Skip to content

Toggle service links

You are here

  1. Home
  2. Introduction



by Michael Ewans

In mid 2018 Theocritus' Pharmakeutria emerged as a possible subject for collaborative research between Profs. Marguerite Johnson (Classics) and Michael Ewans (Drama) at The University of Newcastle, Australia. It soon became clear that there was an opportunity for a project which combined our strengths as researchers. Marguerite Johnson has much to contribute to the literature on Simaitha's use of magic; and I welcomed the challenge of seeing if a new translation could make this monologue into a viable theatre piece today. I believe that Theocritus wrote Poems 2, 14 and 15 not merely for readers but as mimes for performance; my task was to see if Poem 2 could be effectively re-created for a modern Australian audience, and to investigate how it might have been performed for Theocritus' own audience. This paper reports the results of that practice-based research.

As a preliminary measure I outlined my aims and the difficulties that the project involved.


  1. To create a translation of Love Magic [1] which was at once as accurate as possible, actable, and written in a contemporary English idiom. No currently available translation of the monologue attempts to achieve these three aims; they are either literal translations with no pretensions to literary or dramatic merit, or free versions which were clearly intended to be read rather than spoken [2]. Some of the published translations also use old-fashioned English words and idioms, which would distance the modern spectator from Simaitha's very real predicament and her emotions; these shine through in the original, even though it is written in hexameters and in Doric dialect. 
  2. To refine this new translation through rehearsal and performance, in order to increase its actability while not falling below a high standard of accuracy.
  3. To use the rehearsal process to evolve appropriate strategies for making this monologue work in performance. 
  4. To perform the monologue in public, and collect informal and formal feedback from members of the audiences.
  5. To use the insights gained from the rehearsal and performance process to further Marguerite Johnson's research on the poem and the magic used in it.
  6. To video-record the production for reference during our subsequent work.
  7. To prepare and publish a theatrical commentary as a result of the production, using insights gained from the process to analyze how the monologue can now, and could in Theocritus' time, be performed. 


  1. Translation. Theocritus gives Simaitha a wide range of modes of speech – from the colloquial or commonplace to high poetic diction (this usually, but not always, involves Homeric vocabulary and imagery) [3]. It was necessary to find a flexible contemporary English idiom which gives Simaitha a modern 'voice'; the translation must also credibly encompass the range of types of speech that she employs while avoiding any incongruity, which might break the theatrical illusion. A translation for performance must also be lucid, clearly divided into beats, and provide 'hooks', specific expressive words which actors can use as a basis for creating physical gestures to illuminate the text.
  2. Text. There is a magisterial two-volume edition of Theocritus by A. S. F. Gow (1952), and a shorter commentary on selected poems, including Pharmakeutria, by the equally eminent Sir Kenneth Dover (1971; corr. ed. 1987); but they are not necessarily right on all points. The Greek text, and the variants in the manuscripts, had to be examined carefully while preparing the translation. Some important issues, including the placement of two of the stanzas, required rethinking of the editors' views. (I have rejected a transposition which both Gow and Dover included in their texts) [4].
  3. Staging. We were certain that the original performance was given without props or slave extra – see below – and we experimented to see if this would have been viable.
  4. Casting. In only 165 lines of verse Simaitha undergoes a very wide gamut of emotions. Her range stretches all the way from quiet, meditative brooding to a powerful outcry of grief directed at Eros and, as already noted, her style moves from the highly colloquial to echoes of Homeric epic and Sapphic lyric [5]. The performer must be able to express the sequence of intense, rapidly changing feelings and thoughts which Theocritus has created, while maintaining an overall sense of Simaitha as a consistent character throughout her journey. It was essential to cast a young actress who could achieve this goal; she had to be mature enough to present credibly a wide range of emotion, and this meant that she could not be in her teens, as Simaitha might perhaps be imagined as being, but in her mid-twenties.

We attempted to address all these considerations in our production, which was first performed on 14 August 2019 at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Newcastle, Australia. Siobhan Caulfield played Simaitha. I directed, Marguerite Johnson was the dramaturg, and Stray Dogs Theatre Company staged the performances with financial support from the Centre for 21st Century Humanities at The University of Newcastle. Love Magic formed the first part of a double bill with the premiere of Behind the Wire, a topical and disturbing new one-Act play written and directed by Carl Caulfield, which dramatizes the interrogation in an offshore detention camp of a refugee who had arrived in Australia by boat.

How was Love Magic originally performed? 

The original text was not devised for a performance with props. That is evident both from the list of the props that would be required (see Appendix), and from the very high speed with which they would have to be produced and used if the performance were to maintain the necessary momentum. Furthermore, Simaitha cannot feed her offerings into the flames and also operate a magic wheel so her slave Thestylis would have to do this at the same time as Simaitha requires her to do other things as well (throw in barley grains, stanza 1; clash bronze, stanza 4; take magic herbs, stanza 9; and possibly whirl a bullroarer, stanza 3). That is impossible.

It is evident from Idyll 15, where the scene changes without interruption from a house to the street to further parts of the street to the exhibition of Adonis in the palace, that another of Theocritus' urban mimes built into its text images, mute people and physical objects which the audience had to imagine. This is also the case in Herodas' Mimiambi. The sheer impracticality of deploying the props implied for a realistic performance of Love Magic makes the conclusion inevitable that if the poem were performed, that would have been by one actor using mime, in the modern sense of the word; the audience would have had to imagine both Thestylis and the props for Simaitha's magic when the text and the actor's gestures conjure them up.

The urban mimes were not merely recited by actors standing or sitting in a static position, let alone simply published for readers with no performance at all. Our production showed that a considerable amount of movement, gesture and facial expressions is required to illuminate Simaitha's emotional journey. Scholarship long refused to admit the possibility of performance in Theocritus' time – take for example this description: 'unperformable mimes reproduce dramatic dialogue with flawless precision' (Griffiths 1929:25), which shows only that that scholar's experience of live theatre was confined to realism (though it is nice that he still realized how dramatic the dialogue is). Then there is this approach:

The crude effects of Herodas' poetry are more easily brought out in mime performance – probably by a solo performer rather than an ensemble, since his poems are very short. The purport of Theocritus' more subtle poetry, on the other hand, only reveals itself with careful and informed reading, making it unlikely that he wrote for the stage.

(Dihle 2013 [© 1994], 274)

Aeschylus and Sophocles would presumably also fail Dihle's criterion for performability, as their poetry is conspicuously subtle and complex. But we know that their tragedies were performed in front of a mass audience, with great success. Why then could Theocritus not have written his mimes for the stage (though for a very much smaller audience, perhaps 150 to 200)?

It is reassuring to read in a more recent paper by Ann Duncan that: 'Idyll 2 could conceivably be staged as a mime, having the same initial scolding of a slave that we see in many of Herodas' Mimiambi. The repetition of the spell's refrain, combined with the emotional narrative of suffering, has a theatrical quality' (Duncan 2001: 50) [6]. Benjamin Acosta-Hughes (2012: 406ff.) does envisage that the three urban mimes could have been performed. And one scholar actually conjectured 40 years ago that it might be possible and interesting for an enterprising theatre company to perform them on the modern stage (Walker 1980: 148).That is a start. But what is missing from the scholarship is the desire (and perhaps also the resources) to test a mime by Theocritus in modern performance, not in a free adaptation but in a close translation. This we have done [7].

Theocritus' mimes could have been performed as an upmarket version of the same genre as Herodas', and perhaps staged in a salon at the Court of Ptolemy (who came from Cos, the island where the action of Love Magic takes place). An alternative theory, which I find attractive, is that they were conceived for performance, just like Herodas' mimes, in a lower-class venue where non-literary mimes were regularly performed – perhaps an open-air market-place with a temporary stage; the literary set would have been 'slumming it' to join an audience very different from that for a reading of Callimachus in the Library. 

If, as is probable, the performances of mime were given unmasked, and therefore before small audiences, we should consider the possibility that actresses played female parts. We have no evidence about the performance conditions for the mimes of Herodas and Theocritus. But we do know that in Rome actresses played the female roles in their (also unmasked) mimes. Why not then in Alexandria, where women were no longer as secluded as they had been in fifth-century Athens [8]? The genre, the playing space, the audience numbers and the requirements of the roles in the mimes were completely different from those of New Comedy, which had been written to be performed by masked male actors in a very large theatre. In particular, the role of Simaitha, and (in a very different way) those of Gorgo and Praxinoa in Theocritus 15, demand a far greater understanding of what it is to be female than the relatively anaemic and far less nuanced female characters in most of the surviving plays of Menander; so, they are better suited to female performers than to men in drag. For myself, I cannot imagine a credible unmasked, small-audience performance of Love Magic by a male [9].

Certainty about the original venue and the gender of the performer is impossible. But it is certain that we have shown in our production that Love Magic is a highly performable, intensely dramatic and emotional monologue. Indeed, the very fact that it calls for a good deal of movement and gesture marks this mime off in genre (though not in quality) from the 'higher' forms of literature, in whose performance the literary elites demanded decorum (they despised the vigorous performances of Homer by popular entertainers, who clearly enacted rather than simply recited scenes from the epics) [10]. This makes a down-market public performance, rather than one in the palace or the Library, more probable.


[1] This was chosen from a number of possible modern titles for Pharmakeutria. It avoids the controversy about whether Simaitha is a professional or an amateur practitioner of magic.

[2] Literal; e.g. Gow (1952), Burton (1995); free reading versions; e.g. Rist (1978), Wells (1988). Verity (2002) is closer to the original than either of these, but would still be very difficult to perform. Sargent (1982) uses archaic words and inverted phrase order, which rule it out of contention; Hine (1982) is very prosaic, and has many infelicities (e.g. 'whirligig' for the iynx!). Mills (1963), though much earlier, is good, and probably almost performable.

[3] There is a passage which echoes Sappho, lines 106ff.

[4] Lawall (1961) was extremely helpful in respect to the order of the stanzas, and I have accepted his argument against the transposition of lines 33-42 to follow 27 (stanzas 4 and 5 to before stanza 3). White (1979) reargued the same case without adding anything new. Meillier (1990) continued to argue for the transposition.

[5] For a study of these allusions cf. Segal 1984. I do not however agree with his view that they constitute an 'ironizing device' (205) due to Simaitha's 'total ignorance of the gap between herself and the texts that she echoes' (207). Andrews (1996: 50) declares that she is revealed by his narratological analysis 'not as a girl diminished by the superior attitude of readers who exchange sly winks and knowing glances but as a character-narrator, in command of an impressive array of narrative techniques that she employs for powerful emotional and rhetorical effect'. Our practical research supports this view.

[6] Later, however, this author disappointingly refers to Pharmakeutria as being addressed to 'readers' (52 and 53).

[7] Ours is probably the only true performance of Love Magic for over two millennia. The only modern stage adaptation that I have been able to discover is that by actress Kimberley Mikec of a script by Magus Magnus which 'tracks this version [Theocritus' poem] as well as Virgil's, while reinterpreting both the scene and the form itself.' The actress added 'a cute, geeky, Goth cast to her personality, Kimberley's inspiration for making sense of the deliberate but difficult contradictions and anachronistic elements of the piece'. The published text in Magnus 2011 shows that this extremely free (and banal) prose reworking, performed at a conference in New York in 2011 by the Actors' Center of Washington DC, was very distant from Theocritus' poem, and wholly lacked Theocritus' supreme control of structure and form. Cf., accessed 9 August 2019. 

Ben Ferris' short film Simaitha is disappointing (especially in the light of his excellent Penelope); most of the monologue is cut, and there is a shock horror ending instead of Theocritus' purposeful ambiguity.

[8] 'Greek men and women in Egypt especially, with its long tradition of relative equality for women, were witnessing different modes of gender behaviour.' Burton 1995: 63.

[9] Hellenistic scholars divided the mimes of Theocritus' predecessor Sophron into 'mimes for men' and 'mimes for women'. Unfortunately, as Hordern notes (2002: 164), 'it is uncertain whether this refers to the actors or the characters'. But at least the first option is open, and it is the more natural interpretation of the phrase.

[10] Fantuzzi and Hunter 2004: 23; cf. Hunter 2007:189ff.


Acosta-Hughes, Benjamin (2012) 'Outlines of theatrical performance in Theocritus' in Theater outside Athens: Drama in Greek Sicily and South Italy (ed. Kathryn Bosher). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Andrews, N.E. (1996) 'Narrative and Allusion in Theocritus, Idyll 2' in Theocritus: Hellenistica Groningana (M. Harder, R.Regtuit, G. Wakker eds.). Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 21-51.

Burton, Joan B. (1995) Theocritus' Urban Mimes: Mobility, Gender and Patronage. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Dihle, Albrecht (2013: © 1994) A History of Greek Literature: from Homer to the Hellenistic Period. London: Routledge.

Duncan, Anne (2001) 'Spellbinding Performance: Poet as Witch in Theocritus' Second Idyll and Apollonius' Argonautica', Helios 28.1, 43-56.

Fantuzzi, Marco and Hunter, Richard (2004) Innovation in Hellenistic Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gow, A.S.F. (1952) Theocritus, Edited with a Translation and Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Griffiths, Frederick (1929) Theocritus at Court. Leiden: Brill.

Hine, Daryl (tr.) (1982) Theocritus: Idylls and Epigrams. New York: Atheneum.

Hordern, J.H. (2002) 'Magic and Purification in Sophron, PSI 1214a, and Theocritus' Pharmakeutria'. Classical Quarterly 52.1, 164-173.

Hunter, Richard (2007) '"Acting Down"; the ideology of Hellenistic performance' in Easterling, Pat and Hall, Edith (eds.) Greek and Roman Actors: aspects of an ancient profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 189ff.

Lawall, Gilbert (1961) 'Simaetha's Incantation: Structure and Imagery'. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 92. 283-294.

Magnus, Magus (2011) Idylls for a Bare Stage. Baltimore: Twentythree Books.

Meillier, Claude (1990) 'Théocrite: Les Magiciennes, Idyll 2, vers. 17-63'. Eos 78.2, 273-9.

Mills, Barris (tr.) (1963) The Idylls of Theokritos. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Studies.

Rist, Anna (1978) The Poems of Theocritus, translated with Introduction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Sargent, Thelma (tr.) (1982) The Idylls of Theocritus. New York: Norton and Co.

Theocritus (ed. Kenneth Dover)(1987) Select Poems. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press. 

Segal, Charles (1984) 'Underreading and Intertexuality: Sappho, Simaetha, and Odysseus in Theocritus' Second Idyll.' Arethusa 17.2, 201-209. 

Verity, Anthony (tr.) (2002) Idylls by Theocritus. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wells, Robert (1988) The Idylls of Theocritus translated from the Greek. Manchester: Carcanet.

Walker, Steven (1980) Theocritus. Boston: Twayne.

White, Heather (1979) Studies in Theocritus and Other Hellenistic Poets. Amsterdam/Uithoorn: Gieben.