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This paper argues that a comparison of the divergent views on linguistic difference informing two chronologically and geographically related prose fictions, Heliodorus’s Aithiopika and the Acts of Thomas, reveals some critical social dynamics of the early imperial centuries. The Aithiopika’s concerted attention to language usage, especially barriers to communication, functions to reify social differences and to naturalize the position and privileges of the multiethnic imperial elite. In contrast, the almost concurrent production of two versions of the Acts of Thomas (Syriac and Greek), as well its focus on creating multi-status communities, redirects the social paradigm offered by narratives like the Aithiopika. Language was a prime social marker in the imperial period. The classicizing Attic standard being embraced by the Greek-speaking educated elite across the empire, Rome’s partners in empire, was both a mark of distinction and a basis for differentiation from the sub-elite. With its complexities of plot, language and style, the Aithiopikaseems specifically aimed at the pepaideumenoi.And itslast scene, showing the Ethiopian leaders switching between Greek and Ethiopian as they negotiate the return, marriage and future coronation of the long-lost daughter of the Ethiopian royal family, exemplifies the mechanics of rule. The members of the Ethiopian-speaking crowd are described as celebrating the events, “although they understood little of what was said” (τá½°μá½²ν πλεá¿–στα τῶν λεγομένων οὐ συνιέντες 10.38.3). Their language deficiencies are shown to limit the crowd’s civic understanding and participation. The appearance of the Acts of Thomas in both Syriac and Greek and its early rendering into multiple languages reflect a more inclusive attitude toward language and community. Tatian provides a context for reading the communities featured in the Acts of Thomas.

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