Truth behind the lines

Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World
September 8, 1995

What is fiction? How does it differ from history? Is the high value our culture puts on fiction as a distinct type of writing one shared by other cultures? Such questions are addressed in this collection of papers on Greek and Roman literature, originally presented at a conference at the University of Exeter in 1991. In particular, the contributors ask how far "lying" was distinguished from "fiction" at different periods and in different ancient genres. Did the concept of fiction exist, and what status did fictive narrative have? What, in short, were the boundaries between truth, lies and fiction? These are questions which have hardly lost their importance. Fictionality, we now realise, is present in all attempts to translate the events of real life on to the page or the screen: the boundaries between truth and fiction, which were earlier this century so firmly drawn, have become increasingly blurred. It is this concern to engage with issues of interest to students of modern literature and theory which will give this book its wider appeal. Significantly, its prologue is written by a non-classicist, Michael Wood, professor of English literature at Exeter and author of a recent book on Nabokov.

E. L. Bowie kicks off the collection by arguing for a nascent concept of fiction in archaic Greek poetry; some types of lyric and narrative poems do seem to raise the issue of their own fictionality. Notably, he sees Odysseus's false tale to his swineherd Eumaeus as raising the question of the trustworthiness of his earlier fantastic account of his travels, and indeed of the Odyssey as a whole. Christopher Gill, however, in his paper "Plato on Falsehood - not Fiction", denies that the concept of fiction would have made sense to classical Greeks. He argues that while Plato draws attention to the invented nature of some of his illustrative stories, what mattered to him was whether they communicated, albeit at a non-literal level, truth about the universe: the crucial distinction was not between fiction and fact, but between truth and falsehood.

Gill's is perhaps the least accessible paper - though by no means the least rewarding - in what is otherwise an extremely readable collection; one of the great strengths of this book is its consistency of focus on certain common themes. One such, which runs through the remaining papers, is the closeness of ancient works of history to the ancient novel and other literary genres in terms of the strategies used to endow their narratives with believability. J. L. Moles takes up a modern debate about the nature of history: how far does a historiographical work reflect external reality, and how far is it a creation of its author? He demonstrates that Herodotus and Thucydides, the 5th-century classics of the genre, simultaneously insist that their task is to distinguish truth from falsehood, while at the same time declaring themselves heirs to the epic tradition of interpretation and even invention. Wiseman comes to similar conclusions in his study of "seven types of mendacity" in Hellenistic and Roman historians: while claiming that their task was to seek "the truth", these writers routinely used modes of discourse borrowed from the stage or the courtroom.

Andrew Laird and J. R. Morgan examine the ancient novel, a literary form of which only six examples (five in Greek) survive in full. Morgan focuses on the fact that ancient literary criticism pays virtually no attention to the novel, but suggests that historiographical and rhetorical theory provided some means of understanding their fictionality. For Morgan, the pleasure of reading a novel lies in a tension between a recognition of its fictionality, and a desire to believe it is true. The Greek novels exploit this tension by striving for verisimilitude while at the same time stressing their own contrived literariness. Arguing along similar lines, Laird, from his analysis of Apuleius's Metamorphoses, concludes that the ancient novel shares with ancient narrative history many of the same strategies by which to induce belief; fiction and history are at two ends of a continuous spectrum. It is a conclusion which has emerged from many of the papers, and is of great contemporary relevance: historians, and one might add journalists and documentary makers, are, like novelists, engaged in "creative" writing.

Tim Duff is a lecturer in classics, University of Reading.

Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World

Editor - Christopher Gill and T. P. Wiseman
ISBN - 0 85989 381 2
Publisher - University of Exeter Press
Price - £26.50
Pages - 263

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