Long Fiction in the Ancient Greco-Roman World Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The novel has often been described as a modern genre with little in common with the prose fiction of other periods and cultures. The relationship between the modern novel and the prose fiction of the ancient Greeks and Romans is particularly problematic. In The Novel Before the Novel (1977), Arthur Heiserman admits that it is anachronistic to categorize ancient prose works as fiction novels. Ian Watt, an influential scholar, begins his study of the novel in The Rise of the Novel (1957) with eighteenth century or, at the earliest, seventeenth century prose fiction. In The Ancient Novel: An Introduction (1995), however, Niklas Holzberg argues that the works of ancient authors such as Xenophon of Ephesus and Lucius Apuleius easily fit the broad modern definition of the novel.

Differences in style, form, and content among modern novelists have made any critical definition of the genre difficult. The questions “What makes a good novel?” and “Is this work really a novel?” can be answered only through the application of arbitrary critical rules, for a major feature of the genre appears to be its inability to be restricted or characterized. The novel becomes what it wants to be: descriptive, narrative, or dramatic; ironic, serious, or ambiguous in tone; historical or imaginary; purely entertaining, didactic, or both. As a result, critics such as Robert Scholes and Robert A. Kellogg, in The Nature of Narrative (1966), have stressed the diverse and changing nature of the novel form. In The Ancient Romances: A Literary-Historical Account of Their Origins (1967), Ben Edwin Perry calls the genre “formless,” and in The Search for the Ancient Novel (1994), James Tatum describes ancient fiction as oxymoronic because of its many...

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The Greek novel: A survey

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to five extant ancient Greek novels, fragments or summaries survive from several other novels. Even these few short pieces provide enough information to create a fuller picture of the genre and its development. Unless otherwise noted, all the material discussed below is available in English translation in the second edition of B. P. Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels (2008).

The earliest fragments come from the so-called Ninus Romance by an unknown author from about the first century b.c.e. The plot of this novel apparently centers on the adventures of the legendary Assyrian king Ninus and his love for Semiramis, identifiable with the real Assyrian queen Sammu-ramat, who built the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The author’s evident alteration of historical fact—Sammu-ramat’s real husband was King Shamshi-Adad (r. 823-810 b.c.e.)—parallels the blend of legend and history that can also be found in Chariton’s extant novel.

A similar trend can be seen in the fragments of a later novel, the Parthenope Romance (also known as Metiochus and Perthenope), dated to the second century c.e., by another unknown novelist. In this work, as in Chariton, the principal characters are offspring of prominent figures in Greek history: The heroine, Parthenope, is the daughter of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos (fl. 540-522 b.c.e.), and the hero, Metiochus, is the son of Miltiades, the Athenian general at the Battle of Marathon (490 b.c.e.). In the extant fragments, the lovers Parthenope and Metiochus are participating in a symposium, or drinking party, at which the topic is the nature of love. One is reminded here of the famous discussion at the end of book 2 of Achilles Tatius on the advantages of homosexual love over heterosexual love.

Fragments from two other works, the Phoenicia (also known as Phoenician Story) of Lollianus and the Iolaus fragment (by an unknown author), both of the second century c.e., are significant for their highly erotic contents. The graphic scene of deflowering in the Phoenicia and the vulgar language found in the Iolaus contrast sharply with the virtuous poise of the extant novels and suggest that the genre as a whole may have treated the love theme in a more varied fashion than the extant novels suggest.

The Babyloniaca (Rhodanes et Simonis) survives only in a Byzantine summary. The author, Iamblichus (fl. 161-180 c.e.), was not a Greek but a Hellenized “Oriental,” a background that partly accounts for his novel’s Eastern setting. Babylon, also the setting for the Ninus Romance and books 5 and 6 of Chariton, clearly satisfied the novel reader’s taste for the exotic. Iamblichus’s plot is similar to those of the extant novels: Two young lovers, Rhodanes and Simonis, suffer the hardships of jealousy and separation but are eventually reunited happily, and Rhodanes becomes king of Babylon.

