Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

Syene as Face of Battle: Heliodorus and Late Antique Historiography

Academic journal article Ancient Narrative

Syene as Face of Battle: Heliodorus and Late Antique Historiography

Article excerpt

Introduction

Heliodorus' Aethiopica stands apart from the other extant examples of the ancient Greek novel. It is the latest and longest example of the genre, and perhaps shows greatest awareness of the literary traditions that precede it. (1) Although the issue of the Aethiopica's date has not been resolved definitively, there is now at least a majority opinion that it is a product of the fourth century AD, and that in its ten books it responds to a wealth of canonical, classical literature, including epic, tragedy, and historiography. (2) Heliodorus' relationship to that lattermost genre, historiography, is the most important for establishing the text's claim to verisimilitude. More than thirty years ago, John Morgan convincingly argued that Heliodorus' adoption of a narrative pose commonly associated with the writers of history imbues Heliodorus' narrative with a realism that invites 'a certain kind of response from the reader, which involves equating the events of the novel with those of the real world--that is to say, an intensely emotional, sympathetic response'. (3) This is an especially literary form of verisimilitude; Heliodorus alludes to the practices of the genre that makes the greatest claim to represent events that take place in the 'real world'. Historiography mediates between the world of the novel and 'reality'. Heliodorus' verisimilitude is constructed not by writing in a way that is in itself directly mimetic of reality, rather it is constructed by imitation of the standard mode of writing about historical reality, historiography.

In this paper I argue that these issues of dating and intertextuality can be united in order better to situate Heliodorus within a late antique literary milieu. My approach focuses on one episode of the Aethiopica which best corresponds to a recognizable scene-type within historiography, namely the siege of Syene in Book 9. I will explore to what extent Heliodorus' narrative in this episode may represent a contemporary, fourth-century approach to siege narrative, allusion to which Heliodorus uses to strengthen the verisimilitude of his narrative and to guide his reader's response to the scene. Finally I will suggest where Heliodorus may have found his historiographic models.

Helidorus' historiographic pose revisited

The generic proximity of the novel and historiography has long been noted. (4) Both are prose genres which utilize narrative to offer a mixture mimesis and diegesis of human characters operating in an ostensibly real, or at least credibly real, world set in the past. (5) The novel's relationship with historiography, however, is closest in the form of its narrative, rather than its content. (6) Morgan's survey of Heliodorus' 'historiographic pose' identifies mannerisms, such as authorial uncertainty, particularly inclusion of alternative explanations for events, and the use of ecphrases and excursus, which give the Aethiopica an historiographic framing. (7) The erotic content, by contrast, rarely resembles that of historiography. (8) Book 9 of the Aethiopica, however, provides an exception. (9) The main protagonists, the young couple Theagenes and Charicleia, are marginalized, and the narrative in the first half of the book is devoted to a lengthy description of the siege of the Egyptian city of Syene, in which the Persian satrap Oroondates takes refuge with his army and which he subsequently defends against the forces of the Ethiopian King Hydaspes. (10) In this respect the opening narrative of Book 9 is historiographic in content: the siege scene was a standard element of historiographic prose. (11) Although the greatest siege of all is found at the beginning of classical literature within the genre of epic (Homer's Iliad), descriptions of siege soon became a definitive part of the fabric of historiography. (12) Indeed, siege descriptions proliferated to such an extent during the Hellenistic period that Polybius complained that writers would often write up sieges using stock elements where there was little historical accuracy underpinning their accounts. …

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