BMCR 2024.05.39

Brill’s companion to Theocritus

, , , Brill's companion to Theocritus. Brill's companions to classical studies. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2021. Pp. xix, 832. ISBN 9789004373556.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


Despite complaints from some quarters, the companionification of Classics continues apace. One might ask, as is customary, why did we need this volume, especially when there have already been two companions dedicated to ancient pastoral and Theocritus in the last 20 years?[1] In fact, several of the contributors from these previous volumes appear in the 34 chapters of this 800-plus-page tome, although they write on different topics here. In short, this companion to Theocritus reflects important developments in the last few decades and offers a valuable basis for future research. Theocritus is a hot topic of study at the moment, with two new monographs following on the tails of this companion.[2] This volume includes chapters which survey established topics in Theocritean scholarship as well as chapters that offer new takes or expand existing frameworks. The result is a volume that is useful for both students and for scholars of Greek poetry. Because of the length of the volume, I will not be able to cover every chapter within the word limit of this review, but there are valuable insights throughout.[3]

The introductory chapter by Kampakoglou reviews the scholarship on Theocritus, especially in the wake of Gow’s monumental English-language edition of 1950. The chapter traces the evolution of early studies which focused more on intertextuality, literary personae, and genre to the more historicizing approach of recent years. It contextualizes these developments both in terms of ancient literary studies more generally and studies of Hellenistic literature in particular. This chapter will be required reading for graduate students and anyone looking to enter into the scholarship on Theocritus. Other helpful surveys are Tribulato on dialect, Kampakoglou on lyric antecedents, Klooster on the programmatic Idylls 1 and 7, Clayman on Theocritus’ court context, and Hubbard on Theocritus’ early-modern reception. Massimilla’s chapter on the bucolic genre would make good reading for undergraduates thanks to the many potted summaries of poems with attention to their bucolic qualities.

The first section on “Author and Text” opens with a chapter by Phillips that extends and elucidates Payne’s work on the immersiveness of Theocritus’ fiction.[4] The chapter starts from the crux of the relationship between the biography of the poet and the content of his poems. Phillips reviews the various ways that both ancient and modern scholarship have read the poetic voice of Theocritus biographically, before turning to three case studies in which the author function is open to deconstruction and the intrusion of a sensuous phenomenology allows the reader to briefly experience Theocritus’ poetry as a “mode of life” (42). Phillips makes good use of both modern poetic theory and attentive close reading of the Greek. The first section closes with Kwapisz’ “somewhat idiosyncratic reflection” (105) on the form(s) of Theocritus’ poetry, centering on the two terms eidyllion and epigramma, which are treated as relatively interchangeable by Pliny the Younger (Epist. 4.14.8-9). Eidyllion, a diminutive of the word eidos (‘form, poetic style’), seems to date to the early Hellenistic age. The Vienna epigram papyrus (P. Vindob. G 40611) allows us to similarly date the term epigramma to this early period. Kwapisz shows how both terms evoke a similar sense of polymorphism within the Theocritean corpus, which might be seen as paralleling the polyeideia associated with Callimachus’ oeuvre. Kwapisz offers many compelling observations, e.g. that Id. 14 and 15 can be read as companion pieces, and there are many points of contact between Kwapisz’ paper and the one by Tribulato: both treat the poikilia of Theocritean poetry and read Idyll 15 as a metaliterary reflection on Theocritean dialect and genre respectively.

The second section on “Genres and Models” considers genre in a fairly compartmentalized way, especially in terms of its inspiration from Classical and Archaic precedents. Miles’ contribution focuses on the so-called “urban mimes” (Idylls 2, 14, 15), a label which she rejects in favor of referring to them simply as mimes. Due to the contested and fragmentary nature of this ancient genre, the chapter spends much time staking out the boundaries of what counts as mime and how to situate Theocritus, himself an important source for this genre, with respect to other sources such as Sophron and Herondas. As Miles notes, other scholars have tended to be a bit looser with this term. The limitation of this chapter to these three Idylls thus seems undermotivated, especially given that the chapter opens with an appeal to the unity of the Idylls and repeatedly notes that there are elements of mime in many other Idylls. Ultimately, one wonders why we shouldn’t accept the more capacious definition of Theocritean mime employed by other scholars. This chapter vacillates between making definitive statements about the performance of Theocritus’ texts and more guarded claims, e.g. “invoking the performance of mime” (159) and “imagined performers” (169). Other chapters, such as that of Kampakoglou on lyric (243-244), remain skeptical about Theocritus’ texts as performance pieces.

