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Theocritus

Updated on March 28, 2011

Theocritus was a Greek poet active in the first half of the 3rd century B.C., who was the first to produce works classifiable as pastoral poetry. In his small body of writing he founded the pastoral tradition that was to influence all the arts down to the end of the 18th century.

Theocritus was born most probably at Syracuse in Sicily but spent some time on the Aegean island of Kos and in the city of Alexandria. Little more is known about his life. His poems contain evidence that he sought the patronage of Hieron II, ruler of southeastern Sicily, and Ptolemy II Philadelphus, king of Egypt, but it is uncertain whether he had any success.

Idyls

Theocritus composed poetry in a wide variety of forms, including hymns, elegies, epigrams, short narratives, invectives, and dirges. The selection that has come down under his name comprises 30 miscellaneous poems, more than 20 epigrams, and one picture poem, Syrinx, which has gradually shortening lines so arranged on the page as to represent panpipes. The selection, which includes several pieces of dubious authorship, was certainly not arranged by Theocritus himself nor did he give it its traditional title Idyls. "Idyls" at that time seems to have meant merely "poems in different styles".

Only about 12 of the pieces can properly be called bucolic or pastoral. The others include appeals to patrons, short narratives from mythology, and tales of thwarted love. Most interesting of the nonbucolic selections are Idyl 15, The Women at the Adonis Festival, where we follow two gossipy matrons through the streets of Alexandria to hear the song of lament over the dead god Adonis, and Idyl 2, The Sorceress, in which Simaetha and her maidservant recite incantations beneath the light of the moon and turn the magic wheel to bring Simaetha's lover back to her.

The Pastoral Poems

The dozen bucolic poems form the core of the Idyls and constitute the basis of Theocritus' fame. The author probably did not consciously set out to found a separate literary genre. Most probably he thought of himself as composing mimes-short dramatic sketches that could have been produced on the stage. But in these mimes appear all the features that were to become traditional in pastoral poetry- the background of unspoiled countryside; shepherds, goatherds, and harvesters as characters; the names that were to acquire standard bucolic associations, such as Daphnis, and Corydon; and the themes of unrequited love and of piping or singing contests. As far as can be judged, the dialect seems to be the actual Doric Greek of rustic Sicily adapted to poetry. Such customs as the contests and the stylized exchange of insults seem to be rooted in actual rituals performed in honor of Artemis or Dionysus.

In later criticism of pastoral poetry, Theocritus was considered the prototype of the realistic pastoral, as opposed to the more artificial variety associated with Virgil. But in one poem, The Harvest Festival (Idyl 7), Theocritus anticipates one of the characteristic features of Vergil's Eclogues, that of portraying real persons under the guise of shepherds. Ancient sources tell us that the character Simichidas is Theocritus himself and that other characters are his poet-friends and rivals.

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