Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.06.04

Richard Hunter (ed.), Studies in Heliodorus. Cambridge Philological Society Supplementary Volume no. 21.   Cambridge:  Cambridge Philological Society, 1998.  Pp. 232.  ISBN 0-906014-19-0.  

Contributors: Panagiotis A. Agapitos, Clotilde Bertoni and Massimo Fusillo, Ewen Bowie, Philip Hardie, John Hilton, Richard Hunter, J. R. Morgan, Daniel L. Selden, Tim Whitmarsh

Reviewed by Michael Anderson, Yale University (

Studies in Heliodorus, a collection of 1996 seminar papers edited by Richard Hunter, is a welcome addition to the rapidly growing body of scholarship on the ancient novels. Most of the contributors to this volume have focused their investigations on Heliodorus' narrative technique, a perennially favorite topic, and more specifically on the author's sophisticated reflections upon his own composition. The influence of John J. Winkler's pioneering work in this area is frequently acknowledged.1 The final three papers, in contrast, are devoted to the reception of the Aithiopika in later ages. Some readers might have wished for a greater variety of topics and critical approaches. Eros, chastity, and marriage receive little direct attention, and theoretical speculation on the nature of Heliodoran allusion and intertextuality is sparse.2 But this collection was clearly never intended to be a comprehensive anthology; and while the range of topics is restricted, the papers certainly present an abundance of stimulating ideas. For readers wishing to pursue Heliodorus further, the collective bibliography at the end of the volume provides a useful research tool, referencing much of the significant scholarship the Aithiopika has generated over the past fifty years.

Ewen Bowie's "Phoenician games in Heliodorus' Aithiopika" (pp. 1-18) examines Heliodorus' varied uses of the word "phoenix" and its cognates to denote the color crimson, dates and date-palms, Phoenicians, and even the mythical phoenix bird. Within this elaborate assortment of meanings Bowie detects occasional sophisticated self-references to the author, who on his closing page reveals himself to be a "phoenix", a Phoenician from Emesa. For example, Bowie brilliantly recognizes the ship which transports Theagenes and Charikleia to Zakynthos and which is specifically labeled a "Phoenician masterpiece" (5.18.2) as a mise en abyme for Heliodorus' own Phoenician masterpiece, the novel itself. Also appealing is Bowie's idea that the torch and the palm-shoot carried by Charikleia during the festival in Delphi symbolize Heliodorus' entire project, the torch representing the book which "has initiated us into the mysteries of divinity, fate and love" (p. 18), and the palm, another phoenix, representing the book's author.3 A few "Phoenician" allusions which Bowie tentatively detects in the novel seemed to me too subtle for Heliodorus. For example, without a stronger stimulus in the text, I cannot connect the name of the Arcadian runner Ormenos (4.3-4) with Homer's Phoenix, son of Amyntor Ormenides. I nevertheless found Bowie's paper an exceedingly clever reading of an exceedingly clever author.

Philip Hardie's "A Reading of Heliodorus, Aithiopika 3.4.1-5.2" (pp. 19-39) comments on Kalasiris' description of Charikleia and Theagenes at the Delphic festival, with particular attention to issues of narration, ecphrasis, and allusion. Among the finer points in the paper are Hardie's discussion of apparent digressions, his remarks on the gendered and preconditioned gaze of the spectators at the procession (3.3.8 and 3.4.8), and the suggestion that the amethyst which Kalasiris offers to Nausikles in exchange for Charikleia is "an iconic token of the woman for whom it is exchanged". I am not convinced by some of the suggested associations and allusions. That a glimmer of Medea may be seen in the detailed description of Charikleia is a provocative idea, but the evidence is weak. Likewise, it would be gratifying to discover in this ecphrasis some clue to the heroine's parentage, but I cannot agree that the snakes figured on her bodice allude to the image of the Gorgons pursuing Perseus in the Hesiodic Aspis and hence point to Ethiopia. The nature and limits of allusion in Heliodorus demand further consideration.

Richard Hunter's article, "The Aithiopika of Heliodorus: beyond interpretation?" (pp. 40-59), raises two particularly stimulating issues. The first concerns Knemon's account of his past misfortunes. Building on the work of John J. Winkler and, to a lesser degree, of J. R. Morgan, each of whom in different ways reads Knemon's story as an example of what the Aithiopika as a whole is not, Hunter contrasts Knemon's novella and Heliodorus' novel in terms of iterability and particularity.4 While Knemon's erotic misadventures are manufactured from stock characters and conventional and repeated motifs, the specificity and uniqueness instilled in the story of Charikleia and Theagenes render it immune from reenactment. The decree issued after Charikleia's abduction from Delphi -- that no descendant of Theagenes may henceforth participate in the festival and that the priestess of Artemis may no longer play a role in the foot race -- is not mere aetiology; "a more important function of these Delphic decrees is to prevent any possibility of this narrative being repeated in the future; no 'Theagenes' and 'Charikleia' will ever again fall in love just like this -- the events at Delphi will remain a one-time, never-to-be-repeated narrative" (p. 47).

Hunter's second principal contribution concerns episodes in which Heliodorus' characters engage in interpretation. A much discussed example is Charikleia's puzzling dream about the violent removal of one of her eyes. Does this forebode rape? Does it anticipate separation from Theagenes, as Charikleia fears? Or is Knemon correct in reading here a sign that Charikleia's father is dead? For Hunter, the interest of this dream lies not so much in the discovery of a single correct interpretation but in analyzing the dramatization of interpretation and in recognizing the motivations underlying particular interpretations. In the case of Knemon, right or wrong, his interpretation reveals a character whose experience of the world derives largely from books; "for him," Hunter observes, "hermeneutics is simply the application of prefabricated solutions" (p. 49). Similar issues surround Sisimithres' interpretation of events in book 10 as a sign of divine opposition to human sacrifice as traditionally practiced by the Ethiopians. Rather than agree or disagree with Sisimithres, Hunter reminds us that this gymnosophist is no neutral interpreter, and that "interpretation is a profoundly political act, the seizure of the moment in the furtherance of a cause" (p. 59).

In "Narrative Doublets in Heliodorus' Aithiopika" (pp. 60-78), J. R. Morgan demonstrates with characteristic clarity how four sets of doublets provide structure for the narrative and help focus the reader's attention on major issues -- love, chastity, the divine, and ethnicity. First, in contrasting the love sickness of the virtuous Charikleia and the wicked Arsake, Morgan points out that whereas the heroine's malady arises from shame, the villain suffers instead from frustration. Second, Morgan observes the change in Theagenes' demeanor between his first and second encounters with Kalasiris, as love-sickness humbles the haughtiness of the noble Thessalian. Third, from Charikleia's ordeal on the burning pyre in book 8 to her display on the sacred hearth in book 10, Morgan detects a development of the heroine from a bride-figure to a goddess-figure. Finally, he examines the correlations between Theagenes' race at Delphi in book 4 and his wrestling match at Meroe in book 10. Not only do the hero's activities form part of a series of narrative links between the beginning of the love story in Delphi and its resolution in Meroe; they also highlight the pervasive differentiation between things Greek and things barbarian and ultimately contribute to a unique reconciliation and syncretism of the two worlds. Though carefully fashioned to direct our attention to major topics, these doublets are not distinctively manipulative and need not be seen as part of Heliodorus' strategy of concealment and disclosure. Rather, as Morgan recognizes, the doublet is a familiar literary structuring device, which Heliodorus employs with great skill.

In "An Ethiopian Paradox: Heliodorus, Aithiopika 4.8" (pp. 79-92), John Hilton argues that Heliodorus' "portrayal of his unusual heroine and the paradoxical circumstances of her birth create a subliminal impression in his readers of her sacred or daimonic nature" (p. 86). The piercing gaze of her eyes, her extreme chastity, and her explicit association with solar and lunar cults all contribute to this impression. But Hilton finds the most intriguing indication of Charikleia's sacred nature in the discrepancy between her pigmentation and that of her parents, a discrepancy which he associates with albinism. The evidence he assembles points to a pervasive association in antiquity of unusual skin pigmentation with sacredness or prodigy. Philostratus, for example, records that in India women distinguished by a mixture of black and white skin were devoted to Aphrodite (Vita Apollonii 3.3). I have found little suggestion in the text that the appearance itself of Charikleia's skin is abnormal, except for the black circle on her arm, which remains concealed until the close of book 10. I would therefore hesitate to associate her condition closely with albinism. Nevertheless, given the remarkable discrepancy between her skin color and that of her parents, it seems fair to compare her situation with other examples of unusual pigmentation and to suggest that her paradoxical birth raised suspicions of supernatural activity among Heliodorus' ancient readers.

