Theocritus c. 300 b.c.—c. 250 b.c.
(Also known as Theokritos) Greek poet.
Theocritus is credited by many with either creating the genre of pastoral poetry, or, if not creating it, being its first known master. His short poems, or Idylls, are the most famous example of the bucolic (ancient pastoral) form. In the world described by Theocritus, shepherd-poets tend their flocks, seek romance with local nymphs, and make wagers in singing contests with other shepherds. Although Theocritus influenced other writers, notably Virgil in his Eclogues, it is indirectly—through Virgil's effect on other poets—that Theocritus made the greatest impact. Critics particularly cite Theocritus's influence on, among others, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Matthew Arnold.
Little is known about the life of Theocritus except what can be gleaned from his poetry. He was born in Syracuse, in Sicily, and his parents were named Praxagoras and Philinna. Nothing more is known of them. His writings attest to his familiarity with southern Italy, Cos, and Alexandria; his concern with following in the poetic tradition of Homer, but also in breaking away from it with his own innovations; and the fact that he had attained some degree of fame. Some of the Theocritus's idylls also contain hints that he had varying degrees of success at gaining patrons. Scholars have suggested that much of his writing was completed before 270 b.c.
Although Theocritus also wrote epigrams, by far his most important work is the Idylls. They are often divided into two categories by critics. The first group, set in the country, includes the bucolics and mimes (dramatic sketches or character sketches). The second group, set in the city, includes epics, lyrics, and epigrams. Theocritus wrote in short hexameters, laced his poems with allusions, and seemed to enjoy practicing linguistic novelty. There is no reliable external evidence for dating any of his compositions. Some effort has been made, by Alexander Sens and others, to date Theocritus's writings in relation to other third-century b.c. poems. As Sens states: “Such relative chronologies are necessarily complicated by the nature of ‘publication’ among learned Hellenistic poets, who must often have had access to one another's works in advance of their publication in the form in which we now have them. It is thus easily possible that an early version of a given poem influenced the idyll, but that a later version of the same work drew from it instead.” Scholars are not in agreement about the order of composition of Theocritus's idylls. Although thirty poems are typically included in editions of Theocritus, only twenty-two are generally accepted as authentic works. Idylls “8,” “9,” “19-21,” “23,” “25,” and “27” are thought to be the product of imitators. A similar situation exists with the epigrams, in which not all of the twenty-five collected under his name are thought to be Theocritus's work. Critics consider the “seventh Idyll,” sometimes called “The Harvest Festival,” Theocritus's masterpiece, although his eleventh, “The Cyclops,” is also much admired. Scholars have found considerable evidence that the order of the poems used in modern editions of Theocritus's works is different than the scheme of his original presentation, but it is impossible to recreate with any certainty the poet's own arrangement.
The two main criticisms of Theocritus's work are that it is too artificial and unrealistic in its portrayal of the language of peasants and that it led to mediocre, imitative pastoral poetry in later centuries. Defenders argue that Theocritus was not aiming for realism and that he cannot fairly be blamed for the later misuses of his poetic legacy. The importance of A. F. S. Gow's work on Theocritus can scarcely be overestimated. Since his Theocritus was published in 1950 (with minor corrections in 1952), the general public has had easy access to the Greek text, English translation, and commentary. Because of this, scholars have had a strong base from which to develop their research. Much of this research is devoted to studying the scanty evidence of Theocritus's precursors. David M. Halperin, Steven F. Walker, and Thomas K. Hubbard, among others, have urged that care be taken in crediting Theocritus with creating pastoral poetry. Walker points out that since much of Greek poetry is lost, it is impossible to say for certain that no one wrote works like Theocritus before him. Halperin explains that there is evidence of a prior pastoral tradition, but that matters are made difficult by the imprecise use of the terms bucolic and pastoral and by their shifting meanings over time. Hubbard posits that Theocritus did develop a bucolic style within his idylls, working from existing tradition but advancing it. J. Vara investigates the possible folk origins of bucolic poetry. T. O. Beachcroft looks much further forward, to the time of Anton Chekov, and explains how “Idyll 15” holds much in common with the modern short story.
Idylls (poetry) c. before 270 B.C.
