Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.09.02

Dick Davis, Panthea's Children: Hellenistic Novels and Medieval Persian Romances. Biennial Ehsan Yarshater Lecture Series, No. 3.   New York:  Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002.  Pp. ii, 113.  ISBN 0-933-27365-7.  $24.00.  

Reviewed by Adam H. Becker, New York University (
Word count: 728 words

Dick Davis, a poet in his own right, is perhaps best known by the general academic audience for his beautiful translations of Farid ud-Din Attar's Manteq at-Tair (The Conference of the Birds) and The Legend of Seyavash, an excerpt from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (both published in the Penguin Classics series, 1984 and 1992 respectively). In his recent book, Panthea's Children, the published form of the Yarshater lectures he gave at UCLA in the spring of 2001, Davis examines the "apparent interchange of motifs between Persian and Hellenistic literature" (75) by comparing various topoi from the Greek novel with those in three medieval poetical romances from the eleventh century: Vaameq o 'Adhraa, Varqeh o Golshaah, Vis o Raamin. He also includes other texts in the discussion, such as Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, the Apocryphal Acts, and Pseudo-Callisthenes' Alexander Romance. Davis emphasizes how "literary elements passed fairly promiscuously from one culture to the other" and that we might imagine a "spectrum" in Western Asia running from the Greek to the Persian (100). Although he often addresses the direction in which these motifs seem to run, either from East to West or West to East -- sometimes even back and forth -- his primary interest is not in origins but "in the resulting heterogeneity" (100).

After a brief introduction (1-7), Chapter One, "The Veil in the Rock" (11-36), continues the introductory discussion by providing several examples of the kind of topical interchange between Persia and Greece that interests Davis. Chapter Two, "Obstacles of Love" (37-59) addresses the theme recognizable in many of the Greek novels (and even in the modern love story) of the separation of the lovers and the various attempts made on the heroine's chastity as well as the motif of the apparent death of one of the lovers. Chapter Three, "Stealing the Bride" (61-82) treats the motif of the abduction of a bride by her true love. Chapter Four, "The Fires of Chastity" (83-104), discusses the common topos of the trial by fire, in which an innocent who has been falsely accused is left unharmed by the fire and thus is vindicated. Chapter Five, "An Epilogue: 'The Virtuous Woman whose Husband Went on a Journey'" (105-109), demonstrates how some of the motifs from the earlier Persian romances appear in later Sufi works such as those of 'Attar. "Romance, which began as one of the most secular of genres, has been spiritualized and in the process been rewritten for the purposes of sufi edification" (109). We could perhaps draw a parallel here to the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, which clearly rely on and subvert the genre of the Greek Novel.1

Any particular problems with the book have more to do with genre than with the author's presentation itself. A lecture is permitted to be suggestive; however, when we read the same lecture on the printed page we are often left curious about many details and wondering whether the argument completely holds. Furthermore, it is a bit disconcerting when the text of the lectures has been worked over enough to include some footnotes and citation but not enough to leave the reader with a clear sense of whence the author's sources, both primary and secondary, derive.

Davis has drawn the contours of a broad literary dependence, citing striking instances that require further analysis, but the evidence he lays out is certainly more useful than his explanations for how these motifs may have been conveyed between cultures. These lack the more rigid methodology a more formal study would require. We would prefer to rely on firmer ground than, for example, the notion of "Middle Eastern folk motif" (21). Davis employs this device to explain the similarity between stories of the Christian saint Thecla and Bibi Shahrb_nu, the legendary daughter of the last Sassanian king, to whom a shrine was devoted overlooking the city Ray (19-21). In contrast, recent work has shown how highly developed and widespread the cult of St. Thecla was in antiquity,2 as well as its dispersion in the Syriac milieu.3 Furthermore, some sources which Davis treats as novelistic may have reached Persia via the importation of texts, both Greek and translations into Syriac, into the intellectual centers of Syriac Christians in Late Sassanian Mesopotamia.4 Davis patiently demonstrates the striking topical similarities between Greek and Persian texts, but the task of delineating the contexts for such literary exchanges remains for the historian.


1.   See, for example, Kate Cooper, The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
2.   Stephen J. Davis, The Cult of Saint Thecla: A Tradition of Women's Piety in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
3.   Catherine Burris and Lucas Van Rompay, "Thecla in Syriac Christianity Preliminary Observations," Hugoye 5:2 (July 2002) and "Some Further Notes on Thecla in Syriac Christianity," Hugoye 6:2 (2003).
4.   For a recent, full treatment, see Joel Walker, "The Limits of Late Antiquity: Philosophy between Rome and Iran," Ancient World 33 (2002): 45-69.

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