Decoding the Ancient Novel: The Reader and the Role of Description in Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius

Decoding the Ancient Novel: The Reader and the Role of Description in Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius

by Shadi Bartsch


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ISBN-13: 9780691606910
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.40(d)

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Decoding the Ancient Novel

The Reader and the Role of Description in Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius

By Shadi Bartsch


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04238-1


Description and Interpretation in the Second Sophistic

The first four centuries A.D. have bequeathed to us the curiously familiar and yet curiously strange Greek prose romances: works with a precarious position in our literary canons, born moreover of an epoch undistinguished for its literature. These novels seem familiar because they revolve around certain time-honored plot staples — boy-meets-girl, the obstacles to their union, a final happy marriage — and as such evoke enduring aspects of literature and popular culture. But they also appear strange, not only because their patent use of these plot components can seem artless but also because the advance of the plot is frequently interrupted by discursions and descriptive passages that seem manifestly irrelevant to the "real" business of the story — a trait that has provoked criticism from many a disgruntled reader.

Not all the Greek novels, however, share equally this proclivity for the parenthetic. Five have survived in their entirety: the Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, Chaereas and Callirhoe of Chariton, Daphnis and Chloe of Longus, Leucippe and Clitophon of Achilles Tatius, and the Aethiopica of Heliodorus. In all of these, the gist of the story is remarkably similar; it has even been claimed that their plots are composed of identical elements, one novel differing from another "only in the number of such elements, their proportionate weight within the whole plot and the way they are combined" (Bakhtin 1981, 87). And we do find again and again a common plot: after boy and girl, both beautiful, both (essentially) chaste, fall wildly in love at first sight, they are subsequently kept apart by a veritable mob of disasters — kidnappings, pirates, shipwrecks, slavery, besotted tyrants, attempted suicides, and human sacrifices, to name a few — yet overcome all difficulties and are finally united in marriage at the novel's close.

Set apart from the other novels, however, despite correspondences in plot, are Leucippe and Clitophon and the Aethiopica. These two, to a degree unparalleled in Longus's Daphnis and Chloe and the less sophisticated works of Chariton and Xenophon of Ephesus, are distinguished by an apparently inexplicable appetite for discursions and descriptive passages of every sort. We find detailed descriptions of paintings and artworks, strange animals and exotic plants, gardens and rivers, dreams and oracles, cities, processions and theatrical spectacles, as well as frequent digressions on religion, psychology, and natural history. Although description plays a comparatively limited role in earlier Greek literature, in these two romances it occupies a disproportionate share of the text: a strange situation, and one that prompted Rohde to complain of Leucippe and Clitophon that "such trimmings have overrun the actual narrative in such rank profusion that they have turned into nothing short of the main issue" (Rohde 1914, 480). It is this characteristic that often alienates the modern reader, to whom these novels seem strange and oddly inept precisely in their embrace of the irrelevant.

Scholars of the genre, in fact, have tended to focus on this aspect of the ancient romances as symptomatic of their faults on a larger scale; if the romances in their entirety appear to some unpalatable and contrived, it is the frequent descriptive passages in the Aethiopica and Leucippe and Clitophon that have been singled out (and that are often dismissed still today) as the most irrelevant and excessive. Wolff put forward this view unequivocally seventy-five years ago, claiming that the "excess of description" was "one of the most striking faults of the whole genre," and adding to this the disparaging observation on Leucippe and Clitophon that "such is the mass, and such the damnable iteration, of the irrelevancies ... that for the most part they simply put the reader out of patience" (Wolff 1912, 167–68, 202). Since then, the litany has been much the same. Descriptions are "mere purple passages designed to display the rhetorician's skill" (Todd 1940, 22); their only relevance to the story is "to vary its color or artfully retard its progress" (Hadas 1964, vi) they have "no organic connection with the plot" and are "hardly more than irrelevant digressions intended to dazzle or entertain the reader" (Mittelstadt 1967, 753); or, again, they "contribute nothing to the artistry of the main story" (Perry 1967, 119). In Grimal's view, they are regrettable "pedantic expositions that from time to time suspend the narrative" (Grimal 1958, 873); he actually prescribes "un peu de patience" to help the reader get through them. Finally, Reardon denounces in one fell swoop "the comparatively unimportant rhetorical trivia, the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [descriptive passages], the tiresome excursions on natural phenomena, the purple passages which to our taste disfigure Leucippe and Clitophon and the Ethiopica. It is as in any art the ability to use a basic structure that matters" (Reardon 1969, 308).

