Chereas & Callirhoe

Image: João Nitsche


Presentation of the newly published book by Cariton of Aphrodisias, a Dthe first novels written in the west

Chereas and Callirhoe is among the first novels written in the West, if that's what we can call the piece of world between Europe and Asia where Turkey is today and before Caria. Only what the narrator of the novel enunciates in the first person in the first lines is known about its author: “I, Cariton of Aphrodisias, secretary of the orator Athenagoras, will narrate a love story that happened in Syracuse”.

In addition to this passage, which, it should be noted, is inserted in the work itself, Cáriton is an illustrious unknown — as are practically all other novelists in Antiquity, which denotes a certain lack of prestige of the genre among the cultivated elite. His name, which derives from the Greek word charis (grace, beauty, charm), suggests a pseudonym, even more so in conjunction with that of his hometown. Aphrodisias designates what belongs to Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexual pleasure, who was worshiped there.

In other words, Cáriton de Afrodísias can be freely translated as “Lord enchanter of the city of love”, a very fitting nickname for anyone dedicated to love-themed literature. The name, however, has an epigraphic record, and the city, of Greek colonization, was a prosperous political and cultural center in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, maintaining intense contact with Rome.

Aphrodisias today houses an important archaeological site, so much is known about the city and almost nothing about Chariton. Not even the mention of the retor Athenagoras — which I translated as “orator”, but could also be understood as “lawyer” — helps to place our author, since the name is quite recurrent in the documentation of the city, occurring in several periods, but without pointing to any notable individual. However, Cáriton's position as secretary to a rector implies a literate figure, versed in rhetoric and aware of the political issues of his time. This profile, fictional or not, is evidenced by the writing of the novel, in which, in very elegant prose, the familiarity with Homer and Thucydides, among other classical Greek authors, is evident.

The dating of the novel is largely conjectural, given the absence of internal or external evidence that allows pinpointing the exact moment of its composition. If today it is almost consensually located in the middle of the XNUMXst century AD, in the Neronian period, a hundred years ago, on the contrary, it was considered the last of the examples of the Greek Romanesque canon and dated to the XNUMXth-XNUMXth centuries AD. papyri, the study of fragments of lost works and the advance in the analysis of intertextual relations between surviving Greek novels produced this turnaround in chronology, which raised Chereas and Callirhoe at the beginning of the series, a position he disputes with The Ephesian ( Anthia and Habrocomes), by Xenophon of Ephesus, a work with which it shares common characteristics and which is generally located at the beginning of the second century AD Some scholars, notably Tilg, consider Chariton the “inventor” of the romantic novel (ideal love novel) to Chereas and Callíroe, the archetypal text of this production.

Invention may seem like an inappropriate way of thinking about the birth of a genre. But that was exactly what Perry, one of those responsible for putting the ancient novel on the literary map, defended. For him, “the first novel was deliberately planned and written by an individual author, its inventor”, who “conceived it on a Tuesday afternoon, in July, or on another day or month”. In the author's conception, the world view and the historical conditions that support it certainly influence the generic conformation, but the final product, the work, is always the result of a writer's genius.

Here, however, is the caveat of Brandão, for whom “the individual inventor who had his idea on a Tuesday is nothing more than a beautiful (and romantic!) image”. Instead of pointing to the supposed inaugurator of the novel, it is more productive to seek its origin in the network of works whose common characteristics create relationships and consolidate genre paradigms.

If it is not possible (or even relevant) to give Cariton the title of founder of this company, it is not accidental that Aphrodisias is the epicenter of this novelty. Bowie, in his discussion of the chronology of the first Greek novels, ventures the guess that, after all, maybe something happened on a hot Tuesday in any given July, but not in a random part of the ecumene. For him, the fact that Eros has become the center of this new genre is not only explainable by social and political changes, but also by the predominance that the cult of Aphrodite assumed in this part of the planet. Thus, in the middle of the first century AD, “in the flourishing city of Aphrodisias, seat of an important cult of Aphrodite”, “a writer or writers developed a successful formula”, which soon spread throughout the inhabited world. And what would that formula be? the opening of Chereas and Callirhoe enunciation: the narrative of a love story (pathos erotikon, in Greek).

