Theocritean Pastoral: A Study in the Definition of Genre

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Theocritus (?300-260? B.C.), Hellenistic composer of epillia and idyllia, is uniquely distinguished in the history of Western literature as the identifiable originator of a major genre.

ἐπὶ τῇ ἀθροἰσει τῶν βουκολικῶν ποιημἀτων

Βουκολικαὶ Μοῖσαι σποράδες ποκά, νῦν δ᾽ ἅμα πᾶσαι
     ἐντὶ μιᾶς μάνδρας, ἐντὶ μιᾶς ἀγέλας.

“The bucolic Muses, once scattered, are now all of one flock, one fold.” [1] The first century (B.C.) anthologizer who appended these lines to his Theocritean collection referred to his own efforts, but tradition has recognized a description appropriate to Theocritus’ achievement and has assigned the epigram to the poet himself. In the work of Theocritus, the images of man and nature, deity and art, arrange themselves into that pattern which, as the pastoral, has been adopted and adapted by artists of every European language and period, decisive in its impact on narrative, dramatic, and lyric conventions. Studies of pastoral have tended to begin with Italian Renaissance conventions and to explore their past only as far as the major source, Vergil. But the Eclogues, for all their importance, are themselves consciously derivative. The crucial originality of Vergil—for the Eclogues are, in many ways, primary sources for Western pastoral—can be gauged only in terms of a considered estimate of his own original, Theocritus. This thesis will argue that Theocritus’ invention is best illuminated by appreciation of the traditional elements that he reshaped, for on certain levels such antecedent traditions as that of the Homeric Hymns are closer to Theocritus—despite the contrast between pre-literate and highly literary—than the closely-imitative Vergilian Eclogues.

The Theocritean achievement is synthetically innovative, not exotically inventive, as close reading of its two central documents, Idylls I and VII, will show. Far from anticipating the Western pastoral tradition that was to follow him, Theocritus looks backward in a spirit of deliberate archaizing. Attention to both the form and function of this important response to the Greek past—reflected even in the surprising choice of the hexameter as a vehicle for the new genre—will lead us to formulations of the pastoral as it was originated. We may discover in Theocritean pastoral something quite different from what, in its post-Vergilian history, the genre was to become: the mirror of the poet’s sensibility and the arena of his imagination. Our investigation will, at the same time, undertake a descriptive analysis in which Idylls I and VII take their place as paradigms and complements, defining together the scope and character of Theocritean pastoral.


[ back ] 1. A.S.F. Gow 1952, Theocritus, Edited with a Translation and Commentary, 2nd ed. (Cambridge) I:254. I have followed Gow’s edition throughout and rely generally, though not exclusively, on his translations in my renderings of Theocritus into English. Gow’s commentary, which comprises Volume II of this work, is dense and massive, although not primarily literary in orientation. Specific references to that commentary in this thesis must be supplemented by K.J. Dover’s caution (in the Preface to his Theocritus: Select Poems, 1971, Basingstoke and London) that “I am so deeply indebted to [Gow’s] commentary—as anyone must be who has written anything on Theocritus since 1950—that adequate acknowledgement on passage after passage is hardly practicable; I must content myself with the observation that his work is the base … without which I would not have ventured on this foray.” My occasional consultations of Dover’s edition, his introduction and commentary are specifically noted.