Born: c. 310 BC
Birthplace: Cos, Greece
Died: c. 250 BC
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Inventor of bucolic poetry
Theocritus, the creator of pastoral poetry, flourished in the 3rd century BC. Little is known of him beyond what can be inferred from his writings. We must, however, handle these with some caution, since some of the poems ("Idylls") commonly attributed to him have little claim to authenticity. It is clear that at a very early date two collections were made, one of which included a number of doubtful poems and formed a corpus of bucolic poetry, while the other was confined to those works which were considered to be by Theocritus himself. The record of these recensions is preserved by two epigrams, one of which proceeds from Artemidorus, a grammarian, who lived in the time of Sulla and is said to have been the first editor of these poems. He says, "Bucolic muses, once were ye scattered, but now one byre, one herd is yours." The second epigram is anonymous, and runs as follows: "The Chian is another. I, Theocritus, who wrote these songs, am of Syracuse, a man of the people, the son of Praxagoras and famed Philina. I never sought after a strange muse." The last line may mean that he wrote nothing but bucolic poems, or that he only wrote in Doric. The statement that he was a Syracusan is confirmed by allusions in the "Idylls." The information concerning his parentage bears the stamp of genuineness, and disposes of a rival theory based upon a misinterpretation of Idyll VII which made him the son of one Simichus. A larger collection, possibly more extensive than that of Artemidorus, and including poems of doubtful authenticity, was known to SuÔdas, who says: "Theocritus wrote the so-called bucolic poems in the Dorian dialect. Some persons also attribute to him the following: Daughters of Proetus, Hopes, Hymns, Heroines, Dirges, Lyrics, Elegies, Iambics, Epigrams." The first of these may have been known to Virgil, who refers to the Proetides in the Eclogues. Most of these classes are all represented in the larger collection which has come down to us.
The poems which are generally held to be authentic may be classified thus:
Bucolics and Mimes. The distinction between these is that the scenes of the former are laid in the country and those of the latter in a town. The most famous of the Bucolics are I, VII, XI, and VI. In I Thyrsis sings to a goat-herd how Daphnis, the mythical herdsman, having defied the power of Aphrodite, dies rather than yield to a passion with which the goddess had inspired him. In XI Polyphemus is depicted as in love with the sea-nymph Galatea and finding solace in song; in VI he is cured of his passion and naively relates how he repulses the overtures now made to him by Galatea. The monster of the Odyssey has been written up to date after the Alexandrian manner and has become a gentle simpleton. Idyll VII, the Harvest Feast, is the most important of the bucolic poems. The scene is laid in the isle of Cos. The poet speaks in the first person and is styled Simichidas by his friends. Other poets are introduced under feigned names. Thus ancient critics identified Sicelidas of Samos with Asclepiades the Samian, and Lycidas, "the goat-herd of Cydonia", may well be the poet Astacides, whom Callimachus calls "the Cretan, the goat-herd." Theocritus speaks of himself as having already gained fame, and says that his lays have been brought by report even unto the throne of Zeus. He praises Philetas, the veteran poet of Cos, and criticizes "the fledgelings of the Muse, who cackle against the Chian bard and find their labor lost." Other persons mentioned are Nicias, a physician of Miletus, whose name occurs in other poems, and Aratus, whom the Scholiast identifies with the author of the Phenomena.
The other bucolic poems need not be further discussed. Several of them consist of a singing-match, conducted according to the rules of amoebean poetry, in which the second singer takes the subject chosen by the first and contributes a variation in the same air. It may be noted that the peasants of Theocritus differ greatly in refinement. Those in V are low fellows who indulge in coarse abuse. This Idyll and IV are laid in the neighborhood of Kroton, and we may infer that Theocritus was personally acquainted with Magna Graecia. Suspicion has been cast upon poems VIII and IX on various grounds. An extreme view holds that in IX we have two genuine Theocritean fragments, lines 7-13 and 15-20, describing the joys of summer and winter respectively, which have been provided with a clumsy preface, lines 1-6, while an early editor of a bucolic collection has appended an epilogue in which he takes leave of the Bucolic Muses. On the other hand, it is clear that both poems were in Virgil's Theocritus, and that they passed the scrutiny of the editor who formed the short collection of Theocritean Bucolics.
The mimes are three in number, II, XIV, and XV. In II Simaetha, deserted by Delphis, tells the story of her love to the moon; in XIV Aeschines narrates his quarrel with his sweetheart, and is advised to go to Egypt and enlist in the army of Ptolemy Philadelphus; in XV Gorgo and PraxinoŽ go to the festival of Adonis. It may be noticed that in the best manuscripts II comes immediately before XIV, an arrangement which is obviously correct, since it places the three mimes together. The second place in the manuscripts is occupied by Idyll VII, the Harvest Feast. These three mimes are wonderfully natural and lifelike. There is nothing in ancient literature so vivid and real as the chatter of Gorgo and PraxinoŽ, and the voces populi in XV.
It will be convenient to add to the Bucolics and Mimes three poems which cannot be brought into any other class: XII, a poem to a beautiful youth; XVIII, the marriage-song of Helen; and XXVI, the murder of Pentheus. The genuineness of the last has been attacked on account of the crudity of the language, which sometimes degenerates into doggerel. It is, however, likely that Theocritus intentionally used realistic language for the sake of dramatic effect, and the manuscript evidence is in favor of the poem. Eustathius quotes from it as the work of Theocritus.
