BMCR 2008.03.25

Greek Identity and the Athenian Past in Chariton. The Romance of Empire. Ancient Narrative Supplementum, 9

, Greek identity and the Athenian past in Chariton : the romance of empire. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Groningen: Barkhuis, 2007. 1 online resource (viii, 282 pages).. ISBN 9789491431456. €77.00.

Table of Contents

Smith’s study of Chariton’s novel Callirhoe, or perhaps The Affair of Callirhoe as suggested by Tim Whitmarsh,1 is an attempt to define what else the novel is, apart from being the love story of a Syracusan couple, a narrative about the πάθος ἐρωτικόν of Callirhoe and Chaereas. The point of departure for Smith’s interpretation is the “marked dissonance between characters who profess to despise Athens and a narrative voice which continually quotes and emulates classical Athenian authors” (p. 1f.). “Despise” might be too strong a word to describe the characters’ sentiments vis-à-vis Athens, and Smith does qualify this statement later. Rather, the Syracusan attitude to Athens is characterized by admiration for Athenian accomplishments mixed with fear of Athenian power, along with an understandably large dose of pride in Syracuse’s crushing defeat of the Athenian invaders in 413 BC. Similarly, highly positive responses to Syracusans on the part of Persians (the king Artaxerxes), Ionians (Dionysius), and Egyptians (the revolting pharaoh) are determined by admiration for the Syracusan victory over the Athenians, an admiration that in turn is conditioned by at least some degree of awe for Athens. Nevertheless, it is clear that the status of Athens, which is explicitly set in a time when the memory of the Athenian defeat in Sicily at the hands of the Syracusans is still vivid, is diminished in the novel in order to elevate the status of Syracuse.

The relationship between freedom/democracy and tyranny (in the sense not only of political rule but also of abuse of power by an individual) is another strand in the fabric of the novel singled out for analysis by Smith. The political and ideological history of Athens and the reflections of anti-tyrannical ideology in Athenian literature (comedy, historiography, oratory, philosophy) inevitably dominate any study of the theme in question. Athens is an important point of reference for Smith’s analysis of the “freedom and democracy” theme as opposed to tyranny. Smith’s reading of Callirhoe is conducted along two lines: first, how the novel constructs the characters’ social and political identities through their talk about Athens and the Athenians, and second, how the fear of tyranny informing Athenian democratic ideology translates in the novel into an opposition between personal abuse of power and freedom, particularly with regard to latent threats to Syracusan democracy.

After the introductory chapter, in which Smith presents the themes of his reading of Callirhoe and comments on previous scholarship, with a particular focus on the relationship of the novel to historiography, narratology and the characters Callirhoe and Chaereas, Smith sets out in six chapters the ambivalent representation of the notions of freedom and tyranny in the novel and their complex and problematic relationship to the equally ambivalent representation of Athens. An important point of Smith’s reading of the novel is that “[t]he meaning of any reference to Athens depends entirely on the character through whom it is focalized” (p. 17), which applies to the notions of tyranny and freedom too. In other words, questions of focalisation are crucial for the interpretation and there is not one image of Athens in the novel, but several different ones, which overlap to some degree.

In the second chapter, “Culture and Empire in Representations of Athens”, Smith sketches the background against which he reads the images of Athens in Chariton’s novel by describing different representations of Athens in the works of a number of roughly contemporary authors. The comparanda are restricted to Greek and Roman prose from the first centuries BC and AD: Diodorus’ Bibliotheca historica, Cicero’s Pro Flacco, Nepos’ Alcibiades, Velleius Paterculus’ Historiae Romanae, Senecas’ De tranquillitate animi, and Plutarch’s De gloria Atheniensium. Disregarding the questions whether Chariton was familiar with any of the selected works or knew Latin, Smith’s selection serves its purpose of showing that both Greek and Latin evocations of Athens have common themes. In the chosen works, Smith singles out the occurrences of well-known topoi : praises of Athens as the cultural capital of the world — while Plutarch’s De gloria reminds us of concurrent revisionist trends —, representations of democracy and tyranny in Athens as practised by the factional Athenians who were not always able to choose public over personal gain, and Athens as a prefiguration of Rome to the extent that this possible equation can be seen in the texts. He concludes that Plutarch’s De gloria is “… evidence for the difficulty of representing a unified image of Athens’ classical past, a difficulty which Chariton’s novel actively embraces. Evoking classical Athens was a complex cultural process bound ultimately to contradict itself and resist easy definition. And how one recreated the Athenian past was highly relevant to how one articulated a Greek and Roman identity in the imperial context of the Common Era” (p. 49). Although Smith’s study obviously is not the place for tracing the development of the representation of Athens, some mention of its long history before the first century BC would not have been out of place in this chapter.

