Christianism logo image


Subjects (abstracts): Fiction as History, Nero to Julian

from: Fiction as History, Nero to Julian, G.W. Bowersock, U. California, 1994.

[found serendipitously, 5/10/97, U.C.S.D. bookstore].

'I share very much the opinion of Keith Hopkins in a recent article: "SERIOUS HISTORIANS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD HAVE OFTEN UNDERVALUED FICTION, if only...because by convention history is concerned principally with the recovery of truth about the past. But for social historyfor the history of culture, for the history of people's understanding of their own societyFICTION OCCUPIES A PRIVILEGED POSITION" (Past and Present 138 [1993], 6 [12]).' [Preface].

"If we step back to take a broader view of the FICTIONAL PRODUCTION OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, it becomes apparent that this vast output encompassed four major types: fantastic tales, Homeric revisionism, tragic or romantic novels, and comic or satiric novels. These types were not necessarily exclusive. Homeric revisionism could easily accommodate tragedy or romance, and so could the fantastic or miraculous tales. Some fictions proclaimed their character openly, and some did not. It was, as Celsus [2nd century] and Origen [ c. 185 - c. 254] discovered, often very difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially when an author had, either seriously or playfully, adopted a pose of historical veracity. All this had, as is often observed, many and varied antecedents in the classical literature and traditions of earlier centuries—in epic, in drama, in mythography, in travelers' tales, and perhaps even in a few romantic narratives about famous legendary characters such as Ninus and Semiramis or the biblical Joseph and Asenath.44" ["44. ....On Joseph and Asenath, see Stephanie West, "Joseph and Asenath: A Neglected Greek Romance," CQ 24 (1974), 70—81."] [21-22].

"The beginning of the MASSIVE PROLIFERATION OF FICTION can be assigned pretty clearly to the reign of the emperor Nero [(37 - 68) reign: 54 - 68], in the MIDDLE OF THE FIRST CENTURY OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA." [22].

PAGE 360


Among the most conspicuous features of the fiction of the Roman empire, not only the prose romances but the mythological confections as well, is resurrection after death in the original body. Much of the time the resurrection is explained by theatrical and often bloody deaths that turn out not to have been deaths at all. The Scheintod, as the Germans call it, the "apparent death," allows for all the excitement and tragedy of extinction and resurrection without unduly straining the credulity of the reader. The German scholar Erwin Rohde [1845 - 1898], whose interpretations of the Greek novel must even now command respect, identified the earliest appearance of apparent death and resurrection in the novel The Wonders beyond Thule by Antonius Diogenes ["second or third century"]. Rohde was perhaps the first to see that, after [?] the work of Diogenes, Scheintod ["apparent death"] and RESURRECTION BECAME AMONG THE MOST BELOVED OF THEMES IN THE GREEK ROMANCES.I' [99].

'Frank Kermode also turned to the Bible, and in particular to the New Testament, to develop a sophisticated analysis of novelistic elements in the Gospels.4 He argued that the problem of historical truth is so elusive in the Gospel narratives that those accounts are better viewed simply as fiction with a semblance of truth. The meaning and, obviously, the inspirational value of works of this kind do not depend upon their historical veracity, although apprehension of that meaning nonetheless does depend upon a provisional or temporary belief in their veracity. This is, in Kermode's words, a "BENIGN [NOT BENIGN!] DECEIT" that readers even today continue to countenance. "How far we do so," observes Kermode, "because of the saturation of our culture by the Gospels and traditional interpretations one need not try to say."5' [123].

"Both [Northrop] Frye and Kermode, from their separate literary perspectives, offer something like a solution to the dilemma posed by [Arnaldo] Momigliano, even though Momigliano wrote later than they did. THE MATERIAL IN THE GOSPEL NARRATIVES, AS WELL AS IN THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES, CONSTITUTED A KIND OF NARRATIVE FICTION IN THE FORM OF HISTORY (...[3 Greek words], as Julian [c. 331 - 363 (Roman emperor 361 - 363)] was to say)6 that was essentially new to the Graeco-Roman world." [123].

"4. F. Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative


5. Ibid. 122.

6. Julian, Epist. 89b, 301b (Bidez)." [123].

[See: Julian, #2, 29, 172.].

PAGE 361

"PARALLELS IN FORM AND SUBSTANCE BETWEEN THE WRITINGS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT AND THE FICTIONAL PRODUCTION OF THE IMPERIAL AGE ARE TOO PROMINENT TO BE EITHER IGNORED OR DISMISSED AS COINCIDENTAL. Both Celsus [2nd century], in his attack on the Christians, and Origen [c. 185 - c. 254], in his defense of them, recognized the similarities, particularly, as we have seen, where apparent miracles—such as the open tomb or resurrection of the dead—were at issue.7 It is, furthermore, a plain fact of chronology that the distinctive fictional forms of the Roman empire begin, on present evidence, no earlier than the reign of Nero [(37 - 68) reign: 54 - 68] and proliferate conspicuously soon thereafter. To be sure, antecedents of this fiction, such as the Homeric tales, Ctesias's Persian fantasies, Xenophon's Cyropaideia, Hellenistic travel literature, and the lost lubricities of the short Milesian tales, serve to identify some of the scattered elements that the imperial writers assimilated, brought together, and transformed in order to create what, on any accounting, was a wholly new phenomenon in Graeco-Roman literature.8" [124].

"8. For antecedents, see, for example, B.E. Perry, The Ancient Romances: A Literary-Historical Account of Their Origins (1967), or the more recent and more sophisticated book by B. P. Reardon, The Form of Greek Romance (1991). For possible Eastern antecedents, G. Anderson, The Novel in the Graeco-Roman World (1984)." [124].

[See: Fiction in Antiquity, #1, 1-16 passim; #2, 29-32, 36-37 (complicity)].

PAGE 362