A strength of the volume is its willingness to engage with not only the Idylls but also the epigrams attributed to Theocritus. Coughlan’s chapter focuses on the bucolic epigrams. Like Kwapisz and Ambühl, he is careful to note that the authenticity of these poems is uncertain. The contributions of Prioux, Petrovic, and Kyriakou are less conservative with regards to the attribution of these poems to Theocritus. Although the fluidity of genre in Hellenistic epigram has become a commonplace (see Kwapisz at 116), Coughlan offers some insight into the specific ways that the epigrams attributed to Theocritus play with generic conventions and expectations.

Another strength of the volume is its attention to textual history and the Theocritean scholia. Tribulato’s chapter on dialect warns, as others have before, that a systematic study of dialect in Theocritus cannot be made without also considering textual transmission, since the ‘hyperdoricization’ of Theocritus’ language by editors and copyists can be traced back even to antiquity. Pagani offers a valuable survey of the various streams in the ancient scholarly tradition around Theocritus, expanding upon her own previous work.[5] The contrast between the “simple mimetic approach,” in which Theocritus’ poems document country life, and the “metaphorical approach,” in which the poems engage with themes from the Lebenswelt of the poet, is traced back to the ancient scholia (318). Hunter’s chapter complements Pagani’s by offering a literary reading of Homeric allusion in Theocritus, triangulating with ancient Homeric scholarship and Theocritus’ reception in Vergil. Hunter traces a series of subtle ‘window references’ which help to illuminate the significance of Homer not only to the composition of Theocritean poetry but also to its reception in antiquity.

The highlights of the third section on “Poetics and Aesthetics” are Sistakou’s chapter on the aesthetics of sweetness and Prioux’s study of Theocritus and visual art. Sistakou’s chapter is, as far as I can tell, the first dedicated study of “sweetness” (hêdytês) in Theocritus. She notes the prominent role that “sweetness” and honey as a symbol of sweetness serve in Theocritean bucolic and connects this aesthetic motif with an existing poetics of sweetness that can be traced back to Archaic poetry. Sweetness in Theocritus is not, however, simply an abstract poetological concept, like Callimachean leptotês, but rather a sensual and synaesthetic appeal to the world of senses that ultimately responds to the Platonic rejection of this world. Sistakou even suggests that Callimachus positions his own aesthetics of leptotês in opposition to Theocritean hêdytês. This, however, raises the question of Callimachus’ own poetological use of terms for sweetness[6] and the significance of sweetness in Hellenistic epigrammatists such as Asclepiades of Samos, a known influence on Theocritus.[7] More research can be done, but Sistakou has made an important contribution. Prioux’s chapter offers a different approach to aesthetics, namely as an artistic koinê in the interplay between poetry and plastic arts. The chapter opens with the provocative claim that there is only one ekphrasis in the Idylls – the description of the goatherd’s cup (Id. 1.27-60) – denying this status to the description of the tapestries and the palace in Idyll 15 (contra Karakasis at 729), although the latter is still discussed in this comprehensive study of Theocritus’ engagement in a “shared [Hellenistic] visual culture” (401). The chapter includes a survey of Theocritus’ use of iconographic schemes from plastic arts, a phenomenon which has recently been given the name “intervisuality.”[8] Potential borrowings from ancient art are illustrated by means of large, sometimes full-color images. For imagery that is not depicted, links to websites are provided in the footnotes. Also included in Prioux’s masterful study are references to ancient aesthetic treatises. The chapter closes by tracing the reception of Theocritus in the plastic arts down to Rubens. There is a wealth of information and insight in this chapter, and it should be required reading.

