Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.57 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.57

Tim Whitmarsh, Dirty Love: The Genealogy of the Ancient Greek Novel.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. xviii, 201.  ISBN 9780199742653.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by David Konstan, New York University (


There are two principal, and interrelated, arguments in this book. The first is that there is no genre corresponding to the ancient Greek novel (it is rather “a field”) and so, strictly speaking, the novel has no unique history; hence the term “genealogy” in the subtitle. To be sure, there survive five lengthy prose narratives representing the mutual enamorment of a heterosexual couple, whose passion is tested by various misadventures until they are reunited in the finale (Daphnis and Chloe is something of an outlier and is not discussed in this book), but this is not enough to constitute them as a genre in the sense that tragedy or lyric are genres, defined by meter and other formal features. Instead, Whitmarsh situates them in a lineage of prose tales more broadly conceived, and since story-telling is universal, the Greek novels appear as one variation of a long series of compositions that range across cultural boundaries. Whitmarsh thus rescues the Greek novels from what he perceives as a Eurocentric view, which ascribes their invention to Greece, independently of foreign influences. But these works were traditionally regarded with disdain (only recently have they been honored in English with the title “novel” rather than “romance”), and Erwin Rohde’s interest in them may have had less to do with 19th-century orientalism (he thought of the Greek novel as decadent) and more with his personal amorous inclinations.1 I think we may speak of a sub-genre of romantic fiction, perhaps launched by the novels of Xenophon of Ephesus and Chariton, just as Roman satire had its beginning in Lucilius and took shape with Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, though its antecedents can be traced to Old Comedy (as Horace did) and beyond. At all events, the genealogical ancestors of the novel on which Whitman mainly concentrates were written in Greek: Xenophon’s Cyropaideia, Joseph and Aseneth, and the Alexander Romance, though the sections (or “movements”) under which they are treated bear the titles “Persians,” “Jews,” and “Egyptians.”

The second thesis proposed by Whitmarsh is that the novels take their place within a larger discourse that is not that of romance or reciprocal erôs (which I have taken to be specific to the form) but rather endogamy versus exogamy over the course of Greek literature. Whitmarsh tracks the origins of this theme back to the Iliad and Odyssey, both of which are interpreted as “foundation myths for the rejection of intermarriage and hybridity” (22) — Greeks marrying Greeks rather than foreigners — as opposed to the hybrid pattern that characterizes the stories of Cyrus, Joseph, and Alexander. Seen this way, the coherence of the five prose fictions conventionally identified (these days) as romantic novels dissolves, since the novels of Xenophon of Ephesus and Chariton hark back to the Homeric epics: in each case the leading couple are from the same city (Ephesus and Syracuse, respectively), whereas Achilles Tatius and Heliodorus are continuators of the hybridizing model, since Clitopho and Leucippe come from different regions (Tyre and Byzantium, though they are cousins), and Theagenes is a Greek descendant of Achilles whereas Chariclea is Ethiopian by birth, though she was raised in Delphi. The romantic novels, disaggregated in this way, reflect an ongoing debate between traditionally approved conjugal alliances that affirmed a specifically Greek identity and what, from this angle, were perceived as transgressive unions, or what Whitmarsh, after Mary Douglas, calls “dirty love” — this is the meaning of the book’s title, for those who might have been expecting something more titillating.

Whitmarsh’s argument is bold and original, and part of a larger endeavor, he says, to revise our understanding of classical Greek literature by locating it in a wider horizon in which Greekness itself is interrogated. Of course, it is Greeks who are raising the challenge, and thus a sense of national identity abides, as it must, if one is to have a notion of hybridity and not just abstract humanity. This is fair enough. But how productive is it to revise the narrative of the novel’s origins and (to a certain extent) of Greek literature as a whole by singling out the thread of ethnic endogamy versus exogamous hybridity? Engaging as I find the hypothesis, I cannot suppress some doubts.

To begin with, is it plausible to take the Iliad and Odyssey as representing a defense of endogamy? To be sure, Menelaus recovers Helen from the embrace of the Trojan Paris, and Odysseus rejects unions with Calypso, Circe, and, more tellingly, Nausicaa, to return to his Greek wife. But Penelope herself was not Ithacan but the daughter of the Spartan Icarius, Tyndareus’ brother (she was Helen’s cousin), and her connection to Odysseus was not any closer than that of Leucippe to Clitopho, since, even if Sidon, where Clitopho narrates his story, is identified as Phoenician at the beginning of Achilles Tatius’ novel, there is no sense that it or Tyre are somehow foreign or “barbarian” (we may wonder, too, why Homer chose not to represent even a single suitor as “barbarian”). Even in Athens, where Pericles promulgated the rule in 451 restricting marriage to men and women of Athenian descent, vase images celebrating the elopement of Paris and Helen were popular. The lekythos in the Getty Museum (91.AE.10) is but one of many examples. Samantha Masters observes, “Makron’s scenes showing the abduction of Helen by Paris . . . both render the moment in the form of a quiet and fairly orderly procession, and one which specifically evokes associations with a marriage procession.”2 Whatever the value of these images, did Homer’s audience regard Helen’s abduction by Theseus as less transgressive because he was Greek rather than Trojan? Perhaps I am too blinded by the traditional reading to see exogamy as the core theme of these epics (Whitmarsh allows that things might have been different in the Epic Cycle). I would have identified New Comedy as the site where transgressive erôs is programmatically recontained through the device of the recognition, though at the same time it acknowledges that foreignness is no obstacle to passion. But Whitmarsh does not include drama among the novel’s antecedents. In any case, he maintains that “Greek poetics, as a rule, perpetuate and develop the Greek cultural tradition relatively hermetically rather than interrogating it – for that, after all, is their function” (127).