In chapter three, “Chariton’s Athens: Making Men, Women, and States”, Smith discusses the implicit and explicit references to Athens and Attica in the novel. He remarks that the number of references, 22 in all, may seem small or large depending on one’s point of view: small considering Chariton’s apparent ambition to represent an international landscape in a historically believable world; large in light of the fact that none of the characters is Athenian and that Athens does not develop into a setting for the narrative. The references to Athens are clustered around the Syracusan characters. In one way or another, most of them concern the Syracusan victory over the Athenians in 413 BC or fear of a renewed invasion. Smith examines narratologically how Callirhoe, Chaereas, Hermocrates, Dionysius, and Theron talk about Athens and how Athens is present in the minds of the Syracusans. Persian and Egyptian reactions to the Syracusan victory are also analysed. and show clearly how the Syracusans in the novel define themselves by opposition to Athens. Smith argues, further, that the “Athenian presence in the novel transcends explicit and implicit references” and that “the Athenian literary and cultural tradition is an integral part of the novel’s fabric” (p. 50), shaping both the characters’ and the narrator’s world-view.

Unfortunately, Smith’s interpretation begins with a mistranslation of the Greek: 1.1.13 ἥδιον ταύτην τὴν ἡμέραν ἤγαγον οἱ Συρακόσιοι τῆς τῶν ἐπινικίων“The Syracusans celebrated this day with more joy than the day of their victory over the Athenians” (Goold, p. 35),2 is rendered by Smith “The Syracusans considered this day sweeter than the day of their victory celebrations”. His interpretation of this passage and much of his arguments on the Syracusan self-image depends on this mistranslation (p. 52-54). Regrettably, the interpretation of the Syracusans is rounded off with a similar misinterpretation: 8.7.2 πρῶτον οὖν ὁ δῆμος εἰς οὐρανὸν ἀναβλέψας εὐφήμει τοὺς θεοὺς καὶ χάριν ἠπίστατο μᾶλλον ὑπὲρ τῆς ἡμέρας ταύτης ἢ τῆς τῶν ἐπινικίων“First of all the people lifted their eyes to heaven, and blessed the gods, more thankful for that day than for the one of their victory” (Goold, p. 403), is rendered by Smith “First then the people, looking up to heaven, praised the gods, and they felt sure that the favor for this day was greater than for the day of their victory celebrations” (p. 190f.). Χάριν ἐπίσταμαι is an unusual variant of χάριν οἶδα, but the phrase is found in five other passages in the novel.3

As Smith points out, there is a parallelism between the two passages, which frame the narrative about the adventures of Callirhoe and Chaereas. In both passages the Syracusans, assembled in the ekklesia, express their joy over the (re)union of the couple: in the first passage they are celebrating the marriage of Chaereas and Callirhoe; in the second one the celebrations concern their reunion and return to Syracuse. Smith’s misinterpretation of the two passages is crucial, since much of his argument concerning the reference to the celebrations of the victory over the Athenians in 413 is based on interpreting ἤγαγον as they believed and ἠπίστατο as felt sure or claimed to be sure — the subject is, of course, the Syracusans/the Syracusan δῆμος — that the day of Chaereas’ and Callirhoe’s marriage and the day of their return to Syracuse was greater than the day of their victory over the Athenians. In other words, in Smith’s interpretation the comparison of these two days with the victory celebrations is perceived and focalised through the Syracusans. This misinterpretation of the Greek results in a conclusion like “… Athens, and more specifically its defeat, serves as a point of reference for Syracuse’s cultural and political life” (p. 190). But in actual fact it is the narrator who introduces the implicit mentions of the Syracusan victory over the Athenians at these points. The comparison of the celebrations of these two days to the victory celebration is part of the narrator’s text. Therefore one should conclude that the Athenians are a point of reference not in the minds of the Syracusans — at least not as expressed in the text, which is all that we have to work with, although Smith at several points speculates on possible continuations of the plot — but in the narrator’s mind, which opens up a different line of interpretation. Since some of Smith’s argument rests on these misinterpretations, the study must be read with caution.

In chapter four, “Athenian Myth and Drama”, Smith studies the long recognised influence of Athenian myth and drama on the Callirhoe, but Smith’s focus is, of course, on myth and drama “insofar as they convey trans-historical Athenian ideologies” (p. 99) and reflect the shaping of the paradoxical concept of a democratic hero. Smith explores, with Athenian myth and drama as intertext, how a reader of Chariton’s novel could/should/is to respond to the problem of “how … Callirhoe and Chaereas [can] exist within Syracusan democracy when their very presence suggests a divinity and heroism that transcend democracy’s inherent limitations” (p. 100). Smith surveys the problems and implications of allusions to and evocations of the myth of Theseus and Ariadne and the novel’s appropriation of the theme of freedom and tyranny, both on a domestic and on a political level, as expressed in domestic relationships between master and slave in Menandrean comedy. He also reads Callirhoe’s soliloquy in 2.9.3-5 on whether or not she should keep the child she just has realised she is carrying against Euripides’ Medea, and Callirhoe’s prayer to Aphrodite for the future of her newborn child in 3.8.8 in light of Sophocles’ Ajax.

