Ancient Narratives of the West

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Ancient Narratives of the West

Daniel L. Selden

Between roughly 450 BCE and 1450 CE, readers across the Levant, North Africa, and Europe were united by complex networks of interrelated texts, extant in an uncommon variety of different languages, that contemporary scholars call the Ancient Novel (see DEFINITIONS). A product of the intellectual ferment that Karl Jaspers termed the Achsenzeit, the ancient novel flourished as an epiphenomenon within the multiethnic tributary empires of the Mediterranean and Middle East—Iran, Macedonia, Rome, Byzantium, the Caliphates—where it achieved both its greatest artistic complexity and its widest geographical diffusion between the second and twelfth centuries CE. Under Ottoman rule, and in Christian Ethiopia, the form continued to flourish up through the nineteenth century, but with the decline of feudal culture in the West and the advancement of the capitalist world system, such texts all but ceased to circulate in Europe. A small and relatively idiosyncratic selection of this corpus—the four Greek romances attributed to Xenophon of Ephesus, Achilles Tatius, Longus, and Heliodorus, together with the Metamorphoses of Apuleius and the surviving fragments of Petronius's Satyrika—continued to capture the imagination of European writers in the Renaissance and the Baroque, when they played a formative role in the constitution of the modern novel.

Since the rediscovery of Chariton's Callirhoe in the mid-eighteenth century, moreover, contemporary criticism has for the most part focused on these seven novels, which all date between the first and fourth centuries CE. This predilection, however, has skewed public appreciation of the range of ancient fiction, which not only requires a different point of historical departure, but also more thorough contextualization within the larger parameters of Levantine—Mediterranean culture as a whole.

The Life of Ahiqar

The earliest extant piece of ancient novelistic prose is the Old Aramaic Life of Ahiqar, which survives among the Judaic papyri produced in Egypt under the first Iranian occupation (525—404 BCE). Once the “Two Lands” became coercively incorporated as a tributary holding within the rapidly expanding political economy of the Levantine—Mediterranean world system—consolidated under Iranian hegemony and extended through the tributary empires which followed in its wake—novels with an international horizon began to circulate in Aramaic, Demotic, Greek, Coptic, Arabic, and so on, correlative with shifts in the culture of imperial administration. Thus, the Old Aramaic Ahiqar, redacted at the Jewish garrison on Elephantine, and copied over an Achaemenid customs account dated to 475 BCE, assumes as its geographical and historical horizon the compass of the Iranian empire of which Egypt now formed part. In fact, the palimpsest that constitutes the subtext to the Old Aramaic Ahiqar records taxes levied on transimperial trade at Memphis in the southwesternmost corner of the Achaemenid domain:

On the 16th of Tybi they inspected for Egypt 1 ship of Somenes, son of Simonides, Ionian. One large ship it is, in accordance with its measurements. The oil which was found in it is oil, 50 jars. The tribute which was collected from it and made over to the house of the king [scil. Xerxes]: gold, 10 staters of gold, 8 sheqels, 15 hallurs; silver, 10 karsh, 2 hallurs, 2 quarters.

Aramaean agents, presumably from Yehud (Judaea), impose tariffs here on a Greek merchant transporting oil from the satrapy of YaunImage (Ionia) to the satrapy of MudrImageya (Egypt), which they remit, likely by way of the royal treasury at Memphis, to the household of the Great King at Susa in Imagevja (Elam). Performed by day and month of the Egyptian calendar, each entry weighs the tribute according to a mixture of Greek and Akkadian denominations, thereby macaronically preserving local specificities, at the same time that the Aramaic registry suspends them within the totality of the nonhomogenized, though clearly hierarchizing, Achaemenid politico-economic space.

The composition that overwrites this ledger projects its geodialectics into historical romance, a fictionalized account of the distinguished Assyrian court scholar Aba-enlil-dari, divided into two clearly demarcated parts: an introductory narrative reminiscent of the Joseph cycle in Genesis, followed by an eclectic set of apothegms closely related to such sapiential literature as Proverbs. The tale, set at the court of Esarhaddon (681—669 BCE) in Nineveh, recounts the vicissitudes of Ahiqar, a “wise and skillful scribe,” who not only “became counselor of all Assyria and keeper of [Esarhaddon's] seal” but also the king ordered that “all the troops of Assur should rely on his decrees.” The powerful but childless Ahiqar grooms his clever nephew Nadin like a son to become his successor, though once appointed to Esarhaddon's court, Nadin forges documents that impugn Ahiqar of plotting to “subvert the land against the king,” most malificently false letters enjoining the Shah of Iran and the Pharaoh of Egypt to converge upon Nineveh under arms, from East and West, respectively. The incriminating epistles adduced, Ahiqar escapes, salvaging his head only through the beneficence of the executioner who, concealing the sage in a subterranean vault, produces the body of a decapitated slave instead. Nonetheless, Nadin's political triumph proves shortlived; bereft of Ahiqar's instructions, Esarhaddon regrets the precipitateness with which he had “the father of all Assyria” dispatched. When Nadin's treason comes to light, Ahiqar reascends from the pit, whence the king gratefully restores “the master of good counsel” to his rightful office, where his first act is to throw the turncoat Nadin into prison. There Nadin wastes his days away, listening to royal scribes recite the adages that he refused to countenance in his career, in fact the very set of apothegms that follow, seriatim, directly on the tale.

