Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.26

J.R. Morgan and Richard Stoneman, Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context. London and New York: Routledge, 1994. Pp. x + 290. $18.95. ISBN 0-415-08507-1 (pb).

Reviewed by John Hilton, University of Natal, Durban.

This collection of sixteen articles on Greek fiction is the latest addition to an already large number of similar productions.1 The most obvious question to ask about it is therefore how yet another compilation in this field can be justified, particularly when only about 15-16 pages are allocated to each chapter. In some cases, surveys of entire literary traditions are squeezed into this narrow scope. The number of chapters in each section also struck me as being rather lop-sided (Part I: The beginnings of Greek fiction is restricted to a discussion of the Cyropaedia -- there is no discussion of fiction in Herodotus, for example, or Plato). Nevertheless, it is a mark of the wealth and diversity of material in this hitherto neglected area of Classical scholarship that the established writers do find new and interesting facets of their chosen field of study to reveal and the new names can startle the reader with peeps (rather than a sustained gaze) at terrain as yet A)/BATOS.

The book must be judged on its own terms. John Morgan states the aims of the collection in his Introduction. These are; to suggest directions and methodologies of investigation into the Greek novels for the newcomer to the field, and to contextualise the discussion of the novels in order to 'promote a wider definition of the canon' and to 'induce the specialist and student alike to read and think more broadly in the general area of Greek fiction' (p. 1). The sub-title of the book therefore well encapsulates the two focuses Morgan identifies: the novels themselves and their chronological and cultural context.

The first area of investigation is covered in Part II The Love Romances (the term 'romance' is evidently used simply as a stylistic variant of 'novel'). Here it is Brigitte Egger's chapter 'Looking at Chariton's Callirhoe' (pp. 31-48) which immediately attracts attention.2 This is the only chapter in the book which discusses the deep-rooted and seemingly ineradicable assumption that the Greek romances were written for women, despite the prominence given to the question 'Was ancient fiction mainly read by women?' on the cover of the book, which appears beside a reproduction of the languid maidens of Lawrence Alma-Tadema's painting, The Favourite Poet. Egger argues 'that the female fantasies in Callirhoe, maybe predictably, resemble some of the more repressed constructs of femininity typically embraced by women in dominant patriarchal societies' but that 'the text encompasses indeterminacies which leave room for subversive female thoughts' (p. 34). The most pregnant of these alleged 'indeterminacies' is Callirhoe's decision to enter into a bigamous marriage with Dionysius, a rich landowner in Miletus, in order to preserve the life of her as yet unborn child on the instructions of her first husband, Chaereas, who entrusts the child (which he assumes will be a son) to her in a dream (2.11). According to Egger, Callirhoe's decision is at least in part the result of 'female desire reaching beyond irresistible passivity' and an 'unadmitted sexual interest' in adultery (p. 41). Egger attempts to establish this ambiguity by appealing to literary codes such as the use of the go-between servant Plangon, which is reminiscent of New Comedy and therefore suggests moral laxity, and the description of Circe in the Satyricon (126), who is compared with Artemis, suggesting that the affair will be unsuccessful, whereas Callirhoe is compared with Aphrodite. All this ignores the fact that the presence of Aphrodite pervades Chariton's entire romance. Therefore no special significance can be attached to the comparison between the heroine and the goddess in 2.11. Furthermore, Egger does not deal at all with the fact that the heroine jealously defends her elevated status in society (she is the daughter of Hermocrates, the ruler of Syracuse), which she would undoubtedly surrender by entering into an adulterous liaison.

Egger also claims in a footnote that 'voyeurism is even clearer in Heliodorus' (p. 45, n. 23) on the grounds that the dress of Chariclea on the occasion of her projected marriage to the pirate chief, Trachinus, is 'an obvious sexual marker'. It is true that the narrator, Calasiris, tells Trachinus that Chariclea needs to put on her wedding dress before she marries him (5.29.1), but he also tells Pelorus that Chariclea resembles Artemis and that she had dressed in her sacred robe from Delphi in which she would either conquer or die (5.31.2). Heliodorus does indeed provide an erotic description of his heroine's ZW=NH (3.4.2-4), but even here the ecphrasis carries complex symbolic and intertextual overtones that cannot be explained simplistically as voyeurism. In the same note, Egger anachronistically describes Trachinus' rival, Pelorus, as a 'rapist' in this scene. What is obviously intended as hyperbole ends up as bathos. After all, calling a pirate a rapist is rather like calling the conquistador Aguirre a killer.

