Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.9.5

Joan B. Burton, Theocritus's Urban Mimes. Mobility, Gender, and Patronage. Hellenistic Culture and Society 19. Berklely: University of California Press, 1995. Pp. ix, 298. ISBN 0-520-08858-1.

Reviewed by Alexander Sens, Georgetown University.

Until fairly recently, full-length studies in English of Hellenistic poetry were a relative rarity, though Theocritus fared slightly better in this regard than many of his contemporaries. The "bucolic" poems in the first third of modern (and presumably ancient)1 editions -- precursors to the Virgilian Eclogues and to the subsequent European pastoral tradition -- have always attracted a fair amount of interest; the "mimic" and especially the "heroic" poems in the latter part of the corpus have received relatively less attention.2 Now, fortunately, the situation is beginning to change: in the last year alone students of Hellenistic poetry have gained two books in English on the "non-bucolic" parts of the Theocritean corpus: Joan Burton's Theocritus's Urban Mimes and Richard Hunter's Theocritus and the Archaeology of Greek Poetry (Cambridge 1996 [henceforth TAGP]). In many ways, the approaches taken by the two authors are complementary. Hunter focuses on Theocritus' use of antecedent literature, on the way in which the idylls in the latter part of the corpus excavate and reconstruct the poetry of a lost Greek past. The focus of Burton's work, by contrast, is rather on Theocritus' engagement with real-life social issues than on his interest in the literary tradition (though this is not neglected). The principal object of Burton's study is the three Theocritean "urban mimes" (Idylls 2, 14, and 15) and the ways in which they reflect new demographic and social patterns that arose in the Hellenistic period. For Burton, Theocritus is not the elitist, ivory-tower intellectual sometimes imagined by modern scholars, but an acute and sensitive observer and critic of the contemporary world.

The main body of Burton's book is divided into four essays on interrelated aspects of the poems, the first dealing with themes of mobility and ethnicity, the second with gender and power, the third with the role of aesthetic experience in the lives of ordinary people, and the fourth with the influence of Theocritus' royal patrons and their place in the mimes. Burton has read widely in ancient literature and in modern criticism and critical theory, and while there is, as always, much room for disagreement about some of the author's specific arguments and general conclusions, the effect of the four essays is to provide a multifaceted and challenging picture of Theocritus' poetic activity, a picture often quite different from that which is usually envisioned by critics.

The first chapter opens with the general observation that the Hellenistic World was marked by a notably high level of geographic itinerance; the huge cosmopolitan cities that were a new phenomenon of the period were crowded with immigrants of all races and ethnicities from around the Mediterranean. To judge from what little information we have about him, Theocritus himself led an itinerant life, and Burton argues that in various ways his urban mimes reflect an active awareness and engagement with issues of mobility, ethnicity, and immigration. The main body of the chapter is in three sections. The first of these looks in a general way at themes of mobility and internationalism in the mimes, with special focus on Idyll 15. In this poem, Burton suggests, Theocritus' treatment of the excursion made by two female Syracusan settlers, Praxinoa and Gorgo, from "the safe mimetic space of Praxinoa's remote house through the dangerous realm of Alexandria's streets to the palace grounds for the Adonis festival ... explores the difficulties of crossing boundaries: between outskirts and city center, city and court, outlander and citizen, man and woman, child and adult, subject and ruler, mortal and immortal, lover and beloved." As a metaphor for "passage between spiritual states" the women's voyage allows the poet to examine "what Alexandria can offer the spirit and what it means to move from abroad to Alexandria" (10). Whatever we may think of these larger claims, Burton's discussion offers an interesting account of the way the poem explores the women's feelings of alienation and confusion in the dense and diverse Alexandrian throng. The women's use of Homeric language in several places in the episode is usually seen as ironic, calling attention to the dissonance between the diction and the low and frivolous characters who use it, but Burton focuses rather on the way such language, in calling attention to the gap between heroic and contemporary worlds, serves "as a reminder of Greek identity, of a focal point of traditional Greek culture, in cosmopolitan Alexandria" (15). "[B]y evoking the mythic tradition in the lowly context of congested urban streets," she concludes, " Idyll 15 could offer culturally dislocated Greeks in the expanded Hellenistic world a way to remember and revalue the past" (18-9). Other poems also explore mobility and the encounters between people of diverse backgrounds that result from it. The second idyll's Simaetha loves a man she explicitly calls a Myndian, and counts among her friends and associates a Thracian nurse and an Assyrian drug-expert; Idyll 14 features a nonelite symposium attended by an Argive, a Thessalian, and a soldier, and ends with Thyonichus' advice that Aeschinas depart for Egypt and the ranks of Ptolemy's mercenaries; similarly, Herodas' first and second mimes also feature what Burton calls "the mobility theme" in interesting ways. The second section looks at the symposium as a site of contact for people of diverse backgrounds and thus as a forum that Hellenistic poets could use "for approaching social and political issues of contemporary importance" (24). Symposia, Burton notes, allowed Greek men to express and reinforce their solidarity, and thus "dislocated Greek males could try to restore their sense of self-identity and community by participating in such institutions" (24-5). Idyll 14's Aeschinas, for example, recounts the events at a symposium attended by a diverse group of "celebrants outside of the elite class [seeking] to establish solidarity and exclusivity" (28), but in Aeschinas' case the outcome is just the opposite; things go awry and lead to his isolation from the sympotic community and eventually to his decision to move to Egypt and join Ptolemy's mercenaries. In Idyll 2, Simaetha's emphasis on Delphis' participation in the gymnasium and in symposia shows how, though a Myndian outlander, he has gained access to the elite Greek world; she herself, a woman without apparent family connections, has no such access. Other examples in which Greek poets used the symposium to highlight issues of inclusion and exclusion include Herodas' second mime and the "Icos" episode from Callimachus' Aetia (frr.178-185 Pf.). Chapter One concludes with a discussion of the way that Theocritus' mimes show how "friendship" can overcome some of the alienation of a highly mobile world. In Idyll 14, for example, Thyonichus through friendship "provides Aeschinas with a stronger self-identity and thus pulls him back from a near loss of self" (36), while in Idyll 15, "by focusing on the experiences of settlers in a big city, the poet explores how talk can affirm friendships and help establish alternative communities" (39). In Idyll 2, by contrast, the monologue form allows Theocritus to avoid "subjecting Simaetha's actions to judgments of approval or disapproval ... By not giving Simaetha a friend with whom to talk, the poet also can emphasize a negative side of the Hellenistic world's mobility" (40).

