Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.05.11

William Hansen (ed.), Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature.   Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1998.  Pp. xxix, 349.  ISBN 0-253-21157-3.  $18.95.  

Reviewed by Laura Gibbs, UC Berkeley (
Word count: 2330 words

Hansen's Anthology of Ancient Popular Greek Literature contains highly readable English translations of a wide variety of Greek texts that should be of great interest to classicists, as well as to scholars in many other fields, especially folklorists and medievalists. The "popular" nature of these materials, which Hansen considers from a theoretical perspective in the book's introduction, is revealed not only in the relevance of these works for ancient Greek and Roman culture, but also in their immense popularity throughout the medieval European tradition: for example, the Alexander Romance, the story of Secundus the Philosopher, and the Life of Aesop (along with Aesop's fables) were both popular and highly influential in later European literature. Yet the medievalists and folklorists who work on these texts have been poorly served by classical scholarship, which has had little to say about the ancient origins and significance of these works. Hansen's collection will hopefully now prompt classicists to seriously consider the difficult questions posed by this body of ancient Greek literature: specifically, where did these texts come from (who wrote them, read them, copied them) and how do they fit into the cultures of literary production/consumption in the ancient world? what, after all, do we mean by "popular literature" in the ancient world, and how is this like, or unlike, what might also be called "folklore"? Although much of the material included here has been previously published, those earlier editions are often out of print or otherwise inaccessible; Hansen has thus done us a valuable service by putting these stories back into circulation and, at the same time, providing a solid introduction to the general question of "popular literature" in the ancient world. In the first part of this review, I will provide a description of the anthology's contents; in the concluding paragraphs, I will suggest some of the issues and challenges the collection as a whole raises for Greek literary studies.

I. Contents

Hansen's anthology contains complete versions or selections from 11 works, each of which receives a detailed individual introduction containing abundant citations of secondary literature, along with references to other ancient texts belonging to the same genre of popular writing (ancient novel, paradoxography, "wit and wisdom" literature, Christian apocrypha, etc.). Although these items will perhaps seem new and strange to many readers, in most cases each item is representative of a much larger body of material, and curious readers will be able to follow Hansen's references to other relevant texts. In addition, Hansen provides abundant information about the diffusion of these texts in the ancient world (citing Latin translations, as well as Syriac and other ancient redactions, where applicable), and he also outlines the fortunes of these texts in medieval Europe. Although Hansen does not make this argument explicitly in the preface to the book, surely another great sign of the popularity of these works is their appearance in many different languages and cultures other than ancient Greece.

Most of the items in the anthology appear in their entirety. Hansen provides complete English translations of the following works: Xenophon of Ephesus, An Ephesian Tale; The Acts of Paul and Thecla; Secundus the Silent Philosopher; pseudo-Lucian, Lucius, or The Ass; The Life of Aesop; pseudo-Callisthenes, The Alexander Romance; and the Oracles of Astrampsychus. In a few cases, Hansen is dealing with ancient texts that are themselves collections or (in the case of the epitaphs, an "uncollected" ancient genre) and he includes representative material rather than complete texts in these cases: Phlegon of Tralles, Book of Marvels; Aesop's fables (collectio Augustana); The Laughter-Lover (Philogelos); and some selected epitaph inscriptions.

It is worth noting that in addition to sharing its cover art with Reardon's Collected Ancient Greek Novels (the "Parthenope and Metiochus" mosaic), Hansen's anthology contains three works which are also found in Reardon: one item -- Dowden's translation of The Alexander Romance -- is actually reprinted from Reardon, while in the two other cases Hansen reprints English translations different from the ones supplied by Reardon (Hansen uses Hadas's translation of Xenophon's Ephesian Tale and Turner's translation of The Ass). The similarities and differences between Reardon's collection of "ancient Greek novels" and Hansen's collection of "ancient popular Greek literature" raises a number of theoretical questions inherent in the definition of ancient popular literature, but suffice it to say that the items which are found in both collections are worth considering in the distinctive contexts respectively defined by Hansen's and Reardon's anthologies. The Alexander Romance, for example, benefits both from being placed side by side in Reardon with other ancient travel narratives such as Lucian's True Story or The Wonders Beyond Thule, and appears in a quite different guise in Hansen when connected with the "wit and wisdom" genres represented by The Life of Aesop and Secundus the Philosopher. Thus, despite the overlap of some material between Reardon's and Hansen's books, they each make independent and important contributions to our expanding awareness of the world of ancient Greek literature.

Moreover, about half of the materials which Hansen makes available in this book are not easily available in English, either never having been translated before, or published in out-of-print editions (the in-print materials which Hansen anthologizes are the items shared with Reardon discussed above, along with excerpts from his own translation of Phlegon of Tralles's Book of Marvels; there are also various translations of Aesop's fables in print, most reliably the appendix of prose fables in Perry's Loeb of Babrius and Phaedrus). The return of Daly's translation of The Life of Aesop into print is especially welcome; no one can fail to be pleasantly surprised by this ribald account of Aesop's battles with his master, the would-be philosopher Xanthus, from whom Aesop finally wins his freedom, and his subsequent adventures as an international ambassador engaged in a contest of wits with King Nectanabo of Egypt. Aesop triumphs in his dealings with Nectanabo, only to be murdered by the Delphians back home. Gregory Nagy gave the Life of Aesop some notoriety with his highly original comments in Best of the Achaeans; now readers can consider Nagy's analysis of the Delphi episode in the larger narrative context of this much under-studied text. The re-publication of Perry's translation of Secundus the Silent Philosopher also deserves special notice; this text definitely deserves to take its place alongside other, better known para-philosophical texts from antiquity, such as Diogenes Laertius's lives of the philosophers or Plutarch's Banquet of the Seven Sages. Hansen has labeled this text as "wisdom literature," and the absolutely humorless tone of Secundus's life stands in sharp contrast to the "wit and wisdom" genre represented by the Life of Aesop. It is worth noting the prevalence of wit and/or wisdom materials in Hansen's anthology: fully half of the materials in this collection fit under the rubric of wit and/or wisdom, which makes the book a real pleasure to read, in addition to its scholarly usefulness.

Finally, along with the republication of materials published elsewhere in English, it is worth noting here the Oracles of Astrampsychus, which are translated for the first time into English (by Randell Stewart and Kenneth Morrell). This detailed treatise on fortune-telling comes equipped with all the necessary tables and charts needed to decode the god's answers to life's essential questions such as "will I be caught as an adulterer?", "will I get the money?", and "have I been poisoned?". Hansen's extensive bibliography of works cited promises a Teubner edition of this text currently in press (edited by Stewart). For now, the English translation of this divinatory system provides a useful counter-point and supplement to Artemidorus's Oneirocritica, another divinatory handbook which has become more and more widely cited in classical scholarship (so that Artemidorus seems already to rise to the rank of being an "author", while the Oracles of Astrampsychus remain condemned to pseudonymity). Like Artemidorus, the questions and answers provided in Astrampsychus's handbook give us an unexpected and welcome insight into the issues and dilemmas that were of general concern in the ancient world; indeed, the Sortes Astrampsychi can probably be dated to the second-century C.E., thus roughly contemporary with Artemidorus.

II. What is ancient Greek popular literature?

As the inclusion of Astrampsychus's Oracles suggests, the materials in Hansen's anthology often do not fit into traditional literary genres and, in fact, they are not always "literary" in even the most popular sense of the word. I would argue that this is a virtue of Hansen's collection; even more than Reardon's anthology of ancient Greek novels, Hansen's book challenges what have traditionally been the literary objects of study in Classics departments. In the introduction to his collection, Hansen provides an essay which briefly attempts a definition of "popular literature," seeking to ground that definition in an aesthetic of popular literature. Hansen's basic conclusion is that "popular literature reflects an aesthetic that values easy and continued engagement, minimizing features that encourage detachment" (xv), yet "replete with action and sensation" (xvii). Although Hansen relies heavily on Bourdieu's work here, Bakhtin does not make an appearance in Hansen's discussion of the popular aesthetic in ancient literature, despite his provocative and still undervalued contributions to this topic. For example, Bakhtin's discussion of the aesthetics of Menippean satire (published in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics) is immensely more rewarding than his diatribe against epic in "Epic and Novel" (as published in The Dialogic Imagination) and certainly deserves wider attention in classical circles.

