Theocritus Analysis


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Internal evidence dates Theocritus of Syracuse’s (thee-AHK-ruht-uhs of SIHR-uh-kyews) poetry to the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus in Egypt. Probably originally from Syracuse but also linked through his poetry with Cos and Alexandria, Theocritus is famous for creating a bucolic world that provided inspiration for Vergil’s Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e.; English translation, 1575, also known as Bucolics) and the later pastoral tradition. However, Theocritus’s urban and mythological poems are equally artful and innovative, mixing genres and blurring distinctions between high and low culture. Therefore, the population of Theocritus’s poetry includes—in addition to herdsmen and other rustics—housewives, soldiers, drinking companions, baby Heracles, and an adolescent Polyphemus in love. The urban mimes (short dramatic scenes) offer a special forum for exploring issues of contemporary importance, including gender relations, colonialism, and patronage. Theocritus’s innovation is also evident in his artful reworking of motifs and techniques from epic, archaic lyric, New Comedy, and mime.


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Although Theocritus seems to have avoided attaching himself officially to the Alexandrian museum and library, his poetry suggests lively relations with contemporary poets. Later, his poetry influenced such writers as the bucolic poets Moschus of Syracuse and Bion; the Roman poet Vergil; the Greek writer Longus; the English poets John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; and the modern Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

As an adherent to the Callimachean belief in short, polished poetic forms, Theocritus probably did not attempt epic, dramatic, or didactic poetry—though a late reference work, the Suda (tenth century), does mention two supposedly large works or collections, The Heroines and The Daughters of Proetus, known only by their titles.


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Although Theocritus wrote in a variety of forms—pastorals, erotic lyrics, mimes, hymns, encomia, miniature epics, and epigrams—he is best known in the history of literature as the creator of pastoral poetry, which was to become, according to author Gilbert Lawall, “the most sophisticated and artificial literary tradition in Western Europe.” It has been argued that Theocritus himself produced and published a collection of his rustic poems which established his identity and reputation as a pastoral poet, but there is no external evidence for such a collection. Rather than a fixed formula, the pastoral idyll was for Theocritus a loosely defined species of sketch set in the central or eastern Mediterranean countryside and peopled by herdsmen with a fondness for poetry and music. Love motifs are common in these rustic landscapes, as are recitations of poetry made up by herdsmen for some small occasion such as a casual singing match. It was for Vergil, writing nearly 250 years later, to add layers of sentiment and allegory to Theocritus’s semirealistic and self-contained country scenes, and it was largely through Vergil that Theocritus made his mark on European letters. Elements of the pastoral appeared here and there in earlier Greek literature: musical or poetic herdsmen in Homer and Hesiod, a lament for Daphnis in Stesichorus, rustic settings in Euripides and even in Plato’s Phaedrus (c. 370 b.c.e.), mime in the works of Sophron and Epicharmus in the fifth century b.c.e., and the...

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Idylls 2 and 15

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Idyll 2 is a dramatic monologue, but there is nothing pastoral about it, nothing of the male bucolic world in which women are mentioned only as objects of love’s unhappy passion. Here, for the first and only time in Theocritus, a single woman is the speaker, and the reader sees through her eyes Theocritus’s favorite theme: love’s unhappiness. The comic stage had begun in the previous generation to present love stories with happy endings, but romantic love was not yet a cultural attitude, and when Hellenistic poets wrote of love, it was more often than not in the tradition of destructive passion; it was the same tradition which produced the tragedy of Dido in the Aeneid (29-19 b.c.e.). In Idyll 2, the woman in love is Simaetha, recently struck with a sudden passion for Delphis, a young playboy, as he was walking back from the gymnasium. In his careless way, he has made love to her and gone on to other conquests, leaving her the victim of an aroused passion. As Steven Walker has recently shown, however, Simaetha is not the victim of a male seducer. As her own account of the encounter with Delphis reveals, she is the one who suffered love at first sight and took all the initiative, to the point of pushing him down on her bed. Now she is given another traditionally male role to play—that of the forlorn lover—as she calls upon the feminine powers of darkness, Selene, Hecate, Aphrodite, and Artemis, to make her lover return or to hurt him if he refuses....

