Authors: Theocritus

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Greek poet

Author Works


Idylls, c. 270 B.C.E. (English translation, 1684)


Theocritus (thee-AHK-ruht-uhs), a lyric and semidramatic poet, is regarded as the father of pastoral poetry. Little factual biographical information exists. Much of what has sometimes passed for fact about him has been inferred from his writings, and in some cases doubt has been cast on works attributed to him. It would appear reasonable to assume, however, that he was born about 308 b.c.e. in Syracuse, Sicily (though claims have also been made for Cos), and that he studied as a youth and young man under the Greek master Philetas, in Cos. Becoming certain of his craft as a poet, Theocritus appealed to Hiero the Second, ruler of Syracuse, for Hiero’s support as a patron (probably in 275 b.c.e.) but was refused. Shortly thereafter, a similar plea to Ptolemy Philadelphus brought success, and Theocritus took up residence in Alexandria sometime between 275 and 270 b.c.e. How long he stayed there and where he went afterward is a question on which there is only conjecture. Probably he went to Cos, perhaps back to Syracuse, where he probably died about 260 b.c.e.{$I[AN]9810000364}{$I[A]Theocritus}{$I[geo]GREECE;Theocritus}{$I[tim]0308 b.c.e.;Theocritus}

Much of Theocritus’s poetry illustrates the love the ancient Greeks had for their homeland. Apparently the poet, far away from Greece in Alexandria, wrote much of his poetry in the pastoral convention to express the love he had for Greece. Theocritus was a skilled literary craftsman, and his style is vivid and graceful. His work shows a love of nature and a sophisticated ability with drama, satire, and characterization. His most famous poems, the bucolics, are pastoral poems on mythical subjects. The epics, a later work, includes poems to Hiero and Ptolemy and to their respective spouses. There is also a series of epigrams of doubtful authenticity and equally doubtful date. The poems of Theocritus are often referred to as idylls, a word bestowed upon them by ancient authors. Credit is usually given to Theocritus for being the inventor of pastoral poetry, and he probably was, although modern scholarship, by showing how Theocritus borrowed ideas and fragments from earlier authors, has somewhat diminished the reputation he once enjoyed. Theocritus inspired later Greek poets, including Moschus of Syracuse. His most successful follower, however, was the Roman poet Vergil, who, in his Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e.), introduced pastoral conventions into Latin poetry. Theocritus also influenced later poets such as Edmund Spenser.

BibliographyBurton, 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.
Categories: Authors