Not only, then, do the Customs Account and the Romance of Ahiqar adumbrate the same geopolitical horizons but also the tax records exemplify the basic sorts of economic transactions upon which the administrative, political, and military organization of the empire that the narrative imagines rests, where the “Assyria” of the tale—by the mid-fifth century BCE—functions principally as a figure for the Iranian regime. That a provincial scribe, stationed at the outposts of the Achaemenid domain, should copy or recompose a tale about the meteoric rise of a fellow Aramaean who becomes not only master of his profession but chief official at the court of Esarhaddon, speaks for itself as fantasmatic aspiration. Above all, however, the Romance of Ahiqar idealizes the potential for mobility—geographic, social, and economic—within the Achaemenid tributary state. Under Esarhaddon, therefore, the scribal calling not only appears as a career open to everyone—unlike Mordecai in the closely related Hebrew Esther—but Ahiqar's enemies are not “Amalekites” (i.e., ancestral enemies of Israel). They are kin, Assyrians of all classes, from executioner to king and prove Ahiqar's greatest champions at court, in effect emphasizing that within the multiethnic arena of the empire, foreigners were as often as not friends. So Ahiqar questions in the apothegms: “My own son spied out my house, what shall I say to strangers? He bore false witness against me; who, then, will declare me innocent?” Lest the litigant avail himself too hastily, however, of imperial redress, Ahiqar concomitantly stresses, “A king's word is gentle, but keener and more cutting than a double-edged sword. His anger is swifter than lightning: look out for yourself!” Here we see the importance of the Sayings to the Romance as a whole: distilling the distinctive plotting of the narrative into a set of ideological propositions that appear to have no history in themselves, they allow the tale to circulate throughout the empire as a parable, ubiquitously valid irrespective of time and place (see IDEOLOGY). Just as the triumph of the protagonist at the court of Esarhaddon vouches for the aptitude of Ahiqar's adages as “wisdom,” so the apothegms—which retain no more than superficial local references—asymmetrically allow the narrative to exceed its function as a historical account of the splendeurs et misères of an Assyrian imperial career.

Metaphysics and the Tributary State

Edouard Meyer aptly described the Life of Ahiqar as the oldest extant book of world literature, internationally diffused among the most disparate tongues and diverse peoples. Over the next two millennia, scribes successively augmented the novel, as they translated the tale, together with its apothegms, into all the major languages around the Mediterranean and across the Middle East: Demotic (Egyptian), Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, Ethiopic, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, Russian, Turkish. What propels this worldwide spread of Ahiqar, however, in which no two manuscripts are precisely the same, issues less from the vagaries of literary taste than from devices that are intrinsic to the narrative per se. The Elephantine papyrus uses the ancient motif of the “counselor in the court of the foreign king,” redacted specifically for a displaced community within the multicultural congeries that constituted the Achaemenid state. In addition, Ahiqar specifically thematizes the prismatic confrontation that the Iranian empire afforded between the polities of Assur, Egypt, and Yehud, capitalizing in an unprecedented way on a diverse constellation of heretofore locally situated genres—Mesopotamian wisdom literature, the Egyptian tomb autobiography, Old Israelite historical narration, the Ionian political anecdote, and so forth. Hence the text not only affords an occasion for the interplay between speech genres peculiar to the heteroglossic Iranian regime (see BAKHTIN) but concomitantly, the novel interweaves culturally heterogenous literary types drawn specifically from those peoples that figure in the tale. Like the empire which the novel represents, then, the Old Aramaic Ahiqar is nothing so much as a site for the cohabitation, condensation, and displacement of ethnically specific genres, whose imbrication propels the reader from one culturally embedded literary formation to the next. The reception history of the narrative, as scribes recast it from one foreign community to another, is thus nothing more than the historical realization of the devices of cultural-linguistic crossing that are already thematized and enacted in the Elephantine papyrus itself.

