ca. 300-ca. 260 B.C.
The Greek poet Theocritus wrote poems that cover a broad range of subjects, settings, and emotions. His pastoral poems—works about the countryside and rural life—are his masterpieces. Theocritus is credited with originating the literary form known as the pastoral.
Little is known about the life of Theocritus. Scholars believe that he was born in the city of Syracuse, on the island of Sicily. However, he lived most of his life on Cos, an island in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Asia Minor, and in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. While in Egypt, he may have lived at the court of the pharaoh* Ptolemy II, about whom he wrote a poem of praise.
Theocritus’s works, collectively called Idylls (from the Greek word meaning “images”), include various types of poems. Some are miniature epics* that deal with mythological and legendary figures, such as Heracles and the Greek gods. Others are lyrics* about subjects such as love. A third group of poems are mimes—light, often humorous works about ordinary characters.
Theocritus’s most famous works, the pastorals, deal with the everyday lives of rural folk, such as cowherds, shepherds, and others. The settings for these poems—the rural countryside of woodlands and hills—reflect the poet’s love of nature and his knowledge of rural society. His “Harvest Festival” (Idyll 7) is a remembrance of a day passed in the fields of Cos: We came upon a wayfarer by the grace of the Muses, a goodly man from Cydonia, named Lycidas. He was a goatherd and no one, looking at him, would have mistaken him for anything else.... He had the yellowish hide of a shaggy rough-haired he-goat on his shoulders, one smelling of fresh rennet*, and round about his chest an old cloak was tightly bound with a broad belt and in his right hand he held a crooked staff of wild olive. Quietly, with a grin, he spoke to me with an amused glance and laughter played on his lips: “Simichidas, where are you striding along at noonday when even a lizard is asleep in the rough stone wall and crested larks are not a-wing?”
* pharaoh ruler of ancient Egypt
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* lyric poem expressing personal feelings, often similar in form to a song
* rennet inner lining of a calf's stomach, which contains a chemical used in making cheese
Theocritus’s pastoral poems influenced the Roman poets Horace and Virgil, both of whom wrote works praising the beauty and fertility of Italy. (See also Literature, Greek; Muses; Poetry, Greek and Hellenistic.)