(ca. 301-ca. 260 B.C.)
Hellenistic philologist and poet. A native of Syracuse, he sojourned in southern Italy and Cos, but having failed to win the patronage of Hiero of Syracuse, he finally won that of Ptolemy II, the founder of the Museum and Library that together with his munificent patronage made Alexandria the intellectual center of the Hellenistic monarchies. In the famous controversy about the Argonauts, he sided with Callirnachus against Apollonius of Rhodes, both of whom resided in Alexandria and sang of pederasty.
Though set in Sicily, his bucolic poems were written after he moved to the east, perhaps while he tarried on Cos. He composed his mimes mostly in Alexandria. Like most other Hellenistic poets, he preferred short, polished, erudite, contrived poems. He often chose exotic or at least novel themes and made fresh observations and descriptions. Besides pastoral heterosexual love, he dramatized the love of Heracles for Hylas. Eight of his thirty Idylls, the authorship of two of which is uncertain, treat boy love exclusively. Theocritus used two archaic terms: for lover eispnelas (inspirer), employed in Alcman, and for beloved the non-Dorian Thessalian aites (inspired), employed by Alcman to mean "pretty girl" in the feminine. The idyll on Hylas (XIII), Heracles' beloved, gave Theocritus an opportunity to express his personal feelings on boy-love. It is not just mortals, but the immortals as well, who suffer the pangs of love. Heracles is determined to educate the curly-haired boy with whom he is enamoured, to make a brave and renowned man of him, and to bring him up as a father would his son.
In Idyll XXIX Theocritus gives advice to a boy that follows strictly the lines earlier drawn by Theognis: the youth is urged to be faithful to his lover, not to play the coquette or exploit his admirer in a venal manner. Youth is fleeting, but with manhood love will yield to a solid and enduring friendship. Idyll XXX depicts a man who has reached the age that disqualifies him for conquests in love, but cannot suppress the passion that he feels for a boy who, whilenot particualrly handsome, has undeniable personal charm. This piece may well contain genuine autobiographical elements.
The two idylls in which shepherds and goatherds compete in song about their pederastic loves differ: in IV it is poets disguised as shepherds who display their rival skill, in V the speech belongs to genuine rustics, direct and even slightly coarse. Idyll VIII, which may not belong to Theocritus, presents two youths at the very onset of puberty, one in love with a boy, the other with a girl. This poem therefore treats homosexual love between early adolescent agemates, which in the eyes of at least some Greeks was perfectly legitimate. Inspired by the poetic tradition of male love begun by Ibycus, Anacreon, and Pindar, Theocritus' work proves that the old motifs and values of paiderasteia remained alive, at least in literature, into the Hellenistic era.
Félix Buffière, Eros adolescent; la pédérastie dans la Gréce antique, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1980; Hans Licht, Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1932.
William A. Percy