Most conspicuous is the splice that the novel makes between the imperial intrigue of the tale and the sapiential counsel of the dicta, which situates Ahiqar at the crossroads of what contemporary Greek writers in YaunImage had already begun to distinguish as politiká (politics) over and against philosophía (philosophy). If the novel sutures these two realms—the political and the sapiential—it also keeps them categorically distinct, which raises the question of the relationship between them. In the first instance, their collaboration is reciprocal: the Assyrian (or Iranian) court provides the political context which produced the apothegms, while the apothegms reprise the particularities of an Assyro-Iranian imperial career under the apprehension of the universal. Historically, however, it is not difficult to see that these two gestures are isomorphic. Barely a generation before the redaction of the Old Aramaic Ahiqar, Darius I had reorganized the inherited tripartite sociopolitical system of the Ariya into the two-tiered imperial structure that became the basis for the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary state. At the local level, individual cities, countries, federations, and allied peoples retained their own traditional forms of government, religion, customs, and currency. Without attempting to homogenize them, geographically proximate peoples were then grouped into twenty distinct provinces, so that a single satrapy might include populations as diverse as Thracians, Phrygians, Paphlagonians, Mariandynians, and Syrians. Each of these administrative districts was in turn overseen by a “protector” (i.e., satrap) who reported directly to administrative Iranian nobles and, ultimately, to the “Leader of Leaders,” i.e., to the Great King himself. Tribute—in kind, coin, or manpower—comprised both a complex set of levies, fixed by the central government on an ad hoc basis, as well as gifts determined by the communities themselves. These the local populations collected according to their own institutions, to bestow them upon the satrap who, in turn, passed on the revenues expected by the king. Other, less regulated forms of duty went to the satrap himself, who might have very different relations with the different communities under his care. None of the surviving evidence suggests that the central Iranian administration returned anything directly to the subject territories as investment for future economic growth. The crown did, however, redistribute revenue throughout the empire to build bridges, maintain passable roads, oversee the mail, regularize measurements and tolls, and secure military protection—all of which facilitated communication between diffuse populations and fostered trans-imperial trade.

Even in the short run—and certainly by 475 BCE—Darius's administrative reforms enabled a relatively integrated politico-economic system throughout the Levant and Mediterranean East, which nonetheless—as Samir Amin has pointed out—remained predicated on one fundamental contradiction: the local communities that the government supported persisted only through their simultaneous negation by the imperial apparatus of the Iranian state. Darius represents this dialectic concretely in the inscriptions erected at Persepolis that memorialize his reign. On the one hand, golden tablets from the apadImagena, the audience chamber that dominates the royal terrace, portray his kingdom fantasmatically as an integrated space, vouchsafed to him by the one high Iranian god, radiating symmetrically around his capital and held together by his transroyal power. At the same time, however, stone blocks set into the terrace's enclosure wall describe this geographic space as filled by an open-ended series of discrete peoples without integral connection or territorial hierarchization:

King Darius declares: This is the realm that I possess, from the Scythians who are beyond Sogdiana to Kush, from Sind to Sardis—which Ahura MazdImage has bestowed upon me. May he protect my royal home.

King Darius declares: These are the peoples whom I hold, along with the Persian folk—they who have feared me and brought me tribute: the Elamite, the Mede, the Babylonian, the Arab, the Assyrian, the Egyptians, the Armenian, the Cappadocian, the Lydian, the Greeks who are on land and those who are on the sea, and the peoples who are beyond the sea; the Asagartian, the Parthian, the Drangianian, the Arian, the Bactrian, the Sogdian, the Chorsamian, the Sattagydian, the Arachosian, the Indian, the Gandharian, the Scythians, the Makians.

Darius's imperium, then, sustained itself through two mutually contradictory political impulses: on the one hand, a unified state within whose boundaries all local particularities were resolved into a homogenous imperial space; on the other, an eclectic agglomeration of alien communities, which persisted as irregular, arbitrary, and potentially refractory components of an always as yet untotalized tributary system.

The same years that saw the consolidation of the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary state concomitantly witnessed the “axial breakthrough” not only of Iranian Mazdaism, which drew a categorical distinction between the visible-material world (gImagetImageg) and the realm of the invisible-conceptual (mImagenImageg), but also of Ionian philosophy which, in the western provinces of Darius's empire, promoted an unprecedented “straining toward the transcendental.” At this time, city-states such as Miletus (the home of Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and, probably, Leucippus) and Ephesus (where Heraclitus and his students worked) constituted part of the Iranian satrapy of YaunImage, and hence paid regular tribute to the Great King. So did Samos, Pythagoras's birthplace, where he spent his formative years before migrating to Croton in Magna Graecia. Particularly important for the diffusion of Ionian ideas, moreover, was Anaxagoras of Clazomenae—another Iranian dependency—who came with Xerxes's army to Athens in 480 BCE, where over the next thirty years he not only became the teacher and friend of Pericles, but so impressed his character on the whole course of future philosophical investigation in the city that fourth-century writers looked back on him as the very type of the theoretic man. Contemporaries whom he may have met there include Protagoras and Democritus, both of Abdera, a city-state then part of Iranian Skudra, as well as Diogenes of Phrygian Apollonia, a town likewise administered as part of the province that Darius refers to as “Those who are beside the sea.” Like Thales and Democritus, Plato was held to have studied during his formative years in the Iranian satrapy of Egypt, while Aristotle, after leaving the Academy, spent his first period of independence working in the former Iranian tributary states of Lesbos and Macedon.