One of the most stimulating pieces in the collection is Tim Whitmarsh's "The Birth of a Prodigy: Heliodorus and the Genealogy of Hellenism" (pp. 93-124). In Whitmarsh's words, "it is the contention of this chapter that the Aithiopika ... reflects actively and self-consciously upon its own literary and cultural origins, constructing in a playful and exploratory manner a certain kind of genealogy for itself; and, even, contesting the very notion of literary filiation" (p. 94). Whitmarsh begins by observing in the Aithiopika a pervasive upsetting of traditional ethnic hierarchies, a transfer of preeminence from established centers of Greek culture to the former margins of Greek civilization. Whereas Homer's Odyssey returned the hero to Greece, the Aithiopika reaches its resolution in the heart of a barbarian land. Homer, fountainhead of Greek literature, is identified as the illegitimate child of Hermes and the wife of an Egyptian priest. And the ancestry of Theagenes, perhaps the most quintessentially Greek character of the novel, becomes the target of playful mockery. Projecting these observations of cultural and genealogical inversion onto the "ancestry" of the generically ambiguous novel itself, Whitmarsh concludes, "Like Homer, the Aithiopika is a bastard, an illegitimate usurper of the line; but again, as is the case with Homer, the text's 'divinity' transcends its apparent bastardy" (p. 106).

The curious background of Charikleia raises related questions about the relative importance of nature and nurture in determining personal identity. Though born to Ethiopian parents, she is raised by a Greek father at a center of Hellenic civilization. Biologically she is the offspring of Hydaspes and Persinna, and yet her appearance is determined by a painted image of Andromeda. Is she Greek or Ethiopian, a product of nature or mimesis? Again Whitmarsh reads the confused genealogy as a symbol of Heliodorus' hybrid text: "All the challenges to reason, to plausibility, to genealogy, which Charikleia represents are shared by the Aithiopika. The Aithiopika presents itself as a deviation, in Aristotelian terms, from the 'natural' order of the literary canon" (p. 118).

While I would welcome more documentation and argumentation for some of Whitmarsh's metaliterary contentions, my enthusiasm for his ideas definitely outweighs my reservations. This article merits attention not only because of its clever appreciation of Heliodoran self-reflection, but also for its provocative insights into Heliodorus' sophisticated handling of cultural identity. As Whitmarsh points out, Heliodorus neither simply adheres to a conventional polarization of Greek versus barbarian, nor represents the opposite ideal of a thoroughly pluralistic society.5 Rather, he dramatizes concern for identity and ethnic origin in ways which highlight some of the complexities of traditional ethnic thinking.

Panagiotis A. Agapitos' article, "Narrative, rhetoric, and 'drama' rediscovered: scholars and poets in Byzantium interpret Heliodorus" (pp. 125-56), examines the peculiarly "dramatic" adaptations of the Greek novels in the works of the twelfth-century Byzantine authors Eusthathios Makrembolites, Theodore Prodromos, Niketas Eugeneianos, and Konstantine Manasses. At the heart of Agapitos' discussion is the contention that "drama" or "dramatic" tragedy was understood among the Byzantines less as theatrical spectacle or mimesis of action than as rhetorical, melodramatic display of pathos. Makrembolites' novel Hysmine and Hysminias, composed in close imitation of Achilles Tatius' Cleitophon and Leukippe, Agapitos describes as "a huge narrative ethopoiia on erotic pathos" (p. 145). "The text," he explains, "is structured as an alternating series of monologues, descriptions, and dreams, held together by minimal action". Prodromos, who models his Rhodanthe and Dosikles on Heliodorus, aligns his work even more closely than Makrembolites with dramatic tragedy by composing in iambic trimeters, and Prodromos' imitator Eugeneianos follows his lead. The dramatic concerns of these authors emerge very clearly in Agapitos' article through several apt comparisons between the Byzantine novels and their models. Prodromos, for example, in adapting Charikleia's monologue of despair at Heliodorus 6.8-9, reduces the narrative components to the bare essentials while inflating the emotional monologue "to Lykophronian proportions" (p. 153). "This," Agapitos comments, "is the twelfth-century perception of drama displayed to the full. It is also the logical conclusion of a Byzantine reading of Heliodorus: minimal action and emotional pathos in the grand style." In addition to illuminating the Byzantine novelists' conceptions of drama, Agapitos offers a corrective survey of the evidence for the familiarity of Heliodorus in Byzantium, useful comments on the dating of the Byzantine novels, and a review of Psellos' literary appreciation for the narrative complexity of the Aithiopika.

