Death Becomes Her: Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe & Clitophon

“Alas, Leucippe, how often have I seen you die!” – Leucippe & Clitophon (VII, 5.2)

“The first time you came back from the other side, I thought it was the most phenomenal thing I’d ever heard. And the second time, I thought, ‘Wow! What are the odds?’ And the next four times I thought, ‘Well, it certainly is interesting that it happens so often…’ But yes, I admit it, lately, I’m bored.” – The Kids in the Hall (‘Dull Death’ sketch)

[Abduction of a Sabine Woman (Giambologna, 1579–1583)]

As we touched on in my entry about the novel Callirhoe, the Greeks spent the centuries on either side of the Common Era divide experimenting with long-form prose narratives that would form the basis of the Western novel. While we have as many as twenty known titles, only five of these proto-novels have come down to us in any manner of completeness: Callirhoe (1st century BCE/CE), Daphnis & Chloe (2nd century CE), Leucippe & Clitophon (2nd century CE), The Ephesian Tale (also called Anthia & Habrocomes) (2nd century CE), and the Aethiopica (3rd century CE). While Xenophon of Ephesus’ Ephesian Tale is generally thought to be the latest in time of the three 2nd century works, there is some debate about whether Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe & Clitophon or Longus’ Daphnis & Chloe was written first. This may be due in part to the two novels’ plot similarities and the general dearth of information we have about their authors, aside from being reasonably certain they were in fact two separate people.

Some scholars hold that, based on the late 2nd century dates of the earliest papyri copies of Leucippe & Clitophon that we’ve discovered, that the origins of the story must be earlier in the century and therefore it is the earlier novel. But on the other hand, some see the especially extreme nature of many of the plot elements in Leucippe & Clitophon as pointing to it being a genre parody, particularly of Daphnis & Chloe, since they are so similar. But many of those similarities (unbelievably beautiful heroine, cute but doltish hero, kidnappings, pirates, fake deaths, court dénouements, etc) are present in the definitely previous in time Callirhoe, so it doesn’t really help solve the chronology between its two successors. For our purposes this week, we’re going to treat Leucippe & Clitophon as the next in line and see how the Greek romance genre pivots from the first story. But don’t worry, we’ll be hitting up Daphnis & Chloe some time in the near future.

[Papyrus fragment of Leucippe & Clitophon, 2nd – 4th century CE]

As I said, we don’t know a whole lot about Leucippe & Clitophon’s author, Achilles Tatius (Achilleus Tatios in his native Greek), and what little can be conjectured comes to us from medieval sources many centuries after his scanty historical footprint was laid. The anonymous copyists of the 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia Suda tell us that Tatius was a native of Alexandria in Roman Egypt, which is supported by what editor G.P. Goold in his introduction to the Loeb translation of Leucippe considers Tatius’ “somewhat exaggerated description of the beauties of the city [by the 2nd century CE]” in Book V of the novel (p. x). The Suda also claims that he was the author of several nonfiction treatises on history, etymology, and the nature of spheres, but as to the latter, modern historians believe this may be conflating our Achilles Tatius with another Alexandrian of the same name who lived in the 3rd century.

Whether or not this is the case, Leucippe’s author must have at least been a man of some intellectual curiosity because there are several points in the novel where the plot essentially stops while the characters engage in lengthy conversations on a wide array of topics including geography, mythology, zoology, and philosophy. Just as his intimate knowledge of Alexandria has been used to surmise his residency there, Tatius’ detailed courtroom descriptions and seeming familiarity with legal procedure have led some historians to suggest that he may have been an advocate or public rhetorician. The 14th century Byzantine scholiast Thomas Magister (Theodoulos Monachos) calls him an orator. The Suda also claims that Tatius eventually converted to Christianity and became a bishop in Egypt. There is no direct evidence for this within Leucippe, which is entirely pre-Christian culturally, but this tradition may explain a persistent academic interest in tying Leucippe to the apocryphal Coptic gospel, the Acts of Andrew. Both texts date from a similar time period and some scholars see stylistic echoes of the novel in the Andrew text’s many depictions of miracles and fantastical elements. It may also explain why, to the early Church’s disapproval, Andrew deals very little with doctrine or heterodoxy—it’s mostly about the apostle surviving crazy circumstances and doing insane miracles, including preaching for three days while he’s being crucified. No one seems to be claiming that Achilles Tatius wrote the Acts of Andrew, but they’re kind of coming from a similar Greco-Egyptian narrative tradition.

