BMCR 2011.03.06

Readers and Writers in the Ancient Novel. Ancient Narrative. Supplementum 12

, , , Readers and Writers in the Ancient Novel. Ancient Narrative. Supplementum 12. Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing; Groningen University Library, 2009. xviii, 286. ISBN 9789077922545. €87.00.

Introduction, Table of Contents, Indices.

Are there still new and worthwhile things to be said about the ancient novel? There has certainly been an explosion in publications; the volume under review is the twelfth Ancient Narrative Supplement to appear since 2002, and more are on the way, as the multi-volume proceedings of the fourth International Conference on the Ancient Novel begin publication in 2011. The eighteen articles reviewed here were originally delivered at a smaller conference in 2007 at Rethymno, and it was the organizers’ hope that the contributors would “tease out…new perspectives” on the topic of “readers and writers” by focusing on those “ in the novel”, in pointed contrast to past debates over the actual readers and writers of the novel (ix).

A quick scan of the contents, however, reveals that the old concerns persist. For instance, Richard Stoneman entertainingly sketches a (speculative) portrait of “The Author of the Alexander Romance ”, while Maaike Zimmerman (“‘Food for Thought’ for Readers of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass ”) offers a brisk discussion of ancient, medieval, and modern allegorical readings of the Golden Ass, supplemented by an illuminating appendix on a series of Renaissance woodcut illustrations. And the article that opens the volume, David Konstan’s provocative “The Active Reader and the Ancient Novel”, is very much concerned with readership. Konstan argues that allegedly ‘popular’ novels like Apollonius, King of Tyre demand the same kind of ‘active readers’ as sophisticated elite works such as the Aeneid : readers who, conditioned by the public, group-oriented nature of ancient reading, were constantly interrogating the texts, as opposed to modern “passive” readers who “surrender [them]selves entirely to the novel’s world of illusion” (12). Konstan suggests that both Virgil and the author of Apollonius wrote with such active readers in mind and deliberately included riddles, gaps, and ambiguities that those readers were invited to solve, supplement, or ponder. Konstan marshals an impressive variety of evidence on ancient reading practices and his salutary reminder that readers were “very much alive and kicking” (15) in antiquity is well taken. But his recuperation of ‘popular’ literature is not as convincing. While Apollonius may contain gaps and ambiguities that invite “the reader to complete or question the text” (14), I am not so sure that these invitations were intentional, rather than the result of ineptitude, oral performance, or a style aimed at a sub-elite audience.

If actual novel readers occasionally crop up throughout the volume, so too does another familiar set of ‘readers’, the novelists themselves, understood as writers who ‘read’ and allude to previous literary works. While such an intertextual approach is fairly conventional, the articles generally focus on previously unexplored connections: Stephen Harrison’s “Apuleius and Homer: Some Traces of the Iliad in the Metamorphoses ” is a judicious survey of allusions to the ‘other’ Homeric epic;1 Michael Paschalis’ “Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis and Petronius’ Satyricon ” proposes Petronius as “reader” of Seneca through a comparison of their respective protagonists Encolpius and Claudius; Warren Smith’s portrait of “Eumolpus the Poet” suggests a hodgepodge of intertextual influences on Petronius’ character: the Tabula of Cebes, Nero, Horace’s Ars Poetica, and the Homeric bards Demodocus and Phemius. Whether one is persuaded of the validity of these allusions will depend on how high one sets the bar; mine is admittedly higher than most, and I found myself skeptical more often than convinced. The contents of Vincent Hunink’s exploration of Augustine as reader, “Hating Homer, Fighting Virgil: Books in Augustine’s Confessions,” are better reflected in the part of the title after the colon; the article’s inclusion in this volume is a little curious, although Hunink vigorously justifies it in the first half of the piece. In “Dialogues between Readers and Writers in Lucian’s Verae Historiae ” Marilía Futre Pinheiro describes with admirable clarity the double-dialogic trend in Lucian’s novella (the author’s dialogue with the reader and the “subversive intertextual dialogue” with literary tradition), but offers little that hasn’t been noted by previous scholars.

