Department of Classics and Archaeology

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Laura Mercer

PhD Student in Classics, Faculty of Arts


Research Summary

Thesis: Supporting Female Characters in the Ancient Greek Novel

My project focuses on the supporting female characters in the five surviving "idealistic" Greek novels: Callirhoe (Chariton), Ephesian Tale (Xenophon of Athens), Leucippe and Clitophon (Achilles Tatius), Daphnis and Chloe (Longus) and Ethiopian Story (Heliodorus). In addition, it will also look at examine fragments and other ancient fictional works and genres (including the Roman Novels) for comparison. This project builds off several of my findings from my MLitt dissertation on "Slave Manipulations within the Ancient Greek Novel".

In recent years, the Greek Novel genre has gained much scholarly attention for its attitudes towards sexuality and gender. The female protagonists tend to be extremely strong and active in contrast to the heroes, who take a more passive role. Studies on women in this genre have focused predominantly on the heroine (with the exception of the helpful love rivals Melite (Ach.Tat.) and Lycaenion (Long.)) at the expense of other female characters. However, these characters are still fascinating (both in the way they are portrayed and the issues surrounding them) and this project aims to demonstrate that studies of these women are beneficial to our understanding of the Greek Novel genre, particularly regarding gender portrayals and characterisation.

These women are divided into five groups: slaves, aristocratic confidantes, mothers, antagonists and helpful rivals. This project aims to determine to how far female characters can be said to be stereotyped within the novel genre and to what extent similarities can be drawn between them. For instance, the connection with Phaedra in Euripides' Hippolytus is a trait that most of the antagonists share in some form: from lusting after their stepsons to committing suicide to false accusations. Yet, the deceptive characteristic is not exclusive to the female antagonists alone: several women across the different groups are able to successfully manipulate other characters, including their husbands. These include Callirhoe's slave Plangon (Charit.), Charicleia's mother Persinna (Heliod.) and the helpful rival Melite (Ach. Tat.).

In addition, this project aims to examine the influence of previous literary genres on these characters and how the novel genre both adopts and alters elements. An example of this is the idea of the cunning slave from New and Roman Comedy, who helps their master with their love troubles. Yet, whilst clever female slaves can be found as early as Eurycleia in the Odyssey, female slaves have mainly been portrayed as accomplices/victims of male plots instead of as successful manipulators in their own right. Plangon, Thisbe and Cybele can all be said to show deceptive tendencies, with the former two even successfully manipulating their primary masters and remarkably are not punished for it (at least directly in Thisbe's case). Another key aim is to determine why the different novelists have contrasting attitudes towards supporting female characters: Chariton has a sympathetic attitude towards these women which contrasts Heliodorus and Xenophon.

Ultimately this project aims to demonstrate that these women are not simply "one-dimensional characters" but play complex roles and are worthy of being studied in their own right.

Supervisors: Dr. Carl Buckland and Dr. Emily Kneebone.

Department of Classics and Archaeology

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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