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.