Ancient Greek Romances

Peter Parsons

In 1834, T.B. Macaulay left Holland House to unaccustomed silences, and set sail for Madras, where he was to save £30,000 and draft the penal code. Indian leisure inspired him to reread Greek. Thucydides, Euripides, Demosthenes, all got good marks. Fiction came off less well. Macaulay was a great reader of novels (to his father’s and Clapham’s distress); the Governor-General’s court wept over his copy of Clarissa. He was also a great connoisseur of trash: he adorned his copy of Santo Sebastiano, or the Young Protector with a league-table of fainting-fits (first prize to the heroine: ‘Julia de Clifford, 11’). But the Greek romances were too much for him. He pronounced with characteristic decision. At the end of Heliodorus’s Ethiopian Story, he noted. ‘The best of the Greek Romances, which is not saying much for it’; on Xenophon’s Ephesian Story, ‘A most stupid, worthless performance, below the lowest trash of an English circulating library’; on the Leucippe and Clitopho of Achilles Tatius, simply ‘Detestable trash’.

Even the Greeks had little to say for their novels. There must have been a public: many books were written, and five even survived into and through the Middle Ages. But contemporary critics ignored them; puritans, pagan as well as Christian, despised them (the Emperor Julian would carefully exclude them from his reading-list for embattled eggheads). It was a genre without a name, a novelty and therefore a nonentity in an age of strict Classicism. We have the names of some novelists, but without details and without dates: modern conjecture has to supply the historical framework. We can guess something about the heyday: the five survivors date from the second, third and fourth centuries AD, the high summer and sudden autumn of the Imperial peace, when a Greek cultural revival, the Second Sophistic, swept the Empire in a tornado of hot air. We can guess, more doubtfully, about the origins. The romance sprang from the historical romance; historical romance sprang from romantic history. Chance has preserved one verbatim scrap from Ctesias’s Persian Story, a history of Persia composed about 400 BC. Stryangaeus the Mede writes to Zarinaea, Queen of the Sacae:

I saved you, and you were saved by me. But I have been ruined by you, I have killed myself, because you were unwilling to favour me. I did not choose these evils, and this love, of my own free will. Yet this god is common to you and to all mankind ...

Here Eros presides over nursery syntax and unrequited passion, just as he will in the fictional fiction of five centuries later. Origins continue to show. A few of the mature romances take characters from the fringes of Greek history. Many carry on the ethnic title (Ethiopian Story). Many choose oriental settings, even oriental heroes (the papyri preserve fragments of Ninus King of Assyria and Sesonchosis King of Egypt). No doubt other tributaries joined the main stream: erotic conceit, from the love elegy; moral tone, and the dominance of Destiny, from popular philosophy; here and there, perhaps, names and motifs from native oriental folktale. The confluence was the last Greek contribution to literary form, and the slowest to attain independence. Roman critics saw the product in the shadow of its beginnings. Only the moderns have been able to separate ‘story’ from ‘history’, and assess fiction as something more than pseudo-fact.

Independence began with the Renaissance. The romances were discovered, enjoyed and canonised. The new poetic had room for them; the new snobbery distinguished only ancient from modern, not Classical from post-Classical. Sensibility had been moulded by Amadis and Ariosto; intellect now rejected them, and sought Classical exemplars for the heroisation of the amorous. Heliodorus in particular, the most dense and complex, enjoyed a boom century. A Greek manuscript turned up at the sack of Buda in 1526, passed from Turkish soldier to Swiss humanist, and appeared in print at Basle in 1534. Translations followed: French 1547, German and Spanish 1554, Italian 1556, English 1569. Julius Caesar Scaliger recommended the Ethiopian Story, alongside the Aeneid, as a model of epic construction; Tasso drew on its heroine for his Clorinda. Rabelais made Pan-tagruel drowse over Heliodorus. Cervantes ‘dared to compete’ with Heliodorus in his last work, Persiles y Sigismunda. Heliodorus bulks large in Sidney’s Arcadia; through Sidney he provides the sub-plot of King Lear, through Greene the plot of Winter’s Tale, Orsino alludes to him, Hamlet quotes him. In France, at least, the fashion lasted. The young Racine, at Port Royal, learned Heliodorus by heart; Mlle de Scudéry outprosed her model in Le Grand Cyrus, the pap of a whole generation. P.D. Huet, the first historian of the novel, summed it up in 1670: Heliodorus was the Homer of fiction.