[The Rape of Europa (Titian, c. 1560-2)]

So what’s going on in the second of our Greek romances? Well, the first thing Tatius does is move away from the historical fiction of Callirhoe. None of his characters are based on real people, though the story appears to take place in the historical present, in factual locations around the Mediterranean—mainly Tyre on the Syrian coast and Alexandria in Egypt. But what’s most revolutionary about Leucippe & Clitophon from a stylistic perspective is its choices vis à vis voice and framing. Tatius abandons the period-typical omniscient third-person narrator for not one, but two first-person narrators—an initial unnamed traveler who opens the novel, and the titular Clitophon, who will tell his story and that of his wife, Leucippe, to the traveler. This all ties into the novel’s unique (for the time) framing.

The traveler-narrator arrives in Sidon (Syria) after a fraught voyage and makes his way to the city’s patron goddess, the Phoenician Astarte, to thank her for safely making it ashore. Within the temple, his attention is drawn to a vivid painting depicting Zeus’ abduction of Europa, especially how it shows Cupid (Eros) as the force leading Zeus in bull form on across the sea with the princess. He describes the painting in great detail, and this is one of the earliest known examples of ekphrasis, a long-form verbal description of a work of art, in a work of fiction. Ekphrasis was more generally used by the ancients as a rhetorical exercise, which again might belie Tatius’ educational or vocational background. The traveler’s musings are interrupted by the young man at his side, who remarks that the painting is truthful, because Love often leads to such misadventures and he’s living proof of this. The traveler, his interest piqued, cajoles the young man—Clitophon—to tell him his story and he eventually agrees.

Clitophon explains that he grew up in Tyre in his father’s household, along with his stepmother, and his stepsister, Calligone (be prepared—half of the characters in this damn story have ‘C’ names). Clitophon’s father has arranged an engagement between Clitophon and Calligone, which a cheerful footnote in the Loeb edition assures us was completely acceptable in ancient Greece because they only share the same biological father (only marriages between half siblings with the same mother were verboten) (I, fn 1). Though not for the same reason as the rest of us, Clitophon is not particularly enthusiastic about the arrangement, even though he likes his stepsister just fine and she’s very pretty. But he’s distracted from worrying about this by the arrival of his aunt, and his cousin, Leucippe, who are coming from Byzantium to avoid an ongoing conflict in their home city. Clitophon is immediately smitten with the beautiful Leucippe, but he’s too bashful to confess his feelings to her.

[I’ve never been so relieved to see a character fall in love with a first cousin…]

At a loss and falling more lovesick every day, Clitophon goes out to get some relationship advice from perhaps Western literature’s first Sassy Gay Friend, Clinias. I know because this is ancient Greece I sound like I’m being flip, but Clinias, unlike most fictional Greek men, is only interested in guys for the entirety of the story. In fact, most of his advice to Clitophon is to stop mooning over girls and get himself a hot young boy toy like his own boyfriend, Charicles, because guys are awesome and women are a drag. Unfortunately, in addition to possibly being the first Sassy Gay Friend, Clinias and Charicles also might be Western literature’s first Tragic Gay Couple, as about four seconds after showing up in the story, Charicles is killed in a riding accident involving the horse that Clinias gave him. Clinias is understandably wrecked by this Chekhov’s horse scenario, but in true protagonist form, Clitophon feels bad about it for another four seconds, then goes back to moaning over his Les Cousins Dangereuses situation.

After some toes in the water where he contrives to talk about love within Leucippe’s hearing to gauge her reaction, Clitophon remembers seeing Leucippe kiss away a bee sting on her maid with an incantation she received from from an herbalist (Loeb translates it as a Romani charm, though as this is an older book, it uses the more pejorative exonym). Clitophon actually has the really smooth idea to tell Leucippe that a bee stung him on the lips to see if she’ll “heal” him too. While it’s implied that Leucippe understands this is a pickup line and not a medical emergency, she’s game, and soon those two crazy kids are kissing each other all over the place while trying to avoid detection by the rest of the house. Vaguely ill at ease, but not exactly onto them, Clitophon’s father tries to move up the Clitophon/Calligone marriage by performing the required sacrifices, but like in all good ancient fiction, the auspices go awry and an eagle takes off with the offering in the middle of proceedings. You might think this is supposed to signal Clitophon’s interference with Leucippe, but it might actually be heralding the arrival of another wrench (and C-name) into the mix: the Byzantine Callisthenes.

