Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.38

Hans Bernsdorff, Hirten in der nicht-bukolischen Dichtung des Hellenismus. Palingenesia 72.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2001.  Pp. 222.  ISBN 3-515-07822-3.  EUR 44.00.  

Reviewed by Martijn Cuypers, University of Leiden (
Word count: 3527 words

This book contains the revised contents of the first half of Bernsdorff's 1996 Habilitationsschrift.1 In his introductory chapter, B. indicates that his main interest is the extent to which the presentation of herdsmen in bucolic poetry corresponds with that in other Hellenistic poems. More precisely, he intends to compare "pastoral texts" which he defines as "texts about herdsmen", from the "Hellenistic period" which he defines as "the 320s to the late first century BCE", to "bucolic texts" which he defines as "texts by Theocritus, Moschus, and Bion". Included in the comparison are Theocritean poems in which herdsmen play little or no role excluded are general descriptions of rustic life by other authors in which herdsmen are not explicitly mentioned. These preliminaries are clear and reasonable; but they are in many ways at odds with the discussion that follows.

First, B. devotes little attention to the second term of his comparison, bucolic poetry. Although from p. 91 onward Theocritus is occasionally discussed, familiarity with his "bucolic world" is largely assumed. It also remains unclear why Moschus and Bion are mentioned at all, since they are nowhere considered in the actual discussion. But more importantly, B.'s definition of "bucolic poetry" as "Theocritus, Moschus, and Bion" cannot hide that almost half of this book is taken up with what for all practical purposes is a comparison of bucolic poetry with bucolic poetry: pp. 91-180 are devoted to pastoral epigram. Therefore the book's title is less than well-chosen. In fact, if we disregard the brief remarks on Callimachus, Aratus, Herodas, and Nicander in the last chapter (9 pp.), the only non-bucolic Hellenistic poets whom B. discusses are Menander and Apollonius Rhodius. And even the chapters on these poets contain much extraneous material. Half of the chapter on Menander is devoted to a digression on Menander's and Aristophanes' presentation of rustic life in general (a topic explicitly excluded by the introduction), and a large part of the chapter on Apollonius discusses the role of herdsmen in the Homeric poems. Thus B. implicitly acknowledges a major obstacle to his research project: there are very few herdsmen in Hellenistic poems that are not actually about them. In order to gain results that can further the understanding of Theocritus one clearly also needs to take into account earlier poetry and the presentation of rustic life in general; but understandably B. could not do this in a systematic way within the limits of a Habilitationsschrift. Indeed a systematic survey would have required him also to consider tragedy (only mentioned in passing in the chapter on Menander), the Iliadic hunting similes (which are hardly distinguishable from herding similes), the Homeric hymns (notable that to Hermes), Hesiod (who himself poses as a herdsman), artistic representations, prose sources on life in the countryside, and last but not least the social position of real-life herdsmen in the late Classical and Hellenistic periods.

I would have been more sympathetic to these incongruities and omissions if B. had not made himself vulnerable to the suspicion of trying to varnish them over with sweeping generalizations and wide-spun methodological expositions. Illustrative of the latter is the introduction, where B. spends 10 pages to mark off his territory as described above. The book also in other ways betrays its origin as a Habilitationsschrift. It would have been much more accessible if B. had trimmed down lengthy preliminaries (which not rarely argue the obvious), evaluations of previous scholarship, polemics against other scholars, and unnecessary repetition and summarizing. These features unnecessarily distract from the book's real contribution to scholarship: B. convincingly refutes many ideas of others; he effectively pinpoints the similarities and differences between the world of Theocritus' herdsmen and that of the Attic farmers of old and new comedy; he shows that Apollonius' presentation of the pastoral world differs from that of Homer and that it contains some "idyllic" features; and he offers a helpful thematic survey of pastoral epigram and sheds new light on many individual epigrams. Extensive indexes (including a full index locorum) should help scholars in these fields to use B.'s findings to their advantage.

