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Category Archives: Poets

Hesiod, a Poet of Agriculture and Peace
By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Long before Herodotus fathered History and did his best to chronicle the past
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The Much Beloved but Little Known Poet: Sappho
By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Besides being born on the island of Lesbos around 630 BCE, and this
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The Lost Poetess
Classical Wisdom‘s First ever Webinar, The Lost Poetess, is available for a limited time. Click below to register and watch
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The Poetess
By Nicole Saldarriaga “Prosperity that the golden Muses gave me was no delusion: dead, I won’t be forgotten” The author
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The Epic Ennius
By Ben Potter Today we shall get to grips with a character of epic proportions, one of the originators of
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Who is Hesiod?
By Ben Potter Regular readers will recall our discussion on the dubious and debated identification of Homer i.e. was he
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Sappho (630 BCE- 570 BCE)
Born on the island of Lesbos around 630 BCE, this date is often disputed, surprisingly little is known about the
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Virgil (70 BCE- 21 BCE)
Virgil or Publius Vergilius Maro, his full name, is one of the most celebrated and influential of the ancient Roman poets.
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Ovid (43 BCE- AD 17)
Ovid, know during his life as Publius Ovidius Naso, was a noted Roman poet who is often mentioned along with the likes
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The Mysterious Mr. Homer
No one knows exactly when the Greek poet Homer lived. Herodotus, the father of history, guessed around 850 BC. Other
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Hesiod, a Poet of Agriculture and Peace

by October 26, 2018

By Eldar Balta, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Long before Herodotus fathered History and did his best to chronicle the past deeds of humankind, the true recorders of men and Gods were the ancient Greek poets, one of which was Hesiod.
Even though the exact time of his life is unknown, Herodotus’ estimation puts him (as well as Homer) around 400 years before Herodotus’ time, at circa 8th or 7th century BC.
It is hard to know the precise facts of Hesiod’s life, except what we know from his works. As such, we will delve into the poet of Agriculture and Peace through three important figures related to him.
Sculpture of Hesiod

Bust of Hesiod

Hesiod’s Early Life
First one is his father, Dius. A native of Cyme in Aeolis (modern day western Turkey), Dius was a seafaring trader and farmer, and generally a poor man. He was forced to leave his native place and move to continental Greece, settling at Ascra near Thespiae in Boeotia (as explained by Hesiod in his “Works and Days“). Dius had two sons, Hesiod, our poet, and Perses, a loafer and prodigal descendant of a hardworking father. After their father died, his land was divided between the sons, but Perses kept the larger share by bribing the corrupt rulers of Thespiae.
Mosaic of Hesiod

Portrait of the Greek poet Hesiod (ESIODVS) on the Monnus mosaic from Augusta Treverorum (Trier), end of the 3rd century CE.

It will be easy then to understand why Hesiod’s “Works and Days” revolved around not only myths and legends, but also two major moral precepts. Those are that labor is a universal virtue of Man and that he who is willing to work will always get by, both notions highly valued by the ancients. “Works and Days” also underlines advice and wisdom, emphasizing a life of honest labor, attacking laziness, corrupt rulers and the practice of injustice.
Hesiod and the Boeotian School
Works and Days” also lays out the “Five Ages of Man”, the first extant account of the successive ages of mankind. At this point, we start noticing Hesiod’s didactic approach to poetry, chronology, and to an extent, history. The latter of which was, in comparison to Homer’s romanticized versions of past events, respected.
painting depicting the five ages of man

The Five Ages of Man

This method was later classified as the Boeotian School of epic poetry. And it was the reason, according to the historian Herodotus, why Hesiod’s retelling of the old stories in “Theogony” became, in spite of all the various different historical traditions, the definitive and accepted version that linked all Greeks in ancient times.
Ancient Rap Battle: Homer Vs. Hesiod
Homer is the third important figure of Hesiod’s, not life, but heritage. If Homer was Dr. Dre, Hesiod was Ice Cube. Homer was all about his poems. He added drama and huge characters, all while romanticizing ancient Greece to the point that every other poet wanted to do the same, with equal effect and celebrated consequences.
Sculpture of Homer

