You are here

“Full of Marvels:” The Early Modern Reception of Heliodorus and the New World

Robert L. Cioffi

Bard College

This paper considers the reception of the Greek novels in seventeenth century France. I argue that a fervent wave of early modern fictional responses to the genre can illuminate new approaches to Heliodorus’s Aethiopica and new connections between it and the development of the novel in Western Europe. Focusing on Marin Le Roy Gomberville’s Polexandre (1637), I demonstrate that this French romance, which relocates key elements of the plot of Heliodorus’ Aethiopica to Montezuma’s Mexico, appropriates Heliodorus’ impulse for representing the exotic to a broader set of contemporary early modern concerns about travel and the exploration of the New World. Questions of the Aethiopica’s exoticism have not been much in vogue in the decades since Rommel’s (1923) monograph on paradoxography in the genre, but I suggest that Gomberville should prompt us to think anew about their importance in the ancient novel, too, as well as about a larger set of connections between fictional ethnography and empire.

My argument develops the growing scholarly interest in how the Greek novels were first theorized when they were read and discovered (Whitmarsh 2011, Vasunia 2013). The origins of the novel’s western critical tradition are widely located in Pierre-Daniel Huet’s Traité de l’origine des romans (1670). In fact, western readers’, translators’, and novelists’ responses to the genre are much older, beginning with Angelo Poliziano’s Latin translation of Heliodorus’ description of a giraffe in 1489 (Heliod. 10.27; Reeve 2008). Moreover, in the sixteenth century editions and translations of the ancient Greek novels, especially Heliodorus, became central to a flourishing genre of long romances which sought to incorporate ancient novelistic principles into vernacular texts (cf. Plazenet 2002, 275). “The immortal Heliodorus” was so important as a model that Madeleine de Scudéry’s Artamène ou le grand Cyrus (1640) mentions him by name in her preface.  

        My paper focuses on how Gomberville’s Polexandre reimagines Heliodorus’ Aethiopica to draw connections between ethnographic discourse and the imperial ambitions of early modern Europe. The novel is one of several French romances modeled on Heliodorus, which narrate their characters’ travels not just to Ethiopia, but to India, West Africa, and even the New World (Turk 1978, 16-17; Pavel 2013, 120-1; Plazenet 1997, esp. 431-6). In addition to Polexandre’s numerous intertextual references to the Aethiopica, its structure mirrors Heliodorus’. Like the Aethiopica, Gomberville’s story commences in mystery just off the coast of Ferro, the westernmost island of the Canaries, and concludes with a wedding. The ancient novels’ emphasis on the importance of “chance” (tuchē) is now expressed in terms of the failure of the tools of navigation (cf. Wine 2009). Its labyrinthine structure and world-ranging travels represent, I suggest, a profoundly sophisticated response to the ancient novel, which amplifies the genre’s—and especially Heliodorus’—emphasis on its protagonists’ exotic travels, and reimagines them in terms of European colonial projects.

I conclude with an analysis of the narrative of Zelmatidius, the son of an Amazonian princess and the Inca, Guina Capa. Like the Aethiopica, the story of Zelmatidius’ life abounds in Scheintöde and false parentages; it also transposes onto the Americas the exoticism of Heliodorus’ novel, and especially its tripartite North-South axis. Whereas Charicleia and Theagenes travel between Greece, Egypt, and Ethiopia, Gomberville’s hero’s journey is divided between Mexico, the kingdom of Quasmez, and Peru. I argue that this narrative set in Mexico re-directs Heliodorus’ ethnographic gaze over Ethiopia towards a series of civilizing conflicts in Mexico, which leads to the Christian conversion of the people of Quito.

Gomberville’s response to the exoticism of Heliodorus, therefore, invites us as scholars to reconsider the ancient text’s interest in ethnographic questions. Polexandre not only shows that exoticism and wide-ranging travel were seen as essential components of the novelistic genre in seventeenth-century France, but it also demonstrates how the aesthetic response of fiction in antiquity and in the early modern period reflects and refracts the world around its authors, connecting fictional ethnography with the expansion of imperial power.

Session/Panel Title

The Romance of Reception

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy