Monday, April 29, 2013


Nadia Scippacercola, Il lato oscuro del Romanzo Greco. Supplementi di Lexis, 62. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert editore, 2011. Pp. 209. ISBN 9789025612702. €45.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Tim Whitmarsh, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

Scippacercola sets out to capture the creepy, eldritch undertow that persists throughout the five Greek novels. These are not, she shows, straightforward narratives of 'ideal' love; butchery, death and resurrection, nocturnal visions and fear are everywhere. In Scippacercola's library, they would be catalogued alongside Jess Franco films (rather than Rafik Schami's celebrated Die dunkle Seite der Liebe, the bejewelled classic of Gastarbeiter literature that is apparently alluded to in her title).1

Three core chapters explore three themes: human sacrifice, dreams, and the play between life and death. Her procedure is immersive. There is plenty of summary and paraphrase, plenty of quotation. She begins each of her chapters with a preamble, then takes us through the novelists in turn (sometimes including Antonius Diogenes and Iamblichus; Longus is largely omitted).

Reading the book, one gets a strong feel for the weirdness that percolates these texts. What's lacking, however, is any kind of consistent intellectual framework, and hence any strong overall thesis. Sometimes, certainly, there are interesting insights along the way. Thus for example she points (p. 34) to interesting points of contact between Clitophon's account of the immolation of Leucippe in Achilles Tatius (3.7-8) and Aristomenes' of that of Socrates in Apuleius (Met. 1.14), even if the implications are not fully developed. She offers some acute narratological observations. She unpacks well the restricted focalisation of Leucippe's sacrifice, mentioned above (p. 46); and also the split perceptions of the impending sacrifice of Charicleia and Theagenes in Heliodorus (p. 64); and Clitophon's excessive reactions in prison to hearing the false report of Leucippe's death (p. 138-9). On other occasions, she draws effective parallels between episodes in the novels and other cultural phenomena. The well known parallel between the novelists' brigands known as the boukoloi is explored again on pp. 36-9; the novels' dreams are placed in dialogue with Artemidorus (1.2.6, on p. 83; again a well known passage); the Hippocratic treatment of epileptic possession is suggestively discussed next to Xenophon's (pp. 89-90); the reappearance of Chariton's Chaereas, apparently from the grave, is fruitfully compared to 'psychomantic invocation' (pp. 125-6).

Yet most of this material has already been treated more systematically and in greater detail elsewhere.2 Indeed, it is the limited engagement, at the conceptual level, with the existing scholarship that holds the book back most of all. When she does address others' ideas, Scippacercola tends to absorb rather than process: so, for example, the discussion of dreams in Achilles and Heliodorus (pp. 76-85) is dependent on Shadi Bartsch's Decoding the Ancient Novel, and the discussion of the ghost theme in Xenophon rests on Puiggali and Stramaglia (pp. 86-91).3 More striking still are the bibliographical absences. The most obvious examples are Morgan's classic pieces on Cnemon's story and on the 'sense of the ending' in Heliodorus, and Winkler's on Calasiris and narrative strategy (which significantly preempts her discussion of, e.g., Thyamis' dream on p. 83).4 The bibliographical coverage is, indeed, patchy overall: in addition to numerous standard novelistic reference-points by e.g. Anderson, Billault, Feuillâtre, Lalanne, and Paulsen (and my own edited Cambridge Companion), there are items of more direct relevance to her theme that are not included.5 A cynic might observe that her bibliographic reach into Italian scholarship is much more impressive than into that of other languages (I reckon about 1/3 of items listed are Italian).

It is not until the last 6 pages (165-70) that one is presented with any kind of synthetic overview. Here we read that in Chariton the horrific moments are false perceptions of reality, and generate ironic disjunctions of perspective; in Xenophon, they create suspenseful projections of possible (but unfulfilled) outcomes; in Achilles, they are more intense, and are sometimes genuinely designed to cause disquiet, though they can be playful too; in Heliodorus they again serve to generate suspense, but also to emphasise the particular links this novelist forges between the real world and the supernatural.

