BMCR 2018.01.35

Writing Biography in Greece and Rome. Narrative Technique and Fictionalization

, , Writing Biography in Greece and Rome. Narrative Technique and Fictionalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016. xiii, 354. ISBN 9781107129122. $120.00.


The volume reviewed here is the most recent addition to a significant scholarly output that pays homage to one of classical literature’s richest and most intriguing genres. Ιn particular, it collects current scholarly views on what is perhaps the most central issue of biographical writing, namely its relation to fictionality, which the volume’s contributors approach with the help of narratological analysis.

The book consists of sixteen contributions arranged in four sections, whose aim—as is made clear in the preface—is to explore the techniques used by authors of biographies in order to validate, enliven, and above all to ‘fictionalize’ their narratives. Contributions focus on the imperial period, limit themselves to Greek and Latin literature and do not treat Jewish works.1 The book’s first part (‘Ancient biography revisited’) functions like an introduction: Koen De Temmerman’s chapter elaborates on the collection’s aims and scope, while David Konstan and Robyn Walsh tackle the issue of genre. Parts II and III turn to specific biographies, individual and collective respectively. Part IV (‘Biographical modes of discourse’) focuses on ‘fringe’ texts. The preface emphasizes the inevitably selective nature of the enterprise and describes the book’s contents as ‘a number of case studies that share methodological premises’ (p. xii). This review comments on a large representative sample of the contributions.

The boundary-lines between history and biography were never clear-cut in ancient writing, but both make claims to ‘truth’ and both possess some degree of fiction. De Temmerman’s introductory chapter recognizes the difficulty of disentangling truth from fiction in biography, while proposing by way of counterbalance a study of narrative techniques that signpost fictionalization. Antithesis is presented as such a technique; it is also clearly an underlying component of the volume’s unity and cohesion. The dipolon is admittedly a fruitful way of thinking across the various parameters of interpretation, and De Temmerman’s chapter is subtly and insightfully constructed upon (quasi)-antithetical pairs (some are topics of sub- chapters, e.g. ‘Fictiveness and fiction’, ‘Authenticating and fictionalizing’), and subsequent contributions take their cue from these. Some of the points made lend themselves to more discussion than there is space to provide in this review (or for that matter in an introductory chapter). For example, the importance of time as a narrative device (p. 14) has been amply studied in recent years, and titles in the volume’s bibliography reflect that, but they omit J. Grethlein’s Experience and Teleology, which includes a chapter on Plutarch’s Alexander.2 De Temmerman rightly stresses the nature of the biographee (who may be historical or invented) as a factor of fictionality in both conventional and paraliterary narratives, and further notes the limits posed to characterization by the narrative, but the situation is complicated by the fact that literary characters do tend to have ‘a mind of their own’; what readers see in them is hard to measure within narrative confines (and how do we recognize these? pp. 8-9).

Konstan and Walsh introduce a useful distinction between ‘civic’ and ‘subversive’ biographies (lives that seek respectively to emulate and to contradict social norms; as the authors concede, the two forms are not entirely independent). Their discussion brings together Greek and Roman bioi on the one hand, and the Christian gospels and the hagiographic tradition on the other. Apart from Burridge’s important contribution (2004), which they cite, there is now a useful overview of relevant typologies in J. M. Smith’s recent study.3 The emphasis on virtue in the civic lives, one may add, is predominantly an emphasis on sophrosyne. The discussion of ‘subversive’ lives might have been expected to refer to J. A. Francis, Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World (University Park, Pennsylvania 1995). Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius might furthermore be considered a valuable test-case of biography that is felt to lean on the ‘subversive’.

The second part opens with a ‘subversive’ bios: Grammatiki Karla efficiently applies Bourdieu’s popular aesthetics to the Life of Aesop, reinforcing the work’s common ascription to ‘popular literature’. Her analysis covers a broad range of themes that concern readers and students of the Life, such as style, structure and narrative technique, narrator and audience—all of which are relevant to the problem of genre.

