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From The Æthiopica: “Heliodorus - An Aethiopian Romance” translated by Thomas Underdowne (Anno 1587), revised and partly rewritten by F. A. Wright; George Routledge & Sons Ltd.: London; New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.; [with additional corrections in the online edition by S. Rhoads;] pp. 7-46.



Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
  Her infinite variety.


Printed in Great Britain by
F. Robinson & Co, at the Library Press, Lowestoft.




Translated by


Revised and partly rewritten by



With an Introduction








[Click on Book Number, Title or page to go to that chapter]

  Introduction     1
     ”      2. THE FLIGHT FROM THE MARSH   47
     ”      3. THE FESTIVAL AT DELPHI   87
     ”      4. THE STRANGE BIRTH 108
     ”      5. THE PIRATE CHIEF 135
     ”      6. THE WITCH OF BESSA 172
     ”      7. THE WANTON PRINCESS 193
     ”      8. CHARICLEA’S TRIAL 231
     ”      9. THE GREAT BATTLE 258
     ”     10. THE MARRIAGE OF




There are those perchance who will think but lightly of these imaginings: yet some folk deem a blood red rose, or a lark’s song, to be more precious than a king’s coronet.”




Of Heliodorus we know almost as little as we know of Homer. The story that he was the Christian bishop of Tricca, who held that see toward the end of the fourth century A.D., and being given the choice between his diocese and his book preferred the latter, is a pleasing fable now generally discredited. His date should probably be placed about the beginning of the third century of our era, and the only real faces in our procession concerning him are those given on the last page of his book: ‘Here ends the history of the Ethiopian adventures of Theagenes and Chariclea written by Heliodorus, a Phoenician of Emesus, son of Theodosius, and descended from the Sun.’

But some slight pieces of internal evidence may be drawn from the Aethiopica itself. It is obvious that Heliodorus delights in very much the same sort of things as interested Herodotus; natural science, military tactics, the habits and customs of strange tribes, the curious products of foreign lands. He has not, of course, the breadth of view that the great historian possesses, and he is a man of the study rather than of the world, but there is sufficient likeness between their two books to make a comparison reasonable. Plainly also, even if Heliodorus was not himself an Egyptian by descent, Egypt is the country that he 2 knows best and regards with the greatest affection. Father Nile plays as real a part in the story as the Wessex country does in Hardy’s novels. The great river is, as it were, the chorus to the play, a witness to every incident, whether it happen at his mouth ‘which is called Heracleot,’ or by Syene and the cataracts, or in the mysterious land where he takes his beginning near distant Meröe.

The Aethiopica however derives its main interest, not from the personality of its author, but from the character of its composition. It is the first and remains one of the most successful of tales of adventure, depending not on grace of literary style, or on subtlety of character drawing, but rather on profusion of incident and elaboration of plot. In the richness of his invention and the dexterity of his narrative Heliodorus can give some useful lessons to our modern novelists, and in the skill wherewith he plans his tale he may be placed almost on a level with Homer and Virgil. The Aethiopica like the Odyssey and the Aeneid begins boldly in the middle of the story, then goes back with explanatory narratives which culminate in the centre of the book, and then works up slowly and gradually to the final climax. It is in the architecture of his plot that the strength of Heliodorus lies and he does not spend much effort on the creation of characters. Calasiris, it is true, is a life-like personality, perhaps drawn from the author himself, and Chariclea is a thoroughly satisfactory heroine; romantic, virtuous, beautiful, and in the recognition sense as skilful an advocate as Portia herself. But most of the other characters are types rather than individuals. The men are chiefly examples of excess or deficiency in the manly virtue of courage; Trachinus, Theagenes, Thyamis, Cnemon, Petosiris, 3 going in a descending scale. The women in the same way exemplify the female virtue of chastity and its opposite, from Chariclea downwards to Persina, Thisbe, Demeneta, and Arsace. Heliodorus is not a psychologist, nor yet is he a stylist. His prose is quite adequate for its purpose, and that is about all that can fairly be said in its praise. In charm of language he stands in much the same relation to Longus as Sir Walter Scott does to Robert Louis Stevenson, or Balzac to such a conscious artist as Anatole France. You read Heliodorus for the story itself, not for the graceful way in which it is told. But for English people this comparative poverty of style is of no importance, for the Elizabethan, Thomas Underdowne, has all the qualities that Heliodorus lacks. His prose is full of rich colour and romantic vigour, as even his title page witnesses:

‘An Aethiopian historie
written in Greeke by Heliodorus
no lesse wittie then pleasant

englished by Thomas Underdowne and newly corrected and augmented with divers and sundry new additions by the said author

whereunto is also annexed the argument of every booke in the beginning of the same for the better understanding of the storie.’



In preparing this translation I have had before me always both the Greek text of Heliodorus in Hercher’s edition and Underdowne’s English version of 1587. Whenever possible, that is whenever he approximates with reasonable closeness to the meaning of the Greek, I have used Underdowne’s own words, only so far altering as to bring them into accordance with modern spelling. ‘Quiver’ for example is always so written, while Underdowne is in delightful uncertainty as to whether ‘quyver’, ‘guiver’, guyver’, are not equally admissible. I have removed also the many typographical errors which disfigure his printed text — ‘one’ for ‘our’, ‘longing’ for ‘lodging’, ‘at’ for ‘and’, come on consecutive pages — and have tried to introduce a slightly more rational system of punctuation than that which Underdowne and his printers employ. But although I have usually kept his words, it has sometimes seemed best to change Underdowne’s syntax and cut down the excessive length of his periods. Heliodorus himself, like most of the Greek prose writers, is inclined to a highly elaborate and involved structure; but Underdowne easily beats him on his own ground. A sentence of twenty-five lines and two hundred and fifty words offers no difficulty to our Elizabethan; to modern readers it is not so attractive. I have ventured therefore occasionally, with some reluctance, to break up his carefully arranged processions and substitute a simpler form.


All this was fairly plain sailing: a more delicate problem was presented by the many passages where Underdowne totally fails to give the meaning of the Greek original. It is evident that he usually translates, not from the Greek, but from the Latin version of Warschewiczki published in 1551. That learned Pole knew vastly more Greek than our countryman; but he was not impeccable, and wherever he goes astray Underdowne docilely follows. Often moreover the initial error is Underdowne’s own, due to his very imperfect acquaintance even with Latin. Theagenes, for example. thinking he hears the ghost of Chariclea speaking says — ἣξω — ‘I come to join you’. This in the Latin appears as ‘veniam’, in Underdowne as ‘O sweet soul, pardon me’. Again, Chariclea fearing death puts her jewels — ὑπὸ γαστέρα — in the Latin ‘utero succinxit’, in Underdowne ‘she tied them in a bag.’ Lastly, and more comically still, when the mole on Chariclea’s arm is in the Greek compared to a spot of ebony on the ivory — ἑλέφαντα — of her skin, Underdowne says: ’Chariclea uncovered her arme, and about it there, was in a manner, a mole, much like to the strakes that elephants have’. When we add to such errors as these the mistakes due to mere carelessness, ’one hundred’ for ’one thousand’, ’mother-in-law’ for ’stepmother’, ’old man’ for ’old woman’ and the constant omission of negatives, it will be seen that the reviser’s task was no sinecure. But although Underdowne has little Latin and less Greek he is a superb master of English. I feel almost ashamed to point out his errors, and can only hope that my poor attempts at correction will not have too ludicrous an effect, as patches of cheap white cotton upon an ancient robe of purple silk.

F. A. W.



Further corrections in the online edition by S. Rhoads © 2006


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