You are here

Between Skeptical Sophistry and Religious Teleology: The Multiperspectivity of Heliodorus' Aethiopica

Benedek Kruchió

University of Cambridge

Heliodorus’ Aethiopica is not only the latest Greek novel but also the one concerning which recent scholarship has been most divided. Winkler (1982) reads it as a text about metaliterary issues and hermeneutic uncertainty, which is not resolved by the novel’s end; Morgan (1989; 1998), instead, argues that the novel’s strong closure overrides earlier interpretative challenges and Heliodorus is primarily concerned with ethical questions. Since these pioneering treatises, much valuable work has been done on other aspects of the Aethiopica—see e.g. Telò (1999) on Homeric scholarship; Whitmarsh (2011) on identity; Tagliabue (2015) on intermedial intertextuality—but scholarship has failed to set into relation Winkler’s hermeneutic and Morgan’s teleological concept.

My paper aims to bridge this gap by showing that both approaches play equally important roles in the Aethiopica; in fact, their subtly balanced coexistence is one of the central and most sophisticated features of the novel’s architecture. I shall proceed from specific observations to increasingly general ones, first focusing on a single character, then discussing the novel’s macrostructure and finally linking my reading to reference points in late Imperial culture.

First, I analyze the Egyptian priest Calasiris, who sometimes behaves like a holy man, sometimes like a charlatan, thereby creating serious interpretative challenges. Especially his claim that he acts at the behest of the female protagonist’s mother (4.12f.) has raised many eyebrows since Hefti (1950). Previous accounts of Calasiris either argue that his two sides are compatible (Billault 2015; Dowden 2015) or suggest that the tension between them is resolved, as the priest’s manipulative actions serve a higher cause (Futre Pinheiro 1991; Fuchs 1993: 174–78). I shall show that Calasiris’ two sides are both incompatible and carefully balanced; as a result, readers are prompted to make an interpretative choice, which has a significant impact on their understanding of major events. Consequently, the scholarly controversy about Calasiris appears to be a result of the very composition of this character: he is crafted in such a way as to engender precisely these hermeneutic debates.

Subsequently, I shall examine the impact of Calasiris’ double nature on the reader’s relationship to the Aethiopica as a whole. The Egyptian priest is the most important secondary narrator of the novel and acts as the author’s alter ego (Hunter 2014). His double nature thus affects our relationship to the entire work, as we are invited to read it from two completely different perspectives: on the one hand, we can be as skeptical towards Heliodorus as towards Calasiris the trickster, taking no information at face value and burying ourselves in hermeneutic problems; on the other hand, Calasiris the prophet invites us to read the Aethiopica teleologically as a story about the implementation of a divine plan. Making use of the narratological work of Nünning and Nünning (2000), I shall characterize this remarkable feature as multiperspectivity and discuss passages where the coexistence of the two perspectives is particularly striking, e.g., the speeches of Charicles and Sisimithres in Book Ten (cf. Kruchió 2018).

Finally, I will compare the novel’s skeptical-hermeneutic and religious-teleological sides to works commonly associated with the Second Sophistic (Lucian’s True Stories, Philostratus’ On Heroes) and Neoplatonic/Christian texts (Porphyry’s On the Cave of the Nymphs, the Greek Hymn of the Pearl found in the Acts of Thomas) respectively. On the one hand, the hermeneutic puzzles and subversive handling of fictional truth that characterize the Aethiopica’s skeptical side function in a strikingly similar way in "Sophistic" literature; on the other hand, allegoresis and teleology, which allow religious interpretations of the novel, play comparable roles in Neoplatonic and early Christian texts. I shall conclude that the Aethiopica’s multiperspective nature can be read against the background of the multicultural late Imperial Period, which was characterized by the coexistence of conflicting movements: reacting to the ideological clashes of his time, Heliodorus invites us to experience this pluralism while we explore the different interpretative paths laid out by the novel.

Session/Panel Title

Novel Entanglements

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy