Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.20

Tim Whitmarsh, Narrative and Identity in the Ancient Greek Novel: Returning Romance. Greek culture in the Roman world.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. xii, 299.  ISBN 9780521823913.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Paraskevi Martzavou, University of Oxford (

Table of Contents and Excerpt

This new and inspiring book explores what Whitmarsh calls the “Greek romance”, an ensemble of Greek-language fictional narratives sharing sentimental and erotic themes. The “Greek romance” has been fashionable as a topic recently, and BMCR reviews have kept pace with the numerous publications.1 Whitmarsh sets out to examine two main aspects: the narrative form of romance, and the relation of form to identity (social, sexual and cultural). The basic aim is “not to show what identity is (in a universal sense) but how it is configured within a particular body of literature” (4); what is at stake is “Greek identity” / Hellenicity / Hellenism (139). Whitmarsh perceives in the “Greek romance” a certain “elasticity” that manages to accommodate, within generic confines, both a conservative model and a more challenging model of Hellenicity. Hence, for Whitmarsh, the genre’s “success” (260).

Whitmarsh defines his approach as historicist. But although the questions he asks are clearly historicist (“Why did the Greek romance emerge when it did, where it did and why did it achieve such success?”, 6), he successively deconstructs the main interpretations proposed up to now and based on specific causal models (civic decline and religious change in the late Hellenistic period; the reorganization of the sexual protocols of the imperial period; the emergence of the “Second Sophistic” scene, 6-12). He further claims that “the emergence of romance is even more difficult to relate to particular historical changes, because it was, it appears, composed outside of civic institutions…. the romancers…wrote for readers and environments that they could not predict and would never encounter” (11). I will return to this point later on.

The main body of the book is structured in two parts. Part I, “Returning romance”, functions as a historical introduction, a short description and a discussion of the surviving romances, but also as a general interpretation of the character of “Greek Romance” as genre between the first and fourth centuries CE (a very useful appendix summarizes the extant romances and the larger surviving fragments). “Greek Romance” is considered to have a specific time and place of birth (Western Asia Minor, sometime in the first century CE), developing and enduring until the 4th cent CE. Without considering his model as evolutionary, Whitmarsh observes that first-century romances (Chariton, Xenophon of Ephesos) feature an emphasis on civic identity, whereas second-century romances (Achilles Tatius, Longus) seem to focus upon domestic rather than civic contexts; finally, the ultimate romance, both in chronological and quality terms (Heliodorus), has strong religious connotations, redolent notably of Isiac religion. Whitmarsh visits and revisits the central themes of returning (nostos) and of the heterosexual couple that unites, separates, and then reunites towards the end, after having faced a sea of adventures, in order to provide a happy closure.

Part II, “Narrative and identity”, explores “Greek romance” in the Roman world through a central argument: the genre “embodies a particular way of expressing the relationship between self and society, one that could be identified over a long period as characteristically Greek, while also accommodating the radical changes that Greek identity underwent over four centuries” (139). The emphasis is on the structural features of the “Greek romance”, through close analysis of three basic features. First, Whitmarsh examines the role of desire (pothos) in the narrative economy of romance, and, simultaneously, its role in confronting the audience/reader with the endless world of counterfactuality. Next, he examines closure, the “happy end” of the romances, as prescriptive and open at the same time. Finally, he analyses liminality, that is, the main, middle part of the romances filled with adventures, which, in a way, determines the closed or open character of the “happy end”. This second part confronts a whole series of questions of literary criticism beyond the problems defined in the introduction and assessed in the conclusion to the whole work; it constitutes the richer part of this book. In this review, I would like to focus on the questions of the precise contexts for creation and diffusion of the “Greek romance”, as raised by Whitmarsh in his introduction. These questions are crucial to understand the identity that the romance constructs through the structural features as analysed in part II.

As Whitmarsh acknowledges, the hypothetical emergence and diffusion of the romance outside of a civic world is a historical problem, comparable to that of the conditions of creation and diffusion of other genres (for instance the performative contexts of Greek tragedy— Whitmarsh’s comparandum). Contexts matter, in order to understand the form and the nature of the interaction of the “Greek romance” with its audiences, and notably the agency that the romance exercized. Whitmarsh offers his own historical framework in the place of those he rejects: “… it is not far wrong to see the ancient romance as… emerging from the literate interconnectivity of the Hellenistic and (particularly) Roman empires…” (11). However, the historical context defined as “literate connectivity” remains vague: who or what was connected, in what way ? What were the preconditions and the results of such connections ? These problems of “birth” and intended audiences, though mentioned (12), are not really elucidated.

Whitmarsh claims that he does not necessarily see a relationship of cause and effect between history and genre (12). Instead, in every romance, he perceives “…a distinctively creative working-through of contemporary identity politics…”. But again: whose politics? We cannot escape this question even if the identity behind the creation of each romance cannot always be attributed to one individual, especially since personhood can be perceived as diffused and shared by a community.

