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Xenophon of Ephesus' Ephesian Tale and the Greek Romantic Novel
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Background Material

For a useful plot summary, visit the Petronian Society Ancient Novel WWW site.

For bibliography on the ancient novel, see the relevant section of the course bibliography.

General Evaluation

Xenophon's novella (dated to sometime in the late first or the second century AD) is by far the least sophisticated of the surviving Greek romantic novels. It offers a "Perils of Penelope"-type story of two lovers who are separated, face a series of threats to their lives and their "virtue," but eventually come to be reunited and to live happily ever after.

So far as structure goes, the tale has none: Xenophon presents a shaggy dog story of loosely connected incidents and episodes that could, in theory, be expanded ad infinitum — particularly given that the author is not one to baulk at reusing a convenient plot device. (Count, e.g., the number of times people in this tale come to be shipwrecked, or the number of Anthia's captors who fall madly in love with her but somehow fail to consumate their desires.)

Nor does the author worry overly much about motivation or logic: the characters' various decisions often seem to be dictated by the requisites of the complex plot, or by Xenophon's desire to introduce new material into his tale via a shift in locale.

For all of its weaknesses, however, the Ephesian Tale provides a useful context against which to read Petronius' Satyricon. Like the writers of ancient romance, Petronius relates an elaborate and loosely connected tale, in prose, dealing with the various adventures of young lovers who are compelled to confront a number of challenges and dangers, often erotic in nature. As in the traditional romances, his protagonists become involved with a number of other characters along the way, each of which introduces his or her own history, often in the form of a rather lengthy tale.

There are important differences, of course. With some exceptions, the protagonists of the traditional romance are virtuous and idealistic figures who struggle successfully to maintain their honor, despite the many challenges and temptations thrown their way. The interest in their tales generally lies, not in the protagonists themselves (who are, for the most part, rather blandly tedious in their virtue), but in the exciting, colorful, and exotic incidents that make up their stories. In this sense, the typical Greek romance is not unlike the play, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, initially proposed by the young Will Shakespeare in Tom Stoppard's Shakespeare in Love: "It's a crowd tickler. Mistaken identities, shipwreck, a pirate king, a bit with a dog, and love triumphant!" [FN 1].

The connection here is not accidental. Shakespeare did in fact compose such romances: note, e.g., Pericles, Prince of Tyre and compare the plot of the ancient romance of Apollonius, King of Tyre (below).

What is interesting about Romeo and Juliet is the manner in which it toys with the audience's expectations. While modern audiences watch this play thinking that they will be viewing a work of high tragedy with a suitably woeful conclusion, many in the original audience would have been uncertain about the outcome. A significant number of the original viewers might well have expected a happy ending along the lines of that in the quite similar episode at Xenophon 3.4-8.

Clearly, Petronius' protagonists, and the nature of their adventures, differ in some rather significant ways from those of the traditional romance, although he too offers disguised identities, shipwrecks, pirates, and — yes — a bit with a dog.

Xenophon probably composed his tale a century or more after Petronius' death, but the genre of the Greek romantic novel was well established in Petronius' day. Papyrus fragments indicate that it was developed in the Hellenistic period, and a number of similar works survive, most of them dating a good deal later than Petronius' day.

For the fragments, see:

The most important of the surviving romantic novels (with approximate dates of composition) are:

General Cast List


Secondary Characters:

Principal Minor Characters:


[FN 1] Note that the Ephesian Tale also has a pirate's daughter (2.2ff.) and even a bit with some dogs (4.6 and 5.2)! [Return to text]

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