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.

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[*] 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).