Studies in Heliodorus

Richard HUNTER (ed.), Studies in Heliodorus. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society (1998), Supplementary Volume no. 21. Available to non-members, c. 22.

Review by Frank Beetham


Heliodorus' Aithiopika - An Ethiopian Story - is the longest and most subtle novel in ancient Greek which we have. J .R. Morgan's stylish modem translation fills 230 pages of Reardon's Collected Ancient Greek Novels (California U.P. 1989, available in paperback).

The opening is a tour de force of mystery and suspense: at daybreak, in the first rays of the sun, on the coast of Egypt, a group of men dressed as brigands peers over the shoulder of a hill. They see near the shore a heavily laden ship anchored with the cargo intact, but no crew. Along the beach are dead and dying men, some with axe or bludgeon wounds, some burnt, most with arrows sticking out of them. Amid the evidence of a recent battle are tables, some still full of food, some overturned, some with bodies under them, the wreckage of a banquet; bowls and goblets have been used as weapons in the emergency. Everywhere there are signs of the vanquished, nowhere of the victors. On a rock, a divinely beautiful girl crowned with laurel, leaning on a bow with a quiver round her shoulders and in the grip of some strong emotion, is sitting and gazing at a divinely handsome young man who lies gravely wounded at her feet. The brigands, at first terrified, approach her cautiously, and she speaks but they cannot understand a word; at last, they pick up as much booty as they can carry and prepare to move off, when they are confronted by another group of bandits, led by two men on horseback.

All we know about who wrote the novel is from its closing words: ?Such is the ending of the Aithiopika, the story of Theagenes and Charicleia. The author was Heliodorus the son of Theodosius, whose family is descended from the Sun, a man of Phoenicia, from Emessa.? There is no doubt that he was writing under the Roman empire although there is wide disagreement about his date; some put him about 230 A.D. and others nearer 400. The Aithiopika is a historical novel set in Egypt some 700 years earlier when it was part of the Persian empire.

The narrative technique of the Aithiopika looks back to the Odyssey (for instance, the background of the characters is revealed when they recount their adventures to each other, often at length) and to ancient Greek drama, and anticipates the modem novel in the way it builds up suspense and involves the reader in solving mysteries and reflecting on their significance.

The Aithiopika was a favourite as late as the renaissance and was translated into English by Underdowne in 1587, almost contemporaneously with North's Plutarch's Lives. But Heliodorus is now out of fashion~ there is no Oxford Classical Text of the Aithiopika, no Loeb, and the Teubner text is out of print. The text is now available only in the Bude edition (3 volumes, Greek with footnotes and a translation in French).

Studies in Heliodorus is a collection of papers all but one presented at a seminar at Cambridge in 1996. There are three groups; the first deals with narrative technique. Ewen Bowie begins from Heliodorus' use of metaphor and simile as exemplified by "phoenix" ("crimson", .." "Phoemclan , "palm tree") and lampadion ("torch", "marriage torch" "conflagration"). Philip Hardie, A reading of Heliodorus, Aithiopika 3.4.1 -3.5.2 analyses one section of book 3 in depth to demonstrate Heliodorus' use of digression, enargeia (vivid description) and ekphrasis, i.e. representation through symbols and imagery. Richard Hunter in The Aithiopika of Heliodorus: beyond interpretation? considers whether the inner meaning of the novel can ever be known. J.R. Morgan, Narrative doublets in Heliodorus' Aithiopika, is concerned with Heliodorus' technique in building up the narrative and creating meaning by internal links and comparisons

The second part consists of two papers on the construction of culture. John Hilton discusses the paradox about the heroine which lies at the heart of the novel. Tim Whitmarsh, The birth of a prodigy; Heliodorus and the genealogy of Hellenism argues that the Aithiopika reflects actively and self -consciously on its own literary and cultural origins.

In the third part, Reception, Panagiotis A. Agapitos discusses the influence of Heliodorus in the Byzantine literary scene up to the twelfth century. Clotilde Bertoni and Massimo Fusillo, in Heliodorus Parthenopaeus, the Aithiopika in baroque Naples describe what must have been a golden age for the Aithiopika when artists considered Heliodorus the third ancient epic poet after Homer and Vergil (even though his novel is in prose). Daniel L. Selden, in Aithiopika and Ethiopianism argues that the story which the Aithiopika has to recount is not simply the origins and structure of racial antitheses in black and white but ultimately the dismantling of the system itself, and that history takes place both as the institution of a set of social oppositions and simultaneously as their deconstruction Studies in Heliodorus is an up-to-date account of scholarship in important sectors of this field and necessary reading for any tutor of a course involving the ancient Greek novel.

A non-specialist would definitely be better advised to read and enjoy the Aithiopika itself first either in Greek or in translation a most pleasurable task. Studies in Heliodorus would then be very illuminating. Passages quoted in Greek in Studies in Heliodorus are translated, but not all single words and phrases, and there is some untranslated Italian. It is very occasionally necessary to look up references in the footnotes to learned journals in order to follow the argument. The English style is mostly quite easy, although the contributors do not shirk using the technical terminology of contemporary literary criticism in the Classics. There is a full bibliography.

Studies in Heliodorus is important and could turn out to be a milestone if it marks the revival of interest in Heliodorus, who clearly has much to say to the contemporary world. Perhaps we might hope at least that the Loeb Classical Library may come to include the Aithiopika.
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