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date: 24 November 2020

Heliodorus (4), free

Greek novelist, c. 4th century ce
  • Benedek Kruchió


Heliodorus was the author of the Aethiopica, the latest and longest Greek novel to survive from antiquity. In his work, Heliodorus claims to be a Phoenician from Emesa, but there are good reasons against treating this as an authoritative autobiographical statement. The Aethiopica tells the adventures of Charicleia, the white daughter of the black queen and king of Ethiopia. Her mother abandons her, and she is brought up by foster-fathers in Ethiopia and Delphi. There she falls in love with the young Greek Theagenes, with whom she travels via Egypt to Ethiopia. They are almost sacrificed to the local gods, but Charicleia’s parents eventually recognise her. The protagonists become priests and marry. The novel is a narratologically ambitious work that draws on the structure of the Odyssey (in mediis rebus beginning, embedded heterodiegetic narratives) and takes these devices to a whole new level. A wide range of topics play important roles in the Aethiopica, such as religion, multiculturalism, identity, and epistemology.

Updated in this version

Text and bibliography updated to reflect current scholarship. Keywords, primary texts, links to digital materials, and summary added.

Biographical Information

Heliodorus was the author of the latest and most ambitious novel to survive from antiquity, a work in ten books that he himself calls The Ethiopian Story of Theagenes and Charicleia (τὸ σύνταγμα τῶν περὶ Θεαγένην καὶ Χαρίκλειαν Αἰθιοπικῶν‎, Heliod. Aeth. 10.41.4); nowadays it is commonly referred to as “the Aethiopica.”1 In the very last clause of the novel, its writer finally identifies himself as “a Phoenician (ἀνὴρ Φοῖνιξ‎) from the city of Emesa, one of the clan of descendants of the Sun (τῶν ἀφ’ Ἡλίου γένος‎), Theodosius’ son, Heliodorus (Heliod. Aeth. 10.41.4).”

While it is not impossible that the sphragis provides authentic information about the novelist, there are good reasons to doubt that, as this addition features numerous elements that echo prominent motifs of the novel. A play on the different meanings of phoenix runs like a red thread through the work.2 The Sun god occupies a key position in the Aethiopica’s theology (see section “Main Topics: Religion”), and the female protagonist Charicleia refers to Helius twice as her forefather (γενεάρχης‎, Heliod. Aeth. 4.8.2; 10.11.3).3 The author’s self-presentation as a Greek-writing Phoenician from Emesa, which was not a traditionally Phoenician city, picks up the central topic of multiculturalism and artificial identities (see section “Cultural Identity”).4 Finally, the postponement of the author’s identity is typical of Heliodorus’ dilatory narrative technique.5 Its revelation forms the culmination of the gradual disclosure of the narrator’s voice (see section “Narrative Technique”).6 For these reasons, it is unwise to treat the sphragis as an authoritative autobiographical statement.

The earliest biographical testimonium of Heliodorus can be found in the Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus (first half of the 5th century ce), who writes that the author of the Aethiopica became the bishop of Tricca in the late 4th century ce.7 While this information is biographically dubious, Socrates’ work provides the earliest uncontested terminus ante quem for the novel. Later authors, for example Photius (9th century) and Theodosius Melitenus (11th century), also place him in the late 4th century.

This dating corresponds to the communis opinio of current scholarship. Some have attempted to push Heliodorus back to the 3rd or even 2nd century ce, but while the 4th-century arguments are not watertight, there are no positive arguments for an earlier dating.8 Proponents of the later dating rely on the striking similarities between Heliodorus’ description of a siege of Syene (Book Nine) and Julian’s accounts (Or. 1.27–29; Or 2.62–67) of the third siege of Nisibis (350 ce): in both instances, the besieging party surrounds the city with a dam and floods the area between the dike and the city wall with a nearby river. While it is not impossible that it is Julian who borrows from Heliodorus, the fact that some contemporary Greek and Syriac sources confirm numerous details of Julian’s version of the siege strongly suggests that it is the novelist who makes use of Julian’s account.9 Moreover, it has been convincingly argued that Heliodorus’ language includes elements that are absent from or uncommon in works that were written earlier than the 4th century.10 There is no conclusive proof that Heliodorus wrote in the 4th century, but the balance of probability supports the early testimonia.

