The Classics are among the major sources of modern fantasy's imagery and ideas. Classical Mythology lacks such a basic item in the genre's repertoire as the Wizard, while its Gods have none of the tragic grandeur of their northern European counterparts. Nevertheless, besides the influence the Classics have had on Western literature as a whole, they have an important role in the story of fantasy.
The Greeks gave us fantasy. They did not invent fantasy, which was probably consciously written in Egypt centuries before Greek literature began. But in the Graeco-Roman world it was first identified consciously – indeed, phantasia was a technical term in the study of poetic techniques for representing these stories, and ancient literary criticism for the first time drew a clear distinction between the possible and the "mythical" or "fabulous". For centuries, Classical literature was dominated by a set of stories widely considered to have impossible aspects.
The literature of Greece and Rome extended beyond the mythological in both time and genre. Classical literature began with Homer, whose identity remains a problem; but from this point forward the Greeks manifested a concern, unique in the ancient Mediterranean world, for preserving authors' true names, a concern probably related to the highly competitive Greek spirit.
With respect to fantasy, Classical literature may be divided into three eras, which differ from the standard periodization of Classical literature. The first era extends from Homer to 400BC, ending with the apparent victory of philosophers' scepticism about the Myths. Homer can be read either as a believer, a fantasist, or as both; our ignorance of his antecedents forbids any definite classification. The oldest surviving Greek works after him generally share uncertainties over the morality of fiction. Narratives from these centuries are few, but both Hesiod (circa 675BC) and Pindar (518-circa 445) speak directly of their desire to avoid poetic "lies". Hesiod wrote an epic Theogony, a rather livelier poem about farming containing several myths, and some other mythological works known only in fragments, all trans by Richmond Lattimore as Hesiod (1959). Bacchylides (circa 510-circa 450) and Pindar both wrote choral poetry, of which some victory odes with embedded mythological narratives survive. Pindar's (trans by Frank J Nisetich as Pindar's Victory Songs 1980) are difficult, allusive and grand, while Bacchylides' (trans Robert Fagles 1961) are plainer and more narrative and seductive.
After Homer, the greatest and most famed Greek art of myth is the Athenian tragedy of the 5th century BC. 33 plays by three tragedians survive. Aeschylus (circa 525-456) and Sophocles (circa 496-circa 405) did not use many fantastical elements, beyond gods, Oracles and the like. Prometheus Bound is a strikingly fantastical exception, whose attribution to Aeschylus is questioned. In the tragedies of Euripides, newer attitudes toward myth begin to prevail; and as the second period began, in the 4th century BC, the myths were widely acknowledged as implausible in the writings of Plato (circa 428-circa 348), Thucydides (circa 455-circa 399) and Aristotle (384-322); these and later writers believed the old stories, but considered their fantastical elements either Allegory or invention. Similarly, writers held widely varying views of the Gods. But they usually acknowledged that poets spoke of the gods' deeds as poets, not historians. Such authors' views were certainly not universal, in a largely illiterate population. All this is ably presented by D C Feeney in The Gods in Epic (1991), a work invaluable for any understanding of fantasy in older Classical literature.
The second period is otherwise hard to characterize as a unity, since its painfully limited remains consist mostly of either Greek literature from before about 200BC or Latin literature from after 50BC. This was the great age of the epigram, the allusion and scholarship, in which epics lost primacy; it was also a time when realistic fictions assumed new prominence.
The most important shaper of the Hellenistic aesthetic was probably a man whose own work in the fantastic genres no longer survives. Callimachus of Cyrene (circa 310-circa 240) has left only six difficult and allusive hymns, some epigrams and some fragments; but the fragments attest to his founding role in several areas. His Aitia ["Origins"] began a tradition of poetry about origin myths; Hecale typified the epyllion, or miniature epic, which focused on a side-episode in mythology and then digressed at length from even that story; and he apparently wrote the first paradoxography, or collection of implausible information. What remains is all trans by Stanley Lombardo and Diane Rayor in Callimachus (1988). The surviving epyllia of other writers make a truly jewelled collection; the technique of digression became a powerful tool for mood-setting and foreshadowing.
