Chief among the sources concerning Hellenistic women is the Syracusan Theocritus, who was writing in Ptolemaic literary circles in the 270's B.C. From him we have versified vignettes of daily life (mimes) which combine psychological depth with credible realism about life in Hellenistic cities. Two such poems are acknowledged masterpieces: Critics since Racine3 have attested to the emotional impact of the Sorceress (Idyll 2), in which a most ordinary young woman attempts by black magic, imprecation, and finally self-reflection to deal with her feelings toward an elegant youth who has loved (at her invitation) and abandoned her. What the Sorceress re-
veals about the inner life of women is complemented by the social observation of Idyll 15, The Syracusan Women or Women at the Adonis Festival, which depicts two Syracusan immigrants to Alexandria as they pry themselves loose from demanding households to spend a morning at Queen Arsinoe's Adonis festival. As the two housewives trek from dusty suburban lanes to the palace and encounter women from nursemaids to queens, they provide our fullest profile of ancient Alexandria. The two poems have earned Theocritus a central place in virtually all surveys of the life of Hellenistic women, along with commendation as "an intelligent and sensitive feminist,,4 and "one of the great discoverers of woman's soul.,,5
As social documentation, however, the two pieces contradict each other beyond any resolution. Simaetha, the fledgling sorceress of Idyll 2, does indeed enjoy unprecedented opportunities to venture out into the city unchaperoned, to reflect at leisure on the problems that she has caused herself, and to guide her life, dispiriting as it may be without the interference of men. Yet in Idyll 15 Gorgo and Praxinoa, the housewives, must devote a rare day of festal freedom to threading an obstacle course around demanding infant sons, charging cavalry in the streets, censorious men in the crowd (along with some who flirt), and husbands who, festival or no festival, will be wanting their lunch. Where Simaetha has free access to sexual partners, Gorgo and Praxinoa cannot even do their own shopping. The Syracusan Women excludes those possibilities for female autonomy which the Sorceress casually assumes.