the suffering of many pains because of a great hubris.
    For they do not understand how to check insatiability [koros], nor can they make
    kosmos for their existing merriment in the serenity [hēsukhiā] of the banquet.
    They are wealthy, swayed by deeds without dīkē,
    and not caring at all about sacred or public property,
    they steal from one another by forcible seizure,
    and they do not heed the holy institutions of dikē,
    who silently observes the present and the past,
    and who will in the future come to exact complete retribution.

    Solon F 4.7–16

  7. It is difficult to hold down someone who has risen too far up,
    once it has happened, but now is the time for someone to take all
    precautions with his noos.

    Solon F9.5–6

  8. And along the road of the Prytaneion is the hero-precinct of Ino, and around it is an enclosure made of stones, and there are olive-trees on top of it. And the people of Megara are the only ones of the Greeks who say that the corpse of Ino was washed ashore on a beach in their territory, and that Klēsō and Tauropolis found it and gave it a funeral—they were the daughters of Klēsōn son of Lelex; they also say that Ino was called Leukothea [White Goddess] in their country first, and that they have a yearly sacrifice to her.Pausanias 1.42.7


[ back ] 1. That is, ‘having no versatility, having no power to turn’; cf. Odysseus at Od. i 1 as polutropos ‘having much versatility, having many ways to turn’.


Related topics

Text Library