Reading Voices

Five Studies in Theocritus’ Narrating Techniques

by J. Andrew Foster (Author)
©2016 Monographs VIII, 259 Pages
Series: Lang Classical Studies, Volume 21


This book is a study of Theocritus’ narrating techniques, intertextual practices, and the relationship between them. By a close, careful description and analysis of these features as particularly deployed in Idylls 6, 11, 13, 24, and 15, J. Andrew Foster provides detailed readings of these specific poems, demonstrating how each poem’s narrative structure and its intratextual and intertextual affiliations interact to characterize the voices and audiences expressed and imagined by the discourse. Within these poems Theocritus especially orchestrates polyphonic voices speaking to diverse fictional, ideal, and actual audiences and so authorizes a range of responses to speech-in-text. His densely allusive poems exhibit an iterative aspect and resistance to closure that particularly encourage his readers to help compose larger metanarratives in which such resolution can be achieved or the particular episode can be better understood. The interplay between the referential systems inscribed within these poems and their rhetorical structure exemplifies how Theocritus encourages his poetry to be incorporated into a wider literary discourse by which that wider literary landscape is transformed. Within these experiments in narration and reception, Theocritus exhibits an intense engagement with the literary past and his critical present whose receptions and authority are continually problematized. These readings will serve as a springboard into the wider ongoing study of the problems of poetic voice, authority, and literary innovation within Theocritus’ poetry in particular and Hellenistic poetry in general.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction: Text, Voice, and Audience
  • Narrative Form
  • Audiences and Addressees
  • The Problems of Voice and Receptions
  • Reading Voices, Tracing Receptions
  • Synopsis
  • Chapter 1: Situational Incongruities: Narrators and Audiences in Idyll 6
  • Chapter 2: Poet and Metapoesis in Idyll 11
  • Chapter 3: Herakles the Sympotic Argonaut: Allusion, Emulation, and Narrative Innovation in Idyll 13
  • Chapter 4: Nemean 1 and Idyll 24: The Poetics of Heroic Revisionism
  • Chapter 5: Arsinoe as Epic Queen: Hosts, Hospitality, and Their “Reception” in Idyll 15
  • Chapter 1. Situational Incongruities: Narrators and Audiences in Idyll 6
  • The Fragments of Structure
  • Narrators and Their Narrations
  • “Theocritus” the Primary Narrator
  • Interlocutor
  • Polyphemos
  • The Poetics of Self-Delusion
  • Daphnis and Damoitas
  • Narratees
  • Aratos
  • External Reader
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2. Poet and Metapoesis in Idyll 11
  • Theocritus’ Narrating Personae
  • Intratextual Relations
  • The Prosaic Primary Narrator
  • Homeric Contexts
  • Polyphemos’ Song
  • The Story
  • The Nature of the Kyklopes’ Society
  • The Nature of Polyphemos
  • The Descriptive Resonance Between Odyssey 9 and Idyll 11
  • Epic Indeterminacies: The Problem of Closure
  • The Temporal Closure Implied by the Allusions
  • Polyphemos in the Optative Mood
  • The Problem of Closure
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3. Herakles the Sympotic Argonaut: Allusion, Emulation, and Narrative Innovation in Idyll 13
  • Narrative Modes and Erotic Models
  • Polyvalency and Its Limits: Herakles Qua Bucolic Erastes
  • Herakles “Homericized”
  • A Mock-Heroic Herakles
  • Epic Foreboding in the Locus Amoenus
  • Militat Omnis Amans
  • Theocritus and Apollonius
  • κυάνεόν τε χελιδόνιον or the Argo in the Underbrush
  • Herakles the Argonaut
  • The Argonautica “Theocritized”
  • The Symposium at Sea
  • The Sympotic Herakles (Intratextual Links)
  • Herakles as Duseros
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 4. Nemean 1 and Idyll 24: The Poetics of Heroic Revisionism
  • Nemean 1
  • Point of View
  • Levels of Narration: Embedded Narrators
  • Idyll 24
  • Point of View
  • Levels of Narration: Embedded Narrators
  • Pindar’s Herakles
  • Theocritus’ Polymorphous Hero
  • Reception Internal and External
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 5. Arsinoe as Epic Queen: Hosts, Hospitality, and Their “Reception” in Idyll 15
  • History of Interpretation
  • The Literary Mime
  • Idyll 15 as a Mime
  • Homeric Hospitality Scenes and Idyll 15
  • Arsinoe as Epic Queen
  • Philadelphos as Sesostris
  • Arsinoe and Aphrodite; Adonis and Philadelphos
  • Conclusion
  • Conclusion: Voices Heard and Read
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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This book began as a dissertation at the University of Chicago some time ago. Chris Faraone, Liz Asmis, and David Wray served as my dissertation advisors. They offered much useful advice, more of which I probably should have taken. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to Chris Faraone, who has remained a steadfast friend through all of these years. Adrienne Craig Williams provided proofreading assistance while another Fordham graduate student, Harrison Troyano, meticulously re-proofed the manuscript and created the index. The editorial staff at Peter Lang, Jackie Pavlovic and Michelle Salyga, have provided much timely assistance as they have shepherded this manuscript through the publication process. Though it may seem a bit odd, I am peculiarly grateful to Theocritus of Syracuse for devoting his life to the poetry that has enriched my life. I hope my own work reflects my appreciation. Most of all I thank my family, my children, Joe, Iris, Eli, and Leo and my loving wife, Kathy. Kathy has been with this project from the beginning and she has done more to improve this work than anyone else. She has done more to improve me than I could ever say. I dedicate this book to her.

