(c. 310—250 bc)

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Greek poet from Syracuse, early 3rd cent. bc; creator of the bucolic genre, but a writer who drew inspiration from many earlier literary forms, cleverly blending them into a new amalgam, which nevertheless displays constant invention and seeks variety rather than homogeneity. Thirty poems and a few fragments, together with 24 epigrams, are ascribed to him, several clearly spurious and others of doubtful authenticity.

A near‐contemporary of Callimachus 2, Theocritus too was a remaker of the Greek poetic tradition, though his own method of propagating the gospel of tightly organized, perfectly finished writing on a miniature scale was to demonstrate by implicit example rather than engage in neurotic combat against real or imaginary enemies. The closest he comes to a manifesto, and a text that is central for understanding his art, is poem 7 in the collection, which bears the title Thalӯsia, ‘The Harvest Home’. Cast in elusively autobiographical form, it describes a journey undertaken by a conveniently assumed persona, ‘Simichidas’, during his younger days on Cos. On the road he meets a Cretan called Lycidas, ‘a goatherd—nor could anyone have mistaken him for anything else, since he looked so very like a goatherd’. The two engage in a song contest, preceded by a discussion of the current state of poetry; Philitas and ‘Sicelidas of Samos’ (a near‐anagram for Asclepiades, inventor of the erotic epigram) are mentioned, and Lycidas praises his young companion for his refusal to write Homeric pastiche. The result of the ‘competition’ is a foregone conclusion, for Simichidas is promised his prize in advance; just as well, since his clumsy party‐piece is no match for the smiling Lycidas' sophisticated song. And no wonder: for Lycidas is Apollo, the god of poetry himself, and his epiphany in the poem marks it out as an account of the ‘poet's consecration’ of the kind Hesiod and Archilochus had received from the Muses.

Other poems in the bucolic main sequence (1–7) also contain passages with programmatic implications—esp. the meticulous description of the wonderfully carved cup in poem 1, whose scenes seem intended as a visual correlative of Theocritus' poetic agenda. There are also pieces which refer more directly to the problems of the writer in the Hellenistic world. Poem 16 imaginatively reworks themes from Simonides in appealing for patronage to Hieron 2 II of Syracuse, and 17 is a similar request to Ptolemy II Philadelphus, less inspired overall but with a splendidly impish portrayal of the afterlife which the king's father is fancied to be enjoying on Olympus with Alexander 2 the Great and Heracles as his heavenly drinking‐companions. Life in contemporary Alexandria, and praise of its enlightened ruler, is again the theme of 14, an exploratory transposition of a scene of New Comedy into hexameter form; while 15, one of the two ‘urban mimes’ in the collection, gives us a glimpse of the annual Adonis festival in Ptolemy's palace. We watch the celebration, and hear the hymn through the eyes and ears of a pair of suburban housewives who have spent the first part of the poem stunning the reader by the banality of their conversation.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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