Such an assumption regarding "basic structure" is itself suspect, and the modern critic should be wary about dismissing elements of the novels out of hand and calling into play standards of plot coherency and relevance that the ancients may not have shared. Classical views on romance's basic structure remain unknown to us and the genre was an open one and "not regulated by any authoritative prescriptions" (Hägg 1971, 109). Yet prejudice comes easily, no doubt in part because the subgenre of the descriptive, which plays so predominant a part here, is often seen as a poor alternative to narrative by literary criticism in general. Another issue deserving consideration, however, is the nature of literary convention more broadly viewed as a background of aesthetic and cultural codes in a specific period. Works that incorporate such codes aim at a defined audience in a given social context; consequently, "it is enough for these texts to be interpreted by readers referring to other conventions or oriented by other presuppositions, and the result is incredibly disappointing" (Eco 1984, 8). Clearly, the deliberate use and even manipulation of such culturally instilled assumptions on the part of our novels would likewise explain why they have so rarely met with recognition and appreciation among their latter-day readership.

As such, the use of descriptive passages in the novels of Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius should be considered against the backdrop of the rhetorical and literary practices of their own epoch, not merely dismissed from our own. By clarifying what readers of the Second Sophistic expected upon encountering these "suspensions of the narrative," we can in turn provide some direction for our own expectations, some idea of how to proceed. As I hope will be clear by the end of this chapter, a close look at this backdrop of rhetorical and literary practices is crucial to our own understanding of the novels and their use of the descriptive. A consideration of the ways in which literary description was employed in the heyday of the Greek romances, along with a better grasp of the aesthetic codes that informed their composition and therefore shaped the expectations of their audience, suggests that the role of the descriptive passages in Leucippe and Clitophon and the Aethiopica has been entirely misunderstood. These passages are no mere rhetorical showpieces but forge playful and intricate connections with the narrative and its events. As this book will argue, such passages present themselves, for readers guided by the conventions of the epoch, as illuminators of the text; they promise insight into it; they call for acts of interpretation. As such they necessarily figure as crucial tools in the authors' narrative strategy and in our own rediscovery of how to read Leucippe and Clitophon and the Aethiopica.

The Greek prose romances flourished during the Second Sophistic of the Roman Empire, a period that Flavius Philostratus named for that resurgence in the influence and popularity of the sophists that began in the second century A.D. To this time are dated most of the romances we possess intact, as well as several related works and fragments of novels. The Ephesiaca, Daphnis and Chloe, Leucippe and Clitophon, the Vita Apollonii, the Iolaus fragments, and the fragments of Lollianus's Phoenicica and Iamblichus's Babyloniaca are all ascribed to the second century. Only Chariton's Chaeieas and Callirhoe and the pseudobiographical Alexander romance are earlier works. Heliodorus has been situated, not without controversy, in the fourth century A.D.

Interestingly, in the Second Sophistic we also find a growing interest in the nature and components of the descriptive passage as a literary and rhetorical technique. This new concern with description manifests itself in one of its forms in the treatises entitled Piogymnasmata ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), or handbooks delineating exercises in rhetorical and historical composition for students in the schools of the Hellenistic East. Four of the five handbooks still extant discuss method as well as give examples; these are the works of Theon, Hermogenes, Aphthonius, and Nicolaus, dated to the early and late second century, the fourth century, and the fifth century A.D. respectively. In each of these, description, or ecphrasis ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) as it is called, is treated as an exercise that takes its place among the ten to fourteen others addressed by the handbooks. This is interesting of itself, since the proportion of the total work occupied by the topic of description is without precedent in the earlier handbooks of the Roman rhetoricians. Significantly, too, the word ecphrasis itself is not adopted as a regular term until the Second Sophistic. In short, as a major component of rhetorical technique, description appears to more or less come into its own in the course of this epoch.

These Piogymnasmata already formed an important part of education at the elementary level, thus establishing a normative basis for the use of the rhetorical devices they define. The approach these handbooks take proves to be relatively dry and matter-of-fact; they purvey guidelines for content and procedure rather than provide suggestions on function in a literary context, and their theory, if it deserves the name, stays within bounds too narrow to reveal how such passages might be manipulated for broader aims. Nevertheless, they do demonstrate several important points: the general interest of the epoch in the descriptive; its treatment as a component of rhetorical and compositional technique; and its relatively early use, in this simple guise, in the schools of rhetoric at a time when education was rhetorical training. Even the more sophisticated employers of rhetoric, after all, must have started here; and because (as will be shown) the handbooks' discussion of proper topics for description provides a common denominator for the passages in contemporary rhetoricians and in the novelists, a quick perusal of what they say seems in order.

