Of Pirates and Persians: Chariton of Aphrodisias’ Callirhoe 

O treacherous beauty, you are the cause of all my woes!” – Callirhoe (Book 6.5)

[A Girl Defending Herself against Eros, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (c. 1880)]

As threatened, I’ve been reading what might be the first western historical fiction novel, Chariton of Aphrodisias’ Callirhoe, and when I intimated that it sounded like the more far-fetched of Shakespeare’s comedies (I’m thinking The Winter’s Tale or Pericles), it has more lived up to that expectation. Just to hit the highlights, I sound like I’m doing a parody of Bill Hader’s Stephan character on Saturday Night Live because this story has everything: meet-cutes, fake deaths, pirate kidnappings, secret pregnancies, courtroom dramatics, and of course, double weddings. And this barely touches on the titular heroine herself, a surprisingly proactive ancient woman protagonist who has to spend most of the plot dealing with the exhausting antics of both gods and mortals. So today I want to talk about the novel itself as well as its historical milieu, both the time period of its setting and its publication, and how it helped form the modern European comedic small-R romance genre.

We don’t know much about author Chariton of Aphrodisias outside of the introduction to his novel, where he identifies himself by this name and tells us he is the clerk of the rhetorician Athenagoras (1.1). Both the name of the author and his boss are potentially pseudonyms—“Chariton” (Χαρίτων) translates as “man of graces,” a good name for a romance writer, and Athenagoras hasn’t left a large historical footprint as an attorney, the usual day job of a rhetorician. But there some inscriptions from men of those names in Chariton’s stated hometown of Aphrodisias, so it is also not out of the realm of possibility that those are their real appellations. Aphrodisias was a small Hellenized city in the Caria region of Anatolia, Turkey (that will come to bear on the plot of Callirhoe, but we’ll get to that in a bit). Named for the Greek goddess Aphrodite, Aphrodisias, like Ephesus was for Artemis, was famous in the ancient Mediterranean for a particular cult image of the goddess that was likely synthesized from a much older Asian deity, possibly even the same one who was the original Lady of Ephesus. The temple that housed this statue was equally well-known and Aphrodisias itself, despite its modest size, was a trade crossroads in the Roman Empire as a major source for prized Carian marble and sculptures made of it exported to Italy. Because of its name and the centrality of its eponymous goddess to the plot, it must also be considered that Chariton is claiming the town as a pseudonymous location for himself.

[The Aphrodite of Aphrodisias]

The one thing scholars do agree on is that whoever Chariton was, he was mostly likely a native speaker of Greek (as opposed to a Roman who spoke Greek as a second language). Dating his novel has been achieved by analyzing the grammar and phrasing of his language usage. This is hampered somewhat by the significant linguistic changes Greek was undergoing in the last century before the Common Era through the 2nd century, as Roman culture was layered over what remained of the Hellenistic Mediterranean. As a result, even contemporary writers in Greek during this period displayed a comparatively wide range of linguistic conventions. Originally believed to be written in the 2nd century, modern scholars—including G.P. Goold, the translator for the Loeb version of the text that I read—have tended to date Callirhoe to the earlier range of 25 BCE-50 CE. Some of this is due to, despite its 400s BCE setting, much of the novel’s cultural mechanisms reflect more of an early Roman imperial influence than a strictly Hellenistic one. Goold thinks this theory is bolstered by Octavius’ patronage of Aphrodisias as early as the triumvirate period (introduction, p. 2).

Callirhoe and its later imitators seemed to have enjoyed significant popular success, evidenced by their survival past their publication centuries despite being castigated as lowbrow by classical academics and never rising to the level of respectability that would have had them studied in a scholarly curriculum in late antiquity. The 3rd century sophist Flavius Philostratus singles out Chariton in one of his epistles about his general disdain for the light fiction authors, assuring the dead author that, “[y]ou fancy that Greece is going to remember your work when you are dead; but what is likely to be the posthumous fate of men who were nobodies even while they were alive?” and “for all your popular appeal, [you] will never be admitted to the select company of the Greek classics!” (Letters, 66) Indeed, part of the assurance of Callirhoe’s first century dating comes from the knowledge that the novel was extremely popular during Nero’s reign (54-68 CE). So much so that it has been suggested that the rumor that the emperor kicked his pregnant wife Poppaea Sabina to death in a rage (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 35.3; Tacitus, Annals, 17.6; Cassius Dio, Epitome of Book 62) was actually people at the time imputing a Callirhoe plot point on real life. In case you thought it was only us tech-addled moderns who occasionally have trouble distinguishing fiction and reality. Such has always been the power of a really good story.