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Idylls 10 and 14

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Idylls 10 and 14 are skits of the male world, the first representing two hardworking reapers (not the idle herdsmen of the pastoral idylls) who exchange songs. The lovesick Bucaeus sings a clumsy ode to a skinny, sun-blackened girl named Bombyca (after the pipes she plays for the field hands), and the pragmatic Milon answers with a brace of Hesiodic couplets of advice to the farmer which sound as if they came from some ancient farmer’s almanac. The characters who converse in Idyll 14 are also men, but through their conversation the reader gets a glimpse of a woman, Cynisca, who has left the lovesick Aeschinas for a gentler boyfriend after he has beaten her up in a jealous rage. Thyonichus advises his friend to enter the service of Ptolemy as a mercenary to forget his troubles. Both mimes are humorous commentaries, the one on a lover’s blindness to his girl’s plainness, the other on a quick-tempered lover’s inability to treat decently a mistress he finds it so hard to do without.

Idylls 13, 22, and 24

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

One important difference between Theocritus’s pastoral and his mimes is that the latter present their subjects in low mimetic style, with a characteristic capacity for irony, humor, and parody, while the pastorals temper those features with a lyricism in the presentation of pastoral life. The epyllion, or “little epic,” was a Hellenistic attempt to revive characters and stories of a high mimetic form in an age when the epic was becoming obsolete. Callimachus wrote a homey interlude in the exploits of Theseus in the Hecale (third century b.c.e.), of which some fragments still survive. Theocritus’s “Hylas” (Idyll 13) shows Heracles distraught over the loss of his young companion, taken by the nymphs of a...

(The entire section is 476 words.)


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Burton, Joan B. Theocritus’s Urban Mimes: Mobility, Gender, and Patronage. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Burton presents sophisticated readings of Theocritus’s urban mimes. Unlike Theocritus’s bucolic poems, which focus on the male experience, all of his urban mimes represent women in more central and powerful roles, reflecting the growing visibility of Greek women at the time.

Gutzwiller, Kathryn J. Theocritus’ Pastoral Analogies: The Formation of a Genre. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Haber, Judith. Pastoral and the Poetics of Self-Contradiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A review of the origins and development of the pastoral tradition, with an especially acute focus on the criticism and interpretations of Theocritus over the centuries.

Halperin, David. Before Pastoral: Theocritus and Ancient Tradition of Bucolic Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983. A reexamination of Theocritus’s place as the originator of the pastoral poetry. Halperin credits him with more originality and greater influence than do previous critics.

Hubbard, Thomas. Pipes of Pan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. A review of the pastoral tradition from ancient Greece to the European Renaissance, with special attention paid to Theocritus as originator and prime exponent.

Hunter, Richard. “Commentary.” In Theocritus: “Idylls,” a Selection. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Provides an excellent selection of Theocritus’s verse and good background to his themes, including city and town life, pastoral poetry, and art of the ancient Mediterranean region.

Hunter, Richard. Theocritus and the Archaeology of Greek Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. An interesting study of the historical and literary context of the Greek archaic age from which Theocritus’s poems emerged. Focuses more on the hymns, mimes, and erotic poems of Theocritus than on his pastorals.

Segal, Charles. Poetry and Myth in Ancient Pastoral: Essays on Theocritus and Virgil. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. A critical study of the works of Theocritus and Virgil. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Walker, Steven F. Theocritus. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A study providing a solid introduction and background to the author, his world, and his works.

Zimmerman, Clayton. The Pastoral Narcissus: A Study of the First Idyll of Theocritus. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994. Links Theocritus’s poem on Narcissus to the visual arts in the Hellenistic period.