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Fiction was rare in the ancient world. There are elements of it in Homer, while
in the 400s BC Xenophon wrote a fictional account of the upbringing of Cyrus, King
of Persia and there were some tales of separated lovers with narrow escapes and reunions,
populated by shallow characters. Tales were bawdy; when Aristides’ Milesian Tales
were found in Romans’ backpacks after the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC at Carrhae,
the victorious Persians were shocked.
Petronius Arbiter played it safe by writing fiction in Nero’s rule. His Satyricon
survives only in fragments; one tells how disreputable guests at the cena trimalchionis
(Trimalchio’s dinner) were subjected to the excessive showing-off by their freedman
host, Trimalchio. Other fragments include the racy tales of the WidowofEphesus
and the PergameneBoy. Despite being a friend of Nero’s, false accusations combined
with the emperor’s paranoia resulted in Petronius still ending up cast out and having
to commit suicide in AD 65 (the same year that Lucan and Seneca were also forced
Classical literature only continues to be produced as ‘safe’ literature. Harmless
compendiums and fiction (non-political satire) are written. Meanwhile, the early
Church begins to record its own story and beliefs ...
Aulus Gellius, born in the early 100s AD includes anecdotes amongst his snippets
of facts in his noctes Atticae, named after the Attic/Greek Nights that he spent
compiling his compendium for his children’s edification.
Lucian (AD c.115-c.190) took fiction writing to new heights. He has even been called
the first science fiction writer. Works like his Banquet, or The Auction of Lives
or Dialogues of the Dead have the gods and the heroes chatting, behaving appallingly,
and being judged as virtually worthless. His True History begins by warning the
reader that nothing he reads is real. A whirlwind takes him adventurers to the moon,
where its inhabitants are fighting those of the sun. They ride a giant whale, visit
strange fantasy cities and meet the ‘greats’ in this spoof of a multitude of poets,
historians and philosophers.
In Icaromenippus, his hero fits himself with eagles’ wings to fly to heaven to find
out for himself the truth, as philosophers cannot seem to agree. Jupiter is seen
listening through trapdoors to prayers, flummoxed by conflicting requests, and the
hero hears the gods decide that all philosophers are ‘useless drones’ who starve
the gods of their sacrifices/food and should be destroyed.
Lucius Apulieus’ novel, slightly later in the 100s AD, was to remain popular in many
future centuries. He begins his Metamorphosis (also called The Golden Ass) with
‘We’re about to embark on a Greek tale. Reader, attend: and find delight.’
His hero, Lucius, is accidentally turned into an ass. His many adventures and dangers,
while caught up in a band of robbers, are entertaining but often bawdy, and they
bear witness to the casual violence of Roman life in the second century AD. Lucius’s
salvation is his initiation into the cult of Isis, during which he gratefully returns
to human form.
This novel included the story of Cupid and Psyche which gave rise to many later literary
tales and works of art.
Meanwhile, St. Paul had written his letters in the 50s AD and the four Gospels were
written in the last decades of the 1st century AD after the destruction of the Temple
of Jerusalem in AD 70. When John wrote his divine Revelations in the 90s, he was
following a tradition of highly apocalyptic writings. The Hebrew Old Testament
contains apocalyptic elements (eg. in Daniel and Ezra) but so did the Roman Sibylline
Books. Prophesies that Rome will be destroyed for her immorality were not uncommon
– there was plenty of anti-Roman feeling in lands whose own ancient heritage was
remembered, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The New Testament was written in the language of the Hellenistic world – in koine
(common) Greek; Alexander the Great had spread Greek culture and language throughout
the Eastern Mediterranean. The Old Testament had been translated into Greek (the
Septuagint) by scholars as far back as 200s BC. Latin discussion of the Bible and
Christian fatih was made easier after Tertullian (AD c.150-230, ‘The Father of Latin
Christianity’) expanded the Christian Latin vocabulary (eg. nativitas/nativity). As
the Christians suffered persecution, their art made use of acceptable pagan element
– Jupiter enthroned would become God the Father enthroned in heaven, Twice-born Dionysus’
triumphal return carried overtones of spiritual re-birth and Christ’s victory … and
so on. The ancient pagan and Christian worlds lived entwined.
The Church thrived after the Edict of Milan (AD 313) tolerated Christians, and the
Council of Nicea (AD 325) resolved the heresies of the time and determined the creed
of the Trinity. Ambrose (c. AD 340-397) used the existing and ancient genres of
letters, commentaries, sermones and now hymns, as well as treatises (much like ancient
philosophers’ work) for the Church.
Jerome (c. AD 340-420) translated all the Old Testament and New Testament into Latin,
in order to spread the Word throughout the Roman world. His Latin is very skilful
but straightforward for ease of reading. His skill was enabled by his Roman education,
and his love of the ancient writers he had been tutored in tormented him for the
Church frowned upon the pagan writers. But without that thorough education in the
ancient writers, he would never have been learned enough to compose such great works.
Augustine of Hippo (AD 354 -430) recorded his conversion to Christianity in wonderful
fluid and enjoyable Latin in his confessiones. As he watched Rome crumble, he wrote
his de civitate dei comparing the truly eternal City of God to the once-considered
Eternal City of Rome.
Few Roman non-Christian works were being written and preserved, although Vegetius’
epitoma rei militaris followed the ancient tradition of ‘how to’ books of Rome (cf.
Varro’s de agricultura or Ovid’s Art of Love); military leaders needed help to
lead their armies in these tough times …
Once the emperor Theodosius the Great proclaimed Christianity to be the sole faith
of the Empire in AD 380 the only ancient literature to continue was that of the Church. Theologians
and historians, commentaries, textual analysis and the Greek habit of (Christian
now, not philosophical) debate won the day.