Bust of Homer

Hesiod, modest as he was, talked of ordinary life, the morality of human life, just systems and chronological order of events. Even at the moment of winning the tripod at the contest in Chalcis, Euboea, Hesiod only mentions in “Works and Days” that the only time he sailed in a ship was when he went from Aulis to Chalcis to take part in the funeral games for Amphidamas, a noble of Chalcis. Hesiod there was victorious and he dedicated the prize, a bronze tripod, to the Muses at Helicon. There was no mention of Homer.
But to realize how important both of these poets were to ancient Greece, one must look at the Legend of Certamen. It was a contest of wit and wisdom between Homer and Hesiod, where the latter emerged as the greatest. Even though there is no proof they even met each other, let alone confronted each other poetically at a contest, the fact that the legend exists is meaningful. Moreover, it is important to note why Hesiod was victorious at that apocryphal battle; his work on agriculture and peace is pronounced as more valuable than Homer’s tales of war and slaughter. And then and there, even if it was just a legend, the mic, or in this case the tripod, dropped.
Hesiod’s Death
sculpture of the muses

The Dance of the Muses at Mount Helicon by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1807). Hesiod cites inspiration from the Muses while on Mount Helicon.

The third important figure known to be part of Hesiod’s biography is a woman. She was not the Muses of Helicon, the ones who inspired all of his works. It was also not the Pythia, the Delphic Oracle, priestess of Apollo, who warned warned Hesiod that he would die in Nemea, which caused him to flee to Locris where he was killed at the local temple to Nemean Zeus, and probably buried there. The fourth figure is the woman he fell in love with, seduced, and eventually was murdered by her brothers as a result. His body, cast into the sea was brought to the shore by dolphins and buried at Oenoe.
Here, we will end the story of Hesiod with a description of his final moments, an epigram by Alcaeus of Messene:

“When in the shady Locrian grove Hesiod lay dead,
the Nymphs washed his body with water from their own springs,
and heaped high his grave;
and thereon the goat-herds sprinkled offerings of milk mingled with yellow-honey:
such was the utterance of the nine Muses that he breathed forth,
that old man who had tasted of their pure springs.”

The Much Beloved but Little Known Poet: Sappho

by September 14, 2018

By Van Bryan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Painting of Poets Sappho and Alcaeus

Sappho and Alcaeus, By Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Besides being born on the island of Lesbos around 630 BCE, and this date is often disputed, surprisingly little is known about the life of this beloved poet. The only reliable source of biographical information about Sappho comes from her own poetry. However it is often disputed if her writings were actually autobiographical in nature, or, as they performed in festivals and for large audiences, they were retelling stories and myths.
Additionally much of her writing has been lost to the ages. Indeed she was prolific in her time and wrote around 10,000 lines (about 2,000 less than the Odyssey), but today only about 650 lines survive.
This leaves us with little to no verifiable evidence about who this woman was.
Painting of Sappho in Pompeii

Woman with wax tablets and stylus (so-called “Sappho”)

Still her name has survived and her reputation as a gifted lyrical poet with it. She wrote extensively about love and passion for all peoples and for both sexes. She describes extensively emotional love between women and occasionally would write about sexual acts between women.
These discoveries have lead to the assumption that Sappho was a lesbian. The term “lesbian” derives from the name of her homeland “Lesbos” and the term “sapphic love” is derived from the poets own name. We may never know for sure if Sappho loved women, the love for women described in her poetry may have been entirely fictional. Sappho would write about other aspects of her life in the stanzas of her poetry, which led many to believe that she was in fact a lesbian.
Painting of Sappho with a woman

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, Solomon

However, in her own time period, she was not considered gay. Quite the opposite. In classical Athenian comedy (from the Old Comedy of the fifth century to Menander in the late fourth and early third centuries BC), Sappho was caricatured as a promiscuous heterosexual woman. Indeed, it wasn’t until the Hellenistic period (about three centuries after her death), that she was described as a homosexual.
Midway through the first century A.D., the Roman philosopher Seneca, tutor to Nero, was complaining about a Greek scholar who had devoted an entire treatise to the question of whether Sappho was a prostitute. Some ancient writers assumed that there had to have been two Sapphos: one the great poet, the other a very promiscuous woman. There is an entry for each in the Suda, the large 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world.
The truth is we can only draw conclusions from various scraps of poetry that have been attributed to Sappho. And they really are ‘scraps’. All of the surviving works by Sappho are partially destroyed, save for Hymn for Aphrodite. More than half of the original lines survive in around ten more fragments and the rest of the extant fragments of Sappho contain only a single word. Her poems are actually categorized as fragment 1- fragment 213. These fragments have been attributed to several books that the poet is believed to have authored during her literary career.
Vase of Sappho

Alcaeus and Sappho. Side A of an Attic red-figure kalathos, ca. 470 BC. From Akragas (Sicily).