The fifth section on “Contexts and Topics” seeks largely to historicize the poet in Ptolemaic Alexandria. The chapters by Clayman and Griffiths are complementary. Both explore the relationship of Theocritus’ poetry to the Ptolemaic court. Griffiths surveys the potential Egyptian subtexts of the court poems with due care and skepticism. Clayman’s study concludes with a convincing reading of Idyll 16, which identifies this praise poem as satire. Earlier scholars have sometimes taken the poem seriously as an early attempt to win the Syracusan tyrant Hieron as patron, but on Clayman’s reading the poem can be dated to Theocritus’ time in Alexandria and is a subtle swipe at the rival ruler. Petrovic’s contribution on gods and religion starts from the scholia and takes up the supposed origin of bucolic poetry in ancient ritual associated with Artemis. She unpacks the scholarly history of this line of thought and shows how the hypothesis of a ritualistic origin for bucolic, despite its questionable validity, nevertheless reveals something of the ancient reception of Theocritus’ poetry. The chapter continues by noting how Aphrodite is portrayed in different ways in the bucolic and the court Idylls, which correspond to the more vulgar Aphrodite Pandemos and the more chaste, beneficent Aphrodite Ourania, respectively. The chapter concludes with a survey of ancient magical practices in Theocritus, which complements a similar discussion in Palmieri’s chapter.

The final section on “Imitation and Reception” covers the reception of Theocritus from antiquity into the 19th century. Each of these chapters offers a useful survey of Theocritus’ reception and may serve as a helpful point of departure for future research. Reed’s study of Augustan poetry and Theocritean Encomium (primarily Idyll 17) complements nicely the chapters of Clayman and Griffiths. In contrast with the bevy of close textual parallels noted in the chapters on the ancient reception of Theocritus, the chapters by Hubbard and Pellicer reveal that engagement with Theocritus’ texts generally plays a less significant role in his later reception, where he serves more as the symbol of a distant past. To paraphrase Matthew Arnold’s response to Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” (quoted by Pellicer at 799), Theocritus is to be appreciated more for his aura of ‘Greekness’ than for anything he actually says in the Greek.

The chapters have individual bibliographies rather than a single collective bibliography at the end of the volume, which has led to an obvious number of repetitions, but is a prudent choice in a world where the chapters are more likely to be downloaded individually or ordered through interlibrary loan. In general, the bibliographies are fairly comprehensive and multi-lingual, but there were a few surprising omissions. For example, I missed an engagement with the work of Christine Kossaifi, who has published several informative and insightful articles on Theocritus. Phillips’ discussion of hearing in Theocritus (48-54) misses Kossaifi’s important study of this theme, which also could have been cited by Kampakoglou in his remarks on memory and loss (260).[9] Presumably, Kossaifi’s study of the absent women in Theocritus appeared too late to be included in Kyriakou’s chapter on women.[10] A recent volume of the reception of Theocritus also seems to have appeared too late to be considered in the final section.[11] Despite many points of contact between the various chapters, the cross-referencing is rather uneven. The preface warns of this and of potential disagreements between chapters in an act of editorial recusatio: “as editors, we have not sought to encourage a single approach or excessive cross-referencing” (ix). The index is also fairly lean. For example, the theme of poikilia, which recurs in many of the contributions, does not appear. These factors detract from this volume’s usefulness as reference work. The copy editing, however, is excellent. I spotted very few errors, mostly minor slips in the bibliography.[12]

Rather than exhausting the topic of Theocritus, this volume shows that much more remains to be said and offers many spurs for new research. Anyone who wishes to contribute to the future of Theocritean studies is advised to start by consulting this volume.


