BMCR 2005.05.41

The Myths of Fiction: Studies in the Canonical Greek Novels

, The myths of fiction : studies in the canonical Greek novels. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. 1 online resource (154 pages). ISBN 9780472025633 $47.50.

This book examines the use of traditional Greek myths in the five so-called ideal Greek novels (i.e. Chariton, Xenophon of Ephesus, Longus, Achilles Tatius, Heliodorus). In doing so, C. demonstrates the increase of mythological material and the rising sophistication in allusion as we progress chronologically from Chariton to Heliodorus. The author in addition presents intriguing suggestions concerning the date, readership and internal structures of the novels which any specialist of the genre must take account of. The book grows out of a number of short articles C. has published between 1996 and 1998, but there is plenty of new material to justify a new book.1

C.’s approach is purely literary, concentrating on the sources of the myths the novelists are alluding to and the various intertextual possibilities that arise from a careful reading of both. The historico-religious approach of Merkelbach and Kerényi is mentioned briefly in the Introduction, but C. tactfully pronounces his neutrality to and independence from these scholars and the polemic surrounding them. Instead the main inspiration for the book is said to be a 1969 article by Grundy Steiner in the festschrift to B.E. Perry. In regard to his interest in intertextuality in the Greek novel, C. also seems to be treading roughly in the same footsteps as Macqueen in his Myth, Rhetoric, and Fiction (1990) and Bartsch in Decoding the Ancient Novel (1989).

The Introduction lays out the book’s thesis and defines the genre of the novel. It also contains sections on the socio-historical context of the Second Sophistic and the differences between myth and history. In these sections C. condenses a multitude of secondary sources into a neat and readable format, making them useful introductions for anyone who has an interest in these subjects.

In Chapter 1 C. treats Chariton. There is an intriguing suggestion made that the mythical analogues of Chaireas and Callirhoe are Theseus and Ariadne in a specific version of their myth told by Paeon and transmitted by Plutarch, and C. supports his theory not only with the similarity in basic plot but also with several verbal parallels. This chapter also demonstrates how the use of Homer is heavy in the beginning but diminishes toward the end of the novel. C.s conclusion is that, while the novel shows a relatively heavy dependence on history as opposed to mythology, the latter element is sizeable and should not be ignored.

Chapter 2, with only 9 pages, is predictably short as it deals with Xenophon of Ephesus, in many ways the least sophisticated of the novelists. References to the myths of Hippolytus, Bellerophon and Io can be discovered if one looks hard enough, but “Altogether, mythological allusions play a minimal role in Xenophon” (p.43). The chapter also comes with a short discussion of the historical contexts of Apollo’s oracle in Colophon in Xenophon 1.6.

In Chapter 3 C. shows how Longus structures his four books along the lines of four mythical aitia which foreshadow or parallel the heroine’s growth into womanhood. C. also discusses the echoes of Thucydides in the proem, the ekphrasis on Mytilene and the trial scene involving Daphnis in book 3. There is also some discussion on the influence of Herodotus, which counters and mitigates the grim undertone associated with Thucydides.

Chapter 4 makes a transition to Achilles Tatius. After discussing the date and setting of his novel, C. goes into a detailed analysis of the work, trying to ascertain the major mythical theme in each book. Thus he discusses the eros myths in book 1, and the myths associated with wine, as well as other mythological and historical allusions, in book 2. C. also looks closely at the oracle in 2.14 and compares it with AP 14.34. He suggests that the third line in the AP epigram should be inserted into the oracle in the novel as it foreshadows Panthea’s dream in 2.23. C.’s treatment of book 3 centers on the paintings of Euanthes and their relationship to the plot and on the Phoenix myth and its sources. Aphrodite and Ares are said to be prominent in book 4, and other gods and planets are enumerated as they come up in book 5. The theme of metamorphosis is emphasized for book 6. There is little mythological material in book 7, but book 8 makes heavy use of the myths of Pan. The overall conclusion, unsurprisingly, is that Achilles Tatius lets myth thoroughly guide his plot.

