I know, I know. How many times have you heard that before?
But seriously. We were reading the odes of the Roman poet Horace, and one of my African-American girls asked whether the girl in the particular poem we were studying could have been black. I said I did not know, but immediately remembered a great poem by Asclepiades, who flourished about 270 B.C. Actually, I remembered the poem, but not that it was by Asclepiades, so I began searching through my copy of Willis Barnstone's Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets.* As I searched for the poem I wanted, I discovered one I had never encountered. The Greek and my translation follow.
A good man suffers most of all from poverty,
My Kyrnos, more than grey old age or fever’s chills.
If you would flee it, you would just as well go hurl
Yourself from off a cliff into the deep, dark sea.
For a man who’s crushed by poverty can neither say
Nor do a thing because his tongue is bound in chains.
Two things struck me about this. The first was the antiquity of it. Our sense of the Greco-Roman world is that it did not abound in sensitivity to issues of social justice. Oh, it is true, for example, that they did not want a deformed infant to suffer. That is why they killed it by exposure. On the whole, there were two types of poverty. One was paupertas, which we might consider situational poverty. I lose my job and am out of work for a few months. The second was egestas, a shameful sort of poverty. Here we are talking about long-term down and out. Such extended poverty was a sign that you had run afoul of the gods and were likely on that account to shunned, just as lepers were.
Consider now these lines (178-183 of his fragmented extant corpus) from Theognis. Not what you would expect from a culture that exposes its infants and expels lepers, right?
The second thing that struck me was the poignancy of the lines themselves. When I look at my students, I can rarely tell who is living in poverty and who in plenty. Of those living in poverty, I certainly cannot tell whose poverty is the result of stupid decision, laziness, economic down turn, injury/illness, ignorance, sin, or some combination thereof. What I can say with regard to those whose poverty has become known to me is that Theognis is correct in his description of it.
*Here is Barnstone's translation of the poem by Asclepiades that sparked this whole post.
Didyme plunders me with her beauty.
When I look at her I am wax over fire.
If she’s black, what of it? So are coals.
When kindled, they glow like blooming roses.