It should come as no surprise, then, that “Greek” philosophy, particularly as consolidated from Thales through Plato and Aristotle, should have an integral connection with the political economy of the Achaemenid state. All such epistemological questions such as the integration of perceptual diversity into concepts and categories of the mind; the search for the essence of diverse phenomena within a single overriding principle or arkhImage (origin/sovereignty); the relationship of particular to universal, accident to essence, part to whole; the transcendental attempt to bridge the gap between the manifold of things and the One that allows for their existence—all such topics, whatever place they occupy in the internal evolution of Hellenic thought, have also to be understood as so many attempts to theorize the peculiar structural characteristics of the tributary mode of production, in particular the anomalous fit between individual, community, satrapy, and empire in its simultaneous affirmation and negation of dependent polities.

In his Christian synthesis of the Platonic— Aristotelian tradition, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, writing under Roman tributary rule, makes this connection particularly clear:

[God] brings everything together into unity without confusion, into an undivided communion, where each thing continues to exhibit its own specific form and is in no way adulterated through association with its opposite, nor is anything of the unifying precision and purity dulled. Let us therefore contemplate the one and simple nature of that peaceful unity which joins all things to itself and to each other, preserving them in their distinctiveness and yet linking them together in a universal and unconfused alliance.

One has only to replace “God” here with Shah of Iran or Emperor of Rome to see that whatever its philosophical pretensions, the passage is also an idealized description of the relationship between the ruler and the nonhomogenized agglomeration of the tributary state in which every subject people contributed diversely to the imperium at large without abrogating the particularities of local practice.

Moreover, it is no coincidence that Dionysius's vision of unity in distinction also provides a generalized description of the generic play internal to the Old Aramaic Ahiqar, in which each indigenous literary type contributes complementarily to the novel as a whole without thereby obliterating the particularities of scribal practice that continued to thrive locally in Assur, Egypt, and Yehud. There is thus a fundamental complicity between the politico-economic structure of the Iranian empire; Mazdean—Ionian philosophy; and the new novels that began to circulate within the borders of Darius's empire shortly after his reforms, of which Ahiqar is but the earliest extant example. In fact, it would not be too much to say that under the Achaemenid Empire and its successors, the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary state produced as its dominant ideology what Aristotle called “metaphysics” and, as its chief form of literary expression, the ancient novel.

The Alexander Romance

Historically, the Achaemenid Empire was the first of a series of successive Levantine—Mediterranean tributary states, all of which not only covered roughly the same ground, portions thereof, or territorial expansions but each also adapted Darius's politico-economic model to changing historical circumstances and provided the limits within which Hellenistic metaphysics—be it in pagan, Jewish, Christian, Mazdean, or Islamic guise—continued to flourish. Macedon, Rome, Parthia, Byzantium, the Caliphates—these were the tributary states which produced the great novels of Antiquity and within whose borders they circulated across linguistic lines from one subject community to another. Alongside Ahiqar, the most prominent of these works include the Enochic corpus, Barlaam and Joasaph, the Life of Aesop, KalImagelah wa-Dimnah, Joseph and Aseneth, the Acts of Peter, the Seven Wise Masters, Apollonius of Tyre, and the Life of Pachomius. If we look, however, for the most popular and widespread work of this period—the “supreme fiction,” as it were, of the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary state and its attendant ideology of metaphysics—this is undoubtedly the Alexander Romance, which Ken Dowden accurately singles out as “antiquity's most successful novel,” a work that survives in several dozen languages and over eighty different versions, none of which can claim to be original or definitive in form (in Reardon 1989, 650). Its overtly patchwork makeup and continuous (re)composition, in poetry as well as prose, is attested from the third century BCE through the eighteenth century CE, across a geographical expanse that ranges from Afghanistan to Spain and Ethiopia to Iceland—i.e., the extended temporal and geographical coordinates of the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary states.

The Romance was the single most popular narrative for roughly a millennium and a half, constituting in effect a protean network of interrelated texts disseminated over massive tracts of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Furthermore, alone among fictions of the period, it was of sufficient stature to figure in all the major sacred texts that Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and Jews produced during this era. Significantly, it is not the historical Alexander that has entered these holy accounts but the Alexander of the romance, and accordingly there are not only pagan, but also Christian, Mazdean, Judaic, and Islamic versions of the tale. Whereas the historical treatments of Alexander's life give us the facts of the man's military career, the Romance attempts to capture the overall significance of Alexander's deeds for the tributary epoch, not the “accidents” of history, as it were, but rather their “essence”—what Aristotle called “the what-it-meant-to-be” Alexander.