Authors and Titles

Introduction: Modern Trends in the Study of Theocritus (Alexandros Kampakoglou)

Part 1: Author and Text:

  1. A Poet’s Lives (Tom Phillips)
  2. Theocritus’ Textual History and Tradition (Claudio Meliadò)
  3. Theocritus’ Dialects (Olga Tribulato)
  4. “Linking Together Rushes and Stalks of Asphodel”: The Forms of Theocritean Poetry (Jan Kwapisz)

Part 2: Genres and Models

  1. Theocritus and Bucolic Poetry (Giulio Massimilla)
  2. Performing Mime in the Idylls of Theocritus: Metrical Mime, Drama, and the “Everyday” in Theocritus, Idylls 2, 14, 15 (Sarah Miles)
  3. Theocritus’ Hymns and “Epyllia”: Poems 13, 22, 24, 26 (Alexander Sens)
  4. Generic Experimentation in the Epigrams of “Theocritus” (Taylor S. Coughlan)
  5. Theocritus and the Bucolic Homer (Richard Hunter)
  6. Pan’s Pipes: Lyric Echoes and Contexts in Theocritus (Alexandros Kampakoglou)
  7. Θεόκριτος κωμῳδοποιός: Comic Patterns and Structures in Theocritus’ Bucolic Poems, with a Supplement on Tragic Patterns (Christophe Cusset)

Part 3: Poetics and Aesthetics

  1. Ancient Scholarship on Theocritus (Lara Pagani)
  2. The Sweet Pleasures of Theocritus’ Idylls: A Study in the Aesthetics of ἁδύτης (Evina Sistakou)
  3. Theocritus’ Contest Poems (Karl-Heinz Stanzel)
  4. The Programmatic Idylls of Theocritus (Jacqueline Klooster)
  5. Theocritus and the Visual Arts (Évelyne Prioux)

Part 4: Narrative and Themes

  1. Myth and Narrative in Theocritus (Andrew D. Morrison)
  2. Theocritean Spaces (William G. Thalmann)
  3. Theocritus and the Rural World (Viola Palmieri)
  4. Childhood and Youth in Theocritus (Annemarie Ambühl)
  5. Eros and the Pastoral (David Konstan)

Part 5: Contexts and Topics

  1. Among the Cicadas: Theocritus and His Contemporaries (Benjamin Acosta-Hughes)
  2. Rulers and Patrons in Theocritus (Dee L. Clayman)
  3. Theocritus’ Intercultural Poetics (Frederick T. Griffiths)
  4. Gods and Religion in Theocritus (Ivana Petrovic)
  5. Women in Theocritus (Poulheria Kyriakou)

Part 6: Imitation and Reception

  1. [Theocritus]: The Early Reception of Theocritus (Poulheria Kyriakou)
  2. Sicilian Muses: Theocritus and Virgil’s Eclogues (Brian W. Breed)
  3. The King’s Nectar: Theocritean Encomium and Augustan Poetry (Joseph D. Reed)
  4. Theocritus and Post-Virgilian Pastoral Tradition (Evangelos Karakasis)
  5. Theocritus and Longus (Ewen Bowie)
  6. “Simple Theocritus” from the 16th to 18th Centuries (Thomas K. Hubbard)
  7. Theocritus in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry (Juan C. Pellicer)



[1] M. Fantuzzi / T. D. Papanghelis, eds. 2006. Brill’s Companion to Greek and Latin Pastoral. Berlin / Boston; C. Cusset / C. Kossaifi / R. Poignault, eds. 2017. Présence de Théocrite. Clermont-Ferrand. On the latter, see my remarks in Classical Review 69.1 (2019): 73-76.

[2] L. Canevaro. 2023. Theocritus and Things: Material Agency in the Idylls. Edinburgh; W.G. Thalmann. 2023. Theocritus: Space, Absence, and Desire. Oxford. The bibliography to Bowie’s chapter also announces a forthcoming volume on Theocritus edited by Maria Kanellou, Styliani Hatzikosta and Chris Carey.

[3] For the sake of impartiality, I will not discuss the chapters by Thalmann, Stanzel, and Palmieri in the body of my review. The former was my dissertation advisor and the latter two are colleagues in Tübingen. Thalmann’s chapter is an article-length introduction to a topic that is handled more fully in his book, and Palmieri’s chapter offers a suggestive new take on the role of “realism” in the fictional world of Theocritus’ herdsmen. Stanzel’s chapter on the contest poems is a valuable survey that is consistent with the author’s previous work on Theocritus, which is cited frequently throughout the volume.

[4] M. Payne. 2007. Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction. Cambridge.

[5] L. Pagani. 2007. “La filologia antica su Teocrito,” in: R. Pretagostini / E. Dettori, eds. La cultura lettararia ellenistica: persistenza, innovazione, trasmissione. Rome: 285-303.

