Socrates Scholasticus (5th century AD) identifies the author of Aethiopica with a certain Heliodorus, bishop of Trikka. Nicephorus Callistus (14th century) relates that the work was written in the early years of this bishop before he became a Christian and that, when forced either to disown it or resign his bishopric, he preferred resignation. Most scholars reject this identification. The most exact information about Heliodorus comes from Aethiopica itself. The author identifies himself in this manner: "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."
The Aethiopica was first brought to light in Western Europe during Renaissance times in a manuscript from the library of Matthias Corvinus, found at the sack of Buda (today the western part of Budapest) in 1526, and printed at Basel in 1534. Other codices have since been discovered. It was first translated into French by the celebrated Jacques Amyot in 1547. It was first translated into English in 1569 by Thomas Underdowne, who used the 1551 Latin translation of Stanislaw Warszewicki to create his Aethiopian Historie. In the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) this novel was known by the Greek readership. For example, the novel is mentioned in a will of a noble man known as Eustathios Voilas (Ευστάθιος Βοίλας). According to this will, dated year 1059, he bequeathed several books to a monastery of the Theotokos, which he had founded, amongst them the Aethiopica. It was printed several times by Giolito de' Ferrari in Venice (1556, 1560, 1586) in an Italian translation from Greek by Leonardo Ghini.
The work is notable for its rapid succession of events, the variety of its characters, its vivid descriptions of manners and of scenery, and its simple, elegant writing style. But what has been regarded as most remarkable is that the novel opens in the middle of the story ("in medias res"), and the plot is resolved by having various characters describe their prior adventures in retrospective narratives or dialogues, which eventually tie together. Homer utilized this technique in both his epic poems Odyssey and Iliad. This feature makes the Aethiopica stand out from all the other ancient Greek romances.
Chariclea, the daughter of King Hydaspes and Queen Persinna of Ethiopia, was born white because her mother gazed upon a painting of the naked Andromeda just after her rescue by Perseus while Chariclea was being conceived (an instance of the theory of Maternal impression). Fearing accusations of adultery, Persinna gives her baby daughter to the care of Sisimithras, a gymnosophist, who takes the baby to Egypt and places her in the care of Charicles, a Pythian priest. Chariclea is then taken to Delphi, and made a priestess of Artemis. Theagenes, a noble Thessalian, comes to Delphi and the two fall in love. He runs off with Chariclea with the help of Calasiris, an Egyptian who has been employed by Persinna to find Chariclea. They encounter many perils: pirates, bandits, and others. The main characters ultimately meet at Meroe at the very moment when Chariclea is about to be sacrificed to the gods by her own father. Her birth is made known, and the lovers are happily married.
Heliodorus' novel was immensely influential and was imitated by Byzantine Greeks and by French, Italian, and Spanish writers. The structure, events, and themes of the European adventure novel of the first half of the seventeenth century—Mlle de Scudéry, Marin le Roy de Gomberville, Miguel de Cervantes's Persiles y Sigismunda, and likely Aphra Behn's Oroonoko—were directly modeled on Heliodorus's work. His influence continued to be felt in the eighteenth century novel (especially in those having a "tale within a tale" structure).
The English dramatist John Gough based his tragicomedy The Strange Discovery (published 1640) on the Aethiopica."
The 17th century French dramatist Jean Racine claimed that Heliodorus' novel was his favorite book and when, after he had joined the ascetic Jansenist retreat Port-Royal and the book had been repeatedly taken away from him, Racine is reported to have said that the loss of the book no longer mattered since he had already memorized it.
Other ancient Greek novelists:
- Chariton – The Loves of Chaereas and Callirhoe
- Xenophon of Ephesus – The Ephesian Tale
- Achilles Tatius – Leucippe and Clitophon
- Longus – Daphnis and Chloe
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Heliodorus". Encyclopædia Britannica. 13 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 223.
- Holzberg, Niklas. The Ancient Novel. 1995. p. 78
- Bowersock, Glanwill W. The Aethiopica of Heliodorus and the Historia Augusta. In: Historiae Augustae Colloquia n.s. 2, Colloquium Genevense 1991. p. 43.
- Wright, F.A. Introduction to Aethiopica. n.d.
- Chisholm 1911.
- Tüchert, Aloys (1889-01-01). Racine und Heliodor (in German). Buchdr. von A. Kranzbühler. p. 4.
- Racine, Jean (1639-1699) (1870-01-01). Oeuvres de Jean Racine, précédées des Mémoires sur sa vie, par Louis Racine, nouvelle édition, ornée du portrait en pied colorié des principaux personnages de chaque pièce. Dessins de MM. Geffroy,... et H. Allouard. p. 5.
- Æthiopica – full text (English translation)
- Books 1–5 of History. Ethiopian Story. Book 8: From the Departure of the Divine Marcus (World Digital Library) features Aethiopica and dates back to the 15th century.