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Names and titles of Ancient authors and works follow the LSJ. Journal abbreviations follow those provided by l’annee philologique. Names of Greek literary characters have been transliterated with the exception that medial “Χ” has been rendered “ch” for the sake of readability. Place names have been generally Latinized/Anglicized for the sake of familiarity.

In addition the work will employ the following abbreviations:

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Narrative Form

An ancient commentator on Theocritus noted that his bucolic poetry displays a charming mix of narrative and mimesis:

Πσα ποίησις τρες χει χαρακτρας, διηγηματικόν, δραματικν κα μικτόν. τ δ βουκολικν ποίημα μγμά στι παντς εδους καθάπερ συγκεκραμένον· δι κα χαριέστερον τ ποικιλίᾳ τς κράσεως, ποτ μν συγκείμενον κ διηγηματικο, ποτ δ κ δραματικο, ποτ δ κ μικτο, γουν διηγηματικο κα δραματικο, τ δ ς ν τύχ.

All poetry has three [narrative] types: narrative, dramatic, and mixed. Bucolic poetry is a mixture of every form like an alloy; wherefore it is made rather more charming by the variety of its mixture; sometimes it is composed from narrative sometimes from dramatic and other times from a mixture of both, that is to say from narrative and dialogue—whenever and however the occasion may have it.1 ← 1 | 2 →

Theocritus’ poetry readily confirms the observation. The bucolic poems display a striking range of narrative forms. Idyll 1 has a dramatic façade, but within its mimesis the goatherd offers an extended narrative ecphrasis while Thyrsis’ embedded song is divided into irregular sets of verses interspersed with refrains that fit uneasily within the poem’s mimetic framework.2

Idyll 7 offers an elaborate first person retrospective narrative. Within this account of his trip to the Thalysia of Demeter in Cos, Simichidas recollects his encounter with the mysterious goatherd/master of bucolic song, Lykidas, with whom he exchanges a bucolic song. The inset songs spin an elaborate web of narrative relations, particularly Lykidas’ song. Within his propemptikon for his beloved Ageanax, Lykidas imagines a future celebration of Ageanax’s safe arrival in Mytilene. When he has reached harbor, Lykidas will recline, drink, and enjoy the strands of two shepherds who will sing of (the mythical?) Daphnis’ frustrated love for Xenea as well as the sufferings of Komatas. As with Idyll 6, in which Theocritus introduces Aratos to Daphnis and Damoitas who exchanges songs in the guise of the Polyphemos and the Kyklops’ interlocutor, Theocritus again creates an elaborate nesting of narratives within performances.

