The triangulation of cultural identities informs many analyses of the Greek novel that seek to contextualize these works in historical and geographical space: in addition to the Greek literary and Roman imperial contexts, a third geographical term is introduced either through consideration of the author’s affiliation or the mere title and topic of the work. In this paper I focus on representations of India and Indians to argue that from geographical confusion emerges an ethnocentric epistemology, which aids us not only in addressing questions of cultural identity but also in explicating the novel’s relationship to science. While the Alexander Romance and the Life of Apollonius abundantly demonstrate the appeal of Indian wisdom and fascination with the Indian other, I address Achilles Tatius’ Leukippe and Kleitophon and to a lesser extent, Daphnis and Chloe and the Ephesiaka. Taken together, the spare representations in these novels cohere with other exoticizing portrayals. More importantly, however, India in the novels is used as an index of limits: the limits of space, of knowledge, of custom, and of empire. Charmides’ anecdote about the elephant in Achilles Tatius illustrates not only the breadth of knowledge and observation that undergirds Leukippe but also the complex processes whereby novels reconstitute exotic symbols and stereotypes in order to exalt Greek learning and literature.
A brief overview of representations of Indian and Indians in art leads to the main focus of my paper. The general Charmides has caught sight of Leukippe at a hippo hunt, and seeking to keep in her close proximity to his amatory predations, he prolongs his conversation with Menelaos by comparing the hippopotamus of Egypt to the elephant of India. Menelaos admits that he has never seen an elephant except in pictures—an affirmation of the popularity of Indian motifs in imperial art. The most remarkable thing in the description that follows is Charmides’ claim that elephant breath cures headache; what is more, the elephant will open his mouth and tolerate a sufferer only if given payment beforehand, like a “quack doctor” (á¼°ατρá½¸ς á¼€λαζá½¼ν, 4.4). While scholars have observed that Charmides’ name derives from a Platonic personage, the handsome youth known for his temperance in the eponymous dialogue, there is further allusion in analgesics, for Socrates lures Charmides into dialogue by the promise of a cure for headache. Plato’s Charmides, then, exposes himself to the fragrant breath of Socratic dialogue. In both instances an herbal source in combination with another factor is cited. Socrates claims a medicinal plant that works only in conjunction with a spell; the elephant’s breath is rendered curative and fragrant by a plant in its diet that grows differently in India than it does in Greece. The surprising ethnicities presented in the description of the elephant—its keeper is Ethiopian, the headache sufferer is Greek—suggest an ethnocentric construction not only of medicine but of knowledge in general. Moreover, the detail that the headache sufferer is a Greek may suggest a special physical constitution; the detail about payment creates the illusion of fair exchange, the corruption of which drives the economies (mercantile and metaphorical) of many plots in the novels.