Long Fiction in the Ancient Greco-Roman World Critical Essays

History and criticism of the Greek novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The Greek novel received little contemporary critical attention, probably because ancient critics did not consider it a serious literary form, and modern critics have often been more interested in the literary precursors and origins of the Greek novel than in the works themselves. Erwin Rohde’s monumental study of the genre, Der griechische Roman und seine Vorläufer (1876; the Greek novel and its antecedents), established the theory that the form was a phenomenon of the mid-second through sixth centuries c.e. and was especially the product of rhetorical schools. In particular, Rohde linked the Greek novel with the Second Sophistic, a second century c.e. cultural movement that sought a return to the literary models and language of fifth century b.c.e. Athens.

Papyrus finds of Greek novels, however, have proved Rohde wrong. This genre originated much earlier than Rohde imagined, at least as early as the first century b.c.e., and the extant novels represent only a few examples of a very popular and thriving literary form. A distinction must now be made between the novels of Heliodorus, Achilles Tatius, and Longus, which show many characteristics of the Second Sophistic, and those of Chariton and Xenophon, which predate this period and are therefore called “non-Sophistic” or “pre-Sophistic.” Despite major alterations in Rohde’s theories, however, his emphasis on the rhetorical features of the Greek novel is still valid. Rhetorical tropes, set speeches, and legal argumentation as taught in ancient schools of rhetoric are indeed an important aspect of the surviving novels, even if the schools themselves can no longer be called the originators of the novel form.

Realization that the Greek novel developed in the late Hellenistic world of the second and first centuries b.c.e. has led to many hypotheses on the sociological background of the genre. Perry has suggested that the diverse nature of the novel reflected the varied literary tastes of the cosmopolitan Hellenistic society that gave it birth, in the same way that the more fixed Greek epic served the needs of an earlier, more uniform age. According to Perry, any talk about the “development” of the Greek novel is useless; the genre did not gradually evolve but was instead a sudden, deliberate creation of an individual unknown author. Tomas Hägg, in Den antika romanen (1980; The Novel in Antiquity, 1983), associates the earliest novels with a rise in literacy in the late Hellenistic Age and plausibly conjectures that these novels were usually recited in small groups rather than read silently and were probably circulated, if not created, by scribes. The evidence suggests that the Greek novel was a popular rather than a serious literary form, originally meant to entertain rather than to edify. Only in its later, Sophistic manifestations does the novel display clear didactic and sophisticated tendencies.

Another theory on the origin of the Greek novel is that presented by Reinhold Merkelbach in Roman und Mysterium in der Antike (1962; novel and mystery in antiquity). Merkelbach associates the novels with various religious sects, especially with the Egyptian cult of Isis, and makes these novels into mystery texts. According...

(The entire section is 1388 words.)