Idylls 3, 4, and 5 are mimetic poems, but exhibit distinct modes of narration. Idyll 3 offers a dramatic soliloquy after a brief introductory aside. Battos and Korydon’s mimetic banter in Idyll 4 offers snippets of songs and retrospective narrative while Komatas and Lakon’s dialogue in Idyll 5 creates a more robust dramatic context in which their performance is embedded. Personal abuse gives way to competing descriptions of a locus amoenus while a nearby woodsman, Morson, is enlisted to judge their verses and the combatants haggle over stakes for the prize. ← 2 | 3 →

The three “mytho-bucolic”3 poems, Idylls 6, 11, and, 13, display a particularly rich interplay of narrative structure and modes. Idyll 13’s retrospective narrative, following a quasi-epistolary address to the poet’s friend, contains only one line of dialogue (13.52).4 Idyll 6 is the shortest but most complex of the three. It contains an introductory address to a certain Aratos which is followed by a brief narrative introduction. After Daphnis and Damoitas are introduced into the poem’s locus amoenus, the pair enact a rustic drama in the personae of the Kyklops, Polyphemos, and a bystander who chides him over his neglect of Galatea’s overtures. Idyll 11 possesses a similar address and narrative introduction and closing coda, but these frame the Kyklops’ mimetic song. Idyll 13 introduces another mythological narrative framed by an address to Nicias. This Idyll recounts Herakles’ loss of his ward, Hylas, during the voyage of the Argo.

The “mixed” nature of Theocritus’ mimesis is hardly confined to his bucolic poems. Idyll 15, the elaborate mime that details Gorgo’s and Praxinoa’s trip to queen Arsinoe’s Adonis festival, culminates with a lyric song that is “focalized”5 by Gorgo and Praxinoa—that is, presented from their ← 3 | 4 → perspective. Simaitha’s soliloquy to Selene in Idyll 2 rapidly expands into a retrospective account of her affair with Delphis. Strikingly, Delphis’ direct speech is embedded within her dramatic monologue. Idyll 22, the peculiar “double” hymn of the Dioskouroi, contains an extended run of dramatic stichomythia between Amykos and Polydeukes.6 Their exchange creates a vivid, dramatic scene within the narrative tableau that is ultimately framed by Theocritus’ introductory avowal to hymn the Dioskouroi.7 Theocritus also presents extended monologues set within a narrative frame. Teiresias’ prophecies of the infant Herakles’ future exploits and purificatory instructions to Alkmene within Idyll 24 or Dionysios’ own account of his struggle with the Nemean lion in Idyll 25 offer interesting variations upon a narrative organization fairly typical of epic.8

Audiences and Addressees

In the course of his mixing of narrative modes, Theocritus frequently creates fictional audiences or addressees who are marked as privileged recipients of the narrative or performance inscribed within the text. The bucolic poems furnish the most obvious examples. These poems most explicitly create fictional performance contexts.9 The characters are thus formally constituted as ← 4 | 5 → an audience. The goatherd of Idyll 1, Morson in Idyll 5, Daphnis and Damoitas in Idyll 6, Lykidas, Simichidas (as well as Eukritos and Amyntas) in Idyll 7 all hearken to speech that is explicitly marked for performance. Their function is broadly analogous to that of the external reader,10 but the precise relationship between internal and external audiences varies from poem to poem.

Within Idylls 1 and 7 the performances are marked as paradigmatic and so tend to obliterate the distinction between the internal and external audiences’ respective experience of the songs. Lykidas and Simichidas, for all of their rustic pretense, squarely locate their songs within the contemporary stream of poetic production and criticism with veiled and not so veiled references to near poetic contemporaries such as Asclepiades and Theocritus’ likely patron, Ptolemy II (7.37–48, 91–3 respectively). Lykidas’ and Simichidas’ production of and response to each other’s songs, which does not extend far beyond mutual admiration and approval, is thus assimilated to that of an imagined external audience of Alexandrian elites. It is telling that Amyntas’ and Eukritos’ responses to the respective performances are not presented.

