Heliodorus Criticism - Essay

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (essay date 1843)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Early Greek Romances—The Ethiopics of Heliodorus.” Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 54, no. 333 (July 1843): 109-20.

[In the following essay, an anonymous reviewer describes some defects of narrative and character in the Aethiopica.]

“It is not in Provence, (Provincia Romanorum,) as is commonly said from the derivation of the name—nor yet in Spain, as many suppose, that we are to look for the fatherland of those amusing compositions called Romances, which are so eminently useful in these days as affording a resource and occupation to ladies and gentlemen who have nothing to do. It is in distant and far different climes to our own, and in the remote antiquity of long vanished ages:—it is among the people of the East, the Arabs, the Egyptians, the Persians, and the Syrians, that the germ and origin is to be found of this species of fictitious narrative, for which the peculiar genius and poetical temperament of those nations particularly adapt them, and in which they delight to a degree scarcely to be credited. For even their ordinary discourse is interspersed with figurative expressions; and their maxims of theology and philosophy, and above all, of morals and political science, are invariably couched under the guise of allegory or parable. I need not stay to enlarge upon the universal veneration paid throughout the East to the fables of Bidpai or Pilpay, and to Lokman, who is (as may easily be shown) the Esop of the Greeks:—and it is well known that the story of Isfendiyar, and of the daring deeds of the Persian hero Rustan, in love and war,1 are to this day more popular in those regions than the tales of Hercules, Roland, or Amadis de Gaul, ever were with us. And so decidedly is Asia the parent of these fictions, that we shall find on examination, that nearly all those who in early times distinguished themselves as writers of what are now called romances, were of oriental birth or extraction. Clearchus, a pupil of Aristotle, and the first who attempted any thing of the sort in the Greek language, was a native of Soli in Cilicia:—Jamblichus was a Syrian, as were also Heliodorus and Lucian, the former being of Emessa, the latter of Samosata:—Achilles Tatius was an Alexandrian; and the rule will be found to hold good in other instances, with scarcely a single exception.”

Such is the doctrine laid down (at somewhat greater length than we have rendered it) by the learned Huetius, in his treatise De Origine Fabularum Romanensium; and from the general principle therein propounded, we are certainly by no means inclined to dissent. But while fully admitting that it is to the vivid fancy and picturesque imagination of the Orientals that we owe the origin of all those popular legends which have penetrated, under various changes of costume, into every corner of Europe,2 as well as those more gorgeous creations which appear, interwoven with the ruder creations of the northern nations, to have furnished the groundwork of the fabliaux and lais of the chivalry of the middle ages:—we still hold that the invention of the romance of ordinary life, in which the interest of the story depends upon occurrences in some measure within the bounds of probability, and in which the heroes and heroines are neither invested with superhuman qualities, nor extricated from their difficulties by supernatural means, must be ascribed to a more European state of society than that which produced those tales of wonder, which are commonly considered as characteristic of the climes of the East. Even the authors enumerated by the learned bishop of Avranches himself, in the passage above quoted, were all denizens of the Greek cities of Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, and consequently, in all probability, Greeks by descent; and though the scene of their works is frequently laid in Asia, the costumes and characters introduced are almost invariably on the Greek model. These writers, therefore, may fairly be considered as constituting a distinct class from those more strictly Oriental, not only in birth, but in language and ideas; and as being, in fact, the legitimate forerunners of that portentous crowd of modern novelists, whose myriad productions seem destined (as the Persians believe of the misshapen progeny of Gog and Magog, confined within the brazen wall of Iskender,) to over-run the world of literature in these latter days.

