Ancient History & Civilisation

The Best Romantic Novels

The novel, which was thus the typical manifestation of the culture of the time, included masterpieces. Outstanding among them was the isolated Latin work of extraordinary distinction written by Apuleius from Madaurus (Mdaourouch) in north Africa, who flourished in the time of Marcus Aurelius. The last and most peculiar of the Latin stylists, Apuleius was a great deal more than a mere middle-brow writer of romances; and his many interests form a valuable key to the period.

Novelist, poet, popular philosopher, rhetorical lecturer and man of religion, Apuleius was taken to court to answer the charge of addiction to magic, which was one of the principal concerns of the age (p. 191). His startlingly flamboyant, mesmerically ornate defence, a mixture of wild rhetoric and skilful argument, presumably secured his acquittal, but later St Augustine was by no means sure that the accusation had been untrue19; and he felt obliged to warn his readers against people who, more than two centuries after the death of Apuleius, estimated him above Jesus Christ.

Magic is the main theme of Apuleius’ novel the Metamorphoses (Golden Ass). The hero, Lucius, is turned into a donkey because he is excessively curious about the black art. Tales of sorcery and ribaldry contribute a great deal to the pulsing life and fantasy of this unparalleled book. Apuleius’ strongly marked, off-beat sense of humour suggests that the whole work may be a satirical mockery of magic and superstition. Yet, if so, he is at least half serious and believing. In religion, despite frequent plunges into obscenity – and jokes about the petty and bourgeois Olympians – he is a determined adept, prepared for anything. ‘In Greece I took part in very many initiations. I keep carefully certain symbols and memorials of them handed to me by priests.… I learned worship upon worship, rites beyond number, a great variety of ceremonies, in my zeal for truth and my dutifulness to the gods.’20

To one of these faiths Apuleius had attached himself with passion. For the description of his encounter with the saviour-goddess Isis is a vivid indication that the middle and later empire were not artificial survivals but heartfelt realities (p. 187). There is also a spiritual undercurrent in the most famous and longest of the many self-contained stories that appear in the work,21 the fairy-tale of Cupid and Psyche that has echoed round the world. Although this provides some of the most glorious entertainment in ancient literature, it is different from the ribald, hair-raising horror stories which liberally bestrew the rest of the book, because it echoes, at a distance yet with deliberation, the absorbing contemporary theme of the progress of the Soul (psyche) and its quest through carnal adventures for the ultimate attainment of happiness and peace (p. 188).22 This, then, is escape literature of several kinds at the same time. It is full of the magic which was one of the chief means of liberation from the evils of this world. It tells allegorically how the Soul achieves this escape, and it provides a series of gorgeous enchantments which proved irresistible to Raphael and Elizabethan and Jacobean writers.

Apuleius’ luxuriant Latin is far removed already from Cicero, and almost half-way to the tongues of modern Europe. The writer apologises, not very sincerely, for the rude and exotic Latinity which he, a poor Grecian, had picked up at Rome.23 But his Latin was far the most accomplished of the age. The writer’s native Africa, with its flourishing, emperor-producing culture, now possessed almost a monopoly of first-class Latin, and more was to come from Tertullian. Apuleius, who probably died some time towards the end of Marcus Aurelius’ reign, may have written hisMetamorphoses at the end of his life when Marcus was compiling his singularly different Meditations.

With its sparkling, cutting edge and unsentimental approach, this masterpiece of Apuleius is quite distinct from other ancient novels, which (except for Petronius’ earlier Satyricon) are in Greek and belong to the eastern regions of the empire. Yet there was also a Greek novel on this same theme of a man turned into a donkey, Lucius or the Ass, by an unknown Lucius of Patrae.24 That work, of which an excerpt or summary survives, may have provided Apuleius with his subject, though as often in ancient literature borrowings of such a kind do not lessen the extreme individuality of his treatment.

The Greek novel, of which Lucius of Patrae was a representative, had an extremely complicated literary pedigree. Everything was, indirectly, grist to the mill – the Iliad and many tales of Troy, the Odyssey and all the travellers’ tales that flowed from it, history and historical fiction from Herodotus to the Alexander Romance, devices and narrative speeches of tragic dramatists (and particularly love-themes of Euripides), myths of Plato, stock speeches and incidents of rhetoricians, characters and plots from Menander’s Athenian New Comedy, erotic story-telling by elegiac poets, adventures and dialogues in mime and satire, the frivolous excitements of novella and short story, and many a national or religious eastern theme. Egypt played a particularly important part, and the earliest piece of Greek prose fiction (partly a love story), the Dream of Nectanebus, is translated from the Egyptian.

