BMCR 2005.10.17

Vision and Narrative in Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon. Cambridge Classical Studies

, Vision and narrative in Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xiii, 270 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0521642647. $75.00.

Achilles Tatius’ novel is the narrative equivalent of a striptease.1 The obsessive focus on vision and (erotic) watching, the theatricality of many episodes, and the restricted perspective of the first-person narrator figure the reader as spectator. At the same time, the narrative plays on the reader’s expectations in order to solicit and frustrate his readerly desire to know. Although some of these topics have been treated before (notably by Bartsch2), Morales has produced the first monograph dedicated solely to Achilles Tatius’ novel. Morales’ main purpose is to interpret the novel, which she does through a number of excellent close readings of the text. A rich study, it also contributes to the cultural history of viewing and to our narratological toolbox. In addition, the feminist potential of Achilles’ novel is addressed.

Morales analyses this novelized striptease in four chapters, which examine ancient and modern theories of vision, the hermeneutics of reading and watching, the narrative function of digressions, and the gendered gaze. All these chapters treat in some way the twin themes of vision and narrative. Readers with different interests will find much to like in this clearly written and well-argued book. The discussion of the gaze will interest those who are interested in gender. The analysis of the narrative will interest narratologists. The many interesting close readings will stimulate all readers of Leucippe and Clitophon. In what follows, I will summarize some major topics of each chapter while providing a few examples of her close readings.

Morales’ first chapter provides a useful introduction to ancient and modern theories of vision. Using a mosaic from Antioch and several discussions of vision (especially from the Second Sophistic),3 she outlines some important aspects of vision in Greek culture. One is optics, the theories of how vision works: some treat it as passive reception while others treat it as a form of touch. Another is the rejection of vision as a purely objective capacity. For Plutarch and Lucian, seeing is subjective, based on culture or skill: because of paideia, the painter sees better than the layman. Although this limited subjectivity is different than modern theories, which treat vision as both a product and producer of culture, the modern touch finds expression in Morales’ treatment of the gender investments made in representations of vision: the man sees; the woman is seen. How one sees, or is seen, thus helps to construct gender roles.

With this background in theories of vision, Morales outlines her approach by discussing some modern theories of vision and examining the methodological questions they raise. Much modern work on the gaze uses a psychoanalytic framework.4 However, Morales rejects a strictly psychoanalytic approach to vision as universalizing and unhistorical. Although Morales borrows terms from psychoanalysis (e.g. scopophilia), she suggests using a linguistic framework, paying attention to the different Greek words for viewing (e.g. σκοπεῖν and βλέπειν). Nevertheless, she doesn’t reject the insights of modern theories. For example, her model of gender and gaze has much in common with Laura Mulvey’s classic article.5 Her use of the term “gaze” itself belongs to a more modern approach: the gaze represents, for Morales, “attempts to master and make meaning of the world” (35).

In the second chapter, Morales examines the hermeneutic activities (both viewing and reading) of the characters in the text and the effects they may have on readers of the text. For example, mis- or divergent interpretation within the text serves to warn the readers of the uncertainty in reading. This uncertainty is dramatized by the opening ecphrasis of Europa. Morales approaches this much-discussed ecphrasis through a textual problem. Shortly after beginning his story, Clitophon compares Leucippe to a painting of a woman on a bull, clearly recalling the opening ecphrasis. However, some manuscripts give the woman’s name as Europa; others, Selene. Selene is clearly the lectio difficilior and Morales accepts this reading, suggesting that Clitophon, unlike the first narrator, interpreted the ecphrasis as representing Selene rather than Europa. She concludes that the reader will understand the painting as bivalent and as a comment on reading: reading like viewing is a site of possible error.6 Callisthenes should have been wary. He hears reports of Leucippe’s beauty and falls in love without ever seeing her. But when he tries to kidnap her, he takes Calligone instead. Just like the opening ecphrasis, Callisthenes’ mistake dramatizes the instability of ecphrasis and interpretation. Caveat lector.

Like Callisthenes, other characters’ interpretations serve as exempla. Clitophon finds his desire for Leucippe stimulated by the story of Apollo and Daphne, which he interprets as a providing a pattern for him to follow. Should we, readers of this love story, interpret the novel likewise? Later, he pretends to read a book to get closer to Leucippe, but his eagerness for her disrupts his reading. Reading triggers desire, which undermines reading. Thersander refuses to believe Leucippe’s claims of virginity: taken by pirates and still a virgin?! Thersander is a realistic reader, but, since he is a bully, his realistic reading of novelistic situations “does violence to the text” (84). Canops is curious and always watching. His gaze, unlike the lover’s, seeks to go beyond the external and see the hidden meaning within. For Morales, this type of reading is similar to approaches that see a text as a script for mystery religions or as presenting a coherent philosophical program. It is true that the allusion to Plato’s Phaedrus, examined in this chapter, creates expectations of philosophy, but Morales shows that the reader will not find a coherent philosophical program in the novel, but only a pastiche of Stoic and Platonic ideas. Morales concludes that the text provides no “ideal readers,” only warnings. Caveat lector.

But readers are not left off the hook with just a warning. Pointing out the many theatrical moments of the story, Morales argues that the connections to mime and pantomime can characterize the readers of Achilles’ text in the same way as Lucian, in de saltatione, characterizes pantomime spectators: they are effeminate. Caveat lector. This idea suggests an interesting new approach to the old problem of the novels’ audience.

