An Ethiopian Story

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An Ethiopian Story

by Heliodorus


A novel set in Ethiopia in the third or second century bce; written in Greek in the mid-fourth century ce


A young Greek priestess learns that she is the long-lost daughter of the rulers of Ethiopia and embarks with her finance on an adventurefilled quest from Greece, to Egypt to the royal court of Ethiopia, where she reclaims her birthright.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Heliodorus, the author of An Ethiopian Story, claims to be a Phoenician from the Syrian city of Emesa and to belong to the priestly clan of the sun god. He lived during the Roman Empire (probably in the late fourth century ce) and wrote his novel in ancient Greek in an archaic style more characteristic of the writings of Thucydides or Plato (fifth century bce) than the contemporary “common” (koine) form of Greek. Little else is known about him, aside from an unverified account in Nicephorus’ Church History(early ninth century ce) that Heliodorus later became a Christian bishop in Tricca, Thrace, and was given the choice either of destroying his “pagan” novel or relinquishing his position as bishop of a district. Heliodorus then surrendered his bishop’s headdress. Probably this story is a fabrication designed to make the writing of a “pagan” author legitimate for Christian readers, much as Dante makes the pagan author Virgil worthy of the readers of his The Divine Comedy. Racine, the famous seventeenth-century French dramatist, had a son who tells an amusing anecdote about his father in relation to this novel. In his youth, an official at the monastery school he attended caught the young Racine devouring a copy of An Ethiopian Story, immediately confiscated the pagan novel, and burned it. The same thing happened again and Racine was severely reprimanded. Not long after, he cockily approached the official and surrendered a third copy to the furnace—for by then, we are told, the stubborn young student had memorized it! An adventure-packed novel, An Ethiopian Story unravels like a detective tale and contains not only a sentimental love interest but also a nuanced portrayal of ethnic relations in the ancient world.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Ancient conceptions of the Eastern world

An Ethiopian Story takes us on an adventurous journey from what the ancient Greeks and Romans perceived as the “civilized” West to the “barbarous” unfamiliar East. Both the Greeks and the Romans (who conquered Greece in the third century bce) showed dislike mixed with fear of foreigners. In fact, the degree of dislike was inversely proportional to the distance of a particular people from Greece (or Rome). A neighbor, such as the Persians, whom the Greeks or Romans were more likely to have knowledge of and engage in conflict with, were more feared than, for example, the Ethiopians or the Chinese. It is not that the Greeks necessarily thought of themselves as the wisest. In fact, Philostratus, a Greek writing in the early third century ce, describes the hierarchy of world wisdom as moving from the Greeks, up to the Egyptians, then up to the Ethiopians, and at the top to the Indians. There was a general tendency in Greek and Roman society to honor other peoples with a longer history of civilization. Yet at the same time, a sense of superiority, or ethnocentrism, prevails in much of Greek thought and writing. In the ancient novels, Greekness is a prerequisite for what is stylish and admirable: “good” characters of every ethnicity are always able to speak Greek; those who cannot are “bad” and inferior morally, intellectually, and physically.

The Greeks had a history with the East, or more exactly with the Persians, harking back to the mid-sixth century bce. It was during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus that the Greeks first came into contact with the Persians. Cyrus began expanding the Persian Empire over the known Eastern world, eventually taking it all the way to the borders of India. Beginning his enterprise close to home, he set the Persians against the Lydians, who occupied an ancient country, Lydia, spread over much of the western part of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). On the coast were many Greek colonies (Miletus, Ephesus, Smyrna) across a district known as Ionia. By paying yearly tributes to the Lydian kings, these Greek colonies that occupied the Ionian coast for the most part lived in peaceful co-existence with the Lydians. The situation would change dramatically when the Persians conquered Lydia. The Persians ravaged the Greek cities of the Ionian coast, sparing only Miletus. At the beginning of the fifth century bce, the Ionian Greeks revolted against the Persians, who were now under the leadership of Darius.

Darius soon demanded the submission of all of Greece, and when the Greeks refused, he waged war. During the course of these hostilities, the Acropolis of Athens was devastated and Greek works of art were irrevocably lost. But the Greeks successfully resisted conquest, convincing the Persians and Xerxes, who had taken over after Darius, that victory was neither possible nor profitable. The Greeks had fended off the Easterners, bringing the Persian Wars to an end, but an uneasy relationship between the Greeks of Ionia and the Persians ensued. The Persians established satrapies, provinces ruled by governors who answered directly to the king himself. So while Persia had been kept out of mainland Greece, part of Greek territory was always under Persia’s thumb, a disquieting reality.

There was also in Greek mythology a pretext for Persian-Greek enmity in the stories associated with Medea, the legendary barbarian princess from Colchis on the Black Sea, whose liaison with the Greek hero Jason had been treated by the poet Hesiod in the eighth century bce. Medea’s son Medeus (or Medus) helps found a new people, the Medes, the ancestors of the Persians, who attract the ill will of the Greeks. The hatred they harbor for Medas is transferred to her son’s people. In Greek art, especially Greek vase paintings, Persians are characteristically denoted by their unfamiliar dress: pointy hats, elaborate fabric, and trousers. In the eyes of the Greeks, the Persians were a decadent people, whose love of luxury testified to their moral corruption. Book 7 of Herodotus’ Histories (also in Classical Literature and Its Times) depicts the Persian king Xerxes as a megalomaniac, a leader obsessed with gaining ever more power. The distinction between themselves and the Persians is evident in the Greek names for styles of rhetoric or oratory. The Greeks called the plain, elegant style of rhetoric “Attic,” from Attica, the name of the region in which Athens sat; they called the ornate, bombastic style of rhetoric “Asiatic.” There were political differences, too. At the end of the sixth century, Athens had rid itself of tyrants and instituted a more representative government. Many other Greek citystates, such as Corinth, went through a monarchic period before they, too, established protodemocratic regimes. Ever after, the word “tyrant” stuck in the Greeks’ throats, and they came to view with disgust and disdain kings and kingdoms. They considered their elective system superior. In actuality, though, Greek democracy more closely resembled the democracy in the United States at the end of the eighteenth century, in that Greek society also ran a partially slave-based economy, and only free males were allowed to vote.

Egyptians and Indians

The Greeks knew more about the Egyptians than about the Persians and maintained an active fascination with Egyptian culture. Herodotus in book 2 of his Histories asserts that the Greeks derived their gods from the Egyptian gods. This does not necessarily mean that the Greeks literally invented their gods based upon the Egyptian gods, in a one-to-one type correspondence. What it does mean is that Herodotus is laying a claim to prestige for the Greek pantheon based upon an association with an older, more established tradition.

The four areas of Egyptian culture most impressive to the Greeks were its art, architecture, religion, and socio-political system. The influence of Egyptian style on Greek art is evident in many ways, for instance, in the kouros(“young man”) and kore(“young woman”) statues of the Archaic Period, which bear great similarities to well-known Egyptian pieces. There is good evidence for healthy trade between various Greek city-states and Egypt, an activity that declined following the conquest of Egypt by the Persians under Cambyses in 525 bce. Thereafter, the Persians established a satrapy in Egypt. But Egypt did not submit to subjugation easily; the cultural memory of 2,000 years of independence was difficult to dispel. In the mid-fifth century bce, there was a revolt in Egypt against the Persians, and Egyptian rebels appealed to the Athenians for aid, mindful of the fact that Athens operated the finest navy of the day. The Athenians sent a fleet to Egypt, a force that was at first quite successful in vanquishing the Persians, helping to free Egypt from Persian rule for five years. The Persians, realizing that their best defensive strategy was to exploit an internal rivalry for power in Greece—the contest between Athens and Sparta—did their best to aggravate this hostility. They sent envoys to the Spartans, encouraging them to at-tack Athens while its fleet was in Egypt. In the end, the Spartans decided not to raise tensions to such an extent, and Persia had to move against the Athenians itself. It took almost two years, but Persia eventually routed the Athenians and reclaimed Egypt, which periodically revolted against the Persians until 331 bce, when Alexander the Great annexed Egypt to the Macedonian Empire. The Egyptians, who are described as having detested Persian rule, regarded the Macedonians as liberators, and Alexander founded the first of the many cities to be named after him, Alexander died and Macedonian the mouth of the Nile River. When Alexander died and the Macedonian Empire was divided into quarters (Asia, Egypt, Thrace, and Macedonia and Greece), the Macedonian leader Ptolemy gained control of Egypt. Ptolemy’s dynasty endured until his final descendant, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide in 30 bce. Hers became the last of all the Macedonian dynasties to fall to Rome.