[Oh, he’s not even the last one. Just you waaaaaaait…]

Callisthenes has been after Leucippe for years—mainly because he’s heard she’s hot—but her father has said no to the match because Callisthenes has a bad reputation in their town. In a move that will not improve anyone’s opinions of him, he sails into Tyre with the intent of kidnapping her at a festival to Heracles going on at the time. He tells his hired thugs to be on the lookout for a pretty girl with Leucippe’s mom, but in a truly hilarious (for everyone else) situation, Leucippe is ill that day, so Calligone is the one at her aunt’s side, and since none of her kidnappers have ever seen Leucippe before, it’s Calligone who is snatched. Honestly, nobody in the house is nearly upset enough about this, but that’s maybe because Leucippe’s mother is too busy running around screaming that her daughter’s virginity has been taken by an unknown prowler (Clitophon) she just knows has been in Leucippe’s room. Our lovebirds haven’t actually gone all the way yet, but despite the deus ex machina exit of Clitophon’s fiancée, they still can’t be together without admitting they’ve been secretly canoodling, which they’re under the impression that the parents won’t approve of (maybe because of the lack of permission). So they decide to run away together and catch a ship heading for Alexandria. Still despondent over the death of his boyfriend, Clinias decides to join them and their servants, and probably lucky for the group, too, as he’s the one who figures out how to get them out of Tyre without raising the alarm. Pulling safely away from the harbor of Tyre, of course though, is when everything really starts to go sideways.

For a while, things are fine and our little band of runaways makes friends with a fellow passenger, Menelaus, who—surprise!—is returning from an exile sentence after killing his boyfriend in a freak hunting accident. Leucippe and Clitophon’s ship encounters the storm of the century and the whole vessel is wrecked off the coast of Egypt at Pelusium. Our lovers manage to make it ashore, but everyone else is lost, including their servants, Clinias, and Menelaus. They might be better off that way, though, because Leucippe and Clitophon are almost instantly captured by a band of the Nile Delta’s notorious bandits, who decide for reasons that they need to sacrifice Leucippe to the gods. The bandits run off to do this, leaving Clitophon to be rescued by a detachment of the Egyptian army led by a soldier named…sigh…Charmides. They hurry after the bandits and manage to defeat them in battle, but not before Clitophon witnesses Leucippe cut open upon the altar and buried in a pit. Clitophon resolves to kill himself and decides to do it over Leucippe’s makeshift grave. Luckily, his very-much-alive servant and Menelaus manage to stop him, because, you see, Leucippe isn’t dead. It turns out that the three of them conspired to trick the bandits by having local Menelaus offer to do the “sacrifice” and fitting Leucippe with an impressive movie-magic-level prop stomach that only made it look like all of her guts were spilling out. They then “buried” her and were just coming to get her out of the ground.

[The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (François Perrier, 1632)]

The lovers are happily reunited and Charmides promises to help them get to Alexandria. Unfortunately, he, like most men, falls in love with Leucippe on the way and starts scheming to run off with her. He’s thwarted from doing so because Leucippe suddenly starts having psychotic fits and literally has to be tied to her bed for her own safety. Everyone is at a loss as what to do until a stranger…uggggh…Chaereas arrives and figures out that she’s being poisoned with a love potion given to her by another romantic rival. Chaereas heals her and offers to get the lovers to his house in Alexandria and away from Charmides. They happily accept, but obviously on the way Chaereas falls in love with Leucippe and starts his own kidnapping plan. He hires some pirates he knows and they abscond with Leucippe, while Clitophon and Menelaus go after them in ancient world boat chase. Realizing that they won’t get away, Chaereas holds up Leucippe to Clitophon in the distance and cuts off her head, before throwing both pieces of her into Alexandria’s harbor. A distraught Clitophon recovers her body, but not her head, and tearfully buries it.

[Hmm…I wonder if it’s important that the head’s missing… Surely Clitophon still would recognize his girlfriend’s body without it, though…]

The narrative then jumps forward six months: Clitophon is still mourning Leucippe, but a hot, rich, young widow, Melite, is trying to snag him after her husband is lost at sea. Clitophon is reluctant to acquiesce (poor him), but it’s not all bad news, because Clinias shows up alive in Alexandria, so at least he’s got his BFF back. Clitophon finally caves to marrying Melite, but he gets her to put off consummating the marriage until they get back to her house in Ephesus. When they arrive, they find that Melite’s steward has purchased a new slave girl, “Lacaena,” from, of all people, Callisthenes. It’s obviously Leucippe (though, you’d be forgiven for making a guess for Calligone too), but Clitophon doesn’t quite recognize her because she’s dirty and her hair has been cut (🤡). He is eventually clued in when Leucippe writes him a secret letter, one where she is understandably annoyed that he’s already married someone else, and he has to spend the next dozen pages convincing her that he hasn’t actually slept with Melite while continuing to put off that inevitability with his “wife.”