Although in Xenophon’s and Chariton’s novels it is fellow citizens who marry, I am inclined to see a substantial difference between the two, for all their similarities. In Chariton, Chaereas and Callirhoe are fully integrated into Syracusan society at the end, and traditional gender roles are reasserted. In Xenophon, however, the story ends with the couple reunited on Rhodes, with a bare hint at the final return to Ephesus. There, they meet up with their former slaves – if indeed they are free even now – Rhode and Leucon; they had been sold to a Lycian who upon his death made them his heirs. What their status would be back in Ephesus is unclear. Habrocomes’ dear friend Hippothous, moreover, is to set up home in Ephesus as well, along with his beloved Cleisthenes, a Sicilian whom he adopts so that he will now have an heir. This is an odd set of relations, rather on the dirty side. Chariton’s Callirhoe, already pregnant and under the false impression that her husband has died, marries the wealthy Dionysius, a citizen of Miletus, then under Persian rule; Dionysius is Greek, to be sure, but a friend of the Great King. When Callirhoe is reunited with Chaereas, they decide to leave their son to be raised by Dionysius, who is allowed to believe that it is in fact his child. It is hard to know what to make of this, but perhaps even the message of Chariton’s novel is not as hostile to hybridization as Whitmarsh supposes (at least with another Greek).

Whitmarsh’s analyses of the hybridizing precursors to the novel, or more strictly to the exogamous subset of the novels, are wide-ranging, subtle and imaginative. He recounts the story of the unconsummated affair between the Median general Stryangaeus, who was enamored of his enemy, the Scythian queen Zarinaea, clearly a hybrid relationship related by Nicolaus of Damascus and going back ultimately to Ctesias’ Persica. Zarinaea refuses Stryangaeus’ proposition (both are married), and Stryangaeus commits suicide. As Whitmarsh notes (37), there are some features reminiscent of the Greek novels, though a romance between two married adults seems to me to be foreign to them (it is closer, I think, to Virgil’s account of Aeneas and Dido, and to the subplot of Clitopho and Melite in Achilles Tatius). Whitmarsh concludes: “If the earliest surviving romances look to us now as thoroughly Greek, and indeed as promoting a poetics of endogamy, that was “a deliberate act of exclusion of both the Near Eastern context of the Zarinaea story and its sympathetic portrayal of exogamous love.” The novelized biography of Cyrus by Xenophon of Athens and the anonymous and still more fanciful romance of Alexander the Great do indeed represent their heroes as mongrel, and Whitmarsh has fascinating insights into the erotic aspects of these texts, in regard, for instance, to Cyrus’s strategies to gain the loyalty of his subjects and his relation to Pantheia, whom Whitmarsh sees as “a female doublet for Cyrus himself” (79), although Cyrus also dehumanizes her (81).

Few scholars today deny that Jewish and Greek cultures interpenetrated, certainly in the Hellenistic era, when the amplifications of the Biblical narrative of Joseph were composed. It is because Jews were becoming assimilated to Greek culture that anxieties about ethnic identity arose (99), resulting in rebellions like that of the Maccabees, which may be understood as what Stephen Dyson has described (in the Roman context) as “nativistic.”3 This is the world of Judith who, by taking up the sword against Holofernes, “assumes control of the phallus” (110). In Aseneth, Whitmarsh focuses on Joseph’s arrival at Aseneth’s house, where we are told that foreigners are excluded; but where does this place Joseph himself, who is admitted to the home? For Whitmarsh, “Aseneth’s dominant ideology seems incapable of countenancing any marriage that is not in some sense intraethnic, even if the ethnicity in question is in the final analysis nominal or metaphorical” (117). Nevertheless, it is “a text born of hybridity” as well as being “about hybridity, specifically the problem of intermarriage between a Jewish patriarch and an Egyptian”; indeed, over the course of the narrative, “hybridity is transformed from a negative state . . . into a positive, enabling force” (120). There is an interesting twist, however: Joseph is gorgeous and “all the women and daughters of the Egyptians used to suffer terribly on seeing Joseph, on account of his beauty” (7.3, quoted on p. 111). I would have wanted more on this unusual reversal of the object of the erotic gaze: in this text Joseph has been thoroughly “Helenized.”

The Alexander Romance, for its part, inverts the Homeric model and signals a “wider rejection of the founding tropes of the ‘endogamic’ tradition”; it is the story of “the artful construction of new modes of being in the world” (139). Thus, Chariton and Xenophon of Ephesus “did not invent the form out of nothing,” but rather “intervened in what was already a centuries-old constellation of literary accounts of ‘dirty love stories’” as “forceful reassertions of a Hellenocentric position in the face of a wave of ‘dirty’ exogamous love stories” (155-56).

In sum, this is a rich and stimulating book, and even my reservations may be taken as a sign of how much it engaged me. 4


1.  “Erwin Rohde: Ein Philolog der Bismarckzeit,” in Wilhelm Doerr, ed., Semper Apertus: Sechshundert Jahre Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg 1386–1986 (Berlin, 1986) 436-505, esp. 451–56.
2.   The Abduction and Recovery of Helen: Iconography and Emotional Vocabulary in Attic Vase-Painting C. 550–350 BCE (diss. Exeter, 2012) p. 156.
3.   “Native Revolt Patterns in the Roman Empire,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.3 (1975) 138–75.
4.   One amusing slip: Whitmarsh accidentally writes of Phaedra and Hippolytus that “she is his stepson” (77).

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