Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.09.22

Luca Graverini, Wytse Keulen, Alessandro Barchiesi, Il romanzo antico.   Roma:  Carocci, 2006.  Pp. 246.  ISBN 88-430-3795-1.  €18.20 (pb).  

Reviewed by Stefan Tilg, Institut für Klassische Philologie, Universität Bern
Word count: 1750 words

Table of Contents

This book is designed as an introduction to the ancient novel for students and a general audience interested in the history of narrative. It begins with considerations of the novel as a genre that includes both Greek and Latin examples (chapters 1 and 2), goes on to account for single Greek (chapter 3) and Latin (chapter 4) authors, refers to the "fringe" of the genre (chapter 5), and concludes with an essay on the relation between Greek and Latin novels (chapter 6). All quotations are given in Italian translation. The authors make do without any notes. At the end of each chapter, however, commented bibliographies provide detailed references and allow for further study (a comprehensive bibliography, as usual, is also found at the end of the book). Regrettably there is no index. The authors manage to supply the information a beginner in the field of novel-studies would wish to know in a clear and pleasant style. What is more, they indicate problems of past and current research and add some stimulating thoughts and suggestions of their own. On the other hand, there are some flaws in structure and disposition of material, which may be due to some extent (but not only) to the co-production between three authors.

The first chapter ("Una visione d'insieme", by L. Graverini) outlines the need of reading Greek and Latin novels together if one is to do justice to a proper understanding of novelistic writing. Graverini generally shows more interest in links than in differences between Greek and Latin novels, and consequently he uses no such familiar headings as "idealistic" or "realistic" to organize his account. After some preliminary remarks on the term "ancient novel" and the corpus of texts, an outstanding section follows in which he argues convincingly for just that overall view ("1.1 Fantasia, amore, intrattenimento. Per una definizione del genere letterario", pp. 17-26): although the subject matter of ancient novels can vary considerably--some stress love, some adventure, to pick out the main polarity--, two crucial generic features are shared, that is to say the prosaic form and the fact of being narrative fiction. These, however, cut across the traditional ancient literary system in which prose was connected with non-fiction and poetry with fiction (apart from notable exceptions).

Therefore, on a first and general level, Greek and Latin novels are tied together by broad literary categories and an attendant perception of anomaly. This understanding is consolidated and supplemented by an inquiry into several judgements of ancient and Byzantine readers, namely those of Macrobius on Petronius and Apuleius (Somn. 1.2.8), and of Photius on a series of Greek novels (Bibl. 94.73b; 166.11b). Both turn out to be perfectly in tune with each other in that they are particularly aware of the elements of narrative fiction and eroticism, the objective of entertainment and a certain kinship with theatrical genres (22). Further evidence comes from the Greek and Latin novelists themselves, who often expressly give away the fictional character and the aim of entertainment at the beginning of their stories. A recurrent feature in this context is, the emphasis on "sweetness" and auditory pleasure. In my view, those are excellent leads to a closer study of the stylistic and rhetorical fabric of ancient novels and the corresponding ambitions of their authors.

The remaining sections of the first chapter are less original, but they provide a good delineation of the genre from various angles. They address the question of origins and present a series of cultural and literary contexts in which the novels were (or could have been) embedded, to wit the Second Sophistic and rhetoric in general, epic, drama, historiography, Milesiaka and folk tales, mystery cults, Egyptian prose narrative and Hellenistic love-poetry. A final section is dedicated to the audience of ancient novels and their status as literature of entertainment.

The short second chapter ("Critici e lettori antichi: un'antologia", by L. Graverini) comes as a kind of appendix to the correlated material in 1.1 and continues the interpretation of ancient testimonies on the novel. Thus, the whole of this valuable discussion is unfortunately torn apart. As it stands, however, this chapter is well worth studying. It examines actual and potential references to the novel coming from a broad range of texts. They reach from ancient rhetorical theory (e.g. the mention of a narratio in personis found in some treatises and repeatedly connected by scholars with novelistic writing) to the Byzantine scholar "Philip the philosopher," who defends Heliodorus' novel against its detractors. The foregoing results are thus confirmed.

Chapters 3 ("Il romanzo Greco", by L. Graverini) and 4 ("Il romanzo latino", by W. Keulen) give accounts of single authors and works. The corpus is broad, including e.g. Lucian's True Histories and the no longer extant works of Antonius Diogenes and Iamblichus in Greek, and the Historia Apollonii regis Tyri in Latin. In each case, basic information and additional argument are accompanied by a summary of the plot in small print. The approaches of the two authors are noticeably different. Graverini, apart from reporting fairly secure knowledge, takes up issues familiar from his initial discussion of the unity of novelistic writing. Keulen, on the other hand, emphasises the "Romanness" of Latin novels rather than interrelations with the Greek ones. He lays particular stress upon satire as a major model of Petronius and Apuleius, which is a common view with regard to the first but not to the latter. It is in tune, however, with Keulen's other work on Apuleius over the past years and yields very interesting results. There are some basic satirical features that also help connect Apuleius to Petronius and define the subgenre of Roman novel represented by those authors: the intermingling of "high" and "low" style, the irony at the expense of narrators obsessed with philosophical attitudes, or the adoption of a "persona satirica" to look at the narrated world, not to be confounded with the author's own identity. An additional section continues to compare Petronius and Apuleius and reveals further similarities (both have "mythomanic" narrators who act in a an ambience reminiscent of comedy; both feature sexually dominant women).