This is thus a principally literary reading of the texts, and her conclusions are unobjectionable as far as they go. Neither the dynamic role of horror within the plot nor its emotional affect is, however, fully mapped out. There is an immense scholarly literature on e.g. Gothic horror fiction that could have been used to build a more purposeful account. Yet limiting an interpretation of this theme to the literary (in the narrow sense) is already too limited. Horror necessarily reaches beyond the formal and aesthetic, into psychoanalysis, cultural criticism and gender studies. Of these, gender is no doubt the most important for the ancient novel: particularly in the light of Helen Morales' brilliant study of sublimated violence in Achilles Tatius, any study of these texts must surely confront the fact that most horrors, real or imagined, are inflicted upon women's bodies. 6 Another major absence from her bibliography, in this connection, is Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror, a classic that draws strong connections between the representation of horror, abjection and sexuality.7

In terms of future directions, the most suggestive section is the glossary of terms describing horrific visions and responses to them: this could form the basis of a powerful study of the aesthetics of the novelistic 'dark side', and of the emotional response projected onto readers. It is indeed intriguing to see just how widespread and persistent is this terminology.

This book covers interesting material, then, but does so rather thinly. Specialists may wish to consult it for its treatments of individual episodes (and, as I say, for the useful glossary), but overall it does not have quite the intellectual purchase that the rich topic deserves.


1.   Schami, R. (2004) Die dunkle Seite der Liebe. München. Trans. (2009) by Bell, A. as The Dark Side of Love. Northampton, MA.
2.   This is particularly true of narratology. See Hägg, T. (1971) Narrative Technique in Ancient Greek Romances: Studies of Chariton. Stockholm; and the relevant chapters in De Jong, I.J.F, Nünlist, R. and Bowie, A. eds (2004) Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative, volume 1. Leiden; De Jong, I.J.F. and Nünlist, R. eds (2007) Time in Ancient Greek Literature: Studies in Ancient Greek Narrative, volume 2. Leiden; De Jong, I.J.F. ed. (2012) Space in ancient Greek literature: Studies in ancient Greek narrative, volume 3. Leiden.
3.   Bartsch, S. (1989) Decoding the Ancient Novel: The Reader and the Role of Description in Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius. Princeton; Puiggali, J. (1986) 'Une histoire de fantôme: Xénophon d'Ephèse V. 7', RhM 129: 321-8; Stramaglia, A. (1999) Res inauditae, incredulae: Storie di fantasmi nel mondo greco-latino. Bari.
4.   Winkler, J.J. (1982) 'The mendacity of Kalasiris and the narrative strategy of Heliodorus' Aithiopika', YCS 27: 93-158; repr. in Swain, S. ed. (1999) The Greek novel. Oxford: 286-350; Morgan, J.R. (1989) 'The story of Knemon in Heliodoros' Aithiopika', JHS 109: 99-113; repr. in Swain, The Greek Novel: 259-85; Morgan, J.R. (1989) 'A sense of the ending: the conclusion of Heliodoros' Aithiopika', TAPA 119: 299- 320.
5.   Anderson, G. (1982) Eros sophistes: Ancient Novelists at Play. Chico; Billault, A. (1991) La création romanesque dans la littérature grecque à l'époque impériale. Paris; Feuillâtre, E. (1966) Études sur les Éthiopiques d'Héliodore. Paris; Lalanne, S. (2006) Une éducation grecque: rites de passage et construction des genres dans le roman grec ancien. Paris; Paulsen, T. (1992) Inszenierung des Schicksals: Tragödie und Komödie im Roman des Heliodor. Trier; Whitmarsh, T. ed. (2008) The Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Novel. Cambridge. Directly relevant to Scippacercola's themes: e.g. Plastira-Valkanou, A. (2001) 'Dreams in the Novel of Xenophon Ephesius', SO 76: 137-149; Ballengee, J. (2005) 'Below the belt: looking into the matter of adventure time'. In Branham, R.B. ed. The Bakhtin Circle and Ancient Narrative. Groningen: 130–63; Burrus, V. (2005) 'Mimicking virgins: colonial ambivalence and the ancient romance'. Arethusa 38: 49-88.
6.   Morales, H. (2005) Vision and Narrative in Achilles Tatius. Cambridge.
7.   Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of Horror: an Essay in Abjection. Trans. L. S. Roudiez. New York.

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