Recently, there have been major discoveries of more of Sappho’s poetry. In 2004, the Tithonus Poem and a new, previously unknown fragment was discovered, and in 2014, fragments of nine poems: five already known but with new readings, including the Brothers Poem, were found in an ancient Egyptian vase.
Even though very little of her work has survived, from what remains we can determine that Sappho was extraordinarily talented. She possessed a clarity of language and simplicity of thought that creates images that are sharply defined and beautifully constructed.
She wrote and sung in an Aeolian dialect, a type of Ancient Greek that was a pitch-accented language, a bit like Chinese is today. She used a rhythmic scheme that Sappho is said to have invented called the “Sapphic Stanza”. Each four-line stanza consists of three metrically identical lines, eleven syllables in length, followed by a shorter fourth line of five syllables.
Bust of Sappho

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-called “Sappho”; inscription “Sappho Eresia” ie. Sappho from Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek Classical original.

She was admired by other poets of her time. One Greek author, writing three centuries after her death, confidently predicted that “the white columns of Sappho’s lovely song endure / and will endure, speaking out loud . . . as long as ships sail from the Nile.”
Solon, the poet, statesman and all around wiseman, asked to be taught one of her songs “so that I may learn it and then die”
The philosopher Plato wrote of her in the Anthologia Graeca, a collection of ancient poems by esteemed writers, when he states:
“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless! Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”
While much of her work has been lost, we still maintain enough poetry from Sappho to appreciate her skill as a poet and her importance as an ancient writer.

The Lost Poetess

by March 1, 2018

Classical Wisdom‘s First ever Webinar, The Lost Poetess, is available for a limited time. Click below to register and watch for free.
The Lost Poetess
by Anya Leonard, Co-Founder of Classical Wisdom
Who was the Lost Poetess?
Considered equal to Homer and praised by Plato (who didn’t even like poetry!), this ancient poet has almost completely disappeared. We’ll look at who she is, what happened to her work, and whether she was really worth the ancient hype.
The Webinar The Lost Poetess was presented by Classical Wisdom in conjunction with Ancient Origins.

The Poetess

by September 29, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga
“Prosperity that

the golden Muses
gave me was no
delusion: dead, I

won’t be forgotten”

