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Ethnicity and Genealogy in Heliodorus’ "Aethiopica": Theagenes Reconsidered

Emilio Carlo Maria Capettini

Princeton University

In Book 2 of Heliodorus’ Aethiopica, the Delphic priest Charicles provides a detailed account of the ethnic affiliation and genealogical self-presentation of Theagenes, the male protagonist of the novel. This young man, Charicles reports, belongs to the ethnos of the Aenianians, who are the most noble inhabitants of Thessaly and can be said to be Greek in the truest sense of the word (akribōs Hellēnikon, 2.34.2) since they descend from Hellen, the son of Deucalion. What is more surprising, however, is that Theagenes claims that Achilles was an Aenianian and that he himself is one of his descendants. For the region that Homer calls “Phthia” is, Theagenes contends, none other than the area along the coast of the Gulf of Malis where the Aenianians live. The disparity between the limited relevance of the Aenianians in the ancient sources and the grandiose claims made by Theagenes has not been left unremarked by scholars: according to Whitmarsh (1998) and De Temmerman (2014), Heliodorus carefully crafted it so as to emphasize the arbitrariness of many a genealogical reconstruction and to present his protagonist as untrustworthy. As I will show in this paper, however, the situation is not so straightforward. For Theagenes’ genealogical self-presentation, although questioned by Charicles and Calasiris, his interlocutor, does not seem to have been invented by Heliodorus.

      The so-called Periodos to Nicomedes, a description of the world written in iambic trimeters in the second century BCE, presents the Aenianians in terms that lend support to Theagenes’ self-presentation: Δολόπων τε Περραιβῶν τε συνορίζοντ’ ἔθνη | τά τ’ Αἰνιάνων, οἵτινες τῶν Αἱμόνων | δοκοῦσι Λαπιθῶν Μυρμιδόνων τε γεγονέναι (ll. 615-17). The Aenianians are here said to descend from the Myrmidons, the very people Achilles led to Troy. As is clear, then, the reader of the Aethiopica is encouraged not to dismiss Theagenes’ genealogy as an example of self-aggrandizement but rather to assess on her own whether this character resembles his alleged ancestor. As I will argue, Heliodorus invites us, by means of clear allusions to the Iliad, to realize that his protagonist possesses not just Achilles’ beauty and physical ability but also his impulsiveness and pride. Moreover, I will suggest that Theagenes’ refusal to lie and say what he deems shameful in Book 7 should be interpreted as proof of his Achillean descent. Whereas his beloved, Charicleia, who is associated in more than one passage with Odysseus, shows no qualm about the necessity of lying to protect herself, Theagenes, in a way that recalls Neoptolemus in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, does not conceal his uneasiness at the idea of saying something that he does not mean.

      Since Charicleia, the female protagonist of the Aethiopica, is a fair-skinned Ethiopian who grows up in Greece persuaded of being Greek, scholars have argued that Heliodorus presents identity not as the result of innate traits determined by birth but as the product of human culture and the performance of a role (Whitmarsh 2011, 125; De Temmerman 2014, 277). The seeming implausibility of Theagenes’ genealogical self-presentation has been interpreted as further proof in this regard. However, a closer look at the ancient ethnographic tradition on the Aenianians and a careful assessment of the ēthos displayed by Theagenes in the course of the novel enable us to put forward a more nuanced interpretation. Even though the importance of culture in shaping identity in this novel cannot be denied, the case of Theagenes suggests that character traits can still travel along the genealogical axis. 

Session/Panel Title

Ethnicity and Identity

Session/Paper Number

42.2

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