Nor is the correspondence between the dissemination of the Alexander Romance and the temporal-geographic coordinates of the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary states coincidental. In fact, the Romance takes its point of departure from the same nexus of sapiential and political concerns that already preoccupied Ahiqar: Philip II of Macedon famously engaged Aristotle to tutor his son, Alexander, and in the Romance the philosopher generally figures either as a character or as Alexander's correspondent in the plot. Moreover, what sparks Alexander's campaign in the Romance is his refusal to pay tribute to the king of Iran, in order to embark instead on forming a Macedonian tributary empire in Iran's wake. Historically, Alexander's Iranian antagonist was Darius III, but collective memory has matched him with a more formidable opponent, the epochal imperial reformer Darius I. So the Serbian redaction of the Romance opens playing fast and loose with chronology and lineage to locate Alexander less within the domain of historical exactitude, than within the register of cultural truth:

It came to pass when Tarquin the Great ruled Rome and the priest and prophet Jeremiah reigned in Hebraic majesty among the Israelite people; when Darius, the son of Cyrus, ruled over the Lands of the East, when Porus governed India, and Nectanebo ruled Egypt, a sorcerer and king, then Philip, who was a heathen and a Greek, ruled the land of Phrygia and the Macedonian earth and the Greek islands: at that time, a son was borne to him, and they named him Alexander.

In kindred spirit, the Persian IskandarnImagema claims Aristotle for the author of its composition, which by implication makes the Romance one of the Greek metaphysician's authentic philosophic works. Under Aristotle's tutelage, moreover, Alexander swiftly becomes the tributary potentate par excellence, who in short order reduces to dependency not only Europe, Africa, India, and the Middle East but, in some versions, Russia and China too. Thus the γ-recension of the Greek text states: “All nations became his servants and paid him tribute. Not one of them resisted, for they all feared him. He crossed all the land beneath the sun; no habitable portion remained thereover.”

Most importantly, Alexander proves a shrewd tributary administrator, who fosters the independent welfare of his subject peoples, allowing each its own customs and traditions while homogenizing none. The Syriac History of Alexander makes this point explicitly: “Nation shall not be mingled with nation nor shall one man go from his own land to another except those who travel for the sake of merchandise, and even of these not more than ten or twenty shall be allowed to go. ... For we desire that prosperity and abundance should be in your land.” The Armenian History of the Great World Conqueror stresses, in particular, that what ultimately proves the key to Alexander's imperial success is the beneficence he shows to the diverse populations he subjects: “Alexander, you have maintained your power by doing kindness to your friends. For not by war alone have you subdued the world and its people, but by great wisdom.”

Candace, the queen of Meroë, who delivers this eulogy, knows whereof she speaks. The Alexander portrayed in the Romances is less a power-hungry potentate than a sincere questor after philosophic truth. In good Peripatetic tradition, then, Alexander is curious about everything he comes across, not only on but also above and beneath the earth. Thus, in the prose redaction of the Syriac mImagemrImage attributed to Jacob of Serugh, Alexander gives the following motivations for embarking on his worldwide expedition:

This thought has arisen in my mind: I am wondering what is the extent of the earth, how high are the heavens, how many are the countries of my fellow kings, and upon what the heavens are fixed; whether thick clouds and winds support them, whether pillars of fire rise up from the interior of the earth and bear the heavens so that they do not move for anything at all, or whether they depend on the beck of God. This now is what I desire to go and see: upon what the heavens rest, and what surrounds all creation.

Not only does Alexander prove an avid teratologist who assiduously records the animal, vegetal, and mineral prodigies that he encounters along the way but in the so-called “fabulous adventures,” he constructs a bell-jar in which he plumbs the ocean's depths, chains to his chariot griffons who fly him through the heavens, and marches his troops across the Lands of Total Darkness: “Our friends,” he confesses in the β-recension of the Greek text, “repeatedly urged us to turn back, but I was reluctant, because I wanted to see the limit of the earth.” Moreover, in his quest for consummate knowledge, the Latin Alexander exchanges letters across the Ganges with the naked Brahmans, who admonish him to abandon his heathen ways and “serve the one God, who alone reigns in heaven.” Not only in Christian, Judaic, and Islamic versions of the text does Alexander emerge as a monotheist but also in recensions that are pagan. Most Levantine versions of the Romance relate Alexander's long travails searching for Waters of Life, while in the Syriac History he is actually allowed “to come within and see the Maker of all natures.”

