BMCR 2021.07.25

Le “Etiopiche” di Eliodoro: approcci narratologici e nuove prospettive

, Le "Etiopiche" di Eliodoro: approcci narratologici e nuove prospettive. Palingenesia, Band 120. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2020. Pp. 239. ISBN 9783515126120 €54,00.

Narratology, Palone explains, is divided into two elements: the study of the story (storia), its structure and its narrative constraints; and the study of the narrative itself (racconto), a structuralist approach that usually disregards the context of delivery of a text (11-12). The author proposes to bridge this gap by using the approach of cognitive narratology (24), which prioritizes the emotional interaction between the text and its recipient (37). Palone’s study is also founded on the hypothesis that the ancient novel was a literature of performance and that access to the text was mediated through a reader (lector/ἀναγνώστης), whose delivery helped make sense of the allusions and intricate composition of a work such as Heliodorus’ Aethiopica. It ensues that the expected audience of the ancient novel was not only the educated elite (15), but “also” women (169)[1] and common folks who possessed differing levels of literacy (181).

The overarching argument of the book proposes that many of the staples of the novel that have traditionally been ascribed to a highly learned endeavour —such as Homeric emulation and quotations, changes of narrator and intricate narrative structures, elements of rhetorical culture like ekphrasis and insertion of direct speeches, deliberative or judiciary —can all be accounted for without supposing that novels were written for the elite, that is, the highly educated who were able to provide a critical reading of literary texts (164). According to Palone, most of these allusions and techniques could have been achieved by someone with a smattering of education in declamation (180-181) and needed not be recognizable by the public for the story to be enjoyed (64). Moreover, uneducated or less educated audiences would have been familiar with the stories and myths, to which allusions are made, through other media like mime or pantomime, paintings, sculptures, and vases (13, 97). Such a level of acquaintance would have been enough to catch the most obvious allusions to mythology or epic cycles. Palone argues that the main function of ancient novels was not philosophical or moral edification, but entertainment (36).

The book is composed of five chapters on the status quaestionis of narratology applied to the ancient novels (ch. 1), the literary techniques of Aeth. and other ancient novels (ch. 2), the concentric narratives and metadiegesis in Aeth. and other ancient novels (ch. 3), the mediatory role of the reader, either for a private or public audience (ch. 4), and the Aeth.’s intended readership/audience (ch. 5). The chapters are accompanied by a brief introduction and conclusion, a summary of the plot of the Aeth., a summary of the book in English, and indices.

The first chapter deals with how cognitive narratology applies to ancient texts in general and to the novels and Heliodorus in particular. I find very convincing the role assigned to the audience (whether active readers or listeners does not matter here), in shaping a meaningful narrative. Palone uses the cognitive frames developed in “natural narratology” to emphasize how the frame of the narrative dynamically and emotionally engages the audience, so that they give the fiction its credibility and produce meaning from their own experience (42-52).

In the second chapter, Palone shows how the various narrative techniques employed by Heliodorus —such as the non-linear treatment of time, suspense, metanarrative comments by the narrator, irony, diegetic and mimetic descriptions, as well as references to the theatrical experience — all contribute to the construction of the desired audience, most notably by engaging them through emotivity and by shaping the reaction of the public with references to theatrical performances in the text. Palone points out that the ekphrasis of the amethyst, located toward the center of the novel (in V, 13-14), and showing a shepherd playing the flute surrounded by his listening flock, is a miniature of the relation between the reader of the novel and his audience that emphasizes the role of the audience. According to him, the numerous references to theatre are not simple metaphors in the narrative but are key elements in the development of the relation between Heliodorus (or the narrator or the ἀναγνώστης) and the audience. Palone explains that such a hypothesis is possible only if the audience is familiar with the practice and culture of theatre and concludes that “since the image of theatre and its implications are in the ‘experiential repertory’ of the public” (91), Heliodorus deliberately chooses theatrical metaphors to trigger an emotional reaction from his audience. He adds that the abundant use made by Heliodorus of theatrical terms and techniques such as the coup de théâtre means that the audience was familiar with theatre (93). This reasoning is circular and does not convince. In comparison, representation, mime and pantomime are omnipresent in the plot of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, while in Heliodorus, the allusions remain literary, either as figures of speech in the narration or in the characters’ comprehension of the plot: for instance Hydaspes when he finds out that the prisoner is his daughter, who appears “like on stage out of a trapdoor” (X, 12, 1). Nevertheless, the main point of this chapter, that the combination of theatrical reference and literary allusions aim at a wide spectrum of audience, still convinces.