It could hardly last. Renaissance and Romance gave way to Seriousness and the Novel. To our eyes, the parentage is clear. Clarissa descends from the wordy sentiment, and Udolpho from the exotic violence, of Greek fiction; just as Tom Jones takes up the Latin picaresque tradition. The new English audience was, what the original Greek audience may have been, a comfortable urban middle class, prosperous enough to believe in virtue and true love, towny enough to view the country only as a nursery of picturesque innocence or a theatre of primitive brigandage. The relationship was indeed recognised: but it was now sterile. A century after Huet, Clara Reeve reviewed The Progress of Romance (1785): the other partners of the dialogue scarcely know the name of Heliodorus; the learned Euphrasia knows him, and dismisses him with the cold porridge of bluestocking esteem – his book ‘is indisputably a work of Genius, and as such will always be respectable’. For Macaulay, the Greek romances had nothing to offer. In Victorian times, only Daphnis and Chloe shows its head – and then only with the transient éclat of a dirty book.

This century may be more propitious. The demerits of the Greek romances are clear (clearer still by contrast with the Latin novel – Petronius and Apuleius – which burlesques them). Cardboard lovers, buffeted by Fate, drift on a stream of sentimental rhetoric (now mock-naive, now real-orotund), through predictable perils, to a predictable happy ending. The categories are those of the B-feature Western: the fag end of epic. Men are men, villains are villains; ladies are pure in word and thought and deed, gentlemen in the first two at least (even practical lapses can be attributed to inexperience, or a willingness to oblige). Heroes and heroines, pirates and brigands, roam the dream landscapes of the East (or Scotland, in the lost Amazing Things beyond Thule). One work, of which only minimal fragments survive, might stand for all. The story of Metiochus and Parthenope took its characters from history, or at least from Herodotus; they are bit-players padded out into principals. A mosaic from the millionaires’ playground near Antioch catches a characteristic scene, the lovers in full simper. An Egyptian potsherd has just contributed a typically glutinous soliloquy: ‘O my Parthenope,’ says the hero, ‘are you forgetful even of your own Metiochus? While I, from the day you went away, have never slept, just as if my eye-lids were stuck open with glue.’ The Romance has nothing to offer romanticism: but it might appeal to a rococo revival.

In fact, interest has revived, for more reasons than one. We now have more material: the rubbish-dumps of Egypt have yielded bits and pieces from the depths and fringes of the genre. We have wider perspectives: it is no longer assumed that ancient literature shuts down with the death of Tacitus, and authors once despised as frivolous or Christian now take their place in the literary sociology of the Roman Empire. We have, above all, a new interpretation of the whole phenomenon: a new campaign in the war between German idealists and Saxon empiricists.

If you want to redeem a silly book, you turn to irony or allegory. Irony has not played much part in the criticism of the Greek romance; it would be difficult to establish, in a style which always verges on self-parody. Allegory looks more promising. The idea is not new. The Byzantines justified their reading of the amorous Heliodorus by making him a bishop and his book a history of the soul’s search for god. The Elizabethans took the same view of the louche and profane Golden Ass: ‘This booke of Lucius is a figure of mans life,’ wrote Adlington, ‘and toucheth the nature and manners of mortall men, egging them forward from their Asinall forme, to their humane and perfect shape.’ The Byzantine notion revived with Kerenyi; and then in a subtle and elegant book of Reinhold Merkelbach, Roman und Mysterium (1962). The thesis was simple: the Greek romances are religious texts; each one is patterned on the ritual of the Mysteries.