J.R. Morgan's chapters 'Daphnis and Chloe: Love's own sweet story' (pp. 64-79) and 'The Aithiopika of Heliodoros: Narrative as riddle' (pp. 97-113) are models of what he as editor was aiming to achieve with the collection. Although Longus is not Morgan's primary interest, he has provided the newcomer to the field with an account which rehearses the most influential interpretations of the novel, while adding a contrast between Longus' own description of his work in his prologue as a KTH=MA TERPNO\N PA=SIN A)NQRW/POIS ('a pleasant possession for all mankind', Prologue 1.3) and the famous claim of Thucydides to have written a KTH=MA E)S AI)EI/ ('a possession for ever', 1.22). According to Morgan, Longus subverts the view of Thucydides that myth, or fiction, is a passing pleasure; rather it is the 'vehicle of truth, about ourselves and about the world' (p. 76). Morgan's account of the Aithiopika focuses on a few instances which illustrate that 'it is characteristic of Heliodorus at every level of narration to withhold information, not simply to produce effects of shock and surprise, but to enlist the reader into an actively interpretative role' (p. 109). According to Morgan, Heliodorus does this to reflect more accurately the confusion and meaninglessness of life rather than to exemplify features of hermeneutic theory.

Reardon's chapter 'Achilles Tatius and Ego-Narrative' (pp. 80-96) describes how the use of ego-narrative in this work enables the author to lend an air of authenticity to the sensational events witnessed by the narrator and to shape the plot (characters the ego-narrator is unaware of simply disappear from the story temporarily). Reardon also discusses the degree of seriousness of this novel and in conclusion adopts Rattenbury's view that Achilles broke down the conventions for Romance as Euripides did for Tragedy.3 This is a polite way of expressing what could be put more starkly. Achilles repeatedly reduces the commonplaces of the genre to terms of brutal physicality: courting consists of thinly veiled masculine sexual innuendo (1.17-18); an unwanted marriage is avoided on the grounds that the heroine is menstruating (4.7); and Leucippe appears to die a horrible death by disembowelment and creophagy at the hands of cannibals (3.15). David Konstan's piece, 'Xenophon of Ephesus: Eros and narrative in the novel' (49-63), is based on the first chapter of his Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres (Princeton 1994).

The second aim of this collection is 'to promote a wider definition of the canon' ( Introduction, p. 1). 'Canon' should here presumably be taken to mean 'what scholars consider to be the rule by which Greek fiction should be measured'. As it stands, the term is used to embrace a wide range of writers. In Part I, James Tatum ingeniously argues in his chapter 'The Education of Cyrus' (pp. 15-28) that Xenophon has written a text which is simultaneously romantic, utopian, patriarchal, erotic, imperialist, and reactionary. In Part III 'The Alexander Romance: From history to fiction' (pp. 117-129) Richard Stoneman suggests that the biography of Alexander may have originated in oral tales about the great conqueror in the same way as stories about Attila and Genghis Khan (though one cannot imagine much romance attached to these two names). Stoneman points out similarities between the life of Alexander and the romances in respect of its location in Egypt, Alexander's relationship with Candace, the cleverness of the young king, and the telling of wonders. Next, Gerald Sandy assesses the value of the papyrological fragments of Greek novels in his chapter 'New pages of Greek fiction' (pp. 130-145). Discoveries of fragments of novels famously undermined Rohde's chronology of the romances, but they have also provided material on the basis of which answers to more interesting questions can be constructed. For example, papyrus finds in Roman Egypt indicate that the romances were no more popular than the traditional literary canon.4 These small scraps of writing also provide evidence of the extent to which history and travel writing influenced romance. Above all, the fragments show that Greek prose fiction was polymorphically diverse. Patricia A. Rosenmeyer presents a chapter on 'The epistolary novel' (pp. 146-165), which resembles the introduction to a commentary (with headings such as The epistolary genre, Authorship and audience, Structure and themes, Letter styles) rather than an essay in criticism. Her very thorough treatment of the sub-genre is spoiled by lecture-note expressions, such as 'Issues to consider are ...' (p. 160), unnecessary citation of basic Greek words 'Farewell (chaire)' (p. 158), and solecisms 'a rhetorical school exercise (progymnasmata)' (p. 153).

