Ancient Greek novel  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Five ancient Greek novels survive complete from antiquity: Chariton's Callirhoe, Xenophon of Ephesus' Ephesian Tale, Longus' Daphnis and Chloe, Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon and Heliodorus of Emesa's Aethiopica. There are also numerous fragments preserved on papyrus or in quotations, and summaries by the Byzantine bishop Photius. In one case, that of the unattributed Metiochus and Parthenope, we have what appears to be a faithful Persian translation by the poet Unsuri.

The Greek novel as a genre seems to have emerged in the first century CE, and flourished in the first four centuries of our era; it is thus a product of the Roman Empire. Although the plots of the surviving novels appear to be relatively conventional, based around the fulfilled heterosexual desire of a beautiful and usually virtuous young couple, this impression of uniformity and moralism may be an illusion created by later Christians, who decided which to copy for posterity. Certainly writers now lost such as Lollianus and Iamblichus (novelist) seem to have been much more experimental and lurid. Even so, the surviving texts (arguably with the exception of Xenophon's Ephesian romance) show great sophistication in their handling of character, narrative and intertextuality. Although most authorities are agreed that the five surviving novels constitute a coherent if flexible genre, we know of no name by which that genre was known in antiquity, what we call the 'novel' passing almost completely without mention by contemporary literary critics. Because of the absence of any clear generic markers, it is probably unhelpful to insist on too sharp a generic boundary between the 'romantic' novels mentioned above and other works of Greek prose fiction, such as Lucian's True stories, the Alexander romance and the Life of Aesop.

The relationship between the Greek novel and the Latin novels of Petronius and Apuleius is debated, but most scholars consider that both Roman writers were aware of, and to an extent responding to the Greek novels. The influence of the novelists is demonstrable on Musaeus' Hero and Leander, the late antique epic by Nonnus titled Dionysiaca, Procopius, the Byzantine novel, and Byzantine historiography in general. Thanks in large part to Jacques Amyot's translations, they were rediscovered in early modern Europe, and played an influential role in the formation of the modern novel, particularly the 'romance' variety.


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