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  • Xenophon of Ephesus: His Compositional Technique and the Birth of the Novel
  • Gareth Schmeling
J. N. O'Sullivan . Xenophon of Ephesus: His Compositional Technique and the Birth of the Novel.Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1995. xii + 215 pp. Cloth, DM 140, SFr 135, ÖS 1092. (Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, 44)

To those interested in the ancient novel the name of J. N. O'Sullivan is familiar from his A Lexicon to Achilles Tatius (1980), published in the same series as the book under review. We have come to expect good things from O'Sullivan, and we are not disappointed in this new book. Whole books devoted to Xenophon of Ephesus (hereafter Xenophon) are infrequent: we have earlier ones from Schissel von Fleschenberg (1909) and Schmeling (1980). The reasons for this paucity can be put simply: scholars think that as a novel it is not very interesting or revealing (but, since there are only five Greek novels and Xenophon's is short, it is always included in studies) and that the Greek is inelegant, repetitious, stereotypical, wooden, more transparent than subtle, and paratactical wherever possible. Scholars with a love for texts like pathologists for dead bodies have dissected the corpus of Xenophon (likewise that of the Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri) and declared it officially an epitome. A few recalcitrants (Hägg, Schmeling), however, have filed a minority opinion that the text is basically intact. Under Merkelbach's scalpel (Roman und Mysterium [1962] 91–113) the [End Page 660] Ephesiaca was discovered to have been written originally as an Isis–Roman (a thinly veiled story of the Isiac mysteries), then clumsily reworked by a devotee of the Sun–god Helios, and finally epitomized by yet another clumsy person. Thus it is not surprising that monographs on this novel are exceedingly few. It seems now, however, that many scholars might have been mistaken about the Ephesiaca, that its language, while not inspired, is not to be judged strictly on literary standards but also on those used to assess oral literature. And further, that Xenophon (or someone else by that same name) wrote the first of the Greek novels, and that Chariton, stripped of his title as "father of the novel," borrowed much from Xenophon—though it is admitted that Chariton refined what he imitated. O'Sullivan's conclusions are startling, perhaps even benign heresy, though the ancient novel mafia is rarely regarded anyway as orthodox (see Bowie and Harrison, JRS 83 [1993] 159–78).

Even at the risk of committing a serious biographical fallacy I feel compelled to point out three bits of information at the start: the first is obvious and reveals only that O'Sullivan has a long background of work in the novel; the next is that he is working on a Homeric dictionary and that his comparisons between the oral nature and the formulae of Homeric epics and the language of Xenophon, though at first blush unlikely, are well researched and argued (he will conclude later in the book that there are close connections between epic and the birth of the novel); and third that his Irish heritage has brought him into contact with O'Grady's Silva Gadelica, a collection of Irish tales in prose which derive from oral tradition. He thus mixes the unlikely concoction of one part Greek oral poetry of Homer with one part Greek of Xenophon by using the Irish tales as a kind of catalyst or as an anachronistic missing link, and concludes by comparing the oral nature of Homeric epic with that of Xenophon.

In his opening chapter O'Sullivan marshals strong forces to counter the received opinion which dates Xenophon after Augustus (4.2.1, reference to ) and even into the second century because of his reference to the irenarch of Cilicia, an office supposedly established after 116–117 (2.13.3 ). O'Sullivan needs to date Xenophon as early as possible because later he will try to show that Xenophon is the earliest extant Greek novelist and that Chariton (ca. A.D. 50?) borrowed from him.

O'Sullivan then moves on to Xenophon's critics, who usually have little good to say about...


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