In "Heliodorus Parthenopaeus: the Aithiopika in Baroque Naples" (pp. 157-81), Clotilde Bertoni and Massimo Fusillo focus primarily on Giambattista Basile's seventeenth-century rewriting of the Aithiopika in his heroic poem Teagene, and comment briefly on two other baroque resurrections of Heliodorus, Ettore Pignatelli's tragedy Carichia and Giulio Cesare Cortese's vernacular tale Li travagliuse ammure de Ciullo e Perna. According to Bertoni and Fusillo, by choosing epic poetry as his form and Heliodorus as his principal model, Basile produces an epic which neatly sidesteps some of the rigid requirements imposed on this genre in the preceding century. In particular, while attempts to revive epic poetry in the sixteenth century had favored military enterprises and moral didactic material, Basile makes eros an essential component of the plot and redefines heroism in terms of conjugal fidelity. Heliodorus' work, or course, provided Basile with an abundance of sentimental and erotic material; but the baroque author goes much further, developing Theagenes into an even more melodramatic hero, highlighting the sorrowful side of love, and expanding the roles of the rivals Arsake and Thyamis with rhetorically crafted, highly emotional monologues. He extends some of Heliodorus' battle scenes in an apparent attempt to conform to contemporary epic canons, but at the same time he infuses these military scenes with atypical erotic pathos, as in the deaths of the lover-warriors Arimante and Ilia in canto 18. The authors neatly summarize the resulting generic ambiguity as follows: "The Teagene is constructed upon a subtle mystification: the codes of the novel appear to be subordinated to those of the epic poem, but in reality -- even if the heroic structure is always kept -- they manage to overturn them" (p. 169).

As the articles of Agapitos and Bertoni and Fusillo focus primarily on rhetoric, melodrama, eros, and the sentimental, their inclusion generates a noticeable thematic gap in this collection. Did Heliodorus' emulators exhibit the types of narrative ingenuity explored by the other contributors? And was their writing similarly self-reflexive? These questions are not considered. Nevertheless, I found the engagement with a new set of issues refreshing. I can claim no broad familiarity with, much less scholarly appreciation for, the works discussed in these last two articles. But fortunately, these papers are generally accessible to the uninitiated (it is a pity that Bertoni and Fusillo have provided no translations of the Italian passages discussed), and they will, I hope, prompt readers to explore further the many reincarnations Heliodorus has enjoyed.

The collection closes with Daniel L. Selden's "Aithiopika and Ethiopianism" (pp. 182-214). After an illuminating survey of modern attitudes toward skin color and "race", particularly as discussed in the works of African-American intellectuals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Selden looks at the Aithiopika in light of modern conceptions of ethnicity. Selden argues that, while characters in the Aithiopika regard skin color as a major factor in determining kinship, ethnic origin, and cultural identity, Heliodorus' work also undermines facile, traditional associations between color and perceived superiority or inferiority. The black-skinned Ethiopians appear morally and intellectually superior to the white-skinned Greeks; and the very existence of Charikleia, a white child born to black parents, casts considerable doubt upon any use of skin color as a token of ethnic or cultural identity. In addition, Selden outlines a resemblance between Charikleia's geographical movements -- from Ethiopia to Greece and eventually back to her homeland -- and the modern movement for repatriation in Africa of displaced African-Americans, sometimes called Ethiopianism. Curiously, just as Charikleia's return to Ethiopia purified that land of the abominable practice of human sacrifice, Ethiopianism, in the minds of some thinkers, was to bring about a kind of redemption of Africa through Christianity. As a whole, this paper raises important questions about ethnicity, Afrocentrism, and related issues; but the project, I felt, could benefit from more rigorous analysis and detailed discussion of Heliodorus' text.6 Also, the extent to which the Aithiopika may have served an an inspirational or paradigmatic text for African-American leaders and intellectuals in the past remains obscure without more evidence of extended engagement with or knowledge of the novel among the modern authors discussed.


1.   "The Mendacity of Kalasiris and the Narrative Strategy of Heliodoros' Aithiopika", YCS 27 (1982) 93-158.
2.   For examples of extended analysis of eros in the novels, see David Konstan's Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novels and Related Genres (Princeton 1994) and Simon Goldhill's Foucault's Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality (Cambridge 1995).
3.   In regard to the very significant appearance of Charikleia's torch at the Delphic festival, I prefer Morgan's translation of 3.6.1 over Bowie's (p. 16): Theagenes wrenches himself, rather than the torch, away from Charikleia.
4.   Winkler, op. cit., and J. R. Morgan, "The Story of Knemon in Heliodoros' Aithiopika", JHS 109 (1989) 99-113.
5.   See Whitmarsh's comments (pp. 123-24) on two recent discussions of ethnicity in the Aithiopika: S. Swain, Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World, AD 50-250 (Oxford 1996), p. 118, and G. W. Bowersock, Fiction as History, Nero to Julian (Berkeley 1995), p. 48.
6.   I noted at least one non-trivial error: the phrase μεταβολὴ παντοία χροιᾶς τε καὶ βλέμματος at 3.5.6 refers to the blushing of hero and heroine, not to "a complete spectrum of skin pigments and different types of faces" belonging to a multinational crowd of spectators at Delphi (p. 210).

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