Once Egypt became a Roman province, it seems to have lost some prestige in Roman circles. It had been a long time since Egypt had governed itself as an independent country, and to the minds of many Romans, it shared an unhappy fate with Greece. The decline of Greece could be seen in the transformation of Athens; once an empire unto itself, the city became little more than what today might be called a college town, a place wealthy Romans sent their sons for education. Once a great power, Egypt had withered from its former glory. The land, long ad-mired for its age-old wisdom, became associated with arcane lore and magic. In An Ethiopian Story, all older Egyptian women are proficient in potions and spells, and an Egyptian priest (Kalasiris) speaks at length (book 3, chapter 16) about lower (magic) and higher (divination) kinds of Egyptian wisdom.

Finally, the Greeks knew comparatively little about the Ethiopians, aside from their skin color—in Greek aithiops means “burnt-face.” They believed them to dwell at the eastern edge of the known world. As such, the Ethiopians existed on the border between reality and fantasy, which allowed the Greeks to lend the Ethiopians certain attributes in the earliest literature. In Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey (eighth century bce), the Ethiopians are one of the few peoples who enjoy the privilege of the gods’ personal company (both works also in Classical Literature and Its Times). That the gods allow physical contact with the Ethiopians denotes a great honor, for most often in mythology any direct contact between god and mortal results in that mortal’s demise. For example, Semele, a princess of Thebes in Greece, has a son with the god Zeus and convinces him to appear to her in the same form as to his heavenly wife; he appears as a thunderbolt, and Semele is blasted into oblivion.

While An Ethiopian Story mentions other exotic people too, such as the Troglodytes, the Blemmyes, the Seres, and the Indians, the Greeks had little factual evidence about them beyond travelers’ tales. The Troglodytes (“cave dwellers”) and the nomadic Blemmyes, who supposedly had no heads but eyes and mouths in their chests, lived to the south of Egypt. The Seres refer to the silk-producing Chinese, whom the Greek travel writer Pausanias (second century ce) confuses with the Ethiopians and the Scythians. Though Aristotle (fifth century bce) knew of the silk worm (ser in Greek), the famed Silk Road overland trade route linking the East to the West was not established until the second century bce. The Romans nevertheless had direct contact with the Chinese when Chinese envoys visited the Roman emperor Augustus. Regarding the Indians, the Greek geographer Strabo (first century bce) admits that any accurate information about India is shrouded in the obscurity of third-hand reports. This does not stop him from passing on fantastic accounts of Indian tribes, animals, and cultural practices—including an erroneous summary of the caste system. Also in India were the Gymnosophists, or Naked Sages, groups of philosophers who saw food and clothing as counterproductive to pure thinking. Strabo locates the Gymnosophists, who were as famous for their wisdom as for their habit of meditating in the nude, in India. But Heliodorus places them in Ethiopia for narrative convenience.

Kingdom of Meroe

In An Ethiopian Story, Meroe, the capital of Ethiopia, is a land of fantasy, a place of extremes. Not only is it home to the renowned Gymnosophists, but its king is also a model of sophistication, learning, and military prowess who commands the respect and tribute (it seems) of all the Eastern world. The land’s customs include human sacrifice.

In real life, ancient Meroe appears to have been settled in the early sixth century bce by Cushites, who were from Nubia (present-day Sudan). They conquered their way northward, up to middle Egypt (Thebes), where their progress was arrested, first by the Assyrians and then by the Egyptians, who forced them to retreat and move their capital south to Meroe, near the sixth cataract of the Nile. Irrigation from the river helped the settlement at Meroe thrive. Meroe Island, a triangular landform south of the fifth cataract on the east bank of the Nile, was the cultural and social center of the kingdom. The isle was bordered on the north by the Atbara River, on the west by the Nile, and on the south by the Blue Nile River. Following Egyptian custom, the inhabitants of Meroe erected pyramids (still standing today) and commemorative stone slabs as monuments to their rulers’ accomplishments. The Cushites of Meroe adopted many aspects of Egyptian culture, then developed independent offshoots of these traditions over time. For instance, Meroe’s pharaohs answered to a priestly council, and they included a line of female rulers, known as the Kentake or, in Greek, as the Candaces. The Ethiopians also adapted their own writing system (which has yet to be deciphered) based upon the popular script of the Egyptians.