Sappho of LesbosThe author of these words could not have issued a better prediction. This figure of classical antiquity was regarded by contemporaries with nothing but esteem, admiration, and sometimes infatuation. With a likeness that appeared on coins, a firm place in the Library of Alexandria’s canon of nine lyric geniuses, and the intense respect of people like Plato and Aristotle, there’s no question that this poet was one of the most famous and beloved of the classical era—and, believe it or not, she was a woman. She was a daughter, sister, mother, lover, poet and musician—and, true to her expectations, the world has still not forgotten her name: Sappho of Lesbos.
Sadly, despite Sappho’s continued relevance and fame, very few of her poems and none of her songs have survived the harshness of time. What we do have is a collection of fragments—some of them numbering only one word—but these fragments have been studied, translated, and published again and again throughout the years, proving that society’s fascination with Sappho’s work didn’t die with her or her contemporaries. What is perhaps more surprising (and in many ways, disappointing) is the whirlwind of furious debates and controversies that surrounds her life, about which we know extremely little.
Sappho mosaicThanks to a few other writers of classical antiquity who specifically name historical figures as contemporaries of Sappho, we can overlap and piece together the dates and time periods we do know to infer that Sappho was born around 615 BCE. We know for certain (thanks to her customary title and her own poetry) that she was born on the island of Lesbos (located in the northeastern Aegean Sea near the coast of Asia Minor), though we are not sure if her birthplace was the capital city of Mytilene or in the smaller town of Eresus; and scholars are also fairly certain that as an adult she oversaw some kind of academy for young women in Mytilene. Evidence (including, again, her own poetry) suggests that she was born into an aristocratic family and eventually had a daughter named Cleis (most likely with Cercylas, a wealthy man she was thought to have married, though the evidence for his existence is much less verifiable).
Of course, it would be silly to ignore the biographical fact for which Sappho is most well-known, and the one that sparks the most controversy: her sexuality.
SapphoGenerally, Sappho is considered one of the most famous lesbian poets in history: so much so that the very word “lesbian” is derived from “Lesbos,” the island of her birth. Despite a long line of Victorian scholars and translators who tried their best to “tone down” Sappho’s poems so that readers wouldn’t “get the wrong impression,” there is no denying that her poetry (so much of which is about love and desire) gives equal erotic attention to men and women (though some readers, including myself, would argue that her love poems to women have a fiercer desire and a more beautiful light in them than her poems about men).
Sappho with womanIn an era such as ours, in which the fluidity of sexuality is being recognized as a normal fact of life, it seems reductive and close-minded to argue about Sappho’s sexuality instead of accepting the raw beauty of her poems, which clearly catapulted her to fame in her own time (note that no one seems to have raised an eyebrow about her sexuality then—societal norms were very different in Ancient Greece, where bisexual behavior was considered par for the course).
However, it’s definitely worth noting that her poems alone didn’t lead to this conclusion about her romantic preferences. About three centuries after her death, Greek comedians began to parody Sappho, portraying her as oversexed, promiscuous—practically a prostitute. This image, sadly—despite how loved and revered she was in her own time—is the one that eventually stuck; and this reputation paired with her love poems to women eventually put Sappho on such bad terms with the emerging Catholic Church that much of her surviving work was utterly destroyed by church-sanctioned book burnings around 1073.
Her sexuality and personal life are still debated to this day (though perhaps with fewer fiery consequences)—but it would perhaps be more constructive to avoid trying to prove any one point right now, and to instead focus on what we do know for certain about Sappho: her work and its insane popularity.
Sappho is one of very few women poets that we know about from classical antiquity, and she is certainly the most well respected. Critics, both in her own time and ours, firmly dub her one of the greatest lyrics poets to have ever lived, and a lyric genius.
SapphoHer poems, like her songs, were meant to be sung, usually with the accompaniment of a lyre—and, in fact, she’s credited with having invented a musical mode, the plectrum (now popularly called a “pick,” as in a guitar pick) , and even a specific kind of lyre. She’s also largely credited with inventing a particular kind of poetic meter which is now called “Sapphic meter.” This technique utilizes stanzas (also called “Sapphic stanzas”) that are characterized by three long lines followed by a fourth short line.
By the time Sappho’s poems were first transcribed together into one collection around the 3rd Century BCE, they filled nine volumes which, all told, would have amounted to something like 10,000 lines of poetry. But it wasn’t her prolificacy that made her so popular. Unlike many of the poets of her day, Sappho didn’t choose to write about the gods or the epic heroes. Instead her poems deal with the feelings of one individual speaker, tracing her feelings about time, family, and especially love. The verses are achingly simple and direct, with no “flowery” language to cover up the raw descriptions of love, desire, and the bittersweet pain that sometimes comes hand-in-hand with those feelings (incidentally, the term “bittersweet” and the notion that love can feel this way appeared for the first time in Western Literature in one of Sappho’s poems).Sappho
Something about the honesty of Sappho’s work (and probably her music) deeply moved those who encountered it. The literary critics of antiquity who wrote about Sappho nearly always wrote about her work under the obvious assumption that everyone must love her—it’s almost a “who wouldn’t?” attitude that pervades nearly all the critiques we still have. Plato himself called Sappho the “tenth Muse.” She was the only woman to be included in the canon of nine lyric geniuses—a list decided upon by the famed scholars at the Library of Alexandria. Even Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, wrote that Sappho “was honored although she was a woman.” And (what is perhaps most telling) Greek society seemed to consider Sappho on par with Homer—while he was reverently called “The Poet,” she was called “The Poetess.”
Sappho papyrusFragments of Sappho’s poetry are still being found on tattered pieces of papyrus that were used in an ancient coffin-making process similar to papier mâché.
Thankfully, not all of her work was destroyed by book burnings or time. We have a decently sized collection of fragments, one full poem (of about twenty-eight lines), and, miraculously, fragments are still being found (one was discovered–or, more accurately, recognized as Sappho’s work–as recently as 2012)–most of them on tattered pieces of papyrus unearthed in Egypt.
One thing is absolutely clear: Sappho was correct in thinking that she’d never be forgotten. Society’s memory of her can get bogged down by debates about her sexuality or personal life, but the sheer number of existing translations and studies of her work are testaments to the fact that her words still have the power to delight and move us. We can appreciate her not only as a poet, but also as something of a feminist icon–a woman who, against the odds and the norms of her society, attained incredible fame. She certainly wasn’t lying when she wrote:
“Although they are

