BMCR 2022.07.16

Ideal themes in the Greek and Roman novel

, Ideal themes in the Greek and Roman novel. Routledge monographs in classical studies. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2022. Pp. 330. ISBN 9780367472108 $160.00.

This is a very interesting book. It is also a problematic one. To begin with, the author states that his central concern starts from the question “Exactly how are [the Greek and Roman] novels ideal […]?” (1). To the reader it may be impossible to know “exactly”, or even approximately, how this question can be answered when its central concept, “ideal”, is never defined explicitly. John R. Morgan, as quoted by Alvares (11), states that “Greek novels […] depict the world not as it is, but as it ought to be”. Should the reader infer that ideal is “what ought to be”? He or she may also wonder if the author has in mind the “ideality” Rohde found so offensive in the Greek novel, its alleged lack of individualizing features (its “leere und leblose Idealität, welche durch Vermeidung bestimmt individualisierender Züge sehr einfach erreicht wird“)[1], or if he rejects this negative view of ideality, as it would seem he does.

According to Alvares, the protagonists of the novels are “ideal” because of their “considerable physical beauty, positive moral qualities”, etc. (2), and in particular their “incredible loyalty” (267); also, “ideal elements of myth, religion and philosophy appear”, as do “ideal manifestations of the political unconscious” (2). More crucially, the “ideal themes” mentioned already in the title are somehow linked to “archetypal structures related to coming-of-age/initiation/quest myths” (2). This is probably the point where “ideal themes” appear to be used in a more definite sense: that of recurring patterns, be they motifs (as in Aarne-Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature) or archetypes in Frye’s sense. Frye’s “archetypes […] provide a vision of the forms of desire” (15) and, indeed, the protagonists of the romances may also be “ideal” in the way they deal with desire, a central subject of the book: “desire, although often transgressive, can be somehow be (sic) accommodated to social norms and individual wants and need not, as in other genres, lead to tragedy” (3). An ideal aspect of the novels might therefore be “that while passionate love tended to be transgressive and has tragic consequences in classical Greek drama and epic, our novels provide happy endings conforming (eventually) to the demands of respectable society” (45). The various meanings of “ideal” (more beautiful or perfect than the real world typically allows; built upon leit-motifs; archetypal; conforming to the demands of respectable society; etc.) are nowhere clearly categorized or differentiated.

The book is divided into an “Introduction” (1-12), a substantial “Theoretical Background” (13-78), three chapters on the “more ideal novels” (79), namely Chariton’s Callirhoe (79-114), Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe (115-161) and Heliodorus’ Aithiopika (162-204), and two chapters on “works that reject or parody the ideal elements of ideal novels”: Achilles Tatius’ Leukippe and Kleitophon (205-229) and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (230-266). The book closes with “A brief concluding postscript” (267-270), the bibliography (271-308), and the index (309-316).

The absence of Xenophon of Ephesus’ Ephesiaka and of Apollonius King of Tyre is troubling. Alvares states that “for reasons of space, I could not consider all the extant or major fragmentary novels” (11, n. 3). If space was the reason, it might have made sense to omit Apuleius and deal only with all the extant Greek novels.

A few minor shortcomings will be easily spotted by the reader: a number of unfortunate typos, such as petite objet ainstead of objet petit a (7), in a discussion of the Lacanian concept and numerous omissions in the index. (Bakhtin, for instance, is quoted not only on pp. 8-9, as the index suggests, but at least also on 22, 12 n. 20 and 71 n. 25). At some points, it is difficult for the reader to be certain about the author’s perspective on a given problem. So for instance Alvares states on p. 3 that “the novels were […] pleasure reading for […] elite readers”, and on p. 19 and p. 269 that the Greco-Roman novel is “Epic for Everyman”. Which is then, in his perspective, the public of the novel?

Callirhoe is an example, according to Alvares, of the “more ideal novels”, despite its numerous less-than-ideal elements, such as Chaereas’ vicious beating of his bride. (According to Alvares, Chaereas is merely “tricked into violently assaulting her”, 103). The novel “alternates between the poles of hard history and mythical epic”, while “lacking explicit divine intervention” (79). Whitmarsh is quoted as saying that the novel is “hardly ideal” (80), and he is not explicitly confuted. Yet “Callirhoe presents the most imaginatively plausible dream of a […] better world for Chariton’s Greek readers of the novels I consider” (108). A central theme of the novel is the “supremacy of the rule of law over inequality and tyranny” (89); possibly this would mark the novel as “ideal” in the sense of “utopian”.

Indeed, Alvares states that his own vision is utopian; he considers that “a focus on the ideal aspect of literature would be beneficial” not only “for literary study” but also for “social progress” (3) (He later adds: “My own utopian thinking […] has been inspired by Ernst Bloch”, 42). However, he also states that “the ideal is often seen as fantasy” (4), and his own point of view on the subject is not altogether clear; on occasion, “ideal” seems to mean “not realistic” or even “not real”.

I have briefly touched on Alvares’ treatment of a “more ideal novel” (Callirhoe). A short inspection of a “comic-realistic-sardonic” (225) one is called for. In Leukippe and Kleitophon, “ideal elements [remind] readers of how far the world falls short of what they desire”; “the ambiguity of novel’s (sic) beginning and ending raise serious doubts about whether any lasting happy ending could have been achieved by the couple” (225), and this uncertainty is enhanced by the tacit comparison with the “narrative of more ideal love” (215), first and foremost Kallisthenes’ and Kalligone’s. This shows that “ideal elements can occur in very non-ideal narratives, often as a contrast to the central narrative’s sordid events” (205).

In my opinion, the strength of the book lies in the erudition of Alvares, who quotes and integrates many modern and ancient authors, and in his interpretation of the novels, which are often original and thought-provoking. The themes, motifs and perhaps archetypes of the Greek and Latin novels still need a comprehensive index. To provide one is not, of course, the aim of the present book, but a short index of patterns/motifs/archetypes, such as “marriage of the fertility goddess”, “female sacrifice” or “withdrawal and return of the god” (28), would have been useful.

Alvares hopes that his “work will be the prolegomenon to further study by other scholars” (2). This reviewer has the same hope: not so much that future scholars vindicate his utopian vision or his focus on “ideal themes”, but rather that they take as a model his loving, informed and inquisitive reading of the novels themselves, supported, as in Alvares’ case, by an impressive mastery of his subject matter.


[1] E. Rohde, Der Griechische Roman und seine Vorläufer (Leipzig 1914), 477. Mirabile dictu, Rohde’s essay is never quoted in this book.