The Story of Apollonius, King of Tyre is a late antique Latin romance of many layers. Originally a work of Greek prose fiction, Apollonius was translated into Latin during the High Roman Empire (Kortekaas 2004). In the fifth and sixth centuries, two Christian editors refashioned the text once more by adding direct quotations of and allusions to the Vulgate (Garbugino 2014). Their version is the earliest we have, and therefore represents a bricolage of pagan and Christian themes: a text in which characters can both visit the temple of Diana at Ephesus (c. 27) and pray to the Christian God too (c. 32).
Scholars of the ancient novel have debated whether these scriptural elements in the text transformed Apollonius into a Christian narrative for late antique readers (Robins 1995, Kortekaas 1998), or simply infiltrated a fundamentally pagan text (Klebs 1899, Schmeling 1988 & 1996). This paper eschews both interpretations and argues that the scriptural elements in Apollonius functioned as cues to Christian readers, by distinguishing the virtuous characters from the villains and foreshadowing the final administration of justice at the end of the story. I showcase Christian cues in action with a close reading of the attempted murder plot of the romance heroine, named Tarsia.
The first part of this reading examines the biblical language used by the co-conspirators of Tarsia’s murder (Apollonius 30-32). The prime instigator is Dionysias, Tarsia’s adoptive mother, who has grown jealous of her young ward’s beauty. But Dionysias also ropes two co-conspirators into her scheme: she entrusts the murder to Theophilus the overseer and later confesses to her husband, Stranguillio, so that he will help her conceal the crime. Both men make reluctant participants and plead their innocence to God. In his plea, Theophilus borrows the speech of David in 1 Samuel 24:16, where David confesses his original intention to murder Saul but asks God to witness his restraint. Stranguillio, on the other hand, makes his plea in the language of Pontius Pilate in Matthew 27:24, who presses the preponderance of guilt for Jesus' execution onto others. Thus Theophilus and Stranguillio occupy the same unsavory territory of associative guilt, but align themselves with different biblical archetypes.
In the second half of this paper, I reveal how these alignments with David and Pontius Pilate culminate at the end of Apollonius, when Tarsia is ‘resurrected’ from the dead before a crowd of spectators (c. 50). Although fake deaths are common in the Greek novels, I argue that the scene specifically recalls the resurrection of Christ when Dionysias cites Tarsia’s inscribed tomb as proof of her death. When Tarsia appears risen from the tomb, the citizens stone Stranguillio alongside his wife outside the city walls. He appears to deserve the same divine vengeance that Eusebius claims struck down Pontius Pilate (Hist. Eccles. 2.7). This association is bolstered by Panayotakis 2003, who has observed that the formulation for their stoning, lapidis occidi, largely describes death scenes of political officials in Latin historiography. As for Theophilus? Tarsia repays her ‘David’ with mercy and his freedom, just as Saul pardoned his would-be executioner in the Book of Samuel.
I conclude that the Christian cues in Apollonius did not promote a specific religious agenda or mark certain characters as Christian heroes. Rather, they alerted readers, who were becoming increasingly well-versed in the Vulgate, to available interpretations of guilt, forgiveness, and justice within the narrative. The Story of Apollonius, King of Tyre attests a lively interaction between pagan and Christian writing in late antiquity, whose collaboration offered new insights to careful readers.