Representations of Women in Theocritus’s Idylls

Authenticity of the Female Voice in the Erotic and Non-Erotic Portrayals

by Marilyn Likosky (Author)
©2018 Monographs XII, 192 Pages


Hellenistic poet Theocritus showcased a wide variety of women and their relationships to men in his work. Representations of Women in Theocritus’s Idylls: Authenticity of the Female Voice in the Erotic and Non-Erotic Portrayals is the first comprehensive analysis of these women. This book uses a unique and widely inclusive set of tools derived from gender studies, literary criticism, and Hellenistic history to extract the voices of females, as most are silent themselves and spoken for by others. This analysis questions the validity of the female voice and determines authenticity through a method derived from Lacanian psychoanalysis. Author Marilyn Likosky identifies a female erotic voice that according to criteria is not attributed to a woman but rather to the imagination of the male responding to perceived risks in engaging with a female at a time in which she received greater liberties. Theocritus explores a number of candidate strategies for males to lessen disruptions from erotic encounters. Likosky identifies an ambiguity in the presentation of voice, finding it likely an intentional means for Theocritus to engage his audience in troublesome issues. This book supports academic seminars in gender studies, Hellenistic poetry, and literary criticism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. The Female Voice
  • Chapter 2. Bucolics
  • Idyll One: The Compelling Erotic Flame
  • Idyll Three: Amaryllis’s Stony Silence
  • Idyll Eleven: Galatea, Mermaid of the Cyclops’s Dreams
  • Idyll Six: Coquettish Galatea and Coy Polyphemus
  • Idyll Seven: Love at Harvest Time
  • Discussion
  • Chapter 3. Mimes
  • Idyll Two: Simaetha: Seducer or Seduced?
  • Idyll Fourteen: Aeschinas’s Disgrace
  • Idyll Fifteen: Gorgo and Praxinoa’s Faux Katabasis
  • Discussion
  • Chapter 4. Heroic Vignettes
  • Idyll Thirteen: Eros Overpowers Heracles
  • Idyll Twenty-Two: Castor and Pollux Wreak Havoc
  • Idyll Twenty-Four: Alcmena, Paragon of Motherhood and Wifely Virtues
  • Discussion
  • Chapter 5. Encomia
  • Idyll Sixteen: The Charites
  • Idyll Seventeen: Like-mindedness: The Foundation of Marriage
  • Discussion
  • Chapter 6. Representations of Arsinoe and Aphrodite Intertwined
  • Chapter 7. Renditions of the Female Voice
  • Index

← viii | ix →


Here I acknowledge those who have been instrumental in the production of this book. My engagement with Hellenistic poetry with its timeless challenges of love began in Pamela Vaughn’s class at San Francisco State University. She helped make the lovelorn herdsmen, silent women, and Alexandrian housewives come to life. I was propelled into the study of the mute woman by David Leitao who supervised my Master’s thesis. I examined the trope Aspasia, mistress of Pericles, a woman who was spoken for and politically used by men. I am grateful to San Francisco State University whose academic atmosphere promoted interdisciplinary studies. I was able to explore the relationships of contemporary French philosophy and psychoanalysis to Classics which proved useful as I proceeded to better understand Theocritus’s work.

During my PhD program at the University of Washington with James J. Clauss I chose to pursue my interest in Theocritus with a focus on the depictions of women. Jim helped me read the idylls in a manner akin to approaching a mystery such as lingering on the clues and developing tools to bring out the voices of silent women. I found that approach required immersion in multiple disciplines. I shall always be thankful for his mentorship. I acknowledge Antony Raubitschek who helped make my advanced Classics education happen. ← ix | x →

My journey has had its high and low points, during which I have needed and benefitted from remarkable friendships. My son Donald and his wife Kim provided support following my return to school after a hiatus of many years. Donny guided me in navigating the hurdles of an academic career and generously shared his research expertise. My son Michael and Joy Mooberry participated in my academic journey at the start and provided a source of support when I wavered. Our sons Huey Merchant and Steve Artiga provided a sounding board as I made my way through the doctoral program with its special stresses and then during the writing of this book. I thank Jackie Murray, first my fellow student and now dear friend and colleague for her excellent teaching and encouragement.

