BMCR 2004.09.22

Theocritus. Idylls. Introduction and Notes by Richard Hunter

, , , Idylls. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xxii, 114 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0198152906 $55.00.

Anthony Verity (V)’s translation of the Idylls of Theocritus, now released in the “World’s Classics” series as a paperback (list $10.95), provides an excellent tool for new readers of Theocritus and for use in the classroom. Richard Hunter (H)’s introduction is concise, thorough, up-to-date, and usable by undergraduates and general readers. This edition is also particularly welcome since Robert Well’s translation in the “Penguin Classics” series has been out of print for several years. V’s translation is conscientious, consistent, and generally conservative, but also shows considerable sensitivity to Theocritus’ poetic style, especially his varied registers. Altogether, this book should make an attractive introduction of Theocritus to the Greekless reader.

Because this is a review of a translation, rather than a work of scholarship, its organization will be somewhat different from the usual BMCR review. After an overview of H’s introduction, instead of summarizing each of V’s translations I will look somewhat more closely at two Idylls that are likely to be read or taught, 7 and 24, in order to provide a better outline of the character, strengths, and weaknesses of V’s translation. It will also be necessary to quote V’s translations more extensively than usual to assess the quality of individual passages.

H’s introduction adapts much of its content from his recent commentary on Theocritus,1 though naturally technical arguments and the scholarly background have been kept to a minimum. The traditional background topics find a place here: Theocritus’ creation of pastoral poetry, his biography, the literary and mythic precedents, and bucolic poetry as urban escapism. More importantly, H also includes a number of contemporary approaches to Hellenistic poetry. In Theocritus’ biography H is largely agnostic about his Sicilian background, and focuses instead on the Ptolemaic connections. Under the subheading “Theocritus and Post-Classical Poetry” H introduces the transition from oral to written texts, the importance of Homer in Hellenistic education, and Theocritus’ use of allusion. In “Bucolic Poetry” we get not only traditional references to Hesiod and Plato’s Phaedrus, but also discussions of bucolic as anti-epic and the separation of Theocritus’ experimentation from the more rigid code of later pastoral. Thus, H introduces a less “pastoral” and more “Hellenistic” Theocritus. Given that, it is perhaps surprising that more space is not devoted to the non-bucolic poems. A short subsection discusses their backgrounds in mime and hymn, but it seems that this could also have been the place to introduce additional Hellenistic topics such as court poetry, “epyllia”, and ruler cults.

Before the discussion of Idylls 7 and 24, a few short notes on V’s translation are in order. V translates Theocritus line for line where possible, indexing the line numbers of the Greek text. V’s English verse might be described as a very broad blank verse with substitutions, additional unaccented syllables, and even an extra foot inserted at will. This might be taken to represent Theocritus’ combination of the Homeric hexameter with unepic dialect, vocabulary, and metrical treatment, though as such it is very unobtrusive.

Idyll 7, the “Thalysia” or “Harvest Festival” describing the meeting of Simichidas and the mysterious Lycidas is among the most familiar of Theocritus’ poems and, so, a good place to begin looking at V’s translation. V is most effective here in distinguishing the different styles within the poem: the chatty conversation between Simichidas and Lycidas, the elevated songs, and the hymnlike coda. Lines 31-34 offer a good example of the conversational style:

We are on our way to a festival—
Some friends of mine are honouring fair-robed Demeter
With first-fruits from their wealth, since the goddess
Has heaped their threshing floor with grain in plenty.

Here Theocritus maintains a prosaic word order and technical vocabulary ( τελεῦντι, ἀπαρξόμενοι) while also admitting the Homeric εὐπέπλῳ. V follows nicely with the colloquial “on our way” and “friends of mine” in place of word order, and with the translationese “fair-robed” and technical “first-fruits”. Thus V (rightly) provides a much less formal style than Wells:2

Our journey is to a feast, prepared by friends
For Demeter, now that she robes herself in harvest.
They have set aside the first-fruits as an offering
To thank her for a threshing-floor heaped with grain.

V’s translation of the songs is sharply contrasted by being in a quite elevated style. Lines 57-60 are typical of the high style:

Halcyons shall soothe the sea’s waves, and shall calm
The south wind and the east, which churns the wrack
In the sea’s lowest depths—halcyons, most loved of birds by the
Grey-green Nereids, and those who seek their catch in the sea.

Here Theocritus has ἁλκυόνες at the beginning of lines 57 and 59, Homeric coordination with τε … τε, and epic (generalizing) τε twice, each typical of his high style. Except for the first, which V also omits, these effects are impossible to render in English. As often, therefore, V imports other elevated elements, here “shall” (in the conversational sections he uses contracted “I’ll”), archaic “wrack”, and an even more elaborate periphrasis for prosaic “fishermen” than Theocritus. Also noteworthy is the extended enjambment, which, again, is not particularly an element of Theocritus’ high style, but works well to produce a corresponding stylistic change in English. Comparison with Wells’ translation is again instructive:

Halcyons will cast their spell over wind and water,
Quieting the gales which shake the weedstrewn floor.
They are the birds most loved by the green Nereids
And by all who get their living from the sea.

