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  • Chariton's Erotic History
  • Jean Alvares

It is clear that numerous personages and events of Chaireas and Callirhoe are either taken directly from history or are in some way based on historiographical materials.1 The work has been considered a historical romance,2 yet its mixture of genuine historical fact, gross inaccuracies, anachronisms of Chariton's period,3 and reflections of drama, oratory, and epic4 suggests to some that Chariton merely aims to provide a "general colouring of Greek history, to titillate the readers" (Reardon 1996, 327). I believe Chariton had larger aims. Building upon the insights of Edwards (1987, 29–51) into how Chariton depicts Aphrodite's influence upon politics and society, I consider here how Chariton adapts familiar elements from history in order to provide a contrast to [End Page 613] history, as those elements' usual political and social significances are attenuated or ignored and as they in turn become evidence for the operations of Aphrodite. Thus a Greek assembly pleads for the marriage of teenagers, an eros–obsessed satrap contemplates revolt, and the hero, seeking vengeance against his erotic rival, mimics the deeds of Alexander. I use these elements to produce an outline (not a full–fledged narrative) of an "alternative" history of Syracuse, one that suggests a more satisfying history wherein Aphrodisian values are pursued with the same vigor as those of conventional history.5 I do not assert that Chariton intended his work to be read as a type of history or even as a historical novel;6 I merely wish to reveal the historical narrative that is contained (with much else) within the text and its significance.

To provide context for this reading I begin with Müller's observation that Chariton offers his work as a successor to epic inasmuch as Chaireas and Callirhoe concerns a heroic period of Greek history that had by Chariton's time become legendary.7 For such "epic" and "mythologized" history, traditional accounts, such as those of Thucydides, become simply raw material, such as Homer became for later poets, dramatists and rhetoricians—material to be altered according to the author's purposes.8 Further, as Bowersock notes, starting at roughly the [End Page 614] time of Nero, various literary works appeared that challenged conventional history or myth by presenting an alternative version of famous events: for example, the account of the Trojan War offered under the name of Dictys of Crete.9 I suggest that, for Chariton, the glorious period of Syracuse's victory over Athens is sufficiently remote and mythologized to be the legitimate object of a similar rewriting, an "alternative" history which demonstrates that pursuit of the values of Aphrodite and Eros can bring the sort of success achieved by the heroes of conventional histories. The outlines of such an alternative history can be extracted from Chaireas and Callirhoe.

The starting point for Chariton's alternative erotic history is an idealized Syracuse, a state whose unique excellence makes it a fitting birthplace for the exceptional Chaireas and Callirhoe. A long–standing literary tradition idealized Syracuse and Hermocrates for their wealth and unexpected defeat of Athens.10 The Syracuse of Chaireas and Callirhoe is a city with recognizably Hellenic political and social institutions that work in surprising harmony.11 Hellenistic and Roman historiography often connect the rise and fall of states and individuals to their character and actions; similarly, the social harmony and success of these fictive Syracusans are linked to their willingness to follow the influence of Aphrodite, whose politically beneficent effects are observed early on.

Initially a fierce political rivalry exists between Hermocrates and Ariston (1.1.3–4). Such rivalries were a common historiographical topos as well as a present reality of the Greek East.12 They often brought civic [End Page 615] disaster, but here Eros, "who is a lover of victory and rejoices in paradoxes set straight," decides that the rivals' two children should be married and arranges their meeting. Chaireas and Callirhoe fall in love, and, forbidden to marry, begin to waste away (1.1.4–10). At the next scheduled assembly the Syracusans, dominated by Eros the demagogue, ignore all other public business and instead beg Hermocrates to marry...