Violent by Nature: Danger and Darkness in the Pastoral World

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This dissertation challenges the notion of pastoral as a rural utopia by exposing the violence and danger innate to the bucolic world. The classical tradition has historically understood the pastoral world as an idyllic paradise standing in opposition to the dangerous city, which it casts as Other. By combining approaches drawn from narratology and intertextuality with a lens of critical classical reception, I demonstrate the inaccuracy of this dichotomy. In doing so, I argue instead for a re-conception of the ancient pastoral landscape as a dark and dangerous setting that exists on a continuum with the urban environment. This dissertation critically reevaluates traditional scholarly conceptions in ancient literature by prioritizing non-canonical texts.After an introduction, the second chapter argues that sexual and intimate partner violence are integral parts of the pastoral world that scholars have willingly overlooked for centuries. I explore physical, sexual, and emotional abuse in pseudo-Theocritus, Calpurnius Siculus, and Nemesianus to show that the relative safety of the locus amoenus in Vergil’s Eclogues is the exception, not the rule. The third chapter confronts one of the signature structural elements of pastoral poetry, the song contest. It dissects the elements that make up an amoebean exchange to argue that these contests that purport to showcase only poetic competition are in fact infused with verbal abuse and physical agonism as well. The chapter includes a close reading of Calpurnius’s sixth eclogue, which fails to launch the expected contest at all due to an exaggerated profusion of insults that literalizes the metaphor of words as weapons—with violent consequences. Thus, violation and violence are woven into the very structure of the pastoral song exchange.

The fourth chapter explores the relationship between danger and didaxis in pastoral. By looking at Calpurnius 5 alongside Georgics 3, I argue that Calpurnius uses descriptions of danger as narratological tools to justify transitions to the didactic mode. Ultimately, however, I conclude that the dangers of the rural landscape are too numerous and ingrained for even the most thorough precautions to fully protect against them. Thus, by the fifth and final chapter, I maintain that danger is an innate and integral part of the pastoral sphere, just as it is presented in the urban sphere. I argue that the common binary constructed between city and country in literature is a false one. Just as characters travel between the two settings, sometimes in the course of a single poem, so do the dangers native to one place migrate back and forth between them. By looking at one of Theocritus’s urban mimes alongside his bucolics and Calpurnius’s seventh eclogue, I reframe the traditional conception of the pastoral sphere as a safe haven. Instead, it is a dystopia with danger, violence, and strife at its very core.





Lee, Tori (2022). Violent by Nature: Danger and Darkness in the Pastoral World. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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