Classical Literature

Richard Jenkyns

March 16, 2016 
The following is from Richard Jenkyns’s Classical Literature. Richard Jenkyns is an emeritus professor of the classical tradition and the Public Orator at the University of Oxford. The author of many books, including Virgil's Experience and The Victorians and Ancient Greece, he lives in Oxford, England.

The ancient world did not practise the kind of literary realist novel that has been so important in western culture since the eighteenth century. The earliest work of prose fiction, as we have seen, was Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, but its historical mode did not attract other writers. Much later the Greeks developed the romance novel: in these stories a boy and girl fall in love, are separated, and endure hardships and adventures before the eventual happy ending; pirates, brigands, exotic travel, prison, torture and the threat of rape are the standard ingredients of these works. Five examples survive complete, dating from between the first and the third or fourth centuries ad. One of these, unusually short, has a gentleness and innocence that mark it out from the others. This is Longus’ Pastoral Tale of Daphnis and Chloe (late second or early third century), which retains a genuine if faintly anaemic charm. It is of great historical importance for bequeathing to later Europe the idea of pastoral romance in prose: it is, for example, the ancestor of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and Thomas Lodge’s Rosalind, which was in turn the model on which Shakespeare based As You Like It.

Shorter still, and entirely different in character, is perhaps the most imaginative and compelling work of prose fiction in Greek, from the late first century: the Revelation of John (of whom we know nothing beyond what we can learn from his book – certainly not the author of the fourth gospel), which became the last book of the Bible. For a fiction it is, an account of imaginary events supposedly experienced by the author himself, told in the first person, like Dante’s Divine Comedy. Its affinities are with Jewish apocalyptic writing, but it far surpasses the other examples known to us. We can also compare the Shepherd, a second-century Christian account of visions by a narrator who gives his name as Hermas – much more pallid and discursive. It is notoriously difficult to describe convincingly a world beyond death, and especially to describe paradise. John’s brilliant insight was to focus on God himself and the act of worship, so that the minds of the inhabitants of heaven are directed not to their own bliss, but outwards, towards another. The eschatological horrors in the centre of the work are its most famous part, but even more remarkable is the final picture of the new Jerusalem descending from above, a vision of irradiated peace and joy. The travel of the story towards the light of an ultimate revelation or consummation is hardly to be matched elsewhere in classical literature (and seldom perhaps at any time) outside one or two of its greatest works: the Iliad, for example, the Oresteia and the Republic.

Only two Latin novels survive, and only one complete, but each is a masterpiece and each is unique, like nothing much except itself. The first of these is Petronius’ Satyrica (the commonly used title Satyricon comes from a misunderstanding; it is a Greek genitive plural: X books ‘of Satyrica’). The title, ‘A Satyr-like Tale’, invites the expectation of raucousness, bawdy and sexual incontinence. The work appears to date from Nero’s time, and it is attractive to suppose that its author was the very Petronius who was famous as Nero’s ‘arbiter of taste’. Tacitus’ character sketch of this able and cynical voluptuary does not mention that he wrote anything, and if he was indeed the author of the Satyrica that silence becomes significant: the novel, that low genre, was below the dignity of philosophic history. But the question of authorship remains uncertain. One section, ‘Trimalchio’s Dinner’, survives complete, along with a few other quite substantial chunks. The novel may have been very long, in which case we have only a small part of the whole.

It is told in the first person by Encolpius, in whom are combined two types popular in the twentieth century but rare in antiquity, the anti-hero and the dodgy narrator: cultivated and sophisticated, he is also a parasite and thief, and his are the cold, clever eyes through which we view the action. The story seems to have charted his wanderings with his unfaithful catamite Giton and his rival Ascyltus (all three names are sexually suggestive). He has problems with impotence, and the plot seems to have him persecuted by the phallic god Priapus in parody of Odysseus’ persecution by Poseidon in Homer. Some, perhaps much, of the work was highly obscene, and the social comedy of Trimalchio’s dinner may have been an untypical part of it. Another character is the bad poet Eumolpus, but with the opportunism of farce Petronius allows him to tell the comically macabre story of the widow of Ephesus in dashing style. This is one of classical literature’s best short stories: in its ability to unfold a vivid tale, with a twist or two, in a small compass, it resembles the parable of the Prodigal Son, although in nothing else.

Trimalchio is a former slave who has become immensely rich. Petronius makes his wealth preposterously large: he contemplates buying land in Sicily so that he can travel from Naples to Africa entirely on his own property (one thinks of P. G. Wodehouse’s American tycoon, who had put in an offer for Kent and Sussex, and was waiting to see if it had been accepted). But Petronius is observant as well as fantastical, and as a rounded study of character Trimalchio is unique in ancient prose fiction. He is a mess of contradictions, but that is his nature; he wants to take up an attitude, but cannot decide which. At one moment he is harsh to his slaves, at another he takes the high-minded philosophical view that we heard from Seneca: slaves are human and have drunk the same milk as others. His confusion is illustrated by the silver skeleton that he has brought in: he declaims sentimentally about the littleness of man, while the expensive material asserts his importance. One should talk literature at dinner, he says, but the epitaph that he has written for himself is proudly philistine: ‘Virtuous, brave and true, he began humbly, left  thirty million sesterces, and never listened to a philosopher.’

