Theocritus Biography


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

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...

(The entire section is 555 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Theocritus (thee-AHK-ruht-uhs), a lyric and semidramatic poet, is regarded as the father of pastoral poetry. Little factual biographical information exists. Much of what has sometimes passed for fact about him has been inferred from his writings, and in some cases doubt has been cast on works attributed to him. It would appear reasonable to assume, however, that he was born about 308 b.c.e. in Syracuse, Sicily (though claims have also been made for Cos), and that he studied as a youth and young man under the Greek master Philetas, in Cos. Becoming certain of his craft as a poet, Theocritus appealed to Hiero the Second, ruler of Syracuse, for Hiero’s support as a patron (probably in 275 b.c.e.) but was refused. Shortly thereafter, a similar plea to Ptolemy Philadelphus brought success, and Theocritus took up residence in Alexandria sometime between 275 and 270 b.c.e. How long he stayed there and where he went afterward is a question on which there is only conjecture. Probably he went to Cos, perhaps back to Syracuse, where he probably died about 260 b.c.e.

Much of Theocritus’s poetry illustrates the love the ancient Greeks had for their homeland. Apparently the poet, far away from Greece in Alexandria, wrote much of his poetry in the pastoral convention to express the love he had for Greece. Theocritus was a skilled literary craftsman, and his style is vivid and graceful. His work shows a love of nature and a sophisticated ability with drama, satire, and characterization. His most famous poems, the bucolics, are pastoral poems on mythical subjects. The epics, a later work, includes poems to Hiero and Ptolemy and to their respective spouses. There is also a series of epigrams of doubtful authenticity and equally doubtful date. The poems of Theocritus are often referred to as idylls, a word bestowed upon them by ancient authors. Credit is usually given to Theocritus for being the inventor of pastoral poetry, and he probably was, although modern scholarship, by showing how Theocritus borrowed ideas and fragments from earlier authors, has somewhat diminished the reputation he once enjoyed. Theocritus inspired later Greek poets, including Moschus of Syracuse. His most successful follower, however, was the Roman poet Vergil, who, in his Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e.), introduced pastoral conventions into Latin poetry. Theocritus also influenced later poets such as Edmund Spenser.