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literature

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

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Greek Literature: Ancient  
 
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Anacreon

Anacreon, born ca 570 B.C.E. at Teos on the coast of Asia Minor, was also a dependent of Polycrates, whose court was a major literary center where erotic verse was much favored. We know the names of three of the youths to whom Anacreon addressed love poems: Smerdies, Bathyllus, and Cleobolus. His poems are playful and pleasure-loving, their themes wine, women, song--and boys.

A pretty story tells how, drunk, he stumbled against a nurse and child and abused them. The nurse expressed the pious wish that he might one day praise the child. Anacreon, we are told, later fell in love with the boy.

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When Polycrates was killed by Persian treachery, Anacreon had the good fortune to win the patronage of Hipparchus, the co-tyrant (with his brother Hippias) of Athens. After the fall of these rulers, democratic Athens raised a statue to him on the Acropolis where he stood, wine cup in hand, next to Pericles.

Theognis of Megara

In contrast to the light-hearted poetry of the Samian tradition stand the Elegies of Theognis of Megara (fl ca 540 B.C.E.). Theognis takes his role as mentor to youth seriously, and his gnomic verse became a Greek school classic.

A conservative who faced exile and poverty after a popular revolt in his native city, he attempts in his poems to teach his eronemos Kurnos the ways of aristocratic tradition. One of his most impressive poems promises immortality to Kurnos in a style that adumbrates Shakespeare's sonnets.

His moods are many--bitter, chiding, idyllically happy. Finally he admits that the love of boys is an exasperating mixture of pain and joy, all the more charming for this uncertainty. About 1,000 C.E. a Byzantine editor divided the Elegies into two books, segregating the pederastic poems (about forty in number) in the shorter second book.

Homosexual Love as a Safeguard against Tyranny

Theognis sought through his love poetry to transmit aristocratic mores. In later Greek literary tradition, however, male homosexual love was exalted as a safeguard against tyranny, and in Athens, two male lovers came to be perceived as the heroic patrons of democracy as the result of a dramatic episode that took place in 514. Thucydides tells the story, which appears in a slightly different version in Aristotle.

Harmodius, the younger man, was the eromenos of Aristogiton. When the tyrant Hipparchus made advances, Harmodius repulsed him. Hipparchus revenged himself by publicly insulting Harmodius' sister. The lovers then conspired to assassinate both tyrants. They struck down Hipparchus in the Agora, but Hippias survived the attempt. Harmodius was killed on the spot; Aristogiton was captured and tortured to death.

Though their quarrel was private rather than political, their efforts led finally to the overthrow of the tyranny and the reestablishment of Athenian democracy. In gratitude, the Athenians granted the lovers semi-divine honors and made them the center of a civic cult.

Their statues in the Agora became Athens' chief secular monument, and a much-quoted ritual drinking song (in effect the city's anthem) celebrated them for inaugurating "equal laws" through their revolt. In later Greek literature, such as Plato's Symposium and Plutarch's Eroticos, the "tyrannicides" stand beside Achilles and Patroclus as emblems of heroic love.

The Classical Period

The classical age in Greek culture is usually dated from the defeat of the Persians at the battle of Marathon (490 B.C.E.) to the triumph of Philip of Macedon over the other Greek states at Chaeronea (338 B.C.E.). It encompasses the greatest achievements of Greek architecture, sculpture, philosophy, and drama.

Pindar

Pindar of Thebes (who was about thirty at the time of Marathon) stands with Sappho as the greatest of Greek lyric poets. When Alexander later razed Thebes to punish it for a revolt he left only the house of Pindar standing. His noble sublimity contrasts with the graceful informality of Ibycus and Anacreon, but Athenaeus likened him to the earlier poets in his "immoderate" eroticism.

His surviving odes all praise athletes who were winners of the Olympic and other panhellenic games. They make much of homoerotic myths. In his tenth Olympian ode, he retells the story of Zeus's abduction of the beautiful Trojan boy, Ganymede. His first Olympian ode even invents a new myth: In it he makes Poseidon the lover of Pelops, the founder of Elis, as a way of flattering the city.

He shows a keen appreciation for the looks and personalities of the athletes he celebrates. As an old man, he fell in love with Theoxenus, to whom he wrote a glowing love poem still extant. He is said to have died, at eighty, leaning on the shoulder of the younger man in a theater.

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