Turning to the Greek biographer ‘par excellence’ and focusing directly on the central theme of fictionalization, Eran Almagor discusses ‘what ifs’ (reflections on counterfactual events / alternative developments) as generators of fictitious tension in Plutarch, and as a meeting ground between history and fiction (historians also use ‘what ifs’, p. 67), with biography standing somewhere in the middle. The Life of Artaxerxes is discussed as a source of implicit examples of counterfactuality. This technique is extensively employed by Plutarch in the Lives as means of broadening the readers’ moral perspectives, 4 which can undermine facticity. The fact that these worlds are not necessarily ‘divorced’ from each other, but rather to an extent converge, prompts in turn the question of their contribution to characterization: should they be taken to sketch subtleties, complexities, or even development of character, or is character to be seen as ‘fixed’ and ‘stable’? The answer to this question should not ignore Pelling’s observations about the predictability of characters in Plutarch’s biographies.

Two chapters on ‘philosophical’ lives follow. In a highly readable piece, Mark Beck discusses Lucian’s Life of Demonax, taking us back to the issue posed in the introduction about historicity / fictionality / fictionalization of a biography’s subject. Employing Gill’s5 character-personality division (another dipolon !), he shows that Lucian’s Demonax has both (‘Socratic’ character and personalized wit and humour) and suggests that Xenophon’s Agesilaus may have been Lucian’s structural model. Beck finally affirms the historicity of Demonax (rather unduly questioned by some), and unexpectedly proposes to see the Lucianic life as a ‘true biography’—though cautiously acknowledging that ‘we have no way of knowing for sure’ (p. 95). In a chapter on the Life of Apollonius, Patrick Robiano suggests that the hero’s long Apologia, with its ‘extended intertextuality’, functions as a lens through which we could read the whole of the Life : it both reflects the elements of the main story and fictionalization and has implications for our perception of the personae of character and narrator.6

The impact of the biographical genre on later Christian ‘Lives’ is widely accepted. Using the Vita Malchi ( VM) as a case study, Christa Gray explores the movement from ‘novel’ and ‘biography’ to ‘hagiography’. She notes affinities between the VM (late 4 th c.; one of the earliest Latin examples of Christian biography, a Christian ‘novel’, p. 133) and the Greek erotic novel and juxtaposes the Latin Vita with the Greek version ( VMG, 5-7 th c.), which bears the influence of Eastern Christianity. To this development she adds a narratological perspective, relevant to the author’s anxiety to control the reception of the plot, which in its turn contributes to the stabilization of hagiography as a genre. The problematic ending of the VM (p. 129) seems reminiscent of the lack of return to the original narrative frame at the end of the novel of Achilles Tatius.

Turning now to collective biographies, Maarten De Pourcq and Geert Roskam discuss Plutarch’s double pair of Agis, Cleomenes and the Gracchi, and reaffirm the porous narrative border-line between truth and fiction, as well as the versatility of biography. The chapter makes a number of important points (speech as a narratological device; the function of synkrisis and moral problematization), but may perplex readers not familiar with narratological jargon. The authors apply Greimas’ ‘actantial model’7 for a deeper look into the text’s narrative and ideological structure, but this is not a necessary component of the essential conclusion (Plutarch’s fictionality as ‘rounded out’ truth, i.e. manipulation of narrative details and of characterization so as to serve his desired moral setting).

Eleni Kechagia sets narratives of the death of Stoic Zeno and Epicurus in Diogenes Laertius and other sources against the ‘death doctrines’ of the respective schools, with a view to unlocking the interplay between history and fiction in the biographical tradition regarding the philosophers’ deaths. She concludes that the close alignment of doctrine and biographical detail in each philosopher life makes the accounts of their deaths, if not necessarily true (they probably weren’t, p. 198), at least true-looking. In a somewhat circular manner, she further suggests that these accounts may contribute to our knowledge of the theories of these philosophers.