Discoveries of Egyptian papyri have shown that the Greek novel which emerged as a blend of these various types of literature developed much earlier than had been thought. The oldest original example known at first-hand is the Ninus Romance, from which passages have survived in papyri.25The hero and heroine, oriental as in much popular anonymous fiction, are Semiramis and Ninus who was traditionally the first king of Assyria.26 One fragment shows him about to fight against the Armenians; the other describes how, in the desire of the two lovers to be united, Ninus appeals to the girl’s mother, and Semiramis to his. The love-motif is already established, and other keynotes of future novels are apparent in the king’s determined pre-marital sexual continence and the bashfulness of the maiden. Known texts seem to belong to the first century AD, but a resemblance between their contents and Greek works of history and pseudo-history suggests that the Ninus romance may originally have been written two if not three hundred years before that; and considerations of language point to the same conclusion.

Further papyrus discoveries have now confirmed that the Greek novel had reached maturity several centuries before the dates to which its main evolution was hitherto ascribed. For example Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Charito of Aphrodisias in south-western Asia Minor, cannot be of the Byzantine age, as had been believed, since papyri are earlier than AD 200.27 The story, written in eight ‘books’, is based on the Athenian expedition against Syracuse in the fifth century BC. Hermocrates, who commanded the Syracusan forces, has according to the novel a beautiful daughter Callirhoe, loved at first sight by Chaereas the son of a political opponent. There are the usual intrigues, suspicions, perils and robbers, and the heroine (as often) is mistakenly believed to be dead. But finally Fortune, the supreme goddess of later Greek times who is made by such writers to account for all their more excessive implausibilities, brings the loving pair together; and Aphrodite (Venus) also plays her part. When the writer promises in his final section that ‘in this book you shall find not brigandage and slavery and trial at law, fighting and heroism, war and capture, but honourable lives and lawful wedlock’, he must be referring only to that concluding portion of his work; because elsewhere such features are present in abundance. Drama runs high – Charito himself says the trial-scene will surpass the stage – and so does chivalry; Dionysius of Syracuse, paying court to Callirhoe who has been sold to him as a slave, shows courteous restraint. Constancy and chastity defeat all encroachments. There are quotations from Homer and the Athenian New Comedy, but the plot goes ahead without too many irrelevancies, and Charito’s lucid style was much admired by the Renaissance. He could be as early as c. AD 100, or earlier.

Another author who belongs to the novel’s rise to full development was Xenophon of Ephesus. His Ephesiaca, written in a form reminiscent of his fellow-Asian Charito, contains a reference to an event of Trajan’s reign (98–117), and this romance almost certainly belongs to the second century AD. Xenophon has got away from the persistent tradition that novels should be, however remotely, based on historical fact. Habrocomes loves and marries Anthea, but the oracle of Apollo of Colophon, which was still famous and active, warns them of perils ahead (p. 193). To frustrate these hazards the relatives of the young couple send them on a journey, but they encounter gales, shipwrecks, bandits, separations, and attempts on the virtue of Anthea. All these hazards are overcome. ‘I have escaped’, she triumphantly records, ‘the threats of brigands, the plots of pirates, the outrages of brothel-keepers, and chains, and pits, and beams, and poisons, and burials – but you now, Habrocomes, have you abided chaste?’ Yes, he has.

The Ephesiaca is relatively short, at least in its present form which is disjointed and may be an abridgement. The plot is concisely packed with incident. ‘Once more pirates and sea! Once more I am captive!’ understandably sighs Anthea. And yet the author, a man of some taste but no great literary learning, prefers simplicity to rhetoric. However, he adds a clever, macabre, and bitter-sweet story within a story,28 and a quasi-mystical insistence that material sacrifices to the purity of love will mean a happy life in the hereafter – which was the main concern of the times.29

Then comes a rich crop of novels dating from the times of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and the dynasty of Septimius. These were not, as had been believed, the first important examples of the genre, but represent its mature output, brought to a new level of achievement (and no doubt read with increased appreciation) owing to the spreading, if somewhat low-level, secondary education of the age. Iamblichus, a Syrian like the later philosopher of the same name, was once thought of as the first of these writers; but he is now seen to be an heir of the prolonged earlier tradition that has been described. His romance, the Babylonica, is dateable from its reference to an Armenian king restored by the Romans in 165; and there seems to be a suggestion that Marcus Aurelius (d. 180) is still alive. The original work itself is lost, but a Byzantine summary has survived. Retreating from Xenophon’s attempt to eliminate the pseudo-historical framework, Iamblichus set his scenario in ancient Mesopotamia, where Garmus, the cruel king of Babylon, casts a covetous eye upon Sinonis, wife of Rhodanes. The usual shipwrecks are lacking, but instead there is no shortage of persecutions, phantoms, sorcerers and mistaken identities. Iamblichus marshals a large caste whose adventures, though skilfully interwoven with the main plot, even exceed earlier novels in improbability.

Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius was formerly ascribed to the fifth century AD, but a papyrus has revealed that any such attribution is more than three hundred years too late.30 A storm at sea, one of a series of melodramatic happenings presented in breathless succession, delivers the young lovers into the hands of Egyptian pirates. For Achilles Tatius was not a native of Asia Minor or Syria like his predecessors but an Alexandrian, and although wanton Fortune for the most part prevails in his work, the Egyptian god Serapis, who was greatly favoured by Septimius Severas, also fulfils a prominent role. We are back again in pure fiction, but with a spicy twist. True, there are the usual disasters, and time after time Clitophon can scarcely believe that his beloved is still alive. Indeed, she is apparently killed – not once but three times! This sort of exaggeration, of which there is a good deal, rather suggests that Achilles Tatius is making fun of such hackneyed themes. On one of the occasions when Leucippe seemed to meet her end she was thought to have been stabbed, by a servant of her bandit captors. Her intestines were even observed to gush out. Indeed they were removed and placed on an altar for sacrifice. But fortunately this was all an act staged by her friends to save her life from these robbers; the damage was inflicted not upon herself but upon a sheepskin secretly attached to her body, and the dagger had springs which prevented it from penetrating any deeper.31

Another unfamiliar touch indicates that the hero Clitophon, in the absence of Leucippe, goes to bed with another woman. Admittedly this was under force majeure (rather in the tradition of Odysseus), but in other novels only secondary characters had succumbed to illicit lovemaking in any circumstances whatever. In Leucippe and Clitophon, on the other hand, there is a new ironic tolerance of human frailty, implying criticism of his fellow novelists’ standards of impregnable sexual restraint.

Achilles Tatius is particularly interested in love, which, in pursuance of a current Platonic fashion, he compared with religious Mysteries (p. 148). But he improves on preceding novelists by not remaining content with the comparatively uninteresting phenomenon of love at first sight. Instead he dwells on the gradual stages of courtship and the art by which it progresses. He is also articulately aware of the wild erotic urge, and the restless agitations and psychological disturbances it brings in its train. Clitophon is told by a cousin:

Some lovers have to be content with a mere look at their sweetheart, so well guarded is she, and think themselves very lucky if they can obtain this pleasure of the eye; others are more fortunate, if they can but get a word with her. But you – you are constantly seeing her and hearing her; you eat with her and drink with her: and yet, with all this good fortune, you grumble. Let me tell you that you are ungrateful for this gift that Love has made you. You do not know what it is to be able to see the one you love. When the eyes meet one another they receive the impression of the body as in a mirror, and this emanation of beauty, which penetrates down into the soul through the eyes, effects a kind of union however the bodies are sundered, a new kind of bodily embrace.32

Towards the sufferings of love, like other sufferings, Achilles Tatius is unusually sympathetic.

Centuries later, the Byzantines (like people in Elizabethan England) liked reading Achilles Tatius; and one of their leading ecclesiastical scholars, Photius, detected indecency in the work, which does indeed like most of these novels reveal an occasional prurience, though there is the usual impeccably moral conclusion. Photius is more surprising when he praises this author for the clarity of his style. Although the story, for all its exuberance, is told lucidly enough, with its characters more human than hitherto, the language is artificial – or sometimes artificially simple – to a remarkable and even ridiculous degree. Free indulgence in the inquisitive encyclopaedic credulity which flourished in this epoch leads Achilles Tatius to digressions and set-pieces on a vast variety of subjects. They hold up the action of the novel, to which they are irrelevant. But readers of the time were entranced by the exotic mysteries and science-fictions of far off lands to which Achilles Tatius particularly often devotes his wide-ranging curiosity.

