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Awkward Authority: Gnomai in Heliodorus and Nonnus

Emma Greensmith

University of Cambridge

Nonnus and Heliodorus are, in many ways, the most disruptive members of their literary worlds. Their sprawling works, the Dionysiaca (fifth century C.E.) and the Aethopica (c. third/fourth century C.E.) programmatically flaunt their disobedience of generic rules. Nonnus’ gargantuan romp through epic mythology, its forty-eight books deliberately matching the Iliad and Odyssey combined, announces with the slippery god Proteus a bendy, protean poetics (D.1.14) and mixes throughout pastoral settings, novelistic romance and lyric self-promotion. For Nonnus (who also wrote a verse paraphrase of St. John’s Gospel) generic and cultural traditions can be collided vehemently, the seams unapologetically on show. Heliodorus is equally fearless in manipulating the tropes of a genre in which he actively positions himself (Morgan 1993; Gill and Wiseman 1993): the novelistic expectations of young love, delayed reunions and sexual awakening are relentlessly acknowledged and redrafted. But crucially, both works locate this disobedience in an intense concern with authority: literary and narrative. For example, in their obsessive use of inset narratives, they test the limits of readers’ control of conflicting strands of the plot and trust in the veracity of its storytellers. And yet despite increasing attempts to read imperial Greek novels and epics in dialogue (e.g. Miguélez-Cavero 2016, Frangoulis 2014), Nonnus and Heliodorus have not been connected in this way: as distinctly reflective and subversive explorations of their own authoritative voice, and that of their earlier models.

This paper explores these dynamics through the use of gnomai, arguing that these works’ sustained and similar approach to the device offers a crucial, under-considered vehicle for assessing their self-positioning within and between their genres.

Gnomai have long been recognised as a central rhetorical method of asserting authority through claims to universal or perceived wisdom or truth (Rhet. 1357a34; Phdr. 273d3–4). In the imperial period, gnomic material appeared copiously in school-texts, anthologies and almost all kinds of literature (Morgan 1998, 2007). This range of uses suggests that the device’s popularity was also linked to its ability to be excerpted: these were literary parts that could be extracted from original scenes and re-applied to fit multiple new contexts.

The high density of gnomai in certain imperial Greek epics and novels has received scholarly attention (Morales 2000 on Achilles Tatius; Fernández-Garrido 2014 on Heliodorus; Maciver 2012:86–124 on Quintus; Geisz 2017:170–96 on Nonnus). Drawing these discussions together, I seek to show how the Dionysiaca and Aethiopica reveal an intense, critical awareness of the rhetorical and literary power of gnomai. I first discuss the patterns of gnomai in these texts, revealing some significant similarities: both use a reduced number, but greater range of gnomai than their contemporary generic siblings; both favour Homeric gnomai, frequently glossed with daring explicitness; and often place them in highly un-Homeric scenarios of sex and erotic love. For example, both authors attack the exceptional Iliadic gnome about love (πάντων μὲν κόρος ἐστὶ καὶ ὕπνου καὶ φιλότητος, Il.13.636). Heliodorus’ Cnemon says that the story of Theagenes and Chariclea, he thinks, makes Homer wrong in this assumption (Aeth. 4.4). In Nonnus, Dionysus’ unquenchable passion proves that “the book of Homer lied” (D.42.181).

Both texts thus play with the basic strategy of audience complicity promoted by the gnome: the universal applicability and Homeric familiarity of the statement is strained and tested as much as confirmed. But what does it mean for these works to use gnomai in this way? I conclude by suggesting the wider ramifications of reading these treatments together. Does Heliodorus reflect late epic modes to thwart a straightforward reading of his novel? Does Nonnus employ Heliodoran moves to destabilise his (anti-)epic endeavour? In their shared penchant for gnomic unsettlement, both works reveal themselves as operating outside, as well as within, the models that they cite; dialogically irreverent and insistently uncontainable in their approach to genre and form.

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