In the Christmas stash from my mom this year, I got a copy of Drosilla and Charikles: A Byzantine Novel by Niketas Eugenianos, translated by Joan B. Burton. Though I had read part of Pseudo-Lucian’s The Ass in Greek, I had never been exposed to Byzantine Greek novels before this. After taking a class in Byzantine art, I had the general impression that the Byzantines did nothing but sit in church all day. Imagine my surprise to find this novel of pagan gods, sex, and romance!
I wanted this book primarily because it is a bilingual edition, and promised notes on the inside for students of Greek. (The publisher, Bolchazy-Carducci, prints many books for students of Greek and Latin.) However, despite the story and Burton’s translation being entertaining, this book is not very useful for the student of Greek.
First, the novel. The Hellenistic novel, which this Byzantine novel emulates, is a fun genre: romance, pirates, shipwrecks, cities conquered, Dionysian rites, and lots of pining for lost lovers. This novel was written in the twelfth century, during a renaissance of classical learning, and it seems to be set more in the pagan world than in Christendom. This novel focuses on Drosilla and Charikles, who are separated when their city is conquered. The plot follows their quest to be reunited. Although it was often fun and fanciful, I can’t say this rivals Homer or Sophocles. The plot was unlikely, the characters melodramatic and over the top. I was fed up with the male characters, who annoyingly echoed the laments of the sting of Eros, imploring beautiful women to be merciful and help put out the fires of love which their beauty inflamed. The most interesting aspect of this novel for me was the pagan setting. Dionysus, not Christ, plays the largest role in reuniting the lost lovers. Even so, the heroine, Drosilla, takes care to preserve her chastity until a Dionysian priest marries her to Charikles. I think of this as the paperback fiction of the ancient world: escapist, playful, but not exactly thought-provoking.
Second, the editing and translation. I wanted this book not for its content, but for its Greek. And on that count, it’s not very useful. Burton writes in the introduction that this is designed for students of Greek. At least it is bilingual, and Burton’s translation follows the line numbers of the Greek, so you can see what the original is for a word or phrase. But this is neither helpful for the beginning-intermediate student nor for the advanced student of the Greek novel. It does not have the running glossary or help with constructions that Evan Hayes and Stephen Nimis’ Lucian readers have. But Burton’s 7 pages of notes are also not enough for the advanced student who wants a detailed commentary on the Greek such as found in the Cambridge green-and-yellows or the Bristol Classical Press commentaries.
Most crucially, there is no help with vocabulary. Medieval Greek was a syncretistic language, taking many loan-words from Turkish, Russian, and Italian. (See Robert Browning’s Medieval and Modern Greek for an overview of the language’s post-classical history.) Nor is there any help understanding the meter, as this novel is written in verse.
Overall, I’m glad I read this, but it is not as helpful for a Greek student as I had hoped it would be.