he novel—or long, fictional, prose* story—was a late addition to Greek and Roman literature. The Greeks, in particular, had a long tradition of story telling, and their novels were similar to some other forms of literature, such as histories and dramas. However, ancient Greek and Roman literary critics believed that novels were a less exalted form of literature than were other forms, perhaps because they were considered neither serious works of art nor accurate portrayals of history. Nonetheless, by at least the first century A.D., novels were popular reading among the educated elite in both Greece and Rome.

* prose writing without meter or rhyme, as distinguished from poetry

Greek Novels. The Greek novel developed during the Hellenistic* era. The earliest novels are now lost, but their plots centered around such traditional stories as the Trojan War and Jason and the Argonauts. The five ancient Greek novels that survive in their entirety were written during the first 400 years A.D. These novels inspired the writers of Byzantine* novels in the A.D. 1100s, and Europeans in the 1500s and 1600s continued to read them for enjoyment.

The first of these novels was Chaireas and Kallirhoe, written by Chariton in the first century A.D. It is a love story about the daughter of a famous general. The plot is complicated, and the characters move from one part of the world to another. Chariton’s skillful handling of the twists and turns of the story line is evidence that novels were already a well-developed literary form by his time.

The other existing Greek novels were written by Xenophon, Longus, and Achilles Thtius in the A.D. 100s and Heliodorus in the A.D. 200s or 300s. Of the works of these four writers, the novels that were most admired were Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe and Heliodoros’s Aithiopika. Daphnis and Chloe relates the story of two adolescents coping with the first stirrings of love and sexuality. Aithiopika is a mystery involving an exiled Egyptian priest. It has a carefully crafted plot set on two continents and involves people from three different cultures.

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* Byzantine referring to the Eastern Christian Empire that was based in Constantinople

All of these early Greek novels share several common features. They have similar plots, usually involving a teenaged boy and girl who fall in love. In most of these books, just before the couple is to be married, the young lovers are separated. Traveling to distant lands, they suffer storms and shipwrecks, and evil characters imprison and torture them. These novels all have happy endings.

The characters in the early Greek novels tire usually from the aristocratic* ranks of society. (Although the two main characters in Daphnis and Chloe at first appear to be exceptions, the two young people turn out to be wealthy after all.) Most of the novels take place in the historical past, and some of the action seems far-fetched. The author sometimes makes it quite clear in the beginning that what he narrates did not actually take place. Longus, for example, states that Daphnis and Chloe was inspired by a painting he once saw.

Many modern literary critics fault these early Greek novels for having unconvincing characters. While the characters are usually morally upright and admirable, they are often flat and predictable. Nonetheless, the writing in these early Greek novels is skillful and even elegant.

Latin Novels. The novel as a literary form was less popular among Latin writers. Only two examples of the Latin novel exist today—the Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter, which was written before A.D. 100, and the Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, written in the A.D. 100s by Apuleius. Noearlier Latin works of fiction are known.

Although only parts of the Satyricon survive, it was a very long work that filled at least 16 books. The novel relates the humorous adventures of a homosexual couple. As its name suggests, it is a satire*, mostly of the conventional Greek romance novel. The Satyricon also contains literary and social criticism. In one famous scene, Trimalchio, a rich and crude former slave, holds a pretentious and vulgar dinner party, which was intended to ridicule contemporary Roman society.

Apuleius’s Golden Ass is the only complete Roman novel to survive from this period. Filling 11 books, it tells the story of a young man who is changed into a donkey. The novel describes the boy’s comic adventures before he is changed back into a human being by the goddess Isis. Apuleius weaves traditional folktales into the plot, the most famous of which is the tale of Cupid and Psyche, which takes up two entire books of the novel.

Although both Petronius and Apuleius adopted the literary form of the Greek novel, they changed it in typically Roman ways. For example, they both made fun of the Greek emphasis on young love among the aristocracy by focusing on low-life realism and base humor. Both Roman writers also applied complex literary techniques to their works, such as using several narrators to tell the tale. (See also Books and Manuscripts; Literature, Greek; Literature, Roman.)

* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class

* satire literary technique that uses wit and sarcasm to expose or ridicule vice and folly


In the early Greek novels, young people fall in love, and their love inevitably leads to marriage. This romantic ideal of love and marriage was strictly the stuff of fiction. In reality, marriage in the Mediterranean world was almost never the result of love. Instead, marriage was a carefully negotiated business arrangement between clans and families. Thus, romance was a literary convention, not a fact of life.

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