Idyll 1 similarly erases distinctions between internal and external reception. The goatherd’s description of the cup (1.25–58) underscores the poem’s self-conscious textuality as a stylized description that is fictionally unnecessary (the goatherd could, after all, simply show Thyrsis the cup). Thus, the frame’s fictional coherence is immediately depreciated. The performance itself is not ← 5 | 6 → designed for its specific fictional context,11 but as generic display of expertise in bucolic song12 and so points beyond the particulars of the goatherd’s individual reception to a generalized experience of a paradigmatic example of the form.13

At the other end of the spectrum the difference between the internal audience’s experience of a performance and the external reader’s is so wide in Idyll 5 that a common basis for appreciating the quality of the herdsmen’s exchanged songs remains an unresolved interpretive problem. In this poem, after trading taunts and challenges to a singing contest, Lakon and Komatas, the two roughest hewn of all Theocritean herdsmen, enlist a nearby woodsman, Morson, to decide their singing match. The two exchange couplets on various topics ranging from their love affairs to rustic pestilences. Before Lakon can respond to Komatas’ fifteenth couplet, Morson interrupts and declares Komatas the victor. Morson offers no rationale for his decision.

Modern scholars have tried to establish a formal basis for his judgment, but none has created a critical consensus.14 To explain persuasively why Morson prefers Komatas’ verses to Lakon’s one must presume that enough continuity can be established between the aesthetic values of the internal judge and the external audience that the results of the contest in Idyll 5 can be explained: Morson’s judgment should be transparent to us, his musical sensibility apparent to the reader.15 Or so we demand. I suspect that the problem lies in the attempt to harmonize the reception of the internal audience and external readers. ← 6 | 7 →

If we are to take seriously the fictional world created by Theocritus,16 the aesthetics of that world can also be discontinuous from those of the external audience for whom Theocritus is ultimately writing. Morson is a woodsman, not a literary critic. The combatants at best understand implied rules and certainly do not ask their judge (whose sole qualification for the job seems to be coincidental proximity) to establish any guidelines or develop distinguishing criteria for their contest. The entire enterprise lacks any formal procedures beyond the ad hoc arrangements of the moment. The mimetic frame surrounding the actual contest creates a reception context that explicitly rejects precise codes and formal procedures. It suggests that such amoeban singing contests are the outgrowth of spontaneous creative impulses that are evaluated in a highly subjective manner by a non-specialist. The immediacy and simplicity of the internal scene hardly accords with the circumstances and character of the refined readers for whom Theocritus writes.

However, the herdsmen and woodsmen also do not realistically represent actual laborers. The modulated realism of Idyll 5,17 or more precisely, the literariness18 of Theocritus’ presentation of Lakon, Komatas, and their contest suggests their songs should be assimilated to other literary representations of singing contests rather than actual ones. And so the invitation to assume Morson’s role within the external world of the Idyll’s actual reception is readily extended to the external reader, but by what measure should we judge Lakon and Komatas’ couplets?

Suspended between the actual world of popular song and literary stylization of that world, Morson’s judgment cannot be readily understood by the external reader, particularly one unfamiliar with the popular song echoed within the Idyll. The lack of a robust literary tradition to which Lakon and Komatas’ couplets can be compared only accentuates the ambiguities surrounding the quality of Morson’s judgment. Such ambiguity may well be the privilege (and challenge) of an “inventor” of a literary tradition and so essential to the poem’s architecture, but the state of the literary remains ← 7 | 8 → surrounding Theocritus’ era make such suspicions difficult to confirm. Elevating the ephemeral and particular into a poetic model for writing songs and their voices furnishes Theocritus with power to shape the “tradition” from which he draws so much inspiration. Theocritus’ narrating persona does not waver over which version to choose.19

Between these poles of reception demarcated by Idylls 1, 7, and 5 and across the other genres in which Theocritus works20 reside a variety of internal auditors and narratees who exhibit varied relationships with their poem’s discourse. Hiero, Ptolemy, and the Dioskouroi can be nominally considered the ideal recipients of Idylls 16, 17, and 22 respectively. Explicit prayers to Herakles and Dionysios close Idylls 24 and 26. The chorus of Spartan ← 8 | 9 → maidens in Idyll 18 direct their epithalamium to Helen and Menelaos. However, each of these poems by their public celebration of their subjects’ accomplishments presumes wider audiences both internally and externally. Hymns, encomia, and epithalamia are not just for the ears of the divinity praised, hero extolled or couple celebrated. The text itself replicates the public orientation of the discourse even if the text is designed for private consumption.