While papyrus evidence suggests that Peri Chairean kai Kalliron (c. second century c.e.; The Loves of Chareas and Callirrhoe, 1764), in eight books, byChariton of Aphrodisias, was extremely popular in the ancient world, this novel was the last of the five extant Greek novels to be published in the modern world. Its editio princeps, or first printed edition, was in 1750. It is accessible in G. P. Goold’s English translation, Callirhoe (1995).

Rohde once called Chariton’s work the product of the fifth or sixth century c.e., but it is now considered the earliest extant complete novel and can be dated around 125 c.e. or even as early as the first century b.c.e. Some independent archaeological evidence has even been found for the author, Chariton, in his native city of Aphrodisias in ancient Caria (southwest Turkey). In his novel, Chariton identifies himself as the legal secretary to the rhetorician Athenegoras, and Chariton’s professional interests are evident especially in the public and legal speeches that highlight his novel. The action of the novel begins with a festival of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, in Syracuse, Sicily, where, historically, the cult of that goddess was not important, and it is possible that Aphrodite’s dominance throughout Chariton’s novel may in fact be caused by the prominence of Aphrodite in Aphrodisias, her eponymous city and Chariton’s home.

Chariton’s story centers on two handsome young Syracusans, Chaereas and Callirhoe, the offspring of political rivals, who fall in love at first sight during Aphrodite’s festival and are married only after their fathers are persuaded at a public assembly to put aside their feud. The parallels to the plot of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596) include not only the Capulet-Montague theme but also a false death and burial of the heroine, who is kicked by her jealous husband and knocked unconscious. Chariton shares this treatment of mistaken death and burial with several other Greek novelists, including Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus. Callirhoe awakes in her tomb only to be carried off by the pirate Theron and sold as a slave in Miletus (eastern Turkey). Chariton’s vivid psychological study of Callirhoe’s new master, Dionysius, is noteworthy. Recently bereft of a beloved wife, Dionysius is torn between his sudden passion for a new slave and his loyalties to his dead wife, between the absolute power of a master over his slave and the complete subjection of a lover to his beloved. Chariton’s portrayal of Dionysius in such emotional turmoil displays a psychological perception usually associated only with modern novels.

Whereas the heroines of all the other Greek novels remain resolutely faithful to their lovers, Callirhoe, upon learning that she is pregnant with Chaereas’s child, agrees to marry the childless Dionysius and passes her child off as his. Callirhoe’s decision to remarry, albeit based on her difficult circumstances, has been called an act of betrayal of Chaereas. It is also a hint that the standard of absolute chastity that applies to the other extant novels is not a rule of the genre but an accident of preservation. Katharine Haynes explores the meaning of chastity in the Greek novel at some length in Fashioning the Feminine in the Greek Novel (2002).

Chaereas eventually learns that his wife is still alive and follows her to Miletus, where he is attacked by pirates and sold into slavery to Mithridates, the Persian governor of Caria (Chariton’s homeland), who himself has fallen in love with the heroine. This complicated, spiraling love triangle eventually leads to Babylon and the royal court of Artaxerxes II (r. 404-359 b.c.e.), where a great trial determines the disposition of Callirhoe. The king himself becomes enamored of the girl, but before he can force her to join his harem, he himself is enjoined to leave Babylon to deal with an Egyptian revolt. Chaereas becomes a general for the Egyptians, eventually defeats the king, and wins back his wife. The exciting military scenes are paralleled in the Ninus Romance as well as in Heliodorus. The novel ends with the triumphant return of the protagonists to Syracuse, where all the events are recapitulated at another public assembly. Chariton is particularly fond of these scenes of public deliberation, which occur throughout his novel and create within the framework of the plot a collective voice with which Chariton’s readers can readily identify.

Chariton’s form is unusual in that it is a mixture of prose and verse. This type of composition, called Menippean after its inventor, the cynic philosopher Menippus of Gadara (fl. third century b.c.e.), was particularly popular among Latin authors, including the novelist Petronius, but is not otherwise common in extant Greek novels. Chariton writes in educated Greek in the simple but dramatic style called Asianism that was very popular in his time. His novel, lacking the Attic tendencies of the Second Sophistic, is technically called pre- or non-Sophistic. Chariton also demonstrates a particular fondness for Homer, whose epic dialect is frequently quoted and whose epic techniques, including formulas or repeated phrases, are often imitated.

