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Theognis of Megara

Theognis of Megara was a Greek lyric poet active in approximately the sixth century BC. The work attributed to him consists of gnomic poetry quite typical of the time, featuring ethical maxims and practical advice about life. He was the first Greek poet known to express concern over the eventual fate and survival of his own work and, along with Homer, Hesiod and the authors of the Homeric Hymns, he is among the earliest poets whose work has been preserved in a continuous manuscript tradition (the work of other archaic poets is preserved as scattered fragments). In fact more than half of the extant elegiac poetry of Greece before the Alexandrian period is included in the approximately 1,400 lines of verse attributed to him (though several poems traditionally attributed to him were composed by others, e.g. Solon, Euenos). Some of these verses inspired ancient commentators to value him as a moralist yet the entire corpus is valued today for its "warts and all" portrayal of aristocratic life in archaic Greece.

There is confusion also about his place of birth, "Megara", which Plato for example understood to be Megara Hyblaea in Sicily, while a scholiast on Plato cites Didymus for the rival theory that the poet was born in a Megara in Attica, and ventures the opinion that Theognis might have later migrated to the Sicilian Megara (a similar theory had assigned an Attic birthplace to the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus).

It was probably his reputation as a moralist, significant enough to deserve comment by Aristotle and Plato, that guaranteed the survival of his work through the Byzantine period. However, it is clear that we don't possess his total output. The Byzantine Suda, for example, mentions 2 800 lines of elegiacs, twice the number preserved in medieval manuscripts. Different scholars have different theories about the transmission of the text to account for the discrepancy yet it is generally agreed that the present collection actually contains too many verses under the name of Theognis: the collection appears in fact to be an anthology that includes verses by him. The collection is preserved in more than forty manuscripts, comprising a continuous series of elegiac couplets that modern editors now separate into some 300 to 400 "poems", according to personal preferences.

Theognis also details the heightened political tensions within Megara during the seventh century. His works depict the arrival of "other men" that have challenged and displaced former members of the elite. His works, particularly lines 53-58, demonstrate that increasing urbanization among the rural populace surrounding Megara has resulted in heightened social pressures within the city. His writings are thought by modern scholars to largely represent the aristocratic viewpoint of the Megarian elite. However, it is difficult for modern scholars to ascertain both Theognis' position in Megarian society and his role in writing these lines due to possible later additions to his works and the confusion surrounding his origins.

The collection of verses attributed to Theognis has no overall structure, being a continuous series of elegiac couplets featuring frequent, sudden changes in subject and theme, in which different people are addressed and even the speaker seems to change persona, voicing contradictory statements and, on a couple of occasions, even changing sex. It looks like a miscellaneous collection by different authors (some verses are in fact attributed elsewhere to other poets) but it is not known when or how the collection was finalized. Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker, sometime known as "the father of Theognidean criticism", was the first modern scholar to edit the collection with a view to separating authentic verses from spurious additions (1826), Ernest Harrison (Studies in Theognis 1902) subsequently defended the authenticity of the collection, and thus the scholarly world divided into two camps, which one recent scholar half-jokingly referred to as "separatists" and "unitarians" There have also been divisions within the camps. Separatists have agreed with Theodor Bergk (1843) that the collection was originally assembled as the work of Theognis, into which a large admixture of foreign matter has somehow found its way, or they have believed it was compiled originally as a textbook for use in schools or else as a set of aristocratic drinking songs, in which some verses of Theognis happen to be strongly represented. Quite recently Martin Litchfield West identified 306 lines as a core sequence of verses that can be reliably attributed to Theognis since they contain mention of Cyrnus and are attested by 4th century authorities such as Plato and Aristotle, though the rest of the corpus could still contain some authentic verses. West however acknowledges that the whole collection is valuable since it represents a cross-section of elegiac poetry composed in the sixth and early fifth centuries. According to another view, the quest for authentically Theognidean elegies is rather beside the point-the collection owes its survival to the political motivations of Athenian intellectuals in the 5th and 4th century, disappointed with democracy and sympathetic to old aristocratic values: "The persona of the poet is traditionally based, ideologically conditioned and generically expressed." According to this view, the verses were drinking songs in so far as the symposium was understood to be a microcosm of society, where multiple views were an aspect of adaptive behaviour by the embattled aristocracy, and where even eroticism had political symbolism: "As the polis envisaged by Theognis is degenerate, erotic relationships are filled with pain...