In chapter five, “Athenian Law, Rhetoric, and Identity”, Smith brings out influences (noted by Kapparis) from Lysias 1 De caede Eratosthenis in Chariton’s account of the intrigues of Callirhoe’s disappointed suitors at the beginning of the novel, which led to Callirhoe’s apparent death and sets the story in motion. In doing this, Smith does not sufficiently take into consideration Porter’s reply to Kapparis, pointing to the fact that most of the similarities between Chariton and Lysias 1 involve generic elements or reflect established common practice, or both, and that they are likely to derive from a variety of sources rather than exclusively from Lysias.4 Smith also discusses what to make of Chaereas’ failure to defend himself in the ensuing trial, pleading guilty instead and begging to be executed, thus giving an oration different from what is expected in a forensic setting. Further, Smith discusses legal practices regarding citizens, slaves, and torture in Classical Athens and in the first century AD as reflected (or not) in the novel, the influence and inversion of Isocratean panegyric themes and allusions to Demosthenes’ and Aeschines’ orations, and Atticism and Asianism in Dionysius’ and Mithridates’ speeches and conduct in the trial in Babylon. In part Smith’s argument for Mithridates’ Asianistic striving for dramatic effects — “there is really no reason for Mithridates to speak at length … the very existence of Chaereas, in fact, renders superfluous any of Mithridates’ attempts at persuasion” (p. 136) — comes to nothing considering the fact that there is really no reason for him to be giving the speech at all, submitting to a trial, or for that matter keeping Chaereas’ existence a secret, which is the ultimate cause of the trial. What reason or motive is there for any performance or event in a fictitious narrative other than narratorial design or whim? However, Smith argues well regarding Dionysius’ construction of a Greek, even Attic, identity and the vulnerability of Greek and Attic cultural and literary accomplishments within the domain of a foreign imperial judicial power, be it Persian, as is the case in the fictional setting of the novel, or Roman, as is the case with the novel’s historical setting.

In chapter six, “Historiography and Empire”, Smith explores the allusions to and play with Greek historiography in Chariton’s novel. The historiographic intertext is established from the very beginning of the novel by echoes of Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ prologues in the incipit ( Χαρίτων Ἀφροδισιεύς, Ἀθηναγόρου τοῦ ῥήτορος ὑπογραφεύς, πάθος ἐρωτικὸν ἐν Συρακούσαις γενόμενον διηγήσομαι), as well as the immediately following introduction of Hermocrates, the general who led the Syracusans to victory ( Ἑρμοκράτης ὁ Συρακοσίων στρατηγός, οὗτος ὁ νικήσας Ἀθηναίους…). Smith charts the relationship between Thucydidean historiography and Chariton’s novel, with particular focus on concerns about narrative precision, deception and ambiguity in a number of scenes where variants of ἀκρίβεια occur. Smith sets out allusions to Xenophon’s Cyropaedia with a focus on the erotic passion/obsession for Callirhoe felt by the men who see her, and to the Anabasis in the narrative about Chaereas’ and the Greek soldiers’ achievements fighting for the Egyptians during their revolt from Persian rule. Smith also explores themes of empire and the motif of imperialistic invasion, i.a. by reading the Syracusan embassy to Asia in search for Callirhoe as a Syracusan invasion of Asia and a reversal of the image of Syracuse as the victim of imperial aggression, and Chaereas’ and Callirhoe’s return to Syracuse as an intrusion of an oriental tyrannical threat into the Syracusan democracy. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the presence of Rome in the novel. Smith is careful to point out that “Chariton is more concerned with impressionistic evocation than he is with historical allegory” (p. 194) when assessing Rome as a possible referent for the recurring and complex theme of relationships between ruler and ruled, freedom and tyranny.

In the final chapter, “Chaereas and Alcibiades”, Smith studies Chaereas and reads the portrayal of his character against representations of Alcibiades in literature from Thucydides to Plutarch via Plato, Xenophon, Cornelius Nepos and others. The starting-point for the extended setting of Chaereas alongside Alcibiades is taken from the narrator’s comparison of Chaereas to Alcibiades among others in 1.1.3 ( οἷον Ἀχιλλέα καὶ Νιρέα καὶ Ἱππόλυτον καὶ Ἀλκιβιάδην πλάσται καὶ γραφεῖς < ἀπο > δεικνύουσι). After mapping general and specific correspondences between the characterisation of Alcibiades in Plato and other authors and that of Chaereas in Chariton, with a particular focus on their political careers both within and outside their native cities, Smith concludes with a treatment of the major themes in Alcibiades’ character ( eros, philosophy, and politics) and what their repercussions are on Chaereas’ character, particularly the transformation he appears to undergo, arguing that the two men—one historical, the other fictional—”represent an eros that, when expressed in the political sphere, is associated with tyranny” (p. 201). By aligning Chaereas with Alcibiades, Smith argues that Chariton allows for a whole host of conflicting characterisations of Chaereas, including the apparently weak, jealous, and suicidal lover, the apparently strong and triumphant general, and the democratic hero who poses a tyrannical threat to his community.

