Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.07 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.07

Christian Rivoletti, Stefan Seeber (ed.), Heliodorus redivivus. Vernetzung und interkultureller Kontext in der europäischen “Aithiopika”-Rezeption der Frühen Neuzeit.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2018.  Pp. 229.  ISBN 9783515122221.  €49,00.  

Reviewed by Isabella Walser-Bürgler, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Neo-Latin Studies, Innsbruck (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Given that the development of the novel from antiquity to modernity is still quite obscure, the edited volume at hand represents a welcome contribution to the research into the early modern novel and its historical formation. For even though the novel constitutes both the most popular genre today and the most successful genre of all times, it also makes for the least precisely defined and definable genre of literary history. Examining Heliodorus is particularly crucial when trying to shed light on the matter. During the Renaissance, Heliodorus’ Aithiopika were rediscovered after a soldier had supposedly stolen the text from the library of the Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus (1443-1490) in Buda. By means of the printing press, the ancient novel soon spread all over the continent and became the model for new novelistic traditions extending down to the eighteenth century. Following its editio princeps of 1534 and its French (1548), Latin (1552), Spanish (1554), Italian (1556), German (1559) and English translations (1569), most contemporary vernacular and Neo-Latin authors of courtly or historical novels imitated and emulated Heliodorus.

The present volume rests on the interdisciplinary conference on Heliodorus and his reception held in June 2014 at the Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies (FRIAS) of the University of Freiburg i.Br. The conference brought together classical, Romance, and German philologists. The volume comprises eleven contributions, organized into three sections according to the three disciplines. While the first section is dedicated to investigations of Heliodorus’ Aithiopika from the perspective of classical scholars, the second and third section explore the reception of the Aithiopika in Italian and German literature from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Among the contributors rank renowned scholars of the novel like the Latinist Judith Hindermann (an expert on ancient fiction) or the Germanist Thomas Borgstedt (a specialist in the German Baroque novel). As the editors claim in their introduction, the volume’s objective is to provide a more differentiated picture of the impact the Aithiopika had on the emergence and development of the early modern novel. By getting rid of the presumption that there was just one Heliodoric tradition and accepting that there might, in fact, have been many, differing from nation to nation, the volume offers some new perspectives on the formation of the early modern novel.

Nevertheless, two main weaknesses ought to be mentioned. Firstly, on the formal level, the lack of an index is striking. Given the volume’s broad temporal range and varied content its interdisciplinary audience would find an index useful. Secondly, in terms of the volume’s effort to trace the development of the early modern novel based on Heliodorus from the perspective of different national and literary traditions, the book remains somewhat of a missed opportunity. By completely disregarding both the Neo-Latin and the French early modern novel, which constituted a particularly rich contemporary tradition of novel writing, the volume sadly takes away much of its original argument. The importance of the French tradition is manifest in the fact that the first comprehensive treatment of the poetics of the novel was the work of the Frenchman Pierre Daniel Huet (Traité de l’origine des romans, 1670), that Jacques Amyot produced one of the most influential texts of the sixteenth century with his French translation of the Aithiopika (1548), and that early modern French literature featured a variety of successful novels resting on the Heliodoric scheme (e.g. those of Madeleine de Scudéry or Marie-Madeleine de la Fayette). Even more important for the transmission of the Aithiopika and the further elaboration of the novel as a genre was the Neo-Latin tradition. Novels like John Barclay’s monumental Argenis (1621) or Anton Wilhelm Ertl’s Austriana regina Arabiae (1687) made the Heliodoric patterns known to a broad European public, which, in turn, not only translated these Latin novels into the vernaculars (thus spreading the influence of Heliodorus’ novel indirectly), but even used them as sources for the drafting of further Heliodorus-like novels. In light of these circumstances, it does not come as a surprise that the most significant steps towards a better understanding of the novel’s formation have most recently been provided by the growing efforts of Neo-Latin studies, which thus should have been incorporated into the volume in one way or another.

The volume’s contributions develop ideas some of which are well known and others innovative. Among the most outstanding contributions, four deserve special attention:

Laura Mecella offers the most controversial article of the first section devoted to classical philology (“Heliodor zwischen Historie und Legende. Überlegungen zum Problem der Datierung”, 19-42). She attempts to re-date the Aithiopika, which are usually said to have originated sometime between the third and the fifth century AD. By challenging the information Heliodorus gives in his sphragis and the scholarship which has so far built on it, Mecella sets up the second half of the fourth century AD as the most likely time for the genesis of Heliodorus’ novel. Her conclusion is founded on a thorough investigation of specific elements in the novel that suggest its proximity to contemporary historiographical practice (e.g. rational explanations of natural phenomena and dreams; detailed descriptions of assemblies and receptions of delegations; elaboration of war addresses; direct quotations from written documents like letters; deliberations on the differences between monarchy and tyranny) and late fourth-century Neo-Platonic culture (e.g. stylistic parallels to various Neo-Platonic prose; the possibility for allegorical interpretation of the descriptions of Egyptian divinities; the appearance of many daímones throughout the plot; the name assignments; theories of divination and truth).

