The Novel in Antiquity

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Tomas Hägg’s excellent study of the ancient novel stems in a major part from his previous scholarly work, including his Uppsala doctoral dissertation, Narrative Technique in Ancient Greek Romances (1971), which firmly established the author’s reputation in the area of ancient prose fiction. While the earlier book, with its focus on literary form, is of particular interest to classical scholars, this new volume is a fascinating introduction to the ancient texts in their social, historical, and critical contexts and broadly surveys the history of the ancient genre from a perspective delicately balancing the arcane knowledge of the classical specialist with the more general interests of the layman.

The Novel in Antiquity (published in Sweden in 1980 as Den Antika Romanen) provides a superb overview of the social background of the Hellenistic society in which the Greek novel was born together with simple, direct explanation of special features of the ancient world (see, especially, the useful “Note on Terms, Names and Historical Periods”). The Greek novel is discussed in the context of its links with many areas of ancient life, including art and religion. Particularly significant are the illustrations from ancient art, mostly mosaics, with which Hägg supplements his analyses of the novels. Such illustrations of characters from ancient novels, rarely available today in the same volume with the literary works they imitate, suggest the contemporary popularity of these novels. Finally, under the heading “Further Reading,” Hägg provides an extensive bibliographic essay covering both primary and secondary sources.

In the course of his study, Hägg traces the checkered history of the ancient Greek novel from its Hellenistic beginnings through its transmission into the modern world. Contemporary evidence, especially papyrus fragments, suggests that novels were widely written and read in antiquity, particularly during the second century A.D. cultural revival known as the “Second Sophistic.” A period of neglect lasting several hundred years occurred during the medieval period, when these novels were apparently neither widely read nor copied. As a result of this lacuna, only five of the many ancient Greek novels survive in complete texts—two of these only in single manuscripts.

The Greek novel experienced two important revivals of interest, the first in twelfth century Byzantium, when these novels were once again read and imitated, and a second in the West during the Renaissance, when the ancient novelists, particularly Achilles Tatius, Longus of Lesbos, and Heliodorus of Emesa, were held in high esteem and were widely translated into the vernacular. (Hägg includes a number of illustrations from these Renaissance translations.) The praise of Renaissance critics such as Sir Philip Sidney, who ranked these works on a level with Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 B.C.), led to imitations, such as Sidney’s own Arcadia (1590) and Miguel de Cervantes’ Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda (1617). Imitation of the plots of these novels can also be found in some of the plays of Jean Baptiste Racine, and the ancient genre was highly praised as late as 1807 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Since the time of Goethe, these books have been largely ignored or critically disparaged, but the mid-twentieth century has seen a revival of interest in the genre. Thus, Hägg not only has placed the ancient Greek novel in its historical context but also has suggested the significant role that the ancient novels played in the development of modern Western literary forms.

In addition to introducing the genre in its historical environment, Hägg also evaluates the many theories concerning the origin of the Greek novel that have been debated ever since Erwin Rohde’s monumental work, Der griechische Roman und seine Vorläufer (1876). Rohde and others, considering the genre to be a product of the rhetorical interests of the Roman imperial period, dated the earliest Greek novels to the mid-second century A.D. Chariton of Aphrodisias, placed by Rohde in the fifth or sixth century A.D., was viewed as the latest of the extant ancient novelists. Hägg shows how papyrus finds in the late nineteenth century drastically altered this picture; Chariton has to be dated much earlier, at least before A.D. 150 and perhaps as early as the first century B.C., and the origin of the ancient novel has been pushed back into the Hellenistic period. Where Rohde found the beginnings of the novel in the schools of rhetoric of the imperial period, Hägg indicates that the genre, at least in its earliest stages, was the result of a documentable rise in literacy during the last centuries B.C. He argues from the style of the extant novels that these works were meant primarily for recital in small groups and suggests plausibly that the growing class of scribes were the circulators if not the authors of the Greek novels.

Hägg also reviews some of the modern theories surrounding the birth of the Greek novel, including Ben Edwin Perry’s view—in The Ancient Romances: A Literary-Historical Account of Their Origin (1967)—that the novel, as an essentially amorphous genre, was the ideal medium for the cosmopolitan Hellenistic society and satisfied the same literary needs as the epic of an earlier age. Another important theory is that of Reinhold Merkelbach in Roman und Mysterium in der Antike (1962), who maintains that the ancient novels as a rule were mystery texts filled with religious symbols meaningful only to initiates of the popular mystery religions of the period, such as those of Isis, Mithras, and Dionysus.

In terms of literary antecedents to the Greek novel, Hägg reviews the possibility, first suggested by John Wintour Baldwin Barns in Akten des VIII Internationalen Kongresses für Papyrologie, Wien (1956; International Congress of Papyrology, 1956) and developed by R. P. Reardon in Courants littéraires grecs des IIe et IIIe siècles après J.-C. (1971), that the origin of the Greek genre is to be sought on Egyptian soil, in Egyptian prose narrative. Hägg also highlights the contribution made to the Greek novel by such genres as...

(The entire section is 2558 words.)