The Story

The storyline focuses on the adventures of Charicleia and Theagenes, an idealised couple in their early adulthood. Charicleia is the white daughter of Persinna and Hydaspes, the black rulers of Ethiopia. Due to her unusual complexion and the suspicion she fears it will arouse, her mother abandons her. The local priest Sisimithres finds her, takes care of her for seven years, travels to Egypt, and there meets Charicles, a priest from Delphi, to whom he entrusts Charicleia. From then on, Charicles and his foster-daughter live in Delphi. When Charicleia is seventeen, she falls in love with a young Thessalian called Theagenes. Aided by Calasiris, an old Egyptian, they elope by ship and are captured by pirates. After going ashore, they manage to overcome their adversaries—only to be taken prisoners by a gang of bandits led by Thyamis, Calasiris’ son. At the outlaws’ hideout, they meet the Athenian Cnemon, who tells them his adventures. Another gang attacks and overpowers Thyamis’ crew. The protagonists escape and agree to meet with Cnemon in Chemmis, a nearby village. On the way there, the young Athenian meets none other than Calasiris, who takes him to the home of the merchant Nausicles and tells him the story of the protagonists, who in the meantime are captured by Persians. Nausicles manages to free Charicleia but not Theagenes. She is reunited with Calasiris; Cnemon marries Nausicles’ daughter and stays in Chemmis. Calasiris and Charicleia set out to find Theagenes, who by then has been rescued by Thyamis. The four of them are reunited in Memphis, where Calasiris dies. Demaenete, the wife of the local satrap Oroondates, falls in love with Theagenes. As a result of his refusal to sleep with her, she tortures him and tries to kill Charicleia, but she is miraculously saved. Oroondates, who is at war with the Ethiopians, learns about his wife’s machinations and sends for the protagonists; on their way to him, they are captured by Ethiopians. Charicleia’s father Hydaspes besieges and takes Syene and subsequently defeats the Persians in a final battle. The protagonists are led to the Ethiopian capital Meroe, where they pass a magical virginity test; as such, they are elected to be sacrificed to the gods. With the help of Sisimithres, Charicleia manages to prove her identity to her parents; Theagenes captures a raging bull, wins a spectacular boxing match, but is still to be saved. At that point, Charicles enters the scene in search of his lost daughter. Unable to find her, he nevertheless spots Theagenes, whom he accuses of kidnapping Charicleia. The king asks Sisimithres’ advice, who claims that the gods have led the young couple to Meroe to bring about the abolition of human sacrifices. Charicleia and Theagenes become priestess and priest of the local cults and marry.

Narrative Technique

There are many striking aspects of the Aethiopica, but Heliodorus’ greatest achievements arguably lie in the area of narrative technique, and his novel is justly regarded as the pinnacle of ancient storytelling.11 Most prominently, the Aethiopica draws on a well-known narratological characteristic of the Odyssey, namely the combination of an in mediis rebus beginning and a homodiegetic secondary narrator who reports earlier events. Heliodorus takes this device to a whole new level in several respects. Firstly, as the novel’s main storyline does not retell a myth that is familiar to the implied audience, the reader experiences genuine uncertainty as to how the narrative will unfurl.12 Secondly, Calasiris, the main secondary narrator, is a much more manipulative narrator than Odysseus appears to be—a circumstance that leads to serious interpretative challenges for the reader. Thirdly, Cnemon is a very intrusive narratee: he repeatedly interrupts Calasiris’ narrative, comments on it, and asks for details or explanations. Finally, Calasiris not only narrates his own experiences but also tells what he learned about Charicleia from Charicles, and indeed what Sisimithres had told Charicles about her. As a result, Heliodorus’ readers face an abyss of diegetic levels; it becomes difficult at times to keep track of the story’s chronology and the state of knowledge of certain characters. Essential information about the protagonists is revealed only gradually.

This last effect is reinforced by a prominent characteristic of the Aethiopica’s primary narrator, namely his tendency to show events rather than to tell them, his reluctance to provide background information on them, and his practice of giving multiple explanations without indicating a preference.13 These are the best-known features of the primary narrator; yet it is important to acknowledge the novel’s narratological variability. After Book Five, when (almost) all important questions concerning the protagonists’ past have been answered and the narrative takes on a more straightforward, teleological drive, the primary narrator is increasingly audible as a source of knowledge and opinions.14 Moreover, Cnemon and Calasiris, both of whom tell extensive stories, have their distinct narrative styles. Cnemon’s story has its roots in Lysias 1, New Comedy, and Chariton Book One (see section “Intertextuality”); it is fairly straightforward but features a tragic tone.15 Calasiris, on the other hand, is elusive, digressive, at times secretive, and highly unreliable (see section “Knowledge and Interpretation”).16 It is particularly puzzling that he sometimes behaves like a genuine holy man and at other times like a charlatan.17 The most prominent puzzle of modern Heliodoran scholarship is connected to this double nature of Calasiris and consists of the question whether his claim that queen Persinna commissioned him to find and bring home her daughter is true or made up.18 Typically, the Aethiopica never answers this question unambiguously.

Finally, Heliodorus is a master of narrative economy: seemingly unconnected events and persons frequently turn out to be interrelated. The bandits who act as focalisers in the famous opening scene are the same ones who later raid Thyamis’ hideout. Moreover, they do so at the behest of the bandit’s brother, who usurped his priesthood in Memphis. Cnemon travels to Egypt in search of an ex-lover and there meets Nausicles, who happens to be the one with whom she escaped from Athens. It is the same conflict between Ethiopia and Persia that brings Sisimithres to Egypt and the protagonists to Ethiopia.

Main Topics

Chaste Love

No other pagan Greek novel is so intensely committed to an ideology of premarital chastity.19 While Charicleia grows up in Delphi, her dream is to become a chaste priestess of Artemis, and it takes Calasiris considerable effort to make her admit her feelings towards Theagenes—even to herself. Before they elope from Delphi, she makes her lover swear a ritual oath that he will not touch her until they get married (Heliod. Aeth. 4.18). Toward the end of the novel, their chastity comes into the spotlight when the Ethiopians determine whether they can be sacrificed to the gods (Heliod. Aeth. 10.8–9). The moral dimension of the protagonists’ sexual abstinence is repeatedly underlined with counterexamples of promiscuous characters who bow to their carnal desires and eventually commit suicide.20


Gods and their relationship to human beings are thematised on several levels.21 Firstly, many characters hold ritual offices: Theagenes comes to Delphi leading a ritual mission in honour of Neoptolemus; Charicleia serves Artemis; her three foster-fathers are all priests, and so are her parents. Secondly, a syncretistic approach to religions features prominently in the Aethiopica, as Apollo is explicitly identified with the Ethiopian Sun god by Sisimithres (Heliod. Aeth. 10.36.3), and Isis is implicitly set in parallel with Artemis. Thirdly, the protagonists, religious authorities such as Sisimithres, and (at later stages of the novel) the primary narrator repeatedly claim that the story is determined by the will of the gods.22 Finally, both Calasiris and the primary narrator engage in religious allegoresis (Heliod. Aeth. 3.12–13; 9.9), which prompts the question whether a similar interpretative approach should be applied to the Aethiopica.23 This is not to say, of course, that we should embrace the reductionistic approach of the late antique (or perhaps Byzantine) Philip the Philosopher, who offers a moralising and philosophising allegorical interpretation, or of Karl Kerényi and Reinhold Merkelbach, who read the novel as religious, mystical propaganda.24

Cultural Identity

The constructed and unstable nature of cultural identity plays an important role in the Aethiopica.25 The central playground for this topic is none other than Charicleia. Her skin colour raises the question whether she can be considered a genuine Ethiopian; if not, what is she then? She spends the first seven years of her life among Ethiopian people, but her subsequent Greek education in Delphi erases her command of Ethiopic. Yet an essential element of the novel’s happy ending is the restitution of her identity as Ethiopian princess. Unlike other extant Greek novels, the Aethiopica is not a story of the loss and restitution of the protagonists’ Greek identity; in striking contrast, a Hellenised Ethiopian girl and a Thessalian become part of the Ethiopian society. But how un-Greek is Heliodorus’ Meroe? The local élite speak Greek, they worship Dionysus, possess visual art portraying scenes from Greek myth, and Sisimithres equates their Sun god with Apollo; analogously, Calasiris’ supposedly Egyptian wisdom features numerous Greek elements.26 Moreover, Calasiris’ biography of Homer—according to him an Egyptian wanderer—assimilates the poet’s life to his own, and Theagenes’ claim, that Achilles was an Aenianian and his compatriot, highlights the manipulative and artificial aspects of constructing one’s cultural identity.27

Knowledge and Interpretation

The Aethiopica is a novel that heavily challenges our hermeneutic skills and prompts us to question our epistemological concepts.28 Over the course of the novel’s first half, the narrative is primarily driven by a search for knowledge about the past of the protagonists. This quest is complicated by the circumstance that the relevant information comes from numerous different parties. Since one of them, Calasiris, is an unreliable narrator, the question arises to what extent he can be trusted as a source; in fact, the story told by the Egyptian priest prompts this very question again and again, as it portrays him as a master of deception and manipulator of knowledge. The finale of the novel, in turn, thematises the difficulties of proving a paradoxical fact, namely white Charicleia’s identity with the royal couple’s long-lost daughter. A related recurring motif is that of communicative difficulties: characters often do not understand each other because they speak different languages; sometimes they even resort to sign language.29 Obscure or ambiguous dreams and oracles also pose serious interpretative problems both to characters and to the reader, and Heliodorus often prefers sophisticated riddles to straightforward description.30


Heliodorus is a remarkably omnivorous reader.31 While the major thematic and narratological hypo-text of the Aethiopica is the Odyssey, the novel draws on a wide range of genres and authors.32 Heliodorus’ repertoire encompasses some of the earlier novels and the Second Sophistic canon of Homer, Euripides, Aristophanes, Thucydides, Plato, and Demosthenes, but it goes way beyond them: among many others, he is also familiar with Homeric scholarship, Lucian, Philostratus, and possibly Julian (see section “Biographical Information”).


While Heliodorus’ language is no less Atticistic than that of earlier imperial Greek authors, he is a tough read: he uses a wide range of unconventional vocabulary and writes sentences of challenging length, mostly making use of extravagant strings of circumstantial participles. Moreover, he has a penchant for syntactical symmetry, which he often accompanies with homoeoteleuta.33

Primary Texts

  • Colonna, Aristide. Heliodori Aethiopica. Rome: Typis Regiae Officinae Polygraphicae, 1938.
  • Colonna, Aristide. Eliodoro: Le Etiopiche. 3rd ed. Rome: UTET, 2015.
  • Mazal, Otto. “Die Textausgaben der “Aithiopika” Heliodors von Emesa.” Gutenberg-Jahrbuch 16 (1966): 182–191. This source provides an overview of primary texts.
  • Rattenbury, Robert M., and Thomas W. Lumb. Héliodore: Les Éthiopiques (Théagène et Chariclée). 1935–1943. 2nd ed., 3 vols. Paris: Les belles lettres, 1960.