[Rome’s Callirhoe, Poppaea Sabina]

And this hysteria makes more sense if you realize that Callirhoe is really the star of the story. Later medieval manuscripts would jam her husband Chaereas into the novel’s title, but this was clearly a later attempt to “brand” it alongside its genre peers from the era like Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon, and Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe (likely upcoming blog entries themselves). The oldest papyrus we’ve discovered that mentions the novel is more than a thousand years older than the earliest medieval manuscript and identifies it as The Story of Callirhoe (introduction, p. 4), and Chariton himself describes his story in the very last sentence of the novel as “the story I have composed about Callirhoe” (8.8), as opposed to mentioning both lovers as equally important.

This may be because Callirhoe’s trials and tribulations are certainly the focal point of the plot, but also because of the context Chariton uses as the setting for the story he wants to tell. Callirhoe’s great beauty makes her famous throughout the Mediterranean by the end of the novel, but even without it, she’s viewed by the other characters as important for who she is as much as what she is. And that is that she is the daughter of Hermocrates of Syracuse, hero of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) and the most important political figure in their polis at this time. Syracuse, a Corinthian colony established on the eastern side of Sicily, was an ally of Sparta during the war and the cause of one of Athens’ most disastrous defeats of the conflict. In 413 BCE, Athens launched a costly invasion of Syracuse with the intent of conquering the whole of Sicily, the failure of which would ultimately lead to the city-state’s defeat and occupation by Sparta at the end of the war. Thucydides, writing as an Athenian and opposing combatant, singles Hermocrates out as the general who rallies the disparate Sicilian forces to put aside their differences in order to repel the Athenians (The History of the Peloponnesian War, IV 58-65), as well as claims that he alone among the victorious Syracusan-Spartan hierarchy speaks out in defense of the captured Athenian soldiers (he is ignored). The historical Hermocrates, like many Greek politicians, will ultimately be exiled by his political rivals and eventually killed by their supporters in a politically-motivated street riot in 407 BCE.

Like we saw in Salammbô, the character of Callirhoe is based on a real daughter of a famous general whose true name has been lost to time. The historical Callirhoe supposedly marries a man named Dionysus (I), who rules Syracuse as tyrant from 405-367 BCE, whose son Dionysus II (r. 367-357, 346-344 BCE) succeeds him. There is some dispute as to which of them is the “King Dionysus” in the story, but one of the Dionysuses is the king who famously hangs a sword over Damocles’ head at a banquet as recounted to posterity in Cicero’s Tusculanae Disputationes (5.61). Plutarch recounts the short life of Hermocrates’ daughter as follows: “Dionysus the First, having possessed himself of the government [after the unrest that kills Hermocrates], at once took to wife the daughter of Hermocrates, the Syracusan. She, in an outbreak which the citizens made before the new power was well settled, was abused in such a barbarous and outrageous manner, that for shame she put an end to her own life.” (Plutarch, Dion, 3.2) Goold implies in his introduction to the Callirhoe text that Dionysus II is Callirhoe’s son she has before she kills herself (p. 11), but most historians agree that he is the son of Doris of Locri, a later consort of his father’s. But either working from a similar source or Plutarch himself, Chariton takes this bare-bones biography, changes a few details, and spins Hermocrates’ unnamed daughter’s tragic tale into an epic romantic adventure story that likely influenced an entire cultural subgenre for two millennia and counting.

[Raising people from the dead so they can have more adventures in your historical fiction novels? What a crazy idea…]

So much for the novel’s author, times, and its historical backdrop—what is the actual story of Callirhoe? Callirhoe, whose name means “beautiful stream” (Καλλιρρόη, also the name of one of the Oceanids), is the most beautiful girl in Sicily; a “marvel” whose beauty rivals not just the nymph whose name she shares, but that of Aphrodite herself. As a result, suitors from all over the Mediterranean gather in Syracuse to ask Hermocrates for her hand, but Eros and his mother Aphrodite have their own plans for her. They want her to marry a local boy, Chaereas, the most handsome man in Syracuse, and arrange a meet-cute for the kids by having them literally run into each other in the street during Aphrodite’s festival. Callirhoe and Chaereas fall in love with each other on sight, but in true comedic style, Chaereas’ father, Ariston, is a political rival of Hermocrates and they of course would rather their children marry anyone besides each other. But while as a well-bred girl, Callirhoe can only suffer in silence, Chaereas publicly wastes away from love and complains to his gymnasium bros and anyone who’ll listen that he will literally die if he can’t marry Callirhoe. The dads cave to public pressure and the pair are joyfully married.

