The `Ethiopian Story' is the most sophisticated novel written in Antiquity (probably the 4th century AD). It uses such modern techniques as `editing the past and the present' or an `indirect approach' by creating questions marks for the reader (what happened really?). It is highly influenced by Neo-Platonism and has some major moral, philosophical and political messages, which are still highly relevant today.
Plot and characters
Its plot and characters are the same as those of other ancient novels (one exception: `The Golden Ass' by Apuleius) and of the Second Greek Comedy (Menander): exposed baby girl, innocent female and brave male youth, greedy and lustful adults and the old sage; but, also, the bloodthirstiness of a promiscuous crowd.
The exposed girl ('daughter' of a god) and her chaste lover represent `purity, the `pure idea', which is even stronger than the gods: (pure) `love is the mightiest of gods; indeed, he is even said to vanquish at times the gods themselves.'
This purity (pure idea) is continuously attacked by unchaste pretenders (`human nature is incapable of any joy unmixed and pure'), but it is protected by `Destiny' and the old sage. It cannot be destroyed by earthly causes. This is symbolized by the burning on a pyre of the innocent girl: `unmoved and unaffected, while the fire surged around her without closing in upon her ... The flames only served to illuminate her and make her conspicuous; and her beauty shone forth in the bright glaze of the braze.'
Human sacrifice, war, peace and power
In our modern world of continuous warring the eminently human message of Heliodorus remains all too relevant: `exclude human sacrifice for all the future time'; and, `it would be absurd to let the folly of one man bringing destruction upon so many.'
On war and peace: `But, Arsace, we are now in a state, not of war but of peace. The one means to enslave, the other to liberate. The truth about peace and war is to be apprehended not so much from the accepted meaning of those terms, as from the disposition of the persons employing them.'
However, naked power is brutally inhuman: `so now bestow your eloquence on vain definitions of justice, propriety, and advantage: the possession of power needs no aid of that kind.'
Heliodorus wrote an astonishing masterpiece, not without some self-incensing (`so uncloying, so bewitching is the matter of your story').
It is brilliantly introduced by J.R. Morgan, with excellent notes and extracts of criticism through the ages.
This highlight of world literature is a must read.