Saturday, August 31, 2013


Silvia Montiglio, Love and Providence: Recognition in the Ancient Novel. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 256. ISBN 9780199916047. $74.00.

Reviewed by Jeffrey T. Winkle, Calvin College (

Version at BMCR home site


Silvia Montiglio's book concerning recognition scenes in the ancient novel is an intricate, challenging work and one which will certainly be the foundation for much more exciting scholarship to come.

In the opening chapter Montiglio tackles recognition scenes in Chariton's Callirhoe and Xenophon's Ephesiaca. Beginning with Callirhoe, Montiglio reads the novel against Homer's Odyssey as well as various works of Greek tragedy, especially Euripides' Alcestis, with a particular eye to the role that a character's voice plays in recognition scenes. Montiglio explores various expectations of spoken dialogue in various genres: in epic the voice of a character is rarely put forward as a mark of identity in recognition scenes (the recognition by Eurycleia being a notable exception) and the inherent unnaturalness of theater (e.g. all actors are male) poses problems for a playwright seeking to keep his recognitions believable. Despite many borrowings from epic and tragedy, Chariton's Callirhoe employs aspects of the "voice of the beloved" frequently used in Hellenistic poetry as the primary means of recognition: one lover's hearing the voice of the other leads to instantaneous recognition as opposed to the slow, drawn out recognitions we see in tragedy.

By contrast, the recognition scenes in Xenophon's Ephesiaca are, as in tragedy, complex, drawn out and, to the modern eye, unnatural. This section devotes much space to the seeming clumsiness of these recognition scenes —repetitive, various recognitions mirror each other too closely. Montiglio counters that a contemporary audience would likely not have been bothered by the lack of verisimilitude; she notes that, like tragedians, the authors of Greek novels tended not to sacrifice complexity to plausibility: it is the elaborate choreography of the scenes that is primarily prized. Montiglio goes on to note how Aristotle's opinions on proper recognition in his Poetics have biased the conversation and also suggests that if a contemporary audience did indeed attend to the unnaturalness of Xenophon's recognitions, it may have read them as a kind of parody of traditional recognitions seen elsewhere. The chapter concludes with an exploration of the passivity of many of the novelistic heroes and the common need in these narratives for a third party as an agent of recognition.

Next Montiglio attends to recognitions in Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon and Longus's Daphne and Chloe. Montiglio sees in Leucippe and Clitophon a novel that playfully challenges novelistic stereotypes with characters seemingly aware of novelistic conventions. Recognitions therein often undercut novelistic clichés—lovers fail to recognize each other's voices, episodes of misidentification pile up, and the novel itself ends without the usual consummation of lovers' desires. Here Montiglio sees particular influence from New Comedy.

Daphnis and Chloe, Montiglio argues, is also particularly influenced by comedy, especially Menander. As in many comedies, the identities of the characters of Longus's novel are kept hidden from the reader as well as from the characters themselves. Recognition is ultimately tied to the erotic awakening of the principals: Eros is the divine force that guides the narrative arc; it is also aided by comic patterns routinely seen in Plautus and Menander: namely, that lowly characters who are about to reclaim their true, elite status still appear as beautiful and well-educated before their recognition Attractiveness and erudition go hand-in-hand with social position. Daphnis and Chloe also displays its reliance on comic models and its distinction from other novels in scenes of recognition and a rare reconciliation between principals and rivals (as we see in Plautus's Rudens) .

Following this Montiglio devotes a chapter to Heliodorus's novel alone; for her, the Aethiopica is arguably the most complex and layered of the extant novels. Recognitions in this novel are full of allusions to Homer, Aristotle, Euripides, and New Comedy (among others) and are concerned, more than in the other novels, with the hermeneutic issues and linguistic barriers involved in their unfolding. Aethiopica, unlike novels in which recognitions occur serendipitously, presents characters who continually misinterpret tokens and carefully weigh evidence before acknowledging the identity of others. At a glance it may seem that this quality would make the Aethiopica more realistic than other novels, but Montiglio shows that Heliodorus, in stressing the visual and theatrical nature of recognitions—the main thrust of which is simply to dazzle the spectator/audience—, presents characters that are mainly "tragic" in their aspect and deliberately distanced from the more comic types we see in, say, Daphnis and Chloe. Overall the Aethiopica contains many competing notions of recognition, for instance the instinctual "call of blood" which aids recognition and the Platonic notion that true love is not discovery but rediscovery; but despite this situation, Montiglio argues that Heliodorus's recognition scenes are comparatively more smoothly woven into the fabric of the narrative than in other Greek novels.

Next Montiglio moves on to the Roman novel, beginning with a section on Petronius's Satyrica, brief since the novel as we have it contains few recognition scenes. Montiglio attends to the recognition of Encolpius by Lichas (Satyrica 105), accomplished by Lichas's grabbing of Encolpius's genitals, and argues that what we have here is a kind of inversion of recognitions found in the Greek novels. In Petronius, recognition brings pain, not happiness and thus principals in the novel try to avoid being recognized. Like the Greek novels, Satyrica is full of allusions to epic and tragedy—Montiglio argues that the Lichas/Encolpius scene is a dark riff on the recognition between Odysseus and Eurycleia—but rather than use them to raise the tone of the narrative, Petronius employs them to undercut, invert, and mock. Apuleius, too, shows little interest in recognition scenes despite borrowing many thematic features from the Greek novel. Broadly, the Golden Ass adheres to a kind of recognition—reunion—return structure seen in other novels, but as in Petronius, recognitions in the Golden Ass are not synonymous with better fortune or homecoming; in fact, the opposite occurs—when Lucius is, as an ass, discovered or recognized as it inevitably leads to suffering. As Montiglio puts it, "Recognitions are among the ways cruel Fortune forestalls his plans of escape" (177).

