Byzantine literary and educational traditions date back to ancient Greek and Christian sources. The well-educated Byzantine readers received a Greek-centric education, and they read and appreciated Greek texts. Therefore, many works by Byzantine authors imitated the archaic ancient Greek style and used many references and quotations. At the same time, Christian ideology influenced Greek authors’ vision, interpretation, and perception. Thus, the relationship and interweaving of Hellenic and Christian thought were established.
Moreover, Byzantine readers had different requirements simultaneously due to social stratification in society and orientation to two cultural traditions at once. Firstly, many readers still did not have sufficiently advanced and refined education, so they read to enjoy the plot and beauty of the language. Secondly, Christian religiosity encouraged the Byzantines to constantly search for moral ideas and higher philosophical concepts in low literary works (Roueche). Thus, novels that combined moral and ethical ideas with entertaining content were especially valued.
Heliodorus was a “Phoenician from Emesa” who lived in the 3-4 centuries and was an ancient Greek writer of the so-called “erotici scriptores,” novel Aithiopika. The novel of Heliodorus had a significant influence on Byzantine romance, which later borrowed the plot and replicated the love story of two young people being tested by a long separation and terrible obstacles (Hilton). The author’s identity is the subject of dubious conjectures and hypotheses; however, it is undeniable that he was a person associated with Greek education and bowed before it. Significantly, this Greek education gives rise to cosmopolitanism in the author, most clearly expressed in the epithet “Greeks,” which is applied to the Egyptian Kalasiris. It is not surprising because the author himself was associated with Greek culture through education.
The novel Heroidorus was liked by Byzantine readers and highly appreciated because the author imitated the great writers of the past. His story modeled Odyssey and made references to Greek and Christian authors that the medieval Byzantines also knew. Readers felt a kinship with the author, having a similar education. At the same time, Aithiopika is more prominent, complex, and excitingly playful than the previously occurring Greek novels. The Byzantine readers were attracted by sophisticated rhetoric, combined with a fascinating plot and understandable intertextual-playful references.
Byzantine readers valued the skill with which Aithiopika was written, so this novel became a model for later writers. Psellos compares the books of Heliodorus and Tatios prefers Heliodorus. He saw Aithiopika as a combination of beautiful rhetoric, a well-done plot, and well-written characters. Psellos notes that Tatios’s work is written in imitation of Heliodou and falls short of his level, although it is a fine example of beautiful language usage (Psellos). However, ideologically and in terms of plot, Aithiopika is superior to Leukippe.
It must be admitted that Byzantine readers were much pickier about the quality of the literature than modern readers. For Byzantines, it was essential to combine all the components of the perfect novel, including the sophisticated language, fascinating and exciting plot, and philosophical ideas and morals (Roueche). The educated reader looked for intertextual references showing the high intellectual level of the author. It was possible because the corpus of literature was much narrower, and every educated person studied it. Where the modern reader will be pleased with the work, the Byzantine reader would be much more meticulous.
Hilton, John. “The dream of Charikles (4.14. 2): intertextuality and irony in the Ethiopian story of Heliodorus.” Acta Classica: Proceedings of the Classical Association of South Africa, vol. 44, no. 1, 2001. 77-86.
Psellos, Michael. Michael Psellos on Literature and Art: A Byzantine Perspective on Aesthetics. University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.
Roueche, Charlotte Mary. “Byzantine writers and readers: Storytelling in the eleventh century.” The Greek Novel, AD 1-1985. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988. 123-133.