I thank my family, Steven Schron, Robert and Edna Schron, Stephan Likosky, Kris and Laura Roeske, Kyle and Sarah Crabb for their unwavering love and support. I honor my sisters, Joyce Dion, Julie DiPerna, Sharon Parker, and Carol Pliner all of whom celebrated at each milestone. My nieces, Amy Diaz, Monica DiPerna, and Amy Sumida, as well as my cousins, Yale and Sylvia Smulyan, are most appreciated. Our good friends Hillard and Shirley Lerner, and Jerry and Erin Hamilton stood by me throughout. To our grandchildren, Keely, Zane, Tavyn, Brenna, Elijah, Eliana, and Gabriel, may your legacy of perseverance and achievement be influential to your own future endeavors.

Laura Schron Roeske designed the cover for the book and rendered a concept of eros that is strikingly beautiful, encompassing, and heartfelt. Through the goddess’s eyes and form she was able to capture the faces of Aphrodite, namely; the benign, indifferent, and cruel. I thank Aldo and Julie DiPerna and George Knox for their Italian and German contributions, respectively. I thank Michelle Salyga whose astute comments on my manuscript propelled the book into its present form. Meagan Simpson was responsible for steering the manuscript into publication. Luke McCord’s thorough and precise evaluations resulted in the present form of this book.

Without reservation, I avow that no love could be more than that which I have received from and given to our beloved four legged children who have sat on my lap while I diligently worked, laughed, and cried during this whole journey.

Anne and Donald Schron, Israel and Nettie Likosky, Mollie Swartz, Sarah Schron, Herman and Jack Chasan taught me that I could attain my goals and make my dreams a reality no matter how elusive they might seem. My admiration for these role models in my life is without end. ← x | xi →

I dedicate this book to my husband Bill Likosky, who was my most severe critic and most ardent admirer. He contributed to the development and analysis of the thesis. I concur with Theocritus and Lacan in that the most satisfying enduring relationship between two human beings lays in a marriage that we as a couple possess: a union that perpetuates through respect for one another and a meeting of two souls and minds. After a marriage of more than half a century I can vouch for the insights regarding a successful marriage that these two authors who though many centuries apart avow. ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →

· 1 ·


Preparing a critical analysis of Theocritus’s portrayals of women has been a significant undertaking in a life filled with learning and loving. Contemporary fascination with love and romance is not novel and the poet’s multi-dimensional treatment of eros provides glimpses of earlier responses to sexuality. Intriguing are the similarities and differences of men and women’s feelings in these idylls, whether silently or articulated when one compares them with our present western view. For example, today’s discourse, troubling as it may seem to us between the sexes, is absent in almost all of the scenarios. At the same time, there is a surprising expression present in many of the poems of an intense fear of engagement in romance, something we do not commonly see today. The poet’s treatment of the erotic is particularly interesting to the modern reader, as the romantic dilemmas depicted arise from cultural situations remote from our own experience. What impacts me the most about these poems is Theocritus’s perception of the power of eros in our lives and how it has the capability to overwhelm and disenable us, but be pleasurable as well. His exquisite portrayals of men and women in a variety of erotic encounters challenges us to question our own accommodation to eros. It has been an exciting opportunity to engage with Theocritus, address these puzzles, and by so doing enrich our own understanding of love. ← 1 | 2 →

