Poet (c.310 BC – c.260 BC)
Theocritus is one of the greatest poets of antiquity. He is the Father of pastoral poetry, the poetry concerned with agricultural life. He flourished during the 3rd century BC in Syracuse, Kos and in Alexandria and surpassed in fame all of his contemporaries including poets Hermisianax, Phanocles, Asclepiades and Aratus.
Almost thirty complete poems survive under Theocritus’ name. It is known that not all of his works survived and that not all of the poems that have survived are definitely written by him. His collection comprises many different types of poetry, including bucolic poetry, hymns, elegies, iambs, mimes, mythological poems and epigrams. His primary works were the bucolic idylls, short poems on agricultural and rural life of shepherds connected with nature.
Some of the most well known poems of Theocritus are the following:
- Thyrsis is about a shepherd who challenges another shepherd to play music with his flute for the milking of a goat and a cup as a prize, without disturbing Pan’s sleep. Matthew Arnold’s Thyrsis is a direct source of this.
- Pharmaceutriae is a poem about a woman who falls in love with a man who does not return his love back. Hence, she concocts spells to bring him close to her. The 8th poem of Virgil’s Eclogues is an imitation of this poem, considered to be Theocritus’ best one.
- Vattos and Corydon, a poem about the conversation of two shepherds who do not get along very well. It served as an influence to the 5th poem of Virgil’s Eclogues.
- Bucolists or Travellers is a bucolic poem about two shepherd slaves who compete for whoever plays a better flute. As with the previous one, it served as an influence for the 5th poem in Virgil’s Eclogues.
- Thalysia is about Theocritus’ visit to Alexandria to celebrate the Thalysia, a celebration in honour of Demeter. The 9th poem from Virgil’s Eclogues is an imitation of Thalysia.
- Daphnis and Menalkas, two shepherds who bet their bids on who is a better singer. Daphnis wins the bet and marries the nymph Naiad. The 7th poem from Virgil’s Eclogues is an imitation of this poem.
- Cyclops, an idyll about Nicias, a doctor who suffers from love. The poet advises him to imitate the Cyclops Polyphemus, who managed to recover from his love of the nymph Galateia by singing at the top of a mountain. Cyclops is considered to be one of Theocritus’ masterpieces and was imitated again by Virgil in his 2nd poem of Eclogues.
- Adoniazousai, a poem about the celebration of Adonis.
- Heracliscus, an epic idyll based on the legend of Heracles.
- Lover or Diseros, a poem about a man who commits suicide for an unrequited love of a youth. The poem greatly inspired not only Virgil, but also Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Jean de La Fontain for his poem “Daphnis et Alcimadure”.
Theocritus was a master of his work. His poetry is characterized by astounding observation, dramatic talent, grace and sentiment. The characters are portrayed with great realism and simplicity and reflect the every-day lives of both shepherds and urban dwellers truthfully. Theocritus possessed remarkable knowledge on several animals, plants and nature as a whole as evidenced from his poems.
His entire collection contains all the virtues of the ancient Greek poetry, which played an influential role in the Renaissance, serving as the prodrome of Romantic poetry. He is rightfully named as the last of the great poets of the Hellenistic period.
- “Theocritos”. Helios new Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Passas I. Athens, 1946. Print.
- Foster, J. Andrew. Theocritus of Syracuse. Oxford Bibliographies. Oxfordbibliographies.com. Web.