Tim Whitmarsh looks at a classic of Greek literature.

Michael Gove, the former Secretary of State for Education (and present Secretary of State for Housing), once notoriously claimed that children these days don’t know in which order ‘the Romans, the Egyptians or the Greeks’ came. The fallacy, of course, is that the Egyptians didn’t stop existing when the Greeks came along, nor the Greeks when the Romans did. Greek culture in particular has existed continuously (in different forms, naturally) from the first millennium BC through to the present day.

Classicists tend to focus their study on ‘classical’ Greeks. But what do we mean by the ‘classical’ period? If we are talking about the pre-Christian phase, when Greeks spoke ancient Greek, built temples to Olympian gods, lived in city-states, knew their Homer and Sophocles and so forth, then that era continued up to (at least) the fourth century AD. It may be surprising to learn that there is much more recognisably ‘classical’ Greek literature surviving from the second century AD than from any other period of antiquity. And this material is not obscure. There are some very famous names in the roll-call: the medical writer Galen, who dominated western and Arabic medicine until the 18th century; the mocking Lucian, so influential on modern satire; the biographer and philosopher Plutarch, who was foundational for Shakespeare, Dryden and Montaigne. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, one of the three texts the monster uses to learn to read is Plutarch’s Lives.

The Greek-speaking world was gradually subsumed into the Roman Empire from the second century BC onwards. After the future Augustus’ defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, the last remaining Greek-speaking territory became Roman. But the Romans did not enforce the speaking of Latin in the East; no doubt this would have been impossible, given how many more Greek speakers there were in the world, covering an area from north Africa to northern India. In a way, the consolidation of the Roman Empire under Augustus created a golden age of Greek literature. Elite Greeks could now travel relatively freely and safely over huge distances, and visit major intellectual hubs like Athens and Alexandria (in Egypt); they could access writing materials (principally Egyptian papyrus) easily; with reduced opportunities for military or political advancement, they could focus on ideas.

Michael Gove’s idea that Greek culture somehow disappeared when the Romans came along reflects a common conception, but it is entirely wrong. It is also relatively recent in origin: it is really a product of the ‘cancel culture’ of the late 19th century, when people began to talk of a ‘golden age’ of Greek literature and cut out anything that didn’t fit their narrow definitions.

For all the famous names among the Greek literary writers of the second century AD, one deserves to be much better known. This is Achilles Tatius, the author of a novel Leucippe and Clitophon. Leucippe and Clitophon was clearly an instant smash: we can gauge this from the number of fragments of ancient books that survive. We know of seven such books. Among non-Christian Greek authors of the Roman Empire, only Galen (again seven) and Plutarch (nine) can compete with Achilles. This is all the more impressive when we remember that these book fragments come from a single text of Achilles’, whereas Galen wrote somewhere between 150 and 300 texts, and Plutarch over 200. The impact of Leucippe and Clitophon can also be felt on later literature: not just on other Greek novels, but also on the epic poems of Nonnus and Musaeus. In mediaeval times, the poem continued to be widely read and copied by Christians — which is quite surprising, given that they also often commented on the immorality of its content.

But what is a ‘novel’? At one level, this label simply indicates a fictional story of a certain length, usually written in prose. Greeks and Romans did not have a word to correspond exactly to the modern ‘novel’ or ‘romance’, but they certainly wrote and voraciously consumed texts of this kind, particularly in the early centuries AD. The best-known examples these days are probably the Latin novels of Petronius (The Satyrica — turned into a memorable movie by Federico Fellini) and Apuleius’ Metamorphoses or Golden Ass, about the adventures of a man accidentally transformed into a donkey (a huge influence on modern novels in the ‘magic-realist’ vein). But over the course of history it is probably the Greek novels that have had the greater impact.

Five such Greek ‘novels’ survive complete from antiquity, all of which have enough shared traits to constitute a recognised ‘genre’. These all date to the period between the first and the fourth centuries AD. Along with these we have a large number of fragments of similar works that are now lost, as well as fictional texts that are more distantly related (including a Greek version of the Golden Ass story treated by Apuleius). What unites these stories is that they are all based around youthful, heterosexual love. Typically, two beautiful young people of aristocratic status meet, fall in love, get separated, overcome numerous obstacles (including love rivals), then get reunited at the end. Sounds cheesy and predictable? Well, maybe it is; and the authors seem to have known this. So they find all sorts of ways of enlivening their plots: through unforeseen twists, vivid emotional appeals, play with different media (there is an awful lot of description of works of art), irony, telling the story in the wrong order, and the like.