A number of other contributors explore issues of reading and writing as they are thematized within the novels, which seems closer to what the organizers had in mind.2 Often, however, the attraction lies in the sophisticated framing of the inquiries rather than in the ensuing analyses of the novels. For example, the expectations raised by Richard Fletcher’s intricate, theoretically informed discussion of Apuleius and translation in “No Success like Failure: The Task of the Translator in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses ” are somewhat disappointed by the brief, albeit interesting, conclusion to which it leads: that Apuleius’ failure to translate the Greek terms ploiaphesia and pastophori in Book 11 “enact[s] the prestige of the narrator as initiate, a prestige that trumps the bilingual egotism of the narrator”. Stephen Nimis (“Cite and Sound: The Prosaics of Quotation in the Ancient Novel”) presents a compelling Bakhtin-inflected thesis—that the novels aim at “producing a powerful form of presence that is neither public nor private, but is situated precariously between them” (90). His illustrative examples, which focus on the difficulties of representing oral speech in written narrative, are well chosen, and Nimis skillfully explicates the ambiguities (who is speaking?) occasioned by Chariton’s narration of Dionysius’ reading of Chaereas’ letter to Callirhoe (4.5.8-9), Heliodorus’ presentation of the nested narratives in Cnemon’s tale (e.g., Aeth. 1.15.1-2), and Clitophon’s ecphrasis of the Procne and Philomela painting in Achilles Tatius (5.3.4-7). But there remains a disconnect between the relative rarity and peculiarity of these moments in the novels and the ambitious, generalizing claims they are mobilized to support.

Tim Whitmarsh’s “Divide and Rule: Segmenting Callirhoe and Related Works” and Ewen Bowie’s “The Uses of Bookishness” are more successful in balancing theory and practice. Whitmarsh explores how novelists try to shape readers’ experiences of the text by manipulating its physical spatiality, and in particular the way in which “the geophysical frontier serves as a spatial analogue for the book division” in Chariton and Achilles Tatius (42). Bowie observes in Daphnis and Chloe and Antonius Diogenes’ Wonders Beyond Thule a tension between writing and orality; the former is conspicuous by its absence from Longus’ ‘written’ novel, while Diogenes draws attention to the fact that the multiple embedded oral narratives that are told in his novel have only survived because of an even more complicated transmission via written texts. But while both Whitmarsh and Bowie provide considerable food for thought (Whitmarsh’s emphasis on the novels’ “prosaics of segmentation” is particularly promising), their articles have a preliminary feel, as if paving the way for future research. The same could be said of Richard Hunter’s otherwise engaging “The Curious Incident…: polypragmosyne and the Ancient Novel”, which explores the relation between the figure of the curious man in the novel and the figuring by the novelists of the reader as curious. Hunter’s incisive readings of his well-chosen texts, such as the Life of Aesop, left my own curiosity piqued, but not fully satisfied. Ken Dowden’s “Reading Diktys: The Discrete Charm of Bogosity” is self-confessedly an amuse-gueule of sorts for intriguing forthcoming work: here he urges us to rethink the nature of Dictys’ project by seeing his text not as an ancient ‘novel’, but as part of what he calls the “New Mythography”, which includes the work of other oddballs like the roughly contemporary Ptolemy the Quail.

It occurred to me while reading these articles that the work I found most interesting dealt with the ‘fringes’ of the genre (e.g., Dictys, Aesop, Diogenes), and that it has perhaps become difficult to say something substantial and new about the ‘canonical’ works of ancient fiction. It is probably no coincidence that the contributions I judged most significant in the volume—those by Morgan, Guez, and Graverini and Keulen—also focus their energies on texts at the edges of the field.