Meroe gained wealth through trade by exploiting its convenient position between subSaharan Africa and the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. It reached its zenith of power in the third and second centuries bce, at which point its territory extended from the third cataract of the Nile southward almost to modern Khartoum. The kingdom of Meroe was successful enough to attract the attentions of ancient superpowers. After the Persians’ invasion of Egypt in 525 bce, Ethiopia was soon added as a vassal state of Persia. Then when the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great and the Macedonians in 330 bce, Ethiopia began sending tribute to this new imperial power. During the reign of Augustus at the beginning of the Roman Empire, Ethiopia once again switched, now paying tribute to its new Roman rulers. At the same time, in a quest to extend its boundaries, Meroe made forays north into Egyptian territory, causing so much trouble that the Roman army razed the formerly Ethiopian town of Napata in ancient Egypt but did not venture further south, deeming the territory unfit for colonization. In the second century ce, the Blemmyes, a nomadic people living in the regions of Ethiopia and Egypt, made many incursions against Roman territories in Egypt. To suppress them, the Roman emperor Diocletian at the end of the third century ce in effect hired the Nobatae, a tribe of uncertain origin that had settled in the northern territory of Meroe, as mercenaries to contain the Blemmyes.

Priests, prophets, and sacrifice

Greek religion is founded around the principle of exchange: do ut des, Latin for “I give so that you give.” Humans traded offerings to the gods in return for boons—good crops, purification, success, wealth, health, love, or knowledge. Priests were intermediaries who performed the sacrifices and interpreted messages from the gods. In this way, the priests filled a prophetic function, which helps explain why most prophets in Greek literature are also priests. Gods were believed to communicate with mortals through patterns in nature: the movement and character of birds, the entrails of those sacrificed, or the positions of the heavenly bodies (astrology). Priests could interpret these signs and, through sacrifice, could coax the gods to reveal more. The items to be sacrificed included food, animals (chickens, goats, cows, pigs), and perhaps even humans. Human sacrifice occurs in Greek mythology—King Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to obtain good weather to sail to Troy, for example. Andromeda, a legendary princess of Ethiopia, is herself a human sacrifice to appease the anger of the gods. Archeological evidence, which is not without its critics, suggests that human sacrifice might have played a part in Greek culture during the second millennium bce and perhaps into the early first millennium. There does not appear to be archeological evidence for human sacrifice in Ethiopia, though it would not be surprising to find human sacrifices in the royal tombs, given that the Ethiopians adopted the art of pyramids and the pharaonic system from Egypt, where human sacrifices have been discovered.

An alternate way of consulting the gods was through oracles. In his Histories, Herodotus describes how King Croesus of the Lydians tested the accuracy of all the oracles in the ancient world and found the one at Delphi, which is consulted in An Ethiopian Story, to be the most reliable. At Delphi, the Pythia, or priestess, served in the temple of Apollo, the god of prophecy. Visitors would bring offerings to Apollo and await their turn to approach the priestess with their questions. People typically consulted her about business, health, wealth, and love. The Pythia would then enter into a frenetic trance. Some ancient writers supposed the Pythia would enhance this trance by breathing vapors from a chasm in the rock or by chewing on laurel leaves. Though attempts to replicate the latter method have been unsuccessful, recent findings support the vaporous gas (ethylene) hypothesis. Inspired by the god, the prophetess would speak in unintelligible words, which the priests of Apollo would then render into hexameter verse. In Greek literature, oracles are always correct, almost always misinterpreted at first, and properly understood only upon their (often tragic) fulfillment. Herodotus (book 1) records a famous consultation in which King Croesus is told that if he attacks Persia, a great kingdom will fall. Croesus arrogantly assumes that he will triumph, and only after he has lost his own kingdom of Lydia to the Persians does he understand the oracle’s intended meaning.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

An Ethiopian Story concerns a young woman’s quest to reclaim her birthright, which takes her from Greece through Egypt to distant Ethiopia. On the way, she and her fearless fiancé do battle against brigands, suffer slavery, fend off amorous foreigners, and brave torture before landing, literally, on the sacrificial chopping block in Ethiopia.

After years of childlessness King Hydaspes and Queen Persinna of Ethiopia finally conceive, but when the baby is born with white skin, Persinna abandons it, fearing a charge of adultery. A philosopher, one of the Gymnosophists, rescues the newborn and fosters the child at Delphi in Greece with a priest named Charikles, who names his foundling daughter Charikleia. When she grows to maturity, unbeknownst to Charikles, who intends to marry her to his son, Charikleia falls in love with Theagenes, a young man from Thrace, who is visiting Delphi. In shrouded language, the oracle of Delphi predicts adventures, hardship, and eventual success for this pair. Their romantic predicament is solved by the appearance of Kalasiris, an Egyptian priest, who is on a secret mission for Queen Persinna to find and retrieve her longlost daughter and only child. The three of them abscond from Delphi, set out for Ethiopia, and encounter an amazing array of mishaps—shipwreck, lewd pirates, an equally lecherous Persian queen, battles, a witch, torture, and slavery. At one point, Theagenes is rescued from Persian captivity by a renegade son of Kalasiris and taken to Memphis in Egypt. When Kalasiris and Charikleia arrive, there unfolds a dramatic scene of reunions, of Charikleia with Theagenes and of Kalasiris with his two sons. Egypt, however, is under Persian control, and the satrap’s wife, Arsake, lusts after Theagenes, vowing to stop at nothing until she seduces him. When he is summonsed to appear before the queen, Theagenes refuses to bow to her, which outrages the court, but she lets the offense pass, excusing the blunder. “You must forgive him.... He is every inch a Greek and is afflicted with the scorn that all Greeks feel for us” (Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story,7.19). Theagenes and Charikleia pose as brother and sister, so there seems to be no obstacle to her designs on him, though, of course, there is. Complications ensue, including an attempt on Charikleia’s life.

Fortunately, during a war between the Ethiopians and the Persians, the couple is captured by the Ethiopian King Hydaspes. The story now centers only on the two lovers, as their companion the priest has died mid-adventure. At first, their capture seems far from a happy turn-of-events. The king orders that his captives be delivered to Meroe for sacrifice and that his queen prepare a celebration in honor of his military victory. During the festivities, Charikleia and Theagenes impress everyone by testing positive for virginity on the gridiron, a magical device that measures sexual purity. Charikleia also takes the opportunity to reveal her identity to her father King Hydaspes. After much drama, including the abolition of human sacrifice in the kingdom at the behest of the Gymnosophists, both she and


In Aft Ethiopian Story the heroine Charikleia is born a white child of black parents. Her I mother explains this unusual occurrence by the fact that she had been gazing at a painting of a white woman, Andromeda, a legendary princess of Ethiopia, at the moment of conception and the image of the picture imprinted itself upon the features of her fetus. Not knowing genetics, which explains external appearances via an internally coded system, the Greeks and Romans linked physical appearance to external conditions and factors. The geographer Strabo accounts for differences in skin color not only by the quality of sunlight in a people’s environment but also by the quantity of moisture and heat that it generates. Sun exposure atone was insufficient to explain the pigmentation of newborn infants, to this way of thinking, because fetuses do not experience sunlight until birth, Similarly, the most common explanation for strange births or deformities, attributed to the Greek writer Hippocrates, among others, was “maternal impression,” the idea that what a woman sees during her pregnancy can be transferred onto the appearance of her child. Alternatively, people also attributed unusual coloring in children to a deceased grand-parent, the truthfulness of which claim would be difficult to dispute. The Elder Pliny (Natural History,7.12) and Plutarch (On the Delays of Divine Vengeance21) both report instances in which white women who bore black children claimed such ancestry. The Greeks and Romans were not alone in crediting maternal impression. In the Hebrew Bible, Gensis 30:25–39, Jacob uses this belief to enhance his herds of animals, Desiring flocks with spotted coloring, he puts sticks in the watering troughs where the females drink so that when the males mount them there, the females see the water’s surface speckled with sticks and their progeny become similarly marked.

Theagenes are welcomed into the royal family and parade off to celebrate their wedding.

Cultural identity in the ancient world

Whereas today many people identify their ethnicity with a combined term (African American, French Canadian, and so on), until recently ethnic identity seemed to be simpler in the ancient world. Greeks were Greeks, Persians were Persians, and the two never mixed. Scholars of late have realized that identity in the ancient world could have been just as complicated as it can be today. How does a child born of parents from different countries yet living in a third country describe his or her cultural identity? Or, to put it in ancient terms, what label could be put on a man born in Syria, educated in the Greek language and culture, and yet living in the Roman (Latin speaking) Empire? Such a man is Heliodorus, author of An Ethiopian Story. The more people are inclined to migrate, the more difficult it becomes to use country of origin to determine a person’s culture. This issue is played out in the novel, where cultural identities seem to be exchanged as easily as clothing, and a person’s appearance does not necessarily correspond with her or his cultural identity. The heroine’s appearance, both physical and cultural, belies her multilayered heritage: by the novel’s end Charikleia realizes that she has not one, not two, not three, but four parents—King Hydaspes, a painting, the priest Kalasiris, and her foster father Charikles. She owes to each a part of her identity. Kalasiris’ appearance is likewise misleading, for he hides an Egyptian identity beneath Greek garb. The story questions the relationship between appearance and identity on many levels—in fact, the novel itself is a Greek tale about Ethiopians written by a Syrian.

