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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Ethiopian Story


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To purchase Ethiopian Story

Title: Ethiopian Story
Author: Heliodorus
Genre: Novel
Written: ca. 230
Length: 295 pages
Original in: ancient Greek
Availability: Ethiopian Story - US
Ethiopian Story - UK
Ethiopian Story - Canada
Les Éthiopiques - France
Die Abenteuer der schönen Chariklea - Deutschland
  • Greek title: Αιθιοπικά
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Sir Walter R.M. Lamb (1961)
  • Αιθιοπικά has been translated into English numerous times, including by Thomas Underdowne (1587), Nahum Tate (1686), Rowland Smith (1855), and Moses Hadas (as An Ethipian Romance, 1957)

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Our Assessment:

A- : diverting and appealing

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Heliodorus' Ethiopian Story is among the few surviving novels written in ancient Greek (along with, e.g. Chariton's Callirhoe). Nearly 1800 years have passed since it was written, but is has aged well, remaining far more approachable than many more recent 'classics'.
       The novel begins with a remarkable scene, a thriller-opening that wasn't equaled until many centuries later, as a group of brigands come across a moored merchant ship. It hasn't been plundered yet, but:

The shore was thickly strewn with newly slain bodies, some quite lifeless, and others half dead whose limbs were still aquiver, thus indicating that the conflict had only just ceased.
       The only survivors appear to be an injured youth and a young woman:
so inconceivably beautiful as to convince one that she was a goddess.
       She is Chariclea, and he is Theagenes, the star-crossed lovers whose adventure-story this is.
       Before the brigands have an opportunity to figure out what's going on they spot another, larger group approaching, and so they grab what they can -- including Chariclea and Theagenes -- and make a run for it.
       Ethiopian Story then unfolds in both past and present, as it is slowly revealed -- by them and others -- how Chariclea and Theagenes came to this beach scene, and as their adventures continue, are repeatedly captured, imprisoned, and freed.
       The wondrous Chariclea has a past even she is not aware of, as her mother sent her away shortly after her birth to be raised by others, a secret hidden in the swathe the infant was found with (and only much later decoded). She was raised by Charicles, the priest of Apollo at Delphi -- who wanted to eventually marry her off to his nephew, but:
she has renounced marriage, and is intent on remaining a virgin all her life; and having devoted herself as a ministrant to Artemis she spends most of her time in hunting and practising archery.
       All that changes as soon as she sets eyes on Theagenes (who also: "had spurned all women, and marriage itself" until he saw her) -- but getting them together, and to safety is no easy task, and even as they make it out of Delphi, that's only the beginning of their adventures, which bring them to the beach of the opening scene and then into several additional dangerous and difficult situations.
       Matters are further complicated by Chariclea's insistence that she remain pure until they can get properly married; they have a hard time keeping their hands off one another, and Chariclea does have to remind Theagenes of his oath a few times, making for quite a bit of sexual tension. To fool others, and to be able to stay together even in captivity they also have to pretend to be brother and sister -- which brings with it the complication that men think the ravishing Chariclea is up for grabs. But it's not just her: there's also, for example, Arsace, who has her eyes on Theagenes and:
was given to a disreputable way of life, abandoning herself to illicit and dissolute pleasure
       Their story gets fairly convoluted -- as Chariclea acknowledges:
A plot, whose beginnings have been laid out by the deity with many complications, must needs be brought to its conclusion through detours of some length; and particularly where a great lapse of time has blurred the story, it is not clarified to advantage at one sharp stroke
       That, indeed, is Heliodorus' approach: detour-filled, making for a layering of stories and plot-lines. Still, by keeping the basic story-units fairly short and clear, it does fit and come together fairly well.
       Occasionally, Heliodorus falls back on the too-simple, as when Calasiris tells Chariclea:
I was informed of everything by the gods, and told her that you were alive and where you were
       But it's a testament to how (relatively) realistic so much else of the novel is that recourse to such super-natural elements stands out as a flaw.
       A final 'test of chastity' also takes things a bit far: a super-heated brazier (constructed of "a lattice of gold bars") on which only those who are innocent and pure can stand without coming to harm. Theagenes passes the test (and: "Everyone marvelled [...] that a man in the fresh bloom of his age should be without experience of the ways of Aphrodite"). Chariclea also sees it as an opportunity to prove herself (and get her man):
She loosened her hair and, like one possessed, ran forward and leapt upon the brazier. For a long time she stood there unharmed, flashing forth then the light of her beauty in yet greater brightness
       There's passionate love, a lot of lust, war, flight -- a heady mix, and moving mostly at breakneck speed. Ethiopian Story is rich in colourful detail, without ever going on too long about specifics. Descriptions are evocative but to the point, even regarding battlefield-scenes:
The spectacle was indeed a strange one: a vessel making a passage from one wall to another; a sailor voyaging over an inland tract; and a ferry-boat travelling over arable ground. War, ever productive of the new and strange, was then particularly and most unusually producing a marvellous event, in thus engaging marines in a conflict with wall defenders, and arming land troops against lake forces.
       Walter Lamb's translations is certainly adequate (Moses Hadas' appears to be too, from a quick look), though it's regrettable that there's no Loeb-edition of the text available yet -- and, after some four decades since the last translation, a new translation is probably due Still, even in this version, Ethiopian Story is a very good read -- and in many ways it's a strikingly modern tale (or at least way of telling).

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Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Heliodorus (Ήλιόδωρος) was a Phoenician from Emesa (in what is now Syria), and his Αιθιοπικά is among the first novels ever written.

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