Approximately contemporary with Chariton is the Ephesiaca (second or third century b.c.e.; Ephesian History: Or, The Love Adventures of Abracoman and Anthia, 1727; better known as Ephesian Tale), in five books, of Xenophon of Ephesus. Nothing is known of the author. His association with Ephesus may result solely from the fact that his story begins and ends in that important ancient city; his name may even be a mere pseudonym, perhaps meant to honor the great Athenian historian by that name. Some scholars suspect the surviving text to be an epitome or summary of a longer work, but this cannot be proven. Like the text of Chariton, Xenophon’s novel was published in the modern world only belatedly; its editio princeps was in 1726.

Of the five extant Greek novels, Xenophon’s is the least popular today and is often criticized as crudely written and poorly developed. In contrast to Chariton’s careful psychological studies, Xenophon’s characters are often mere puppets in a complicated series of adventurous episodes.

Xenophon’s plot has several features in common with Chariton’s. The Ephesian hero and heroine, Habrocomes and Anthia, fall in love at a religious festival and are soon married. Sent away from Ephesus because of the prediction of an oracle, the newlyweds are captured by pirates and enslaved in Tyre. A double love triangle develops between the couple and their masters, which leads to a separation that is not resolved until the end of the novel. Prior to their reunion on the island of Rhodes, Habrocomes and Anthia travel separately throughout the eastern half of the Mediterranean, and they are put through a series of trials, tests of fidelity, and escapes from near death.

Several Euripidean parallels can be noted in the novel. Like Hippolytus, Habrocomes is fanatically dedicated to chastity at the beginning of the novel and later gets entangled in a Hippolytus-Phaedra-Theseus triangle in which his mistress first attempts unsuccessfully to seduce him and then falsely accuses him of rape. A nearly certain Euripidean imitation, this time of...

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The Roman novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Until papyrus fragments radically altered the late dating of the Greek novels, the two extant Latin works of long prose fiction, the Satyricon (c. 60; The Satyricon, 1694) of Petronius Arbiter and the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, were thought to have been written before the rise of the Greek novel and thus were considered uniquely Roman creations, independent of the Greek romance tradition. With the realization that the Greek novel arose in the late Hellenistic period, at least as early as the first century b.c.e., it is now necessary to view both Petronius’s novel of the first century c.e. and Apuleius’s work of the late second century...

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Other ancient long fiction

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

A survey of the novel in the ancient world would be incomplete without a brief discussion of other forms of long fiction that Tomas Hägg has shown to have close ties with the novel form. Marvels Beyond Thule, in twenty-four books, by Antonius Diogenes (fl. 100 c.e.) is an example of the travel literature popular in antiquity. While the work survives only in a medieval summary, many parallels between it and the ancient novels can be noted, particularly in the elements of travel, separation, apparent death, and reunion. Significantly, the love motif appears to have been secondary in Diogenes, who emphasizes, as the title suggests, incredible adventures beyond the end of the world. He apparently...

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The continuity and influence of the genre

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While the Sophistic Greek novels of Heliodorus, Achilles Tatius, and Longus, as well as the two Roman novels, were certainly known and read in late antiquity, there is no evidence that any new novels of this type were written after Heliodorus. There are several possible reasons for this. Certainly, the political and social upheavals of late antiquity resulted in a gradual decline in literacy and, logically, in a decrease in the numbers of potential readers of the novel. Also important is the rise of Christianity. While the Greek novels of Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius were admired for their moral edification and praise of virginity, demand for these pagan works was inevitably displaced by more Christian fiction, such as Paul...

(The entire section is 1129 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Anderson, Graham. Ancient Fiction: The Novel in the Graeco-Roman World. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1984. Broad examination of the ancient novel begins with the quest for the origin of the Greek novel and uses some Sumerian texts to suggest the Near Eastern roots of the tradition. Also includes chapters on topics such as narrative, love, character, myth, history, sex, and structure in the Greek novels as well as a chapter on Petronius’s Satyricon and two chapters on Apuleius’s Metamorphoses.

Hägg, Tomas. The Novel in Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. Offers the general...

(The entire section is 839 words.)