This last quotation may illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Burton is a clever and insightful reader, and makes numerous useful and cogent observations about specific passages, but at times those observations lead to somewhat larger conclusions about Theocritus' social concerns than the evidence may admit. Thus, for example, it is surely true that the absence of an interlocutor forces us to evaluate Simaetha's speech without mediation, but the conclusion that by not providing Simaetha with an interlocutor Theocritus is "emphasizing" a negative aspect of a newly mobile world can only stand if we assume that Simaetha's monologue is meant to be read in pointed contrast to the mimes in which conversation and friendship do play a part; Burton offers no compelling reason that we should do so.

In the first section of the second chapter, "Gender and Power," the author makes the case that the poems reflect concerns about the changing state of gender relations in the Hellenistic period. In both Idylls 2 and 14, the protagonists' loss of a beloved leads to a loss of "gendered identity," which they must then reconstruct. There is much of interest here (e.g. Aeschinas' description of Cynisca as a little girl, then as a departing swallow, and finally as a bull -- whereas he himself is like a helpless mouse -- reflects a development in his own perception of the girl, who becomes increasingly wild and masculine in his eyes), but Burton's concern to uncover issues of "gendered identity" in the poems also produces some tendentious argumentation. She has, for example, this to say about the reworking of Achilles' words to the crying Patroclus (Il. 16.7-10) in Aeschinas' description of Cynisca's tears (Id. 14.32-3): "just as Patroclus's loss causes Achilles to feel isolated and alienated from his fellow solders ..., so too Cynisca's loss causes Aeschinas to feel isolated and alienated from his fellow symposiasts" (51). Achilles' feelings of "isolation and alienation" from his comrades, of course, hardly begin with the loss of Patroclus, and Hunter (TAGP 114) is surely right to see in the (multiple) links between Aeschinas and Achilles a humorous evocation of another "soldier" who lost a beloved girl. Nor, in the often interesting discussion of gender relations in Idyll 15, is it obvious to me that the bystander who finds fault with the women's conversation is trying to "legislate [their] identity" (58), despite the legalistic manner in which Praxinoa responds. These individual points are minor, perhaps, but reflect a broader tendency to use predetermined interpretive categories (in this case, "gendered identity") in ways that are sometimes not thoroughly convincing.

The final sections of the chapter look at the portrayal of women and men in Theocritus' poetry. All three mimes show women retaliating in various ways after they have been mistreated by men; Simaetha's incantation is particularly interesting in this regard. Burton argues that the wronged woman uses "symbols of Delphis's patriarchal world" (65) against him in order to induce in him the same symptoms she feels, and that the incantation thus enacts a "shifting of power relations" (66-7) and a "revers[al] of the terms of eroticism" that allows Simaetha to "releas[e] herself from her dependency on Delphis and from society's hierarchical constraints" (67). In this sense the poem "reflects male concerns about the increased visibility of women in the Hellenistic World by suggesting the possibility of fearful female vengeance in the everyday world" (69). Burton goes on to suggest in a useful discussion that unlike Callimachus, whose women tend to be represented as sorrowing, subordinated or weak, Theocritus' poetry is filled with strong, controlling mothers and other powerful, erotic women, whereas the male characters in Theocritus (and in much other Hellenistic poetry) are often sexual ambiguous.

