Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.05.10

Heinz Hofmann (ed.), Latin Fiction: The Latin Novel in Context.   London and New York:  Routledge, 1999.  Pp. 277.  ISBN 0-415-14721-2.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Joy Connolly, University of Washington and Stanford University (
Word count: 2362 words


Heinz Hofmann, Gareth Schmeling, John Bodel, Graham Anderson, Catherine Connors, Gerald N. Sandy, Hugh J. Mason, Nancy Shumate, Stefan Merkle, Gerlinde Huber-Rebenich, Richard Stoneman, Claudio Moreschini, Elizabeth Archibald, Robert H. F. Carver

Latin Fiction takes up the challenge of its many-sided subject with a bold expansion of the textual territory that we call the ancient novel.1 Published by a press with a relatively broad extra-disciplinary audience, and self-identified as a member of the growing list of introductory books on the subject (xi), the whole of the collection is likely to appeal most strongly to new readers of ancient novels, or those familiar only with Petronius or Apuleius: they will profit immediately from the juxtaposition of the Satyrica and the Golden Ass with less obvious texts such as Apollonius King of Tyre, the Trojan tales of Dictys and Dares, hagiographies and medieval accounts of a fictionalized Alexander. The essays on the circulation and interpretation of Latin fiction in late antiquity and the Renaissance also deserve their prominent place here and should be welcomed by scholars of the earlier Latin tradition. It is unfortunate, though perhaps inevitable in a collection of this type, that the critical and theoretical course charted by the book does not always match the ambition and vision of its range of primary texts. Approximately half of the essays manage successfully to stake out new interpretative claims on the texts, weaving them into coverage of the relevant critical questions or the appropriate synoptic or biographical narrative. Others, their sights fixed on filling out the slender canon and supplying a wealth of supporting contextual material, limit their discussions to the most conventional and elementary interpretive issues, and in several cases cannot help but reproduce work done in other introductory collections. It is true that the large amount of survey work done in this area entails a certain amount of unavoidable duplication; it is also true the most of these essays do the job of surveying and summarizing very well. Still, the sense of missed opportunity that results is, at times, very difficult to ignore.

One prominent area of neglect in nearly all the contributions is literary theory -- by which I mean not poststructuralism's most intricate byways but basic contributions of the past fifty years and more: Auerbach's classic contrast between epic and novel, Bakhtin's studies in the novel's formal structure, and the relation between plot and desire in Brooks or Girard, to name just a few examples.2 If part of the purpose of collections like Latin Fiction is to make ancient texts accessible to readers other than classicists and students taking our courses, it seems clear that theory has a very productive role to play in that process, by redressing the historically positivistic slant of our field and bridging the intellectual space between disciplines. I should emphasize that this is not a matter of simply quoting names and schools of thought, but of exploring the ways in which classicists might tangibly advance contemporary debates over authorship, the significance of a text's various material incarnations (or bodily ones, in the case of a text written to be read aloud), the moralistic functions of literature, and so forth. At several points, the collection's wariness of theory limits its internal capacity to address important issues in the ancient corpus. A sustained analysis of genre, for instance, is conspicuous in its absence. Consequently, the best treatments are those that simply acknowledge the problem and move on (see, e.g., Connors, 70-1; Carver, 253); elsewhere, however, pages are squandered in rehashing the traditional list of sources, Greek romance, Menippean satire, the Milesian tale or some mixture of the three. A single theoretically informed essay on the matter could have saved contributors the trouble and better defined the ideological stance taken by the collection's expansion of the canon, explaining why, for instance, in spite of the inclusion of the Alexander tales and Latin hagiographies, the entire Roman biographical tradition and the Vulgate tradition escaped the net of "fiction."3

In the introduction, potentially an ideal site for such discussion, Heinz Hofmann strikes instead a strangely diffident note, beginning with his first sentence, which tropes Latin literature as limited and lacking in comparison to the rich material available in Greek.4 Possibly this is nothing more than a gesture toward the book's status as partner to the 1994 Routledge publication on the Greek novel edited by J. R. Morgan and Richard Stoneman; ideologically speaking, however, it is not the most promising introduction to a group of texts still entangled in old prejudices about the derivative nature of Roman writing in general, and the high imperial period in particular. In lieu of a discussion of what makes Latin fiction different from its Greek counterparts in terms of contemporary readership or Nachleben, Hofmann skims the literary history of the novel in western Europe and America through the eighteenth century, with an interesting pause at the under-researched field of neo-Latin novels in the early modern period (10-12). Like most of his contributors, he offers a bibliography that is both excellent and international in scope. The contributions themselves are divided into sections, one section to each ancient author, in chronological order, but for convenience's sake I slightly alter the grouping below.

In "Petronius and the Satyrica," a shorter and more basic version of his contribution to the 1996 Brill collection on the ancient novel, Gareth Schmeling provides a solid overview of the dating of the text, its manuscript tradition and plot. When he reaches the foggier regions of the novel's generic identity (32-5), Schmeling adopts a scattershot approach that lacks the coherence of the previous sections, but his brief references to the novel's confessional aspects are suggestive (34).5 Gerald N. Sandy operates along similar lines of biography and plot in his piece, "Apuleius' Golden Ass: from Miletus to Egypt": his long, straightforward summary of the novel interleaves illustrations of its relation to the Greek romance, which Sandy has examined in more detail elsewhere.6 The cross-linguistic theme is further developed by Hugh J. Mason in his survey, "The Metamorphoses of Apuleius and its Greek sources." Apuleius' elaborate handling of earlier texts suggests that he was writing for an intertextually-sophisticated, literate audience, Mason concludes; further, it is what distinguishes his novel from its Greek counterparts.7 While their material is clearly and accessibly presented, none of these essays attempts to push its terms of investigations or interpretive questions very far: they more or less take for granted, for instance, a transparent relationship among author, authorial biography, cultural identity and text.

The remaining five contributions on Petronius and Apuleius balance these three surveys with thematically oriented analyses of the texts, with varying degrees of success. In his essay on "The Cena Trimalchionis," John Bodel demonstrates how Petronius' commentary on that contemporary phenomenon, the successful freedman, adjusts the Lucilian and Horatian "boorish host" type to suit late Julio-Claudian social concerns. Trimalchio's preoccupation with death, he persuasively argues, is best understood in socially contextualized terms, as a reflection of Roman freedmen's awareness of the restrictions on their social advancement. In "Rereading the Arbiter," Catherine Connors views the Satyrica through the lens of a late medieval collection, a "spirited 'reading' and reworking of its Petronian model" (64-65). In her rereading, the medieval writer's dominant interest in the theme of critical judgment (arbitrium) illuminates the ways in which the laws and social hierarchies of the world beyond the Satyrica resonate within Petronius' text. Punctuating her analysis with references to current developments in Latin literary studies, Connors makes a convincing case for reading arbitrium as an important plot-catalyst and as central to the novel's representational strategies.

One of the most interesting features of the Satyrica and the Metamorphoses is their incorporation of tales within tales, the subject of three essays by Nancy Shumate, Graham Anderson and Claudio Moreschini. Shumate's rewarding essay first summarizes the content of the insertions and the most influential interpretations of them. In the body of the piece, she adroitly shows how Apuleius intensifies the effect of his narrator's moral disintegration by placing him against a "topsy-turvy" narrative background: that is, the activities described in the tales and the manner of their appearance in the novel are analogous to Lucius' own "deluded patterns of pleasure-seeking" (119). Graham Anderson's parallel piece on "The novella in Petronius" suffers by comparison: his sole purpose is to depict Petronius as il miglior fabbro, whose novellas offer readers "considerable artistry and entertainment" -- more, apparently, than Apuleius' "Cupid and Psyche," though exactly why this should be so is left unclear. Of course, Apuleius' own famous inset tale was the subject of many allegorizing interpretations, from Martianus Capella and Fulgentius to Boccaccio and a selection of Renaissance humanists. Claudio Moreschini, in "Towards a history of the exegesis of Apuleius," describes the work of these ancient and early modern readers. His brief piece is a useful introduction to the problem of allegorical interpretation, and the specific consequences of such a reading for Apuleius, though it ultimately parries the insightful questions raised at its start.

The remaining essays move beyond Petronius and Apuleius to less familiar texts. Moving quickly past the murky problem of genre, Gareth Schmeling lucidly discusses the tradition, style and important themes of the History of Apollonius King of Tyre, in the second and more successful of his two contributions to Latin Fiction.8 With an eye on recent work on sexuality and the novel, Schmeling surveys the text's unsettling treatment of sex and family relations, linking close readings of words such as nodus (147) to larger narrative patterns and calling attention to the contrasts between the History and the Greek romance. Elizabeth Archibald examines the History of Apollonius' reception in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance at a later stage in the collection. The work's enormous popularity sets Archibald a difficult task, which is exacerbated by the constraints of her frustratingly brief treatment: her speculations on the complex reasons behind the History's lasting attraction occupy a scant half page. The meat of the essay lies in the sometimes surprising list of works that rely on or rewrite the story of Apollonius, including the Carmina Burana and the writings of Ben Jonson, who jealously attacked it as "a mouldy tale" after the success of the History-influenced Shakespearean Pericles.