Even when Lucius does escape into the arms of Isis his hermeneutic problems continue: he shifts from being an "underinterpreter" (e.g his gullibility and naïvete prevent him from seeing the dangers of magic or recognizing the thrust of cautionary tales along the way) in Books 1-10 to an "overinterpreter" (e.g. seeing meaning and direction in vision and dreams where there may be none) in Book 11. Because Lucius never recognizes events or people for what or who they truly are we and because Apuleius throughout seems to undercut the typical role of recognitions in the Greek novels, we ought, Montiglio argues, to see Lucius as a dupe rather than a saved, blessed Isiac convert.

The book concludes with a look at early Jewish and Christian narratives, Apollonius of Tyre, Joseph and Aseneth, and the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions in particular. In these Montiglio uncovers many thematic and structural links shared with the Greek novels, although noting that in these texts recognitions tend to be built around autobiographical narratives and to privilege familial relationships rather than the reunion of lovers. Because of the religious sheen of these narratives, recognition is inextricably wrapped up with conversion. In Joseph and Aseneth, the discovery of love does not bring about recognition but rather leads to a spiritual crisis for Aseneth; this ultimately fosters conversion, which then leads to true change, reunion, and understanding of her own identity. Recognition has a distinct moral element, often presented not as serendipity but rather as a reward for goodness.

In the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, narrative recognitions are given even more prominence than in the Greek novels, but here the key to recognition is understanding one's family history. Gone are the usual tokens acknowledged by separated lovers: recognitions point the principals in a vertical, heavenly direction rather than back to their geographical home. Gone also are the virtuous lies and disguises found in the Greek novels; in their place we find a narrative in which a change in dress is not meant (primarily) to deceive but rather indicates spiritual transformation. For example, in Acts of Paul Thecla dresses as a man in order to renounce her identity as an earthly woman and also as a "symbol of sacred initiation" (223) into the mysteries of Christ.

Montiglio's monograph is a useful, exhaustively researched piece of scholarship and a welcome addition to the growing body of work on the ancient novel. This text will help dispel lingering doubts concerning the legitimacy of the ancient novel's place in the canon of worthy works from Greco-Roman antiquity. While there has been an explosion of scholarship on the novel in the last 30 years or so (particularly on Apuleius) there still seems (at least to me) a sense that the Greek novels are something of a neglected step-child. Using recognition scenes as an interpretive springboard, Montiglio deftly demonstrates how richly layered and markedly different these works are, even with plots and characters which, at a glance, appear extraordinarily similar to one another. By teasing out the myriad allusions to Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Menander, and Plautus (among others) Montiglio roots the ancient novels firmly and broadly in the entire tradition of Greco-Roman literature while at the same time demonstrating the striking originality of the ancient novelists. These are works that do not float free of tradition, but rather continually look back, tweak, riff, and are a link in the chain of narrative influence which stretches back to Homer and forward to the present day.

Montiglio's book, like the best scholarship, invites more scholarship. I conclude with a few observations as to where future work might go in light of this monograph.

• Montiglio rarely raises issues of historical context and readership (though do see pp. 71, 79, 156, and 210- 211). Dating the novels is notoriously difficult, but perhaps an extension of her discussion of a dialogue between novels (chapters 2 and 3) could help answer long-standing questions.
• The dizzying mix of tragic and comic themes raises questions concerning the original reception or interpretation of the novels. Who were these novels written for? Were they ever intended to transmit a serious religious or philosophical message? Does the appearance of the novels indicate a watering down or elevation of education standards or literary tastes in antiquity? An application of Montiglio's findings and say, Graverini's recent work on serio-comic readings of Apuleius 1 would prove most interesting.
• The Epilogue certainly gives a number of suggestions for an examination of recognition scenes beyond the classical moment, but I imagine that much of Montiglio's argument and discoveries would also fruitfully apply to narrative studies of the New Testament and the various Lives of the Saints. 2
• I noticed only one typo—p. 111: "This be" ought to be "Thisbe".


1.   Graverini, L. 2007. Le metamorfosi di Apuleio: Letterature e identità. Ospedaletto, Italy: Pacini Editore. Montiglio cites this work for other purposes but does not engage the line of inquiry suggested above.
2.   I imagine an application of Montiglio's arguments and findings to works such as Ramelli, I. 2007. "The Ancient Novels and the New Testament: Possible Contacts," Ancient Narrative 5, 41-68 or Brandt, J. 2005. Ancient Fiction: the Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. For example, how might readings of Mary Magdalene's or Thomas' recognition of Christ (John 20:11-29) or Paul's concealment and then revelation of his identity as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29) play out along the lines of Montiglio's arguments?

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