The Greek poetry of the archaic period that we call elegy was composed primarily for banquets and convivial gatherings. Its subject matter consists of almost any topic, excluding only the scurrilous and obscene. In this completely new Loeb Classical Library edition, Douglas Gerber provides a faithful translation of the fragments and significant testimonia that have come down to us, with full explanatory notes. Most substantial in this volume is the collection of elegiac verses to which Theognis' name is attached. Drinking and merry-making are frequent themes in these poems; there are also more reflective and philosophic pieces and love poems. Together they offer an interesting picture of an aristocratic man's views about life, friendship, fate, and daily concerns. Also notable in this volume is the martial verse of the Spartan Tyrtaeus and the poetry of Solon, Athens' famous lawmaker.
There is some great war propaganda poems included by Callinus such as:
"How long are you going to lie idle? Young men when will you have a courageous spirit? Don't those who live round about make you feel ashamed of being so utterly passive? You think that you are sitting in a state of peace, but all the land is in the grip of war...even as one is dying let him make a final cast of his javelin. For it is a splendid honor for a man to fight on behalf of his land, children and wedded wife against the foe. Death will occur only when the fates have spun it out."
Classic! So much more like this under Tyrtaeus too. Mimnermus has this to share about getting old:
"What life is there, what pleasure without golden Aphrodite? May I die when I no longer care about secret intrigues, persuasive gifts, and the bed, those blossoms of youth that men and women find alluring. But when painful old age comes on, which makes even a handsome man ugly, grievous cares wear away his heart and he derives no joy from looking upon the sunlight; he is hateful to boys and women hold him in no honour. So harsh has the gods made old age."
As usual with most Loeb Classic texts that cover the old Greeks, there is often passages dealing with pederast tendencies which are always disturbing from my own cultural standpoint. This drastically different cultural value hit home for me while I was visiting the Getty Villa in Malibu California last fall. The Greek collection there is remarkable and they have a curious collection of wine plates, the plates used by Greek men during "symposiums" or drinking parties. The dishes depict different scenes on the bottom so as the user finishes his wine, he is treated to lurid images of debauched behavior. These included one man vomiting while another laughs at him, a man leaning against a wall as he urinates in an inebriated fashion, as well as an older man having anal intercourse with a young boy. Replace the young boy with a drunk young woman and you instantly have the stein collection in any given modern fraternity house. Some things have not changed about male human behavior in a very very long time.
Anyway, in this collection of Greek poetry, there are many lines dedicated to man-boy love such as this doozy by Theognis:
"Happy the man who goes home and engages in amorous exercise, sleeping with a handsome boy all day long."
or this odd maxim that is both pederast and sexist all in one:
"A boy shows gratitude, but a woman is a loyal companion of no one; she always loves the man who's at hand."
A very peculiar culture, the Ancient Greeks, but once you put aside the whole man-boy sex habit, they really did contribute a great deal of strong cultural values that have carried through to our modern times. Next up on the Greek reading list, Iambic Poetry. What nuggets of wisdom will be found, who is to say? But I always find something of value in these wonderful little Loeb volumes by Harvard University Press.