At the head of this early school of romantic writers, in point of merit as of time, (for the writings of Lucian can scarcely be considered as regular romances; and the “Babylonica” of Jamblichus, and the “Dinias and Dercyllis” of Antonius Diogenes, are known to us only by the abstract of them preserved in Photius,) we may, without hesitation, place Heliodorus, the author of the “Ethiopics,” “whose writings”—says Huetius—“the subsequent novelists of those ages constantly proposed to themselves as a model for imitation; and as truly may they all be said to have drunk of the waters of this fountain, as all the poets did of the Homeric spring.” To so servile an extent, indeed, was this imitation carried, that while both the incidents and characters in the “Clitophon and Leucippe” of Achilles Tatius, a work which, in point of literary merit, stands next to that of Heliodorus, are, in many passages, almost a reproduction, with different names and localities,3 of those in the “Ethiopics,” the last-named has again had his copyists in the “Hysminias and Hysmine” of Eustathius or Eumathius, and the “Dosicles and Rhodanthe” of Theodorus Prodromus, the latter of whom was a monk of the twelfth century. In these productions of the lower empire, the extravagance of the language, the improbability of the plot, and the wearisome dullness of the details, are worthy of each other; and are only varied occasionally by a little gross indelicacy, from which, indeed, none but Heliodorus is wholly exempt. Yet, “as in the lowest deep there is a lower still,” so even Theodorus Prodromus has found an humble imitator in Nicetas Eugenianus, than whose romance of “Charicles and Drosilla” it must be allowed that the force of nonsense “can no further go.” Besides this descending scale of plagiarism, which we have followed down to its lowest anti-climax, we should mention, for the sake of making our catalogue complete, the “Pastorals, or Daphnis and Chloe” of Longus—a work in itself of no particular merits or demerits as a literary composition, but noted for its unparalleled depravity, and further remarkable as the first of the class of pastoral romances, which were almost as rife in Europe during the middle ages as novels of fashionable life are, for the sins of this generation, at the present day. There only remain to be enumerated the three precious farragos entitled “The Ephesiacs, or Habrocomas and Anthia”—“the Babylonics”—and “the Cypriacs”—said to be from the pen of three different Xenophons, of whose history nothing, not even the age in which any of them lived, can be satisfactorily made out—though the uniformity of stupid extravagance, not less than the similarity of name, would lead à priori to the conclusion that one luckless wight must have been the author of all three. From this list of the Byzantine romances, (in which we are not sure that one or two may not after all have been omitted,) it will be seen that Heliodorus had a tolerably numerous progeny, even in his own language, to answer for; though we fear we must concur in the sweeping censure of a Quarterly Reviewer, (vol. x. p. 301,) who condemns them en masse, with the single exception of the “Ethiopics” of the last-named author, as “a few tiresome stories, absolutely void of taste, invention, or interest; without influence even upon the declining literature of their own age, and in all probability quite unknown to the real forerunners of Richardson, Fielding, and Rousseau.”

A work thus excepted, by common consent, from the general reprobation in which all its compeers are involved, must deserve some notice from its negative, if not from its positive merits; and the particulars which have been preserved of its literary history are also somewhat curious. Even in these days, when almost every other individual is a novelist, either in esse or in embryo, the announcement of a love-story from the pen of a bishop would create what is called “a considerable sensation”—though perhaps it would hardly draw down on the author such condign and summary punishment as was inflicted by the straitlaced Kirk of Scotland, less than a century ago, on one of her ministers, for the high crime and misdemeanour of having indited “a stage play, called the Tragedy of Douglas.4 Yet not only the “Ethiopics,” but the best known of its successors, the “Clitophon and Leucippe” of Achilles Tatius, are both universally asserted to have been juvenile productions of ecclesiastics who afterwards attained the episcopal dignity: and the former, if we may credit the Ecclesiastical History of Nicephorus, fared not much better at the hands of the Provincial Synod of Thessaly than did the “Tragedy of Douglas” at those of the Scottish Presbyteries. Hear what saith the historian: “This Heliodorus, bishop of Trica, had in his youth written certain love-stories called the “Ethiopics,” which are highly popular even at the present day, though they are now better known by the title of ‘Chariclea’”—(the name of the heroine)—“and it was by reason thereof that he lost his see. For, inasmuch as very many of the youth were drawn into peril of sin by the perusal of these amorous tales, it was determined by the provincial synod that either these books, which kindled the fire of love, should themselves be consumed by fire, or that the author should be deposed from his episcopal functions—and this choice being propounded to him, he preferred resigning his bishopric to suppressing his writings.”—(Niceph. Hist. Ecclesiast. lib. xii. c. 34.)5 Heliodorus, according to the same authority, was the first Thessalian bishop who had insisted on the married clergy putting away their wives, which may probably have tended to make him unpopular: but the story of his deposition, it should be observed, rests solely on the statement of Nicephorus, and is discredited by Bayle and Huet, who argue that the silence of Socrates (Ecclesiast. Hist. v. chap. 22.) in the passage where he expressly assigns the authorship of the “Ethiopics” to the Bishop Heliodorus, more than counterbalances the unsupported assertion of Nicephorus—“an author,” says Huet, “of more credulity than judgment.” If Heliodorus were, indeed, as has been generally supposed, the same to whom several of the Epistles of St Jerome were addressed, this circumstance would supply an additional argument against the probability of his having incurred the censures of the church: but whatever the testimony of Nicephorus may be worth on this point, his mention of the work affords undeniable proof of its long continued popularity, as his Ecclesiastical History was written about a.d. 900, and Heliodorus lived under the reign of the sons of Theodosius, or fully five hundred years earlier. Enough, however, has been said of him in his capacity of a bishop—and we shall proceed to consider him in that of an author, by which he is far better known than by his episcopacy.

