BMCR 2015.01.46

Crafting Characters: Heroes and Heroines in the Ancient Greek Novel

, Crafting Characters: Heroes and Heroines in the Ancient Greek Novel. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xxi, 395. ISBN 9780199686148. $150.00.


Koen De Temmerman’s Crafting Characters provides the first comprehensive study of the characterization of the protagonists and the techniques of characterization in the five surviving Greek novels. The author’s reading of these novels significantly advances our understanding of characterization in the genre. Characterization is a complex theme. Human character—the product of both nature and culture and a phenomenon that may be viewed from the perspectives of intellect, morality, and psychology—is itself complex. The study of literary characterization is even more complicated, in that it also involves questions that concern the nature of literary representation. An ancient literary genre adds a final layer of complexity, because, as De Temmerman notes, modern concepts of character do not easily map on to the way character was conceived by ancient authors.

De Temmerman notes appropriate comparisons with characterization in ancient epic, drama, and biography, but this is not a book that compares characterization across genres at length. De Temmerman describes characterization in the novels as both a mimetic and a semantic process. The protagonists are fictional analogues of human beings. At the same time, they are not real people, but rather exist in the context of the text, depending on and interacting with other literary elements. Thus De Temmerman emphasizes that characterization in the novels is a rhetorical product, both value-laden and ambiguous. This premise—which is also a conclusion—aligns with the author’s methodology and the structure of the book. A detailed introduction considers ancient and modern notions of character, the nature of the literary representation of character, particularly in narration, and techniques of ethopoeia, the means by which character was constructed in ancient rhetorical theory. In the chapters that follow, De Temmerman examines each novel in a close reading that draws on modern narratology and ancient rhetorical theory: Chariton’s Callirhoe, Xenophon of Ephesus’s Ephesiaca, Achilles Tatius’s Leucippe and Clitophon, Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, and Heliodorus’s Aethiopica. This order reflects the present consensus for the chronology of the novels. A helpful summary concludes the book.

In his readings De Temmerman emphasizes how characterization emerges from the process of narration itself. As we read the text we assemble the associations and attributes of a given character into an integrated whole. The novels’ authors themselves inform their protagonists’ characters through both direct and indirect means. Direct characterization tended to associate the protagonists with moral and cultural qualities such as eugeneia, sōphrosynē, and paideia. But in De Temmerman’s careful readings, more important than the direct assertion of character were the indirect methods which implied character through metaphor and metonymy, through shifting focalization, and within intra- and intertextual associations. These indirect methods lie at the heart of the rhetorical character of characterization. In addition, indirect characterization destabilizes the certainties of direct characterization. Through his Ethiopian heroine Chariclea, Heliodorus calls into question the quality of eugeneia, normatively conceived as a variety of Greek nobility. In Chariton, focalization through Chaereas raises questions about Callirhoe’s sōphrosynē. Longus questions the ways in which paideia makes a difference, or does not, in the character of Daphnis. When all is said and done, character remains elusive and indeterminate.

De Temmerman articulates his readings with reference to three principal axes: character as type or individual; character as idealized or realistic; finally, character as static or dynamic, whether a protagonist remains the same or evolves over the course of the novel. A focus on overt characterization tends to favor the first end of each axis. The characters in the Greek novels, especially the protagonists, have been viewed as static and idealized literary stereotypes. Rohde’s view of the novels’ protagonists as seelenlose Gestalten, while extreme, has retained its influence. Through his careful close reading of the indirect means of characterization, De Temmerman makes a sustained and persuasive case for the other end of each axis. There are exceptions. The author accepts the paradoxical consensus view that Longus’s novel, an Erziehungsroman that represents Daphnis’ and Chloe’s psychological states as they undergo their education in social mores and erōs, does not depict these protagonists as particular individuals but rather as types: the male and female versions of elites endowed with innate nobility and simple rusticity. And it is difficult to see how Clitophon, that most self-centered of narrators, has changed at the end of his story. But in general De Temmerman’s readings leave us with protagonists who have been individualized, who seem endowed with psychological realism, and who change over the course of the narrative. Crafting Characters thus offers an important revision of our understanding of characterization in the novels.

The readings themselves are theoretically rich, densely argued, and meticulously researched. The bibliography, which approaches a thousand items, reflects De Temmerman’s extensive reading in character theory, narratology, ancient rhetorical theory, and previous scholarship in the novels. Because characterization is enmeshed with the other constituent elements of narration, such as plot, time, and action, these readings do more than analyze characterization. They are proper readings in their own right. However, no one reader is likely to agree with the author on every point. For example, De Temmerman thematizes the dynamic aspect of characterization across several novels as a process involving a protagonist’s increasing self-control and control of others, often through rhetorical ability. The explanation applies to many protagonists, but not all. In Chariton’s novel, De Temmerman sees Callirhoe as the victim of Plangon, the serva callida who manipulates her into marriage with her master Dionysius. Later, in a parallel episode, through skillful rhetorical manipulation, Chariton’s heroine asserts her control over Artaxates, the eunuch who tries to seduce her for the Great King. But the text can also support a reading in which the ever astute Callirhoe sees through Plangon’s manipulation. She agrees to marry Dionysius, not as a naïve victim of manipulation, but as a cool-headed heroine who understands the necessity she faced as a slave. Other readers may disagree with the author on how far to press a given intertextual reference. For example, De Temmerman notes (pp. 93–4) how, late in Callirhoe, when Chaereas is finally establishing his aretē in the battle at Tyre, Chariton aligns the hero with Homer’s Diomedes. Following the author, the alignment with Diomedes, who rashly attacked Aphrodite in battle, would evoke Chaereas’s earlier rashness, when he assaulted Callirhoe, who was herself compared to Aphrodite. The association may be tenuous. Chaereas’s courageous audacity in battle may be rather different from his impetuous attack on Callirhoe. However, such disagreements do not arise from some flaw in the author’s method or approach; rather they are points for further discussion and debate.

