Thoughts on Novel Writing in Antiquity

Let's looks at Levos from a new angle! SFU PhD Student, Ethan Schmidt, shared his thoughts on the novel Daphnis and Chloe by Longos and on Lesvos in Antiquity.

Daphnis and Chloe is a novel written in Greek in the second or third century C.E., by an otherwise unknown author called Longos, at a time when the eastern, Greek-speaking provinces of the Roman Empire experienced a renaissance of the literary arts inspired by classical Hellenism. Longos was probably a native of Lesbos given the setting of this charming tale, and the obvious knowledge of and feeling for the environment and beauty of the island displayed in the novel. The novel follows the romance of the eponymous characters as they slowly discover eros amid changing seasons and the rhythms of the agricultural calendar in a blooming countryside on the border between the territories of the poleis of Mytilene and Methymna.

The tale opens as the narrator, while on a hunting trip, encounters a painted depiction of the novel’s story on the walls of a sanctuary of the Nymphs. Local villagers interpret the story for him as he records their account in writing. Their story begins many centuries earlier, in an ill-defined pre-Roman past, with the discovery, two years apart, of an abandoned infant boy and an infant girl in the vicinity of a village belonging to an absentee landlord from Mytilene. Each child is richly adorned with tokens indicated aristocratic origins. What is more both are suckled by a domestic animal (a she-goat in Daphnis’ case, an ewe in Chloe’s) and each is taken in by kindly peasant couples who raise them as their own. Upon reaching adolescence, having grown up tending their flocks together in the lush landscape, they begin to develop strong romantic feelings for each other, though, being inexperienced in such matters, they only discover the nature of sex and love gradually, by trial and error. Here they are assisted by sympathetic,humorous characters such as the old man Philetas who dispenses sage advice. There is also Lykainion, the lusty, city-bred, young wife of a wealthy-farmer, to whom Daphnis loses his virginity. Not all is easy though. Hardships and obstacles intrude into this pastoral idyll. The demands of seasonal labor, the pain of extended separation from each other during a harsh winter, various jealous romantic rivals, and attempted abductions by pirates and other seaborne marauders drive the storyline. At one point, an unfortunate misunderstanding involving a party of Methymnian youths on a pleasure cruise nearly leads to Daphnis’ enslavement and war between the two principal cities of the island. The story itself of pleasure cruises by Methymnians in the Gulf of Kaloni tells us a lot about the boundaries of Methymna’s one time authority on the island.In any case , helpful friends and the beneficent protection of the nymphs and the gods of the wild ensure a happy ending, in which Daphnis and Chloe are reunited with their birth-families in Mytilene, marry, return to the countryside, and have children which are themselves suckled partly by their extensive herds domestic animals. They also use some of their newfound wealth to adorn the aforementioned sanctuary of the nymphs with numerous dedications as memorials to their love and to the numinous power of the rustic divinities who aided them.

Unlike the other ancient Greek novels which have survived; swashbuckling, episodic tales which involve the adventures of star-crossed lovers in exotic locales; Daphnis and Chloe is atmospheric and psychological, focusing on human relationships and grounding its story in a sense of place. Though it plays with conventions of the genre, including attacks by enemies, mistaken identities, and romantic jealousies, Daphnis and Chloe, more so than other examples of romantic prose fiction surviving from antiquity, is a self-consciously literary creation. Blending pastoral with novelistic elements, and extensive descriptions of the beauties of the natural world with a cast of characters inspired by the genteel satire of Athenian New Comedy, Longos paints the Lesbian countryside as a paradisiacal region far from urban realities, in which innocence, love, beauty, and artistic inspiration may be found, if one only seeks them . It is, ultimately, an idealized, escapist, fantasy projected by an urban literatus onto the rural landscape in an imagined classical past. Yet it also displays empathy for its characters, who emerge as complex individuals with internal lives, rather than two-dimensional stereotypes of rural people. There is also a sensitivity to social relations, particularly the vulnerability of the enslaved (Daphnis and his family are technically the property of an absentee landlord who turns out to be his birth father), the subtle gradations in status which would have defined such rural communities, the differences between urban and rural life, and the degree to which human beings are capable of mutual compassion and redemption.

Critically, Daphnis and Chloe not only represents a literary source to supplement our knowledge of ancient Lesbos, but also a window into the place the Island occupied in the imagination of a Greco-Roman gentleman of the second or third century CE. Apparently to Longos’ audience, wealthy and verdant Lesbos was an appropriate place to set such a pastoral romance, while the evocation of an imagined, pre-Roman era allowed them to feel a connection to their own past and a localized sense of place in a more-or-less globalized Roman world. As such, the novel speaks to several of the tensions we encounter when we study the history of the island; connection versus insularity and the contrast between an imagined, and often idealized, past and the discordant realities of the workaday present.

The featured image is by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Daphnis and Chloe, 1874, marble. Clark Art Institute, Acquired by the Clark, 2013.5