The time of the story is laid in the middle ages of Grecian history, after the conclusion of the wars between Greece and Persia, and while Egypt was still governed by the satraps of the great king; and the first scene at once plunges the reader, in accordance with the Horatian precept, in medias res. A band of marauders, prowling on the coast of Egypt, are surprised by the sight of a ship moored to the shore without any one on board, while the beach around is strewed with the fragments of a costly banquet, and with a number of dead bodies of men, slain apparently in mutual conflict; the only survivors being a damsel of surpassing beauty, arrayed as a priestess of Diana, who is wailing over the inanimate form of a wounded youth. Before they have time, however, either to unravel the mystery, or to avail themselves of the booty thus unexpectedly spread before them, they are in turn put to flight by a more numerous party of robbers, or rather buccaneers, (bucoli or herdsmen,) who carry off the forlorn couple to their retreat, in the innermost recesses of a vast lake or morass, near the Heracleotic mouth of the Nile.6 The description of this robber-colony appears to have been drawn from an existing or well-remembered state of things, and bears considerable resemblance, except in the presence of women and children, to a setsha, or stronghold, of the Zaporog Cossacks in the islets of the Dniepr.

“This whole region is called by the Egyptians the Bucolia, or ‘pasturages,’ and is a tract of low land, which has been converted by the inundations of the Nile into a lake, of great depth in the middle, and gradually shoaling towards the margins into a marsh. Among this labyrinth of lakes and morasses, all the robber-community of Egypt hold their commonwealth; some building huts wherever there is enough of dry land for the purpose, and others living wholly on board their boats, which serve them for a home, as well as to transport them from place to place. In these narrow craft their children are born and brought up, tied by a cord round their foot, in their infancy, to keep them from falling overboard, and tasting for their first food, after being weaned, the fish of the lake dried in the sun. Thus, many of these buccaneers are natives of the lake itself, which they regard as their country and their fortress; and they also receive among them many recruits of the same sort as themselves. The waters serve them for a defence, and they are further fortified by the vast quantity of reeds overgrowing the borders of the lake, through which they have contrived certain narrow winding paths known only to themselves, to guard them against sudden incursions from without.”

The chief, Thyamis, is forthwith desperately smitten by the charms of Chariclea, and announces, in a set speech to his followers, when assembled for the division of the booty, his intention of taking her to wife. The heroine, as usual with heroines in such trying circumstances, feigns compliance, stipulating only for the delay of the ceremony till she could deposit her sacred ornaments in a temple; a request which Thyamis—who, by the way, is no vulgar depredator, but an Egyptian of rank, who has been deprived of an hereditary7 priesthood, and driven into hiding, by the baseness of a younger brother—is too well bred to refuse. The beautiful captive is accordingly, (with Theagenes, whom she calls her brother,) given in charge, for the time, to an Athenian prisoner named Cnemon, who had been driven into exile by the vindictive artifices of his stepmother and her confidante, and the recital of whose adventures (apparently borrowed from those of Hippolitus) occupies a considerable space at this juncture, without much advancing the story. On the following day, however, the settlement is attacked by an irresistible force, guided by the gang who had been driven from their prey on the beach. Thyamis, after performing prodigies of valour, is taken prisoner; and Theagenes and Chariclea, with Cnemon, escaping in the confusion, find themselves alone in an island of the lake. Cnemon, as being best acquainted with the language and the surrounding country, is sent the next day to the main land, to make discoveries, accompanied by Thermuthis, the buccanier lieutenant, who had returned when the fray was over, in hopes of recovering a fair captive of his own. The object of his search, however, who proves to be no other than Thisbe, the treacherous soubrette through whom Cnemon's misfortunes had arisen, had been slain by accident in the conflict; and Thermuthis, whose suspicions had been awakened by the joy expressed by Cnemon, is meditating the murder of his fellow-traveller, when he opportunely perishes by the bite of an asp. Cnemon, continuing on his way,8 reaches the margin of the Nile opposite the town of Chemmis, and there encounters a venerable personage, who, wrapt in deep thought, is pensively pacing the banks of the river. This old Egyptian priest, (for such he proves to be,) Calasiris by name, not only takes the abrupt intrusion of Cnemon in perfect good part, but carries his complaisance so far as to invite him to the house of a friend of whom he is himself a guest, and the honours of whose mansion he is doing in the temporary absence of the owner. This obliging offer is, of course, accepted with great alacrity; and, in the course of after-dinner conversation, the incidental mention by Calasiris of the names of Theagenes and Chariclea, and the consequent enquiries of Cnemon, who recognises them as those of his late fellow-captives, lead to a long episodical narration from the old gentleman, during which Cnemon, in return for the hospitality and confidence thus unexpectedly shown him, displays most enviable powers as a listener, and which, in a great measure, unfolds the plot to the reader.