Only breath, words
which I command

are immortal”

The Epic Ennius

by January 9, 2015

By Ben Potter
Today we shall get to grips with a character of epic proportions, one of the originators of Latin literature… the one and only, Ennius.
Of course Ennius can make no boast to being the father, or even a close relation, of epic poetry. Homer and Hesiod’s hands and harps were blotched and notched some 500 years before Ennius was a twinkle in the eye of a wealthy Calabrian.
Indeed, he was not even the first epic poet to write in Latin.
In the third century BC, Livius Andronicus and Naevius both composed weighty blockbusters in verse, the former translating Homer’s Odyssey and the latter giving his own account of the First Punic War.

Thus it was not the what, but the how, that gave Ennius his reputation as a noteworthy figure of literary history… upon whose gigantic shoulders men like Virgil would one day stand.

But alas, dear reader, we are, in terms of both chronology and narrative, getting ahead of ourselves…

Just who was this Ennius fellow?
Ennius
As alluded to above, Quintus Ennius (c.239-169 BC) was born into a wealthy family in Calabria, the ancient ‘heel’ of the Italian boot, in the town of Rudiae, modern day Lecce.
N.B. Rather confusingly, the modern ‘toe’ of the Italian boot is now called Calabria and the ‘heel’, Apulia.
If any budding young wordsmith of ancient times could have chosen a town in which to be born, he could not have done better than Rudiae.
This coastal settlement was open to Italy, Greece and the wider Mediterranean. Having been founded by the Messapians, a people of Illyrian (roughly Albanian) extraction, it was also multi-cultural enough that Latin, Greek and Oscan made up a trilingual society.
It is for this reason that Ennius was said (by Aulus Gellius) to have had ‘three hearts’.

He certainly had a superior grasp of languages and literature and his talents were recognized by none other than that great old moralizer, Cato the Elder.

Cato, a novus homo (a new man i.e. not of an ancient, aristocratic family) himself, plucked Ennius out of the obscurity of his military service on Sardinia. Cato then introduced him into Roman society where he gave lectures on poetry.

In his own modest way, Ennius thrived in such surroundings and carved out a niche for himself as a tutor of Greek and Latin to the rich progeny of well-to-do Roman families.
It was in such surroundings that he obtained the favor of the powerful Fulvius Nobilior family. They invited him on a military campaign and, in 184 BC, granted him citizenship, a great boon for any Italian.
N.B. At this time Rome and Italy, although they enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, were very much separate entities. Roman citizenship was highly desirable.
Theatre
After replacing the sword for the pen, Ennius went on to display not only a prolific output, writing plays for public festivals up until his death, but, more unusually, an outstanding versatility.
A fecund mind, further fertilized by a constant supply of alcohol (he was said to have died of gout), Ennius produced fabulae palliatae, praetextae fabulae (tragedies dealing with historical and mythological Roman figures), as well as traditional Greek tragedies, many of which were translated from Euripides.
Indeed, he treated the texts of Euripides in much the same manner as Plautus had the works of Menander; copying, editing and annotating with a completely free hand and no assumption of wrongdoing whatsoever.
However, it is his epic Annals for which he fame resounds.

It was mentioned earlier that he was not the first, nor the first Latin to attempt the genre, so what makes Ennius quite so important vis-à-vis epic?

Well, it wasn’t the content either.

Troy
Though it would have certainly gone down well, the history of Rome from the sacking of Troy to the present day (including up to the minute events) was not the factor of greatest importance.
In fact, what cemented Ennius in the canon of legendary Latins was his revolutionary use of… metre.

“Ennius’ most important contribution was perhaps the hexameter itself, the traditional metre of Greek epic” (P.G. McC. Brown).

The previous epics, those of Livius Andronicus and Naevius, employed the Saturnian metre. While more instinctively and traditionally used by Latin poets at the time, the Saturnian metre rendered clumsy, stertorous and generally unsatisfactory verse.

The new direction in which Ennius took prosody was no accident or result of a stylistic whim. He consciously unfettered himself from the mode of his predecessors.

“To go with his new metre [Ennius] moulded a poetic diction which served as the basis for the style of his successors” (P.G. McC. Brown).

And, though materially humble – he was said to have tutored from a small house on the Aventine – he was proud and pompous when it came to his work.

Homer
Not only does he use book seven of the Annals to mock the rough and ready style of his forebears, but at the beginning of the epic he actually claims to be the reincarnation of Homer!
Despite having a strong case of artistic temperament, Ennius’ seminal innovations should not be dismissed or belittled.
While only 600 of perhaps 20,000 lines of the Annals remains extant, the quality of the work is such that it is obvious a colossus of ancient literature has slipped through the cracks of time.
Indeed, he is perhaps the single greatest loss to the ancient oeuvre that we are currently aware of.
Though we are sure there are works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Plautus that are lost to us forever, we are still privileged enough to enjoy their scripts which have survived the passage of time intact.
With Ennius, we only have ideas, quotes, tributes, fragments, and dreams of what might have been.
On this front we can be consoled by the fact that his style remained in vogue right until BC changed to AD. Consequently Ennius’ guile and gusto influenced the likes of Lucretius, Ovid, Cicero, Catullus, Lucan and, particularly, Virgil.
And so we shall leave you with a taste of what the metrical maverick was capable of. Despite being a ktistic (foundation) story and generally glorifying the expansion of the Roman Republic, this extract from his great Annals takes a more sombre tone to reflect on the cruel, unruly nature of war:

Wisdom is driven out: violence holds sway.
Sound speakers scorned, rough soldiers have their day.
No longer with abuse or skillful speech
Do men express their hatred, each to each.
But now with weapons, not with writs, they fight;
They strive to rule, press on with massive might.

Who is Hesiod?

by August 29, 2014

By Ben Potter
Regular readers will recall our discussion on the dubious and debated identification of Homer i.e. was he one man or two? Was he a woman? Was he a school of poets and compilers?
Homer’s contemporary, the Boeotian Hesiod, if anything, is even more troublesome in this respect. Like with Homer, two poems are ascribed to Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days.
N.B. A third, Shield of Heracles has been almost universally discredited as his work.

And (as with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) the prevailing point of debate is that a different man was responsible for each poem.

Painting of Hesiod

Hesiod and the Muse, by Moreau, Gustave, 1891

Interestingly, the main evidence for this is not the extremely different themes and tones, or the inability to date the works, but the fact that they vary significantly in quality.
Propagators of this idea claim the Theogony is laboured, stifled… often tedious in parts. To a lesser extent the same accusations have been levelled again the Iliad, i.e. that gods, catastrophes, sex, intrigue and violence rescue a text lacking in the pace and drive to do full justice to such subjects.
And, with the Theogony, comments about pace do not bemoan the lack of it, but the uniformity of it. In other words, there is too much high drama, too much repetition, too many and too frequent powerful adjectives. With no down time and no juxtaposition, there is no possibility for tension to build; all ebb, no flow.
Also, opportunities for toe-curling tension are wasted. Man’s genesis is ignored and long lists of names trudge along without passion, each as monochrome and forgettable as the last. Moreover, Zeus is so powerful and so perfect that we never fear for his position or safety.
Regarding tension, take this example of Kronos castrating his father Uranus:

“The hidden boy stretched forth his left hand; in his right he took the great long jagged sickle; eagerly he harvested his father’s genitals and threw them off behind”.