Alexander's peregrinations around the world, then, are not simply a politico-economic venture but simultaneously an unending metaphysical search, as if the two were superimposed one atop the other and the novel were the site that revealed the complicity between the two. It is thus possible to see how the Romance complicates the earlier Ahiqar and also why this fiction above all others came to constitute the greatest literary expression of the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary era. On the one hand, the Romance presents an idealized vision of empire, in which all the diverse communities of the inhabited world come to coexist side by side in “a peaceful unity,” as Pseudo-Dionysius puts it, “which joins all [peoples] to itself and to each other, preserving them in their distinctiveness and yet linking them together in a universal and unconfused alliance.” On the other, this pacific sociopolitical order turns out to be productive of the farthest-reaching metaphysical science, in effect bridging the chasm between the transcendental and the mundane that had opened up historically with the advent of the axial age.

We see here, then, the importance of the fact that the hero of the novel is a historical figure, anchored in the real, and not simply a fictional creation. To this end, the Greek Life of Alexander the Macedonian opens with an oracle that “the mighty and valorous king, who has fled Egypt in old age, shall return at some future time a youth, having circled the world, in order to bestow upon us the subordination of our enemies.” In this version of the Romance, Alexander is the mongrel offspring of Nectanebo, the last native king of Egypt, and Olympias, the Queen of Macedon, conjoining the Egyptian and the Greek. Simultaneously, as the prophetic once and future king, he stands both as the guarantee that such a world had been realized in the past and as a promise that—for this very reason—it remains continuously open to the future. Hence the utopian dimension of the novel, which offers readers the vision of a differentiated world pacified and united where each community finds its proper place within the whole—though not without internal tension—as part of an ideal tributary order that is always henceforward yet to be achieved. Alexander dies young, his empire still in the process of consolidation, but his legacy to the world is hope.

Chariton, Callirhoe

Virgil's Aeneid may have bequeathed to Medieval and Modern Europe its basic myth for the westering of culture, but it did so only at the expense of the imperial East, which it either represents as always already in ruins (Troy), or rejects as a site of luxuriance and moral decay (Carthage). By contrast, the irrepressible Romance succeeded in uniting readers across the better part of the Eurasian and North African land mass for over a millennium and a half: this is the ancient narrative—and not Gilgamesh, LeylImage o MajnImagen, or the Ramayana—that Mongols, Ethiopians, and Scots all read and which fired their collective imagination. In keeping with the spirit of the tale, each community or nation harbored its own version of the narrative that, despite all local particularities, still participated in the ecumenical literary venture as a whole.

Scriptural systems of this magnitude constitute discrete—if ultimately also overlapping—“text networks,” autopoietic bodies of related compositions whose origins largely escape us and whose evolution in the Late Antique still remained far from complete. Within such self-organizing fields, however, neither origin nor terminus was much at issue. In fact, what most typified the scriptural networks of the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary period was not their stability but rather their set toward proliferation, where entropy increased in the course of each new (re)inscription. With no Ur-text and lacking any definitive redaction, text networks such as the Romance remained fundamentally decentered, which makes it virtually impossible to chart with any certainty either their historical development or their full global diffusion. Faced, moreover, with contradictory renditions, each member of the text network figured by way of similarity to and difference from the other works that concomitantly comprised the field—in effect, a transtextual projection of Ferdinand de Saussure's synchronic notion of linguistic “value” (see LINGUISTICS).

The text network constituted the most common type of diffusional patterning for the ancient novel. It is against the backdrop of the multiple, therefore, that we need to understand such singular and largely uniform works as the five “ideal” Greek romances (Chariton, Xenophon of Ephesus, Achilles Tatius, Longus, Heliodorus), as well as Petronius's Satyrika and Apuleius's Metamorphoses, all of which originated under Roman imperial rule. Fundamentally, the one mode of composition constitutes the dialectical negation of the other. Thus, whereas the Latin Res gestae Alexandri Macedonis opens with the anonymous feruntur (“they say”), and circulated without attribution, Callirhoe (first century CE) begins with a signature, naming the author of the novel and foregrounding the act of his narration: “My name is Chariton, of Aphrodisias, and I am clerk to the attorney Athenagoras. I am going to tell you the story of a love affair that took place in Syracuse.”

Chariton Aphrodiseus, a writer nowhere else attested, may well be a pseudonym—the name evokes the Graces, as well as Aphrodite—a narrative device to credit the novel's composition to a suppositious individual, whose credentials it therefore becomes necessary to provide. In contradistinction to the Romance, moreover, Chariton asserts both the unity of the pathos erImagetikon (novel's action), along with its ostensible unity of place (Syracuse). The work survives in a single manuscript, and—while there is ample testimony that later Hellenic novelists read Callirhoe—there is no evidence that it circulated in any language other than Greek. This singularity, then, evident at so many levels of the composition, effectively functions as a dialectical inversion of the text network where, in its multiformity, even such well-known authors as Nezami or Alexandre de Bernay, contemporaries who composed poetical accounts of the Great Conqueror in Transcaucasia and Normandy, respectively, situated their work within the broader spectrum of the Alexander literary traditions.