It appears that Persina, consort of Hydaspes, King of Ethiopia, had given birth, in consequence of one of those accidents which will sometimes happen in the best regulated families, to a white or fair-complexioned daughter;9 and dreading lest the hue of her offspring, unusual in that country, might draw on herself suspicions which might expose her to certain pains and penalties, she secretly committed the infant to the care of Sisimithres, an officer of the court, placing at the same time in his hands, as tokens by which she might afterwards be recognised, various costly ornaments, especially a ring which had been given her by the king at their nuptials, bearing “the royal symbol engraven within a circle on the talismanic stone Pantarbé,” and a fillet on which was embroidered, in the Ethiopic character,10 the story of the child's birth. Under the guardianship of Sisimithres, she remained seven years; till, fearing for her safety if she continued in Ethiopia, he took the opportunity of his being sent to Thebes as ambassador from Hydaspes to the Satrap of Egypt, to transfer his charge, with the tokens attached to her, to a priest of the Delphian Apollo, named Charicles, who was travelling in search of consolation for domestic afflictions. Before Sisimithres, however, had time to explain the previous history of the foundling, he was compelled to leave Egypt in haste; and Charicles, carrying her with him on his return to his Grecian home, adopted her as his daughter, and gave her the name of Chariclea. She grew up at Delphi a miracle of grace and beauty, dedicating herself to the service of the temple, and obedient to the will of her supposed father in all points, except one, her determination to lead a single life. At this juncture, Calasiris (who, as it now incidentally transpires, is father of Thyamis and his rival-brother Petosiris) arrives at Delphi during the celebration of the Pythian games, having found it expedient to absent himself from Egypt for a time, for various family reasons, and more especially on account of the prediction of an oracle, that he should live to see his two sons engaged with each other in mortal conflict. A favourable response, vouchsafed to him by the Pythia from the tripod, at his entrance into the fane of Apollo, having pointed him out as a personage of consideration, he is treated with high distinction by Charicles, who confides to him the history of Chariclea, as far as he is himself acquainted with it, and entreats him to dispose her, by those occult sciences in which the Egyptian priests were supposed to be versed, to listen to the suit of his nephew Alcamenes, whom he had destined for her husband. Calasiris promises compliance; but the scene is now changed by the arrival of a magnificent deputation from the Ænianes, a noble tribe of Thessaly, headed by a princely youth named Theagenes, who, as a reputed descendant of Achilles, has come to sacrifice at the shrine of his ancestor Neoptolemus. The pomp and pageantry of the ceremonial is described in vivid language, and with considerable effect; and as a specimen of our author's manner, we shall quote the procession of the Thessalians to the temple.

“In the van came the oxen destined for sacrifice, led by men of rustic guise and rude demeanour, each clad in a white tunic closely girt about him, with the right arm bare to the shoulder, and brandishing a double-headed axe. The oxen were all black without mixture, with massive necks, low-hung dewlaps, and straight and even horns, which in some were gilt, in the others twined with garlands; and their number was neither more nor less than a hundred—a true hecatomb. Next followed the rest of the victims, each kind of animal kept separate and in order, and all marshalled to the sound of flutes and other wind instruments. Then appeared, in rich and flowing robes, and with their long locks floating loose on their shoulders, a band of the deep-zoned virgins of Thessaly, divided into two separate sets or choruses, the first of which bore baskets of flowers and ripe...

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Alban K. Forcione (essay date 1970)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Forcione, Alban K. “Heliodorus and Literary Theory.” In Cervantes, Aristotle, and the Persiles, pp. 49-87. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970.