The recurrence of Athens in the novel, Smith concludes, evokes the paradoxically close relationship between tyranny and freedom, which suggests that the novel may “be read as a fictive aetiology of the reign of Dionysius I, tyrant of Syracuse” (p. 246), which would make the novel particularly relevant for readers in the first century AD.

There are many merits to Smith’s subtle analysis, particularly his insistence on the importance of context and intertextuality and his stress on focalisation for the interpretation of the possible significance of particular references to Athens and of the themes of identity and tyranny. Even if one does not agree with all the particulars in the interpretation and choices of intertexts, it is interesting to follow the argument, though it is too long-winded at times. The conclusion is, however, a bit disappointingly banal after nearly 250 pages of argument. There are also some problems with parts of the interpretation. Not infrequently it is unclear on what level Smith’s exploration of identity and tyranny is taking place — is it on the level of the characters, the narrator, the narrative, the narratee, or all of the above? For a study that insists on the importance of focalisation, it is remarkable how the different visions blend into one another. In particular, the characters’ and the narrator’s texts tend to be fused with one another. When all the threads of the interpretation are pulled together in the end, this is perhaps not a problem; but in the course of the analysis such indistinctness as to the level on which the analysis is taking place confuses matters for the reader and makes an assessment of the argument unnecessarily difficult. Furthermore, it is questionable to what degree one can actually transfer the analysis on one level of the novel to another level or to the whole of the novel. The representation of Athens on one level should rather be set against its representation on another.

Some quibbles:

As mentioned above, the argument is at times difficult to follow; this could have been remedied by beginning all chapters with short introductions in which the main arguments of the chapters are outlined and ending them with conclusions in which the findings are summarised. As it is, chapters 2, 3, and 7 have introductory sections. The layout appears to indicate that the conclusion on p. 244-248 is to be read as a conclusion to chapter 7, but perhaps it pertains to the whole study.

Transliteration of Greek is always problematic. Smith appears to have opted to use the traditional Latinising transliteration for most well-known names, such as Callirhoe, Chaereas, Hermocrates, and a modern transliteration of less well-known ones, such as Nikolaos, Enneakrounos. There are, however, some inconsistencies, e.g. both Areopagos and Areopagus, both Hippolytos and Hippolytus, and hybrids, e.g. Cynegetikos and Cyropaideia, but Cyropaedia occurs too.

The production of the book is on the whole careful with only occasional typographic slips, e.g. “aks” for “asks” on p. 47 and “Chaereras'” for “Chaereas'” on p. 95, and the occasional misplaced or forgotten diacritical in the Greek, e.g. p. 75 πεῖσθηναι for πεισθῆναι.

In the bibliography, there is under Connors 2002 a reference to “Paschalis and Frangoulidis 2002”, which has not been entered into the bibliography (insert: M. Paschalis and S. Frangoulidis (eds.), Space in the Ancient Novel. Groningen 2002 (Ancient Narrative Supplementum 1)).

Maarit Kaimio, quoted on p. 73 n. 48, is a “she”, not a “he”.

To judge from a random sample, the indices are on the whole reliable. There is, however, in the Index locorum a cryptic reference to Aristotle, Rhetoric 16 (read: 3.16, the same correction should be made on p. 224 n. 50), and the reference to Diodorus Siculus 26.3-27.2 should be changed to 13.26.3-27.2 both in the index and on p. 24.

For dates the BC/AD and BCE/CE systems are mixed: CE is used side by side with BC. Intentionally? Unintentionally?5


1. T. Whitmarsh, “The Greek Novel: Titles and Genre”, AJPh 126 (2005) 587-611.

2. Chariton, Callirhoe, Edited and Translated by G.P. Goold. Cambridge, Mass. 1995.

3. Apart from 8.7.2, the phrase is found in 2.7.5, 3.4.17, 3.8.7, 8.5.8, 8.8.13.

4. K. Kapparis, “Has Chariton Read Lysias 1 ‘On the Murder of Eratosthenes’?”, Hermes 128 (2000) 380-383. J.R. Porter, “Chariton and Lysias 1: Further Considerations”, Hermes 131 (2003) 433-440.

5. I would like to thank Professor Ewen Bowie for correcting my English.