The Progymnasmata discuss and define description (ecphrasis) in language that remains very similar from one treatise to the next. As Theon, probably the earliest of the four, defines the figure, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ed. Spengel 1885, 2: 118; "ecphrasis is a descriptive account bringing what is illustrated vividly before one's sight"). This quality of creating a vivid visual image for the reader is the essential characteristic of the device. Theon expands on the idea later, saying that [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (ed. Spengel 1885, 2: 119; "the virtues of ecphrasis are in particular clarity and vividness, such that one can almost see what is narrated"). The handbooks also list the possible subjects of ecphrasis, along with illustrative examples, and distinguish between simple ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and compound ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) ecphrases. They further stress the importance of a thorough and systematic approach. Only Theon and Nicolaus extend their discussions further: both show how ecphrasis differs from narration ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) or the other rhetorical exercises, and Nicolaus treats the question of artwork.

The classifications of the handbooks show that certain topics were conventionally perceived as suitable for such descriptive accounts. From the range of five topics listed by the various authors, four remain constant: persons, circumstances, places, and periods of time ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Theon supplements this list with customs ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), Hermogenes with crises ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and Aphthonius with animals and plants ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]); Nicolaus adds festivals or assemblies ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and later also introduces statues and paintings ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Lists of examples are provided for each topic. Theon cites as typical subjects for animal descriptions the ibis, the hippopotamus, and the crocodile; for "circumstances" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), war, peace, storms, famines, plagues, and earthquakes; for places ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), meadows, shores, cities, islands, and deserts; and for periods of time ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), seasons and festivals. Under customs or methods ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), he includes examples of military preparations and the usage of weapons and siege apparatus. Hermogenes and Aphthonius add descriptions of battles to circumstances ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and harbors (as does Nicolaus) to the category of places ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]).

Elements of the prose romances match these guidelines well, and the handbooks' lists of examples find many correspondences among the descriptive passages in Leucippe and Clitophon and the Aethiopica. Both Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius dwell lavishly on the appearance of various odd animals; the crocodile, for example, is described at great length by Achilles Tatius, who informs us that the creature appears to have a head (as many do) until it opens its mouth: at which point its head altogether disappears and becomes nothing but a pair of jaws, gaping so hugely that the crocodile's belly is visible through them (Leucippe and Clitophon 4.19.4–5). This blend of the vivid and the recherché is typical of the author, but Heliodorus too shows an interest in the unusual; witness the description of the "cameleopard" or giraffe at Aethiopica 10.27.1–4.

If animals are frequent, so are battles and sieges, especially in Heliodorus. The siege of Syene (9.1.1–8.6) is a long and complicated affair, won by a cunning stratagem of the Ethiopian king Hydaspes: Heliodorus describes how the king has his troops build a second wall around the city's own walls and then flood the intervening space by diverting a channel from the Nile. The river's waters rush around the city, turning its inhabitants into panic-stricken islanders, when the inner walls show signs of weakening, the citizens decide to capitulate and are put in the unusual position of having to accept peace terms delivered by boat. A similar taste for paradoxical situations appears in another description related to the topic of battles: the novel actually opens with a description of the Egyptian coast at the mouth of the Nile, where the remnants of a fierce battle are to be seen (1.1.1–6). Bodies, some quivering, some quite dead, are strewn across the shore, and everywhere the trappings of a drunken feast are mixed with gore-splattered implements of war — including several wine goblets, which, seized in sudden urgency, appear to have done double duty for both banquet and brawl.


Excerpted from Decoding the Ancient Novel by Shadi Bartsch. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • ONE. Description and Interpretation in the Second Sophistic, pg. 3
  • TWO. Pictorial Description: Clues, Conventions, Girls, and Gardens, pg. 40
  • THREE. Dreams, Oracles, and Oracular Dreams: Misinterpretation and Motivation, pg. 80
  • FOUR. Descriptions of Spectacles: The Reader as Audience, the Author as Playwright, pg. 109
  • FIVE. The Other Descriptions: Relation to Narrative and Reader, pg. 144
  • SIX. The Role of Description, pg. 171
  • APPENDIX. Summaries of Leucippe and Clitophon and the Aethiopica, pg. 179
  • Bibliography, pg. 185
  • Index Locorum, pg. 191
  • General Index, pg. 196

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