Works and Days

Works and Days
An image from a 1539 printing of Works and Days

Works and Days (in ancient Greek Ἔργα καὶ Ἡμέραι / Erga kaí Hēmérai, sometimes called by the Latin name Opera et Dies, as in the OCT) is a didactic poem of some 800 verses written by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod around 700 BC. At its center, the Works and Days is a farmer's almanac in which Hesiod instructs his brother Perses in the agricultural arts. Scholars have seen this work against a background of agrarian crisis in mainland Greece, which inspired a wave of colonial expeditions in search of new land. In the poem Hesiod also offers his brother extensive moralizing advice on how he should live his life. The Works and Days is perhaps best known for its two mythological aetiologies for the toil and pain that define the human condition: the story of Prometheus & Pandora and the so-called Myth of Five Ages.



This work lays out the five Ages of Man, as well as containing advice and wisdom, prescribing a life of honest labour and attacking idleness. It describes immortals who roam the earth watching over justice and injustice.[1] The poem regards labour as the source of all good, in that both gods and men hate the idle, who resemble drones in a hive.[2]

It also repeats the story of Prometheus, which is also written in Theogony, and the theft of fire from Zeus and the resulting punishment of man with Pandora and her jar with Hope only left inside it.[3]

A backstory

Hesiod, the creator and narrator of Works and Days, describes himself as the heir of a farm bequeathed to him and his brother Perses. However, Perses apparently squandered his wealth and came back for what is owned by Hesiod. Perses went to law and bribed the lords to judge in his favour. The poem contains a sharp attack against unjust judges like those who decided in favour of Perses; they are depicted as pocketing bribes as they render their unfair verdicts.

Hesiod seems to have thought that instead of giving him money or property which he will again spend in no time, it is better to teach him the virtues of work and to impart his wisdom which can be used to generate an income.


Hesiod discusses a vast range of subjects including Astronomy, Farming, Justice, Good and Bad, Virtues of Work etc. He has employed a variety of techniques to convince Perses of the virtues of a just and good life. Fables, Etiologies, Threats of divine anger, Fatherly advice, Imagery etc.

Mainly Hesiod seems to have two passions, work and justice. The poem shows the need of justice in a tyrannical age in which "Might is Right." The story of the Hawk and the Nightingale describes the nature of those who possessed power.

Even though Hesiod has repeatedly spoken about injustice, and advised lords to be just, he has not shown any alternative path. Instead he insists that Perses should work, and that will relieve him from all his worries.

History of astronomy

Works and Days contains the earliest recorded mention of the star Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens as seen from Earth. Sirius, in Greek, is Σείριος (Seirios, "glowing" or "scorcher").

Hesiod and the Problem of Scarcity

Hesiod is often labeled the first economist. Murray Rothbard elucidated the allusions to fundamental economic theory which are present in Hesiod's poem in his book "Economic Thought Before Adam Smith". Summarizing Rothbard; He lived in the small agricultural community of Ascra, a spot he describes as a "sorry place...bad in winter, hard in summer, never good." He was therefore sensitive to the everlasting problem of scarcity on earth. A gulf exists between man's unending dreams and desires and the existing resources on earth required to make them a reality. The first half of Works and Days is devoted to the fundamental economic problem of the scarcity of resources for the pursuit of all human needs and desires. He characterizes society as one where "men never rest from labor and sorrow by day and from perishing by night." He notes that because of scarcity; time, labor, and production goods must be efficiently allocated. Hesiod analyzes the importance of labor and capital that puts an end to man's state of leisure. He points to basic need, social condemnation of indolence, and rising consumption standards as moving man towards economic development and growth. Hesiod mentions a spirit of competition, of "good conflict" that tends to reduce the problems of scarcity.

Hesiod was in favor of the rule of law and the dispensation of justice to provide stability and order within society. He spoke out against corrupt methods of wealth acquisition and denounced robbery.


Mss. of Works and Days:

  • S Oxyrhynchus Papyri 1090
  • A Vienna, Rainer Papyri L.P. 21-9 (4th cent.).
  • B Geneva, Naville Papyri Pap. 94 (6th cent.).
  • C Paris, Bibl. Nat. 2771 (10th cent.).
  • D Florence, Laur. xxxi 39 (12th cent.).
  • E Messina, Univ. Lib. Preexistens 11 (12th–13th cent.).
  • F Rome, Vatican 38 (14th cent.).
  • G Venice, Marc. ix 6 (14th cent.).
  • H Florence, Laur. xxxi 37 (14th cent.).
  • I Florence, Laur. xxxii 16 (13th cent.).
  • K Florence, Laur. xxxii 2 (14th cent.).
  • L Milan, Ambros. G 32 sup. (14th cent.).
  • M Florence, Bibl. Riccardiana 71 (15th cent.).
  • N Milan, Ambros. J 15 sup. (15th cent.).
  • O Paris, Bibl. Nat. 2773 (14th cent.).
  • P Cambridge, Trinity College (Gale MS.), O.9.27 (13th–14th cent.).
  • Q Rome, Vatican 1332 (14th cent.).

These MSS. are divided by Rzach[Full citation needed] into the following families, issuing from a common original: --

a = C

b = F,G,H

  • a = D
  • b = I,K,L,M
  • a = E
  • b = N,O,P,Q

Selected translations


  1. ^ Hesiod, Works and Days, Canto III, [250]: "Verily upon the earth are thrice ten thousand immortals of the host of Zeus, guardians of mortal man. They watch both justice and injustice, robed in mist, roaming abroad upon the earth". (cf. also, J. A. Symonds, p. 179).
  2. ^ Hesiod, Works and Days, [300]: "Both gods and men are angry with a man who lives idle, for in nature he is like the stingless drones who waste the labour of the bees, eating without working".
  3. ^ There is some debate about the simple and obvious translation of "elpis" as "hope". Some scholars argue that is really should be translated as "expectation" since the root word is from "suppose". And in this context it is argued that what was left in the jar was not Hope as we know it, but the "expectation of ills" so that Man would be unpleasantly surprised by ills that befell him instead of expecting them. Confer W.J. Verdenius, "Commentaries on Hesiod", et al. Also written in Tandy and Neale's translation of "Works and Days". p.64, note 37.


  • Bartlett, Robert C. "An Introduction to Hesiod's Works and Days", The Review of Politics 68 (2006), p.177-205, University of Notre Dame.
  • Beall, E.F., What Pandora let out and what she left in, paper read at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of the Atlantic States, October 6, 2006
  • Clay, Jenny Strauss, Hesiod’s Cosmos, Cambridge, 2003.
  • Kenaan, Vered Lev, Pandora’s Senses : The Feminine Character of the Ancient Text, Madison, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.
  • Lamberton, Robert, Hesiod, New Haven : Yale University Press, 1988. ISBN 0300040687. Cf. Chapter III, "The Works and Days", pp.105-133.
  • Nelson, Stephanie A., God and the Land: The Metaphysics of Farming in Hesiod and Vergil, New York and Oxford, 1998
  • Nisbet, Gideon, Hesiod, Works and Days: A Didaxis of Deconstruction?, Greece and Rome 51 (2004), pp.147-63.
  • Peabody, Berkley, The Winged Word: A Study in the Technique of Ancient Greek Oral Composition as Seen Principally Through Hesiod's Works and Days, State University of New York Press, 1975. ISBN 0873950593
  • Verdenius, Willem Jacob, A Commentary on Hesiod Works and Days vv 1-382 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1985). ISBN 9004074651

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