Stephen Trzaskoma, “The Christian Reception of Novelistic Lamentation”

The study of the reception of imperial Greek prose fiction in Byzantium is dominated by the notion that ‘pagan’ erotic novels would have been a source of anxiety for later Christians in the Greek East, so much so that it was not until the 12th century that the fictional mode could be reactivated and imitated closely in the novels produced in the special atmosphere of the Komnenian court. Even the most chaste of the ancient novelists, Heliodorus, must have been suspect, it is said, for he was eventually identified as a Christian bishop, a development that is supposed to be part of a process of sanitizing his reputation to make the reading of his novel less subversive or morally troublesome. This broad view is extrapolated backwards from only a few data points, and the point of this paper is to clarify how the imagined afterlife of Heliodorus does not accord with the evidence. We begin with the reception history of a single passage of lament from the Aethiopica and then consider more broadly how Byzantine writers in a variety of genres were engaging intertextually with that novel and Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe & Clitophon in contexts that would be wholly inappropriate if the traditional view is maintained. The picture that emerges, then, is of a entirely different reception for these two novels in the late-antique and medieval Greek worlds.
Stephen M. Trzaskoma is Professor of Classics and Chair of the Department of Classics, Humanities & Italian Studies at the University of New Hampshire. His main areas of research are ancient prose fiction and ancient mythography and he has published numerous studies on these topics, as well as translated many of their key texts.