- ‘Empire of the Gaze’:Despotism and Seraglio Fantasies à la grecque in Chariton’s Callirhoe
When I said I had actually stayed in a harem, I could see the male portion of my audience, as it were, passing round the wink. ‘You may not put the word “harem” on the title of your lecture,’ said the secretary of a certain society. ‘Many who might come to hear you would stay away for fear of hearing improper revelations, and others would come hoping to hear those revelations and go away disappointed.’Grace Ellison, An Englishwoman in a Turkish Harem
In this article I explore how Greek literature of the postclassical age used the motif of the past glories of a decadent East to fantasize about the erotic pleasures of looking at women. These fantasies take place in an arena usually considered taboo for any male observer: the Persian royal seraglio. My focus will be on Chariton’s novel Callirhoe, the lively story of an exceptionally beautiful Greek woman—the fictional Callirhoe—who is compelled to become a concubine at the Persian royal court.1 Callirhoe’s status as a desired possession is negotiated throughout the novel by increasingly intimate levels of viewing as she progresses on her dual journeys from Greece to Persia and from Greek wife to Persian concubine (and, finally, back again). The climactic and most intimate viewing of Callirhoe takes place within the Persian Empire, at Babylon, inside the royal palace’s seraglio of queens and concubines; here she is seen by the Great King Artaxerxes alone, affording us, the readers of the novel, the vicariously privileged position of viewing the body of a much desired royal paramour.
Greek novelists and historians of the Roman Imperial period, working with source materials derived in large from, most probably, the fourth-century BCE Persica of Ctesias, Dinon, and Heraclides of Cumae recognized that bona fide royal Achaemenid women had been part of a tightly regulated court society in which their high rank was emphasized by, partly, the women’s avoidance of the public gaze.2 I will suggest that the Greek authors of the novel (and, indeed, other types of Imperial-period literature) deliberately play with the tensions associated with viewing women in the palaces of the Persian Great Kings. These stories, concocted long after the fall of the Persian Empire, were intended to arouse the passions of (male) readers who saw in these seraglio tales an open licence for exotic voyeurism. [End Page 167] By the first century CE, the seraglio motif had embedded itself so firmly in the popular imagination that biographers and historians like Plutarch and, later, Aelian were using the stereotypical image of the seraglio as factual content in the composition of their Eastern histories.
Callirhoe, History, and the Historical Novel
Callirhoe, written at some time in the period 25 BCE to 50 CE, is generally regarded as the earliest extant piece of Greek prose fiction.3 Like many of the early novels (the Alexander Romance, the fragmentary Ninus, and Metiochus and Parthenope), Callirhoe is best classified as historical fiction. The story is set at the height of the Persian Empire, and the Persians who populate it have a secure basis in Achaemenid history: King Artaxerxes II (405–359 BCE) is the ruler who figures in Xenophon’s Anabasis, whose brother, Cyrus the Younger, rebelled against him and lost his life at the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BCE; he was the ruler whose health was cared for by Ctesias of Cindus, who worked as a royal physician at the Persian court.4 And it is Ctesias (writing early in the fourth century BCE), and later followed by Plutarch, who confirms that the name of Artaxerxes’ wife was Stateira and she too appears in Chariton’s novel,5 while the other characters found there are principally drawn from Achaemenid nobility, as first recorded by Ctesias: Rhodogyne, Megabyzus, Zopyrus, and Pharnaces all occur in Book 17 of his Persica, while the King’s eunuch Artaxares, found in Book 19 of Ctesias’s work, becomes the model for Chariton’s eunuch Artaxates.6 Therefore we can say that Chariton intended a precise literary-historical equation...