But since Leucippe turns out to not be dead (again), of course Melite’s missing husband, Thersander, isn’t either and he shows up in Ephesus equally pissed that Melite has remarried so quickly. He beats up Clitophon, but Melite defends him…at least until she finds Leucippe’s letter. She’s furious, but she knows she can’t compete with Leucippe, so she lets Clitophon go. Though, not before she finagles one night of pity sex out of Clitophon, who swears up and down to us and the traveler that he just had to because he’s such a nice guy… His comeuppance for this is Thersander finds Leucippe in his house and of course also falls in love with her. So he hides her away in his vacation house while he tries to convince her to sleep with him and gets Clitophon imprisoned on adultery charges, and decides to claim Clitophon has also murdered Leucippe.

While preparing for his case against Clitophon, Thersander plants a story to him in prison that Melite has had men murder Leucippe, and because Clitophon might be an idiot, he immediately believes this and plans to plead guilty to the charges and let the Ephesians execute him. Even the other characters call him out on this, as Clinias points out that Leucippe has been declared dead in this story, um, a lot, and maybe Clitophon shouldn’t rush to conclusions. But Clitophon refuses to see reason and despite everyone else, including Melite who swears she hasn’t touched Leucippe, trying to get him off, he’s convicted of adultery and of Leucippe’s death after a lengthy courtroom scene that as we noted earlier, shows off Achilles Tatius’ rhetorical skills. Leucippe, who is very predictably not dead, manages to escape her own imprisonment and shows up in time to save Clitophon from execution, while a thwarted Thersander tries to still have the execution go through even though the “murder victim” is standing right there in front of everyone, which the megabyzos of the Temple of Artemis sardonically points out. Clitophon is then freed by the Ephesians, who mock Thersander.

[The Lady of Ephesus saves the day]

Leucippe’s father then just so happens to show up in town to offer a sacrifice to Artemis at the successful conclusion of the war in Byzantium, making Thersander fearful that Leucippe, now shown to be a lady with important relatives, will (rightfully) accuse him of attempted rape. So he demands a trial by ordeal for Leucippe to prove her virginity, as well as one for Melite to prove she didn’t commit adultery with Clitophon. Fortunately for Melite, he helpfully phrases the charge as “she didn’t commit adultery with Clitophon while Thersander was away,” and since the one night stand with Clitophon happened after he returned to Ephesus, she is publicly vindicated and Clitophon gets to keep his little indiscretion a secret from Leucippe (because, Tatius says, you know “chastity” is a little different for the dudes…🙄). Leucippe, who has manage to truly preserve her chastity throughout this entire adventure of hers, enters a specially-designated grotto in the temple, where the goddess confirms her virginity and Thersander is finally defeated. The lovers are reunited, and Leucippe’s father tells them that the family has consented to their marriage so they can return to Tyre. And as a bonus, it turns out that Callisthenes ended up falling in love with Calligone for real after he abducted her, and she has so changed him for the better that everybody has happily accepted their relationship as well. Mazel Tov!

The narrative ends rather abruptly here. If Tatius showed the lovers triumphantly returning to Tyre—or returning Clitophon’s narration back to the traveler and explaining why he’s in Sidon rather than Tyre—it has been lost to us. As you can see, Leucippe shares a lot of story bones with Callirhoe, what with all of the fraught lovers, pirate kidnappings, and attempted rapes, but one thing this story loses from its predecessor is any kind of solid connection to its equally heroic heroine. I think the switch to a first-person narrator is otherwise really fun, especially in a novel this old, but having the story told solely from Clitophon’s limited (and often dense) perspective closes off all of Leucippe’s interiority to us the readers. Our girl Leucippe deals with some shit in this novel, and all signs point to her doing so with a lot more ingenuity and nerve than Clitophon, who is basically always ready to throw in the towel at the first sign of trouble. But we never get to see her do any of this because her most daring escapades occur when she’s separated from her fiancé while he’s convinced that she’s dead for the eighth time. I think a fun authorial challenge would be to rework Leucippe & Clitophon from her perspective and watch her figure out how to survive shipwrecks, human sacrifices, poisonings, kidnappings, slavery, and being almost buried alive (twice). However, like with her spiritual sister Callirhoe, the true challenge is to do so and then convince your readers that a happy ending is her reuniting with her hapless himbo boyfriend and not running off to conquer the world…

[Artemis should have pulled an Iphigenia and told Leucippe that they should blow this joint.]
%d bloggers like this: