The novel was the central Greek literary innovation of the Roman Empire and might be expected to have played the same culturally central role that (e.g.) drama did in classical Athens, Muromachi Japan, and Elizabethan England. The impact of this new genre is undeniable: for Achilles Tatius alone we now have eight papyrus fragments (more than for any other imperial author except Plutarch), and clear evidence for influence upon Lucian, Philostratus, Aristaenetus, and so forth. Equally undeniable is the widespread nature of novelistic production: alongside the five fully extant romances and related texts, we have fragments from numerous others (Stephens and Winkler 1995, to which can now be added POxy 4760–2 and 4811).
But what is it about this genre that appealed so much to this era? Why did the novels become so central? And—crucially for this panel—how did the novel come to be the imperial Greek genre of genres, the absorber and transmitter of all other literary modes? Most answers to these questions have focused on content, in particular on the history of gender roles and the supposed shift of sexual norms away from pederasty towards matrimonial ideals (Foucault 1986; Konstan 1994; Goldhill 1995; Cooper 1996; Morales 2008 etc.) This paper, by contrast, considers the novel as form. (Form is a topic undergoing something of a renaissance in the field: Vasunia forthcoming is eagerly awaited.) After all, it is clearly not just the content of drama (to return to that analogy) that appeals: the theatre carries with it a distinctive "way of seeing," both literally and metaphorically (in the sense of a distinction between the seen and the unseen, the inside and the outside, the performance and concealment of identity, and so forth).
Can the same be said of the novel? I argue in this paper that the distinctive formal property of the novel is its construction of an imaginative space within the material confines of the book. The novel is, after all, arguably the first Greek literary genre born into a fully textualized environment, and the representation of reading and writing is (as has often been noted) widespread throughout the texts. The most obvious manifestation of this textuality is the frequent correlation of the novels’ individual books ("books" here in the sense of "tomes") with distinct geographical and thematic spaces (e.g. Nakatani 2003; Whitmarsh 2009).
More than this, however, physical books are bounded and contained in a way that encourages a sense that their texts can have a closed, definable significance. We might call this the "morselization" of meaning: hence the emphasis in the novels on "nuggets" of knowledge, on gnomai (see the paper "Awkward Authority" in this panel), on exemplarity, on anecdotes (Goldhill 2011), on epitomization (e.g. Whitmarsh 2010).
Books, moreover, are portable: they can be moved, borrowed, stolen, lost. They gain new meaning not necessarily by the addition or subtraction of words (though there is some evidence for this in the novelistic transmission: Sanz Morales 2006), but by recontextualization. Books (as Socrates famously observed in the Phaedrus) travel, and as they do so they lose their link to their original site of production. We know from the papyri of Egypt that the novels travelled, either along the seaways or the maintained roads of the Empire. Within the novels too we perceive an interconnected Mediterranean, in which a common Hellenic cultural koinē remains constant-but-different across multiple spaces. Viewed in this way, the novel becomes not just a genre entangled in others, but the perfect expression of the complexities of a mobile book culture enacted within a reticulated imperial system.