Heliodorus Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Heliodorus fl. 3rd or 4th century-

Syrian-born Greek novelist.

Heliodorus is the author of the Aethiopica, considered one of the best Greek romances extant. Written in the third or fourth century, the work tells of the love of Theagenes, a Thessalian aristocrat, and Chariclea, a beautiful Ethiopian princess. Their perils and misfortunes in exotic lands are melodramatically delivered in a prose narrative of ten books comprising more than 9000 lines. Virtually nothing is known about Heliodorus's life except for his place of birth, Emesa, Syria. Critics praise Heliodorus for his advanced literary techniques, which include perhaps the first use of a compound plot, starting the story in the midst of its action, his ability to entertain, and his vivid imagery and characterization. He is the last known of the ancient romance novelists.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Heliodorus beyond what he himself presents in the concluding line of the Aethiopica, which states that he is a Phoenician from Emesa, and the child of Theodosius. Scholars have long argued whether he lived in the second, third, or fourth centuries; the majority believe the third century is the likeliest, with the fourth century being a distinct possibility. According to some reports written several centuries later, Heliodorus served as bishop of Tricca, where he introduced the practice of clerical celibacy. However, he ultimately lost the position because he had written the erotic Aethiopica in his youth.

Major Works

The Aethiopica is the only known work by Heliodorus. The story is not told chronologically but begins in medias res with a band of robbers discovering a deserted but unplundered ship on a beach littered with dead bodies. In the middle of the carnage are the sole survivors of the attack, the beautiful lovers Chariclea and Theagenes, who is wounded. Soon another group of bandits chases the first robbers away and capture the couple. Between this opening scene and the last page, in which the lovers are wed and made Priest of the Sun and Priestess of the Moon, Heliodorus describes a series of romantic adventures in foreign lands, numerous attacks, torture, escapes, interactions with mysterious priests, a witch, and a maddened bull. It is not until Book IV that Heliodorus writes of Chariclea's birth: although her father was the black King of Ethiopia, she was born white because her mother, Persinna, conceived her while gazing at a picture of Andromeda. The Queen, fearing that she would be accused of adultery, gave her baby away and pretended that it had died in childbirth. Chariclea was rescued by a priest, grew up, and fell in love with Theagenes at first sight. Together, they suffer many misfortunes until the end, when they are elevated to the status of priest and priestess.

Critical Reception

With his pious tone, Heliodorus was a favorite among Byzantine critics. He was also well received by the Elizabethans, who considered the Aethiopica an example of aesthetic excellence. Modern critics continue to find the work of tremendous interest since it effectively closes the long tradition of the Greek romantic novel. Arthur Heiserman covers the high points of its intricate plot and notes its use of methods borrowed from stage plays. Gerald N. Sandy also notes Heliodorus's debt to drama. He praises Heliodorus for narrative economy, for “sheer intensity of interrelation of characters,” and for successfully orchestrating a “complex blend of divinely orchestrated and naturally motivated events presented from multiple points of view without linear chronological progression.” Thomas Hägg credits Heliodorus for mixing Euripidean drama, historiography, and philosophy in his narrative. J. R. Morgan posits that Heliodorus deliberately sought reader involvement by interesting them in puzzles and ambiguities in his story. Richard Hunter explores the use of different reading strategies for understanding the representations and misrepresentations Heliodorus places in his text. Daniel L. Selden examines the work for what it reveals about the history of racism and attitudes towards skin color. Heliodorus affected many writers over the centuries; Alban K. Forcione traces Heliodorus's impact on Cervantes; Eric Aversa examines the Aethiopica's use by Torquato Tasso; G. W. Bowersock discusses its use in the Historia Augusta; and Margaret Anne Doody analyzes its influence on Frances Burney's Wanderer.