BMCR 1998.01.17

98.1.17, Education in Greek Fiction. Nottingham Classical Lecture Series, Vol. 4

, , , Education in Greek fiction. Nottingham classical literature studies ; v. 4. Bari: Levante, 1997. 205 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 9788879491419. L 48.000.

“The contributions to this volume are based on the papers and responses delivered at the fourth Nottingham Classical Literature Symposium, held in the Department of Classics, University of Nottingham, on 24 May 1995” (from the Editorial Note).

Four papers and three responses are presented in the volume. Their subject matter represents a wide but scattered view of what constitutes “Greek fiction,” including Homeric epic (“Growing up in early Greece: heroic and aristocratic educations,” by Hans van Wees); Aristophanic comedy (“Bringing up Father: paideia and ephebeia in the Wasps,” by Niall Slater); historical novel (“Xenophon’s Cyropaedia: education and fiction,” by Christopher Tuplin); and the ancient novel (“Erotika mathemata: Greek romance as sentimental education,” by J.R. Morgan). It needs also to be explained that the implied meaning of “education” in the title is also very broad. In almost no instance does the term allude to formal learning in schools, but includes games, role modelling, learning by mistakes or by falling in love—in short, anything which has to do with the process of growing up or maturing.

Van Wees’ essay is a good introduction to many of the issues of child-rearing in early Greece; though he also quotes Pindar and the Homeric Hymns, mostly he is dealing with the Homeric epics. What most affects me in his essay is his tribute to the naturalness and down-to-earth realism of the portraits of childhood in Homer. The infant Achilles in the Iliad is no precocious hero, like his counterpart in Pindar, but dribbles wine on his tutor’s chest (p.2). Even Aphrodite and Artemis are charmingly presented by Homer as overgrown children who need to be soothed by their parents when injured (pp.5-6). As always, Homer delights because he seems to be talking about real people and lifelike situations. Training of children, van Wees shows, is largely done unsystematically through games and association with adults. What is less successful is van Wees’ explanation of how Telemachos and Nausikaa seem to grow up “literally overnight” in the Odyssey. Van Wees leaves the impression that their sudden maturation reflects an actual practice in early Greece of initiating children very quickly into adult life. P.V. Jones in his response to van Wees rightly reminds us that the sudden challenge to these adolescents, thrusting them into adult situations, can be better explained as an artificial plot device by Homer to move along the return of Odysseus.

Tuplin’s paper on Xenophon overshadows all the other contributions in length (at nearly 100 pages, occupying about half of the volume); it is full of learning, with by far the most extensive bibliography in the book, and is clearly based on a close reading of the Cyropaedia. Still, there are several major problems with the essay in this format. Its detailed commentary on the Cyropaedia dwarfs the other papers, it reads like the early draft of a Ph.D thesis, and worst, it presents no very clear thesis or conclusion. Adding to the impression of an early draft is Tuplin’s complicated system of numbering paragraphs by letters and Roman numerals, a system which does little to guide the reader meaningfully through the sprawling analysis. Perhaps the material of this paper will eventually be put to better use in a different format. It is not hard to see why this is the one paper to which no response was submitted. The volume editors would have done the author a favor by some drastic trimming. Meanwhile, for a more accessible introduction to issues of education in Xenophon one could start with any of several recent books on the Cyropaedia, especially that of Deborah Gera (1993).

Niall Slater’s breezy and informative essay about the education of Philocleon in the Wasps attempts to show the thematic connection between the two halves of the play. Slater argues that the old man’s reintegration into society by his son Bdelycleon follows a pattern of education of the ephebes (a view influenced by the scholarship of A.M. Bowie). By the end of the play, Philocleon has become “weaned from pure spectatorship” and transformed into a “Dionysiac participant” who becomes the leader of the choral dance. Even if, as Alan Sommerstein argues in his response, there is no evidence in the fifth century for any such “ephebeia,” or rite of passage for young man, such as Slater seems to presuppose, Slater’s close analysis of Philocleon’s comic “education,” parallel in some ways to that of Strepsiades in the Clouds (cf. Slater pp. 41-42) is a good guide to the movement and structure of Aristophanes’ play.

Finally, J.R. Morgan looks at the education of young lovers in the Greek novel. He admits disarmingly at the conclusion of his essay (pp. 187-188) that his investigation has been largely negative. While the central characters of Daphnis and Chloe do receive an education, specifically in the mechanics of sex, but also in the broader meaning of Eros (“Daphnis and Chloe have to learn … their own place within the natural harmony,” p. 169), this novel is unique in beginning the story of the protagonists with their early childhood, so that a learning experience is inevitably part of the story. Such personal experience, however, is largely absent from the plots of the four other extant Greek novels. There are occasional exceptions to this, such as the grotesque experience of Habrokomes in Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale, who learns about “stable devotion” from an old fisherman who sleeps with his wife’s embalmed corpse; but in general, Morgan finds “relatively little to substantiate” the idea that the Greek novels are stories of education. In part, he seeks an answer to this void in the conditions of Hellenistic and early Imperial society: the novels are written in a world in which experimentation is stifled and one is forced into passivity by external, hostile contingencies. In his response to Morgan, Richard Hunter widens the focus a bit by speculating about the learning experience of Encolpius in Petronius’ Satyricon, and it would have been easy to discuss fruitfully the growth of the narrator of Apuleius’ Golden Ass. I would add to the discussion the issue of what models the authors of such love stories were using. In a sense, all stories of separated and reunited lovers go back to the story of Odysseus and Penelope in the Odyssey. As Hans van Wees’ paper shows, education is an important theme in that epic, but what is at issue is the maturing of Telemachos and, to a lesser extent, Nausikaa; essentially the main hero and his wife remain unchanged by their experiences. This Ur-plot, the model of a happy but static relationship which is torn by separation and must be restored whole—even after a gap of twenty years—weaves a spell, extremely difficult to break, over the plots of both the Greek and Roman novelists; even Petronius and Apuleius, who in many respects depart from the traditional plot, show by their repeated allusions to the Odyssey that it remains a central model for them.

My final impression of Education in Greek Fiction is that it is useful and provocative, though occasionally uneven. And if comedy is to be included, who not tragedy, where learning is even more central? A more descriptive title of this book might have been “Coming of Age in Greek Poetry and Prose.” But the format of paper-plus-reponse is a very satisfactory one, and the three responses which are included complement and add resonance to the thoughtful papers they accompany.