[In the following essay, Forcione details the influence of the Aethiopica in sixteenth century literary circles.]

Not everyone can be a Theagenes or an Aristotle.

Cristóbal Suárez de Figueroa

I offer you the Trabajos de Persiles, a book which dares to compete with Heliodorus.


In 1526, one year before Alessandro de' Pazzi wrote the...

(The entire section is 16843 words.)

Arthur Heiserman (essay date 1977)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Heiserman, Arthur. “Divine Romance.” In The Novel before the Novel: Essays and Discussions about the Beginnings of Prose Fiction in the West, pp. 188-202. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Heiserman analyzes Heliodorus's development of plot, focusing on the theme of destiny and its role in the lives of its main characters.]

… Like other romances, the Aethiopica is set in the misty period of Persian hegemony over the East, and it culminates in Ethiopia, the Land of the Sun outside the confines of the later empire, where naked black sages, the purest devotees of Helios, defy their priestly king.1...

(The entire section is 6469 words.)

Gerald N. Sandy (essay date 1982)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Sandy, Gerald N. “Manipulating the Story.” In Heliodorus, pp. 33-74. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

[In the following essay, Sandy analyzes Heliodorus's literary techniques, particularly his skill in the presentation of characters, which includes advancements in integration, motivation, multi-dimensionality, and subtlety.]


Heliodorus's appropriation of the methods of the stage—the insistence that each character will tell and enact his own story in full view on the “stage”—necessitates the interlocking of the various strands of the web of intrigue: the paths of the principal characters must cross and recross in...

(The entire section is 18056 words.)

Tomas Hägg (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Hägg, Tomas. “Heliodorus: An Ethiopian Tale.” In The Novel in Antiquity, pp. 54-73. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

[In the following excerpt, Hägg presents an overview of the Aethiopica.]

Heliodorus of Emesa left behind the heaviest novel, in terms of both volume—some 300 standard printed pages—and style. The technique of composition of his Ethiopica is incomparably more complicated than that of any of the earlier novels. Heliodorus took Homer as his chief model, and this means, among other things, that following the pattern of the Odyssey he brings his reader directly in medias res:


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G. W. Bowersock (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Bowersock, G. W. “The Aethiopica of Heliodorus.” In Fiction as History: Nero to Julian, pp. 149-60. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Bowersock examines how the author of the Historia Augusta made use of the Aethiopica.]

The discovery of papyri has pushed back the chronology of the extant novels to dates far earlier than those contemplated by Erwin Rohde in his still valuable Der griechische Roman und seine Vorläufer (third edition, 1914). Most of the novelists known to us now appear to have written in either the first or the second century a.d.1 One, however, is evidently of a later...

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J. R. Morgan (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Morgan, J. R. “The Aithiopika of Heliodorus: Narrative as Riddle.” In Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context, edited by J. R. Morgan and Richard Stoneman, pp. 97-113. London: Routledge, 1994.

[In the following essay, Morgan contends that Heliodorus sought the active participation of readers by engaging their imaginations in solving riddles presented in his narrative.]

In the last book of Heliodoros' Aithiopika (Ethiopian Story), Hydaspes, king of Ethiopia, returns in triumph, after a spectacular victory over the forces of Persia. During the celebrations he is presented with commemorative gifts by his subject nations, including:...

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Margaret Anne Doody (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Doody, Margaret Anne. “Heliodorus Rewritten: Samuel Richardson's Clarissa and Frances Burney's Wanderer.” In The Search for the Ancient Novel, edited by James Tatum, pp. 117-31. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Doody discusses aspects of The Wanderer and Clarissa which derive from the Aethiopica.]

In 1789 there appeared a new English edition of Heliodorus's Aethiopica, translated as The Adventures of Theagenes and Chariclea: A Romance. This two-volume novel contains a prefatory “Advertisement” by the translator, recommending the Greek novelist:


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Daniel L. Selden (essay date 1998)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Selden, Daniel L. “Aithiopika and Ethiopianism.” In Studies in Heliodorus, edited by Richard Hunter, pp. 182-214. Cambridge, England: The Cambridge Philological Society, 1998.

[In the following essay, Selden examines the Aethiopica as one of the earliest narrative texts to tackle the origins and structure of racial conflict.]

You have been the veterans of creative suffering.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


Once again Heliodorus' Aithiopika has become an exemplary tale for our time.1 The most beautiful young woman in the Greek world,...

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