Hesiod used several styles of traditional verse, including gnomic, hymnic, genealogical, and narrative poetry, but he could not master them all with equal fluency; comparisons with Homer are often unfavorable to him. In the words of a modern scholar of his work, “it is as if a craftsman, with his large, clumsy fingers, were patiently and fascinatingly imitating the delicate stitching of a professional tailor.
The precise dates of his life are a disputed issue in academic circles, and have been addressed in the Dates section.
The epic narrative did not allow poets like Homer any opportunity for personal revelations, but Hesiod”s extant work also comprises didactic poems, and in these the author deviated from his trajectory to share with the public some details of his life, including three explicit references, in the Labors and Days, as well as some passages from the Theogony, which allow some inferences to be made. In the first, the reader learns that Hesiod”s father was originally from Cime, in Aeolia, on the coast of Asia Minor, south of the island of Lesbos, and crossed the sea to settle in a village, near Thespias, in Beotia, called Ascra, “a cursed village, cruel in winter, grievous in summer, never pleasant” (Works, l. 640). Hesiod”s estate there, a small piece of land at the foot of Mount Helicon, was responsible for lawsuits with his brother, Perses, who seems to have initially misappropriated the share owed to Hesiod thanks to corrupt officials (or “kings”), but later ended up poor and surviving at the expense of the more cautious poet (Works l. 35, 396). Unlike his father, Hesiod avoided sea travel, although he once crossed the strait separating mainland Greece from the island of Evia to participate in the funeral rites of a certain Atamas of Calcis, where he won a tripod after participating in a singing competition. He also described an encounter between himself and the Muses on Mount Helicon, where he had taken his sheep to graze, when the goddesses presented him with a laurel branch, a symbol of poetic authority (Theogony, ll. 22-35). As fanciful as this sounds, the account has led ancient and modern scholars to deduce from it that Hesiod was not able to play the lyre, or had not been professionally trained to play it, otherwise he would have received a gift instrument in place of a staff.
Some scholars see in Perses a literary creation, a resource used for the moralization developed by Hesiod in the Works and Days, but there are also arguments against this theory. It was very common, for example, in works aimed at moral instruction, to use an imaginary setting as a way of gaining the audience”s attention, but it is hard to imagine how Hesiod could have traveled all over the countryside entertaining people with a narrative about himself if it was notoriously fictional. American Professor of Classical Studies Gregory Nagy, on the other hand, sees both Persēs (“destroyer”: πέρθω, perthō) and Hēsiodos (“one who emits the voice”: ἵημι, hiēmi + αὐδή, audē) as fictional names for poetic personas.
It seems unusual that Hesiod”s father migrated from Asia Minor to mainland Greece, taking the opposite path from most colonial movements of the period; Hesiod himself offers no explanation for this. Around 750 BCE, however, or a little later, a migration of maritime merchants occurred from his homeland, Cime in Asia Minor, to Cumas in Campania (a colony Cime shared with the Euboites), and perhaps his move westward had something to do with this, since Euboea is not far from Beotia, where he eventually settled with his family. The association with Cime by family could explain his familiarity with Eastern myths, evident in his poems, although the Greek world may by that time have developed its own versions of those myths.
It is likely that Hesiod wrote his poems, or dictated them, and did not present them orally, as the rhapsodes did – otherwise the markedly personal style that emerges from his poems would surely have been diluted through oral transmission from one rhapsode to another. If he did indeed write or dictate his works, he probably did so to help memorize them, or because he lacked confidence in his ability to produce poems offhand, as the more trained rhapsodes used to do. It was certainly not aimed at any kind of fame or posterity, since the poets of his time were not familiar with this notion. Some scholars suspect, however, the presence of large-scale changes in the text, and attribute it to oral transmission. Hesiod may have written his verses during periods of idleness on his farm, in the spring before the May harvest, or in mid-winter.
The personal characteristic behind the poems is hardly appropriate to the kind of “aristocratic aloofness” a rhapsode should have; his style was described as “argumentative, suspicious, ironically humorous, frugal, fond of proverbs, fearful about women.” He was, in fact, a misogynist of the same order as another poet who lived later, Semonides. He resembles Solon in his preoccupation with the question of good versus evil, and “how a just and omnipotent god can allow the unjust to flourish in this life.” He recalls Aristophanes in his rejection of the idealized hero of epic literature, preferring instead an idealized vision of the farmer. However, the fact that he could give praise to kings in the Theogony (ll. 80ff, 430, 434) and at the same time denounce them as corrupt in the Works and Days suggests that he had the ability to write according to the audience he aimed to reach.
The various legends that have accumulated over time concerning Hesiod have been recorded in different sources:
The Greeks of the late 5th and early 4th century B.C. considered as their oldest poets Orpheus, Museum, Hesiod and Homer – in that order. Later, Greek authors came to consider Homer older than Hesiod. Admirers of Orpheus and Museum were probably responsible for the precedence given to these two cult heroes, and perhaps the Homerites were later responsible for ”promoting” Homer at the expense of Hesiod.
Hesiod certainly preceded the lyric and elegiac poets whose works have been preserved to the present day. Imitations of his work have been identified in the works of Alceu, Epimenides, Mimnermo, Semonides, Tirteus, and Archilochus, from which it has been deduced that the latest possible date for Hesiod could only be 650 B.C.
According to the Roman historian Marco Veleio Patérculo, Hesiod flourished one hundred and twenty years after Homer, who flourished nine hundred and fifty years before the composition of the Compendium of Roman History.
Three works attributed to Hesiod by ancient commentators have survived: The Works and the Days (or The Works and the Days), the Theogony, and The Shield of Heracles (although there is some doubt about the authorship of the latter, thought by some scholars to be from the 6th century B.C.). Other works attributed to him exist only in fragmentary form. The existing works and fragments were all written in the conventional language and metrics of epic poetry. Some ancient authors even questioned the authenticity of the Theogony (Pausanias, 9.31.3), although the author mentions himself by name in the poem (verse 22). Although they differ in several respects, the Theogony and The Labors and the Days share a characteristic prosody, metric, and language that subtly distinguish it from the work of Homer and the Shield of Heracles. (see Hesiod”s Greek). Moreover, both refer to the same version of the Prometheus myth. Both poems, however, may contain interpolations; the first ten verses of Works and Days, for example, may have been appropriated from an Orphic hymn to Zeus.
Some scholars have detected a proto-historical perspective in Hesiod, a view rejected by Cambridge University professor of Greek history Paul Cartledge, for example, who claims that Hesiod would advocate a view centered on memories, without any emphasis on fact-checking. Hesiod was also considered the father of gnomic verse. He had “a passion for systematizing and explaining things.” Ancient Greek poetry in general had strong philosophical tendencies, and Hesiod, like Homer, shows great interest in a wide range of ”philosophical” issues, ranging from the nature of divine justice to the beginnings of human society. Aristotle (Metaphysics, 983b-987a) believes that the question of first causes may even have begun with Hesiod (Theogony, 116-53) and Homer (Iliad, 14.201, 246).
Hesiod saw the world from outside the charmed circle of aristocratic rulers, protesting their injustices in a tone of voice that has been described as having a “grouchy quality redeemed by a mournful dignity,” yet he also showed himself capable of altering this tone to suit his audience. This ambivalence seems to permeate his presentation of human history in the Works and Days, where he describes a golden period in which life was easy and good, followed by a steady decline in man”s behavior and happiness throughout the Silver, Bronze, and Iron ages – yet he inserts between these last two periods a historical era, thus representing these bellicose men in a more favorable light than their Bronze Age predecessors. He seems in this case to be wanting to satisfy two distinct worldviews, the epic and the aristocratic, with the former showing little sympathy for the heroic traditions of the aristocracy.
The Theogony tells of the origins of the world (cosmogony) and of the gods (theogony), from their beginnings with Chaos, Gaia and Eros, and shows a special interest in genealogy. Within Greek mythology there remained extremely varied fragments of tales, which points to the rich mythological variety that existed, varying from city to city; but Hesiod”s version of these ancient stories eventually became, according to the 5th century B.C. historian Herodotus, the accepted version that united all Hellenes.
The work presents the five Eras of man, and contains advice and recommendations, prescribing a life of honest work, attacking idleness and unjust judges (such as those who ruled in favor of Perses), as well as the practice of usury. It describes immortal beings who would wander the earth, watching over justice and injustice. The poem speaks of work as the source of all good, in that both gods and men despise the idle, who would be like drones in a beehive.
Of these works that make up the extended hesiodic corpus, only the Shield of Heracles (Greek: Ἀσπὶς Ἡρακλέους, Aspis Hērakleous) was transmitted intact through the ages via a medieval manuscript transcription.
Several hexameter poems have been attributed to Hesiod:
In addition to these works, Suda also lists a previously unknown “funeral chant for Bátraco, beloved.