John Morgan’s “Readers Writing Readers, and Writers Reading Writers: Reflections of Antonius Diogenes” will be essential reading for anyone working on Wonders Beyond Thule. The curiously complicated chain of events by which Diogenes claims the story has come down to him is familiar to most novel scholars, but Morgan examines it carefully, discovering traces of rewriting, editing, reshaping at every point of transmission. Morgan’s claim that Diogenes’ continuous undermining of his narrative’s reliability reveals a “pseudo-documentary façade…even more complex and devious than it seems” (131), is inevitably speculative, but highly persuasive, built as it is on skillful conjectural readings of individual passages.

Jean-Philippe Guez’ “To Reason and to Marvel: Images of the Reader in the Life of Apollonius,” reflects a renewed interest in approaching the Life as a sophisticated literary text. One of the central questions posed by the work is the sort of ‘belief’ Philostratus expects of his readers. In his quest to locate Philostratus’ ‘model reader’, Guez identifies two types of readers embedded in the text: active intellectual readers and passive emotional ones. Rather than figuring these as positive and negative exempla, however, Philostratus encourages his readers to avoid the excesses of each, to be neither over-amazedly ‘passive’ believers nor over-critically ‘active’ sceptics. The innovation here lies not so much in Guez’ method—after all, seeing internal ‘audiences’ as models for external readers has often been applied to the novels—as in the success with which it is applied to a difficult work poised delicately at the borders of history, biography, and narrative fiction.

A similar challenge is met by Luca Graverini and Wytse Keulen in their “Roman Fiction and its Audience: Seriocomic Assertions of Authority”. Although Apuleius features in both (separately authored) halves of this article, the concern is rather with the light shed upon him by other contemporary Latin authors. In “Phaedrus, Apuleius, and Their Readers”, Graverini notes that when the fabulist Phaedrus refers to his work as children’s games, nenia, he is trying to impress cultivated readers by ironically representing himself as a purveyor of trivial entertainments; in this he is adopting (though not as successfully) the same strategy as Apuleius in his Golden Ass. Keulen’s “Antonine Experiments: ‘Trivial Pursuits’ as Expressions of Authority” explores how Apuleius, Fronto, and Aulus Gellius try to condition their readers’ responses by dwelling on possible reactions to their work, figured in terms of pleasure and disgust. While acknowledging Roman disapproval of ‘Greek’ mirabilia, and the concomitant resistance toward enjoyment, they insist that there is legitimate space for a pleasurable attitude toward the (only) apparent triviality of their work. Keulen sees in these attempts to anticipate and control readers’ reactions the desire both to assert authority over the proper definition of the Roman elite intellectual and to play with readers’ ambitions to be included within that group.

These three articles best fulfill the promise of the introduction; they combine thoughtful assessments of the topic—readers and writers in the novel—with convincing readings of their chosen text(s). The rest of the volume provides intermittent rewards, and I learned something (often significant) from nearly every article. But I also had the feeling that the real interest and novelty here came not so much from new methods of approaching the novel, as from the careful analyses of less-studied texts. Are there still things left to say about the canonical novels? Surely, but that might require something on a larger scale, such as the recent monographs on Chariton by Steven Smith (Groningen 2007) and Stefan Tilg (Oxford 2010), or Whitmarsh’s forthcoming Narrative and Identity in the Ancient Greek Novel (Cambridge 2011). If the study of ancient narrative is to avoid stagnation, it needs to move toward the ‘fringes’ and beyond, and there are signs that it is doing so.3 Let’s see what the next few Ancient Narrative Supplements have to offer.


1. Cf. Harrison (1990) “Some Odyssean Scenes in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses,” MD 25, 193-201.

2. Niall Slater’s “Reading Inscription in the Ancient Novel” reviews the use of inscriptions in the novels, but only adds a few points to the survey of the same material in E. Sironen (2003) “The Role of Inscriptions in Greco-Roman Novels,” in S. Panayatokis et al., eds. The Ancient Novel and Beyond, 289-300. Leiden.

3. E.g., G. Karla (ed.) (2009) Fiction on the Fringe: Novelistic Writing in the Post-Classical Age. Leiden.