I myself have seen some of these miraculous phenomena … In Libya there is a lake which may be compared to the soil of India: the Libyan maidens know its secret, that its water contains a store of wealth; this is preserved below as in a treasury, being intermingled with the mud of the lake, which is a very spring of gold. So they smear with pitch the end of a pole and thrust it down beneath the water. Thus they open its concealed store-house, the pole being with respect to the gold what the hook is to a fish, for it does the fishing, while the pitch acts as bait; since all the gold which touches it (and nothing else) sticks to it and thus the pitch draws its capture to the land. That is the manner of the gold fisheries in this Libyan stream.33

And then the marvels of India, which were so fascinating to Greeks and Romans of this age (p. 183), include the healing fragrance of the elephant’s breath when it has been feeding on the leaf of the black rose.

I once saw an extraordinary sight. There was a Greek who had put his head right into the middle of an elephant’s jaws. It kept its mouth open and breathed upon him as he remained in that position. I was surprised at both, the audacity of the man and the amiability of the elephant; but the man told me that he had in fact given the animal a fee for it, because the beast’s breath was only less sweet than the scents of India, and a sovereign remedy for headache. The elephant knows that he possesses this power of healing, and will not open his mouth for nothing; he is one of those rascally doctors that insist on having their fee first. When you give it him, he graciously consents, stretches open his jaws, and keeps them agape as long as the man desires; he knows that he has let out on hire the sweetness of his breath.34

Achilles Tatius is not entirely serious. And his contemporary Lucian, looking round for things to laugh at, devotes his True Stories – model for Rabelais, Swift, Voltaire – to making fun of this sort of fictional anthropology quite openly (p. 192).

Sure enough, just before sunset twenty more pirates suddenly darted out at us from an apparently uninhabited island. They were mounted on large dolphins, which neighed like horses as they bounded across the waves. The pirates quickly surrounded our ship and started pelting us at close range with dried squids and crabs’ eyes, but as soon as we let fly with our arrows and javelins so many of them were wounded that the whole lot turned tail and fled back to the island. About midnight, when the sea was very calm, we inadvertently ran aground on a halcyon’s nest. It was nearly seven miles in circumference, and the bird that was sitting on it was not much smaller. We interrupted her in the process of incubating her eggs, and she flew up into the air with a melancholy cry, creating such a draught with her wings that she practically sank our ship. As soon as it was light we disembarked and went for a walk round the nest, which consisted of a vast number of trees plaited together to form a sort of raft. On it were five hundred eggs, each about the size of a barrel, from which impatient chirpings could already be heard.35

Daphnis and Chloe, written by Longus of Lesbos, is probably a little later than Achilles Tatius and Lucian; comparisons based on the symmetry and other devices of the style suggests a date early in the third century. Longus’ hero and heroine, like many real children in the ancient world, were exposed by their father and mother at birth. But they were found and adopted by foster-parents, whose goats and sheep they tended together throughout their childhood. The usual themes of piracy, war, unwelcome suitors and kidnappers are introduced, but with a difference; for here they rank as secondary mishaps, intruding in incidental fashion upon a setting that is bucolic and idyllic. The boy and girl are in love with each other, but they do not know what this means or what to do about it. Daphnis is taught the necessary methods by an older woman – in pursuance of Achilles Tatius’ suggestion that the hero’s chastity need not be absolute – and finally he and his beloved marry, after they have been reunited with their parents who turn out to be rich citizens of Mitylene.

Daphnis and Chloe is the only surviving pastoral prose romance from the ancient world; one manuscript calls it ‘The Pastorals of Lesbos’. There was, at this time, a lively literary interest in Theocritus who, living at another Aegean island Cos, had founded pastoral poetry half a millennium earlier. His poems had built a fantasy of rural life for city-dwellers, and Virgil’s Eclogues (c. 37 BC) imbued this sophisticated mood with a subtle nostalgic elegance. Longus, like them, is fond of the country, in a way that no rustic ever was; and he advertises such artificiality at once by describing his scene as the literary pendant of a painted picture. This elaborate Arcadian background, only briefly disturbed by the hazards required in a novel, provides unusual unity of place – it is a sort of laboratory in which, while nothing changes but the seasons, the unspoiled hero and heroine can be observed away from the world, watched by Pan with his pipes and the nymphs of woods and meadows, rustic deities who preside over this Golden Age in which Daphnis and Chloe lived and loved.

Their amusements were of a childish and pastoral kind. Chloe would go hunting asphodel stalks, of which she wove traps for grasshoppers, neglecting her flock the while. Daphnis cut slender reeds, perforated the intervals between the joints, fitted them together with soft wax, and then practised piping till nightfall. Sometimes they shared their milk and wine, and made a common meal of the provisions they brought from home. Sooner would one see the flocks of sheep or goats separated from one another than Daphnis and Chloe apart.36

Yet there is a certain ironic tang, which lessens the danger of insipidity, in Longus’ balance between the simple day’s work and life in the town. This is not quite a flat contrast between good and bad; the two worlds can be reconciled if wisdom is applied to the task. And in any case the country is a rococo Arcadia, a gracious ideal but in plain reality something of a joke. Yet in the end it is to this non-existent rustic life that Daphnis and Chloe return for their wedding, because they could not endure their visit to the city. ‘Even the goats grazed nearby, as if they too shared in the festivities. To the city folk this was not very agreeable, but Daphnis called the bucks by name, and gave them green leaves to eat, and held them by the horns and kissed them.’37

But the translator of Cromwellian times who called this ‘a most sweet and pleasant romance for young ladies’38 should have added that Longus was mocking gently at the conventions of his own story. His romance, ripening in the tranquil seclusion of true love’s spring time, is not naive but sophisticatedly naive, wavering between naturalism and frivolity; its detailed account of the pair being so simple that they do not know how to make love is written and intended in a lascivious way. Furthermore there is a religious or philosophical undercurrent. Just as Plotinus called Plato’s Love (Eros) the essence of mystic union, so Longus, at a lower level, sees him as the supreme Dionysiac motive-power of events, the prime cosmic force whose strength is demonstrated both by nature and by the experience of the lovers.39 The old Philetas tells them:

If I have not grown these grey hairs in vain, you, my children, are consecrated to Eros, and Eros has care of you. He possesses greater power than Zeus himself.… He rules the elements, he rules the stars, he rules his fellow deities; your power over your goats and sheep is not as great. All flowers are the work of Eros, all these plants are his handiwork; it is through him that rivers flow and breezes blow.40

Longus is an elegant, studied stylist, vivid and concise. Unintentional outrages to common sense are avoided, sentiment rings true, bold realism is not lacking, and the plot, which could have been monotonous, is an intriguing blend of seriousness and levity.Daphnis and Chloe is a minor masterpiece. To the later world, it often seemed a major one. Medieval monks read the book surreptitiously – one manuscript is of a miniature size suitable for rapid concealment, and it begins and ends with religious texts which hide the romance sandwiched between them. A Byzantine philosopher-historian found it necessary to advise monastic novices to start their reading with ‘the more serious works of the great age’ instead of Longus or Achilles Tatius, who were evidently much more popular.41

Daphnis and Chloe also exerted great influence upon the medieval pastoral tradition. But it was the writers and particularly the courtiers of the sixteenth century who most of all welcomed this gay combination of artificial rusticity and incident as an inexhaustible source for their own poetry and fiction. Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (c. 1559) is a Spanish Daphnis and Chloe (via the Italian) with more adventure and less psychology, and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia likewise owes much to Longus. There were French and English translations, and a Greek first edition at Florence in 1598.42 Rousseau and Goethe were admirers of the work, and Rousseau’s friend Bernardin de St Pierre adapted Longus’ analysis of friendship ripening into love for his best-seller Paul et Virginie (1787).

Some people have regarded Daphnis and Chloe as the most successful of the Greek novels. Others prefer another book of about the same date or a little later, the Aethiopica. Its author, Heliodorus, came from Emesa (Homs) in Syria. This was also the home of Severus Alexander’s mother, and it was perhaps in his reign that the book was written; for Heliodorus seems to have known Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana (c.21718, p. 182) and he mentions armoured Persian cavalry which the Romans encountered in c.232–3. Yet the work might not be so late.

The courageous, beautiful and gifted hero and heroine are Theagenes and Chariclea, after whom the work is sometimes named. Chariclea was exposed in infancy by her mother, the queen of Ethiopia. Rescued by a Greek priest, the girl grew up in Delphi, where she and Theagenes fell in love. In the company of Calasiris, an Egyptian sage whom the queen had sent to search for her daughter, they both set out for the far-off lands where the oracle had declared that happiness would be theirs. After various adventures they reach the coast of Egypt as captives to a pirate band. Separated and then reunited, they finally come to Meroe as prisoners of the Ethiopians whose capital this is. Just in time to save them from the fate of sacrificial victims, their parents recognise them. Their marriage receives the royal blessing, and priesthoods are bestowed upon them both.

The beginning of the Aethiopica is one of the sensations of Greek literature. Like the Odyssey, the book plunges straight into the middle of its adventurous theme. While all identities and intentions are still unknown, we rush through strange events and hazards producing repercussions which spread out both backwards and forwards into time and transform the lives of the hero and heroine.

