HELIODORUS EMESENUS Historiae aethiopicae libri decem, nunquam antea in lucem editi

Basle, ex officina Hervagiana, 1534


EDITIO PRINCEPS. 4to. pp. (viii) 242 (ii). Greek letter with some Roman, printer’s device on t-p and verso of last, else blank, nice woodcut white on black initials, four illustrating lovers embracing, t-p slightly dusty, light age yellowing at beginning and end, some faint waterstains on lower margins and upper inner corner throughout not affecting text, two interesting manuscript annotations on fly in same C18th hand, one comparing variant mss of the work, another on the author’s life and the present work. A very good, clean, copy in vellum over boards, spine with four raised bands.

First edition of the oldest and best of all extant Greek novels and very probably the first European novel. It was first brought to light in modern times in a ms from the library of Matthias Corvinus, found at the sack of Buda (Ofen) in 1526, and first printed at Basel in 1534. It opens with a dedicatory letter in Latin by the editor Vincentius Obsopeus, German philologist of the early C16th, notable for his “élégantes traductions latines” (Hoefer). The title derives from the fact that the story, developed in 10 books, starts and ends in Ethiopia. In Charicleia, the daughter of the queen of Ethiopia, born white due to the effect of the sight of a marble statue upon the queen during her pregnancy, is raised by priests in Delphi, eventually becoming a priestess of Apollo herself. There she meets and falls in love with a noble Thessalian, Theagenes. The young lovers, of course, endure many trials and have many adventures. They flee Delphi with the help of Calasiris, an Egyptian priest, and are captured and separated by pirates. Once again reunited in Memphis, they wend their way south, arriving in Meroe, the capital of Ethiopia, as prisoners of the Ethiopian army, then at war with Persia. At the last moment, just before Charicleia is about to be sacrificed to the gods, she is recognized as the true princess of Ethiopia and the two lovers are happily married. The rapid succession of events, the variety of the characters, the fascinating descriptions of natural scenery in Ethiopia, Egypt and Greece, the simplicity and elegance of the style, all give the ‘Aethiopica’ great charm. Heliodorus was an exceptional master of plot development and narrative style. Homer and Euripides were his favourite authors and Heliodorus was, in turn, admired by Byzantine critics and men of the Renaissance. Tasso modelled his heroine Clorinda, in his ‘Gerusalemme Liberata’, on Charicleia; Racine considered a drama on the same subject; and it formed the model of the ‘Persiles y Sigismunda’ of Cervantes.

Heliodorus, famous Greek writer of romances, was born at Emesa in Syria. He lived towards the end of the fifth century of the Christian era, converted to Christianity and became Bishop of Tricca in Thessaly. The ‘Aethiopica’ was written in his early years, probably before his conversion.

BM STC Ger. p. 389. Adams H 174. Brunet III 87. Graesse III p. 235.

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