Greek novelist. His ten-book Ethiopian Story of Theagenes and Charicleia (Aithiopika ta peri Theagenēn kai Charikleian) closes with a signature naming his father as Theodosius ‘of the race of the Sun’ and their city as Phoenician Emesa. A 4th-cent. date can be argued, not from the Byzantine historian Socrates Scholasticus' (Hist. eccl. 5. 22) implausible identification of him with a bishop of Tricca, but from the possible use, in Heliodorus' account of the siege of Syene (9. 3 f.), of Julian's description of the siege of Nisibis in Orations 1 and 3 (of ad 357). But more probably Julian used Heliodorus, allowing the date nearer 230 which is suggested by similarities to Philostratus' Apollonius and Achilles Tatius.
The central figure is Charicleia, born white and hence exposed by her mother the Ethiopian queen. Conveyed by a travelling Greek, Charicles, from Ethiopia to Delphi and there given a good Greek education, she became priestess of Artemis, at whose festival she and a Thessalian aristocrat, Theagenes, fall in love. Aided by a priest from Memphis, Calasiris, searching for Charicleia at her mother's request, they elope, and after many novelistic adventures—pirates, brigands, lustful suitors, false deaths—they at last reach Ethiopian Meroe, where they escape being sacrificed, and Charicleia, recognized by her parents, marries Theagenes.
Heliodorus masterfully launches his reader into mid-story, with a bizarre scene of blood, bodies, and booty on an Egyptian beach viewed through the eyes of mystified brigands. When the couple, seized by other brigands, seem about to reveal their story to readers and to Cnemon, an Athenian assigned to tend them, instead Cnemon tells his own tale, flowing from his stepmother's lust for him, a tale further entwined with theirs in the person of a slave Thisbe, whose murder is for some time thought to be Charicleia's. We only learn how Charicleia and (much later) Calasiris reached Delphi, and left it, with Theagenes, for Egypt from Calasiris' long narrative (2.24.5 to 5.1) to the naïve listener Cnemon in Egyptian Chemmis, and further vital action—the discovery that Charicleia is in Chemmis too (bought by their host Nausicles as Thisbe) delays its completion to 5. 17–32. Thereafter the linear narrative exploits surprise more than suspense, save that we always wonder if the couple will ‘really’ be reunited.
Recurrent metaphors from the tragic stage and assessments, by characters and author, of the gods' and Fate's role in the universe, invite us to read the work as elevated and deeply serious; Charicleia's outstanding beauty is idealistically conveyed, and just as Theagenes abhors the advances of others so Charicleia persistently defers sex with him until their goal of Ethiopia and marriage. Yet in some scenes Grand Guignol trespasses on the comic, recalling that Calasiris, in a sense a symbol for the author, and the work's only interesting character, combines true piety with mendacious trickery. The novel becomes a tour de force in which one literary trick succeeds another. Most are conventional—dreams, oracles, and examples of desriptions (the beach-scene, a carved jewel, siege-works, an oasis, a giraffe)—but Heliodorus' exploitation of them is unusually complex and subtle. His Atticism (imitation of Classical Athenian prose) is careful, and his long periods, with much especially participial subordination, are a better vehicle for extended narrative than the short sentences of Achilles and Longus. Since Amyot's French translation (1547) there have been numerous others into modern languages, and Heliodorus has influenced both literature (e.g. Sidney's New Arcadia, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, Cervantes' Persiles) and painting (e.g. Dubois's Fontainebleau cycle).
Subjects: Classical Studies.