The contribution by Judith Hindermann (“Die enzyklopädischen Exkurse in Heliodors Aithiopika. Die Naturalis Historia des Älteren Plinius und das mirabile der Zeugung Charikleas”, 57-75) removes the tension between science and narration in the Aithiopika by rehabilitating the novel’s scientific digressions. In contrast to the digressions filling the reader in on the protagonists’ background and to the visual digressions describing things pertaining to the protagonists’ present, the scientific digressions have often been stigmatized as unnecessary with regard to the plot. Hindermann, however, argues that the scientific digressions are indeed linked to the plot through some of the main characters (especially Kalasiris and Chariclea). More precisely, the knowledge of exotic and foreign cultures Heliodorus provides in his scientific digressions is represented in the thoughts and deeds of the characters and should ultimately lead Greek readers to question their own customs and morals.

From the second section on the reception of the Aithiopika in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy, Gabriele Quaranta’s contribution “Tra passione romanzesca ed evocazione regale: note sulla fortuna figurativa delle Etiopiche di Eliodoro nella Francia del Seicento” (111-124) bridges the fields of literature and the fine arts. Quaranta highlights the interrelation between the Aithiopika and works such as Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso or Battista Guarini’s play Il pastor fido (1599), based on the side-by-side depiction on cases, clocks, ceiling frescoes or tapestries from seventeenth-century Italy of selected episodes from these very writings. As a reference point, Quaranta refers to the ideological reinterpretation of Heliodorus’ novel in the context of the epic-heroic potential of the courtly novel in contemporary French art. In the Chambre du Roi at the Château de Cheverny, the painter Jean Mosnier in the first half of the seventeenth century designed a picture cycle praising the policies of King Louis XIII with scenes from taken from Honoré d’Urfé’s pastoral novel L’Astrée (1607-1627), Cervantes’ Picaresque novel Don Quixote (1605-1615) and, indeed, Heliodorus’ Aithiopika.

In the third section on the reception of the Aithiopika in early modern Germany, Sylvia Brockstieger’s article (“Alte Form und neue Gattung. Heliodor und die Romanpoetik im 18. Jahrhundert”, 205-215) presents an innovative approach to the eighteenth-century translations of Heliodorus. The radical change the Enlightenment brought about in terms of educational concepts and artistic procedures affected the reception of ancient texts. After centuries of unquestioned authority, the German translation of the Aithiopika, produced by Johannes Zschorn in 1559, finally lost its importance. Instead, the new translations by Christian Wilhelm Agricola (Aethiopische Liebes- und Helden-Geschichte, 1750) and Johann Nikolaus Meinhard (Theagenes und Chariklea, 1767) were ‘modernized’ and adapted to new standards and ideals. By tuning down the overly rhetorical language of the Greek original, by replacing passive constructions with active ones that signal the new self-determination of the Enlightened human being, and by focusing on the characters’ inner life and morality, Agricola and Meinhard updated the outdated patterns and messages of the ancient novel.

In sum, Heliodorus redivivus can be warmly recommended for the insights it affords on the ancient and early modern novel and on the reception of the ancient novel in particular. Despite its lack of a wider comparative picture, which would facilitate a differentiated understanding both of the distinct national idiosyncrasies of the early modern novel tradition and of the distinction between features that were adopted directly from the ancient novel and the patterns that were invented by the early modern novelists themselves, this volume expresses some refreshing ideas regarding the origins of the novel and the genre’s formation from antiquity to the present. In order to get to a fuller picture, however, the interested reader is referred to complementary enquiries into especially the early modern French and Neo-Latin novel.

Authors and Titles

Christian Rivoletti / Stefan Seeber, “Einleitung” (7-16)

Laura Mecella, “Heliodor zwischen Historie und Legende. Überlegungen zum Problem der Datierung” (19-42)
Giuseppe Zanetto, “Intertextualität und Intervisualität bei Heliodorus” (43-56)
Judith Hindermann, (“Die enzyklopädischen Exkurse in Heliodors Aithiopika. Die Naturalis Historia des Älteren Plinius und das mirabile der Zeugung Charikleas”, 57-75)

Marc Föcking, “‘Male o bene, non so’. Torquato Tasso und Heliodors Aithiopika” (79-92)
Guido Arbizzoni, “Die Aithiopika im italienischen Roman des 17. Jahrhunderts” (93-109)
Gabriele Quaranta, “Tra passione romanzesca ed evocazione regale: note sulla fortuna figurativa delle Etiopiche di Eliodoro nella Francia del Seicento” (111-124)

Seraina Plotke / Stefan Seeber, “Heliodor auf Abwegen – Johannes Zschorns Aithiopika-Übersetzung und ihre frühe Druckgeschichte” (127-145)
Andreas Keller, “Transformation statt Translation: Plurale Heliodor-Imitatio am Beispiel von Exordialtopik im deutschsprachigen Roman des 17. Jahrhunderts” (147-181)
Regina Toepfer, “Heliodor-Rezeption im deutschen Drama des 17. Jahrhunderts. Der Gattungstransfer der Aithiopika durch Caspar Brülow und Johann Joseph Beckh” (183-203)
Sylvia Brockstieger, “Alte Form und neue Gattung. Heliodor und die Romanpoetik im 18. Jahrhundert” (205-215)
Thomas Borgstedt, “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre und das heliodorische Romanschema” (217-229)
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