Yet aside from the many fundamental questions about the aesthetics of popular literature in antiquity that are still waiting for answers, it is also worth noting that there is a certain disjunction between the issues raised in Hansen's introduction to the anthology and the individual items that it contains. The introductions provided to the individual chapters sometimes carry on the aesthetic questions raised in the introduction to the book, as when Hansen describes Xenophon's Ephesian Tale as "exciting literature that makes little demand upon its readers" (6). This question of popular aesthetic is most relevant to the items in the anthology that were meant to be read as "books," and which appear in Part One of Hansen's collection, entitled "Popular Fiction." But at the same time, not all of the materials included in this anthology can be subsumed under a single aesthetic rubric, and this is especially true of the items in the subsequent sections of the book, with the headings "Popular Compilations," "Popular Handbooks," and "Popular Literature in Public Places." And even with regard to Xenophon's Ephesian Tale, for example, Hansen notes that its formulaic quality might be "a reflection of the oral storyteller, for some oral styles are characterized by verbal and structural repetition" (4). What then can we say about the relationship between Hansen's definition of the "popular aesthetic" in literature, and ancient folklore traditions? The specters of oral storytelling and folklore genres cannot help but haunt this book, although the word "folklore" is conspicuously absent from the book's title and from its introductory chapter. Many of the materials contained in the anthology have traditionally been categorized as folklore rather than literature: this is surely understandable in the case of the prose collections of Aesop's fables and the jokes of the Philogelos, as well as the monstrous births recounted in Phlegon of Tralles's Book of Marvels. What, in fact, are we to make of the relationship between "ancient Greek popular literature" and "ancient Greek folklore"? As a professor both of Classical Studies and of Folklore, William Hansen would no doubt have much to say about this topic, and we can only hope that in addition to pursuing this work on the aesthetics of ancient Greek popular literature, Hansen will publish more of his extensive research on the folklore tale types and motifs that can be recovered from ancient Greek sources.

Finally, a book like the Oracles of Astrampsychus cannot really be described as either "literature" or "folklore," although this text is surely one of the most interesting items contained in the anthology. The Oracles of Astrampsychus are a handbook, which, along with magical handbooks of various sorts, constituted one of the most representative forms of textual production in the ancient world: the composition and copying of divinatory handbooks, along with the production of amulets and curse tablets, represent a vital aspect of literary and text circulation in the ancient world, well worth our study (many fine examples can also be found in Luck's highly accessible anthology of ancient magical texts, Arcana Mundi). Although such materials may not fit under the rubric "literary", they certainly earn the epithet of being "popular."

Altogether, the materials assembled here in Hansen's anthology -- whether they exemplify the "literary" end of the spectrum, or the "popular" pole -- offer an extraordinary opportunity for classical scholarship today. Each and every item in this anthology has been badly neglected and deserving of detailed scrutiny. After writing this review, I consulted the Oracles of Astrampsychus with regard to the question "Will the one who is detained be set free?" (since that seemed the most apt question for these "popular" texts now confined to classical oblivion). Following the rules of the oracle, I inquired of the god and received the following answer: "The one who has been detained will be set free in time." So be it: hopefully Hansen's anthology will be the first step in that deliverance.

Works cited:

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (Caryl Emerson, trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Daly, Lloyd. Aesop Without Morals. New York: Yoseloff, 1961.

Hansen, William. Phlegon of Tralles' Book of Marvels. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996.

Luck, Georg. Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Nagy, Gregory. The Best of the Achaeans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Perry, Ben E. (ed.). Babrius and Phaedrus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (Loeb), 1965.

Reardon, B. P. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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