A contribution of particular importance involves the association that De Temmerman draws out between characterization and the character of the narrative. The author interprets the characterization of Habrocomes and Anthia, the protagonists of Ephesiaca, in the context of Xenophon’s simple or aphelic style. Ancient rhetorical theory regarding apheleia indicated a style of discourse in which the speaker would seldom render direct judgment but was, rather, neutral and distant. Thus, Xenophon constructs the character of his protagonists principally through indirect means, through judgments focalized in the protagonists themselves or in other characters and through metonymic references that allow the reader to infer the protagonists’ characters from their words, thoughts, and deeds. Thus Xenophon’s simplicity is neither a reflection of his lack of craft nor a by-product of clumsy epitomization (a matter on which De Temmerman is neutral). Rather, this apheleia is a contrived simplicity rooted in the tradition of rhetorical apheleia and essential to Xenophon’s approach to characterization. The author sees an even closer association between rhetorical style and character in Daphnis and Chloe, where Longus’s aphelic style mirrors the rustic simplicity of the protagonists themselves.

In Leucippe and Clitophon, except for a brief framing episode at the start of the novel, Clitophon himself relates the story in first-person or homodiegetic narration. Thus, the narrative itself, a focalized reflection of Clitophon’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and judgments of himself and others, may be considered “one long example of ethopoeia” (p. 153) informing a self-portrait that is both intentional and unintentional. There is no touchstone to assess the truthfulness of Clitophon’s account; in addition, Achilles Tatius regularly undermines confidence in his protagonist’s reliability through the dissonance between what he could know and what he purports to know, between his characterization of himself and what the events he narrates suggest.1 From this dissonance De Temmerman traces ambiguities in Clitophon’s level of sexual experience, his relative interest in sex versus love, and his claims to sōphrosynē. An important aspect of Clitophon’s unintended self-characterization is his use of maxims. De Temmerman notes how these maxims, elaborated according to rhetorical practice, depict the protagonist as a pepaideumenos. Clitophon uses the maxims as heuristic devices, a form of bookish knowledge, to explain events he does not really understand, events involving, in particular, women, slaves and barbarians.

De Temmerman suggests that this bookish knowledge may serve as the basis of Clitophon’s characterization of Leucippe. For all that he loves her, for much of the novel the hero has relatively little to say about the heroine apart from commenting on her physical beauty. This changes when the lovers are finally reunited at Ephesus, at which point Clitophon increasingly depicts Leucippe as a typical novel heroine. In particular, De Temmerman notes in the Ephesian episode a significant intertextual alignment between Leucippe and Chariton’s Callirhoe. De Temmerman’s suggests here that the book behind Clitophon’s bookishness is the genre of the novel itself. The protagonist’s knowledge of the romance genre compensates for what he does not really understand—in this case, his own beloved. The point is well taken. Characterization in Leucippe and Clitophon is deeply embedded in the hermeneutics of fictionalization, narratorial authority, and narratorial (un)reliability.

In the case of Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, De Temmerman argues that indeterminacy of characterization has been written into the DNA of the narrative itself. The novel starts with an enigmatic in medias res ecphrasis of the protagonists on the beach near an outlet of the Nile. A Chinese box of embedded flashbacks narrates what came before. These flashbacks elaborate, revise, and often deconstruct what the reader thinks he or she knows about Chariclea and Theagenes. Heliodorus cultivates this ambiguity in finer detail through complex intra- and intertextualities and the rhetorical techniques that De Temmerman has described in the other novels: metaphor, metonymy, speech, and strategic focalization.

The principal focus of De Temmerman’s discussion concerns Chariclea, for whom the novel is a reversal of the traditional nostos. Chariclea’s journey takes her from the heart of the Greek world in Delphi to the periphery of Ethiopia. 2 From Heliodorus’s complex structure, De Temmerman draws out a nuanced and complex portrait of the heroine as a dynamic character. Her essential nature is molded and altered by Calasiris, the Egyptian priest who finds Chariclea in Delphi and starts her on her journey home. As she internalizes Calasiris’s teaching and realizes her identity, Chariclea herself molds her character in a consciously adopted process of change. She defends her sōphrosynē by enacting her nobility in dramatic performance and rhetorical display. Characterization is now not only a product of rhetoric, but rhetoric itself. De Temmerman notes a final Heliodoran irony. In Meroë at last and at the height of her rhetorical powers, Chariclea is unable to convince her father Hydaspes of her identity. The nostos in which the heroine realizes her true self runs aground in a place where rhetoric, the means by which she has up to that point defined herself, is utterly ineffective. Hydaspes is convinced she is his daughter not by words but by an image, the heroine’s likeness to a picture of Andromeda.

In Crafting Characters Koen De Temmerman presents five meticulously researched, carefully argued, and important readings of the surviving Greek novels that significantly advance our understanding of characterization in the genre.


1. Cf. John Morgan (2004). “Achilles Tatius,” in I. J. F. de Jong, R. Nünlist, and A. Bowie (eds.), Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature. Leiden: Brill, 493–506.

2. On Chariclea’s nostos, Tim Whitmarsh (1998). “The Birth of a Prodigy: Heliodorus and the Genealogy of Hellenism,” in R. Hunter (ed.), Studies in Heliodorus. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, 93–124.