The chapter on Menander (pp. 19-44; the addition "und die übrige neue Komödie" seems pointless) opens with the observation that the only herdsman who plays a substantial role in the surviving plays is Daos in Epitrepontes. Menander shows no interest in Daos' daily life, and the views which Daos presents in his "agon" with the charcoal-burner Syros seem to arise from his character rather than from his profession. It is therefore likely that Daos is merely staged as a herdsman because in Greek literature (notably tragedy) exposed children are conventionally found by herdsmen, who alone frequent the sort of locations where children are exposed. What little we learn about Gorgias in Heros confirms B.'s idea that for Menander the essential characteristics of the pastoral life are poverty and low social status.

To these meager results B. adds a comparison of Menander with Aristophanes and a discussion of country life in general in both authors (which despite its presentation as an excursus forms the chapter's actual core). For obvious reasons, the discussion of country life in Menander focuses on Dyskolos. B. concludes that in this play "the countryside (...) appears as a place of hard work and moral rigor" (p. 33). Although I agree with this conclusion, I feel that the discussion which precedes it misrepresents the plot of Dyskolos on an important point. In what seems to be an attempt to see Theocritus prefigured in Menander, B. emphasizes how in Dyskolos country life is opposed to city life. However, Dyskolos differs from most other New Comedy plays exactly by not pressing this opposition. The characters around Knemon-Gorgias and those around Sostratos-Kallipides do not so much represent countryside and city as labor and leisure (including leisure for love, lines 343-6). Moreover, the opposition between the play's two character-sets is made ambiguous: to some extent, all characters are farmers.2 However, these reservations do not invalidate B.'s conclusions. There are indeed clear points of contact between Menander and Theocritus, such as the association of the rustic life with moral integrity, its presentation as hard but enviable, and the thematic importance of leisure. Yet there is a huge gap between the hard world of Menander's leisureless Attic farmers and the idealized world of Theocritus' leisurely herdsmen and farmhands, who seem to worry about anything but making a living, and whose life seems to be focussed on singing, joking, and courting. In fact, the work ethic of these rustics is far more akin to the behavior of Menander's slaves (a point which B. might have given more attention).

The plays of Aristophanes show the same opposition between penês farmers and the "leisure class" (here represented by those involved in politics, law, philosophy, and education). But unlike the plays of Menander, they do contain passages which idealize the life of the common farmer in a way that resembles Theocritean bucolic. In these passages the farming life is typically opposed to the hardships of the Peloponnesian war, which keeps farmers from leading a normal life. This normal life is associated with leisure and partying in pleasant natural surroundings with good food, wine, and music. The attention which Aristophanes devotes to the beauty of nature and the lovely aspects of the countryside stands in sharp contrast to the minimal descriptions used by Menander to set his plays (moreover, the countryside which forms the scene of Dyskolos appears rather as a locus horribilis). B. rightly concludes that the influence of Old Comedy on Theocritus deserves further investigation.

The chapter on Apollonius Rhodius (pp. 45-89) opens with introductory sections on the connections between Apollonius and Theocritus in the Hylas and Amycus stories and on pastoral motifs in epic, after which B. launches into a survey of pastoral motifs in Homer. Following Lonsdale, he notes that in the numerous herding similes of the Iliad herdsmen are mostly presented as controlling and organizing their cattle or as unsuccessfully protecting them against attacks by predators (and, to a lesser extent, raiders). In both functions they serve as foils for the Greek and Trojan leaders, the "herdsmen of the people."3 Yet the poem also contains a few leisurely, musical, amorous herdsmen: B. duly point out the two piping herdsmen on the Shield of Achilles (18.526) and three references to herdsmen who father children while herding their flocks (5.313, 6.21-25, 14.444-5; cf. Od. 13.222-3). Although the Odyssey has no herding similes (apart from a short comparison at 4.413), this poem also depicts the herdsman as a threatened species in its many references to cattle-raids (e.g. 11.292-3, 17.470-2). But here herdsmen also play a significant role in the main story: Proteus, Circe, Lampetie, Phaethousa, and Polyphemus, the faithful swineherd Eumaeus and cowherd Polypoetes, and the corrupted goatherd Melanthius. In the section on the Odyssey's human herdsmen, it is somewhat unclear whether B. discusses them as background for Apollonius or for Theocritus. If it is for Theocritus, the discussion is too short;4 if it is for Apollonius, it is too long (the only relevant point seems to be that in the Odyssey as in the Iliad herdsmen are presented as taking good care of their animals).