Chapter 5 treats Heliodorus. After discussing the probable date for the author, C. illustrates his heavy use of epic, tragedy and history. The suspenseful opening of the Ethiopian Story is itself like a scene in a tragedy. In the beginning of the novel Heliodorus clearly points to Artemis as the mythical analogue of the heroine, and for the hero C. seeks to establish that the model is Hippolytus. If Theagenes is to be generally identified with Hippolytus, this raises the possibility of some playful manipulation when Cnemon, another obvious progeny of Theseus, comes in, as well as Thisbe, who acts rather like the nurse in Euripides’ tragedy. The theme of snares laid for the chaste young man by a lustful older woman is repeated later with Theagenes as the potential victim and Arsace as Phaedra. But unlike Hippolytus, Theagenes survives the plot and is proven to have superior survivability again when he wrestles with a monstrous bull and overcomes it. Theagenes as a burly young man ready to take on any physical challenge at this time may also be designed to recall another Hippolytus, the son of Ge and Uranus. This chapter overall demonstrates the heavy debt Heliodorus owes to the myth of Hippolytus, especially as told by Euripides.

The main thrust of the book, which seeks to establish a shift of orientation from history to mythology as the novel became increasingly sophisticated (and sophistic) over time, is likely to be uncontroversial.2 In the final chapter, C. also summarizes some other conclusions that arise from the preceding detailed study. This summary is extremely helpful as the main body of the book, especially the part dealing with Achilles Tatius, can be dense and difficult to follow. The first point C. brings out is the sophistication of the ancient audience who could presumably respond to the subtle mythological allusions. Chariton and his audience knew at least Homer very well (which is unsurprising) and he may postdate Plutarch. Xenophon may have had a number of Euripidean tragedies in mind when writing his novel, such as Ino, Hippolytus and Electra, and in him already the mythological details outweigh the historical. Longus relies heavily on history, epic, and the Hellenistic authors, chiefly Theocritus. Achilles Tatius starts out his novel using Herodotus, but even when mining materials from a historian he opts for myths rather than history. Heliodorus, according to C., makes the heaviest and most consistent use of mythology, often playing on the identification of Theagenes with Hippolytus.

There are two appendices. Appendix 1 summarizes ancient opinions on the distinction between myth and history. Appendix 2 is a summary of Xenophon’s novel and is of obvious use to those not familiar with the least sophisticated and probably (and sadly) least read of the novelists.

C. offers an impressive array of ancient sources ranging from epic to history and mythography to support his arguments. While his book is not an encyclopedic listing of all mythical allusions to be found in the novels,3 C. discusses quite a number of passages (regrettably, there is no index locorum) and comes up with suggestions, some of which are uncontroversial but some of which (such as the date for Chariton and the restoration of the third line of the oracle in Achilles Tatius) invite response by specialists. The typeset is generally correct and easy to read, but passages cited in Greek are marred with a number of typological errors.4


1. Specifically, E. Cueva “Anth. Pal. 14.34 and Achilles Tatius 2.14,” GRBS (1994) roughly corresponds to pp. 69-73, idem “Plutarch’s Ariadne in Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe,” AJPH (1996) to pp. 16-23, idem “Longus and Thucydides: A New Interpretation,” GRBS (1998) to pp. 54-61 of the book. The interlibrary loan service of Western Washington University could not locate a copy of E. Cueva “Longus as νυμφαγέτης : The Myth of Chloe,” Humanitas (1997) despite the best efforts of the staff; the unavailability of this article may be another incentive to go for the book instead, which incorporates it according to the Acknowledgements.

2. The historical orientation of Chariton is well known, see e.g. T. Hägg ” Callirhoe and Parthenope : The Beginnings of the Historical Novel,” Cl. Ant. (1987). On the levels of sophistication of the different novels, see e.g. G. Anderson “Popular and Sophisticated in the Ancient Novel,” in G. Schmeling ed. The Novel in The Ancient World (1996).

3. C. for example passes over the marriage of Callirhoe to Chaereas likened to that of Thetis to Peleus in Chariton 1.1, nor does he mention the Herodotean myth of Atys recalled in Achilles Tatius 2.34. To be sure of course C. does not claim to account for all mythological allusions in the novels.

4. E.g. p. 28 middle φίλης for φίλου (x2), p. 31 middle παράδοζον for παράδοξον, p. 39 bottom ξάνθη for ξανθὴ, p.46 top ἀκούντες for ἀκούοντες, p.50 middle ἀλλ’ for ἀλλὰ, ᾴδούσης for ᾀδούσης.