Theocritus Vol. 1 [translated by A. S. F. Gow] (poetry) 1950
The Idylls of Theokritus[translated by Barriss Mills] (poetry) 1963
The Idylls of Theocritus [translated by Robert Wells] (poetry) 1988
A Selection: Idylls 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, and 13 [edited by Richard Hunter] (poetry) 1999
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SOURCE: “Theocritus and His Age,” in Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus, Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1909, pp. xi-xlii.
[In the following essay, Lang discusses the legend of Theocritus, the influence Sicily and its shepherds had upon his poetry, and the characteristics of art during the age in which he wrote.]
At the beginning of the third century before Christ, in the years just preceding those in which Theocritus wrote, the genius of Greece seemed to have lost her productive force. Nor would it have been strange if that force had really been exhausted. Greek poetry had hitherto enjoyed a peculiarly free development, each form of art succeeding each without break or pause, because each—epic, lyric, dithyramb, the drama—had responded to some new need of the state and of religion. Now in the years that followed the fall of Athens and the conquests of Macedonia, Greek religion and the Greek state had ceased to be themselves. Religion and the state had been the patrons of poetry; on their decline poetry seemed dead. There were no heroic kings, like those for whom epic minstrels had chanted. The cities could no longer welcome an Olympian winner with Pindaric hymns. There was no imperial Athens to fill the theatres with a crowd of citizens and strangers eager to listen to new tragic masterpieces. There was no humorous democracy to laugh at all the world, and at itself, with Aristophanes. The very religion...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Theocritus in English Literature, J. P. Bell Company, 1910, pp. 1-12.
[In the following excerpt, Kerlin discusses the scope and importance of Theocritus's work, its characteristics, and its influence on English literature.]
1. NATURE AND SCOPE OF THE WORK
It will be appropriate first to indicate the scope and character of the influence I am to describe before we engage ourselves with the minutiæ of allusions, imitations, parallels, translations, and the like matters. These first paragraphs, then, will consist of general statements, of condensed results, which will at once give meaning to and derive support from the mass of details in the pages following.
A multitude of questions will here be answered in a general way, and later in a specific way, which, in the case of any great poet in whom we are interested, must satisfy a certain intellectual desire, a curiosity, if you will, and, more than this, throw no small amount of light upon important matters of literary history. When, and how often, and by whom has Theocritus been translated into English? By whom and to what extent has he been imitated? By whom, in what way, and in what relations has he been mentioned? To what uses has his name been put—what has it stood for? With what writers has he been associated, with whom has he been compared? With what literary forces has he been...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Greek Bucolic Poets, Cambridge University Press, 1953, pp. xiii-xxvii.
[In the following excerpt, Gow examines the history of bucolic poetry, summarizes the life of Theocritus, and discusses his use of dialects.]
(I.) GREEK BUCOLIC POETRY
In a lost treatise on the invention of Bucolic, of which the contents are preserved in the ancient commentary on Theocritus and in various other places, three accounts are given of the origin of Bucolic. One is that it was invented in Sparta during the Persian invasion, when, since the girls were in hiding, rustics in their place entered the temple of Artemis Caryatis and sang their own songs to the goddess; the second, that it arose from songs sung by the people of Tyndaris in Sicily when Orestes arrived there with the statue of Artemis stolen from Tauri; the third, and according to this authority the true, story is that the Syracusans gave the credit for having allayed a civil dissension (or, as we are elsewhere told, a murrain among the herds) to Artemis, and the countryfolk therefore brought her gifts. Hence arose a custom of peasants competing in song for a loaf, a bag of seed, and a skin of wine, brought and staked by each competitor, and of the vanquished going about the countryside asking for gifts and singing songs, a specimen of which is quoted.
There is, then, no need to doubt that...
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SOURCE: “Katherine Mansfield's Encounter with Theocritus,” in English, Vol. XXIII, No. 115, Spring, 1974, pp. 13-19.
[In the following essay, Beachcroft considers the impact that the “XV Idyll” (known as the “Adoniazusae”) had on Katherine Mansfield's short stories.]
That Katherine Mansfield had at one time read a translation of the “XVth Idyll” of Theocritus and had given it considerable thought may not at first glance seem a very important piece of information. Yet it has a remarkable interest in the development of her own art and thus of the modern short story; and when Antony Alpers, author of Katherine Mansfield (1954), wrote to tell me that in the course of writing a new biography dealing with Katherine Mansfield and her circle he had discovered evidence of this encounter between Katherine Mansfield and Theocritus, it had the same effect as the discovery of an important piece that had been missing from the middle of a puzzle. It is the object of this article to explain why.