Like similar folktales adapted later by Boccaccio and Shakespeare, however, Callirhoe and Chaereas are still being shadowed by all those disappointed suitors. So the suitors hatch a plot to break the couple up, rightly concluding to target gullible himbo Chaereas rather than the much more prudent Callirhoe. They convince Chaereas that everyone in Syracuse knows that Callirhoe is cheating on him and he, like an idiot, believes them. In a fit of jealous rage he kicks Callirhoe so hard that it is believed she is killed (cf. the aforementioned Nero parallel). Syracuse is thrown into unabated mourning for Callirhoe and Chaereas is charged with murder at a trial the victim’s father will be presiding over. But rather than defending himself, Chaereas demands to be executed for killing his wife, and the jury (including Hermocrates) acquits him of the charge, in part because it was an accident but also because Chaereas is almost as popular as Callirhoe was. Undeterred, Chaereas still wants to kill himself, but his best friend Polycharmus talks him out of it by reminding him that he owes it to his dead wife to see her properly buried, which the city does with great pomp by placing her in an enormous tomb facing the sea.

[A Roman marble of a sleeping Ariadne, a mythological heroine Callirhoe is often compared to in the novel.]

Except Callirhoe isn’t dead. She wakes up from her kick-induced coma to find herself buried alive and wonders how she will be able to let anyone know to let her out. But she doesn’t have to wonder for long because the pirate Theron has seen her opulent funerary procession and decides to lead his crew on a raid of her tomb. After finding Callirhoe and, comically, figuring out that she’s not a ghost, the pirates are left with the dilemma of what to do with her. They can’t release her without admitting what they were up to when they found her, so many of them recommend simply killing her and making off with the treasure. But Theron decides that Callirhoe herself is part of the treasure and can be sold as a slave, so the pirates kidnap her and sail away east from Sicily. He tries to convince Callirhoe that this is a temporary situation and they have every intention of taking her home, but although she may have died yesterday, she wasn’t born then and is perfectly aware she’s about to be sold into slavery. She considers killing herself to avoid the shame, but is afraid of letting the pirates know she on to them so she decides to play along instead.

Eventually Callirhoe is sold by the pirates to Dionysus, the most important citizen in Miletus, Ionia (on the Turkish coast) and a personal friend of Artaxerxes II of Persia. He may have bought her, but Dionysus is instantly smitten by Callirhoe’s beauty and makes her his free wife rather than keeping her a slave. Callirhoe again contemplates ending her life rather than being unfaithful to Chaereas (whom she forgave for his actions the minute she woke up in her tomb), but she discovers she’s already pregnant and decides to marry Dionysus to protect Chaereas’ unborn child while being still able to reasonably convince Dionysus the baby is his. Meanwhile, Syracuse have discovered her plundered and empty tomb and a distraught Chaereas goes on a (wo)manhunt for her body. Search parties stumble on Theron’s ship, which has been stranded at sea by a lack of wind since they sold Callirhoe. Most of the pirates have died of thirst except for Theron, who’d been stealing water out from under his crew. Recognizing the treasure from Callirhoe’s tomb, the Syracusans crucify him for piracy, but not before he admits what he did with Callirhoe in a last-ditch scramble for leniency. Chaereas sails immediately for Miletus with Polycharmus, but their ship is attacked and they are sold as slaves to Mithridates, governor of Caria (the region Aphrodisias is in).

Callirhoe meanwhile has given birth to a son and is living a luxurious life, but she still mourns for Chaereas, whom Dionysus has found out about, but believes is dead (and he doesn’t know about “his” son’s real paternity). Mithridates visits Dionysus’ house and falls instantly in love with Callirhoe. Chaereas finds out that Callirhoe has married Dionysus and is moping around, making Polycharmus pick up his slave slack, because he can’t believe Callirhoe would remarry even if she thought he was dead. Mithridates finds out about Chaereas’ connection to Callirhoe and convinces him to write her a letter letting her know he is alive; he does this hoping Dionysus and Chaereas will kill each other in a jealous duel or something, leaving his way clear to Callirhoe. Dionysus intercepts Chaereas’ letter and thinks Mithridates is pretending to be Chaereas in order to sleep with Callirhoe. He brings Mithridates up on an adultery charge to their joint overlord, Artaxerxes, who calls everyone in to Babylon to adjudicate the matter.

Callirhoe’s great beauty causes just as much of a stir in Babylon as it has everywhere else, where Artaxerxes falls in love with her too and she must thread the needle very carefully as she refuses his advances while she is staying with his queen, Stateira, during the trial. Mithridates defends himself from Dionysus’ charges by producing a living Chaereas and throwing the proceedings into understandable chaos. Artaxerxes clears Mithridates of Dionysus’ charges and agrees to decide which of Callirhoe’s husbands she belongs to. He’s dragging his feet on the ruling (in part because he’s trying to get Callirhoe for himself) when word comes of a revolt in the shah’s Egyptian provinces that’s spreading through Syria and the whole thing is put aside as Persia readies itself for war. Artaxerxes commands Callirhoe to travel with Stateira’s entourage in order to keep her within his control, and Dionysus joins his forces for similar reasons, hoping that by performing a valiant service to the shah that the latter will decide his marriage case in his favor. Chaereas wakes up to realize Callirhoe has been taken from Babylon and he assumes that means Artaxerxes has cheated him of a fair hearing. Vowing revenge, he joins the rebel Egyptian forces.