Chapter 3, "Ekphrasis and the Reception of Works of Art," contains an interesting treatment of the reactions of Idyll 15's protagonists, Praxinoa and Gorgo, to the art they see and hear at the Adonia. Burton here challenges the common critical assumption that the women's reactions to the elaborate tapestries expose their own insufficiency as critics. Whereas many critics cite Herodas' fourth mime, where women also view and react to art in a ceremonial context, in support of an "ironic" reading of the women's response to the tapestries in Idyll 15, Burton argues that the two episodes are in fact entirely different in their effects. Unlike Coccale in Hds. 4, Praxinoa understands the art she sees as a coherent whole, and -- again unlike Coccale, whose reaction to the painting is thoroughly inappropriate to the ceremonial context in which it occurs -- she chooses to emphasize elements appropriate to the religious context. Thus, for example, whereas Coccale's observation that if one scratched the image of the boy it would bleed (Hds. 4.59-60) is clearly out of place in the sanctuary of Asclepius, Praxinoa's comment on the realism of the tapestries, E)/MYUX', OU)K E)NUFANTA/ (Id. 15.83), in fact appropriately suggests and recreates the rebirth of Adonis celebrated by the festival (101). The Homeric phraseology of Gorgo's response to the tapestry, LEPTA\ KAI\ W(S XARI/ENTA (Id. 15.79), is often seen as a marker of the ironic distance between the epic diction and the "low" character who uses it, since the speaker herself is unaware of the lofty source of her own language. Burton, however, argues that the use of a Homeric phrase is actually appropriate to the speaker, who has throughout the poem expressed her interest in woven work, and who elevates her description of the tapestries by using a well-known Homeric phrase appropriate to woven materials: "[w]omen who have themselves put on and admired their own woven garments, and who now view woven materials representing a further dimension to the art of creation that they have already admired in their own more humble example might well be motivated to speak of such woven material in terms which evoke the more traditional and elevated (hence epic) instances of such woven works" (103). The coincidence of the women's critical vocabulary with that of the Alexandrian literary elite (e.g. Gorgo's use of LEPTO/S) Burton sees not as an ironic subversion of learned discourse, but as a demonstration of "how the academy's values happen to coincide with female values" (104). The author points out that the vocabulary used associates the tapestries with Praxinoa's own garments (79 PERONA/MATA ~ 21 PERONATRI/S; 34 E)MPERO/NAMA), and concludes from this that "by using rare cognate words to describe both gowns fit for gods ... and Praxinoa's more humble clothing ..., Theocritus can associate lower and higher classes, cross social boundaries, and mix genres" (105). For Burton, such passages suggest an identification of the women with the poet himself -- "Gorgo's and Praxinoa's evocative and allusive language is Theocritus's own; his signature appears in their talk" -- so that "[i]n focusing on Praxinoa's and Gorgo's aesthetic experiences in the context of a public Adonia, Theocritus seems to be refuting Callimachus' position that art and imagination should no longer seek a public audience" (107). The bystander's explicit criticism of the women's "twittering" in vv. 87-8, Burton argues, is undermined by the crudeness of his remarks and their inappropriateness to the ceremonial context; by thus disauthorizing the bystander's critical voice, the poem "discourages the complacency of an unreflecting reader's mocking stance" (108). In other words, as Hunter has recently put it, "the poem forces us to consider the basis and validity of our own critical judgements" (TAGP 117). After a brief survey of other scenes from Theocritus and Herodas involving the viewing and evaluation of works of art (110-14), the chapter concludes with an interesting discussion of the way in which Idyll 15 makes the transition from the "fantasy" of the inset Adonis-song to the "reality" of the contexts in which they occur. She argues that the transition from fantasy to reality at the end of the idyll (and of Idyll 1, whose closure is structurally and thematically related) serves as an analogy to the experience of the poet's own audience: "[b]y showing the Syracusan women coming to terms with returning home after experiencing the Adonia, Theocritus creates a bridge for the reader/listener as well between the fantasy represented by the poem and real life" (121-2).

