One of the best known, and one of the least intelligible, facts of literary history is the lateness, in Western European Literature at any rate, of prose fiction, and the comparative absence, in the two great classical languages, of what we call by that name. It might be an accident, though a rather improbable one, that we have no Greek prose fiction till a time long subsequent to the Christian era, and nothing in Latin at all except the fragments of Petronius and the romance of Apuleius. But it can be no accident, and it is a very momentous fact, that, from the foundation of Greek criticism, “Imitation,” that is to say “Fiction” (for it is neither more nor less), was regarded as not merely the inseparable but the constituent property of poetry, even though those who held this were doubtful whether poetry must necessarily be in verse. It is another fact of the greatest importance that the ancients who, in other forms than deliberate prose fiction, try to “tell a story,” do not seem to know very well how to do it.
The Odyssey is, indeed, one of the greatest of all stories, it is the original romance of the West; but the Iliad, though a magnificent poem, is not much of a story. Herodotus can tell one, if anybody can, and Plato (or Socrates) evidently could have done so if it had lain in his way: while the Anabasis, though hardly the Cyropaedia, shows glimmerings in Xenophon. But otherwise we must come down to Lucian and the East before we find the faculty. So, too, in Latin before the two late writers named above, Ovid is about the only person who is a real story-teller. Virgil makes very little of his story in verse: and it is shocking to think how Livy throws away his chances in prose. No: putting the Petronian fragments aside, Lucian and Apuleius are the only two novelists in the classical languages before about 400 A.D.: and putting aside their odd coincidence of subject, it has to be remembered that Lucian was a Syrian Greek and Apuleius an African Latin. The conquered world was to conquer not only its conqueror, but its conqueror’s teacher, in this youngest accomplishment of literary art.
It was probably in all cases, if not certainly, mixed blood that produced the curious development generally called Greek Romance. It is no part of our business to survey, in any detail, the not very numerous but distinctly interesting compositions which range in point of authorship from Longus and Heliodorus, probably at the meeting of the fourth and fifth centuries, to Eustathius in the twelfth. At one time indeed, when we may return to them a little, we shall find them exercising direct and powerful influence on modern European fiction, and so both directly and indirectly on English: but that is a time a good way removed from the actual beginning of our journey. Still, Apollonius of Tyre, which is probably the oldest