With Chaereas’ help, the Egyptians take the city of Tyre and defeat the Persian navy, but Persia ultimately wins the land war and the rebel “pharaoh” is captured and executed. Dionysus saves Artaxerxes, who promises to award him Callirhoe as a result. But in the various retreats the Persian forces made before the final victory, Stateira’s entourage is captured by the still at-large rebel navy, with Chaereas serving as admiral. After Callirhoe, serving as an intermediary for the shell-shocked queen, steadfastly refuses to meet with the “Egyptian admiral” several times, the lovers at last understand who the other really is and finally have their tearful reunion. Chaereas intends to have Stateira and her ladies serve as his wife’s slaves, but Callirhoe convinces him to return them all unharmed to Artaxerxes in remembrance of the queen’s civility to her, along with a letter from Callirhoe to Dionysus explaining the situation and leaving him guardianship of the boy he still thinks is his son, asking him to let the boy visit his Syracusan family when he has grown up. The shah and Dionysus are both disappointed to lose Callirhoe, but they accept these terms, and Callirhoe and Chaereas sail home to Syracuse, where Hermocrates and a joyful populace welcome them back. Callirhoe returns to the temple of Aphrodite as she did on the fateful day she first saw her husband and gives thanks to the goddess for reuniting them at last.

Despite some of the outlandish plot points, there is a fair amount of realism in how characters behave within the story in Callirhoe. Most of the lead characters have well-rounded personalities and complex motivations, with very few people being one dimensional. In a story where even the pirates weigh the various pros and cons of their actions, honestly the most unreflective character is probably Chaereas himself. Seriously, he makes Romeo look like a deep thinker, and his sudden competence and heroics in the Egyptian war were clearly the author realizing at the last minute that he’d written a male lead with no redeeming qualities outside of his good looks. Callirhoe is way too good for any of the men who are chasing her and it really is the irrationality of Eros and Aphrodite that must bring her back to the otherwise unremarkable Chaereas. Retconning him as a war hero who captures a historically nigh-impossible-to-take Tyre (like Alexander does in 332 BCE) is a Hail Mary to make up for the fact that all of this is his fault because he assaulted his wife so violently everyone thought she was dead and he’s spent most of the time since then whining and acting aggrieved like he’s the one who’s been done dirty. Meanwhile Callirhoe has been domestically abused, buried alive, kidnapped by pirates, sold in slavery, forced to marry a stranger to protect her unborn child, paraded publicly in an adultery trial, and carried off into a war—all while figuring out how to outmaneuver all the men who want to sleep with her. This is why his name doesn’t belong in the title.

[papyrus copy of Callirhoe (c. 2nd/3rd century CE)]

Chariton proclaims near the beginning of the eighth and final book of the novel that all of this suffering has been a penance for Chaereas, ordained by Aphrodite because he offended her by allowing his jealousy to injure Callirhoe, whom the goddess gave to him as a gift to rival the gift of Helen she made to Paris (8.1). Now on first glance, it sure seems like the gift suffered a whole lot more than the recipient here, but I think a case can be made for a deeper meaning. I think, further down, this is a heightened reality depiction of married love and how it changes a couple as it grows and matures. When we meet both Chaereas and Callirhoe as young lovers, they’re both naïve and very set in the roles given to them by their culture. Sure, Chaereas fecklessly hangs out with his buddies at the gym and loves Callirhoe because she’s pretty, but in this way, she’s not that much different from him. Callirhoe is more emotionally mature, but she’s very much a typical Greek girl who waits for her future to be decided for her and accepts whatever baseless accusations her husband feels like dishing her way.

It is when she is so violently torn out of this comfort zone that we see a whole person. On her own among a variety of people whom even the best of only partially have her interests at heart, Callirhoe is forced to make difficult, life-defining choices not only for herself, but her child and ultimately, Chaereas, mostly through her own strength and intellect—a situation unlikely to happen to a typical Greek girl living in her home polis. And as Callirhoe has to develop her autonomy, so to does Chaereas have to develop his emotional intellect. It takes a lot longer for him, but his journey from jealous himbo to confident war hero who actually listens to his wife when she tells him things is what makes him finally worthy of the gift Aphrodite originally bestowed on him just for his pretty face. Perhaps it’s only modern projecting, but I see the reunion of these two crazy kids at the end of the story as the natural maturation of young lovers into life partners. A couple capable of being not only a physical adornment to their city, but active participants in its future growth and glory.

%d bloggers like this: