You are here

Composing Archaic Greek Elegy in the Roman Empire: Theognidea 1-18

Lawrence Kowerski

     The Theognidea, our only collection of archaic Greek elegy extant in its own manuscript tradition, opens with four short hymns concerning, specifically or tangential, Apollo (1-18).  All modern commentators on this collection have usually focused on noting the parallels between these opening verses and other archaic or classical Greek poetry, with a specific and expected attentiveness to archaic hexameters.  None, however, have gone beyond the observation of these parallels with any meaningful attempts to explain them (i.e. Hudson-Williams 1910 or van Groningen 1966).  Rather, implicit in this lack of further exploration of these parallels is an understanding that the verses of the Theognidea are employing, in the elegiac distich, the traditional language of oral poetry in a manner similar to that found in archaic hexameters.  More often than not, however, these opening hymns are simply given short shrift by modern scholars with a tendency to focus attention on the history of the collection or verses immediately following, the important verses contain the sphragis of Theognis (i.e. West 1974 or Figueira-Nagy 1985). 

This paper works to fill this gap in modern scholarship by examining the relationship between the opening hymns of the Theognidea (1-18) and other early Greek poetry.  In doing so, this paper will reconsider the position of this corpus of Greek elegy within the literary tradition of the Greeks and Romans.  More specifically, this paper focuses, first, on two specific parallels for the opening of the Theognidea: the prooimion of Hesiod Theogony and the longer Homeric Hymn to Apollo.  By exploring these parallels, this paper will show that the interaction between the Theognidea and these other archaic hexameter poems goes beyond merely drawing on the same well of traditional poetic diction.  Rather, this paper suggests that the interaction extends into a more deliberate and artful attempt to mirror the structure of these poems, in the case of the Homeric Hymn, or to draw attention to a reference point, in the case of Hesiod.   With this pattern established, this paper will next explain these parallels by building on the long observed coincidence between the opening of the Theognidea and the Attic skolia preserved at Athenaeus 15.691c-696a. (Reitzenstein 1893).  While the similarity with the Attic skolia is often cited to support the view that our Theognidea represents a sylloge that functions as a sympotic handbook (i.e. Edmunds 1997), this paper push these similarities and argues that the coincidence between the opening of the Theognidea and a collection of fifth-century, Attic skolia compiled by an author during the Roman Imperial period actually places the compilation of our Theognidea in the time of the Roman Empire, a view supported by two ostraka of the second or third centuries CE with verses from the Theognidea on them (P. Berol. 12310 and P. Berol. 12319) and modern scholarship that considers the awareness of Theognis throughout antiquity (i.e. West 1974 and Bowie 1997).  Finally, this paper will conclude that, by taking together these observations about the manner of interaction with other archaic poetry in the opening of the Theognidea and the link between our collection and the Roman Imperial period, it may be best to situate these hymns (1-18) as part of the literary tradition of Greek Imperial literature rather than archaic Greek elegy. Specifically, this paper will suggest that these opening verses were composed as part of the literary culture of the Second Sophistic which highly valued the literary games in which these hymns appear to engage and introduce a collection that in its current form, would just as much at home in a literary landscape that valued the production of intellectually and literarily sophisticated miscellanies (Klotz-Oikonomopolous 2011, Johnson 2012) as it would in an earlier compilation of archaic poetry.

Session/Panel Title

The Performance of Greek Poetry

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy