Short Fiction in Antiquity Summary


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The urge to tell stories, and the concomitant desire to listen to them, are ancient and universal in human beings. Because stories are pleasurable, they require no motive beyond that of entertainment, but for the same reason they are extremely useful in celebrating the past, in inculcating moral principles, in explaining religious doctrine, and in various other endeavors. As far back as narrative storytelling can be traced, it has been used for such purposes, as well as for pure pleasure.

A story told for the purpose of keeping alive the memory of past events—a purpose that predates literacy—will inevitably be altered in the process of retelling as the teller perceives ways of improving it. One may doubt that it really took anyone ten years to return home from the Trojan War, as it took Odysseus, or that such a person was diverted and detained by supernatural beings such as Circe and Calypso, but there probably was something like a Trojan War, and there may well have been somebody like an Odysseus who had great troubles arriving home again afterward. Because scholars now attempt to preserve carefully the distinctions between history and fiction with a historical setting, they tend to regard the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) as a good story but as bad history. Such generic distinctions would not have occurred to audiences in antiquity. Long after Thucydides, the first rigorous historian, wrote...

(The entire section is 434 words.)