BMCR 2018.11.17

Xenophon’s Ephesiaca: A Paraliterary Love-Story from the Ancient World. Ancient Narrative Supplementum, 22

, Xenophon’s Ephesiaca: A Paraliterary Love-Story from the Ancient World. Ancient Narrative Supplementum, 22. Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing; Groningen University Library, 2017. viii, 243. ISBN 9789492444127. €90.00.


This book on the Ephesiaca of Xenophon uses traditional tools to conduct an innovative reading of what has heretofore been the red-headed stepchild of the Greek romance genre. By “traditional,” I mean that its argumentation is founded on familiar techniques of literary analysis: close readings of intertexts and evaluation of the novel’s narratological strategies, with a focus on character development and narrative coherence. By “innovative,” I mean that Tagliabue rejects past readings of the Ephesiaca as a primitive or poorly written text and evaluates the novel as a unique example of paraliterary Greek romance fiction. Xenophon of Ephesus, according to Tagliabue, should not be viewed as “an uninterested newspaperman” or as an example of “how not to write a novel” (p. 2 n. 13). Rather, this book proposes to reexamine the Ephesiaca ’s love story as the creation of an author “in full artistic control of his novel” (p. 6).

The introduction begins with a survey of past approaches to the Ephesiaca (as primitive novel, epitome, and orally derived text). Tagliabue then explains the two planes of analysis that inform his own reading: first, the development of the protagonists’ romance from sexual passion to mutual fidelity. The second is his study of thematic intertextuality in the depiction of Anthia and Habrocomes, and how these models shift over the course of their relationship. These two notions are not chosen haphazardly, but respond to trends in novelistic scholarship. Tagliabue’s focus on the transformation of love in the Ephesiaca, for instance, joins a growing body of work to challenge the perception that protagonists in Greek romances remain “passive and emotionally static” (p. 9).1 His emphasis on thematic intertextuality attempts to demonstrate that the Ephesiaca has an awareness of canonical literary models. While the novel may not exhibit the pointed references observed in more sophisticated romances, it nonetheless belongs in the ranks of the ‘Big Five.’

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the book by contrasting the wedding night of Anthia and Habrocomes (X. Eph. 1.9.2-9) and the night of their reunion (5.14.1-5.15.1). It argues persuasively that while sexual desire directs the first bedroom scene, it is replaced by a focus on fidelity in the second. This argument is enriched by Tagliabue’s analysis of the Odyssey as a code-model for the Ephesiaca, and he draws comparisons between the two nights and the couplings of Ares / Aphrodite and Odysseus / Penelope respectively. What makes these intertextual readings effective is not simply the philological similarities between the Odyssey and Ephesiaca scenes, but also the consideration given to the reception of these models in the Imperial period.

Chapters 2-3 continue to examine the evolution of the love story through a Homeric lens by investigating how an oracle and enemy attacks create suspense and shape the characters of Anthia and Habrocomes. But Tagliabue also uses these chapters to revisit elements of the Ephesiaca that have struck many scholars as incongruent or unrefined. In chapter 2, this element is the oracle of Apollo (1.6.2), which serves as a mise-en-abyme of the whole narrative, but concludes with a prediction that the young lovers will sacrifice to Isis beside a sacred river (presumably the Nile). While the final book of the Ephesiaca does include a sacrifice to Isis, it takes place in Rhodes (not Egypt). Tagliabue reinterprets this phenomenon (which others have taken as a mistake or a curiosity) as an external prolepsis: the oracle of Apollo, modelled on the prophecy of Tiresias in Od. 11, gestures to the couple’s destiny beyond the time of the novel. Chapter 3 assesses the technique of repetition in the Ephesiaca, including recapitulating speeches and repetitive characterizations of enemies. Tagliabue claims that, far from being the mark of an incompetent author, repetition is a deliberate technique to create suspense and to accentuate the protagonists’ character development. The threats to their love remain consistent, but the couple responds with increasing sophrosyne and andreia.

Chapters 4-5 take a philosophical turn and explore the spiritual dimensions of the love story. The former samples from several Platonic dialogues to demonstrate the depiction of Habrocomes as eromenos and Anthia as erastes at the beginning of the novel. By its end, however, the couple have achieved a symmetry that evokes the myth of the androgyne in Plato’s Symposium. Chapter 5 investigates the depiction of Egypt in the Ephesiaca and proposes the story of Isis and Osiris as yet another model for the relationship between Anthia and Habrocomes.

Chapter 6 represents the final section of pure literary analysis and discusses the couple’s return to Ephesus. It distinguishes the ending of the Ephesiaca as unique among the ‘Big Five’ for its focus on constructing an “exclusive society of love” rather than reintegrating the couple back into the polis. Rather than rejoining the Ephesians, he argues, Anthia and Habrocomes create for themselves a new polis centered on their faithful love. In this polis they are joined only by couples: former slaves Leucon and Rhode, as well as the (possibly) homosexual pairing of Hippothous and Cleisthenes.

In chapters 7-8, Tagliabue circles back to broader questions of genre, authorship, and audience. Chapter 7 summarizes the evidence that Xenophon was an artistically competent author. Its pivotal contribution, however, is the concept of paraliterature, as elaborated by Couégnas’ criteria for the classification of paraliterary texts.2 Readers seeking answers on the literary style and status of the Ephesiaca will find this to be the book’s most integral chapter. Tagliabue’s verdict is that this novel invites a paraliterary reading in contrast to the other constituents of the ‘Big Five,’ which “demand a highly literary reading” (p. 184). Chapter 8 then reflects upon the implications of this paraliterary quality, given the novel’s status either as an original work or as an epitome. If the novel is an epitome, then its paraliterary quality is likely a byproduct of abridgement. If the novel is an original, then it is a paraliterary exception in the romance genre, but stylistically similar to other novels like the Life of Aesop or the Story of Apollonius King of Tyre.