Simon Swain's study 'Dio and Lucian' (pp. 166-180) and Ewen Bowie's 'Philostratus: Writer of fiction' (pp. 181-199) are among the best in the book. Swain considers the literary character of the Euboicus of Dio, and Lucian's Toxaris, Lover of Lies, and True History. The Euboicus has been well served by commentators in ancient and modern times5 and illustrates well the blend of rhetoric and philosophy so characteristic of the Second Sophistic. Themes of romance, such as chastity before marriage, reciprocal love in marriage, and friendship occur here too. Swain's chapter owes much to the writings of Michel Foucault and anticipates or parallels David Konstan's Sexual Symmetry, which evidently appeared too late to be cited in the notes or bibliography, despite the fact that the author is a contributor in the same volume.6 Lucian also makes use of the theme of friendship in the Toxaris, and attacks credulity about the supernatural and fantastic travel stories in the Lover of Lies and True History respectively. The Heroicus of Philostratus evidently shows a close relationship to the novelists (cf., e.g., Hld. 3.14.2 and Her. 728.22 [Olearius] on the birthplace of Homer) but, by the same token, the Life of Apollonius shows important differences (it lacks pirates, sub-plots and love interest).

To this catalogue should be added the contributions in Part IV on other traditions of fiction. John Tate's 'Egyptian fiction in Demotic and Greek' (pp. 203-222) shows that, whatever its origin and audience, Demotic Egyptian fiction with its story-cycles, narrative frames for wisdom texts, fables, story-within-a-story technique and direct speech has many features similar to the Greek romances. Lawrence M. Wills' 'The Jewish Novellas' (pp. 223-238) shows that many of the themes of Greek fiction (such as the narrowing of focus to everyday concerns, the concentration on the heroine, elements of folktale, the play of emotions, and the problem of sexuality) are to be found in the stories of Daniel, Esther, Tobit, Judith and Joseph and Aseneth; Richard I. Pervo's 'Early Christian Fiction' (pp. 239-254) relates the Apocryphal Acts of the apostles Andrew, John, Paul, Peter, Thomas and the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions to 'their wider literary and cultural environments, including the Graeco-Roman novels' while emphasising 'the particularity and uniqueness of each work' (p. 252). Judith Perkins' 'Representation in Greek saints' lives' (pp. 255-274) shows how the hagiographical lives of ascetic saints such as Melania invert the ideals of romance and announce the arrival of the medieval view of the world. Finally, Suzanne MacAlister's 'Byzantine developments' in Part V (pp. 275-287) succeeds well in contrasting the pagan novels, which continued to be read in the Byzantine period, with the later writings of Manasses, Prodromos and Makrembolites.

The editors have allowed their contributors a great deal of autonomy with regard to format and style. Each chapter is followed by notes and a bibliography, but the relationship between the two is not uniform. Some bibliographies contain copious references which are not used in the text; others are admirably succinct. The bibliographies do not adhere to the same conventions and because there is no general bibliography, there are numerous repetitions. There is a rudimentary index mainly to the proper names in the book. A note (p. 288) explains that the contributors vary in their use of proper names but that this should cause no difficulty to the user. This is rather complacent, in view of the fact that students, many with no knowledge of Greek, will be using the collection. It does not help if one of the editors adds to the confusion by referring to Achilleus Tatius (who therefore does not feature in the index), whereas others refer to Achilles Tatius (who does), and why refer to 'Heliodoros' and not to 'Longos'?

In conclusion, this is an ambitious and wide-ranging collection of articles which will appeal to a very diverse readership. Altogether the book makes a useful addition to the study of a field which has for too long been neglected.


  • [1] The most well-known of these (in English) are: J. Tatum (ed.), The Search for the Ancient Novel (Baltimore 1994); Christopher Gill and T.P. Wiseman (edd.), Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (Exeter 1993); R. Beaton (ed.), The Greek Novel AD 1-1985 (London 1988).
  • [2] This chapter follows the publication of Helen Elsom's 'Callirhoe: Displaying the Phallic Woman', in J. Tatum (ed.), The Search for the Ancient Novel (Baltimore 1992) 212-230, who argues that Callirhoe is portrayed as a sexual object and as the carrier of male value, the phallus.
  • [3] R.M. Rattenbury, 'Romance: traces of lost Greek novels', in J.U. Powell (ed.), New Chapters in Greek Literature (Oxford 1933) 257.
  • [4] See Susan A. Stephens, 'Who Read Ancient Novels?' in J. Tatum (1984) 405-418.
  • [5] Ancient commentaries by Synezius and Philostratus, a recent modern one by D.A. Russell, Dio Chrysostom: Orations VII, XII, XXXVI (Cambridge 1992).
  • [6] Michel Foucault, A History of Sexuality. Vol. III: The Care of the Self, tr. R. Hurley (London 1988).