BMCR 2011.03.23

Chariton of Aphrodisias and the Invention of the Greek Love Novel

, Chariton of Aphrodisias and the Invention of the Greek Love Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xi, 343. ISBN 9780199576944. $99.00.


In Chariton of Aphrodisias and the Invention of the Greek Love Novel, Stefan Tilg tackles the long-debated issue of the origin of the Greek love novel. By employing elements from historical analysis, archaeology, epigraphy, literary history, and through close readings and comparisons of individual passages, Tilg offers a fresh and comprehensive argument that is central to our understanding of this genre. With each additional chapter’s evidence adding another layer supporting Tilg’s thesis, the collective data substantiates Chariton as the inventor of the Greek Love Novel, thereby answering one of the most important questions about the genre.

In his Introduction, Tilg addresses many of the common pitfalls that necessarily arise when attempting to pinpoint the genre’s origins. Tilg first defines which texts constitute the ideal love novel including the ‘big five’1 and a number of fragmentary texts. Many other fragments and fictional accounts are omitted from Tilg’s canon because of their non-idealistic disposition, some based on their historical character ( e.g. Xenophon’s Cyropaedia), others because of their ‘realistic’ and bawdy nature (e.g. Petronius’ Satyrica), and still others due to their spiritual concerns (Jewish and Christian narratives). Tilg then revisits the notion of an “inventor” raised by previous scholars who hinted at the possibility of an inventor yet ultimately abandoned the notion as a mere idea and not an actual possibility.2 Tilg argues that enough new evidence has come to light as a result of not only Stephens’ and Winkler’s work on the fragments, but also further clues found in epigraphy and archaeology, particularly in Aphrodisias.3 Tilg argues that the ideal love novel was neither the outcome of the evolution of genres (historiography, drama, epic, etc.,) nor the result of cultural necessity (11). Rather, an individual author, Chariton, set out to create a text with a certain set of characteristics that were unique and appealing enough that later authors created similar texts with roughly the same set of characteristics. Each of the ideal love novels, however, varies in “thrust and tone, and the common generic elements seem to be a springboard for individual variations rather than an affirmation of a common ‘message’” (12).

In Chapter 2, Tilg explores the role of Aphrodisias, the cult of Aphrodite, the connection between Aphrodisias and Miletus, and the all-important date of Chariton. The significance of Aphrodite for the city of Aphrodisias, clearly observed in its name, was the result of a conscious decision by its people to enhance its character and to add to its influence in the Greco-Roman world. In fact, Tilg traces the connections between Aphrodisias and Rome to the first Mithradatic War from which the two emerged as allies. In addition to this, the connection of Aphrodite with Venus Genetrix was both important and easily identifiable for the Romans. In support of this contention, Tilg points out that Aphrodisias was second only to Italy in the number of cult images of Venus found (25-26). Furthermore, there are more references to Aphrodite in Chariton’s Narratives about Callirhoe ( NAC) (fifty in number) than any other novelist has to any divinity (28). Chariton identifies four shrines to Aphrodite in NAC, but the most important by far is the one in Miletus. According to textual (Theocritus and Posidippus) and archaeological evidence, a cult to Aphrodite existed in Miletus from the archaic period and may still have been active in the first century AD (33). The connection between Miletus and Aphrodisias, Tilg argues, although speculative, “would establish a parallel between the rise of low-life prose fiction at Miletus and of ideal prose fiction at Aphrodisias” (34).

Tilg devotes the longest section in this chapter to the discussion of the date of Chariton. This should come as no surprise to us since Chariton’s date, if it can be firmly established, is crucial to Tilg’s case for Chariton as the inventor of the Greek love novel. By analyzing the Atticizing Greek used by Chariton, his historical outlook, references to material culture and institutions, mention of specific people and events, and textual evidence (reception and allusions), Tilg establishes a terminus post quem of 19 BC and a terminus ante quem of AD 62. The most probable date, therefore, for the composition of NAC is placed between AD 41-62. In Chapter 3, Tilg examines the broader literary-historical context and the relationship of Chariton to other early novelists and novels. In order to support his thesis, Tilg considers the other contenders for the “title” of inventor of the Greek love novel as suggested by scholars. Although Tilg includes a discussion on Xenophon of Ephesus, whom he deems the only other ‘big five’ author to rival Chariton for this coveted position, it is clear through his critique of O’Sullivan that Xenophon’s higher proportion of Atticisms (16% vs. 9.5%) (90) lends itself to an author who actually wrote at a time when Attic Greek was more in vogue.4 Tilg, having placed Xenophon later than Chariton, then turns to the fragments of two novels, Metiochus and Parthenope ( M&P) and Ninus. In his discussion of M&P, Tilg highlights the parallels between it and NAC including their historical “preoccupations,” similar motifs and style, and concludes that Chariton is the author of both novels. Although this is not the first time such a claim has been made, Tilg offers the most compelling and comprehensive argument to date. Due to the highly fragmentary nature of M&P, Tilg must rely on two literary adaptations: a Christian legend extant in Arabic; and a Persian epic poem. While the similarities of characterization, geographical range, motifs, plots, and settings are striking, Tilg proposes that the strongest argument for the same author is based upon correspondences in language and style. Tilg further argues the preoccupation with the art of poets, painters, and sculptors in both novels strongly suggests that the author of both is none other than Chariton (104-105).

Chariton’s ‘novel poetics’, authorial intrusions, and the role of theater and tragicomedy are the thrust of Chapter 4. Authorial intrusion in NAC coincides with the initial word of the novel, Χαρίτων. We should not be surprised, therefore, that the presence of the author-narrator’s voice is so influential and frequent in the novel. Tilg attributes this to the influence of historiographical techniques on Chariton. Aristotle’s Poetics, Tilg argues, informed NAC, not only as a work to respond to and reference, but also because it served as a model of a work that is highly self-referential—-or what Tilg calls ‘novel poetics’. The import of theater can also be felt in NAC, specifically with regard to the two assemblies that take place in Syracuse. In addition to these influences, Homeric resonance is more frequent in Chariton than in any other love novel author. Perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that the quotations from Homer are made by the author-narrator himself, not by other characters (141). Finally, Tilg discusses the role of Athens and Attica both as the result of a Thucydidean influence and a commentary on the Sicilian expedition, which is a recent event in the story of NAC (156).

In Chapter 5, Tilg identifies the novelty of Chariton through his use of new motifs, plot twists, and narrative structure. Yet this novelty is not manifest perhaps in the way that we may expect. Tilg is clear to point out in different parts of his work that each of the ‘big five’ is novel in their own particular way. What Tilg sets out to prove in this chapter is that Chariton, more than any other novelist, is preoccupied with expressing and pointing to his own newness. Chariton does this through word choice and new motifs such as trials, tomb robbery, and the roles of Tyche and Eros. Tilg concludes this chapter by addressing the ‘novelty’ found in other novelists. Achilles Tatius uses the term καινός nearly twice as often as Chariton but, through a thorough analysis of key passages, Tilg notes that Achilles Tatius limits his use of καινός to singular delights, contradictions, and ecphraseis —-not to major narrative lines or motifs as Chariton does. The metaliterary awareness in NAC and Chariton’s preoccupation with καινός is singular among the novelists.

In Chapter 6, Tilg analyzes the term “narrative” (διήγημα) and related words and explores the role of rhetoric and progymnasmata, treatises on rhetorical exercises. After a thorough examination of possible sources of inspiration, including Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria and the Progymnasmata of Theon of Alexandria, Tilg concludes that while these probably did not play a direct role on Chariton’s theory of narrative, writers of history provide a better alternative. Thucydides, specifically, emerges as a principal model for Chariton due to his prevalence in rhetorical exercises in narrative. One need not look past the opening line of NAC to observe the Thucydidean influence. Perhaps one of the most informative and persuasive arguments in this chapter is Tilg’s discussion of the title of Chariton’s work. Using both manuscript and papyrological evidence, the title which Tilg proposes, NAC, imparts the importance of the poetics of narrative in Chariton’s work. Tilg concludes the chapter with a discussion of the passages in which ‘narrative’ is employed in the Greek love novels. Just as in the previous chapter, here too Tilg highlights Chariton’s unique use of the word ‘narrative’. Not only is Chariton’s use of the term ‘narrative’ fundamentally different than that of the other novelists, but also his preoccupation with the term is a consequence, Tilg argues, of Chariton’s invention of a new literary form (238).

In Chapter 7, the role of Rumor (Φήμη) is examined. Tilg argues that Chariton employs Rumor as “an allegory of the author’s voice and that her appearances are privileged places for studying his metaliterary comments” (241). Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, Tilg contends that “Rumour in Chariton is not the ambivalent or outright negative force known from other authors, but—-always from the authorial perspective—-something positive and desirable” (241). Rumor is inextricably linked with Chariton’s heroine, Callirhoe, a point that Tilg supports with numerous textual examples. Rumour in the other novels only serves to emphasize Chariton’s unique use of the term, just as we have seen with the terms ‘novelty’ and ‘narrative’. Before turning to the central argument of Virgil as the most likely source of influence on Rumor in NAC, Tilg briefly examines the motif of Rumor in other Greek literature, limiting his analysis to epic poetry and historiography.

For the remainder of this chapter and in the final chapter, Tilg focuses on making the case that Virgil’s Aeneid was the point of inspiration for Chariton’s NAC, by adducing parallels between a large number of passages. Tilg recognizes that many scholars (will) find it difficult to accept a Roman model as inspiration for a Greek author. But by dividing his rationale into the literary and historical arguments, Tilg persuasively proves his theory. The parallels between Dido and Callirhoe are almost impossible to refute after Tilg has so expertly pointed them out.

Tilg has produced a fascinating and refreshing study of Chariton and the Greek love novel, utilizing a broad range of source material. Though, I would argue, it is not intended for a general audience, any classicist who has an interest in the Greek love novels will find Tilg’s contribution invaluable, even if the reader is not well-acquainted with the Greek romances. When all the evidence presented in this well-researched, well-documented, and clearly written account is considered, Tilg successfully answers one of the most important questions about the invention and the inventor of the Greek love novel.


1. Chariton’s Narratives about Callirhoe; Xenophon’s Ephesiaca, Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon, Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, and Heliodorus’ Aethiopica.

2. E. Rohde, Der griechische Roman und seine Vorläufer, Leipzig (1876); B. Perry, The Ancient Romances: A Literary-Historical Account of their Origins, Berkeley (1967).

3. S.A. Stephens and J.J. Winkler, Ancient Greek Novels: The Fragments, Princeton (1995).

4. J.N O’Sullivan, Xenophon of Ephesus: His Compositional Technique and the Birth of the Novel, Berlin (1995).