Epics. Three of these are Hymns: XVI, XVII, and XXII. In XVI the poet praises Hiero II of Syracuse, in XVII Ptolemy Philadelphus, and in XXII the Dioscuri. The other poems are XIII, the story of Hylas and the Nymphs, and XXIV the youthful Heracles. It cannot be said that Theocritus exhibits signal merit in his Epics. In XIII he shows some skill in word-painting, in XVI there is some delicate fancy in the description of his poems as Graces, and a passage at the end, where he foretells the joys of peace after the enemy have been driven out of Sicily, has the true bucolic ring. The most that can be said of XXII and XXIV is that they are very dramatic. Otherwise they differ little from work done by other poets, such as Callimachus and Apollonius Rhodius. The flattery heaped upon Ptolemy is somewhat nauseous. From another point of view, however, these two poems XVI and XVII are supremely interesting, since they are the only ones which can be dated. In XVII Theocritus celebrates the incestuous marriage of Ptolemy Philadelphus with his sister ArsinoŽ. This marriage is held to have taken place in 277 BC, and an inscription discovered in modern times shows that ArsinoŽ died in 270, in the fifteenth year of her brother's reign. This poem, therefore, together with XV, which Theocritus wrote to please ArsinoŽ, must fall within this period. The encomium upon Hiero II would from internal reasons seem prior to that upon Ptolemy, since in it Theocritus is a hungry poet seeking for a patron, while in the other he is well satisfied with the world. Now Hiero first came to the front in 275 BC when he was made "General": Theocritus speaks of his achievements as still to come, and the silence of the poet would show that Hiero's marriage to Philistis, his victory over the Mamertines at the Longanus and his election as "King", events which are ascribed to 270 BC, had not yet taken place. If so, XVII and XV can only have been written within 275 and 270.
Lyrics. Two of these are certainly by Theocritus, XXVIII and XXIX. The first is a very graceful poem presented together with a distaff to Theugenis, wife of Nicias, a doctor of Miletus, on the occasion of a voyage there undertaken by the poet. The theme of XXIX is similar to that of XII. A very corrupt poem, only found in one very late manuscript, was discovered by Ziegler in 1864. As the subject and style very closely resemble that of XXIX, it is assigned to Theocritus by modern editors.
The Epigrams do not call for detailed notice. They do not possess any special merit, and their authenticity is often doubtful. It remains to notice the poems which are now generally considered to be spurious. They are: "Love stealing Honey", "Herdsman", "Fisherman", "Passionate Lover", "Heracles the Lion-Slayer", and "The Wooing of Daphnis."
We have no sure facts as to the life of Theocritus beyond those supplied by Idylls XVI and XVII. It is quite uncertain whether the bucolic poems were written in the pleasant isle of Cos among a circle of poets and students, or in Alexandria and meant for dwellers in streets. The usual view is that Theocritus went first from Syracuse to Cos, and then, after suing in vain for the favor of Hiero, took up his residence permanently in Egypt. Some have supposed on very flimsy evidence that he quarrelled with the Egyptian court and retired to Cos, and would assign various poems to the "later-Coan" period.
Language and Metre. Theocritus wrote in various dialects according to the subject. The Lyrics XXVIII, XXIX, and XXX are in Aeolic, that being the traditional dialect for such poems. Two poems, XII and XXII (to Castor and Pollux), were written in Ionic, as is stated in titles prefixed to them, though a number of Doric forms have been inserted by the scribes. The epics in general show a mixture of Homeric, Ionic and Doric forms. The Bucolics, Mimes, and the "Marriage-song of Helen" (XVIII) are in Doric, with occasional forms from other dialects.
The metre used by Theocritus in the Bucolics and Mimes, as well as in the Epics, is the dactylic hexameter. His treatment of this may be compared both with Homeric usage and that of other Alexandrian poets, for instance Callimachus. It was the tendency of these writers to use dactyls in preference to spondees with a view to lightness and rapidity. This tendency shows itself most in the third foot, the favorite caesura being the trochaic. On the other hand, the Alexandrians admitted a spondee in the fifth foot, especially when the verse ends with a quadrisyllable. Theocritus in the Epics conforms to the new technique in both these respects: in the Bucolics his practice agrees with that of Homer. The feature in his versification which has attracted most attention is the so-called bucolic caesura. The rule is that, if there is a pause at the end of the fourth foot, this foot must be a dactyl. This pause is no new invention, being exceedingly common in Homer. Theocritus uses it so frequently in the Bucolics that it has become a mannerism, in the Epics his practice agrees with that of Homer.
We always think of Theocritus as an original poet, and as the "inventor of bucolic poetry" he deserves this reputation. At the same time he had no scruple about borrowing from predecessors or contemporaries; in fact he did so in the most open manner. Thus XXIX begins with a line of Alcaeus, and XVII as the Scholiast points out, with words used by Aratus at the beginning of the Phenomena. The love of the Cyclops for Galatea had been treated by Philoxenus, and fragments quoted from this show that Theocritus copied some of his phrases closely. In the mimes Theocnitus appears to have made great use of Sophron. Idyll II is modelled upon a mime of this writer which began in a very similar way. The Scholiast thought that Theocritus showed want of taste in making Thestylis a persona muta, instead of giving her a share in the dialogue as Sophron had done. The famous poem about Gorgo and PraxinoŽ at the feast of Adonis was modelled on one by Sophron about women looking on at the Isthmian games, and fragments quoted from this are closely imitated by Theocritus. It is extremely interesting to find a similar poem in the mimes of Herondas, the fourth of which is termed "Women making offerings to Aesculapius." The relation of Theocritus to Herondas is a subject of great interest. Herondas must have been a contemporary, as he refers to Ptolemy Philadelphus, and was a native of Cos, so that he and Theocritus must have been acquainted. There are some curious parallels in the language and idioms of the two poets, but which of them copied the other it is impossible to determine.
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