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The Early Reception of Achilles Tatius and Modern Views of Ancient Prose Fiction

Stephen M. Trzaskoma

University of New Hampshire

Although recent work has begun to alter our perception of the late-antique and Byzantine reception of the imperial Greek novels, one holdover from the previous two centuries of scholarship is an enduring idea that early and Medieval Christian readers would have found the content of non-Christian prose fiction scandalous. Combined with the generally low literary opinion of the novels assumed by earlier researchers for ancient audiences, a broad narrative emerged that it was not until the Comnenian court in the 12th century that Christian Greeks felt free to engage with and imitate the works of the novelists in any significant way. With the reasonably explicit testimony of Photius, who criticized the low moral standards of Achilles Tatius, and the further evidence of an epigram attributed to the Patriarch (Anth. Pal. 9.203), which suggests a figurative approach to Leucippe & Clitophon that allows one to read around those moral issues, the broad consensus seemed reasonably secure.

We now know, however, that from the 5th century onward, there was more interest in Tatius’ novel than had been recognized before. To take just two of many examples from early and late Byzantium, Ps.-Nilus imitated Tatius extensively in his 5th-century religious Narrationes (see most recently Morgan 2015) and Niketas Magister constructed his 10th-century hagiography of St. Theoctiste with elaborate attention to the story of Leucippe (see Hero 1996; also Jazdzewska 2009 for a more extensive treatment).

Without broad knowledge of this wider reception, the image of the genre of prose fiction was constructed by modern scholars who privileged only a few voices, particularly Photius, and imagined a Christian, Byzantine reception that viewed the novels with suspicion and aversion. We are now in a position to begin reconceptualizing the reception history of these works and construct a more nuanced idea of the range of responses that were possible. As part of this process, this paper will look very broadly at the reception of Achilles Tatius (and, briefly, Heliodorus) by Christian authors, and take a close look, in particular, at one motif: the storm at sea that begins Book 3 of Leucippe & Clitophon and how it came to be a model for later writers in a complex intertextual relationship with Homer’s account of the storm that wrecked Odysseus’ raft and the Gospels’ accounts of the storm that raged on the Sea of Galilee (e.g., Matthew 8:23–27). We will begin already in the 4th century with Gregory of Nazianzus’ autobiographical account of conversion during a storm at sea (in the De sua vita; that another of the Cappadocian Fathers knew Tatius has already been shown; see Guida 2004), move to Synesius’ witty account of a storm in a letter to his brother (Ep. 4) at the start of the next century, and then move on to medieval refractions of the motif (for 10th-century examples, see Trzaskoma 2017). In all of these texts, verbal and narrative imitations allow us to trace their indebtedness to the 2nd-century novel.

What will emerge from this study is a demonstration that these writers, whatever their thoughts about the morality of the naughty Leucippe & Clitophon, happily read it, imitated it and competed with it in fashioning their own narratives. There was no single Christian reception of this novel, but for these authors we can be quite clear that Tatius was not merely a troubling text to be avoided.

Session/Panel Title

The Romance of Reception

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