This paper examines how the question of whether Eastern literature influenced the Greek novel has shaped the way scholars interpret the papyrus fragments of Greek prose fiction. When Erwin Rhode raised this question about the fully extant Greek novels in 1876, the stakes were the Hellenic “purity” of the genre and its value as a representative of Greek literature. As Whitmarsh (2011) has shown, Rohde’s answers were bound up in an orientalist perspective typical of the end of the nineteenth century. I suggest that the early shape of Rohde’s question continues to haunt interpretation of the papyri and obscure new lines of inquiry. If we step out of the East versus West framework established before the discovery of the papyri, we can notice different commonalities in the fragments that allow us to rethink the novel genre in important new ways.
The subsequent gradual appearance of papyrus fragments of Greek prose fiction that began with Ulrich Wilcken’s publication of Ninus in 1893 dismantled several of Rhode’s key claims, particularly the dating of the novels (Henrichs 2011). But even as virtually every new papyrus fragment forces scholars to rethink our understanding of the novelistic genre, the questions that are asked of these new texts are still conditioned by parameters that were set by the early interpretation of the novel, especially the question of how Greek prose fiction interacted with the East.
For example, as recently as eight years ago in an otherwise suggestive analysis of the “Panionis” fragment, Peter Parsons distinguished between the “oriental romance of Ninus and Sesonchosis” and “overtly Hellenic” prose fiction that is set in a Classical Greek historical frame and “celebrates classical Greek culture” as exemplified by Metiochus and Parthenope (Parsons 2010). The former is “oriental” because it takes as its subject Eastern kings; the latter is “overtly Hellenic” because it takes as its subject Classical Greek history from Herodotus. Of course, potential interactions between Greek and Eastern literature can be illuminated significantly by the papyri of prose fiction. The fragments of Greek novelistic texts in fact invite such inquiry since many treat recognizable Eastern subjects (e.g. the Scythian context of Calligone, the Assyrian/Babylonian context of Ninus, and the Egyptian subjects of Sesonchosis, Tinouphis, and Amenophis). As more fragments of contemporary Eastern literature were published in the early twentieth century, especially Demotic Egyptian literature, more evidence could be brought into the discussion (cf. Rutherford 2016 and Barnes 1956). Such potential has recently increased with the surge in publication of papyri of Demotic narratives, some of which show tantalizing if inconclusive links to Greek texts (Rutherford 2013).
But Parsons’ stark polarity shuts off other valuable lines of inquiry. Sesonchosis, a narrative about the famous pharaoh who also went by the name Sesostris, could very well have drawn its inspiration from Herodotus’ account of this pharaoh (II.102-110). The character Ninus also appears to have been a Greek invention who featured in Ctesias’ Persian History (Dalley 2013). Even though these texts may all source their subject matter in Greek historians, the ethnic polarity seems too important or too useful to shake off, even when the task of categorizing novel fragments is posed in a different way. Thus, Susan Stephens places Sesonchosis, Ninus, and the Babyloniaca in a “nationalistic” category, while Metiochus and Parthenope belongs to the “ideal-romantic” type, exemplified by the fully extant Greek novels (Stephens 2003).
But when the temptation to assign ancient novel fragments an ethnicity is resisted, other questions may be productively asked of the papyri, such as why do many of the fragments seem to set their narratives in a recognizably historical frame? This paper concludes by suggesting that the significant number of novel fragments that could plausibly be interpreted as “historical novels” can be combined with the historical character of several fully extant novels (e.g. Chariton and The Alexander Romance) to redefine the “core” of the novel genre as historical fiction.
The Romance of Reception