Symbols are always slippery, and in this case there is a special difficulty. The simpleminded allegoriser signposts his intention. He can announce it: ‘The library, which is the universe ... ’ He can use speaking names: the reader knows where he is with Mr Worldly Wiseman. He can force the reader to think, by offering a narrative so bizarre – by some standards – that it’s either image or ullage. The morally bizarre has often been defused on this principle – witness Homer and the Song of Songs. The aesthetically bizarre is more dangerous: we have to assume that past generations did not enjoy bad taste. Even so, we may be inclined to believe in the symbol, if the critic can prove a one-to-one correspondence between the stated and the imaged. Dim or partial correspondences rouse suspicion. But again patchiness can be explained: the images may be distorted by the fixed conventions of the genre, by the imagination or incompetence of the writer. (The Queen of the Night turns out to be a villain. Is that Masonic doctrine? Dramatic contrivance? Or Schikaneder changing his mind?) Dimness may even be deliberate. Greek novels, it is said, represent the Mysteries. But the Mysteries were secret. You cannot object that allusions to the Mysteries do not leap to the eye: they cannot have been intended to. The theory, that is, ends by inflating itself. The more indiscernible the allegory, the more likely.

The serious case rests on two books: Apuleius’s Golden Ass and Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe. In Apuleius, Lucius gets turned into an ass; survives comic and grisly adventures; and then, in the last book, becomes an initiate of Isis, and so regains his human shape. Lucius the ass calls himself a Greek; Lucius the initiate comes from Madaurus in Africa – that is, he identifies himself with Apuleius, whose birthplace it was. Enthusiasts for coherence have tried to provide a link between the two: the escapades of Lucius/Ass form an allegorical prelude (sin and consequent suffering) to the literal conversion and redemption of Lucius/Apuleius. Cynics and Saxons reply that Apuleius was visibly incapable of thinking more than five lines at a time, and that literary Unity bore no dividends in a declamatory culture. Nonetheless, mysteries are mentioned; in Longus they are not. Daphnis and Chloe fall in love, discover (but slowly) what sex is, achieve consummation on the last page; in the countryside about them, Pan and the nymphs are all-present; the action culminates at the Festival of Dionysus, where Daphnis finds his true father Dionysophanes. The Dionysiac is everywhere: we are to infer that Daphnis’s initiation in love parallels the novice’s initiation in the Mysteries. The sceptic has his reply. He discounts the landscape; shrines and bacchic flora abounded in the real Greek countryside; Menander’s Disagreeable Man plays outside a temple of Pan and the Nymphs, but no one sees ritual there. He discountenances even the brute outline of the allegory: Daphnis loses his virginity to Lycaenium before the festival, Chloe loses hers to Daphnis after it – which of the two is the Mystic Climax? There is no strong incongruity to point up the symbol; no strong coherence to enforce the image. What remains is what shows on the surface: Boucher-like doings against a Watteau-like backdrop, slow-motion striptease over a hundred pages. It is not a ‘Who done it?’ but a ‘When will they do it?’ – a sort of Pamela with added brevity.

Temperament counts more than facts in this controversy. The new facts, which new papyri have contributed, settle nothing. But three recent discoveries have at least widened perspectives: the ‘religious’ novel can be seen in two unfamiliar aspects, the crude and the comic.

Petronius is the grandfather of the picaresque. But since the Romans never invented anything (except satire and cement), scholars have guessed that he himself had Greek forbears. In 1973, there turned up, among the excavated waste-paper of Oxyrhynchus, a 40-line fragment which seemed to confirm the guess. It tells a curious story. Iolaus has sent his friend Nico to learn the mysteries of the Priests of Cybele; Nico returns, and rehearses his new knowledge in the rhapsodic priestly metre. ‘A faithful friend,’ says the narrrator, quoting Euripides, ‘is more precious than rubies.’ Iolaus bears a heroic name; all the rest is low life. The priests were eunuchs; Roman law ranked them among the pariah; they enjoyed a reputation for lust and greed (we see them performing in the Golden Ass) like that of the medieval friars; even their metre connoted indecency (frivolous poets transposed the Iliad into it, malicious professors detected examples in the proems of Cicero). Nico, it seems, escaped with his manhood: but his recital can only be parody, for personal gossip is mixed with the mystic gobbledegook. What was it all in aid of? There is a guess, Iolaus has a girlfriend, but he cannot get at her: no male is admitted to the women’s quarters. But even harems open to eunuchs: so he will take on the dress, and learn the patter, of a priest of Cybele. The plot had already appeared in Terence’s Eunuch; and will come to roost in The Country Wife.

The farce is Petronius-like; so is the form. Peironius’s narrative bursts now and again into verse: sometimes motivated (poet recites poem), sometimes for simple variety. Nico’s verses are motivated (priest prophesies). The second find goes well beyond that. Again, an odd page; context speculative. The story concerns Tinuphis the magician and Sosias the executioner. The executioner puts Tinuphis in jail: yet (here the narrative switches to verse) Tinuphis’s life was saved for his beloved. The builder was really clever: one brick saved the holy man. We can guess, behind the mystification, that the builder left a loose block in the cell wall, and Tinuphis escaped through the hole. Again, it looks like Petronius: clever wheeze, unmotivated verse. It contrasts just as sharply with the regulation romance. Petronius’s homosexual drifters parody the marriage-bent he-persons of politer fiction; Tinuphis is an Egyptian and a magician and yet a hero, reversing the values of Amazing Things beyond Thule, where Egyptian sorcerer persecutes heroic Greeks. Oxyrhynchites, it seems, were not set on the ethnic or aesthetic: unlike the Byzantine schoolmasters who selected our classics for us, they enjoyed the picaresque.

These two finds fill the gap between Greek prudes and Roman comics. The third also has relations with both. The book was Phoenician Story, the author, Lollianus (unknown – unless, indeed, he was P. Hordeonius Lollianus, Professor of Rhetoric in the University of Athens, whose pupils set up his statue in the marketplace, to honour his services to orthodox flatulence). Two pages, this time, with a sensational scene. The hero, Androtimus, looks on helpless, while his captors carry out a human sacrifice: they cut out the heart and roast it, each takes a mouthful and swears loyalty to the leader. There follows an orgy of drink and sex. Most go to sleep. But one group, about midnight, dress up – half in black clothes, with blackened faces, half in white with whitened faces – and go off into the dark ... Here certainly is ritual, with no allegory about it. But whose ritual? And whence the coloured faces? The first editor had no doubt. The human sacrifice brings initiation in the Mysteries; we hear of this ritual elsewhere. The black and white faces recall the myth (Dionysiac, therefore mystic) in which the Titans killed Dionysus and then chalked their faces; and myth (we know) embodies ritual. This text, he concluded, confirms at last that such initiations actually took place, and that novelists drew their inspiration from them. But here, too, the sceptics have an answer, and a crushing one. We do indeed hear of cannibalistic rites elsewhere, but always in polemic (Greeks attribute them to Egyptians, Romans to Christians, Christians to Gnostics); the ‘mystics’ here are the villains of the piece, a regulation band of Egyptian brigands; the last thing you should expect of the scene is objective realism. We do not hear elsewhere of mystics colouring their faces: we do hear of ghosts that are all black or all white, and we do hear (in Apuleius) of brigands who scare the midnight traveller by disguising themselves as ghosts. An ancient reader would understand the episode at once: not an unknown rite, but a familiar stratagem.

Mystics and sceptics will continue to war over the interpretation of the ancient novel. But the black and white brigands have provided an unusually decisive skirmish: mystics lose hands down. In general, the new pieces do represent ‘religious’ fiction, of a kind: fiction in which religious phenomena offer sensation, not inspiration. Rituals suggest orgies; cult is always good for a frisson; the middling urban voyeur relishes magic and mysteries, low life and weird doings. It may still be that deep structures of real knowledge and mystic involvement lie beneath the glassy surface of Longus or Heliodorus. But Saxons will take their cue from Jack Winkler’s assessment of Lollianus: the Greek novel tells us as little about mysticism as The Monk about monasticism.[*]

[*] The adventures of Tinuphis are published by Michael Haslam, in Papyri edited in honour of E.G. Turner, Egypt Exploration Society, London, 1981. Phoenician Story was published by Albert Henrichs. Die Phoinikika des Loltianos, Bonn, 1972. On the black and white bandits, see brilliant papers by C.P. Jones, Phoenix 34 (1980), and Jack Winkler, Journal of Hellenic Studies 100 (1980).