The centuries of transition from the Greek classic period to the Roman Empire are characterised by a remarkable individual quest for spiritual peace. Several philosophical schools, religious sects and esoteric cults flourished and prospered in order to satisfy this widely diffused thirst for new values and aspirations. Nonetheless a very original approach was instead proposed by a poet: Theocritus. His suggested solution was the repudiation of the stressful and extravagant city life and the refuge to the quiet countryside lifestyle, thus creating what is still presently renowned as bucolic poetry.
Naturally this genre was nothing particularly new (just think to a certain extent Hesiod, but most certainly Epicharmus of Megara Hyblaea [circa 540 b.C.?] and Sophron of Syracuse [circa 430 b.C.]), but Theocritus succeeded to deepen the idea and convey on it a far larger attention and audience; besides his original touch resisted for quite a long time after his death culminating with Publius Vergilius Maro’s Eclogues, before ending up into mannerist and ridicule pastoral sketches. Later on, with due adaptations, this genre regained its high aesthetic sense inspiring John Milton’s Lycidas (1637) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonaïs (1821)
Theocritus, born in Syracuse, left (or probably fled) for Kos where he lived until he settled in Alexandria, Egypt. Philologists are almost positive to ascribe him at least 31 poems (mimes, bucolic compositions, lyrics and hymns) and some brief epigrams. Later on his poems were renamed ειδυλλια (Idylls) – diminutive of ειδος (larger composition), since his masterworks were tiny, neat, erudite and at the same time complete.
Regardless the poet’s refusal for long epic works and heroic and/or Gods protagonists, Theocritus poetry has numerous allusions to Homer’s masterpieces, but completely revisited. His protagonists, shepherds and farmers clumsily quote Homer’s hexameters, or ironically revive some epical scenes, with a mixture of embarrassment, softness and sometimes hilarity.
Some of Theocritus poems have defined the bucolic genre – from βουκολος (herdsman); these delicate, light and deep works consciously cast away from reality contributed to show a new path for individual spirituality. It appears that their scenario and topic are often trivial; nonetheless they have been conceived and written for an urban audience in order to induce the readers to compare two different lifestyles and find refuge in the country life from the dangers, stress and anguishes of the city. Life in metropolis like Alexandria, Syracuse in those days (250 b.C.) was considered quite difficult, dangerous and alienating and Theocritus gathers for the first time this growing feeling. In his poems he mixes sometimes hilariously sometimes sadly the two worlds, so that the countryside is set apart, like a limbo where you can find refuge, but at the same time – and more important – is also a view point on how city life can be hard to live and sometimes just a useless rush. Theocritus instead aims at a simpler life, a small trustful community based on transparent and concordant relationships among people and in perfect harmony with the environment, thus the quest for ηδυς (sweet serenity), takes the place of the actual flee from the urban reality.
Despite to other schools of thought, implying sacrifices, studies and often religious repudiations, Theocritus solution to a deeper spiritual life appears ready to be followed and almost effortless – it takes only the courage to leave city life behind and start a new and more genuine life in the countryside. The location of these idylls was or could have been either Sicily, Magna Graecia or more likely Kos – but this is unimportant, since clearly the environment, hills and kettle, is only a scenario, the choice that his poems demand to the readers is more profound, is spiritual and ethical. Therefore Theocritus tries to show a way to his readers to regain the true significance of their lives, now that the city and the Gods have no more an omni comprehensive impact on men’s life. The reward strictly connected to what Theocritus is offering is the ησυχια (tranquillity and silence) of soul, which is something that is so spiritual and at the same time so affordable.
It is surprising how the aims, the analysis and the impact of Theocritus poetry are so modern: under a light veil of apparently petty descriptions of country life, episodes and dialogues, it lurks a deeper invite to meditation and re-appropriation of our own lives:
Why such haste, you are not catching fire.
You will sing better if you rest here by the trees,
under this olive.
(Theocritus – Idylls V-31)