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Returning to Novelistic Biography with Sesonchosis

Yvona Trnka-Amrhein

When the fictional aspects of a biographical text begin to accumulate, that text is in danger of moving to the “fringe” of the ancient novel. This has happened to works such as Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and The Alexander Romance (Holzberg 2003 and 1995). These works exhibit too fictional an approach to narrating the life of a historical individual to be neatly classified as biography, but what happens when a novel starts to take on too many biographical features? How many affinities to life-writing must such a text possess before it moves to the fringe of biography? In this paper I consider a fragmentary prose text which has been traditionally analyzed as a novel: Sesonchosis (P. Oxy. 1826, P. Oxy. 2466, and P. Oxy 3319). Like many fragments of prose fiction, however, this text does not fit perfectly within the standard definitions of the ancient novel. Most importantly, the historicity of its protagonist is problematic for theories which argue that the ancient novel has no essential connection to history or any other established tradition (Konstan 1998 and Hägg 1999). Although Sesonchosis is a legendary figure whose grounding in history is extremely loose by modern standards, his deeds were recounted in Herodotus’ Histories (2.102-110), Diodorus’ Bibliotheke (1.53-58), and a variety of other Greek and Latin texts, making him historical in a way that characters like Achilles Tatius’ Clitophon or Chariton’s Chaereas are not. These novel heroes are plausible, but otherwise completely fictional, creations. Still, the elements of a love story which appear in P. Oxy. 3319 have prompted scholars to categorize Sesonchosis among the novels. Such classification derives further support from the hero’s youth in the currently published fragments. Thus, even though the character Sesonchosis was known in other texts as an Egyptian king with a famous legend, his teenage adventures and complicated love story in these fragments align him more closely with the protagonists of an “ideal” Greek novel than the great and accomplished men of biography.
A new papyrus of Sesonchosis may, however, complicate the current analysis, since I believe that it derives from a mature period in the life of the hero, possibly even the period leading up to his death. If this is the case and the work spanned the protagonist’s life from adolescence to old age and not just a short period of adolescent trials and courtship, the text begins to resemble biography. In this paper I briefly present my argument for situating the new papyrus in the last years of the hero’s life and explore the consequences of this argument for the novel’s generic classification. I consider which other features the text would need in order to be analyzed as a biography and explore its relationship to “facts” as represented by the Greek historical tradition. This analysis is important for investigating the limits of biography and the question of how much fiction is allowable in a biographical text. It has consequences for understanding other fictional texts about famous kings such as the Cyropaedia, The Alexander Romance, and The Ninos Novel.

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Between Fact and Fiction in Ancient Biographical Writing

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