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Leucippe and Clitophon - Achilles Tatius, Tim Whitmarsh, Helen Morales

To tell you the truth, it doesn't matter to me if one classifies this as a novel, or romance, or something else altogether. Those are, in any case, categories invented long after this text was written. Let's call it a novel, for convenience. Leucippe and Clitophon , written by the Alexandrian Greek Achilles Tatius in the 2nd century CE, is one of a canon of seven Greco-Roman novels which includes the remarkable Satyricon , reviewed here:



Unlike the Satyricon , Leucippe and Clitophon has come down to us apparently intact, as have the other 4 Greek novels of this canon. In light of the fragments we have of many other fictional works from the same period, it seems evident that there was an very rich and variegated output of fiction in the early centuries of the Common Era. I was told nothing of this when I was in school. Apparently, at that time, barely more recent than the time these novels were inked onto papyrus, the classicists frowned upon these novels as lowbrow rubbish written for the consummation of women (?!). So they were kept out of the hands of impressionable youngsters like myself. More recently, a new generation of classicists has tried to rehabilitate these works in academica, resulting in some new translations, of which this quite enjoyable translation by Tim Whitmarsh is one. Though, thankfully, I can remain blithely indifferent to the turmoil in academic fashion, at least now there are fresh translations of these works available in mass market editions, instead of stodgy versions in obscenely expensive editions which have been cleansed of all naughtinesses. And naughtinesses abound here.

The text is narrated by Clitophon to a stranger met in Sidon and includes, roughly, Clitophon falling in love with Leucippe, their flight from discovery, their being parted again and again, and their various adventures through most of the eastern Mediterranean Sea while trying to be reunited, which is finally accomplished in marriage. However, along this trajectory the real pleasures of this text are met. First, this is the ancient Greek world au vif - youthful, energetic, surrounded by gods and perils, deaths of all kinds, and still hungry for life. One gets an authentic sense of a world full of slaves and pirates, where for a woman rape is preferable to premarital sex (and is not a rare occurrence). The lengthy description of a ferocious Mediterranean storm harrying and then wrecking the typical small craft of the day is outstanding. Second, Tatius runs his text through the gamut of ancient Greek literature, giving us stories of metamorphosis, fables, amazing and doubtful natural history, gods and heroes, orations at trials, and detailed descriptions of marvelous paintings. Digressing, diverting, horrifying, the stories flow, tripping over one another in their haste to be heard.

And, of course, there is the obligatory argument about which form of love, for boys or for women, is better. Though there is a brief allusion to Pausanias' speech from the Symposium


here the points of view are presented with wit and passion, not with deadly and noble seriousness. Not to be missed, whichever your own position may be.

Another amusing aspect of this text is that it can be partially read as a parody of Platonic thought. Clitophon is the name of a dialogue attributed to Plato. Aristophanes' mad myth from Plato's Symposium appears early in nightmarish form; many of the ideas expressed in Phaedrus are repeated and parodied.

Though there are plenty of realistic elements, as I indicated above, one will not find realism, but instead deus ex machina , coincidences and miracles; one will not find character development, but instead "cardboard" characters behaving as their stereotypes demand. At the center of this text one finds instead humor, melodrama and wide-eyed wonder at marvelous stories. 

The introduction by Helen Morales and the notes by the translator are informative. They inform the reader that Tatius wrote the book mostly in Attic Greek, the Greek of classics written 7 centuries earlier, and that he mixed in other styles, puns and wordplay. Morales assures us that Whitmarsh does a fine job transmitting some of this to the English reader. There is also a nice bibliography to follow up on.