Community may be the crucial word here. We might want to ask what kind of communities we must posit to study the emergence and the audience of the “Greek romance”, both from a sociological and from an emotional point of view. Specifically, we might wonder in (or from) what communities the “Greek romance” emerges, and what communities it contributes to form. These two questions should be addressed in parallel. To answer the former, we should think through the conditions of the creation and the diffusion of Greek romance, with a view to defining processes of historical change that preceded the creation of the romance. To answer the latter, we should try to reconstruct the agency of the romances as literary texts, especially the economy of emotion, in order to pinpoint the historical change that developed in parallel with the creation and the diffusion of romance. The emergence of “emotional communities” related to texts, is a phenomenon that might be tackled independently from the language that “Greek romance” was written in, as a crucial element to understand social change in the Roman empire.2

An awareness of the relevance of other types of sources, not only for the question of identity that (?) Whitmarsh himself alludes to (259) but for the question of the emergence and the diffusion of the “Greek romance” could help. Firstly, we might explore the archaeology of the material world that produced the romance. The material record of the Graeco-Roman East is abundant and studied in sophisticated ways—for instance in Roman Athens or Ephesos or Aphrodisias…—can the world of statuary, mosaics, ceramics, monumental and domestic architecture, small finds, etc. help understand the conditions of production and reception of romance ?

Secondly, epigraphy offers material that can help to pin down a form of shared culture, between inscriptions and the “Greek romance”. These elements of shared culture seem to describe some sociological and emotional (if not geographical) contexts that are at least similar to those where the “birth” of the “Greek romance” is considered to have taken place. For instance, the decree IG V.2 268, of the late first century BCE-early first century CE, from Antigoneia in Arcadia, honours a couple of local benefactors: it presents a narrative which shares some basic key- themes and many stylistic features with the Greek romance especially of the earliest period: difficult maritime travel, emphasis on the concept of a successful marriage as a union of bodies and of souls, focus on the idea of the couple as an emotional ideal, an emphatically positive concept of the polis. It is also significant, for the sociological background of this kind of rhetoric, that the decree emanates jointly from the Antigoneians and the “Romans who conduct business in Antigoneia”. The double origin of this text makes the elements that it shares with the “Greek romance” a challenge to the “Greekness” of the themes in romance.

Because of the abundant festival imagery in the “Greek romance”, according to Whitmarsh, romance should be seen as (259) “the product of a world that still construes identity using the festal language of the face-to-face civic community, but in the context of an intercontinental Greek-speaking expanse, impossible to conceptualize in its totality”. This expanse, in addition to size, was also highly complex. We might try to see the romance in a competitive environment, using a diasporic model.3 In other words, it might prove useful to introduce into the debate about identity in the “Greek romance” a differentiation between ethnic identity and language. What is written in Greek language cannot and should not automatically be considered straightforwardly “Greek” in an innocent way. In a globalizing world where language is not necessarily equivalent or directly related to origin, Greek language can surely express (and has expressed) certain diaspora cultures—witness the Acts of the Apostles or martyrological texts, hardly “romance” but still significant narrative forms. Styles, tropes and mannerisms can be used to create awareness and differentiation against other diasporic or quasi-diasporic cultures. I propose seeing the “Greek romance” as a product of a particular Greak-speaking diaspora or quasi-diaspora, of diverse origin: hence the importance of the concept of “homeland” (not always “Greece” proper), and of the leitmotiv of wandering, typical of the workings of diaspora literatures and constructions of diasporic identities. Thus, in my eyes, the Greek romance as analysed by Whitmarsh is not a way to configure the Greek identity but a very particular, historically situated Greek-speaking identity among many others.

For the Graeco-Roman world we do not have the equivalent of Don Quixote or of Emma Bovary; that is, literary constructions that embody the impact that romance has on the formation of a person’s character. But we do have the romances themselves and if we consider that they actually participate in an open and dynamic debate on identity (Greek-speaking, or of a social class or of a certain emotional background), the romances bear in themselves some elements of self-reflexivity. What are these? Perhaps the tensions which Whitmarsh perceives as inevitable and as due to the interaction between centrifugal and centripetal dynamics in the construction of Hellenism, and also as part of the “elasticity” of romance, require interpretation as ways of reflecting upon a Greek-speaking identity but not necessarily “Greek identity”. “Elasticity” should not be seen as merely an inherent element of the romance, which contributed to its “success”, but as the result of a fierce struggle and of the exercise of power coming from a variety of centres and a variety of pressure groups.

[For a response to this review by Tim Whitmarsh, please see BMCR 2012.02.54.]


1.   See for instance, Michael Paschalis, Stavros Frangoulidis, Space in the Ancient Novel, Groningen 2002, 2003.10.01; Tim Whitmarsh (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel, Cambridge, 2008 2009.03.47; Michael Paschalis, Stavros Frangoulidis, Stephen Harrison, Maaike Zimmerman (eds.), The Greek and the Roman Novel. Parallel Readings, Groningen 20072010.02.42; Beatriz Ávila Vasconcelos, Bilder der Sklaverei in den Metamorphosen des Apuleius, Göttingen 2009 2010.08.41; Michael Paschalis, Stelios Panayotakis, Gareth Schmeling (ed.), Readers and Writers in the Ancient Novel, Groningen 20092011.03.06 ; Romain Brethes, De l’idéalisme au réalisme: une étude du comique dans le roman grec Salerno 2007 2011.03.53; Stefan Tilg, Chariton of Aphrodisias and the Invention of the Greek Love Novel, New York 2010 2011.03.23.
2.   For similar methodological questions, see “Readers respond to Rousseau: the fabrication of romantic sensitivity” in R. Darnton, The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history, New York 1984 and also, more recently, Barbara Rosenwein, Emotional communities in the Early Middle Ages, Ithaca 2006.
3.   On diasporas, Valery A. Tishkov, “The Diaspora as a historical phenomenon”, Anthropology and Archaeology of Eurasia, 41/1, 2002, 54-88.

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