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.

237-54

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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Seducing Socrates: The comedy and tragedy of Plato’s Symposium

The Symposium is Plato’s most literary text. In the context of a dinner party for the elite of Athenian society, Plato plays out complex discussions on the relationship between literature and philosophy, the nature of education, and the pursuit of true wisdom.

This painting by Anselm Feuerbach (1873) shows Alcibiades drunkenly disrupting the Symposium

This painting by Anselm Feuerbach (1873) shows Alcibiades disrupting the Symposium

One of the key characters within this text is Alcibiades. Alcibiades was a skilled war general who secured many key victories for Athens. He was charismatic and popular, but his career was one of scandals after he was exiled from Athens for mocking religious rituals and defacing statues of the god Hermes. In exile he defected to Sparta, the enemy of Athens, and served with them for several years before allying with Athens again. The Symposium is set before any of this took place, when Alcibiades was still the pride and joy of his city, but there is a strong sense of the reckless nature that would be his downfall.

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Plato’s Symposium 189a-193e: Aristophanes on the Nature of Love

Ancient Greek sexuality is a fascinating topic. In the Symposium the great philosopher Plato explores the nature of love, and one form of love he particularly admires is that between two males.

The scene is the Greek Symposium; a drinking party where the Athenian male elite would discuss philosophy and perform poetry. The distinguished guests decide that at this Symposium they will discuss the topic of ‘Love’, and so in turn each man gives a speech about what he considers love to be.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC.

The speech I have focussed on here is that of Aristophanes, the famous Athenian comic playwright. True to his profession it is a very funny speech, at least in an Ancient Athenian sort of way, but it is also incredibly charming, and very interesting in its portrayal of homosexual relationships.

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Sappho 14: Absent Loves

The most beautiful sight in this world is not arms and warriors, it is the thing you love. Sappho is a great authority on love and beauty, and this poem is a moving tribute to their devastating power. Because it is written by a female poet, it is tempting to read this text as setting male against female, as Sappho denouncing the masculine world of warfare as less important than the feminine values of beauty and love. However, Sappho is rather stating a general truth about life, one that she has tragically learnt from her own experience.

In my post Sappho 31: A Lesbian Passion I explained that the popular theory about Sappho is that she was a sort of teacher or leader for young girls, perhaps preparing them for marriage. So is Anaktoria one of her girls that she used to care for, but who now has married and left? That is currently the most likely reading.

Unfortunately this is a fragmentary poem, and so after ‘led astray’ there are some lines missing. However enough remains for us to appreciate the beauty of Sappho’s words.

Some say horsemen, some say warriors,
Some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
Vision in this dark world, but I say it’s
What you love.

It’s easy to make this clear to everyone,
Since Helen, she who outshone
All others in beauty, left
A fine husband,

And headed for Troy
Without a thought for
Her daughter, her dear parents…
Led astray….

And I recall Anaktoria, whose sweet step
Or that flicker of light on her face,
I’d rather see than Lydian chariots
Or the armed ranks of the hoplites.

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Sappho 31: A Lesbian Passion

I start with Sappho, a poet whose person shrouded in mystery, but whose voice still rings clearly across the centuries with intensity and passion.

Sappho was writing around 600 BC and came from Lesbos, a Greek island near the east coast of Turkey. She is the only known female poet from classical Greece whose poetry survives. This uniqueness however has not isolated her and she was greatly respected throughout antiquity. She remains one of the most popular Greek poets today.

Despite this very little is known about Sappho and only a few of her poems have survived. We can guess a little about her from these fragments, but nothing is certain. One popular theory is that Sappho taught at a sort of school where girls were sent to prepare for marriage. Most of what remains by her is addressed towards women, perhaps they were once her pupils.

What is most striking about Sappho is her passion , or more specifically, her homoerotic passion. If you haven’t spotted it already, the modern term ‘lesbian’ actually comes from Sappho and her home on Lesbos. In fragment 31 this passion is very powerful, overwhelming the poet’s senses.

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