[6] Noted by Sistakou at 330 n.24, but not pursued further. See R. Hunter, 2008. “Sweet nothings – Callimachus fr. 1.9 – 12 revisited,” in: R. Hunter, ed. On Coming After, 2 vols. Cambridge: 523-36.

[7] See AP 5.169: Ἡδὺ θέρους διψῶντι χιὼν ποτόν, ἡδὺ δὲ ναύταις / ἐκ χειμῶνος ἰδεῖν εἰαρινὸν Στέφανον· / ἥδιον δ’, ὁπόταν κρύψῃ μία τοὺς φιλέοντας / χλαῖνα καὶ αἰνῆται Κύπρις ὑπ’ ἀμφοτέρων. “Sweet is an iced drink for the thirsty in summer, for sailors it’s sweet to see the spring crown after a storm. But it is sweeter whenever one cloak covers two lovers, and the Cyprian is praised by both.” On the programmatic role of this poem, see K. Gutzwiller. 1998. Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context. Berkeley / Los Angeles: 128-130.

[8] L. Floridi. 2018. “Αὐδὴ τεχνήεσσα λίθου: intermedialità e intervisualità nell’epigramma greco,” Segno e Testo 16: 25-54; A. Capra / L. Floridi, eds. 2023. Intervisuality: New Approaches to Greek Literature. Berlin / Boston (reviewed BMCR 2024.04.24. For a similar approach to Theocritus, see M. Chaldekas. 2021. “Seeing Statues: Authority, Erotic Power, and the Gendered Gaze in Theocritus,” in: J.J.H. Klooster / M.A. Harder / R.F. Regtuit / G.C. Wakker, eds. Women and Power in Hellenistic Poetry. Leuven / Paris: 59–82.

[9] C. Kossaifi. 2017. “La houlette de Mnémosyne. Écouter et recueillir le chant dans les Idylles de Théocrite,” in: C. Cusset / C. Kossaifi / R. Poignault, eds. Présence de Théocrite. Clermont-Ferrand: 41-62.

[10] C. Kossaifi. 2020. “La belle à la voix qui défaille. La femme dans les Idylles bucoliques de Théocrite : une présence dans l’absence,” in: C. Cusset / P. Belenfant / C.-E. Nardone, eds. Féminités hellénistiques: voix, genre, représentations. Leuven / Paris: 367-386.

[11] A.-E. Beron / S. Weise, eds. 2020. Hyblaea avena. Theokrit in römischer Kaiserzeit und Früher Neuzeit. Stuttgart. In particular, Beron’s chapter on Calpurnius Siculus (“Standing in Tityrus’ Shadow: Theocritus in the First and Fourth Eclogue of Calpurnius Siculus,” 11-30) would have been useful for Karakasis’ otherwise admirably comprehensive bibliography.

[12] p. 15: “cultural bent” (not ‘bend’); p. 17: Hunter 1996 (not 1993); p. 34: Meincke 1965 (not 1966, cited correctly on p. 17); p. 41: Fletcher / Hanink 2016 not in bibliography; p. 111: Cunningham, “Popular Mime” not in bibliography; p. 125: Hopkinson 2015 (not 2005, cited correctly on p.105); p. 175: Payne 2007 (not 2014, cited correctly on p. 154); p. 181: Schorn’s edition of Satyrus not in bibliography; p.182: Austin and Bastianini’s Posidippus not in bibliography; p. 257: Kirstein 1997 not in bibliography; p. 343: “il” (not “II” [Roman numeral 2] in a French quotation); p. 374: “raises the question” (not “begs the question”); p. 376: Nickau 2002 not in bibliography; p. 546: “to line…” (number missing); p. 548: “In this case Idyll 1 reflects… his representation of gift enchant” (I’m not sure what is meant here); p. 548 n. 38: Robert 1966 (not 1960); p. 558: Robert 1966 is missing page numbers; p. 720: “agôn” (not “agön,” though other chapters avoid long marks in transliteration); p. 740: page numbers for Cooper 1974 should be 363-379.