Sometimes Petronius allows him to be wittier than he ought to be – unless we suppose that his wit is unintentional: dilating foolishly on astrology he remarks that those born under the sign of the ram have ‘a hard head, a shameless brow and sharp horns. Many professors are born under this sign . . .’ Mostly he is a comic butt: he is superstitious and mawkish, his puns are puerile and his showing-off vulgar: he uses a silver chamber-pot in public, and wipes his hands on a slave’s head. He has a hundred cups, he says, portraying ‘Cassandra’s dead children’ so skilfully ‘that you would think they were alive’. He craves affection: he has told his slaves that he means to free them in his will ‘so that my household may love me now as though I were dead’. Throwing his dog a bit of bread, he remarks, ‘No one in my house loves me more.’ Later, drunk and maudlin, he rehearses his funeral: his shroud is brought in, and lying on a heap of cushions he announces, ‘Pretend I’m dead. Say something nice.’ Encolpius finds Trimalchio nauseous and contemptible, but the modern reader is likely to find something endearing in him. What did Petronius intend? Maybe he wants us to disagree with the narrator, but maybe this is one of those cases where an author’s creative vitality has overridden his conscious design and produced something richer than he meant.

The story is also enlivened by the conversation of the humbler guests, fast, dour and gossipy. In some cases we do not know enough about colloquial speech to be sure whether a neat phrase is a cliché or a lively invention: ‘He has joined the majority’, for example, of a man who has died. Here we first meet the trope that Dickens was to give to Sam Weller: ‘“There’s bits like this and bits like that,” as the yokel said when he lost his spotted pig.’ Some of the talk is meant to be tiresome, although Petronius has the skill to make tediousness entertaining. One speaker seems precariously poised between sentimentality and an eloquent nihilism: ‘Dear, dear, we are but walking bladders. We are worth less than flies . . . no more than bubbles.’ Encolpius and the others think him a bore, and yet an expressive bleakness remains, as in Trimalchio’s own story of seeing the Sibyl hanging in a bottle, who when the children asked her what she wanted, answered, ‘I want to die.’

The Satyrica is not wholly without literary ancestry. Horace had satirized the preposterous dinner-party, and Juvenal was to do so again; and it may have owed something to Menippean satire. Essentially, though, it seems completely original. There is ice at the heart of it; perhaps we can call it satire, but satire tends to have a moral standpoint, and Petronius is rumbustiously averse to all that. We should keep the airbrush away from him: the Satyrica may be unique among the larger works of antiquity in its ferocious indifference to propriety.


The only Latin novel to have come down to us entire is the Golden Ass of Apuleius, who was born in Madauros, in what is now Algeria, around ad 125. Other works of his remain, notably the Apology, a vivid, learned and eccentric speech in his own defence against a charge of magic, and Florida, a collection of showy extracts from his declamations. But his ticket to immortality is the novel which he probably called Metamorphoses, though the more familiar name was in use by the fourth century.

The basic plot comes from a lost Greek story, of which an abridged version survives: when a magic experiment goes wrong, the narrator, Lucius, is turned into a donkey and undergoes many vicissitudes before eventually resuming human form. Much of the work consists of stories told by the people whom he encounters: the longest of these, the tale of Cupid and Psyche, takes up a fifth of the novel. At the end, Apuleius departed entirely from his model: after coming back to human shape, Lucius sees a vision of the goddess Isis, passes through a mystic initiation, and takes up residence in the temple of Isis in Rome as a kind of monk.

The work begins at speed, and in the middle of a sentence: ‘But I will weave together varied tales for you . . .’ We seem to be accosted by a huckster, who presses us to look at his Egyptian papyrus. This speaker then explains that he is a Greek, later self-taught in Latin, which is why his lingo may sound peculiar. But this is of course a feint, and he is soon comparing his art to that of the circus rider who leaps from one horse to another – a stylistic virtuoso, in other words. Tacitus and Apuleius are indeed the two greatest masters of Latin prose style, and each developed a highly idiosyncratic manner, but they could hardly be more unlike. Tacitus is terse and asymmetrical, Apuleius symmetrical and effusive. He liked loosely hanging clauses, echoing phrases, rocking rhythms and hints of rhyme. His diction is a unique farrago of archaisms, colloquialisms, new coinages and sheer fantastication; his narrative combines driving energy with elusive beauty. Comedy and mannerism combine: when Lucius asks a cackling crone for directions, she replies with a bad joke, but he proceeds, straight-faced, with elaborate orotundity: ‘Jesting put aside, my good old lady, tell me, pray, what manner of man he is and in what abode he lodges.’ And when he falls for a feisty slave girl as she stirs the stew in a seductive manner, the picture is both charming and absurd. Counterpointing the adventure are brilliant setpiece descriptions: winged statues that seem to be in flight, with a mossy grotto behind them, filled with glowing shadow; a head of hair, glistening gold in the light and shaded the colour of honey.

