Authors: Moschus

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Greek poet

Author Works


Eros Drapetês (The Runaway Love, 1651)

Europa (English translation, 1651)

three fragments from Bucolica (1651)


Little is known about the life of Moschus (MAHS-kuhs), a minor poet of the Hellenistic pastoral tradition. The sole surviving sources on his life are a brief entry in the Suda, a literary and historical summary that dates to the late tenth century c.e., and a marginal note to The Runaway Love in the Greek Anthology, a collection of poetry that may date from roughly the same time as the Suda. All the available biographical information about Moschus was thus written well over a thousand years after the poet lived.{$I[AN]9810001674}{$I[A]Moschus}{$I[geo]GREECE;Moschus}{$I[tim]0175 b.c.e.;Moschus}

Both surviving sources suggest that Moschus was a native of Syracuse and that he was primarily a grammarian rather than a poet. If this is true, it may suggest that the author of Europa was the same Moschus who, as claimed by the polymath Athenaeus (who flourished around the year 200), wrote a work on the Rhodian dialect of Greek. It is possible, however, that late Byzantine authors merely confused two early figures with the same name.

The poet Moschus is said to have been a pupil of the Homeric scholar Aristarchus, who taught at Alexandria in Egypt from 180-144 b.c.e. Stylistically, Moschus seems to date roughly between the pastoral poets, the third century b.c.e. Theocritus and Bion, who was probably active during the second century b.c.e. These two pieces of information suggest that the height of Moschus’s career was about the year 150 b.c.e.

Like much late Hellenistic poetry, Moschus’s works are charming but ultimately trivial sketches of country life. They are important primarily as intermediaries between the innovative pastoral poems of Theocritus and the early bucolic works of Vergil (70-19 b.c.e.), who adapted Greek pastoral poetry to the Latin language. Moschus is capable of vivid description and of arousing sympathy or tenderness in his readers. Nevertheless, his surviving poems provide no penetrating insights and rarely, if ever, contain much beyond their surface meanings.

The Runaway Love consists of twenty-nine lines of hexameter verse in which the goddess Aphrodite, to whom Moschus refers as Cypris, or the Cyprian goddess, calls for the return of her truant son Eros or Cupid. The entire work is constructed as a clever commentary on the deceitfulness of love. Those who would return Eros to Aphrodite are told that the lad is attractive but should not be trusted; though he may try to win over his captor with pitiful words, his pleas should be firmly resisted. At all cost the reader is urged to avoid contact with Eros’s weapons and armor, for with one touch the victim will burn with a fire that can never be quenched.

A slightly more complicated poem is Europa, a work of 166 hexameter lines that deal with the abduction of a Phoenician girl named Europa by the high god Zeus. The form of Europa is that of an epyllion, a type of miniature epic that was popular throughout the Hellenistic period. The poem depicts Europa as awakening from a dream in which two women, one in native garb and one dressed as a foreigner, had competed for her loyalty. To calm herself, Europa gathers a group of friends and goes down to the sea to play. There she is seen by Zeus, who disguises himself as a gentle bull and descends to earth to join the young girls. Far from being frightened, the girls cease their game to pet the animal; deciding to climb onto the bull’s back, they take a ride along the shore. When Europa perches on the bull’s back, however, Zeus suddenly heads out to sea and carries Europa far from home. Surprisingly, Europa is more worried about getting her robe wet than about the possible dangers of the adventure. Zeus eventually deposits her on the island of Crete, where she becomes the mother of King Minos and lends her name to the continent of Europe.

Europa is a typical example of how nature was idealized in Hellenistic poetry. Moschus describes the bull as having a “divine fragrance” and “splendid odor.” The bull is described as having a perfect golden hue, save for a ring of pure white on his forehead, all of which explains why the girls are not frightened, but rather delighted, by the sudden appearance of the gentle beast. In keeping with a widespread fascination in Hellenistic poetry for lengthy descriptive passages, Moschus devotes twenty-five lines of his poem to an elaborate description of Europa’s basket.

A few other poems were traditionally attributed to Moschus but are now generally believed to be the work of others. In Megara, the title character (the wife of Heracles) and Alcmena (Heracles’ mother) describe the sorrows they have endured because of the hero’s absence. Most modern scholars believe that this work is stylistically different from Moschus’s other work and was probably written by another author. The Lament for Bion bears some similarities to Moschus’s other poetry, but this work was probably too late to have been written by him. Love as Plowman is a group of three elegiac couplets that were attributed to Moschus primarily because they contain a reference to Europa and the bull.

BibliographyCampbell, Malcolm. Introduction and commentary to Europa, by Moschus. New York: Olms-Weidmann, 1991. Includes a discussion of that work as an example of the Hellenistic taste for burlesque in poetry.Fowler, Barbara Hughes. The Hellenistic Aesthetic. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. A thematic discussion of Hellenistic poetry that compares literary style to contemporary trends in art, sculpture, and jewelry.Hutchinson, G. O. Hellenistic Poetry. New York: Clarendon Press, 1990. Provides an excellent overview of Alexandrian pastoral poetry and helps place Moschus in the context of contemporary works by Theocritus, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Callimachus.Webster, T. B. L. Hellenistic Poetry and Art. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1964.
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