Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.09.05

Sophie Lalanne, Une éducation grecque: rites de passage et construction des genres dans le roman grec ancien.   Paris:  Éditions La Découverte, 2006.  Pp. 311.  ISBN 2-7071-4365-0.  €27.50 (pb).  

Reviewed by David Konstan, Brown University (
Word count: 2666 words

The central thesis of this book is that the ancient Greek novels represent a rite of passage from childhood (or adolescence) to adulthood and marriage. What is more, this transition captures or corresponds to an actual initiation, or sense of initiation, in the world of the Greek cities at the time the novels were composed, that is, under the high Roman empire. As Lalanne writes, "For me, the main interest of the Greek novel lies in the exceptional field of observation that it provides for the historian: for the first time a Greek education unfolds before our eyes" (16). While Lalanne is perfectly sensitive to the literary nature of the novels, they are for her, in the first instance, "a source for history" (12). The book thus has two objectives: first, L. argues that the narratives of the five surviving novels conform to the pattern of an initiatory rite, as laid out by Arnold van Gennep in his classic work, Les rites de passage (original edition 1909); and second, she explains the relevance of such a rite to Greek society in that epoch, which was, after all, rather more sophisticated, or at least more materially advanced, than the cultures that van Gennep had investigated.

Van Gennep individuated three stages in the initiatory process: separation from the community; a liminal phase at the margins of the social world; and, finally, reintegration or reaggregation into the original group, but with a new status. The process thus implies the existence of clearly demarcated status groups, involving a formal or at least well-defined transition from one to another. Now, as L. observes, "all the Greek novels recount the same story of love and adventure, with variations which, although numerous, do not alter the overall structure" (47). The essential elements of the novelistic plot involve love at first sight between two aristocratic youths, a subsequent journey by sea which typically results in a shipwreck and the separation of the couple (this element is missing from or at best vestigial in Daphnis and Chloe), and a series of adventures and dangers that threaten the young couple in various parts of the world, until, "at the end of this test, the two adolescents are reunited and return in triumph to the city of their parents" (47). It is not difficult to map this plot structure onto van Gennep's triadic model: the youngsters are torn from their homes, wander in foreign parts where they are stripped of their social identity (this constitutes the larger portion of the narrative), and finally, having survived these trials, rejoin their society. What is more, when they do come home again, L. argues, they are not the same as when they left: for then they were but children, whereas they return prepared to assume the role of married adults. The period of their adventures abroad thus serves as a true ritual of passage from one status to another.

One might object that in two of the novels, by Chariton and Xenophon of Ephesus, the young couple are already married before their journey begins, and so they have already achieved adult status. But it is not the wedding as such or the loss of virginity that marks the change of status, as L. conceives it, but rather the end of a process of education, by which men and women -- each according to the expectations of their gender -- learn what is required of an adult citizen. At the beginning of the novels, the couple are marked by a lack of differentiation between male and female roles. The hero is as love-struck as the heroine, and equally timid in wooing his beloved (contrast the behavior of Chaereas in Chariton's novel with that of the Italian suitors). Once they are torn from home, the hero is frequently represented as passive or helpless to repel aggressors, whereas the heroine often behaves with remarkable energy and even force to protect her chastity --Anthia in Xenophon's Ephesiaca actually kills a bandit who attempts to rape her; as L. notes, "there are in fact numerous examples of female courage in the Greek novels" (233). By the end, however, the hero has learned to exhibit the courage and valor or andreia that are appropriate to a man: witness Chaereas' victory over the Persians in naval combat and his triumphal entry into Syracuse at the head of a fleet (96; on the need to be educated to courage, see 184-88). The heroine, for her part, has by the end of the novel learned that what is required of her, as a married woman, is submissiveness to the male. The novels constitute, as it were, an apprenticeship in the values chastity, docility, and piety (225-30). L. concludes roundly that "the supposed superiority of women in the Greek novel masks rather poorly the conservatism of the novelists, for whom ... the identity of women is not to have one" (254). And she notes that "learning arete for women is not accomplished without a great deal of violence" (255); indeed, "the education that the heroines receive positions them to accept conjugal violence as their fate" (269).