The last of the main chapters, "Patronage," focuses on the depiction of Ptolemy and Arsinoe in Idylls 14 and 15. Both poems show the Ptolemaic court from the viewpoint of outsiders seeking access to it, and both may thus serve in different ways to comment on the relationship between the ruler and a foreign-born poet in quest of his favor. The first half of the chapter looks at the poems' representation of Ptolemy. Thyonichus' praise of the ruler in Id. 14.61-5 attributes to Ptolemy qualities coinciding with "those approved in male sympotic culture" (127) and standing in stark contrast to the behavior of Thyonichus' interlocuter Aeschinas. These qualities -- discernment, love of culture, and generosity -- are precisely those that would be of importance to poets seeking his patronage. Thyonichus' advice that Aeschinas should not seek too much presupposes an egalitarian world in which such ordinary men as Aeschinas actually might have access to Ptolemy's good graces. The idyll's focus on the symposium, in which such equality was valued, thus allows the poet ironically "to assume a stance of equality with Ptolemy" and "to approach a patron-king by projecting the theme of friendship from Aeschinas and Thyonichus's privatized fictive world to the public and historical realm of Ptolemy's Egypt" (128-9). Idyll 15 also represents the court from the standpoint of ordinary people, and playfully suggests the "ambiguous nature of autocracy" (130): the king has cleared Egyptian ruffians from the street (Id. 15.47-50), but his horses themselves pose a grave danger to pedestrians (Id. 15.51-3). The balance of the chapter considers the Adonis hymn of Idyll 15, and looks at how Theocritus depicts the public celebration of a festival that could prove embarrassing both to the queen, who closely associated herself with Aphrodite, and to her husband. Critical response to the hymn has usually been unfavorable; for many, it is an example of "bad" popular entertainment at which the reader is to laugh (for a recent, more favorable assessment of the hymn, see now Hunter, TAGP 110-38). Burton, however, argues that throughout the poem, the singer discreetly avoids aspects of the Adonis story that could prove uncomfortable for the Ptolemies, and suggests that this "strategy of evasion" may help to account for two aspects of the hymn with which scholars have found fault: both the singer's effusive description of the couch and her catalogue of heroes reflect Theocritus', and her own, artful tact. Moreover, Burton suggests that the descriptions of the setting and the offerings, often denigrated as an example of feminine poor taste, are in fact rhetorically appropriate and significant in their context: "[a] description of how cakes are made and a mention of a shepherd's contribution to the making of coverlets might represent a suitable rhetorical strategy to draw in less elite audience members, those who normally feel excluded from the glittering palace society of Alexandria ... [W]omen sensitive to the qualities of woven materials in daily life ... can linger over figured ceremonial spaces ...; a woman responsible for preparing food at home ... can praise a hymn featuring a description of women making cakes." (143-4). In Burton's view, the hymn, and the poem as a whole, may be read as "defying the cloistered limitations of the Alexandrian academy and suggesting that the aesthetic experience might yet have an active, public, and liberating effect in the world" (144). Just as Arsinoe's celebration of the Adonia makes public what had traditionally been a private women's festival, so Theocritus' poem brings into the public realm women's traditionally silenced voices. As such the poem may, Burton suggests, reflect a new political dynamic, in which the "official voice" of the Alexandrian hegemony was not exclusively male, but rather involved an ongoing "dialogue of male and female, Ptolemy and Arsinoe" (153-4).

There is an appendix of serviceable translations of the three Theocritean mimes and an appendix making a strong case that the expression LEPTA\ KAI\ W(S XARI/ENTA at Id. 15.79 looks directly to Od. 10.223 and that the evocation of that passage is significant in its context. The book is well produced (though something has gone wrong with the format on p. 166), and the few errors I did note were all of the most trivial sort; the press, alas, continues to prefer endnotes to footnotes for books in the Hellenistic Culture and Society series.

Theocritus's Urban Mimes is one of several recent studies that take on the prevailing view that Hellenistic poets were residents of an ivory tower, cloistered elitists with no connection to the real world.3 Burton's challenge to the blithe assumption of Theocritus' elitism paints a refreshingly rich and complex picture of the poet and his work. Like most correctives, it at times runs the risk of going too far. For example, the attempt to demonstrate that the women of Idyll 15 are not ridiculous buffoons may underemphasize some of the comic aspects of their portrayal. This reflects a larger issue: although Herodas' mimes are cited regularly as comparanda, the book does not undertake any systematic examination either of mime as a genre or of the literary affiliations of the three idylls, and thus gives little consideration to how (if at all) generic considerations might affect our reading of the poems. Such quibbles, however, do not diminish the usefulness of Burton's study, which deserves to be read and discussed by scholars interested in Hellenistic literary and cultural studies.


  • [1] Cf. K. Gutzwiller, "The Evidence for Theocritean Poetry Books," forthcoming in M. A. Harder, R. F. Regtuit, G. C. Wakker, Theocritus (Groningen 1996 [Hellenistica Groningana 2]).
  • [2] F.T. Griffiths, Theocritus at Court [Leiden 1979] is an exception.
  • [3] E.g. A. Cameron, Callimachus and his Critics (Princeton 1995) 24-70.