As the first monograph devoted exclusively to the Ephesiaca in over two decades, Tagliabue’s study of Xenophon of Ephesus’ artistry, intertextuality, and style will become required reading for anyone working on the novel and its relation to the other Greek romances. The arguments and the organization of this book are remarkably lucid, with each chapter delineating its contents and contribution to the argument of the whole. I found myself especially fond of the use of sub-chapter headings to help orient the reader in the rich layers of analysis – often with multiple intertexts and novelistic comparanda. One need not be an expert in the genre of the ancient novel, nor read the book in sequence, to find something of immediate value.

Another area where this book succeeds is the precision with which it describes intertextual relationships. One of the most difficult aspects of analyzing texts like the Ephesiaca is the nagging awareness that the novel contains tropes and references that do not meet the high bar of intertextuality conventionally associated with classical poetry. But the chapters of this book meditate on several ways that the Greek novel evokes the canon: the discussion of code models and ancient reception (pp. 14-18), as well as “Platonic background” (pp. 99-101), are especially helpful. This inclusive reading of possible intertexts is emblematic of the author’s refreshing approach to the Ephesiaca : his readings begin with the premise that curiosities and inconsistencies contain meaning, rather than mistakes – a luxury that classicists usually afford more sophisticated texts.

I am convinced by the author’s overarching thesis of Xenophon’s artistic control and the value of paraliterature as a paradigm. There are two aspects of its methodology, however, that limit the scope of the book’s findings. The first is that the author orients much of his argumentation around resuscitating the novel from past criticism, rather than elaborating new interpretations. Chapter 2, for example, spends a great deal of time proving that the oracle of Apollo is (a) an accurate mise-en-abyme of the novel, and (b) modelled on Tiresias’ prophecy. But only in the final section of this chapter does the author address Xenophon’s motivations for creating this veiled prolepsis. What benefit would readers receive by recognizing it? Why would Xenophon wish us to imagine his protagonists making a future trip to Egypt and continuing their travels, especially when the final chapters of the novel portray them settled in their “society of love”?

Another byproduct of this resuscitative approach is that the author occasionally builds tiers of arguments upon speculative readings. Chapter 5 struck me as the weakest of this book for precisely this flaw: on the basis of a hypothesized external prolepsis, it constructs a reading of Egypt as a utopian space, to which the couple will travel in future time. But the oracle of Apollo never mentions Egypt by name, and the word “sacred” ( hierou) here is hardly the same as “utopic.” On the basis of this reading, however, Tagliabue attempts to explain the shipwreck of Eudoxus (3.4.1), Habrocomes’ apparent admiration of necrophilia (5.1.12), and Anthia’s adoption of Egyptian dogs (5.2.5). It is certainly possible that these sundry details are connected, but here they seem forced together. When proving coherence is a central objective of the book, we run the risk of jamming puzzle pieces together.

The second limitation of this book is its stated desire to create acceptance for the Ephesiaca within the ‘Big Five’ while demonstrating its unique paraliterary nature (p. 7). After six stimulating chapters on Homeric prophecies, Platonic loves, and mummified corpse brides, the conclusion that the Ephesiaca fits right in with the other romances – albeit as a paraliterary one – seems underwhelming. I suspect this reflects a larger issue with ancient novel studies as a subfield that preoccupies itself with a handful of highly sophisticated case studies and relegates the rest of prose fiction to “the fringe.”3 Each new study of an ancient novel is expected to defend its status qua novel, as well as its relationship to the romances. While it is certainly not the burden of this book alone to overturn such prejudices, I think it can point the way to how we might begin. In his penultimate chapter, Tagliabue describes the Ephesiaca as a narrative that “[demands] a paraliterary mode of reading,” (p. 172) and I would like to know more about what that entails. To that end, this book reads the Ephesiaca as paraliterature but does not exemplify a paraliterary mode of reading.

Methodological critiques aside, Tagliabue’s book offers an original and compelling interpretation of Xenophon’s love story, with insights on some of its most puzzling passages. It is written for fellow scholars of the novel, but remains accessible enough to be assigned to undergraduates. In addition to the introduction and eight chapters, the book includes an appendix on the composition of the Ephesiaca, an index locorum, and a general index.


1. Especially David Konstan, Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994) and Koen De Temmerman, Crafting Characters: Heroes and Heroines in the Ancient Greek Novel (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014).

2. The concept and characteristics of paraliterature are already discussed in conjunction with the ancient novels in Massimo Fusillo, “Il romanzo antico come paraletteratura? Il topos del racconto di ricapitolazione” in La letteratura di consumo nel mondo greco-latino, ed. Oronzo Pecere and Antonio Stramaglia (Cassino: Università degli Studi di Cassino, 1996), 49-65 and William Hansen, Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998), xi-xxix. Both are cited, but not prominently discussed, in chapter 7.

3. On center and fringe in the ancient novels as a problematic construct, see the preliminary material and first chapter in Grammatiki Karla, ed. Fiction on the Fringe: Novelistic Writing in the Post-Classical Age (Leiden: Brill, 2009).