The cheerful smile of day was just appearing, as the rays of the sun began to light up the mountain tops, when some men armed like brigands peered over the ridge that stretches alongside the outlets of the Nile and that mouth of the river which is named after Hercules. They halted there for a little while, scanning with their eyes the sea that lay below them; and when they had cast their first glances over the ocean and found no craft upon it and no promise there of pirates’ plunder, they bent their gaze down upon the shore near by. And what it showed was this: a merchant ship was moored there by her stern cables, bereft of her ship’s company but fully laden; so much could be inferred even at a distance, for her burthen brought the water as high as the third waling-piece of her timbers. The shore was thickly strewn with newly slain bodies, some quite lifeless, and others half dead whose limbs were still a-quiver, thus indicating that the conflict had only just ceased.

That it had been no regular engagement was betokened by what was visible. For there lay mingled the pitiful remnants of a feast that had come to no happy conclusion. There were tables still laden with their victuals; some others, overturned on the ground, were held in the grasp of those of the vanquished who had used them as armour in the struggle. For it had been a fight on the spur of the moment; and underneath others were men who had crept there in the hope of concealment. Wine-bowls were upset, and some were slipping from the hands of their holders – either drinkers or those who had taken them up to use as missiles instead of a stone. Here lay a man wounded with an axe, there one struck by a stone that the shingle had provided on the spot, another mangled by a piece of timber and another burnt to death by a firebrand; but most had fallen victims to darts and arrows. The conquest was clear as day, but the spoils were unseized; while the vessel, deserted and void of men, yet held its cargo intact, as though protected by a strong guard, and it rocked gently at its moorings as in a time of peace.…

When they had advanced to a little way short of the ship and the fallen, they came upon a sight more unaccountable than what they had seen before. A young girl was seated on a rock, so inconceivably beautiful as to convince one that she was a goddess. Though sorely anguished by her present plight, she yet breathed forth a high and noble spirit. Her head was crowned with laurel; a quiver was slung over her shoulder; and her left arm was propped upon her bow, beyond which the hand hung negligently down. The elbow of her other arm she supported on her right thigh, while on its palm she rested her cheek; and with downcast eyes she held her head still, gazing intently on a prostrate youth. He, cruelly wounded, seemed to be faintly awakening as from a deep slumber that was well-nigh death.… She sprang up from the rock; the men on the mountain, struck with wonder and alarm by the sight as though by some fiery blast, cowered under bushes, for she seemed to them to be something greater and more divine when she stood erect. Her arrows rattled with her sudden movement. The inwoven gold of her dress glistened in the beams of the sun, and her hair, tossing below the wreath like the tresses of a bacchant, flowed widespread over her back.43

Curiosity has indeed been aroused, and tension is high. Heliodorus excels at constructing a plot, and the conventional motifs of oracles, oaths, letters, soliloquies, meditated suicides and apparent deaths are given epic and dramatic treatment in a style loaded with bright narrative and laced with a sparse but brisk humour. There is a steady and rapid progression of vigorous episodes, backed by cleverly depicted subsidiary characters and stories. These secondary themes are, for the most part, sufficiently relevant not to hold up the main narrative too much.

But Heliodorus is also abreast of the contemporary mode in his liberal infusions of imaginative geography and ethnology.

The whole region is named by the Egyptians ‘Herdsmen’s Home’; it is a low-lying tract which receives certain overflows of the Nile so as to form a lake which is of immense depth at its centre but dwindles towards its edges into a swamp. What shores are to seas, swamps are to lakes. Here it is that Egyptians of the bandit kind have their city. One man has built himself a cabin on a patch of land that may lie above the water level. Another makes his dwelling in a boat which serves at once for transport and for habitation; upon this the women spin their wool, and also bring forth their children. When a child is born, it is reared at first on its mother’s milk, but thereafter on the fish taken from the lagoon and broiled in the sun. When they observe the child attempting to crawl, they fasten a thong to its ankles which allows it to move to the limits of the boat or the hut, thus singularly making the tethering of their feet serve instead of leading them by the hand. Hence many a herdsman has been born on the lagoon, and reared in this manner, and so come to regard the lagoon as his homeland; and it fully serves as a strong bastion for brigands.44

Although the novelist is Syrian, his eastern patriotism is enlarged to include Egypt. The wise Calasiris asserts that Homer was a fellow-Egyptian, just as the Alexander Romance made the same claim for Alexander the Great.45 The descendants of the proud peoples whom he had conquered on the periphery of the Hellenic world consoled their self-esteem by fiction displaying a national, religious emphasis. Heliodorus also extends this sympathetic attention to Ethiopia. Nevertheless Chariclea, in spite of her coloured parentage, is white; and the Greeks are superior to non-Greeks. The book is written for the people, pervading the Roman empire of the day, who were Greek not by birth but by language and partially by culture. And there is perhaps the additional purpose of showing them that their more Hellenic neighbours, for all their superior airs, could be successfully emulated.