Cognitive narratology is at the heart of the third chapter, where Palone analyzes the function of concentric narratives in Heliodorus and other ancient novels. Each segment of the narrative is tagged according to its level or narrator (the first level being the omniscient narrator) and according to the ‘frame’ in which the narrator tells his story: the acting/experiencing frame, viewing frame, telling/hearing frame, and reflecting frame. Palone argues that the multiple levels and the framing of the narrative define the characters according to their importance and reliability (116-120). The higher the level and the more involved the narrator, the more trustworthy the account, at times despite the characters’ misconception of the situation or despite cunning from other characters. Concentric narratives also act as metapoetic illustrations, since they create a return, a nostos, for instance when Calasiris ends his story with the opening scene of the novel. They also evoke descents, for stories within stories sometimes go as ‘deep’ as five levels of embedded narrations before emerging to the first level of the metadiegetic narrator (133), creating the image of a catabasis.

The three chapters on the narratological analysis of the book are interesting and convincing. Unfortunately, it is less so with the fourth and fifth chapters, which respectively argue that the novels were meant to be read aloud by a lector/ἀναγνώστης, and that their intended audience was mainly the less educated.

The cognitive approach and recent works on the sociology of readers lead Palone to posit that literary texts in Antiquity were mainly accessed through public reading. He lists clues in the way Aeth. is written that point toward the oral performance of the novels, despite their intricacy and length: frequent γνῶμαι that build emotional affinities with the audience, recapitulations, and symmetry of sentences and homeoteleuta (150-155). On the specific points of γνῶμαι and recapitulations, however, I have certain reservations. On the one hand, loci communes (75) or allusions to Homer (96) or maxims of “probable Euripidean origin” (without proof, 113) count as γνῶμαι, and this shoehorning of elements into a certain category weakens the argument, because it looks as though any type of allusion can be categorized as anything to suit the case. On the other hand, the recapitulations identified by Palone are unevenly spread. Two books, for example, contain none. Although the technique of recapitulation does not appear systematic enough to assume that the novel was written for an oral performance, Palone states that “the recapitulations appear in almost all the chapter in most passages, sometimes contiguous, in the same chapter. Therefore, in each chapter there are one or many points in which the main plot is recalled” (153, my emphasis), jumping to a conclusion on insufficient evidence.

I am not saying that the novels were not read orally. Palone, however, goes too far, to my mind, when he says that the image of a private reader, owner of his own copy of a novel is a product of the modern imagination supported by no documentary, textual or archeological proof, and insists that “whoever equates the reading modality of ancient novels to the modern one has therefore the burden of the proof” (138-139). I will give an example of a hasty analysis that one finds in these last two chapters. After giving ample proof of public performances of reading (few pertaining to novels), Palone cites Clitophon, in Achilles Tatius’ novel, walking up and down in front of Leucippe’s door while pretending to read, in order to catch a glimpse of the young woman. Palone explains that Clitophon might in fact try to catch Leucippe’s attention by reading aloud, and the conclusion comes in an expeditive manner (“È possibile ipotizzare” and, three lines later, “verosimilmente dunque” 146). In fact, Achilles Tatius focuses our attention on the sense of sight in this specific passage: Clitophon is trying to appear in front of the girl (κατὰ πρόσωπον τῆς κόρης; Jean-Philippe Guez’s recent translation in French reads “pour être dans le champ de vision de la jeune fille”[2]), and raises his eye from his book when he passes in front of her door (τὸν δὲ ὀφθαλμόν, εἰ κατὰ τὰς θύρας γενοίμην, ὑπείλιττον κάτωθεν). Therefore, even though it is not implausible that Clitophon could have been reading aloud, the emphasis here is not on the sound of Clitophon reading, but rather on the focus of the characters’ eyes, a fact that is overlooked in the analysis. While Palone argues that reading aloud might be so banal that the author would not think of mentioning it (148-149), the same can also be argued for reading in silence as a private act.