V selectively adopts other formal elements. For example, Theocritus signals the last section of the poem by listing the names of the city-dwellers in the same order as at the beginning of the poem: I (Simichidas), Eucritus, and Amyntas. V changes the order (Eucritus, I, Amyntas), but repeats his own order, even smoothing out Theocritus’ diminutive for Amyntas in the repetition to enhance the echo. As part of the same technique, Theocritus repeats the first half of line 8 at 136 (elms and poplars). The first V places at the end of a line, the second he breaks between two lines. Many similar parallelisms are omitted by V, which seems to follow the idea that what would seem elevated or poetic in Theocritus could appear as strained or affected in English.

Turning to Idyll 24, the “Heracliscus” or “Childhood of Heracles”, we can see the same techniques at work there, though the distinctions between styles are not quite as sharp. Unlike Idyll 7, the stylistic register in this poem changes from line to line, and V again captures a number of these nicely. A typical example is 23-26:

When Iphicles saw the evil snakes
Rearing above the shield with their cruel teeth he let out a scream,
And kicked the woollen blanket off his legs, in a frenzy to get away.

In Theocritus the first half is elevated (hyperbaton, subordination) and the second half rather more prosaic. V again renders this distinction in terms of diction (esp. “rearing”, “cruel”) in preference to literally translating formal elements (e.g. the hendiadys: “noticed the evil snakes … and saw their cruel teeth”). Usually this approach is effective, especially for the undergraduate/general audience, but at times it seems that too much of Theocritus’ specific texture is sacrificed. This is perhaps best illustrated in 50-54:

A Phoenician slave-woman, who slept
In the place where the corn was ground, shouted: ‘Stout-hearted slaves,
Get up! It’s the master who is calling you!’ So the slaves lit their lamps
And came at a run, and the palace was filled with people bustling about.
When they saw the infant Heracles …

In Theocritus the exclamation of the woman precedes her introduction, so that her lowly status is an ironic comment on her Homeric “Stout-hearted slaves”. V’s treatment of the diction is generally nice, but the pacing of the stylistic changes suffers. There are also several rare lapses in diction. “Master” for αὐτός does not convey the vulgar usage.3 Similarly “infant” is rather dignified for ὑποτίτθιον.4 In this particular passage Wells brings out the low style more clearly (though he omits the Homeric elements):

A Phoenician woman who slept where the corn was ground
Took up the cry, “Up, slaves! It’s the master calling.”
The lamps were kindled. In came the slaves. At once
The house was filled with rushing people. The sight
Which met their eyes brought one and all to a standstill:
A baby…

V’s hesitancy to employ the low style here may distinguish the epyllia from the bucolic poems, which is certainly a valid interpretive choice, and any dissonances are primarily felt in this poem. Another example of V’s restrained use of the low style in this poem can be found in Tiresias’ instructions for burning the snakes (90-95):

… Collect dry sticks of bramble, camelthorn or paliurus, or parched and
Wind-seared pearwood, and on this wild firewood you must burn these
Snakes, at midnight, the hour when they sought to kill your child.
At dawn a slave girl must collect the fire’s ashes, and take them
Over the river to the jagged cliffs beyond our country’s borders, and
Throw them away, every single scrap; …

Theocritus is juxtaposing this collection of superstition, reminiscent of Simaetha’s pathetic incantations in Idyll 2, with the dignified allusion to Odysseus’ fumigation of his house in Odyssey 22 that immediately follows. V makes a few nods to the lower style here in “bramble”, “camelthorn”, and “every single scrap”, but these are balanced by higher diction in “paliurus”, “wind-seared”, and “jagged cliffs”. Once again the colloquial style is very muted compared to the one V employs in the bucolic poems. This final passage also illustrates a ubiquitous element in V’s style. V often places tightly bound phrases over his verse end; here we see “parched and | Wind-seared” (against “parched | And wind-seared), “these | snakes”, and “borders, and | Throw”. This seems to be another device to reproduce the prosiness of Theocritus’ hexameters, though it may be noted that it is employed equally, whichever of Theocritus’ registers V is translating.

In conclusion, V has produced a very fine translation of the authentic Idylls of Theocritus. The strongest point of the translation is its thorough and conscientious sensitivity to the various stylistic changes within individual poems. The weakness of this translation, if it should be called that, is its preference for an unobtrusive English style over reproducing the specific formal effects of Theocritus’ Greek. Despite any quibbling over individual passages, V’s translation is clearly superior to others that have recently been available, and teachers of Greek literature courses will be able to use it to illustrate Theocritus’ varied styles. H’s introduction provides a well-balanced mix of contemporary scholarship with accessibility. H’s notes consist primarily in mythological glosses, though important references to well known authors such as Homer and Sappho are also included, and a short paragraph outlines the literary technique of each poem. Scholars of Theocritus should, of course, not expect to find any major contributions, but undergraduate and general readers will discover an excellent and accessible introduction to this Hellenistic poet.

The book is very well produced; the only typesetting error I encountered was a space before the period in 24.41 on p. 72. In the epyllia especially the press has printed many of V’s verses on two lines (in 22, 24, and 26 this occurs in well over 50% of the lines), so that it might have been worth the while to adjust the format to fit all V’s verses on a single line.


1. Hunter, R. (ed.). Theocritus: A Selection: Idylls 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 10, 11 and 13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

2. Wells, R. (trans.). Theocritus: The Idylls. London: Penguin Books, 1989.

3. Gow, A. (ed.). Theocritus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965, 2.424. Gow and Wells also translate “master”; dialect “himself” or “the Man” might work, but V avoids dialect.

4. Gow suggests “nursling” (1.185); I might go as far as “suckling”.