How Independent are the Women in Theocritus’ Idyll 15?

Idyll 15 is classified as one of the “urban mimes,” signifying important aspects of both its style and setting, and distinguishing it from the other poems in Theocritus’ collection of Idylls. Indeed, the term “idyll” itself is here a misnomer–nothing stands in starker contrast to the bucolic idylls–such as Idylls 1 and 3–which are serious in tone and focus on country life, than this poem, which is lighthearted in tone and urban in setting.

Not only does this poem present an unusual theme and setting, but the dramatis  personae are all female. Whereas Bucolics usually focus on the love of a man for a woman, this poem focuses on the inner lives of women and their dissatisfaction with the men in their lives.

The dialogue of the poem is colloquial but fast-paced, salty, and terse. The personalities of Gorgo and Praxinoa really achieve a kind of presence that resists formalization and challenges conventions about what kinds of personalities can be represented in poetry.

Witness, for example, how quickly Praxinoa jumps from one idea to the next without even stopping to mark the change of subject:

ταῦθ᾽ ὁ πάραρος τῆνος ἐπ᾽ ἔσχατα γᾶς ἔλαβ᾽ ἐνθὼν (9)

“that’s the lunatic: came and took [me] to the end of the world,”
ἰλεόν, οὐκ οἴκησιν, ὅπως μὴ γείτονες ὦμες (10)

“an animal’s den rather than a home, so that we would not be neighbors”
ἀλλάλαις, ποτ᾽ ἔριν, φθονερὸν κακόν, αἰὲν ὁμοῖος. (11)

“to one another, out of spite and blasted envy–he’s always the same.”

The first and second lines contain two apt metaphors–the “end of the world” and “an animal’s den”–that express the length to which Praxinoa’s husband has gone to prevent her from seeing Gorgo. This reflects an anxiety on the part of Greek men that their women will gather in groups and somehow pose a threat to the patriarchal order. Praxinoa’s liaison with her friend is also an expression of her independence and her subjectivity. And Praxinoa’s husband’s actions are made ironic by the fact that Praxinoa travels unattended (except by her handmaid) to visit her friend.

Another view, however, would confine these seemingly unique elements to an actual “women’s festival” genre. In Idyll 15, Theocritus borrows heavily from a fifth-century Syracusan writer named  Sophron, whose work is only available in a fragmentary state. Idyll 15 of Theocritus is thought to be an adaptation of that author’s Isthmiazousai. In a discussion with Professor Joe Jansen, I learned that Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae also depict female characters having the same kind of latitude to criticize their husbands and  freedom of movement about town.

Whether or not Idyll 15 introduces anything novel to Greek poetry, the crucial question remains “what exactly do these characters represent?” Did real women in Alexandria behave anything like the way Praxinoa and Gorgo behave? Would a Greek woman of any class have been able to travel across town by herself safely and without a male escort? Classicists must exercise utmost caution in assigning historical significance to literary works. It is difficult enough to tell what an ancient work means as a literary work. Guessing about whether or not it points outside itself–and if so, what it says, and whether or not that statement corresponds with historical reality–has led many Homeric archaeologists astray yet. Yet in a field where the best surviving primary evidence comes in the form of literary documents, one should not let over-caution reject sound hypotheses based on them.