In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Greek Novel

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Texts
  • Translations
  • Commentaries and Lexica
  • Dating and Titles
  • Cultural Context
  • Religion
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Literary Form
  • Narrative
  • Language and Style
  • Reception

Classics The Greek Novel
Tim Whitmarsh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0037


In the first century CE large-scale fictional works written in Greek prose began to appear, generally erotic and focusing upon invented figures and scenarios. The origins of what we have come to call the Greek novel or romance (the ancient world has given us no term for these texts) are murky. There are certainly elements of continuity with the Odyssey and stories in Herodotus (e.g., the Gyges and Candaules story). The near-total loss of early and mid-Hellenistic prose makes it impossible to trace the emergence of the form in the post-Classical period, although we certainly have some evidence for inventive narrative (e.g., Euhemerus’s Holy account, Iamblichus’s so-called Islands of the Sun, and the earliest strata of the Alexander romance), albeit in a form very different from the novel. What is more, our earliest texts (seemingly Chariton’s Callirhoe and/or the fragmentary Ninus) are not securely dated (see Dating and Titles): some have taken them to be late Hellenistic, although a majority of scholars now see them as early Imperial. Given the relative absence of Greek antecedents, some scholars have explained the novel as the result of influence from Egyptian or Near Eastern cultures (see Cultural Context). Origins apart, the novel quickly achieved a canonical form: a young girl and boy meet, fall in love, and are separated by circumstances and adventure, before being reunited at the end. Marriage is an ever-present feature, whether at the beginning (as in the earlier novels) or as the culmination (in those of the 2nd century and later). This is the form on which this survey focuses; other fictional texts from the era, such as the Life of Aesop, the Alexander romance and Lucian’s True stories, are beyond its scope. The Greek novel was influential on contemporary, Byzantine, Persian, and later European literature (see Reception). Unlike their Roman counterparts Petronius and Apuleius, the Greek novelists themselves are shadowy figures: some testimony survives (see Individual Works), but this seems to have been invented after the fact.

General Overviews

Most general volumes on the Greek novel also include material on the Roman novel (but nothing or relatively little on Near Eastern and early Christian fiction). Holzberg 1995 is a good general introduction; there is still much of value in Hägg 1983, but the characterization of the genre as middlebrow is not fashionable now. Schmeling 2003 gives up-to-date scholarly introductions to the individual novels and related texts, as well as some more general essays; see also Morgan and Stoneman 1994. The essays in Whitmarsh 2008 are more thematic and theoretical. Swain 1999 collects older, classic discussions. Tatum 1994 and Panayotakis, et al. 2003 also contain a variety of interesting discussions. Also notable is the journal Ancient Narrative, which publishes annually and also has a supplement series featuring both monographs and collections of essays.

  • Hägg, Tomas. 1983. The novel in antiquity. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    An important and lucid introductory account by one of the leading scholars in the field. One of its virtues is the emphasis upon the variety of fictional texts available in the ancient world, including the Alexander romance. Hägg’s view of the novel as a fundamentally “popular” genre is less widely held now, but far from dead.

  • Holzberg, Niklas. 1995. The ancient novel: An introduction. Translated by Christine Jackson-Holzberg. London: Routledge.

    A good, brief, general account for the beginner, with sections on each of the novels. Like Hägg, Holzberg is excellent on varieties of fiction, including fragmentary texts found on papyri.

  • Morgan, John Robert, and Richard Stoneman, eds. 1994. Greek fiction: The Greek novel in context. London: Routledge.

    A collection of essays by leading scholars in the field, emphasizing the wider literary context of the novels (with important essays on connections with Lucian, Dio, Philostratus, and Christian literature).

  • Panayotakis, Stelios, Maaike Zimmerman, and Wytse Keulen, eds. 2003. The ancient novel and beyond. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    A good collection of advanced-level scholarly essays by international experts.

  • Schmeling, Gareth L., ed. 2003. The novel in the ancient world. 2d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    An enormous collection of essays by experts, particularly valuable for its authoritative coverage of each of the individual texts. There are also (in the second edition) useful bibliographies and collections of online resources.

  • Swain, Simon, ed. 1999. Oxford readings in the Greek novel. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A collection of important, research-level essays written in the 1980s and 1990s, some appearing in English for the first time.

  • Tatum, James, ed. 1994. The search for the ancient novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    A collection of scholarly essays for advanced readers.

  • Whitmarsh, Tim, ed. 2008. The Cambridge companion to the Greek and Roman novel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A collection of essays by international experts on themes and contexts for the Greek and Roman novels. Intended for both students and scholars, and differing from Schmeling 2003 in its emphasis on ideas rather than texts.

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