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Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Callirhoe (AD 200) by Chariton

Book Review
Callirhoe (AD 200)
by Chariton

   The question of "What is a novel?" typically excludes Greek literature, which is usually classified in terms of "epic" and "drama" and "tragedy,"  which reflects both form (theater, spoken word poem) and content different then what would become the novel in the 18th century.  Recent scholarship has pushed back upon the late 19th to mid 20th century idea of the novel being created in the 18th century, and sought to include a more diverse selection of materials from ancient Greece and Rome.

   The obvious limitation to this argument is a lack of source material, antique novels having not been high on the list of texts to preserve during centuries of disruption and chaos after the collapse of the western Roman Empire.   Callirhoe is basically the only such novel from its time period that we have (most of) maintained.  It does, indeed, push back against the idea that the novel didn't exist in antiquity.  It does appear much more likely that novels were read by the small literature audience of elites and educated peoples, and not maintained, and the gap of time between ancient Rome and the inventing of the printing press was more than sufficient to ensure the destruction of most texts from that time period.

    Callihroe is surprising readable, especially when compared to the oft stilted translations of Greek and Latin poetry.  It is unmistakably from a pre-Christian time and the characters seem clearly influenced by The Odyssey and The Iliad.  Large portions of Callirhoe take place in Babylon, and they give the reader a better idea of the extent to which the ancient West and Near East co-existed over the centuries.  Callirhoe is a historical novel- a Greek author writing during the Roman Empire about an earlier period of Greek history, before the Roman empire.   The story, about a young woman thought murdered by her young lover, then kidnapped by pirates who are trying to rob her grace-goods and is then sold into slavery, married to a Satrap of the Persian empire and then pursued by the Persian Emperor herself before being "rescued" by her original husband at the head of a rebelling Egyptian army, contains enough incident to satisfy any 20th century critic.


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