Apuleius delivers the entertainment that he promises at the outset, and yet much of the work is sombre or grotesque. The ass is constantly beaten, cudgelled and subjected to all sorts of dangers and indignities, including the threat of castration and being forced to copulate in his animal form with women. People are drenched in urine or spattered with excrement; many of the characters, the virtuous as well as the wicked, die in gruesome ways. Sex and sanctity, coarseness and refinement, horror, bawdy and romance are strangely blended, the whole held together by the verve of the style and the storytelling.

In the tale of Cupid and Psyche, Apuleius becomes even more rococo, exquisite and enchanting. Incongruously, the story is related by an old woman who is cook to a gang of bandits; we can compare the incongruous melodiousness with which Proteus tells of Orpheus and Eurydice in Virgil’s Georgics. Here he achieves an extraordinary fusion of different tones. On one level this is a fairy-story: ‘In a certain country there were a king and queen,’ it begins. Sure enough, Psyche is the youngest and loveliest of their three daughters, and she has two wicked sisters, like Cinderella. On another level, this is a myth in the style of Plato: the union of psyche, ‘the soul’, with cupido, ‘bodily desire’. It is also a romance in the fashion of the Greek novels, in which the heroine undergoes many sufferings before everything eventually comes right. It also contains comedy in the Ovidian manner, with goddesses behaving as though constrained by the etiquette of modern society.

In the middle of the story Psyche is visited nightly by an unseen lover, who warns her that she must never try to look upon him; if she disobeys she will never see him again. But, led astray by her sisters, she purposes to kill him, brings a lamp to the bedside and beholds the god Cupid. There follow perhaps the most sheerly beautiful sentences ever written in Latin prose, a translator’s despair, but it may be worth trying a fairly literal version:

She sees the festive tresses of his golden head drunken with ambrosia, the clusters of ringlets that roam over his milky neck and rosy cheeks beauteously trammelled, some hanging a little before, some hanging a little behind, at whose excess of brilliance, flashing like lightning, the very light of the lamp wavered. Along the shoulders of the flying god dewy feathers glisten, their flower sparkling, and although his wings are settling to rest, the ends of the featherlets, tender and delicate, wanton restlessly in tremulous dance.

This is indeed a bravura display, a cadenza of gorgeous euphuism, inebriated, like Cupid’s hair, with its own beauty. For ‘hanging before’ and ‘hanging behind’ Apuleius invents a couple of words, antependulus and retropendulus; and decoriter, the word here translated ‘beauteously’, is also unique to him. But there is more here than surface show: Apuleius is looking hard. The feathers flower, the flowers twinkle, the twinkle is dewy: the language is both fantastic and precisely observed. It searches for details, such as the tiny flicker of movement at the edges of the down. Psyche’s enraptured gaze brings us to the story’s erotic climax, and yet it fixes itself not on something sexual, or even human, but on feathers. So physical desire is both glorified and transcended: human passion, natural beauty and divine epiphany become one. This is, astonishingly, one of Latin literature’s most religious moments. And it is sacramental: a curl of hair and the moistness of a feather are both intensely present in their material reality and by the same token the means by which the god’s supernatural numen is revealed.

Scholars have been puzzled by the last part of the novel – in which Lucius is spiritually transformed – because it is supposedly so much at variance with the rest of the work. Perhaps the problem is more one for critics than for readers: the Golden Ass resembles the Georgics in having an ending which is quite different from what has gone before and yet is strangely satisfying. In any case the change of outlook may be less than is often said. Apuleius does not revel in the bawdy side of his story as Petronius does: for all his brio, the narrative has a dark colour, and we emerge at the end into a great light. And if we have appreciated the religiousness that is part of the exceptional fusion of tones that he has brought to the tale of Cupid and Psyche, we may feel that Lucius’ conversion has been in a way prepared. The procession in honour of Isis, in the earlier part of the last book, is exuberant and carnivalesque; religion and hilarity can still walk hand in hand. This leads on to Lucius’ mystic revelation and spiritual transformation. It is unique as an account of religious conversion within a pagan cult; hitherto, Christianity apart, the conversion experience had only been available, so far as our evidence allows, to a philosophical allegiance, as with Lucretius. Apuleius may have been imitating the Christians; or maybe we have here a glimpse into a realm of pagan religious experience otherwise hidden from us. But from wherever he drew his material, he created a style, a tone, a world, that are all his own.


From CLASSICAL LITERATURE. Used with permission of Basic Books. Copyright © 2016 by Richard Jenkyns.

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