Negation likewise determines both character and plot in Callirhoe, which—as opposed to the explicitly public parameters of Ahiqar, Barlaam and Joasaph, or KalImagelah wa-Dimnah (“Kalilah and Dimnah”)— narrows its focus to a private love affair between two otherwise unknown Syracusans. In effect, the Ionian Chariton, writing from the Roman province of Asia, chooses as his subject the erotic interests of two Dorians from the West, thereby notionally encompassing the entirety of the “panhellenic” world. The very constriction of this focus served, among other things, to interpellate Greek literati as a distinct community of readers over and against other ethnically diverse, transimperial audiences for the novel, doing so in part through the narrative's pointed promotion of Greek language, identity, and values. Not for nothing then, Chariton's novel appeals directly to classical Greek history, taking as its principal referent Hermocrates of Syracuse, the Greek commander who famously repelled the Athenian attack on Sicily in 415—413 BCE. Set against Hermocrates's efforts to safeguard Syracusan patrial dImagemokratía (“democracy”) from foreign assault, his daughter Callirhoe's adventures rupture the insularity of this narrative FRAME: married to the first stranger upon whom she literally stumbles, abducted by pirates, and hounded by would-be lovers, Callirhoe's protracted peregrinations initially traverse the Greek world—from Syracuse to Athens to Miletus—only to press inwards from Ionia through the western satrapies of Iran: from Caria and Cilicia south across the Transeuphrates, and down through Assyria to Babylon, capital of Artaxerxes, King of Kings. Acclaimed in the great audience hall the most stunning woman in all Europe and the East, Callirhoe subsequently returns full circle, this time by way of Syria and Cyprus back to Syracuse, her home. The charmed haven of democratic Graecitas thus opens for a moment onto the spectacle of the imperial Other, but closes itself off again as the heroine returns—her “faithfulness” intact—to Magna Graecia. Accordingly the happy ending, in which the entire citizen collective (dImagemos) throngs the Syracusan assembly to weep for joy at Callirhoe's restitution, is one from which non-Hellenic readers of Greek, who filled the Eastern Empire, can only have been all too conscious that they stood excluded.

Like Ahiqar, then, Callirhoe overlays one geography upon another: whereas Chariton's post-Herodotean world of the fifth century BCE sets Greece over against Persia as two antithetical political spheres, the ambit that Callirhoe's journey traces circumscribes the heartland of the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary state as it had expanded under Roman rule of the first century CE. For Chariton, however, empire has ceased to constitute a space of “peaceful unity which joins all peoples to itself and to each other,” but appears rather as an inexhaustible source of radical displacement and paradoxical conjuncture, where only by exception does the “orphan pearl” pass smoothly from hand to hand: “One township escorted Callirhoe to the next, one satrap gave her into the care of his neighbor, for beauty carried all subjects away.” Chariton, however, harbors no illusions about what he describes as the “sullen spectacle” of tributary empire, so the next sentence adds: “It was on the expectation that this woman would wield great authority that each hastened to offer her alien hospitalities.” Unexpectedly, then, though hardly by chance, Egypt erupts into violence in the final installment of the novel:

Events now took a different turn. The Egyptians, Artaxerxes learned, had murdered the royal satrap and invested a king from among the locals. He had marched out from Memphis and passed through Pelusium and was already overwhelming Syria and Phoenicia, to the point where their cities were offering no more resistance; it was as though a torrent or a fire had suddenly assailed them.

Mindful of Thermopylae, Greek mercenaries make common cause with Egypt against Persian domination, though despite stunning victories at Tyre and Aradus, their combined numbers ultimately prove insufficient in the face of the Iranians' overwhelming forces: when the vanquished Pharaoh chooses death over captivity, Artaxerxes's troops immediately move in to crush the provincial insurrection and efficiently reestablish politico-economic order.

Significantly, the sanctions that the Great King imposes suggest no notable duress: so far as possible, Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Cypriots resettle where they will, while Callirhoe cordially enjoins the Persian queen to correspond with her across the Levantine— Mediterranean domain, now shared—as in Chariton's own day—between Rome and Iran. Alone among the Roman provinces, however, Egypt stands conspicuously absent from the harmony that tunes the novel's close. Rather, “cut off from the whole,” her political dissatisfactions remain unnamed as well as unaddressed—an oversight which, in this case, realistically reflects Egypt's abiding history of resistance to all political subordination within the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary order. The closure of the Greek story, then, stands in marked contrast to the irresolution of the Egyptian subplot, whose imperial subjects Chariton represents as disaffected, recalcitrant, and effectively shut out from the societal renewal with which the drama closes.