The third chapter continues to treat vision but turns the focus to narrative and the function of digressions.7 A thread that binds these ideas together is how vision and narrative both represent desire. How vision can represent desire appears in her analysis of Clitophon’s ecphrasis of Alexandria, which she compares to Strabo’s. Strabo privileges the view, giving measurements to support objectivity. Clitophon focuses on the effect the view has on the viewer; he privileges the observer over the observed. Clitophon gazes on Alexandria “as a lover” (104). He is an “unsatisfied spectator” (5.1.4; Morales 105) whose view of the city must always remain incomplete. Like a voyeur at a striptease, Clitophon’s incomplete view of Alexandria is characterized by lack: he always wants to see a little more.

Similarly, digressions can provoke desire. As narrative pauses, digressions defer the reader’s desire to know what happens next. This model helps explain the ending, which famously fails to return to its frame. The failure to return creates a lack because questions raised by the frame are not answered at the end. What is Clitophon doing at Sidon alone? Where is Leucippe? Why is he unhappy? Although these questions have provoked many answers, Morales argues that the questions are the point. The reader’s desire is invoked by the failure to return, but the work’s abrupt end defers it indefinitely. The reader cannot see what he has been waiting to see: a striptease interruptus.

Beyond the focus on desire, Morales provides a narratology of one form of digression: sententiae. Sententiae are defined by Morales as “statements or descriptions which generalise or universalise” (107). This generality means that they are expressions of cultural and social norms, serving to characterize the speaker or narrator. She shows how the content of the statement can be undercut by events in the story; thus, “the sententious lessons’ authoritative stance is exposed as laughable pretension” (120). Although she does not make the point, her ideas can help explain how readers can recognize an unreliable or ironized narrator: his sententiae do not match the cultural and social norms of the story.

The final chapter examines, from a feminist perspective, the construction of gender by vision and speech.8 Although there is a brief coda on Melite, the bulk of the chapter examines the potential for feminism in Leucippe. Although Leucippe is always subjected to the gaze of other characters, her beauty has over these viewers a kind of power, a power that seems to undermine the traditional accounts of women as passive object of the male gaze. But this power does not overturn the gendered divisions of the gaze, because, as Morales argues, power does not equal empowerment. Empowerment requires the ability to control one’s power, which Leucippe expressly lacks. At the same time, Leucippe suffers a good deal of metaphoric violence through vision. She is a banquet for Clitophon’s eyes and then appears to be sacrificed and eaten by Egyptian brigands (it is, of course, only a theatrical trick). The ecphrases of Andromeda and Prometheus represent display and torture in a way that clearly recalls what Leucippe (apparently) suffers; they thus serve as symbols for the “predatory and aggressive” male sexuality.

This spectacular violence to Leucippe finds its analogue in her speech. Her letter to Clitophon at the end of book six, where she champions her virginity, also “emblazons her once again as an abused body and a spectacle” (203). Moreover, Morales shows how the novel undermines Leucippe’s stress on virginity. The novel elsewhere clearly puts no premium on this virtue: Leucippe willingly decides to sleep with Clitophon in the beginning and Clitophon has sex with Melite even when he knows her husband and Leucippe are alive. Clinias’ lessons in seduction treat women’s dissent as consent (no means yes). This lesson undermines Leucippe’s assertions. Why then this stress on virginity here? Morales finds in Leucippe the common trope of the virgin/whore.

In contrast to Leucippe, Melite is not just looked at – she looks back. This is where Morales finds the small potential for feminism in the dominant misogyny of the text. However, this looking is reduced by the narrative point of view: Clitophon’s control of the narrative means that “spectoral desire to see the male body is given no gratification” (230). Just like a woman performing a striptease, Achilles’ text can tell a feminist story. For the most part, it is pure misogyny.

Although the individual chapters have a close thematic unity in their focus on vision and narrative, they each deal with a different aspect of these themes. Readers of Achilles’ novel will want to read the whole work because Morales’ strength lies in her many exciting close readings of the text. Morales does not try, however, to package these close readings into a single interpretation of the whole work. Instead, in her brief conclusion, she decides that the novel is ambivalent, presenting simultaneously more than one story. This ambivalence, these unresolved stories, make the novel so interesting and demanding to read. Readers of Morales’ engaging and well-written monograph will certainly approach this text with new eyes.


1. Although Morales uses the striptease metaphor once to describe erotic deferral in Chariton (122), the responsibility for its extended use is the reviewers. It seems an apt metaphor for the voyeurism, theatricality, and the position of the reader that Morales argues defines Achilles’ novel.

2. Bartsch, S. Decoding the Ancient Novel: The Reader and the Role of Description in Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius, Princeton (1989).

3. The mosaic, from a house called “The House of the Letters,” is reproduced on page iv. The main discussion comes from Plutarch, On Love, Lucian, On the Hall and Philostratus’ 26th epistle.

4. See, e.g., Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics, Oxford University Press (1983).

5. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3: 6-18.

6. Cf. Selden, D. “Genre of Genre” in The Search for the Ancient Novel, J. Tatum. ed., Johns Hopkins University Press (1994), 50-51.

7. This chapter is a revised version of her earlier article “Sense and Sententiousness in the Greek Ancient Novels,” in Intratextuality: Greek and Roman Textual Relations, Sharrock and Morales, eds., Oxford University Press (2000).

8. This chapter also contains a revised version of an earlier article: “The Taming of the View: Natural Curiosities in Achilles Tatius’ Leukippe and Kleitophon“, CGN vol.4 (1995).