Although one ought not normally to advance one's own views in a review, it is appropriate to indicate here that in my book, Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres (1994), I argued that the novels did not so much illustrate a transition to adulthood as the steadfastness of erôs in the face of trials and temptations, and that the stories were a way of celebrating what I claimed to be a new conception of erotic passion as a mutual and stable sentiment that could serve as a basis for citizen marriage. What is more, I saw this ideal as predicated precisely on the symmetry of the passion and the characters of the hero and heroine, which on this reading were not merely symptoms of a childish lack of sexual differentiation, to be overcome at maturity, but rather the manifestation of sexual reciprocity in which both man and woman are perceived as subjects -- not subject and object -- of erotic passion. I thus took the similarity between hero and heroine, which L. sees as characteristic of a childish state, and made of it an ideal for married life as such.

Upon reading L.'s book (which I saw also in an earlier form as a dissertation), I now think that the best way to view the novels may lie somewhere in between my approach and hers: some lend themselves more to one, some to the other, and some -- perhaps all, in a way -- are ambivalent. Take Daphnis and Chloe. John Morgan, in his fine commentary (2004), takes a position similar L.'s: "Longus has staged a story of transition, which we can describe as initiation, rite of passage, or simply growing up" (13). What is more, "The development of love ... is marked by a shift from equality and spontaneity and towards the conventions of society" (12); the fundamental theme of the novel is "the socialization of DC's [Daphnis and Chloe's] gender roles" (210). Treating the inset story of Pan and Syrinx as a model for Daphnis and Chloe," Morgan concludes that "D[aphnis] must eventually accept his male sexuality, even if this necessitates the victimisation of C[hloe]; she, for her part, must learn the full implications of her naïve wish to be D[aphnis]'s syrinx (1.14.3), and also that to flee male sexuality is impossible and self-destructive" (196). L., noting that the syrinx is itself a phallic symbol (195-96), adds an intriguing interpretation of the final scene, in which Longus says that Chloe now realized that what they had done in the woods (hule) was mere child's play. L. observes that the only time that Daphnis and Chloe were "in the woods" was during their re-enactment of the Pan and Syrinx myth, and suggests that this brutal story is thus the model for their matrimonial relationship (143-44). L. also offers (145) a compelling explanation of the reference to Pan as a soldier at 4.39: it is a sign that Daphnis is being prepared for the masculine role of warrior, a hint, within the pastoral ambience of the novel, of the transition to adulthood: "the heroes of the novel have, then, each in his own way, the same task to accomplish, that of becoming a man, and a Greek man" (178). I would still maintain, however, that there is a deep counter-current in the text, one that challenges the conventional picture of marriage and sexual roles as predicated on domination and subordination.

Among the arguments that L. adduces for the rite of passage as a paradigm for the narrative structure of the novels is the presence of a highly developed technical vocabulary for different age groups (67-97): in particular, there is "a great precision in the terms for young manhood in the Greek novel" (71), for example pais, meirakion, neaniskos, neos, neanias, ephebos, all deployed with remarkable consistency, apart perhaps from Heliodorus (85); and there is the same strict usage of terms for mature adults and the aged. I am not always certain that the distinctions are so neat, but there does seem to be a particular concern to individuate different ages, and there can be no doubt that the transition from childhood to adulthood is well marked in the novelistic lexicon. L. notes as well that "it is a remarkable characteristic of the Greek novel that Artemis gives way progressively in the initiation of the heroines to Aphrodite, Isis, Astarte and Selene, all goddesses of marriage, sexual maturity, and fertility" taken as a sign of a change of status (212; for feminine initiation see 122-25). Again, there is some variation: Aphrodite is clearly the dominant deity in Chariton's novel, for example, whereas Artemis is barely mentioned (there is a brief allusion to her at 1.1.16, but it is hardly significant in defining Callirhoe's status). Of the separation phase, L. remarks that "the sea is an obligatory part of the scenery of initiation in the novels" (113), and notes that the ship that bears the hero and heroine away from their home regularly disappears (108). Gender inversions, such as in woman dressing as a man or vice versa, are again taken as a sign of an initiation rite (117); they do occur in most of the novels, but whether the topos in fact encodes a ritual practice may perhaps be doubted.

I have wondered at the ease with which the Greek novels assimilate brutal outlaws such as Hippothous in Xenophon, Callisthenes in Achilles Tatius, Thyamis in Heliodorus, and in a gentler way suitable to pastoral, Lampis in Longus, treating them as good boys gone bad and reincorporating them into ordinary society without a blush. L. suggests that "the pirate or brigand represents a figure of inversion whom the heroes could imitate if they were not so obedient to the will of the gods" (107). This is an intriguing view: they exhibit an alternative and negative model of maturation outside civic society, of being trapped, as it were, in liminal world space. I would add that on L.'s own showing of the degree of violence characteristic of the heroes themselves, the viciousness of the bandits is perhaps more in line with the ethic of the novels than I had imagined.

Chariton's novel, it seems to me, best fits the model that L. establishes of a transition from more or less callow youth, though he has rather a violent temper from the beginning, to an adult who proves himself precisely in war. L. notes, correspondingly, that "in fact, it seems that the evolution of terms indicating the age of Chariton's two heroes was a powerful inspiration to his successors" (90). L. affirms that "the novel without a doubt arose during the course of the first century A.D." (49), and supposes, with most scholars, that Chariton's was the earliest of the five that survive, whereas Xenophon was a "mediocre" imitator (52, 135); I am partial to Xenophon, and am by no means convinced that he was dependent on Chariton rather than the reverse. Be that as it may, Xenophon's novel does not conform as well as Chariton's to L's picture of diverging gender roles: Habrocomes seems as much a mirror image of Anthia at the end as he does at the beginning. L. affirms that, "in spite of his passivity and lack of heroism, Habrocomes achieves a new status at the end of the novel" (161). This is true in the sense that he establishes his own household in Ephesus (his parents died while he was away), but there does not seem to be the same emphasis on the dimorphism of the two sexes. Although she argues that men are trained principally for combat (125-28), L. notes that "Ninus and Chaereas are the only two heroes who choose war as a touchstone for their courage" (126). Clitopho is surely no shining example of courage when he submits passively to Thersander's physical attack in the final book of Achilles Tatius' novel, and case could be made that Chariclea, in Heliodorus' Ethiopica, gains in strength and authority toward the conclusion of the novel. I have already indicated that I find contrary strains in Daphnis and Chloe as well.

For L., the ritual pattern that informs the Greek novels is not just a plot device; her interest in it is, as she says, that of a historian, and she needs to show just why contemporary Greek society should have taken such an interest in rites of passage. L. notes that the novel is a new genre, emerging, as we have seen, in the first century A.D. and adapted, she argues, to the particular social context of that period. She begins the book with a survey of the situation of Greece under Roman rule, and observes, correctly in my view, that Greek cities were not in decline but were for the most part governed by a vigorous aristocratic class (59). Readers of the novels constituted, in turn, "not so much a popular as a cultivated public, comparable to the stratum from which the novelists themselves emerged" (64) and, indeed, of the same class as novels' own hero and heroine (66).1 But, though they may have been in power, the old nobility in the cities was not entirely secure: "The concern of the novelists reveals a more general unease on the part of the Greek noblemen who found themselves, in the period of Roman domination, confronting the rise to power of new men (homines novi) in the heart of local aristocratic society" (278). In this context, the novels served to emphasize the need to train young boys and girls to their proper roles as adults, domesticating the women and instilling bravery in the men. Good lineage was crucial as well: "endogamy" was favored within the ruling elite, and new elements could be admitted only after a thoroughgoing process of Hellenization. The novels, and the rite of passage they metaphorically enact (for the rite is in the end symbolic rather than a reflection of actual ritual practices in contemporary society) served to support this ideology, "one of the means ... of this resistance of the Greek elites to the evolution of their times" (279).

Relating literature to the ambient culture is always tricky, and some may conclude that L.'s picture is something of a just-so story, explaining the origins and function of the novel in what is ultimately a circular fashion. I too provided such a conclusion to my study of the novel, suggesting that the novels were a response to the increasing internationalization of the Greek cities, which celebrated the mutual desire of the hero and heroine as the basis of marriage, as opposed to the arranged marriages of the classical city-state (224-31). Once again, there may be room for both these stories. L.'s book is to be welcomed as one powerful reading, which will surely take its place among the major interpretations of the Greek novels as a genre.


1.   L. also argues that the average age of girls in the Greek part of the empire was nearer to that of boys at the time of marriage than in the Roman world, where girls were typically given in wedlock at puberty (89), and so the novels correspond in this regard too to actual social conditions in the East. The question is complex and data are difficult to interpret; cf. Arnold A. Lelis, William A. Percy, and Beert C. Verstraete, The Age of Marriage in Ancient Rome (2003), reviewed in BMCR 2006.05.29.

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