Both the Ephemeris belli Troiani and Acta diurna belli Troiani begin with letters that identify their authors as soldiers in the Trojan War, Dictys for the Greeks and Dares for the Trojans. The Latin texts, then, are translations of (largely) lost Greek originals. Or are they? In his valuable contribution, Stefan Merkle discusses the works' origins and readership. He insightfully handles the layers of fictional authorship introducing the Acta (157) and teases out the pattern of Sallustian allusion in L. Septimius' translation/adaptation of Dictys' Ephemeris. The use of Sallust, he concludes, underscores the Greeks' loss of ethical superiority over the Trojans, a moralistic emphasis that "lends a more intense and specific Roman colour to the text than has been recognized so far" (159).9 Two essays on the Alexander tradition, by Richard Stoneman, trace its development in imperial Rome from the first to the fourth centuries CE ("The Latin Alexander") and from 1000 to 1500 CE ("The medieval Alexander"). Early imperial treatments of the Greek leader, the works of Curtius Rufus and the younger Seneca, are embroiled in the philosophical debate over Alexander's virtues and vices later developed by Dio Chrysostom and Plutarch. By the fourth century, according to Stoneman, this controversy has been supplanted by the representation of Alexander as a "divine figure and magical protector ... quite literally, a name to conjure with" (182-3). From 1100 to 1400 CE, the age of the Crusades, the History of Alexander's Battles (1000 CE) is translated into the vernacular more often than any other text except the Gospels. In Irish, Syriac, Spanish, German, French, Arabic and other languages, these texts move over strange terrain, where Alexander confronts talking trees, the Nations of Gog and Magog, Brahman philosophers, and Paradise itself (242-3). The tradition's tremendous impact on both periods is clearly impossible to assess in two essays; but Stoneman handles the mass of material with care, placing brief descriptions of the most influential texts within a framework of Alexander's evolving role in medieval accounts of world history. His essay provides an interesting counterpoint to Doufikar-Aerts's focus on Alexander in Arab literature in The Search for the Ancient Novel.10

In her "Hagiographic fiction as entertainment," Gerlinde Huber-Rebenich explores the influence of ancient fiction and related genres on the entertaining and often sensational lives of the saints, from the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles to Gregory the Great's sixth century Dialogi. Huber-Rebenich's broad survey benefits from the acute questions she raises regarding the moral implications of the Christian appropriation of pagan literary entertainment. It is not a sign of moral decadence, she argues (206), but a product of the Christian writers' grasp of the powerful rhetorical acts docere, movere, and delectare: in the rhetorico-didactic context of late antiquity, entertainment encouraged the Christian reader to imitate the good life.

In the final contribution, "The rediscovery of the Latin novels," Robert H. F. Carver describes the history of Latin fiction's Renaissance revival with a mixture of anecdotes (Boccaccio weeping in the tumbledown Monte Cassino library, letters between a priest and his bishop) and short summaries of important manuscripts and editions. His approach involves a difficult balance of audience and argument. Generalist scholars are likely to find his account of the complicated manuscript traditions succinct and lively, while wishing for a longer and more advanced analysis of the confrontation between humanism and scholasticism (262-64); students may be stymied by the manuscript material but benefit from his contextual sketches.

In Latin Fiction the table of contents alone is proof of the rich variety of ancient novelistic prose. That the contributions do justice to that variety makes the book a worthwhile purchase for those seeking a reliable and well-documented introduction to the texts. It does not consistently fulfill its stated goal "to take up the present discussion" of the Latin prose fiction tradition (xi), if by this phrase we include the previously published work of the contributors themselves. Those using this text in a course, especially for advanced undergraduates or graduate students, may wish to supplement the less challenging contributions to this collection with readings in the substantially more complex modes of critical interpretation currently available in studies of the ancient novel.


1.   In terms of range Latin Fiction is surpassed only by The Search for the Ancient Novel, ed. James Tatum (1994). Tomas Hägg's The Novel in Antiquity (Berkeley 1983) refers very briefly to the Latin hagiographical tradition, and devotes a few pages to Apollonius King of Tyre and Dictys and Dares. Another Routledge publication, The Ancient Novel, by Niklas Holzberg (1995), focuses on Greek material, with two short sections on the Satyrica and The Golden Ass. Oxford Readings in the Roman Novel, ed. Stephen Harrison (Oxford 1999) deals exclusively with Petronius and Apuleius, though several essays address the two authors' relation to the Greek novel and the western (including Latin) tradition.
2.   Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton 1953); Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (Austin 1981); Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot (Cambridge, MA 1984); René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel (Baltimore 1965).
3.   See the useful treatment of Niklas Holzberg, "The genre: novels proper and the fringe" (in The Novel in the Ancient World, ed. Gareth Schmeling, Leiden 1996).
4.   "In comparison with the Greek novels the texts of the Latin novel which are known to us are rather limited" (1).
5.   For a slightly longer discussion of the "confessional" reading see his "The Satirica of Petronius" in The Novel in the Ancient World (Leiden 1996), pp. 486-7.
6.   "Apuleius' Metamorphoses and the Greek novel," ANRW II.23.2 (1994): 1511-1574.
7.   Compare other aspects of the Greek-Roman connection in Mason's "Fabula graecanica," reprinted in S. J. Harrison's Oxford Readings of the Roman Novel (Oxford 1999).
8.   Schmeling provides a quite differently-angled treatment in the Brill collection he edited ("Historia Apollonii Regis Tyrii," Leiden 1996), focusing on textual history, prose style and a short interpretative discussion (544-50) on the contrasting versions of Tarsia's life-story.
9.   Merkle's 1996 Brill essay ("The truth and nothing but the truth: Dictys and Dares") focuses on the contrast between Dictys' and Dares' narrative patterns and the psychological elements of their characters.
10.   Faustina C. W. Doufikar-Aerts, "A legacy of the Alexander Romance in Arab writings: Al-Iskandar, founder of Alexandria," in The Search for the Ancient Novel, ed. James Tatum (Baltimore 1994).

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