Leonidas of Tarentum

Biography of Leonidas of Tarentum

Leonidas of Tarentum was an epigrammatist and lyric poet. He lived in Italy in the third century B.C. at Tarentum, on the coast of Calabria (then Magna Graecia). Over a hundred of his epigrams are present in the Greek Anthology compiled in the 10th and 14th centuries. Most of his poems are dedicatory or sepulchral.

The youth of Leonidas coincided with the first awakening of the Greek cities on the south coast of Italy to the danger threatening them from Rome and their first attempts to seek protection from the warlike kings of Epirus. One of Leonidas's earliest extent poems chronicles a journey which he himself took to the court of Neoptolemus, son of Aeacides, seeking promise of protection. Soon after the poet's arrival, Neoptolemus was assassinated by his more warlike cousin, Pyrrhus, who eagerly agreed to become the Greeks' champion, and Leonidas returned to Italy to rally his countrymen for war.

Although he became quite famous after his death, Leonidas was only able to earn a bare subsistence from his poetry during his lifetime. In one grim poem, he addresses the mice that share his meal tub, reminding them that he needs only one lump of salt and two barley cakes for himself.

According to the translator Edwyn Bevan, "the thought of death pervades most of the poetry of Leonidas ... there does not seem to be for Leonidas any feeling of transcendental meaning to life ... Leonidas seems almost to find satisfaction in thinking that outside this little sunlit world of every day there is nothing but opaque blackness into which the figures of this world one by one disappear".

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Cling to thy home! If there the meanest shed
Yield thee a hearth and shelter for thine head,
And some poor plot, with vegetables stored,
Be all that Heaven allots thee for thy board,
Unsavoury bread, and herbs that scatter'd grow,
Wild on the river's brink or mountain's brow,
Yet e'en this cheerless mansion shall provide
More heart's repose than all the world beside.

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