The title of chapter 5 ("Narrativa 'di confine'", by W. Keulen) is somewhat misleading, given that, after a very short introduction of one and a half pages, the only example discussed is Philostratus' Life of Apollonius. In an introduction to the ancient novel one would expect a survey rather than an (admittedly well written) account of a single work. No reasons for the choice of exactly this text are supplied. In any case it is hardly representative, as no single text can be for a group of works that is by (lack of) definition heterogeneous. In view of the targeted audience this is an obvious shortcoming of the book. Students and general readers will not be able to flesh out the current notion of "fringe novels" on its basis.

The final chapter 6 ("Romanzo greco, romanzo latino: problemi e prospettive della ricerca attuale", by A. Barchiesi) returns to the question of relations between Greek and Latin novels. It is divided into two sections. The first is a reworked version of Barchiesi's article "Tracce di narrativa greca e romanzo latino: una rassegna" from 1986.1 The second compares Greek and Latin novels with regard to broad notions like space (with reference to Bakhtin's concept of chronotope), plot, and cultural identity. Both work out how the literary claims of Petronius and Apuleius rise above those of their Greek counterparts, the former section focusing on the fragmentary tradition of racy Greek narrative, the latter on the idealistic strain. So Barchiesi, like Keulen, points ultimately at specifically Roman achievements. From a number of intriguing thoughts I single out only Barchiesi's interpretation of the "open" form chosen by Petronius and Apuleius as a consequence of assured cultural self-confidence, corresponding to the more common reading of the "closed" form of (idealistic) Greek novels as compensation for lacking cultural identity under the Roman Empire. However, at times some simplifications seem to be made for the sake of the argument. The racy Greek tradititon, for example, has to be temporarily silenced in the reasoning on "closed" and "open" form, and nothing is said about the Latin Historia Apollonii. Obviously, the latter belongs to another period of antiquity, but so do the bulk of extant idealistic Greek novels compared, e.g., with Petronius. I should like to add that not a few people still believe in a Greek Satyrica, and the recent study of G. Jensson provides some attractive arguments in its defence.2

As remarked upon in the first paragraph, the book lacks a bit in consistency. One wonders particularly whether the other authors always share Graverini's programmatic "visione d'insieme". To be sure, this is about a difference of emphasis not about a contradiction of views. Nor do I call for any alignment of contents or opinions. However, some explicit references to each other's interpretative thrust might have helped orient beginners. Nevertheless, this is a very useful book to students and general readers. Novel-scholars too will find some stimulating ideas in it and appreciate the solid surveys. The distinctive approaches of the authors ensure that there is not too much overlap with N. Holzberg's renowned equivalent in German and English (and some further languages by now).3 Both books can beneficially stand side by side on the shelf, and, given that Holzberg's is not translated into Italian, the present one is clearly the best introduction to the ancient novel in that language.


- p. 31 and 147: "Madauros", not "Madaura" is the correct form according to J.G. Griffiths, The Isis-Book, Leiden 1975, 60 n. 1.

- p. 32: prolalíai: prolaliaí.

- p. 63: hypothesis: hypóthesis.

- p. 139: Apokolokynthòsis: Apokoloky/nthosis.

- p. 143: Petron. 39.12 obsonatores cannot mean "cuochi"; obsonatores only deliver the ingredients for meals. In doing so, however, they satisfy the palatal pleasures of their masters as well, which still permits the analogy between food and rhetoric.

p. 148: Milesian Tales would have contained fantastic adventures: this begs the question; the only evidence is Apuleius, who could easily have added the fantastic element by himself.

- p. 174: the website dedicated to the Widow of Ephesus has moved (24 August 2006).

- p. 208: "un racconto in terza persona, quindi forse nella tradizione dei Milesiaká di Aristide": a first person narrator is normally assumed for Aristides' stories (mainly on the evidence of Ps.-Luc. Am. 1).

- p. 219: Λευχίππη: Λευκίππη // χαὶ: καὶ.

- p. 233: Äsop-roman. Motiv-geschichte: Äsop-Roman. Motivgeschichte.


1.   Originally in Semiotica della novella latina, Rome 1986, 219-36; reprinted in English translation and with a short afterword in Oxford Readings in the Roman Novel, ed. by S.J. Harrison, Oxford 1999, 124-41.
2.   The Recollections of Encolpius. The Satyrica of Petronius as Milesian Fiction, Groningen 2004.
3.   N. Holzberg, Der antike Roman: eine Einführung, 3rd edition, Darmstadt 2006. Note that this is the up-to-date edition. In the book under review only the first edition of 1986 and the English translation of 1995 are cited (p. 233). But the Einführung was considerably revised and enlarged for the second German edition of 2001.

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