At the outset a brief definition is needed of the elusive phrase ‘the modern short story’. Without making a lengthy analysis, may I say that by the modern short story I mean the story that has been developed especially since the work of Chekhov and that has often been thought of as the ‘Chekhov kind’ of story.
Many critics have adopted this as a...
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SOURCE: “The Literary Background of the Idylls” and “The Influence of Theocritus,” in Theocritus, Twayne Publishers, 1980, pp. 113-49.
[In the following excerpt, Walker examines Theocritus's use of the herdsman-poet figure, his mixing of genres, his relationship to his contemporaries, and his influence and reputation.]
Theocritus began his career as a poet in the first quarter of the third century b.c.—that is, after a glorious period of almost five hundred years during which most of the Greek literary masterpieces which we study, admire, and enjoy today had found their first audiences. Thanks to the labors of the scholar-poets of the Alexandrian world, beginning with Theocritus' teacher Philetas of Cos, most of this impressive literary heritage was available to him—if only at the Library in Alexandria. It is thus hardly surprising that Theocritus' poetry, like the poetry of his Alexandrian contemporaries, echoes at times with the themes, motifs, and turns of phrase of earlier Greek literature.
Students of Theocritus have found Gow's detailed commentary to be an excellent guide to the literary background of the Idylls, and only a commentary of such generous length could do justice to the many problems which arise in judging the relationship of a turn of phrase, motif, image or narrative outline to earlier Greek literary sources or parallels. Gow's notes should...
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SOURCE: “Bucolic and Pastoral in Theocritus,” in Before Pastoral: Theocritus and the Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry, Yale University Press, 1983, pp. 118-37.
[In the following excerpt, Halperin explores Theocritus's use of pastoral poetry and discusses to what extent it is correct to credit him with originality in working within the bucolic tradition.]
Yet even should it be conceded, as indeed it must, that Theocritus is the first writer to employ a fully elaborated system of pastoral conventions to express the outlook or set of attitudes we regard as distinctively pastoral and that this fusion, further consolidated by Virgil, would subsequently dominate an important part of European poetry, Theocritus' claim to originality is still not free of difficulty. The originality of Theocritus takes on a different meaning when it is viewed from the vantage point of the previous artistic tradition instead of with the steady gaze of historical hindsight. A survey of pastoral literature before Theocritus demonstrates that the peculiar character of his own poetic achievement and the factors contributing to his reputation for originality in the ancient world must continue to remain obscure so long as we persist in identifying bucolic poetry with what is understood today by pastoral. To be sure, Theocritus does develop the pastoral setting of many Idylls with a power and immediacy as unprecedented in his...
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SOURCE: “Seeing and Feeling: Representation in Two Poems of Theocritus,” in Classical Philology, Vol. 80, No. 1, January, 1985, pp. 1-19.
[In the following essay, Walsh studies “Idyll 1” and “Idyll 7” for what they reveal about Theocritus's attempts to portray certain aspects of character.]
As soon as poets begin to speak, at the end of the fifth century, about their skill at capturing the familiar look of things,1 others begin to ask questions about the limits of this endeavor. First, they ask technical questions, like the one posed in Aristophanes' Frogs: can the naturalistic manner adequately represent every kind of object? (According to “Aeschylus” in this play, there is a moral kind of object that literal images of life do not capture.) Later, Plato suggests that some things cannot be represented directly by any manner of verbal or visual art. Theocritus has similar concerns, partly technical and partly philosophical, about the peculiar status of human beings as objects of representation. He sets human beings against a background of inhuman things, and he distinguishes consciously between the representation of one and the other.
Theocritus also distinguishes between different levels in the representation of human beings. There is a category of feeling (Aristotle would call it pathos) that can be made recognizable in lifelike representation...
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SOURCE: “The Sources of Theocritean Bucolic Poetry,” in Mnemosyne, Series IV, Vol. XLV, No. 3, 1992, pp. 333-44.
[In the following essay, Vara deduces that although Theocritus did not gather the pastoral details of the Idylls from real life, but from the writings of others, he can nethertheless properly be called the creator of a new type of poetry.]