The fifth chapter explores the intended audience of the novel(s). Instead of the traditional divide between non-learned crowds and well-read aristocrats, Palone suggests that the novels had various degrees of popularity with audiences situated along a wide spectrum of people with different reading skills, from the listeners who acquired their knowledge of myths and literature in the theatre, to the learned elite who owned books and were themselves active in the production of literature (164). He claims that the audience of the novels was mainly composed of people with no particular book culture (167-171), equating novels with commercial literature (letteratura di consummo, 51, 152, 179-181). According to him, the elite shunned the novel as a genre and felt that its popularity was a competition for their own literary production (159, 163). As proof, Julian and Macrobius’ derogatory comments on fiction, and Philostratus’ and Persius’ on Callirhoe and Chariton are cited (172), to which Palone adds Septimius Severus’ rebuking of Clodius Albinus’ taste for Apuleius, citing a fictitious letter forged by the Historia Augusta (Life of Clodius Albinus 12, 12, 177), a less than trustworthy authority. Palone also argues that the ancients did not “deign” to give the genre a name (171), speaks of a “conspiracy of silence” 159, and has a subsection titled “hostility towards the novel” (175-178).

The study of the structure of the narrative and the construction of characters in the first three chapters gives a good understanding of the intentions and literary ambitions of the author, and also of the audience’s ability to follow a complex narrative (be it aurally or by reading alone). The methodology of cognitive narratology in the first three chapters already tackles the manner in which such intricate narrative techniques could engage audiences of all levels of education. Therefore, the last two chapters, marked by a certain superficiality, add less to our understanding of Aeth. as a literary work and of the novel as a genre.

There are inconsistencies in the statements that make the analysis look at times hasty. Despite the author’s warning that we are at fault when we imagine that the act of reading took place in Antiquity in the same circumstances it does today (138), he himself often makes parallels between periods and practices separated by centuries. For instance, the audience in the Iliad is not aware of “the Iliad” as a literary entity, therefore it is plausible to think that Heliodorus does not either require his audience to have direct knowledge of the Iliad or any other literary text (98), while the representation of a book collector reading the Iliad in Lucian is a situation “close to that in which the novels could have been read” (140). The testimony of Philip the Philosopher, who tells of young philologoi reading Aeth. near a portico, is used to bear witness to the fact that even in the Byzantine era, public reading was still the principal modality to access novels, despite the very vague date of the text: “whatever may be the date (5th or 12th century), the substance of the testimony for the purpose of the present study does not change” (147). While it is plausible that students may have gathered to ridicule a book under stoai in late Antiquity as well as in the Middle Ages, it still does not mean that novels were mainly read aloud. Elsewhere the ancient and the early modern novel readers are compared (143, 168 n. 5), assuming that such and such practice “is therefore possible, as it has been in other cultural contexts” (169). Individually, these approximations are not serious mistakes, but their accumulation gives an air of rapidity to the research and analysis. It also looks as though the editor asked the author to make cuts to the original study, as some cross-references are incorrect or missing.


[1] All translations from the Italian are the reviewer’s.

[2] Romain Brethes, Jean-Philippe Guez (dir.), Romans grecs et latins, Paris, Les Belles Lettres, 2016, p. 432.