Leucippe and Clitophon was the novel that pushed these sophisticated techniques to the limit. In other Greek novels, the story is told by a detached ‘third-person’ narrator; here it is told by the male lead, Clitophon. This creates all sorts of opportunities for irony and play, because Clitophon is far from a morally ideal figure. He is petulant, opportunistic, prone to exaggeration, and blind to his own faults — and Achilles lets his readers see all of these failings clearly. He is also extraordinarily lustful, and insensitive to the needs of others, even his beloved Leucippe. In the first book, where he falls passionately for his cousin, he frets about whether she reciprocates his feelings — but it is not until half-way through Book Two that he lets her speak. When tragedy befalls members of his family, his only interest remains getting Leucippe into bed. His gay cousin’s boyfriend dies: Clitophon finds all the lamentation a bit absurd, and hurries off to find his beloved. His half-sister, to whom his father has betrothed him, is abducted by pirates — and his reaction is to feel a bit sad, but mostly relieved because it frees him up. For all this obsession with Leucippe, he later cheats on her with a beautiful widow from Ephesus. Clitophon is also quite clearly an unreliable narrator: he explicitly tells us that when he tells his story to others he reshapes it to make himself look better.

But as with all great works of fiction, there is much more going on than parodic subversion. Leucippe and Clitophon is the world’s first sympathetic analysis of the pressures of teenage love. In other Greek novels, the couple fall in mutual love in a couple of paragraphs. In this novel, that process takes up two out of the eight books. These books are set inside the house of Clitophon’s father Hippias, who has very strict ideas about gender segregation and arranged marriages. For all the one-sidedness of the first-person narration, it soon becomes clear that Leucippe, who has come to live in the house with her mother Pantheia, is just as frustrated and oppressed by parental expectations. As the illicit romance develops, Leucippe becomes entirely complicit: first of all she agrees to set up a nocturnal liaison with Clitophon in her bedroom; and when this is interrupted, she decides to escape the house with him, and take a chance on catching a ship to Alexandria. Subsequent events are tough on Leucippe — she is separated from Clitophon, and enslaved — but she remains faithful to him, and the two are eventually reunited. This kind of elopement, against the wishes of parents, would have been shocking in a culture in which the children of the elite were viewed as pawns in their parents’ games of dynastic matchmaking. But perhaps most extraordinarily of all, at the end of the novel Leucippe’s and Clitophon’s parents rejoice to rediscover them, and approve the match. Achilles Tatius’ novel is world literature’s first story that rejects arranged marriage, and fully endorses the right of teenagers to fall in love with whomever they wish.

For all these reasons it is an extraordinarily ‘modern’ novel. Even its language is more modern than other comparable texts written at the time, which tend to use more ‘classical’ forms: in places, Achilles’ Greek strikingly resembles the Greek spoken today. I suspect this innovative quality was a large part of the reason for its success in its contemporary culture. But there were other factors at play too. The tale is not just about sexuality. It is also about cultural identity. Clitophon is a Greek-speaking Phoenician (from the territory of modern Lebanon), and the action takes place in Phoenician, Egyptian and Anatolian (modern Turkish) settings. In other words, none of it is set in Greece as conventionally understood: this is very much an expression of the ‘international’ Greekness facilitated by the Roman Empire (even if the historical period in which the action is set remains vague throughout: there are no mentions of Romans).

More than that, it is a tale of endurance and loyalty in the face of adversity. This is what guaranteed it success in a world that was slowly becoming Christian. Christians loved stories about martyrs who faced suffering, trial and execution rather than renounce their beliefs. Leucippe and Clitophon are loyal to each other (well, sort of — in Clitophon’s case) rather than to any belief system, but the story works in the same way. Most of all, from a Christian point of view, they refrain from sex before marriage (even if they give it a good go). It is quite surprising that a raunchy love story became a classic in the Christian period, but it did: we have a poem written by a 9th-century bishop praising their fidelity and constancy. The ancient Life of Saint Galaction even claims that the holy man of the title was the son of Leucippe and Clitophon.

In the sixteenth century, Leucippe and Clitophon was rediscovered in western Europe, along with Heliodorus’ Charicleia and Theagenes: both texts were hugely influential, not just on Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser but also on the development of the modern novel. It was only in the nineteenth century that people stopped reading Achilles, and decided to focus more exclusively on Homer, tragedy and comedy. From the late 20th century onwards, however, more and more readers have rediscovered the Greek novels, along with their Latin counterparts: course on ancient novels flourish in university Classics departments across the world. If you haven’t yet explored this remarkable body of literature, why not give it a go? And in particular, do try out Leucippe and Clitophon, the neglected classic of classical literature.

Professor Tim Whitmarsh is A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture and Director of Studies at St John’s College Cambridge. His edition of the first two books of Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius was published in 2020 by Cambridge University Press.