Within mimetic portions of his poems such as Idylls 2, 3, and 11, Theocritus’ characters often direct their speech explicitly to absentee addressees like Selene, Amaryllis, and Galatea. These characters do not serve as a basis for direct comparison between internal and external audiences. Selene, Amaryllis, and Galatea may hear a different voice than the external reader, but Theocritus does not emphasize that particular difference because he does not present Selene’s or Amaryllis’ or Galatea’s responses. However, their invisible silence still serves to alter the character of each speaker and his or her speech. By presencing the absence (or indifference) of the explicit narratees, the complaints and wishes of Simaitha, the goatherd, and Polyphemos take on a different character for the external audience than their discourse otherwise would. The internal auditors’ silence punctuates the sense of futility to these unrequited lovers’ hopes and the ineffectual quality of their rhetoric.

In contrast to these absent addresses, the internal audiences may serve as the central conduit through which the narration is presented. For example in Idylls 2 and 15 the external reader only learns as much of Simaitha’s affairs or Arsinoe’s festival as the characters’ speech and actions permit. Focalized through a character, the external reader’s perception of the discourse is colored by the subjective imprint the character stamps upon the voices that the internal, mimetic narrator permits the reader to “hear,” although such characters hardly exert absolute control over the reception of the discourse.

In addition to mimetic characters creating fictional, if not imaginary, audiences, the primary narrator21 of several Idylls creates an explicit narratee who is conceived of as external to the poem’s fiction. The poet’s Sicilian compatriot, Nicias, is the narratee of both Idylls 11 and 13 while Idyll 6 is addressed to Aratos, who may be identical with the “Aratos” who is the friend ← 9 | 10 → and addressee of Theocritus’ fictional alter ego, Simichidas, in Idyll 7.22 The presence of these privileged recipients immediately suggests that there is a particular personal message encoded within the poem while it is also consciously composed with a wider audience in view. These particular Idylls perhaps best illustrate how keen Theocritus is to create multiple, distinct audiences for his narratives and mimesis.

The Problems of Voice and Receptions

Creating fictional audiences to frame formal performances in itself is scarcely a novel device for a hexameter poet. Within the Odyssey Homer repeatedly presents convivial scenes punctuated by a bardic performance. Phemios sings of the fall of Troy to Penelope’s suitors while Demodokos “performs”23 three lays to Odysseus and the Phaiakians.24 In two of Demodokos’ songs Homer openly acknowledges the different effects the same song can have on members of the audience based upon their own personal history. Odysseus weeps while the Phaiakians revel at the account of the hero’s quarrel with Achilleus (Od. 8.62–97) until Alkinous realizes his guest’s distress and halts the performance (Od. 8.487–535). In addition Homer also toys with a mise en abyme potential of such performances. Demodokos’ song concerning Ares and Aphrodite caught in flagrante delicto by the wiles of her husband, Hephaistos (Od. 8.256–360), teasingly suggests a direction Odysseus’ own story could take.25 ← 10 | 11 →

The Theogony does not explicitly envision a specific external audience or construct an internal one;26 the Works and Days is addressed to Hesiod’s brother, Perses, and so introduces an ideal auditor in the course of introducing the first person narrator into Greek literature.27 The intensely personal account of his voyage to Euboia to compete musically in the funeral games of Amphidamas (Hes. Op. 650–62) adds a touch of realism to an otherwise proverbial voice disseminating generalized agricultural and ethical wisdom. Perses, like Theognis’ Kyrnos, recedes to the background as the poet moves from particular injunctions to universal precepts. There is little to suggest that Hesiod meant for either work to be heard differently by different audiences.


VIII, 259
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Narrating technique Intertextual practice Poem Theocritus The poetics of Heroic
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VI, 259 pp.

Biographical notes

J. Andrew Foster (Author)

J. Andrew Foster is Assistant Professor of Classics at Fordham University. He has written several articles and reviews on a wide variety of Classical subjects including Theocritus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Hellenistic poetry, and Platonic dialog. He is also co-author with Kathryn Kueny of a study of the bee as a religious symbol in Antiquity.


Title: Reading Voices
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