It is useful to think of the literature of Ancient Greece in three phases. It begins with Homer and Hesiod, masters of the “epic” poem, and ends with the dramatists and the prose of the philosophers and historians. The middle phase, lasting between 650 and 500 B.C., belonged to the independent short poem, or “lyric,” popularized by writers like Pindar and Sappho. Sadly, little survives intact from this period—to say nothing of the difficulty the middle child born between The Odyssey and The Republic might experience—rendering beautiful writers like Theognis of Megara relative unknowns. So, for this post, I want to introduce a selection of some of my favorite Greek lyrics in modest hope of returning at least some of these poets to public memory.

First, my most favorite fragment from the ancient world, this one by Archilochus of Paros, very likely simply an amateur poet:

The fox knows many tricks; the hedgehog only one. One good one.

Explain just what the devil Archilochus means by this and I’ll buy you lunch.

Second, we have Hipponax of Ephesus:

Hold my jacket, somebody, while I hit Bupalus in the eye.

I can hit with both hands, and I never miss punches.

It’s unclear what Bupalus did to receive such rough treatment, but unlike modern poets, you can’t ridicule an ancient poet without a thump to your melon. Times have certainly changed.

Next, we have the eminent lawgiver, Solon, famous for his use of poetry to better the mores of Athens. His poem, “The Ten Ages of Man,” too long to reproduce here, is a moving description of the arc of human life. He ends on a somber note:

But if he completes ten ages of seven years each, full measure,

death, when it comes, can no longer be said to come too soon.

And here is Phocylides of Miletus, whose epigram I included because it infuriates me.

Phocylides said this also: Lerians are bad: not one bad, one not: all bad: except Prokles: and Prokles is Lerian too.

This inspired me to write my own epigram, contra Phocylides, which I immortalize here in Forbes—a publication much more durable than pottery shards.

David said this also: Phocylides does not make sense: not one sense, one sense not.

But here is Xenophanes of Colophon to save the day with a great poem that comes down to us as “The Athlete and the Philosopher.” My favorite few lines:

For if among the people there is one who is a good boxer

or one who excels in wrestling or in the five-contests,

or else for speed of his feet, and this is prized beyond other

feats of strength that men display in athletic games,

the city will not, on account of this man, have better government.

Take that, Floyd Mayweather!

Here, like artists of any age, Stesichorus of Himera demonstrates he is not afraid to take on the traditions that preceded him:

That story is not true.

You never sailed in the benched ships.

You never went to the city of Troy.

Interestingly, legend has it that Stesichorus went blind for slandering Helen, but later had his vision restored after publicly stating she never journeyed to Troy in the first place. Clearly, Stesichorus knew who buttered his bread.

The majority of Greek lyrics we possess are not comedic. They indicate, instead, a hardscrabble life. Constant war, a fact of life throughout the Hellenes, is something this rather sad epitaph makes clear:

Traveler, take this word to the men of Sparta:

We who lie buried here did what they told us to do.

And finally, no discussion of Greek lyrics is complete without a mention of Sappho of Mytilene, the crown jewel of this period. These stanzas, addressed to a rival, are some of the most devastating in the Western canon:

You will die and be still, never shall be memory left of you

after this, nor regret when you are gone. You have not touched the


of the Muses, and thus, shadowy still in the domain of Death,

you must drift with a ghost’s fluttering wings, one of the darkened


Sappho is a hard act to follow, so perhaps, at least for today, it’s best to leave her with the last word.

(For a nice edition of Greek lyrics, I suggest the translations, used above, by Richard Lattimore in his collection, Greek Lyrics, published by University of Chicago Press.)

Image by Everett Historical

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