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Teaching Romance: Gnômai and Didacticism in Aethiopica

Daniel Dooley

The study of gnômai (Lat. sententiae) in the Greek novel received its greatest impetus from Morales. She first focused on the “intratextual” functions of these proverbs to show that they are integral to their framing narratives (2000) and then continued to identify subtle and effective uses of gnômai by Achilles Tatius in particular (2004). This paper investigates the rich application of gnômai by another novelist, Heliodorus, and especially his construction through gnômai of an authorial voice that is powerful yet impersonal.

For scholars like Perry gnômai are symptomatic of ancient novelists’ zeal for sophistic digressions. But it may be more instructive to view instances of this literary device as not digressive but regressive, i.e., as tending to situate particular (fictional) events within a broader, indeed universal reality (Arist. Rh. 1394a 19ff.). One goal of such generalization is to foster social cohesion based on the mutual acceptance of widely applicable lessons that are both descriptive and prescriptive (Stenger 38, 275, et passim). In addition, a novelist bolsters verisimilitude each time he stamps a plausible—or even implausible—scenario with a gnomic appeal to shared habitual experiences.

Heliodorus presents readers with such a huge number of gnômai (17 in his first book alone) as to signal his status as a spokesman for Hellenic values, but there is a tension between the authority he appears to wield and the more inherent authority that Greeks invested in gnômai themselves. For ultimately maxims aim to be a timeless social currency to which no individual can lay special claim; hence the easy addition of qualifiers like “they say” (φασί, e.g. at 1.15.8). The same ambiguity affects characters when gnômai are put into their mouths, as when Charicleia tells Thyamis, “Methinks (οἶμαι) silence befits a woman…in the company of men“ (1.21.3).

To complicate matters further, Heliodorus’ fondness for rhetorical elaboration and for the recording of precepts from practically every discipline compromises the pithiness of some gnômai and makes others seem arbitrary. Occasionally these disruptions make the author’s didactic intentions too transparent, or else he abuses the familiar gnomic medium to editorialize (e.g., at 2.27.3 he asserts that all Greeks are smitten with Egypt). Heliodorus thus risks coming across as a pedantic nuisance rather than a friendly adviser. He appears sufficiently self-aware, however, to make light of his prolixity: so with a hostile army bearing down upon them, Thyamis begins to exhort his men by pointing out the urgency of the moment—only to launch with instant irony into a 21-word gnômê about the necessity of taking swift action (1.29.5). This may well resonate on a metatextual level. Moreover, the chief advantage of Heliodorus’ enthusiasm is that it yields an exceptionally broad coverage of subject matter, from the erotic (e.g., 1.2.9) to the religious (e.g., 1.8.4) to the ethnographic (e.g., 1.30.6). The reader is thus tacitly assured that this novel will help mold him into the ideal Greek polymath.

Because of its emphasis on geographical and other extremes (Whitmarsh), the Aethiopica ostensibly has the potential to be the most alienating and disorienting of all the Greek novels. For many Hellenized readers in Late Antiquity, maintaining a grasp of Greek cultural and literary traditions was even more strenuous than it had been in the wake of the déracinement of the Hellenistic diaspora (cf. Bowie). Gnômai could offer at least a semblance of stability and continuity in this dubious environment. In Bakhtian terms, they introduce monologic discourse into a genre—narrative fiction—that is by nature dialogic or multivalent. By inscribing this feature of poetic language within a “prosaic” context (Nimis), Heliodorus not only appropriates the civic role that had been performed by Greek poets since Homer but also imbues his story with a sense of authenticity and universality.

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Truth and Lies

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