1. Within Theocritus' work, the problem of the origin of his specifically bucolic poetry (Idylls “I,” “II”1), “III,” “IV,” “V,” “VI,” “VII,” “IX,” “X,” “XI,” “XIV”) has often, even from the time of antiquity, been a subject for debate. The older theories which argued that this bucolic poetry originated in real life—whether in songs sung by peasants or shepherds at religious gatherings, or in ritual activities performed by certain brotherhoods of shepherd-poets—have at present rightly been discarded.
However, there are still some scholars who accept and defend with varying degrees of enthusiasm the possibility that at least certain features of Theocritean bucolic poetry may be of folk origin, having been inspired by, or even derived from, songs sung by real-life shepherds as part of their daily leisure. Thus, Barber2) considers certain elements in Theocritean pastoral poetry, such as the proverbs and the singing contests among shepherds, to have...
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SOURCE: “Gender and Power,” in Theocritus's Urban Mimes: Mobility, Gender, and Patronage, University of California Press, 1995, pp. 41-92.
[In the following excerpt, Burton examines how Theocritus portrayed changing gender roles, the rise of feminine power, and gender ambiguity in his poems.]
The ascendancy of autocratic hegemonies, the rise in mobility, and the reliance on mercenary forces had strong effects on gendered social identities for Greeks in the Hellenistic age. Masculine power in the old Greek world was closely linked with the ideal of a citizen-soldier.1 But in a mobile Hellenistic world, citizenship was losing its appeal as a measure of masculine power. Further, the rise in state wealth, resulting in part from Alexander's conquests in the East, enabled reliance on mercenaries in armed forces. Thus Hellenistic Greek males, for the most part, had to seek personal identities outside the role of citizen-soldiers and the realm of public political life.2 As male political life faded, the scope of female public life expanded.3 Strong queens, such as Olympas and Arsinoe II, were setting new levels of visibility for Greek women, and the horizon of possible social roles was expanding for less elite Greek women as well. Evidence of women receiving civic honors for poetic achievements and public benefactions attests to the growing visibility (and economic power) of...
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SOURCE: “Poetic Succession and the Genesis of Alexandrian Bucolic,” in The Pipes of Pan: Intertextuality and Literary Filiation in the Pastoral Tradition from Theocritus to Milton, The University of Michigan Press, 1998, pp. 19-44.
[In the following excerpt, Hubbard focuses on the stylistic qualities that made Theocritus so influential on his successors.]
The quest for a pre-Theocritean form of bucolic poetry has proven unproductive for scholars, whether they have sought it in country songs, religious ritual, archaic lyric, or even Near Eastern traditions.1 The most that can be found in some of these traditions are occasional strands of pastoral imagery, as was likely also true of Theocritus' influential predecessor Philetas.2 It is by now a commonplace of scholarship to declare Theocritus the sole inventor of the bucolic genre. But it may be theoretically misleading to do so, since a genre by definition must be a set of formal expectations that transcend any one author.3 Theocritus' achievement was rather to develop a bucolic style within his idylls—brief mimes set in the country, centering on themes of song and love. This mannerism could develop into a real genre only with the first bucolic poet after Theocritus; strangely enough, the real distinction of inventing the bucolic genre thus belongs to the nameless successor who authored the spurious...
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Bowie, E. L. “Theocritus's Seventh Idyll, Philetas and Longus.” The Classical Quarterly XXXV, No. 1 (1985): 67-91.
Contends that the identity of the perceived narrator changes during the course of the poem and explores possible allusions Theocritus strove for in naming the goatherd Lycidas.
Burton, Joan B. “The Function of the Symposium Theme in Theocritus's Idyll 14.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 33, No. 3 (Fall 1992): 227-45.
Provides an overview of Greek symposia and explains how Theocritus used the symposium theme to address contemporary social problems.
Cholmeley, R. J. An introduction to The Idylls of Theocritus, pp. 1-60. London: George Bell & Sons, 1906.
Offers biographical material; analyses of Theocritus's verse, style, and dialect; and a section devoted to the authenticity of certain poems attributed to him.
Davies, Malcolm. “Theocritus's Adoniazusae.” Greece & Rome XLII, No. 2 (October 1995): 152-58.
Examines how “Idyll 15” reveals the solace that religion could offer women of ancient Greece and how the poem contrasts myth and mundane life.
Gow, A. S. F. An Introduction to Theocritus, pp. xv-xxix. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952....
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