Some of the idylls have been traditionally considered illustrative of the pastoral, while others of city life in Alexandria under the royals. More recently it has become apparent that they represent a nearly untapped treasure of cultural information such as the political and philosophic that influenced the nature of gendered relationships. The poems give us an opportunity to understand how a Hellenistic male poet viewed and depicted women. Were these portrayals accurate or biased? We shall explore to what degree the author’s women express a true woman’s voice or to the contrary a man’s biased view of how a woman might speak. We are fortunate to have three tools available for this: Firstly, Stoic and Epicurean philosophies provided strong guides for appropriate male behavior in erotic and other situations. Secondly, we have Theocritus himself who I shall argue challenges his audience with provocative ambiguities in many of his poems for the purpose of engaging them in erotic material. Thirdly, Jacques Lacan and other French psychoanalysts have explored eroticism and how male and female personalities develop. They will guide me in exploring the question of the validity of the female voice as generated by the male. I shall argue that many of the women, especially in the Mimes and in the Heroic Vignettes, Idyll Twenty-Four, speak as females do. In addition, and, particularly in the Bucolics, female voices emanate as if from males’ imaginations. In Idyll Seventeen we have a display of like-mindedness in a marriage, consistent with Theocritus’s and Lacan’s views of the highest level of compatibility in a relationship.

Characterization of Theocritean females has been the focus of previous scholarship, but, in my opinion, a satisfying reading of their voices has remained elusive.1 Authors have approached the women individually rather than as a whole and consequently have not engaged with and displayed the variety contained therein. Portraits of these women drawn today informed by contemporary scholarship such as psychoanalysis and literary interpretative tools are enhanced from those we might have constructed even a few decades ago.

The poems portray an assortment of women, some of whom are heard in mimetic conversation. Others are depicted only by reference or allusion and hence spoken for by the men. In the majority of the idylls the women are silent leaving one the challenge of constructing their speech from the descriptions provided by the poet. The many women will include those of the countryside and of the city, as well as deities and queens. The elucidation of their voices will be accomplished while taking into consideration their cultural milieux and the influence they exerted in erotic relationships. ← 2 | 3 →

We should not presume that the poet was portraying features common to all the women of Alexandria. I suspect he chose situations which presented shared dilemmas that would engage his audience. Many imbroglios arise in areas in which the philosophers of ancient Greece had grappled as well. As we shall see, the author depicts a very powerful erotic force seemingly independent of any person from whom it emanates. For example, eros may afflict a person suddenly without warning and without the attached embodiment of a suitor. This suggests that from that vantage point erotic desire is not expressed by an individual but imposed upon the person from an outside agency. Theocritus’s focus on the impact of erotic charge and the importance the Alexandrians placed on personal equanimity is at the core of the erotic idylls. There is an inherent incompatibility built into falling in love and remaining fully composed. The Alexandrians and Greeks before them developed an empiric philosophy in response to the vulnerability of the male to erotic matters. In part at least, it provided a set of behaviors designed to keep men functional so that they might participate in communal endeavors. Some of these women as, for example, in the Bucolics, are portrayed in erotic situations and evoke from the men reactions that destabilize their equanimity. As so many of the relationships were problematic to one or the other party, we are drawn to the problem of understanding what may have contributed to these types of representations. To restate our challenge, are the female voices expressed as a man sees a woman or as a woman might see and express herself.

The methodology to explore these voices and present the erotic agenda consisted of selecting poems with a female portrayal, utilizing existing textual resources, generating a relevant base of information about the Alexandrian cultural environment, and employing contemporary literary critical techniques. As the study progressed, it became clear that a female point of view might be expressed by either gender. Secondly, erotic forces themselves were prominent and an independent entity that needed to be considered as an important component in the descriptions. Lastly, I applied a psychoanalytic approach to address the femaleness and maleness of the voices.

The poems selected were deemed most illustrative of the influence of women in the Theocritean corpus and included the following: Bucolics (Idylls One, Three, Six, Seven, and Eleven), the Mimes (Idylls Two, Fourteen, and Fifteen), the Heroic Vignettes (Idylls Thirteen, Twenty-Two, and Twenty-Four), and the Encomia (Idylls Sixteen and Seventeen). I approached the text sequentially through genre and applied a series of probing questions to facilitate elucidation of the characterizations in an effort to determine if the ← 3 | 4 → female representations were consistent throughout. Even though the women in the Mimes are far more vocal, I have chosen to place the Bucolics first in the discussion, because over all these females play a more confrontational role in their relationship to men, and, even when silent or absent, exert a powerful presence.

I defined the female or male voice as that representing the feminine or masculine point of view whether acted or spoken by the male or female, respectively.2 In my dissertation (diss. University of Washington 2007), I had developed the following four penetrating questions applicable to voice in the idylls: How have the voices of women been portrayed? Secondly, does the female stand as a valid representation of a woman when described by a male? Thirdly, is the female voice emanating only from the woman or may the voice be presented from either gender? Fourthly, what is the nature of the influence presented by the woman? I sought increased information on the portrayal of gender and cultural/historical context so as to better understand the social milieux that influenced depictions or a context in which gender related behavior could be placed. In the Bucolics, this was especially important and led to a means of translating non-verbal behaviors so as to produce a culturally integrated voice and a workable glossary of silent communication.

I shall describe definitions and descriptions that I have found useful and the resources provided by recent scholarship that I have applied. The analysis of female and male voices requires terminology to separate biologic sex from culturally gender related behaviors. Gender comprises those things biological that we share with other animals as well as the attributes that are more uniquely human such as socially driven behaviors or sexuality. Sexually oriented conduct is cultural and comprises how our characters adapt to biological sex. The sexual ways we shall observe and discuss have a strong societal motivation and for us represent the challenge of interpretation without applying notions of our own culturally based sexuality. Nevertheless, we shall presume a strong component of sexual expression is driven in our early years in our relations with our parents and others and contributes significantly to our male and female-like behaviors. Eros or love is the motivating force behind much of how men and women behave socially so that its prominence in the poems is not surprising. Eros is so powerful in Idyll One that all nature reverberates unhappily at a lover’s woeful experience. It propels male and female behaviors to such a degree that in this body of work men and women’s reactions may at times seem more than anticipated, as when Heracles, in Idyll Thirteen, loses all bearings when his beloved Hylas disappears. Eros may arrive unpredictably ← 4 | 5 → as when Nymphs in the same poem intrude in an unwelcome manner and produce untoward consequences including the death of Hylas.

The goddess Aphrodite is a symbol of sexuality including love and beauty. Her erotic powers are often openly provocative. Her intrusions complicate relationships between individuals and at times the impact upon mortals is harsh. In Idyll One, for example, her prowess plays out maliciously, as she smiles mockingly at the pastoral hero, Daphnis, who lays dying. He is described as truly cursed in love and helpless (ἆ δύσερώς τις ἄγαν καὶ ἀμήχανος ἐσσί,1.85).3 His sorry state is programmatic of the dire straits that many of the Theocritean men and women experience. Love, especially in the Bucolics, is a dangerous state which at times evolves into an illness: καί σ’ οὔτ’ ἀνθανάτων φύξιμος οὐδείς/οὔθ’ ἁμερίων σέ γ’ ἀνθρώπων, ὁ δ’ ἔχων μέμηνεν. (From you, eros, there is no escape for anyone of mortals, whose lives are but a wrinkle in time. And he who possesses you is mad.) (S. Ant. 781–782). As we shall see, much attention is given to navigation within its realm to maintain self-control or become whole and well again.

I shall use the terms femininity or masculinity to indicate qualities and behaviors judged by a culture to be ideally associated with women or men. The feminine or masculine points of view may be acted or spoken by the male or female respectively and will express a masculine or feminine voice. For example, the goatherd, in Idyll Three, acts hysterically, as he tries to no avail to attract the woman in the cave. His behavior is subordinate to that of the female, rather than the display of the dominant male-like stature preferred in traditional Greek culture. At the close of the poem, he lies prostrate (κεισεῦμαι δὲ πεσών, 3.53). In addition, the male or female voice as expressed may be considered dichotomous and its expression not limited to the sex of the speaker. It may emanate in some blended way from the members of either sex. An illustration is the hero Heracles who exhibits noble masculine qualities and then enters into an effeminate dysfunctional frenzy, a parody of his usual behavior, as he searches for the youth Hylas.

In the majority of the idylls in which erotics are considered there is a striking lack of meaningful discourse even when both male and female voices are heard. This lack of a dialogue may be an important deficiency in the societal management of gendered relations that led to the ills which the poet describes. In lieu of an interchange a monologue presented by a male or female may inform us of the views of both genders through the eyes of one party. The woman may or may not speak, but her ideas may be expressed quite fully through silent discourse that is often interpreted by a man. In Idyll ← 5 | 6 → Three, a fine illustration of what takes place in the Bucolics, the rustic talks to and for his intended lover and, without any verbal intercourse, decides that she has rejected him. The disparity between what the female might express and the male presentation of her speech is striking and appears a key aspect of the cultural dilemma Theocritus describes, especially in the Bucolics. In some instances, for example in the Mimes or Heroic Vignettes, we have opportunities to hear the female speak. Many of these portrayals appear explicable when considered in light of the contemporary culture and its historical roots, but may not be valid for other times.

In order to interpret gendered behaviors occurring in situations so different from ours, I turned to secondary sources emanating from related classical studies and others from cultural historical endeavors. In the latter category Michel Foucault (The Care of the Self 1986, The Use of Pleasure 1990) emphasizes development of a notion of self and its associated sexuality based on societal changes. From my perspective, Joan Burton (Theocritus’ Urban Mimes: Mobility, Gender, and Patronage Berkeley 1995) stresses the cultural transformations occurring at the time and its wider impact including that on gendered behavior. Her contributions are derived from a historical viewpoint, especially observations on migration.

These idylls give us an opportunity to understand how a Hellenistic male poet viewed and represented women. Were these representations accurate or biased? Particularly pertinent to us as I describe the voices of these women is whether the poet portrayed them as men might see them hence providing a male influenced view of a woman or as a woman might speak given her own agency. The validity of voice is a particularly germane question when applied to any male writer who expresses or describes the voice of a woman. I have indicated in my text when it has been apparent that Theocritus was endorsing a voice as female via his reference to Sappho’s poetry.

In these idylls and particularly in the Bucolics we have a number of women in erotic situations whose response is quite different than we might anticipate. These presentations challenge us to understand the voice as emanating from a woman. For example, the Nymph Amaryllis in Idyll Three seems to flirt with her suitor and then oversees his emotional destruction. Similarly, in Idyll One, the woman on the cup teases the men she has attracted to the point of distress and demonstrates no other engagement with them. Question arises as to whether Theocritus has presented an idiosyncratic problematic female voice or a valid one. For this analysis, I needed a theoretical construct of what a valid male and female voice comprised. I turned to Jacques Lacan ← 6 | 7 → (Encore 1975) as I had first found him useful in an earlier version of this work (diss. University of Washington 2007) and secondly, later as applied by Sara H. Lindheim’s (Mail and Female 2003) in her analysis of the female voice in Ovid’s Heroides.4 I shall use his insights to address the femaleness of voice produced by Theocritus. The question is whether the voice is more consistent with one that is attributable to a woman or whether it is a male rendition of an imagined female voice. The latter may represent a female voice produced by a male as a product of his desire.


XII, 192
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XII, 192 pp.

Biographical notes

Marilyn Likosky (Author)

Marilyn Likosky, an independent scholar, holds a classics doctorate with distinction from the University of Washington. She’s published The Trope Aspasia, dated and placed a manuscript of Cicero’s Cato Maior de Senectute, analyzed with honors Pindar’s "Fragment 169," and translated the letters of Émilie du Châtelet, Voltaire’s mistress.


Title: Representations of Women in Theocritus’s Idylls
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206 pages