The biographical interest of the Historia Augusta (4 th c., uncertain authorship), justifies the inclusion of a chapter of its own. Diederik Burgersdijk’s analysis focuses on the paratextual elements of the work (names of authors, beginning and ending of the narrative) and the mix of fictive and historical aspects. The narrative style of the work suggests ‘a single narrator working under six different names’, rather than variation of narrative voices. Readers are invited to recognize the fictiveness of mentioned ‘authors’, purported moment of narrating, sources and parts of the narrative—a satire of historiography’s lack of truthfulness may be at play here. The chapter emphasizes authorial intention—though as Burgersdijk himself acknowledges, intentions are less than fully knowable.

Finally, Luke Pitcher’s entertaining piece centers on the meta-biographical value of Heliodorus’ take on the life of Homer in the larger context of the Aethiopica, which is concerned with Charikleia’s life-story. Heliodorus’ account reproduces validation strategies familiar to us from literary biography (the connection between a poet’s vita and the content of his work; explanation for the absence of data confirming the biographer’s claims) while also inverting markers of the biographical genre (Calasiris’ tone of certainty about Homer’s birth-place is not stereotypical, though shared at least by the Vita Herodotea).8

All in all, despite the fact that the texts discussed range widely in kind, the contributions succeed in establishing a number of common threads: biographical writing is about verisimilitude, not authenticity; it is also about moral teaching and entertaining a readership. Students of biographical narratives, however, may not find all they are looking for: although the appeal of many of the texts discussed relies greatly on the representation of individual ‘personalities’ (not just ‘characters’), and the volume’s contributors refer to virtues, vices and traits such as humour, they neglect coverage of the emotions as a signpost of fictionality.9 Another such signpost is cognition: Grethlein10 has recently shown how the experience, which is often produced by an author’s delving into the mind of internal characters, can be present and function equally well in both history and the ancient novel. These points do not disturb the overall impression that the volume makes a valuable contribution to its subject. It well deserves the attention of students and scholars of Greek and Roman biographical texts, who will find the collection a rich and enjoyable read.


1. Unlike B. McGing and J. Mossman (eds), The Limits of Ancient Biography, Swansea 2006.

2. Note also his recent article in Style 49 (2015) with respect to paraliterature.

3. Why βίος? On the Relationship between Gospel Genre and Implied Audience, London; New York, 2015. (A.P. Urbano, The Philosophical Life: Biography and the Crafting of Intellectual Identity in Late Antiquity, Washington D.C. 2013, is also relevant.)

4. See most recently Chrys. S. Chrysanthou, Narrative, Interpretation, and Moral Judgement in Plutarch’s Lives, Diss. Oxford 2016.

5. C. Gill, The Character-Personality Distinction, in: C.B.R. Pelling (ed.), Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature, Oxford 1990, 1-31.

6. On the work’s title, see now G. Boter, “The Title of Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana“, JHS 135 (2015) 1-7. On Apollonius as Proteus, see also M. Paschalis in: St. Panayotakis et al. (eds), Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel (ANS 19), Groningen 2015.

7. E.g. A.J. Greimas, Du sens. Essais sémiotiques. Paris 1970.

8. On the connection between abnormal thighs and superhuman status, cf. J. Flinterman, “The Ancestor of my Wisdom: Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism” in Life of Apollonius, in: E.L. Bowie and J. Elsner (eds), Philostratus, Cambridge 2009, 170-1 (in relation to Pythagoras’ golden thigh).

9. Cf. significantly O. Hodkinson, “Some Distinguishing Features of Deliberate Fictionality in Greek Biographical Narratives”, in: P. Borghart and K. De Temmerman (eds), Biography and Fictionality in the Greek Literary Tradition, Ghent 2010, 11-35.

10. “Social Minds and Narrative Time. Collective Experience in Thucydides and Heliodorus”, Narrative 23 (2015) 123-39. ​