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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post forms part of my ‘aspects of the novel’ collection. Please do note that these entries, which may appear basic, are simply my own notes on the subject. They implicitly or explicitly describe a canon not of my own making or choosing and replicate this from various sources. The original encyclopaedia articles are far more comprehensive, nuanced and worth consulting. I am especially conscious, in this article, of the danger of causing offense by grossly simplifying a national history.

The earliest known piece of novelistic prose is the Old Aramaic Life of Ahiqar, which is among the Judaic papyri from Egypt under Iranian occupation (525-404 BCE). It exists on a palimpsest that records taxes on transimperial trade at Memphis. The story is set at the court of Esarhaddon (681-669 BCE) in Nineveh and records the fortunes of Ahiqar, a “wise and skillful scribe” who ascends to become counselor of Assyria and keeper of Esarhaddon’s seal.

Alongside the Life of Ahiqar sit several other ancient novels: Barlaam and Joasaph, the Life of Aesop, Kali lah wa-Dimnah, Joseph and the Aseneth, the Acts of Peter, the Seven Wise Masters, Apollonius of Tyre, and the Life of Pachomius. Perhaps the most significant other text, though, is the Alexander Romance. This text was, according to Selden (p. 41), the “single most popular narrative for roughly a millennium and a half” (which seems a very long time for a text to remain the singular most popular). The narrative features in the major sacred texts of Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and Jews from the period.

Also significant was Chariton Aphrodiseus’s Callirhoe from the first century CE. (It is unclear whether the author’s name is a pseudonym, but he is not attested to elsewhere.) The principle eponymous subject of this novel is the daughter of Hermocrates of Syracuse, a Greek commander who defended Sicily against Athenian assault (415-413 BCE).

Importantly, Selden (p. 46) tells us, “Ancient narratives had a precise historical function that resists incorporation into any homogenizing history of the novel.[…] the ancient novel aided readers in negotiating the political, economic, and ethnological complexities of the tributary regime, in particular its peculiar dialectic between the persistence of local communities under government protection and their concomitant negation by the apparatus of the state. Text networks on the scale of the Romance united readers across Eurasia without homogenizing them”. It is this geopolitical function of a uniting text network that manages to synthesize the universal and the particular that Selden most stresses in these ancient Western histories of the novel.

Further reading:

  • Adrados, Francisco R., ‘The “Life of Aesop” and the Origins of Novel in Antiquity’, Quaderni Urbinati Di Cultura Classica, 1 (1979), 93–112
  • Selden, Daniel L., ‘Ancient Narratives of the West’, in The Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 35–47