This magnificent essay on fiction writing in the middle and late Empire really deserves five stars, except for the intellectual cowardice that makes G.W.Bowersock leave the obvious results of his research unsaid. And yet the book is packed full of thought, its tiny dimension - barely 150 thinly-printed pages - being entirely misleading in terms of its immense learning and insight. Bowersock examines the rise of an entirely new kind of fiction - self-consciously fictive prose, from the great Hellenistic novels to the sarcastic dialogues of Lucian - in the middle Roman Empire, beginning with the fragmentary SATYRICON of Petronius Arbiter. (One blatant omission is Seneca's PUMPKINIFICATION OF CLAUDIUS, strangely out of keeping with the author's vast frame of reference; yet some of the conclusions that could be drawn from this unchivalrous piece of speaking ill of the dead would fit very well with Bowersock's own views.) Moving back and forth across three centuries, with swift yet elegant dashes to huge areas beyond (e.g. a brief but fascinating excursus about Lessing's attitude to Philoktetes), Bowersock builds a brilliant argument that all this prose fiction was closely influenced, possibly even roused by, the New Testament and succeeding Christian writing. His analysis of the terrible "cannibalism" passage in the SATYRICON is especially illuminating, and proves, in my view, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the notion of transubstantiation and the eating of the Body of Christ in bread was already known, in exactly the historical terms of the Church, in 64AD. Bowersock, in effect, reverses one of the commonplaces of modern NT criticism: where the modern NT critic sees the Hellenistic Roman prose writing as affecting the rising Christian religion, Bowesock shows that it was itself affected by it - in some cases, pretty blatantly, so that one wonders how NT exegetes could possibly miss the fact that the authors of this or that romance were imitating rather than being imitated.
This being such a fine piece of work, why do I only award it four stars instead of five? Because Bowersock is plainly terrified of his own results. He does not want to say out loud that a generation that lived in the reign of Nero (i.e. within living memory of Christ) had a clear understanding of Transubstantiation; he does not want to say out loud that, far from being obscure and unknown, Christianity was a major cultural leaven from a very early period; above all, he would sew his own lips shut rather than admit that every piece of his excellent analysis goes to reinforce the notion of a historical Jesus within the terms and parameters of the Gospels. Professor Bowersock is - unfortunately for him - a widely respected figure in the academic establishment. He certainly would lose caste among his scholarly colleagues if he were more explicit about what he has to say; however, he must at least be complimented on having done nothing to disguise or conceal, as more than one other academic has done, the tendency of his results.