Links to Digital Materials


  • Bartsch, Shadi. Decoding the Ancient Novel: The Reader and the Role of Description in Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
  • De Temmerman, Koen. Crafting Characters: Heroes and Heroines in the Ancient Greek Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Dowden, Ken. “Heliodoros: Serious Intentions.” The Classical Quarterly 46, no. 1 (1996): 267–285.
  • Elmer, David F. “Heliodoros’s ‘Sources’: Intertextuality, Paternity, and the Nile River in the ‘Aithiopika.’” Transactions of the American Philological Association 138, no. 2 (2008): 411–450.
  • Grethlein, Jonas. “Minding the Middle in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica: False Closure, Triangular Foils and Self-Reflection.” The Classical Quarterly 66, no. 1 (2016): 316–335.
  • Grethlein, Jonas. Aesthetic Experiences and Classical Antiquity: The Significance of Form in Narratives and Pictures. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
  • Hefti, Victor L. Zur Erzählungstechnik in Heliodors Aethiopica. Vienna: Holzhausen, 1950.
  • Hunter, Richard, ed. Studies in Heliodorus. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Philological Society, 1998.
  • Hunter, Richard. “‘Philip the Philosopher’ on the Aithiopika of Heliodorus.” In Metaphor and the Ancient Novel. Edited by Stephen Harrison, Michael Paschalis, and Stavros Frangoulidis, 123–138. Eelde, The Netherlands: Barkhuis, 2005.
  • Jones, Meriel. “Heavenly and Pandemic Names in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica.” The Classical Quarterly 56, no. 2 (2006): 548–562.
  • Kasprzyk, Dimitri. “Les Aigyptiaka de Cnémon (Héliodore, Éthiopiques).” Ancient Narrative 14 (2017): 149–174.
  • Kruchió, Benedek. “What Charicles Knew: Fragmentary Narration and Ambiguity in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica.” Ancient Narrative 14 (2017): 175–94.
  • Morgan, John R. “A Commentary on the Ninth and Tenth Books of the Aithiopica of Heliodoros.” PhD diss. University of Oxford, 1978.
  • Morgan, John R. “A Sense of the Ending: The Conclusion of Heliodoros’ Aithiopika.” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974–) 119 (1989): 299–320.
  • Morgan, John R. “Reader and Audiences in the Aithiopika of Heliodoros.” In Groningen Colloquia on the Novel 4. Edited by Heinz Hofmann, 85–103. Groningen, The Netherlands: E. Forsten, 1991.
  • Morgan, John R. “Heliodoros.” In The Novel in the Ancient World. Edited by Gareth L. Schmeling, 2nd ed., 417–456. Boston: Brill Academic, 2003.
  • Morgan, John R. “Heliodorus.” In Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature. Edited by Angus M. Bowie, Irene J. F. de Jong, and René Nünlist, 523–543. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004.
  • Morgan, John R. “Heliodorus the Hellene.” In Defining Greek Narrative. Edited by Douglas Cairns and Ruth Scodel, 260–276. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
  • Paulsen, Thomas. Inszenierung des Schicksals: Tragödie und Komödie im Roman des Heliodor. Trier, Germany: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1992.
  • Pitcher, Luke V. “A Shaggy Thigh Story: Kalasiris on the Life of Homer (Heliodorus 3.14).” In Writing Biography in Greece and Rome: Narrative Technique and Fictionalization. Edited by Koen De Temmerman and Kristoffel Demoen, 293–305. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Ross, Alan J. “Syene as Face of Battle: Heliodorus and Late Antique Historiography.” Ancient Narrative 12 (2015): 1–26.
  • Tagliabue, Aldo. “Heliodorus’s Aethiopica and the Odyssean Mnesterophonia: An Intermedial Reading.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 145, no. 2 (2015): 445–468.
  • Telò, Mario. “Eliodoro e la Critica Omerica Antica.” Studi Italiani di Filologia Classica 17, no. 1 (1999): 71–87.
  • Telò, Mario. “The Eagle’s Gaze in the Opening of Heliodorus’ Aethiopica.” American Journal of Philology 132, no. 4 (2011): 581–613.
  • Whitmarsh, Tim. Narrative and Identity in the Ancient Greek Novel: Returning Romance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Winkler, John J. “The Mendacity of Kalasiris and the Narrative Strategy of Heliodoros’ Aithiopika.” In Oxford Readings in the Greek Novel. Edited by Simon Swain, 286–350. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.