On the one hand, then, Chariton's Callirhoe unfolds within precisely the same geopolitical coordinates as Ahiqar and the Romance: the multiethnic compass of the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary state. Moreover, knowledge and truth transpire here by way of passage across this imperial domain and through the awful Other: “Here the goddess brought the truth to light and revealed the unknown to each other.” In contrast, however, to text networks such as Ahiqar or the Romance, Callirhoe overtly resists the notion that, as Saadi of Shiraz (ca. 1213—91) famously asserted, “mankind are like members of one body,” staking out instead a more isolationist position. All peoples may stand “mutually enchained,” but the one point at which Greeks, Persians, Phoenicians, and Egyptians actually come together in Callirhoe—at the sack of Tyre—is the moment of greatest violence in the novel. Accordingly, Chariton retreats into an ethnocentrism that appears regressive, though it would be a mistake to see Callirhoe as anachronistic. Rather, what Chariton stresses is the particular over and against the universal, and in this we see how Callirhoe finds its place within the same nexus of geohistorical concerns as do the novels of the text networks: in both it is a question of how the part relates to the whole. Whereas text networks such as Ahiqar or the Romance incline primarily—to quote Plotinus—toward “the one principal constituting the unity of many forms of life and enclosing the several members within the unity,” Chariton stresses that “each several member must have its own task,...each its own moment, bringing its touch of sweet or bitter.” By its very constitution, then, the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary state gave rise to both perspectives which, as mutually negating, not only require one another but together realistically represent the historical tensions endemic to the political economy of the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary system.

The Ancient Novel Disappears

Ancient narratives had a precise historical function that resists incorporation into any homogenizing history OF THE NOVEL. As the characteristic fiction of the Levantine—Mediterranean tributary state—stretching from the Iranian empire through Rome to the Ottoman regime—the ancient novel aided readers in negotiating the political, economic, and ethnological complexities of the tributary regime, in particular its peculiar dialectic between the persistence of local communities under government protection, and their concomitant negation by the apparatus of the state. Text networks on the scale of the Romance united readers across Eurasia without homogenizing them in a utopian vision of the world, while novels such as Callirhoe foregrounded communal difference and competing claims for ethnic superiority within the arena of empire. Some narratives—Esther, for example—thematize the risks run by ethnic enclaves within the tributary state; others, such as Apuleius's Metamorphoses (second century CE) or Heliodorus's Aethiopica (fourth century), explore conversion and marriage as tropes for crossing from one community to another, or for conjoining them. A minority remain unremittingly jingoistic. In Rumi (ca. 1207—73) we read not only that “cohesion is a mercy, and isolation a torment,” but also that “the best place is where one is at home.” With the supersession of this dialectic, the ancient novel inevitably became obsolete. In works such as Ibn Tufayl's Hayy ibn Yaqzan (ca. 1180) one witnesses the birth of a different humanism, based on an individuality that is entirely self-organized and independent of any community or state, prefiguring, in this regard, both René Descartes (1596—1650) and the “transcendental homelessness” that Georg lukÁcs saw as the principal defining feature of the modern novel. Correlatively Le divisament dou monde (ca. 1300, Description of the World), credited to Marco Polo, provided the Mediterranean with a new mapping of the world which is no longer conceptualized as reticulatively communal, but rather as a series of discrete and largely independent loci, defined less by their tributary relationship to imperial power than as a series of potential markets waiting for the exploitation of motivated merchants.

Balascian is a province where the people worship Maomet and have their own language. It is a great kingdom and the succession is hereditary. Their line is descended from Alexander and the daughter of king Darius, the Persian sire. The kings all still call themselves Çulcarnein in Saracen, their language (which is Alexander in French) out of their love for Alexander the Great. This province produces precious stones which they call balasci. They are very beautiful and of great value, and come from the rocks of the mountains, from which they are excavated. There are other mountains where lapis lazuli is found, which is the best and finest in the world, as well as mountains in which there are great veins of silver.

Not only has the life of Alexander been reduced here to a piece of local trivia but Polo simultaneously displaces the Peripatetic drive for knowledge of the natural world onto a reckoning of stones and metals: balasci, lapis lazuli, silver—all there, ready and waiting to be mined, bartered, and committed to the trader's hand. With the rise of merchant capitalism and the modern nation-state, the ancient novel disappears. When European writers from Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra to Madame de Lafayette and Samuel Richardson, returned to ancient fictional devices as a foundation for the modern novel, they appealed almost exclusively to the Greek and Latin corpus, but they no longer understood what such narratives had meant.

See also: Ancient Narratives of China, Ancient Narratives of South Asia, Intertextuality.


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