Language is a significant marker in the novel. It does not necessarily designate culture so much as it indicates paideia, a Greek term meaning sophistication, education, and cultivation all rolled into one. An Ethiopian Story is the only ancient novel that attempts to represent the multilingual milieu of the ancient world. Not all characters speak Greek, and some speak only broken Greek. This situation leads to problems in communication and understanding. It is worth noting, however, which characters are able to speak which languages. All of the sympathetic characters speak Greek—Charikleia, Theagenes, Kalasiris, Hydaspes, Persinna. A certain Egyptian brigand who at first appears hostile does not speak Greek, but after he befriends the hero, he learns Greek. Greek-speaking characters are adept at learning other tongues. Speaking Greek is in fact an indicator of paideia. All the characters who speak Greek exhibit a fine sense of truth, justice, responsibility, and morality; they all are pepaideumenoi,“well-educated and civilized.” Paideia is not an innate quality; it is an acquired one, and it becomes apparent in the way that a character behaves. As suggested by the languages and other habits learned and exhibited by the novel’s characters, identity pivots on behavior and not birth. Characters can adopt any cultural identity they want and even entertain two simultaneously, if they are willing to alter their behavior, as Charikleia and Theagenes do at the end of the novel, when they prepare to be initiated into the more mystic aspects of the Ethiopian wedding ceremony. Paideia cannot be lost by the adoption of other cultures, and it is this spirit of cultural interpenetration with which the novel closes.

Sources in literary context

The ancient novel was the last major genre to emerge from Greek literature. Stylistically it is a grab bag of genres, incorporating aspects of all other literary forms. Epic is an obvious influence on the novel, in that the quest of the model epic hero (i.e., Odysseus) becomes the heroine Charikleia’s quest. Also influential are historical writing (for its narrative descriptions of peoples, places, and events) and lyric poetry (with its themes of love and desire). Philosophy has a place in the novel, for characters muse on the nature of human beings and the world. Tragic elements are infused into the storyline as well—the saga of Kalasiris, for instance. The priest not only loses his wife, but a divine premonition that his sons will battle each other drives him to self-exile in order to forestall this family conflict. This action proves to be futile, and he is reunited with his sons in Memphis just as they are about to kill each other. Perhaps the most direct influence on the novel comes from comedy—not the political plays of Aristophanes but the situational comedies of Menander, which feature long-lost children abandoned with recognition tokens (in Heliodorus’ novel, Charikleia has a breastband that is embroidered with her mother’s story in Ethiopian hieroglyphics). Other elements featured in these comedies are young lovers overcoming the obstacles to their relationship, mistaken identities, all sorts of suffering, and, finally, reunion of families and marriage. Because they encompass all these influences, An Ethiopian Story and the other ancient novels touch on most aspects of human experience, from the amusing to the erotic, suspenseful, and always the dramatic. In another ancient novel, Daphnis and Chloe by Longus, a shepherdess and goatherd fall in love but are so unsophisticated that they do not know what is happening to them and spend the rest of the novel finding out. In the end it turns out that they are the long-lost children of wealthy citizens, so they can marry and continue their idyllic existence.

The question of sources is problematic because the dating of An Ethiopian Story is uncertain. As the novel does not refer to any events of its day, there are no internal clues. Heliodorus claims to be a descendant of the clan of the sun god, which has led some scholars to speculate that he wrote during the height of sun worship in the third century CE, but most think this unlikely. The most tantalizing bit of evidence for dating the novel comes from the remarkable similarity between the siege of Syene that the Ethiopian king Hydaspes leads against the Persians in book 9 of An Ethiopian Story and the historical third siege of Nisibis in 350 ce when King Sapor II of Persia attempted to wrest the city from Roman hands. Sapor used an unprecedented technique of diverting a river to undermine the city walls, and An Ethiopian Story features this same exact strategy. The two earliest historical sources that describe this siege are a sermon by St. Ephraim, an eyewitness, and two letters by the emperor Julian, written in the 350s ce. The versions of Ephraim and Julian do not completely match, and there is confusion over who used whom as a source. Did Heliodorus copy Julian? Was it the other way around? Or did they both use Ephraim to compose independent versions? The current thinking is that Heliodorus and Julian wrote separate accounts and that Heliodorus may have consulted Julian’s version. An Ethiopian Story may have influenced a set of biographies of Roman emperors known as the His to ria Augusta, written


Though written during late antiquity, An Ethiopian Story(known in Greek as Aithiopica) owes its first printed publication in 1534 to a peculiar chain of circumstances. In the sixteenth century the king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus (so named for the raven or corvus on his coat of arms) amassed an extraordinary library in the city of Buda, collecting the Greek and Latin works of the ancient world. The Sultan Sulyman of Turkey added Hungary to the Ottoman Empire in 1526, and when his troops sacked Buda, a soldier stole the manuscript of An Ethiopian Story from Corvinus’ library for its attractive binding. Somehow the book made its way to Basel, Switzerland, where it was published, Thereafter scholars began to search for other copies in the dark corners of European libraries. The earliest surviving manuscript, found in the Vatican library, dates to the eleventh century. The novel was first published in an English translation in 1587.

about 400 CE. If this is the case, then the composition of An Ethiopian Story can be placed in the second half of the fourth century.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

East-West relations in the fourth century CE

Historically the Ethiopian kingdom of Meroe continued to exist until the mid-fourth century ce, about the time in which Heliodorus sets his novel. The historical records mention Meroe earlier, under the first Roman emperors, Augustus and Nero. Under Augustus, a Roman official in Egypt (a man named Petronius) sent a punitive force into Meroe, capturing and burning cities and leaving behind a Roman garrison. When the native inhabitants attacked this garrison, the official himself led a force to defend it until the queen of Meroe sued for peace. Apparently later the emperor Nero sent soldiers to explore the hinterlands, and they reached the renowned city of Meroe, reporting that the area had more greenery than they had seen in a while and that they had spotted the tracks of rhinoceroses and elephants there. But several hundred years later, in the fourth century ce, no mention is made of any expeditions or punitive campaigns in the area. In the fourth century CE, the Roman Empire was preoccupied with expanding its rule into new areas and subjugating the inhabitants of these areas. Lands that had already been conquered and turned into colonial territories, the way Ethiopia had a few centuries earlier, seldom appeared in the records unless their inhabitants revolted. To be sure, such revolts were occurring in the fourth century, but not, according to the records, in any troublesome way in Ethiopia. More problematic in the fourth century were the eastern Germanic peoples (like the Goths), who challenged Roman sovereignty.

Reception and impact

The English word “novel” comes from the French for “new.” The ancient novel was the last literary form to emerge from antiquity, and given the respect that the Greeks and Romans showed for tradition, its newness was hardly a benefit. The ancient Greek novel was born so late (our earliest examples date to the first century ce) that it was not included among the major literary genres. Only a handful of references to ancient novels survive. One is a quip to the novelist Chariton: “You think that the Greeks will remember your words when you die, but what does someone who is a nobody in life become when he is dead?” (Pseudo-Philostratus, Epistle 66). Another is the emperor Julian’s letter to his high priests, urging them to avoid reading novels because they are written in the form of history and, since they are not historical documents, can fool the unsuspecting reader. Clearly the ancient novel was not a well-respected form of literature.

An Ethiopian Story is the last-known ancient novel. At the end of the fourth century, this literary form was discontinued in Greek and Roman society. However, the novels were read through the Byzantine period, and the genre enjoyed a revival in twelfth-century Byzantium, with four new novels that imitated and outdid the ancient ones (in length, in the number of shipwrecks and attempted rapes, and so forth). The ancient novels continued to attract attention, so much so that in the sixteenth century the Spanish writer Alonso Lòpez de Pinciano named the three major epic “poets” of antiquity as Homer, Virgil, and Heliodoros, using the world “poet” loosely as a term for creative writer. Perhaps this third “epic poet” was on Cervantes’s mind when he wrote the book that many describe as the world’s first modern novel— Don Quixote(1605, 1615)—which borrows imagery and style from An Ethiopian Story.

—Kathryn Chew

For More Information

Bowersock, G. W. Fiction as History: Nero to Julian. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Hágg, Tomas. The Novel in Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

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