In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Theocritus of Syracuse

  • Introduction
  • English Translations
  • Bibliographies

Classics Theocritus of Syracuse
J. Andrew Foster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 December 2009
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0065


Theocritus, the imagined father of Western pastoral poetry, flourished in the first half of the 3rd century BCE, ultimately at the court of Ptolemy Philadelphus (ruled c. 282–246 BCE) in Alexandria, Egypt. Even in an era that reveled in poetic innovation, his slender body of short poems comprises particularly striking experiments in linguistic dialects, varied poetic registers, and amalgamated literary forms. Though he was a poet of enormous versatility, he is most celebrated for a handful of bucolic poems. Within the span of these eight slender poems Theocritus introduced into the Western literary canon a unique cast of rustic herdsmen, their music and longing, within the pastoral locus amoenus. The scant biographical tradition emanating from Antiquity and the biographical details that can be reasonably deduced from his own poetry suggest that Theocritus was from Sicily, in all likelihood from Syracuse. He surely spent some portion of his adult life on Cos before emigrating to Alexandria and the Ptolemaic court. Whether Theocritus had an established reputation and was lured to court at the invitation of Ptolemy Philadelphus or worked his way to prominence after a relatively anonymous arrival is not clear. But if it were the latter, it did not take long for Theocritus obtain some form of Ptolemaic patronage as he established himself as a literary force to be reckoned with at Alexandria—even if he never enjoyed the power and privilege of a position within the Library or Museum, as did his contemporaries Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes.


Thirty (nearly) complete poems and twenty-five epigrams have come down to us under the name “Theocritus.” We do not possess all that he wrote, and all that is ascribed to Theocritus was surely not written by him. Of the thirty Idylls it is generally believed that twenty-two are genuine (1–7, 10–18, 22, 24, 26 and 28–30). None of the epigrams can be safely assigned to Theocritus, but he almost certainly did write some of them. A papyrus preserves fragments of an Aeolic pederastic poem (Idyll 31). A riddling pattern poem, Syrinx, is also ascribed to Theorcitus (Theocritus 1952, vol. 1, p. 256). Athenaeus (7.284A) quotes from an otherwise lost poem entitled Berenike. Suidas (Theokritos) offers a much more expansive list of works, including elegiac and iambic poetry. It is unlikely that Theocritus wrote all of which it speaks. Although our vision of Theocritus is dominated by his renown as the father of Western pastoral, this should not obscure his versatility. In addition to bucolic poems, he wrote hymns and encomia (Idylls 16, 17, 22), mimes (Idylls 2, 14, 15), “epyllia,” and mythological poems (Idylls 13, 18, 24, 26), as well as three Aeolic poems in the meters of Sappho and Alcaeus (Idylls 28–30), two of which are pederastic (Idylls 29, 30). Modern editions of his poetry take their point of departure from Wilamowitz 1934 (Bucolici Graeci) and Wilamowitz 1906 (Die Textgeschichte der griechischen Bukoliker. Gow (Theocritus 1952) has supplanted Wilamowitz’s text and remains the normative English edition. Gallavotti, who collated the manuscripts, offers a more recent edition (Theocritus 1993) with a text very distinct from Gow’s, but his editorial judgment is not beyond question. Dover (Theocritus 1971) and Hunter (Theocritus 1999) both provide outstanding entrees into Theocritus’s poems and poetry. Dover is the most accessible, Hunter more comprehensive and a better guide to secondary literature.

  • Theocritus 1952. Theocritus. Edited by A. S. F. Gow. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    The standard edition for readers of English. Gow’s introduction, text and commentary are indispensable for all students and scholars. His discussion of the text of poems (vol. 1, pp. xxx–lxvi) still provides the most succinct overview of the manuscript tradition and the particular challenges confronting an editor of Theocritus.

  • Theocritus 1971. Select poems. Edited by Kenneth J. Dover. London: Macmillan.

    The most accessible introduction to Theocritus’s poems for undergraduates. The selection includes a number of his non-bucolic poems. The introduction offers an excellent overview of Theocritus’s dialects and rhetorical practices. Students will value the vocabulary list and explanatory notes.

  • Theocritus 1993. Theocritus quique feruntur Bucolici Graeci. Edited by Carlo Gallavotti. 3d ed. Rome: Publica Officina Polygraphica.

    The third edition of his Greek text of Theocritus and other bucolic poets, with a Latin commentary. Extended discussion of the textual problems and the manuscript tradition. Williams provides a useful review (Classical Review 46 [1996]: 154–155, online).

  • Theocritus 1999. A Selection. Edited by Richard L. Hunter. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    This introduction, text and commentary for the poems selected (Idylls 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 13) is an essential resource for everyone, but especially for the more advanced. The introduction gives the most concise and trenchant overview of Theocritus and his poetry.

  • Wendel, Carl, ed. 1967. Scholia in Theocritum vetera. Stuttgart, Germany: Teubner.

    The standard edition of ancient commentary on Theocritus.

  • Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Ulrich von. 1906. Die Textgeschichte der griechischen Bukoliker. Berlin: Weidmann.

    This volume, which appeared in conjunction with the author’s first Oxford Classical Text edition, remains fundamental for basic questions surrounding the production and transmission of Theocritus’s poetry. Reprinted in 2004.

  • Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Ulrich von. 1934. Bucolici graeci. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon.

    This text has been superseded by Gow (Theocritus 1952) but should be consulted in conjunction with Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1906.

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