Achilles Tatius had been good at writing about love; so is Heliodorus, and he too contributes a special treatment of his own. The innovation in the Aethiopica is the energetic and resourceful companionship provided by Chariclea to her lover. In many crises it is she who takes the lead and is a more inventive thinker than the brave but easily discouraged Theagenes. Later, the book was sometimes called just Chariclea; for here is a woman, almost for the first time in literature, assuming her proper station as the friend and companion of man. In view, however, of her ferocious chastity, which is no longer a literary pose but an urgent inner commandment characteristic of a powerfully ascetic era (p. 135), it seems strange that Montaigne saw her as ‘peradventure a little too curiously and wantonly tricked, and too amorous for an ecclesiastical and sacerdotal daughter’. But what, no doubt, surprised him was the uninhibited nature of her loyalty and love for Theagenes. She is lavish with outbursts of emotion, which are expressed not so much by psychological description as by the recording of vigorous and excitable facial expressions, gestures and movements. No runner in a race could want a more enthusiastic partisan than Theagenes possessed in his beloved.

Chariclea’s excitement knew no bounds; and I, who had been observing her for some time, saw continual changes occurring in her demeanour. When, for all to hear, the herald had proclaimed the names of the entrants for the race, calling out ‘Ormenus of Arcadia and Theagenes of Thessaly’, and when the cord was let fall and the race was started at a speed which almost defeated the quickest vision, then the young girl was no longer able to keep still: her legs quivered, her feet danced, as if, to my thinking, her soul were floating away with Theagenes and were zealously supporting him in the race.46

Indeed, Chariclea’s reactions to the temporary disappearance of her lover are so violently tearful that they invite and receive rebuke.

When he saw her dishevelled hair, her dress all tattered on her bosom, and her eyes still swollen and showing traces of the frenzy that held her before she fell asleep, Calasiris understood the cause. He led her back to the bed, seated her and put a cloak about her. Having her thus more suitably attired, he asked: ‘What is this, Chariclea? Why such excessive, such immoderate dismay ? Why this senseless subjection to circumstances ? … Be considerate of us, my child; be considerate, if not of yourself yet at least of Theagenes, to whom only life with you is desirable, and existence has value only if you survive.’ Chariclea blushed as she heard these words.…47

Another profound concern of Heliodorus was to show the divine guidance behind this love. Reflecting upon the world’s infinitely varied activities and interacting events, he does not attribute all of them to Fortune but explains many others, through the mouth of a priest or prophet, as the work of Providence and divine justice. For the Aethiopica is much concerned with philosophy and religion. Like contemporaries whose work he seems to know, Heliodorus wants to simplify and unify myths and cults, and reunite them with their eastern origins. In particular, he reveals a lofty conception of the Sun-god, felt to be universal and identified with Apollo (p. 174). He himself was connected by heredity, as by name, with the Emesan Sun-cult from whose priestly family the emperors of the time were descended (p. 176), and Sun-worship is therefore prominent in theAethiopica.

Indeed, Heliodorus provides the most conspicuous example of a religious preoccupation which is apparent in almost all the novels.48 Despite every incidental set-back, the gods are helping and guarding their special charges. Each writer tends to have a favourite god or gods of his own, and the general theme of attaining fulfilment through initiatory ordeals, described with almost formulaic uniformity, possessed obvious analogies to the ceremonials of salvation prescribed by the mystery faiths (p. 186). Like the audiences of medieval miracle plays we must put aside the modern idea that religion and entertainment are incompatible.

Byzantine tradition retrospectively made both Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius into Christian bishops, in order to make their novels respectable reading for monks, who were so fond of this sort of literature. They justified the taste by interpreting each amorous intrigue as a moral lesson. These lessons were then incorporated in similar Christian romances with heroes and heroines who were terrorised by hazards imposed by the demon of sensuality, and took refuge in penitence and asceticism.49

Tasso praises the skilful suspense of the Aethiopica and its gradual clearing up of perplexities. He and Cervantes show how much the Renaissance loved Chariclea. So do paintings by Raphael, for these novels excelled in visual appeal. A French translation of Heliodorus by Amyot (1547) ran into ten editions during the latter half of the sixteenth century, and Underdown’s English version was reprinted four times within fifty years after its first publication (1587).50 Racine loved the Aethiopica. Although forbidden to read it as a fifteen-year-old boy at Port Royal, he learnt the novel by heart and it affected him deeply and awoke many echoes in his own plays.

