Critical Inquiry 2 (2):281-296 (1975)

It seems that a Greek romance named Chaereas and Callirhoe—if it was in fact written about A.D. 50—might be the oldest extant romantic novel.1 Chaucer's Troilus, Chretien's Erec, Apuleius' Metamorphoses, and for all l know Homer's Odyssey have already blushed under this dubious accolade; and I do not mean to celebrate an old Greek book by thrusting an English genre-label upon it. But nothing quite like Callirhoe survives from an earlier period of western literature; and following our inclination to comprehend such a phenomenon by fitting it into familiar categories we would call it a Greek romance because it is written in Greek, a novel because it is an extensive prose fiction of ordinary moral life that conforms to a recognizable canon of realism, and a romance because its admirable protagonists suffer the most serious threats to their lives and values but survive them all. Its author, a certain Chariton of Aphrodisia, a small city in the province of Caria in Asia Minor, places his book about Callirhoe in the Hellenistic genre of the erotikon pathematon—a story of erotic suffering. This is an accurate label and perhaps a bold one, as erotic pathemata were thought to be more suitable for epic or elegiac verse than for prose. In any case, I am not here concerned to argue that Callirhoe is the precursor of such entities as the novel, nor to speculate about its cultural origins, nor to point out its obvious likenesses to later narratives. I do want to discuss the habits of narrative art Chariton exploits in his book, and to explore a few of the ways he makes erotic suffering pleasurable for his readers—us, and the leisured, literate members of the bourgeois households that had for centuries flourished in the great Hellenic cities of the eastern Mediterranean basin. · 1. I accept the date accepted by Ben E. Perry, The Ancient Romances , p. 350. The standard edition is W.E. Blake's , whose translation I use throughout. Chariton's work did not see print until 1750, so it did not enjoy the vogue enjoyed by other Greek romances in the Renaissance. Arthur Heiserman is the author of several articles, short stories, and Skelton and Satire. 'Aphrodisian Chastity" will appear as a chapter in his forthcoming book, Romance in Antiquity: Essays and Discussions about the Beginnings of Prose Fiction in the West
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