Edward Burne Jones, Pan and Psyche

The Ancient Novel? Satyricon, Daphnis and Chloe, and the Golden Ass

Instructor: Bruce King
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

The classic narratives of ancient Greece and Rome offer a kaleidoscopic array of fictions: pastoral tales of erotic exploration; fierce satires of urban life and aristocratic rapacity; fantastical accounts of metamorphosis, abjection, and (maybe) redemption. With their mix of pirates and brigands, magic spells and witches, raunchy sex, divine visitations, mythological fantasias, and riffs on the philosophical tradition, the ancient novel obliterates any easy definition of genre, even as its narrative pleasures redouble. How can we understand the techniques, strategies, and motivations of the ancient novel—a literary object on the one hand formally familiar, on the other, deeply strange? What social conditions gave rise or impetus to narrative prose-writing, despite the available forms of poetry, dialogue, and drama? What subjectivities did ancient novels express—or invent? What does it mean to call them novels, at all? 

In this course, we will read and discuss the three of the most popular fictions of Greek and Latin literature, as we think through questions of genre, social context, and the commensurability, or incommensurability, of the Ancient and the Modern. We’ll begin with Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, which recounts the erotic education of its hero and heroine, while provoking questions about the relation of nature and art, and of nature and gender: is sex ever simply “natural”? Next, we’ll turn to Apuleius’ The Golden Ass (or Metamorphoses), a proto-picaresque account of its hero’s literal and metaphoric journeys from human to animal to priest of Isis. Finally, we’ll read Petronius’ Satyricon, which brings to the fore the life of the lower classes of Rome, while turning its coruscating, ribald, and critical eye upon the corruptions of the city and of the rich and powerful. All three of our novels have had especially productive and varied reception histories, as sources and touchstones for, amongst others, Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Goethe, Oscar Wilde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot. Freed from the constraints of myth and of history, the ancient novel delights in its own powers of invention, in the making of its own extravagant fictions. As we read Daphnis and Chloe, The Golden Ass, and Satyricon, we will ask: what were, and are, the uses of these fictions—as rewritings of myth and philosophy, as educational narratives, as social critique, and as the invention of new worlds?

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
April 12 — May 03, 2023
4 weeks


Registration Open