Contemporaneously, Apollonius of Rhodes (?295-215 BC) wrote an Argonautica, the first surviving epic after Hesiod. Other than in scale, it exemplifies the Callimachean aesthetic, which has been read particularly for its vivid and moving portrait of the young Medea in love. The epic is trans Barbara Hughes Fowler in Hellenistic Poetry (1990), along with the later Sicilian poet Moschus's "Europa", a sophisticated and sensitive epyllion, sharply bringing home the impact of divine lust on an innocent girl.
Callimachus is known to have praised a quite different sort of epic, too: the Phenomena (trans G R Mair 1921) of Aratus of Soloe (315-240 BC) in Turkey. This is a poetic handbook of astronomy, whose first part tells some of the myths of the constellations. Later the Catasterismi ["Constellations"] of Eratosthenes of Cyrene (circa 275-circa 195) compiled these myths more fully in prose. The oldest surviving paradoxography, the Collection of Marvellous Stories of Antigonus of Carystus (circa 240BC) also comes from this century. Another nonfiction writer important to the future of fantasy was Euhemerus, who considered the gods merely ancient human rulers (> Euhemerism).
In the first century BC, Latin literature attained the degree of perfection – as seen by its own practitioners – that Greek had reached in the days of Sophocles and Plato. Rome was by now ruler of the Mediterranean, and almost alone in the luxury of imaginative literature. Gaius Valerius Catullus (circa 85-circa 55) left, amid much love poetry of a new kind, a studiedly brilliant love-epyllion. Many of his contemporaries also wrote epyllia, but the form's day was ending. Publius Vergilius Maro (Virgil), Sextus Propertius (circa 48-circa 15) and Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) all used short mythic narratives, but left no traditional epyllion. Propertius' tales are mostly rather mundane, but his lover's Ghost does appear in two of his best poems. Virgil is better known for his epic the Aeneid (19BC) and Ovid's Metamorphoses (circa AD8) defies all true classification. Metamorphoses is also, as Feeney shows, explicitly written as fantasy fiction, the first of these works to attract this description.
Later, Ovid's supple Latin style profoundly affected that of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (circa 4BC-AD65), whose tragedies are perhaps the first body of supernatural Horror; Seneca in turn influenced his nephew Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus; 39-65) in his epic poem Bellum Civile ["Civil War"] (vt Pharsalia). Lucan set out to disavow fantasy, and stuck reasonably closely to historical sources for his story. Lucan's work, politically impassioned, highly charged and sometimes hysterical, has had varying fortunes. Brian W Aldiss credits it with helping inspire Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), but after two centuries of neglect it is only now returning to favour. The Thebaid of Publius Papinius Statius (circa 50-circa 95), who learned much from Lucan and left a poem praising him, is if anything still darker, a powerful intentional fantasy with something to say, the first such in our literature. Other epics and epyllia, though of much less interest, survive from the first century.
The third period in the history of Classical fantasy had already begun, with Seneca's pupil, the emperor Nero (ruled 54-69). Nero is of interest because his suicide was widely disbelieved, and expectations of his return (a horrific variant on the Once and Future King) contributed greatly to the idea of the Antichrist; but he was also patron of literary trends which led, over the following two centuries, to the most distinctive works of fantasy in Classical literature. (This argument derives from G W Bowersock's study of the relevant works, Fiction as History .)
Two aspects of the third period's literature are particularly relevant. First, much more of it survives; one can rarely speak with certainty of an innovation of this era, as opposed to an ongoing phenomenon whose earlier stages are lost. Allowing for such cautions, a second characteristic still stands out: the confusion of categories. The literary audience widened in both geography and class. New genres arose (prose dominated for the first time), and older ones miscegenated. Storytelling burst all generic bounds to enter nonfiction works as various as grammars and geographies. And, most germane, religious unity vanished; new faiths proliferated and, to the delight of satirists and the dismay of preachers, one faith's central beliefs routinely reappeared as another's fairytales. In this context, fantasy could be found everywhere.
No less an authority than the apostle Paul conceded as much in Corinthians I (circa 56) at the period's start; modern critics have also discussed the New Testament in relation to fantasy. Its books vary considerably in this regard, from Mark's spare account of signs and wonders to Matthew's mythic resonances and the rather fuller, more elegant tale of Luke and Acts. Perhaps the most influential New Testament book for fantasy has been Revelation, whose mysterious story and vivid images defined the Christian cosmology.
The New Testament books have been the most lastingly influential examples of a much wider literature of the time. In an outpouring of apocalypses and testaments, gospels, acts and theological treatises, such fundamental elements of the medieval world view as salvation, Heaven and Hell, Demons and Angels, martyrs and saints, miracle-workers and magicians neared the mainstream of Classical literature. A variety of religions contributed to the flow, but the non-Christian survivals are mostly dry treatises – Apuleius's Metamorphoses and Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana (circa 220; trans F C Conybeare 2 vols 1912) are the chief exceptions.
Most of the Christian works can be found in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and in The Apocryphal New Testament (1993) ed J K Elliott; of these, the most interesting include a portrait of Jesus as a troubled juvenile delinquent in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and an early precursor to Dante's Inferno (circa 1320) in the Apocalypse of Peter. But the texts best understood as fantasy are apocryphal Acts of Apostles from the 3rd century. Acts of Peter conveys a sense of grim fervour, Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena (trans W A Craigie in Ante-Nicene Christian Library, additional volume IX ed Allan Menzies 1897) includes an entertaining adventure tale, and Acts of John careens exuberantly from Miracle to miracle, creating a world whose every death is reversible.
Most of these works have been described as romances, and Apuleius's Metamorphoses is always so treated. Other works from the main stream of the Romance genre range from the strictly mundane to the wildly fanciful. Antonius Diogenes' The Wonders Beyond Thule, another 1st-century work, though known to us only from fragments and a much later summary, is as fantastic a Fantastic Voyage as could be sought, with proto-Vampires prominent among its characters. The Ass, attributed to Lucian, is a simpler tale of Magic.
The five Greek love and adventure stories considered central to the Romance genre include three with fantasy elements. Those in Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon (circa 175) are peripheral. Magic doings are somewhat more essential to Heliodorus' Ethiopiaca (date uncertain), otherwise a moderately exciting account clearly ancestral to the modern novel. But the triumph of fantasy in Greek Romance is Longus's Daphnis and Chloe (circa 200). Written with art, elegance and languor, and set (unlike the others) entirely in or near its characters' home, this story of a couple's upbringing and awakening to Love is mostly realistic. Yet the protagonists are always under the care of local deities, a protection which explodes into a vivid scene featuring Pan on a rampage, and which subtly reshapes the rest of the story into a satisfying fantasy Pastoral.
Romance spilled over into history as well as religion, producing one of the Middle Ages' favourite works, the Alexander romance (3rd century), falsely attributed to Callisthenes. While much of this is a straightforward story of royal conniving and conquest, it opens with a tale of magic and offers, in the middle, a magnificent though confusedly told fantasy of Alexander's attempt to reach the heavens which bears comparison with Gilgamesh. Nor would any discussion of Classical fantasy be complete without reference to Lucian's True History, an eloquent parody of the whole genre.
Perhaps the extreme example of the mixture of genres is the orator T Flavius Cocceianus Dio (Dio Chrysostom) of Turkey (circa 45-circa 120), who turned from the respected pursuit of oratory to popular philosophy, and whose lively and flowing speeches (trans J W Cohoon et al. 5 vols 1922-1951) are in turn pervaded by stories long and short, including a "Trojan oration" which claimed Egyptian history as its source. Dio's fellow popularizer Mestrius Plutarchus of Greece (circa 46-circa 120) is generally known for his realistic Lives, but his Moralia (trans Frank Cole Babbitt et al. 16 vols 1927-1969) include numerous variously entertaining works which play inventively with Myth, including a tale of the inhabitants of the Moon, a dialogue between Odysseus and a contented pig, and the poignant "On the Passing of Oracles", which includes the famous story "Great Pan is Dead".
Plutarch illustrates a decline in rationalism among the literary elite. Another often cited landmark in this process is the compendious Natural History (circa 76) by Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79), whose encyclopedic contents indeed include some marvels. Of more consistent interest are two later works. De Mirabilibus Auscultationibus (circa 130; trans Launcelot D Dowdell 1909) is a sort of ancient Ripley's Believe It or Not, several hundred short and mostly untrue items. Caius Julius Solinus's Collectanea Rerum Memorabilium (3rd century; trans Arthur Golding 1587), while a genuine geography, is thoroughly riddled with details of Dragons, manticores and other fantastic phenomena. [JB]