Little is known of Theocritus 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 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. Theocritus was from Sicily, as he refers to Polyphemus, the cyclops in the Odyssey, as his 'countryman.' He also probably lived in Alexandria for a while, where he wrote about everyday life, notably Pharmakeutria. It is also speculated that Theocritus was born in Syracuse, lived on the island of Kos, and lived in Egypt during the time of Ptolemy II.
The record of these recensions is preserved by two epigrams, one of which proceeds from Artemidorus of Tarsus, 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 assertion that he was from Syracuse appears to be upheld by allusions in the Idylls (xi. 7, xxviii. 16—18).
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 the author of the Suda, 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 Proeides in the Eclogues. The spurious poem xxi. may have been one of the Hopes, and poem xxvi. may have been one of the Heroines; elegiacs are found in viii. 33—60, and the spurious epitaph on Bion may have been one of the Dirges. The other 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 MimesEdit
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 goatherd 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 Kos. 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 (1. 40) with Asclepiades the Samian, and Lycidas, "the goatherd of Cydonia," may well be the poet Astacides, whom Callimachus calls "the Cretan, the goatherd." 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 Philitas, the veteran poet of Cos, and criticizes "the fledgelings of the Muse, who cackle against the Chian bard and find their labour 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.
Several of the other bucolic poems 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 neighbourhood of Croton, 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, Il. 7-13 and 15-20, describing the joys of summer and winter respectively, which have been provided with a clumsy preface, II. 1-6, while an early editor of a bucolic collection has appended an epilogue in which he takes leave of the Bucolic Muses. i 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 Praxinoë go to the festival of Adonis. It may be noticed that in the best manuscript ii. comes immediately before xiv, an arrangement which is obviously right, 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 Praxinoë, 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;
- xxvi, the murder of Pentheus.
The genuineness of the last has been attacked by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 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's evidence is in favour of the poem. Eustathius quotes from it as the work of Theocritus.
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.
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 Arsinoë. This marriage is held to have taken place in 277 BC, and a recently discovered inscription shows that Arsinoë died in 270, in the fifteenth year of her brother's reign. This poem, therefore, together with xv, which Theocritus wrote to please Arsinoë must fall within this period. The encomium upon Hiero II would 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 Phulistis, 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.
Two of these are certainly by Theocritus, xxviii and xxix, composed in Aeolic verse and in the Aeolic dialect. 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 thither 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 recent editors.
The authenticity of these is often doubtful. The following poems are now generally considered to be spurious:
xix. Love stealing Honey. The poem is anonymous in the manuscripts and the conception of Love is not Theocritean.
xx. Herdsman, xxi. Fishermen, xxiii. Passionate Lover. These three poems are remarkable for the corrupt state of their text, which makes it likely that they have come from the same source and possibly are by the same author. The Fishermen has been much admired. It is addressed to Diophantus and conveys a moral, that one should work and not dream, illustrated by the story of an old fisherman who dreams that he has caught a fish of gold and narrates his vision to his mate. As Leonidas of Tarentum wrote epigrams on fishermen, and one of them is a dedication of his tackle to Poseidon by Diophantus, the fisher, it is likely that the author of this poem was an imitator of Leonidas. It can hardly be by Leonidas himself, who was a contemporary of Theocritus, as it bears marks of lateness.
xxv. Heracles the Lion-slayer
- Theocritus, Bion and Moschus: Rendered into English Prose with an Introductory Essay by Andrew Lang, (1880), London.
- The Idylls of Theocritus, (1925) translated by R.C. Trevelyan, Albert & Charles Boni, New York.
- Theocritus, 2nd Edition. (1952) The standard modern Greek text (with translation) and commentary by A.S.F. Gow, Cambridge.
- Theocritus: Select Poems, (1971) commentary by K.J. Dover, London.
- Theocritus: Idylls and Epigrams, (1982) translated by Daryl Hine, Atheneum, New York.
- Theocritus - A Selection, (1999) commentary by Richard Hunter, Cambridge.
- Theocritus: Idylls, (2003) translated by Anthony Verity with an introduction and notes by Richard Hunter, Oxford University Press.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
- Poems by Theocritus English translations
- Online text: Theocritus translation by J. M. Edmonds, 1912
- Works by Theocritus at Project Gutenberg translations by A. Lang, 1889; and C.S. Calverly
- An ancient Life of Theocritus, from the scholia