Because of its complex and diversified contents and origins (p. 119), this fictional literature was not given any specific name by the ancients themselves; there is no Greek or Latin term for ‘novels’ or ‘romances’, and in Byzantine times they were still classified under drama or comedy.

For quite different reasons, some modern critics refuse to allow the word ‘novel’ to be applied to the writings of Heliodorus and the rest, reserving this term for works more concerned with character and motive, and preferring that these stories of incident – as they consider the Greek books to be – should be called romances instead. This is, perhaps, an untenable distinction, but there is a difference between high-brow novels requiring some mental effort and middle-brow novels involving little or nothing except the plain task of following the plot, which may be variegated, perhaps, by a modicum of cultural or religious threads and allusions. The greater part of the remaining Greek and Latin writings that have come down to us – the most notable exception is the comedy of Plautus – is aimed at men whose traditional higher education had equipped them for intellectual exercise; it may therefore, whatever its defects, be classified as mainly high-brow. Readers of the novels, on the other hand, were the middle-brow products of a widespread secondary education system which did not aspire to university standards. Similar romantic novels, ‘missing the advantage or the dry light of academic judgment’,51 have been composed and enjoyed at many other epochs also, influenced by the ancient writers sometimes not at all, sometimes indirectly, and often directly. Such were the intricate webs, full of ‘feyned nowhere acts’, popular in the Elizabethan age which found them more realistic than the tales of chivalry that were at last going out of fashion. The formula was fresh and childish, the sentimentality cloying, and as in ancient times a few acceptable references of an erudite character were inserted for the sake of impressiveness and uplift.

And then again in the eighteenth century Pierre Huet of Caen and Dr Samuel Johnson define the same type of literature in terms which apply very nearly as well to Heliodorus as to their own contemporaries. Walter Scott admitted that as a young man his addiction to light reading of this kind was so persistent that it amounted to a dissipation. Thereafter, his own conspicuous achievements in the ancient genre of historical romance brilliantly fulfilled Coleridge’s criterion of this sort of writing, ‘to amuse without requiring any effort of thought, and without exciting any deep emotion’. In the present century this same middlebrow novel (rarely composed with Scott’s artistry) has been called a morally and intellectually betwixt and between mixture of geniality and sentiment, stuck together with a sticky slime of calves’-foot jelly – not therefore literature, but interesting for its choice and handling of material, and useful for ‘keeping the lower levels posted with what is stirring higher up’; more decent than high-brow stuff, or moreconventionally so52; but selling better, at least until television came along.

‘My pictures of life,’ said Gene Stratton Porter, ‘are sentimental and idealised. They are! And I glory in them!’ So might have spoken, though perhaps without total solemnity, Achilles Tatius or Longus or Heliodorus. For the kind of writing that culminated in their work was the only literary form (other than those directly sponsored by religions) extensively developed during the period that is the subject of the present book. Such fiction flourished because it supplied lively entertainment with just a little, but not too much, intellectual or pseudo-intellectual and religious stimulus, and because the hero’s and heroine’s unassailable chastity, a new dominant motif in western literature, gave the illusion of edification. An exciting flavour of sensuality is added, and yet everything still remains full of fine, pure feeling. This is a literature for the young – or the immature wishing they were young – to whom everything is black and white.

But above all novels were read because their dream-dramas, although not wholly escapist seeing that they look honestly (if symbolically) at the hazards of the world, were nevertheless a relief from the tedious and anxious realities of daily life. Fantasy-fiction is the typical nourishment of people whose normal impulses are starved of the means of expression. The politics of the Greco-Roman world were unpleasant, and in any case out of reach. A much more agreeable, accessible and flattering wish-fulfilment was to be found in imaginative identification with the young lovers in these novels. In an age, moreover, when very nasty things could happen, these appalling ordeals gave the vicarious thrill which attracts harmless people to stories of crime and murder today. Besides, there was always the assurance of a respectable, matrimonial happy ending. A vital psychological part was played in the Roman empire by the Greek middle-class middle-brow fiction-infinitely far removed from the classic Greece of marble ruins – which provided in skilful phantasy the happiness real life failed to offer.

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