Theognis 237-54: Remember my name

Theognis of Megara is a Greek elegist, probably writing in the 6th century BC. Much of his poetry is political, addressed to his agathoi – fellow Greek aristocrats. However, his main addressee is Cyrnus, a young man with whom he is in an erotic relationship. Theognis’ relationship with Cyrnus was a stormy one, as the poem below shows. It is a beautiful but bitter piece, notable for its use of Homeric tropes to exact a poetic revenge on his deceitful lover.


For my part, I have made you wings on which to fly
across the endless sea and all the earth
with ease, you’ll soon be at every dinner, every feast,
and many a man will have you on his lips,
and lovely lads accompanied by alto pipes
will sing of you in voices sweet and clear
and orderly. And when, down in the earth’s dark nooks,
you go to Hades’ house of wailing grief,
not even in death will your fame fade, but men 
will always cherish your immortal name,
Cyrnus, as you roam over all the land of Greece,
and all the islands of the teeming sea,
not riding then on horseback; no, the violet wreathed
Muses will speed you by their noble grace.
Future men likewise, all who have an interest,
will sing of you, while earth and sun exist.
And yet from you I cannot get some slight respect;
you lie to me as if I were a child.

Poetic immortality was a very important concern for the Ancient Greeks. The use of the trope in this poem particularly recalls the following lines in the Odyssey and the Iliad:

Il. 6.357-8
(Helen addressing Hector)

“Zeus has brought an evil fate upon us, and in days to come we shall be a song for those yet unborn.”

Od. 24.93-4
(the ghost of Agamemnon describing the funeral of Achilles)

“So your name was not lost, Achilles, in death, and you will be famous indeed forever among men.”

Theognis uses Homeric imagery to imbue his promises with an epic grandeur. In Homer words are often described as “winged“, and here these wings become those that will transport Cyrnus into immortal fame. However, this grandeur is lost in the sting of the final two lines, where Theognis complains of the indignity of Cyrnus’ treatment towards him.

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Laments for Lost Friends in Ancient Rome

The below are two of the most moving poems to have survived from Ancient Rome. The poets Catullus and Horace comfort close friends on the death of someone dear to them. Both odes are deeply poignant in their grief, but also use poetry to wilfully defy mortality itself by showing that those we loved are never truly lost to us.

In poem 96, Catullus comforts his friend Calvus on the death of his wife, telling him that her spirit is gladdened by the love her husband shows in his great grief:


If anything from our grief, can reach beyond
the silent tomb, Calvus, and be pleasing and welcome,
grief with which, in longing, we revive our lost loves,
and weep for vanished friendships once known,
surely Quintilia is not so much grieved at her early death,
as joyful for your love.

In Ode 1.24, Horace comforts the famous poet of the Aeneid, Virgil, at the death of their mutual friend and teacher Quintilius. I have only included the last 3 stanzas as they are the ones I want to discuss here. Horace tells his friend that no amount of grieving can help them to bring their friend back, comparing Virgil to Orpheus, the mythical poet who performed for the King of the underworld to try in vain to bring back his wife from the dead. The god Mercury was the guardian of the boundaries between the upper and lower worlds, and Horace reminds us that those who pass by him are never suffered to return.


Many are the good men who weep for his dying,
none of them, Virgil, weep more profusely than you.
Piously, you ask the gods for him, alas, in vain:
not so was he given to us.

Even if you played on the Thracian lyre, listened
to by the trees, more sweetly than Orpheus could,
would life then return, to that empty phantom,
once Mercury, with fearsome wand,

who won’t simply re-open the gates of Fate
at our bidding, has gathered him to the dark throng?
It is hard: but patience makes more tolerable
whatever wrong’s to be righted.

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Catullus 5: To live and to love

In Catullus 5 love is the essence of life. The poet’s energy, inspired by love, is an infinite force that is a thousand times more powerful than the malicious rumours and prying eyes that seek to destroy it. It even has the power to challenge the eternity of death.

The poem is addressed to Lesbia, the subject of many of his poems. Lesbia is a pseudonym, probably for Clodia, wife of the illustrious Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. She was a woman made famous for her affairs, her gambling, and her drinking. She was even suspected of murdering her husband in 59BC, when he died in mysterious circumstances. How much of this is true we cannot really know. We do know from Catullus’ poetry that his affair was a tempestuous one; poem 85 famously begins with the lines ‘I hate and I love’. But Catullus 5 was composed in a happier moment, although the pair are already threatened by the shadowy presence of onlookers.

Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love,
and all the rumours of stern old men
are worth just a single penny to me.
Suns may set and rise again,
but for us, when our brief light is ended,
night is but one everlasting sleep.
Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
another thousand, a second hundred,
another thousand again, and a hundred.
Then, when we have counted the many thousands,
confuse them, so the number is hidden,
and some enemy may not cast his evil eye,
knowing the total of our kisses.

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Horace 2.20: The Swan Poet

Writing in the 1st century BC Horace is my favourite Roman poet. Whether he is being charming and witty or lofty and philosophical he is always a great friend of those who read him.

Ode 2.20 one of his more fantastic poems. In it he warns his friend Maecenas not to mourn his death, for he is an immortal poet. He imagines himself transformed into a swan, borne by his song to the very edges of the Roman Empire. Like Catullus in my previous post, Horace is exploring the immortality of the poet’s voice.

By no ordinary or flimsy wings shall I be borne
through the clear air, a poet of two forms,
and I shall not remain any longer on land,
beyond all envy, I shall leave these cities.

For I, born to poor parents, I whom you command,
dear Maecenas, I shall not die,
and the waters of the Styx shall not encircle me.
Now, already, rough skin spreads over my legs,
and I am transforming from above
into a white swan, soft feathers
sprout from my fingers and shoulders.
Now, more renowned than Icarus, son of Daedalus,
as a melodious bird I shall see the shores of the groaning Bosphorus,
the Gaetulian Syrtes, and the Hyperborean plains.
And Colchus shall hear me, and the Dacians,
who hide their fear for Marsian troops,
and the Geloni at the edges of the earth,
the learned Iberians and drunken Rhodes shall know me.

Let there be no mindless funeral rites,
and unsightly lamenting and weeping,
Restrain from crying, and do not trouble
with the empty honour of a tomb.

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Catullus 101: A Brother’s Farewell

For my next poem I have jumped ahead several centuries to Republican Rome and the poetry of Catullus. Writing in the first century BC Catullus is perhaps the most popular Roman poet today. Passionate, funny, rude, and pretty graphic at times, he is a prevailing favourite of the classical world.

I have chosen to start with one of his most moving poems, addressed to the grave at his brother’s funeral.

Through many countries and over many seas
I have come, Brother, to these melancholy rites,
to show this final honour to the dead,
and speak (to what purpose?) to your silent ashes,
since now fate takes you, even you, from me.
Oh, Brother, ripped away from me so cruelly,
now at least take these last offerings, blessed
by the tradition of our parents, gifts to the dead.
Accept, by custom, what a brother’s tears drown,
and, for eternity, Brother, ‘Hail and Farewell’.

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