Leonidas of Tarentum Themes

Rural Themes

(Poets and Poetry, Complete Critical Edition)

Too much attention to Leonidas’s special interest in peasants, artisans, and the poor can obscure the fact that these subjects account for scarcely more than one-third of his epigrams. He can be credited with the “discovery” of simple folk as a subject of epigram, and he made himself their poet laureate, so to speak, but he did not limit himself to that subject any more than Theocritus limited himself to the poetic shepherds that made him famous. As has already been noted, Leonidas’s complex style seems made for purposes other than the depiction of simple folk.

A survey of Leonidas’s poems reveals, more than anything else, a love of complexity and variety. His work is a miscellany of people, places, and events that would seem novel to his city readers: They enjoyed reading about subjects outside their usual cosmopolitan ambit in Tarentum, Syracuse, Athens, or Alexandria. Hence the prominence of rural artisans, seamen, and the countryside and the significant absence of urban scenes and subjects. Hellenistic life was concentrated as never before in the cities, but taste was for anything but the here and now. Hence, also, the love of paradoxes, novelties, and curiosity items in Leonidas. He had no special loyalty to the class of people he put in his epigrams, no political posture, no philosophical ideology with which to indoctrinate his readers. Everything was subordinated to writing an epigram that his audience might find interesting, clever, and unconventional.