Cronus castrating Uranus
Such pungent tragedy is given scant attention; Uranus loses his manhood without even a whimper of resistance, whilst the list of the offspring of Nereus and Doris lasts for 31 dreary lines!
However, these criticisms are asking for a different text; one like the Iliad. If we take at face value that this is a work of religiosity (see the Bible of Ancient Greece) then we can excuse certain dramatic shortcomings, much like the unendurable ‘begat…’ passages of the bible, or the sanitized and colourless canti of Dante’s Paradiso.
Additionally, we mustn’t forget that this is a poem designed to be sung to music. Therefore, there would have been some scope for understating or emphasising supplementary to the mere text.
Likewise, the musical aspect accounts for repetition. In this respect Homer is far more guilty than Hesiod, but understandably so. A repeated or ‘stock’ phrase would allow the performing bard time to gather his faculties before singing the next verse.

It should be stressed that the caveats above do not hope to diminish just how different Works and Days is from Theogony.

The former poem is a treatise on mythology, ethics, sailing, home-spun wisdom, superstition and, above all, farming.

It is a world away from the ethereal Theogony and its laudation of the practical, noble and wholesome unravels in a charming and, often, very amusing manner.
The poem is a long letter from Hesiod to his feckless and reckless brother, Perses.
In Works and Days Hesiod adopts the persona of, or actually really was, a curmudgeonly old son of the soil.
He comes across as…
  • Puritanical and joyless: “your wife should have matured four years before, and marry in the fifth year. She should be a virgin; you must teach her sober ways”.
  • Misogynistic: “Hermes the messenger put in [woman’s] breast lies and persuasive words and cunning ways”.
  • Sanctimonious: “Oh foolish Perses, sailing in a ship because he longed for great prosperity”.

He’s also distrustful of city-folk, pleasure-seekers and dishonesty. But above all we recognise his industriousness, simplicity and innocence.

He is naïve, rural and quaint, bordering on twee.

If this really were a letter to an errant sibling, then one could imagine the response consisting of only two words; the second being ‘off’.

Farming olives
That’s not to say the advice is bad. Much of it gives an ignorant city-dweller (like myself) a pretty good rough guide to the mysteries of tilling the soil. Also, some of the more general and axiomatic fragments are heavy with sagacity.
Indeed, one can identify within the poem’s pages the inspiration for Polonius’ famous speech in act I scene III of Hamlet: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry”.
However, the superstitious snippets are often risible: “don’t piss towards the sun” is one such unforgettable piece of counsel.
Despite this, it would take a debater of Ciceronian stature to make a decent case that Theogony were the better poem.
Works and Days has greater and more flexible poetical guile, a more judicious use of vocabulary, and more evocative comparisons and contrasts than Theogony.

That said, there are undeniable crossovers between the works.

The Muses of Mount Helicon are invoked at the beginning of Theogony and again in Works and Days. Even supporters of the ‘two-poets’ argument admit that this is no coincidence. However, the best argument justifying this is that Helicon was some sort of literary pilgrimage site; an artistic Lourdes.

If the Hesiod of the Theogony had been the first such divinely inspired bard then it’s perceivable that a ‘Hesiod school’ could have appeared with countless scribblers using his name.
Perhaps this straw-clutching explanation isn’t as farfetched as it sounds. After all, it’s widely assumed some of Aristotle’s work was written by his pupils and colleagues. The same goes for the works of many Renaissance painters.
It’s also been hypothesised that ‘Hesiod’ was an honorific given to the most able poet among his contemporaries. However, given by whom and how are questions uncomfortably sidestepped.

Suffice to say this ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ idea holds about as much water as Tantalus drinks in a month.

Certainly such thinking, had it even been contemplated, would have been dismissed out of hand by the ancients. They didn’t merely think, but assumed both texts were the work of one man.

And though a majority of modern scholars argue for two poets, their numbers are partly outweighed by the leading cheerleader for a unified author; the exceptional American scholar, Richmond Lattimore.
Hesiod
Much like with the corresponding Homeric one, this is a debate which classicists love as there is hardly any evidence with which to make a refutation. What is more there’s nothing new likely to come to light and, providing there is always one dissenting voice, no chance of a resolution.
Something which does strike a note of concord is the assertion that Works and Days is a superb poem and Theogony is, at the very least, an extremely interesting one.
It may strike you that repudiating a two-and-a-half millennia old assertion that Hesiod wrote two poems simply because one is a better read than the other is a rather flimsy and extreme position to take. In such a respect you only have to think of your favourite author and compare their best to their worst book.
Luckily there is one way in which to reach a really satisfactory conclusion on the matter… but I’ll have to let you get on with that one yourself.