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Analysis of a Poem by Theognis of Megara

Kyrnos, this city is pregnant, and Iím afraid that it will give birth to a man
Who will lead the charge of our wicked insolence.
The citizens are still wise, but the leaders
Are breeding much wickedness.
Noble men have never destroyed a city,
Kyrnos, but when it seems right to the inferiors to be insolent,
They destroy the city, and do grave injustice
For the sake of personal profit and power.
Do not expect that such a city will remain calm for long,
Even if there is absolute calm at the moment,
When such things become dear to inferior men,
Such as profit coming along with public harm.
From such men one should expect upheaval, civil war,
And tyranny. May such things never become dear to this city.

Theognis's poem, directed to Kyrnos, is a warning about what will happen to Megara if "base men" continue to exert power in the city's government. Theognis says that when such men determine policy, what follows is "civil discord and men's blood shed by their fellow-citizen, and monarchies."

This elegy of Theognis provides information about the social situation of Megara during the 500's. It speaks of a change in the balance of power in the city--the leaders of the city have "turned their steps into a path that will make them corrupt." The viewpoint is extremely biased, but it also describes a political change while it is occurring. Therefore, much information can be gleaned from Theognis's warnings.

The entire viewpoint of the poem is very elitist. "Never yet..." claims Theognis, "was a city destroyed by its nobles, but only after base men take to disorderly ways..." Theognis further complains about the folly of "giv[ing] rights to the unrighteous[.]" To the author, the best rule is that of the nobility, and extending rights and power to others is foolishness.

It seems clear that Theognis considers himself one of the upper class of men who deserve power. He laments the new power of the "unrighteous" who are becoming more important in politics. Such men make destructive choices "for the sake of their own money and power...and private advantage comes with public disaster." The unrighteous who Theognis speaks of are described as rich, or at least making a profit through their actions. Therefore, in Megara at the time he is writing (mid- to late sixth century) aristocratic power is giving way to timocratic power.

Furthermore, the new leaders of the city, probably not what Theognis would consider well-born men, distributed power to "the unrighteous," probably meaning a circle beyond the new timocrats and including the demos as a whole. Such action was taken not with the philanthropic motives Solon claims in his poetry, but "for the sake of their own money and power." If Theognis's admittedly biased interpretation of motive is correct, the city leaders may have gained their power by promising to extend rights to the demos.

It is also clear from the poem that the changes that have beset Megara have not caused any violence. Theognis mentions the very quietness of the city: "...for the time it rides on a tranquil keel..." although he fears dire consequences for the city in the future.

The poem also makes clear what aristocratic Greeks of Theognis's time feared. The worst fate Theognis can imagine for his city is civil war and, worse yet, monarchy by one man who will "chastise all our disorderly ways." Theognis is probably talking about tyrants, and it seems clear from his attitude towards them that the rule of the tyrant was not to the taste of the aristocracy.

Theognis's poem provides a wealth of hints about the social conditions of his time. Without having other information about Megara during the sixth century, we can assume that it was the site of a peaceful political struggle between aristocratic and non-aristocratic rich men, in which the latter element won the upper hand. As a historical source, it is frustratingly short on details, but fascinating in its implications.

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