The typical plot of an ancient novel brings to the fore a couple of teenagers, beautiful and belonging to the local aristocracy, who fall in love at first sight, face a series of adversities that result in separation, wanderings, harassment, until they meet again and return to hometown, where you can finally enjoy your love. The idealization of amorous passion resides in its predestination, since the attraction occurs at first sight, often at the whim of a deity (Eros or Aphrodite), and is lasting, capable of resisting the various trials that threaten the reunion of young people. The correspondence of feelings is still a novelty in a society in which erotic relationships are revealed to be asymmetrical: the lover, active, imposing himself on the beloved, passive, considering that marriages were nothing more than arrangements between families, disregarding the inclinations of the bride and groom — very particularly, that of the bride.

Chereas and Callirhoe narrates the love story of the eponymous characters. Callírroe, owner of an unparalleled beauty, is compared at the beginning of the novel to Aphrodite herself, the goddess with whom she maintains a strong connection throughout the work. Chereas does not resemble a god, but he is on a par with Achilles, Hippolytus and Alcibiades, all paradigms of male beauty in antiquity. She was the daughter of the respected local ruler, Hermocrates of Syracuse, a historical figure, portrayed by Thucydides in History of the Peloponnesian War as one of the leaders of resistance to the Athenian invasion of Sicily (415 BC). The father's prestige, added to the daughter's beauty, attracts an entourage of suitors to Syracuse for the young woman's hand.

That said, it is clear that in this story the protagonist is the heroine, the hero remaining largely in her shadow. Many even defend that the novel be called only callirroe ou About Callirroe, in view of the phrase with which Chariton closes it: “Such a report I wrote about Callirhoe”. It is speculated that the prominence that women assume in the ancient novel, in its Greek aspect, somehow reflects a change in society, in which they start to have greater visibility and access to education, especially in the Roman context. But it is worth remembering that Greek tragedy, full of prominent female characters, is the product of a patriarchal society in which women from the highest social classes were tutored by their male relatives. There are still those who propose the romantic novel as a genre for consumption by women, who would constitute its main audience, which is very difficult to prove.

The fact is that Callírroe dominates the plot of the novel, whose structure can be divided into four parts, distributed in eight books: 1) passion and union of the protagonists (Book i); 2) separation (i); 3) misadventures of the protagonists (ii-vii); 4) reunion of the couple and return to Syracuse (viii). This scheme allows us to predict that parts 1 and 4 deal with love, while 2 and 3 deal with adventure, a category that includes travel and ordeal of the loving couple.

Chereas and Callirhoe it is also distinguished by its historical setting. Of the Greek novels that have been preserved, this is the only one that has a precise time frame, since the other novelists place their characters in a sufficiently neutral period for a contemporary reader to recognize it, and equally devoid of historical references, the which ends up creating a timeless atmosphere. Returning to the opening of the novel, Cariton states that he will narrate “a love story that took place in Syracuse” in the past, spatially distant from his Aphrodisias.

The story takes place, then, at the end of the Peloponnesian War, at the turn of the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century BC The defeat of the Athenian fleet against the Sicilian one, commanded by Hermocrates, is constantly remembered; in addition to Callirhoe's father, the Persian King Artaxerxes i and Queen Statira are also portrayed there. With that, there are those who see Chereas and Callirhoe as a "historical novel". In addition to the anachronism implied by the term, I believe that it proves to be inadequate insofar as, apart from occasional mentions of historical figures, the author makes little effort to create a credible context to which they belonged, which works more as a background for the love story you want to tell. In addition, the central characters are clearly fictional in character, prevailing during most of the novel what Bakhtin called “adventure time”, with the focus on the encounters and disagreements of the loving couple.

Finally, it is worth pointing out the essential relationship that Cariton's novel maintains with the Homeric poems, Iliad e Odyssey, which will be developed in the afterword to this book. Here, it suffices to mention that Callirhoe's characterization is based on those of Helen and Penelope, characters from the epics. Like the heroine of Cariton, Helena has two husbands, the Greek Menelaus, who sets out to rescue her in Troy, and Paris, the Trojan prince who kidnaps her (or with whom she runs away, according to other versions). Also in common there is the exceptional beauty and the privileged relationship with Aphrodite. The approximation with Penélope takes place through the love bond with Odysseus, who resists the couple's separation and the harassment of suitors. It is worth noting that the Odyssey it is an important intertext for all Romanesque production in antiquity.

*Adriane da Silva Duarte is a professor of Greek language and literature at USP. She is the author, among other books, of Scenes of Recognition in Greek Poetry (Unicamp Publisher).


Cariton of Aphrodisias. Chereas & Callirhoe. Translation, presentation and afterword: Adriane da Silva Duarte. São Paulo, Publisher 34, 2020.


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