The actual discussion of Apollonius (pp. 66-89) focuses on eight herding similes (1.575-8, 1243-7, 1265-9, 2.123-8, 130-4, 3.276-7, 4.672-5, 1338-42) and seven other mentions of herdsmen (1.747-51, 2.164-5, 500-30, 656-7, 4.316-22, 964-78, 1485-1501), only one of whom plays a significant role in the main story (Kaphauros, 4.1485ff.). B. rightly points out that in this setup the Argonautica more closely resembles the Iliad than the Odyssey. Yet he omits a major occurrence of a herdsman in the main story: the Argonauts' violent encounter with the Bebrycian king Amycus (2.1-168). The way in which B. removes Amycus from the discussion in a footnote is less than convincing.5 I find it hard to see why Amycus, who is modeled upon Polyphemus and foreshadows Kaphauros, who carries a herdsman's staff and cloak, whom the Argonauts find inspecting his livestock far from his actual home, and whose sheep they end up taking, should not be called a herdsman and discussed as such. This omission of Amycus has unpleasant consequences for B.'s unifying approach to the evidence. Notably, it leaves open to serious objections his main conclusion that although Apollonius agrees with Homer in staging herdsmen primarily as protectors of their herds, he tends to present them in an unheroic, unaggressive role, representing a "liebliche, ruhige und friedliche Sphäre" and "Frieden und Heiterkeit".6 Although B. is more careful in his concluding summary, where he states that Apollonius shows herdsmen "relativ selten" in battle (88), I do not see how even this can be a useful generalization for a poem in which 168 lines are devoted to what from one point of view is simply a confrontation between a herdsman and potential cattle-raiders (as Apollonius also indicates by means of allusions to cattle-raids in earlier literature). Two other passages also defy B.'s generalization. At 4.1485-1501, the herdsman Kaphauros kills the Argonaut Kanthos "in defense of his sheep" (i.e. Kanthos tried to steal them). B. here argues that by emphasizing that Kaphauros was not just any herdsman but a grandson of Apollo, the narrator addresses the expectation that herdsmen do not normally attack people who stumble upon them. However, it seems more likely that the expectation addressed is that a herdsman should not have had the ability to kill an Argonaut. No more convincing is B.'s attempt to explain away the scene on Jason's cloak which shows the sons of Electryon defending their cattle against Taphian raiders (1.747-51), where he overstretches his (correct) observation that the Taphian raid disturbs "eine friedliche und anmutige Welt" (87).

Despite these reservations, B.'s observation holds true for many other passages, where the pastoral world indeed appears as an almost -- but not quite -- idyllic world of order and peace. For example, Apollonius' portrait of Dipsakos, the shepherd who once hosted Phrixus, is clearly indebted to Hesiod's description of the Golden Age (2.649-60; B. attractively argues a connection between Dipsakos' dislike of hybris and his choice of profession). When the Argonauts arouse herdsmen along the banks of the Danube, they are certainly disturbing a scene of peace (4.316-22). The elaborate pastoral scene describing Phaethousa and Lampetie herding the cattle of the Sun also contains idyllic elements and is opposed as a peaceful scene to the dangerous passage of the Planctae (4.964-78, in ironic contrast to the Odyssey). Likewise, the quiet day which awaits the herdsmen who wake up in the time image at 2.164-5 stands in contrast to the ordeal which awaits the Argonauts. The simile in which the lyre-playing Orpheus leads the fish that accompany the rowing Argonauts as a herdsman leads his herd also on one level tropes the homonoia of the Argonauts (1.575-8).7 B. also points out the erotic dimension of the story of Cyrene, who was abducted by Apollo while herding (2.501-3; he might have added that Aristaeus, the product of this abduction, is a bucolic figure in Virgil, who is surely following earlier sources). All these examples suggest that Apollonius evokes, beside the Homeric world of the ever-threatened herdsman (in similes as in the Iliad, by human enemies as in the Odyssey), a peaceful and ordered pastoral world which is contrasted with the stressful adventures of the Argonauts and which shows some affinity with Theocritan bucolic. B. leaves open how much of this affinity should be attributed to direct influence and refrains from addressing the question of the relative dating of Argonautica 1-2 and Idylls 13 and 22.

As pointed out above, the core of B.'s book is surprisingly formed by a long chapter on pastoral epigram (pp. 91-180). Its general conclusion is predictable: of the poetry discussed in this book, pastoral epigram shows the closest affinity with Theocritus (who after all also wrote pastoral epigrams).8 B. again opens with a long introduction (91-104), in which he asserts that to get a grip on the relationship between Theocritus and pastoral epigram, it is necessary to establish (relative) chronology and to conduct a detailed analysis of themes and motifs.

His discussion of the first topic yields as results that no pastoral epigram can be dated with certainty before Theocritus: Alcaeus, Antipater of Sidon, Erycius, Meleager, Mnasalces, and Myrinus are with certainty post-Theocritean; all other epigrams stem from authors "die in derselben Epoche wie Theokrit gedichtet haben oder gedichtet haben können" (126). In other words, this line of approach does not help B. to answer his leading question -- whether Theocritus is in some way following the "Zeitgeschmack" -- so that the present 22 pages (of which 10 discuss the date of Anyte) seem excessive. Yet those interested in Hellenistic chronology will find some new arguments added and old ones dismissed. Especially convincing are B.'s refutation of attempts to establish a relative chronology of pastoral epigrams based on text-internal criteria and his arguments against the idea that Theocritus was strongly influenced by a 'Peloponnesian school' of epigrammatists.

The thematic analysis of pastoral epigram (pp. 127-78) also starts slowly. In a 12-page introduction (pp. 127-38), B. sets out to address genre-based differences between epigram and idyll (epigrams are short, they are made up of disticha, contain no amoebic song, and are largely non-dramatic, i.e. contain no dialogue) but trails off into an attack on Rosenmeyer's idea that in Theocritus' Idylls the divine plays no important role (in which they would be opposed to pastoral epigrams, all of which are either funerary or dedicatory). This in turn seems to be merely an excuse to include a 7-page interpretation of Idyll 1.

The actual analysis is organized in two "Motivbereiche." The first of these is defined as "die mit Gespräch und vor allem mit Instrumentspiel verbrachte Rast an einem dafür geeigneten Ort" or "die bukolische Situation" (139). B.'s comments on individual epigrams which contain this combination of leisure, music, and locus amoenus are often enlightening, even if his only overarching point seems to be that, in the majority of epigrams which contain the "bucolic situation", it creates an "uneingeschränkt angenehme, liebliche, von Harmonie und Wohlklang erfüllte Stimmung" (140) which is not opposed to something else (as in Apollonius) nor in any way ironized. B. goes on to undercut the last part of this assertion by showing that "a smaller though not insubstantial number" of epigrams do show a playful-ironic approach to the 'idyllic' pastoral world -- including Leonidas HE 86 (where bucolic motifs are combined with a description of a locus horribilis) and Erycius GP 6 (where pastoral leisure is associated with the eternal leisure of death).

B.'s second "Motivbereich" is "Erotik, Obszönität und Realismus" (155-78). He here starts from the observations that Theocritus' poems show a tension between "zarte und erhabene Formen der Erotik" and "eine wilde, animalische und brutale Sexualität" (as represented by Pan); that the poet plays with the idea that the 'higher' form of eros is unsuitable to or unattainable for herdsmen; and that references to 'bestial' intercourse often draw back an idyllic, high-flown scene into real life. B. shows that pastoral epigrams also display these motifs and makes some interesting observations -- for example that in erotic pastoral epigrams the bucolic environment remains largely implicit (apparently the reader is expected to supply this information from his knowledge of the genre). At the end of the chapter B. uses the notion of "realism" to knit together a number of interpretations of other epigrams. If the coherence here and elsewhere in this chapter is sometimes less than obvious, the reader can hardly complain: these in-depth discussions of individual poems show B. at his best.

The last chapter contains tantalizingly short discussions of Callimachus, Aratus, Herodas, and Nicander (pp. 181-9). B. points out that Callimachus' Hecale has pastoral attributes (hat, staff, bread as baked for a herdsman's lunch), and that these suit her general description as a poor woman; idyllic features seem absent. Since B. emphasizes the Hecale's affinity with Menander, he might have pointed out that the poem exploits the same connection between country life and moral integrity. Aratus' Phaenomena yield nothing of interest. One would like to know more about his lost Hymn to Pan (but SH 958, the only fragment ascribed to it, contains no pastoral features). Sophron, the main model of Herodas, was credited with writing rustic mimes, and it is possible that Herodas also wrote such poems. However, the only herdsmen in his surviving work are those in the dream described in mimiamb 8. B. subscribes to the generally held view that there is probably a connection with Theocritus 7, but he is sceptical about attempts to extort a more specific interpretation from this badly damaged text. In Nicander's Theriaca, finally, herdsmen are mentioned among the country people who are likely to be bitten by snakes. Nicander shows no particular interest in the pastoral life, but the four passages in which he describes the threat which snakes pose to rustic leisure (471-3, 50, 23-5, 56) still show some affinity with bucolic poetry.

In the concluding section of his epigram chapter (pp. 179-80) and in his closing statements (pp. 191-2), B. returns to what was already in the introduction (p. 15) presented as the underlying purpose of this book, which I have so far left out of account because it seems less than perfectly integrated. According to B., the question whether Theocritus' presentation of the pastoral world follows a Hellenistic fashion has relevance for the question whether Theocritus is taking this world seriously or ridiculing it. In recent years the second view has found its keenest defender in Effe, who has argued that in his bucolic Idylls, Theocritus unmasks his contemporaries' infatuation with rustic life, and parodies an existing idyllic-sentimental image of the pastoral world. Theocritus' imitators, Effe holds, did not grasp his irony and took his bucolic world seriously. B. points out the implausibility of this scheme, employing some of his previous observations. First, it is dificult to argue that Theocritus rebels against a seriously sentimentalizing fashion because none of the potential evidence for such a fashion can be proven to predate his work. Second, the hypothesis that all later authors misunderstood Theocritus' irony is contradicted by the fact that some of the later pastoral epigrams are definitely ironic. Unfortunately, this is where B. stops, leaving his readers to figure out for themselves whether his findings contribute more to our understanding of Theocritus than refuting Effe's rather eccentric view. In my opinion, the main contribution of B.'s book lies in his demonstration that Menander and Apollonius also present a more or less idealized rustic life, which is at the same time unenviable (because it is a hard, primitive, and inglorious life) and enviable (because it is a 'pure' life with simple obligations, simple problems, and simple pleasures). In Menander this life is contrasted with that of the Attic leisure class, in Apollonius with the heroic world of the Argonauts. These observations make it easier to see how for Theocritus and his educated audience, with their complicated obligations, problems, and pleasures, the pastoral world could function both as an amusing mirror and as a genuinely attractive paradigm. The question "serious or ironic?" is surely too simplistic.


1.   The second half was published as Das Fragmentum Bucolicum Vindobonense (P. Vindob. Rainer 29801). Einleitung, Text und Kommentar. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999 (Hypomnemata 123).
2.   Kallipides may be rich, but he is a rich farmer, and is regarded as such by Knemon and Gorgias, for whom this is a crucial argument to accept him as an in-law (Gorgias: "He's a rich man, by God, and justly so, since he is a first-class farmer", 774-5 [transl. Ireland]). Kallipides in turn accepts Gorgias as a son in law because, though rich, he is still in his heart a farmer who knows the value of a good pair of hands. Kallipides nowhere seems to be explicitly associated with the city. His son Sostratos is, but even he is first and foremost a spoilt brat who has not had to work a day in his life. Pan's introduction of the two is significant: "There's a young man whose father is very well off and farms an estate in these parts that is worth a fortune. The young man, though, is urbane in his lifestyle" (astikon têi diatribêi, 39-41). The prime aspect of Sostratos' lifestyle which is unacceptable to Knemon and Gorgias is his leisure (scholê; see e.g. 293-5, 355-7; 367). It is therefore understandable that Gorgias' attitude towards him changes dramatically when for the sake his marriage he proves willing to play the part of an autourgos penês (369-70). Gorgias takes this as proof of his true character (764, cf. 767-71), even to the extent that he is prepared to recommend Sostratos to Knemon as a farmer (Knemon: "Is he a farmer?" Gorgias: "Very much so, father. He's no dandy or the type to stroll about idly all day", 753-5). Another ambiguity is created by the fact that Knemon is by no means a typical autourgos penês: whereas Gorgias has no leisure because he must work hard to survive, Knemon's estate is worth two talents (327-8), and the sole reason he is working it with his own hands is that he believes that leisure corrupts the soul (the very attitude which, ironically, makes his daughter so attractive to Sostratos; cf. 387-8, 34-6).
3.   B. here rightly modifies Himmelmann's view that the world of herdsmen, as representing the unheroic life of common people, forms a counterpoint to the poem's heroic action. He argues that, if defending herdsmen can serve as a foil for brave defending heroes, it is implied that the herdsmen's bravery is also heroic. Yet it is significant that country people are never explicitly identified as herdsmen when they are successful in resisting animal attacks or when they are involved in offensive action (in which case they are called "men", "farmers" or "hunters"). Therefore, no matter how courageous their resistance, the Iliadic herdsmen are still essentially typecast as victims.
4.   B. mentions Rohde's observation that the contrast between Eumaeus and the suitors reminds us of the antithesis of countryside and city in Theocritus, but he does not follow up on it. Yet it is not difficult to see Theocritean motifs prefigured in the opposition between the perfect hospitality of Eumaeus' humble abode (presented as the "palace of the swine-king" by allusions to the palaces of Priam, Alkinoos, and Odysseus) and the corrupted hospitality of the noble suitors in Odysseus' palace. And although Eumaeus is not presented as a man of leisure, he does find time for exchanging stories with his guest. As background to Theocritus, B.'s discussion of Polyphemus could also have pointed out more than that Polyphemus' tender handling of his animals is contrasted with his behavior towards humans: the Odyssey clearly contains many seeds for Polyphemus' later role as a bucolic [anti]hero. Moreover, since B. points out the prominence of the connection between herdsmen and raiding in the Odyssey, he might have pointed out that the Polyphemus story is also, from one point of view, the story of a raid (after all, Odysseus' men end up taking Polyphemus' sheep).
5.   "[Amykos'] pastorale Charakteristik beschränkt sich auf den Hirtenstab, vornehmlich erscheint er als König und Herdenbesitzer (...), im Umgang mit seinen Tieren wird er nicht gezeigt" (p. 77 n.95).
6.   "Es ist offensichtlich, dass im apolonianischen Gleichnis das Hirtenbild gegenüber der Ilias deutlich an heroischer Färbung verloren hat" (67). "Obwohl die meisten Gleichnisse mit der Vorstellung des Hirten als Führer und Ordner der Herde arbeiten, ist im Vergleich zur Ilias eine Entheroisierung festzustellen" (72). "Das Hirtengleichnis dient also dem Zweck, eine Stimmung der Heiterkeit, der Gefahrlosigkeit un des Friedens durchzuführen" (72).
7.   B. rightly observes that this is the only passage in the poem where an (individual) Argonaut is likened to a herdsman, but he fails to draw the obvious conclusion: the image of the hero as poimên laôn does not fit the circumstances of the Argonautic expedition, where there is no laos. B. is unnecessarily sceptical about Fränkel's suggestion that Apollonius' image of Orpheus in this passage is indebted to bucolic poetry.
8.   On Theocritus' epigrams see now L. Rossi, The Epigrams Ascribed to Theocritus: A Method of Approach (Leuven 2001). The book appeared too late for B. to make full use of it.

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