The popularity of trashy romance fiction with pirates abducting beautiful virgins and selling heroes as slaves, mistaken identities, shipwrecks, lust, lost lovers reunited and happy-ever-after-endings existed in even antiquity, although it was disapproved of by respectable society. The last literary form to emerge from antiquity was long-prose-fiction focusing on romantic love. Unfortunately, given the Greeks’ and Romans’ reverence for tradition, this was not originally approved of, as only a few references to these ancient works survived, but they would later evolve to what is known today as novels. Chariton of Aphrodisias in Epistle 66 of Pseudo-Philostratus referred to them as follows: ” You think the Greeks will remember your words when you die, but what does someone who is a nobody in life become when he is dead? ” Another reference to the romance novel is found in a letter from the Emperor Julian (331 – 363 AD) to his high priests, urging them to avoid reading these proses, because they were written against a historical backdrop and, since they were not historical documents, they could mislead the unsuspecting reader.
Shipwreck of Charikleia and Theagenes by Abraham Bloemaert (1625) ( Public Domain )
Clearly, the ancient Greeks did not consider long-prose-fiction (henceforth referred to as novels) a well-respected genre in literature. Yet, the Greek novels would have fitted into Roman society . Writers Apuleius and Petronius, the authors of Metamorphoses and Satyricon respectively, led sensational lives that were evidently quite high-profile, as their lives were documented in other texts. Petronius is assumed to have been a well-known figure in Nero’s court, referred to by Tacitus as a man of “sophisticated extravagance”. Apuleius was also well-known in Roman Africa as a philosopher and rhetorician. According to his own defense speech, which may be fictitious but sensational nonetheless, he was once accused of using magic to attract the attention of a wealthy widow. Both authors lived lives worthy of a novel although these would have contained passages unfit to be read out aloud to children due to their explicit sexuality, but would have guaranteed them an enthusiastic readership elsewhere.
“Chariclea Led Away by Pirates” a tapestry from the Paris workshop of Raphael de la Planche based on design by Simon Vouet. ( Public Domain )
Degenerate Ancient Texts Inspiring Modern Fiction
The works of Apuleius and Petronius have easily been assimilated into the genre of the English novel. The reputation of the ancient Greek novels did not improve in the eyes of 19th-century readers, who regarded them as texts from the degenerate East.
For the price of a cup of coffee, you get this and all the other great benefits at Ancient Origins Premium. And – each time you support AO Premium, you support independent thought and writing.
Top Image : Daphnis et Chloé, by Jean Charles Frontier (1749) ( Public Domain )
By: Martini Fisher