BMCR 2006.05.05

The Virgin and her Lover: Fragments of an Ancient Greek Novel and a Persian Epic Poem. Brill Studies in Middle Eastern Literatures, Supplements to the Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. XXX

, , The virgin and her lover : fragments of an ancient Greek novel and a Persian epic poem. 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.. Leiden: Brill, 2003. 1 online resource (xii, 278 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 1423714326 $122.00.

In 1983 Tomas Hägg, no doubt familiar to many BMCR readers for his work on the Greek novel, and Bo Utas, a scholar of Iranian studies also at Uppsala University, “happened to be discussing possible Greek themes in Islamic literature and in particular, the possibility that the ancient Greek novels might have had some kind of Oriental afterlife, comparable to the influence the genre exerted in twelfth-century Byzantium and in Western Europe during the Renaissance and the Baroque period” (16). In this conversation Hägg and Utas realized that there was a relationship between Metiokhus and Parthenope, a fragmentary Greek novel recovered in the modern period, and Vâmiq and ‘Adhrâ, a Persian romantic tale known in a number of versions, the earliest being the lost one attributed to the Ghaznavid court poet, Abu’l-Qâsim ‘Unsurî (CE c. 970 – c. 1040).

In this volume Hägg and Utas provide a learned critical edition, commentary, and technical discussion of the Greek and Persian sources of this lost Greek novel and its Persian successor.1 The first chapter provides a history of scholarship, including a description of the origins of this cooperative project. Chapters Two and Three treat the Greek and Persian sources respectively. Chapter Four attempts to make sense of the textual transformations that occurred between these Greek and Persian sources. After some consideration the authors argue that the story did not have a Pahlavi/Middle Persian or Syriac intermediary on its way into New Persian; however, it remains undecided whether there was an Arabic intermediary or a prior New Persian rendering of the Greek (201). Chapter Five is a speculative reconstruction of the original plot of both Metiokhus and Parthenope and Abu’l-Qâsim ‘Unsurî’s Vâmiq and ‘Adhrâ. Chapter Six briefly points to a number of concrete future steps scholars may take in the ongoing study of this material.

The authors have reconstructed a fascinating tale of a story that, in its various forms, begins in the fifth century in Herodotus’s Histories (3.124) and is attested as late as 1833 in Wamik und Asra, das ist der Glüende und die Blühende. Das älteste persiche romantische Gedicht, by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, an Orientalist whose extensive flowery German poem is loosely based on the sixteenth-century Ottoman version of Mahmûd Lâmi’î (211-2). The two lost texts around which most of this volume is centered are reconstructed with difficulty. Metiokhus and Parthenope was perhaps written in the first century BCE, but its remains can only be found in papyrus fragments, several testimonia, two mosaics from Roman Syria, and the Martyrdom of St Parthenope, a Christianized rendering, which though composed in Greek, is extant only in Coptic fragments and a full Arabic translation. ‘Unsurî’s Vâmiq and ‘Adhrâ, or The Lover and the Virgin, is extant only in a fragmentary manuscript, a rendering of the tale in a later collections of stories, and numerous testimonia. The basic storyline is run of the mill romance: boy and girl meet, fall in love, are separated, suffer trials, wander, and probably—our sources are not clear—are reunited in the end. However, the numerous overlapping details between the Greek novel and the Persian poem demonstrate how closely related the two are.

This book is an excellent example of the wonderful synergy that can come about from interdisciplinary interaction. Hägg and Utas have cooperated to produce a significant volume that may be appreciated from more than one angle. Those who work on the ancient Greek novel are offered both a close analysis of the remains of a lost instance of the genre and a fine example of how the Nachleben of this literature is not limited to the Western European romance or the genre’s odd warping in the Apocryphal Acts and the hagiographical tradition. Scholars of Persian literature, and by extension all those interested in the Middle Eastern romance tradition — exemplified in and more commonly known from the tale of Layla and Majnun — may use this volume to look backwards and better understand the prior development of this tradition. Dick Davis, in his slender, thoughtful study of the interaction between the Greek novel and the Persian Romance, Panthea’s Children: Hellenistic Novels and Medieval Persian Romances, has relied on this volume, which he cites several times (for a brief review of this book, see BMCR 2003.09.02). In addition to these two groups of scholars, historians, such as this reviewer, who are interested in the locus between the Greek novel and the Persian poem, that is, the points of contact between Greek and Persian culture in the Sasanian Empire and the early Islamic period, will find this volume useful as a case study of such contact.


1. This review is so late that in the time between my receiving the book from BMCR (Winter 2004) and my writing this I have studied Persian and already forgotten most of it. Granted, being able to read some of Rumi’s poetry does not mean that I would have been able to judge certain technical aspects of this volume, since it would require a true expertise in Persian poetry and literary tradition. In any case I cannot speak to the text critical issues raised in this volume and I apologize for the tardiness of this review.