Little is known with certainty about the life of Theocritus. Born in or near Syracuse not long before the beginning of the third century b.c.e., he traveled as a young man to the Aegean island of Cos. The reasons for this sojourn are unknown. Family connections may have provided an initial foothold there, but the existence of a kind of medical center and school outside the city of Cos, the Asclepieion, where his friend Nicias was a student, could have been the main attraction for him. A detailed knowledge of eastern Mediterranean plant life in the Idylls suggests that Theocritus made a special study of botany in that age when plants were the chief source of medication. Another possible motive was the community of poets around Philetas, a distinguished scholar and poet who had been the tutor of the Egyptian monarch Ptolemy Philadelphus. Idyll 7, “The Harvest Festival,” is a lightly disguised tribute to this group, of which Theocritus counts himself a member under the alias Simichidas. The idea of a herdsman-poet may have evolved from a self-sufficient commune headed by Philetas, dedicated to the pursuit of writing in a setting which (like Epicurus’s famous garden in Athens) insulated its members from the distractions of city life. From this perspective, the combination of goatherding and poetry would have been a sensible expedient rather than the affectation it became in later ages.
It was probably on Cos that Theocritus had his first...
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