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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

τα περι καλλιρόην διηγήματα

Χαρίτωνος Άφροδισιέως

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Callirhoe

Title: τα περι καλλιρόην διηγήματα/Callirhoe
Author: Χαρίτωνος Άφροδισιέως (Chariton)
Genre: Novel
Written: ca. 50
Length: 415 pages
Original in: ancient Greek
Availability: Callirhoe - US
Callirhoe - UK
Callirhoe - Canada
Roman de Chaireas et Callirhoe - France
  • This review refers to the bilingual Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press) edition, edited and with an introduction and the English translation by G.P. Goold, first published 1995
  • Previously translated into English by Warren E. Blake (as Chariton's Chaereas and Callirhoe, 1939) and by Bryan Reardon (in Collected Ancient Greek Novels, 1989)
  • Goold dates the book roughly in the range 25 BC to 50 AD

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Our Assessment:

B+ : charming, fast-paced, and very entertaining

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bryn Mawr Classical Review . (1996) Richard Hunter
Intl. J. of the Classical Tradition . Fall/1996 Niklas Holzberg
Scholia Reviews . (1996) John Birchall

  From the Reviews:
  • "Here is a job which was worth doing, and it has been done very well. (...) The translation is accurate, if a bit flat; comparison of a few passages chosen at random suggested that Bryan Reardon's version (in B. Reardon (ed.), Collected Ancient Greek Novels (Berkeley 1989)) was livelier and better reflected some of Chariton's most striking effects. (...) This Loeb is likely to be the place to which those with (at least some) Greek will turn, so there is always the left-hand page to act as a check upon the right; those without Greek will suffer no harm by using this volume, but they may be somewhat better off with Reardon. Unfortunately, the achievement of text and translation is not matched by a very thin introduction (much inferior to Molinié) and scanty explanatory notes. (...) Proof-reading and presentation are of a high standard." - Richard Hunter, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

  • "One of the particular merits of this translation is that it does not render the original all too faithfully and can thus be read and relished independently, unlike the right-hand page of many a bilingual edition. Goold's English Callirhoe is fluent and up-to-date in style and will satisfy rather than frustrate even readers unacquainted with Greek. (...) Where possible, Goold tries to retain and not disassemble the long periods of the Greek, to preserve the original word order and to find English equivalents for the particles; this, then, in a language not known for its wealth of such." - Niklas Holzberg, International Journal of the Classical Tradition

  • "(T)he best available text of Chariton and a useful translation and introduction.(...) The translation is literal enough not to confuse the kind of reader who uses it as an aid to understanding the Greek (...) At the same time the translation is smooth and readable. Any attempt to make it more stylish would probably have compromised its usefulness (.....) The presentation of the volume is attractive, and there are few typographical errors." - John Birchall, Scholia Reviews

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As G.P. Goold notes in his useful introduction, Callirhoe "was the last major [Greek] novel to come to light, editio princeps 1750". It is one of the few novels to survive from ancient times, and still among the less well-known ones, but it is well worth reading nonetheless.
       Probably dating from around the time of Christ, Callirhoe is one of the earliest examples of the novel. Though loosely using historical figures and occurrences, the story is an invented one -- and a fanciful one at that. Goold calls Callirhoe "light fiction" (rather than "popular fiction", noting that: "Popular it was, but it was a popularity restricted to the top stratum of society"). It is clearly meant largely as an entertainment, and -- action-packed, sopping with melodrama, and terribly (if oddly) romantic -- it is a real page-turner.
       Callirhoe is a love story. The title character, the daughter of Hermocrates, ruler of Syracuse, is of truly incomparable beauty, and therefore much-longed for and sought after. She has many suitors, but when she and Chaereas glimpse one another it is love at first sight. And what a love:

     So smitten, Chaereas could barely make his way home; like a hero mortally wounded in battle, he was too proud to fall but too weak to stand.
       So touched are the citizens of Syracuse that at the next assembly they petition the two to be allowed to wed, and Hermocrates agrees. Romance trumps all here -- not always credibly:
The Syracusans celebrated this day with more joy than the day of their victory over the Athenians
       But things aren't quite so simple: not knowing who she is to be wed to Callirhoe is terribly depressed ("she nearly expired") before she sees that it is her beloved Chaereas she is to be united with. This sort of melodramatic confusion, the characters at the edge of the precipice and saved by recognition of the truth at the last minute, is repeated throughout the book. It does get a bit predictable, but the characters' enthusiasm each time is quite winning:
recognizing the man she loved, Callirhoe, like a dying lamp once it is replenished with oil, flamed into life again and became taller and stronger.
       So the book begins with love triumphant -- but the tests come soon enough. Callirhoe's many disappointed suitors gang up to try divide the couple, and eventually their malicious efforts have some success: misled, angry Chaereas kicks his wife as she runs to embrace him, a blow to the diaphragm (yes, the διαφράγματος) knocking the wind and -- so it seems -- more out of her. In fact, everyone is convinced he's killed her, and they even bury her in a fancy tomb.
       It wouldn't be much of a romance if the heroine was killed off in book one (out of eight), and, of course, when the tomb-robbers come (as one surely knew they would), they find this beautiful woman isn't dead at all. They kidnap her, and set sail for Miletus, where she is eventually sold to Dionysius, "the foremost citizen of Miletus and probably all of Ionia". He had recently lost his own wife, and is, of course, bedazzled when he finally sees Callirhoe.
       Dionysius falls madly in love, but Callirhoe can only bemoan her fate:
My origins were but a fabulous dream. I am now what I have become, a slave and a foreigner.
       Complications ensue, as Callirhoe's beauty overwhelms all. She decides to throw in her lot with Dionysius; the fact that she is pregnant with Chaereas' child (which she briefly considers aborting) also playing a role.
       Meanwhile, the Syracusans discovered that Callirhoe apparently hadn't died after all and set out to find her, Chaereas most eagerly of all. He comes tantalizingly close to Callirhoe -- but never quite close enough. And, of course, each on occasion once again thinks the other lost and dead.
       Events move deep inland, across the Euphrates, and it is at Babylon, at a trial surrounding Callirhoe (more men in her life fighting over her) that she and Chaereas are reunited. It is, as Chariton makes sure the readers understand, an incredible moment:
What reporter could do justice to the scene in that courtroom ? What dramatist ever staged such an extraordinary situation ? An observer would have thought himself in a theater filled with every conceivable emotion. All were there at once -- tears, joy, astonishment, pity, disbelief, prayer.
       But then the question of whose wife she truly is is raised, as she is married to both Chaereas and Dionysius. It's a decision for the king to make, but Callirhoe -- and her seductive beauty -- don't make it easy for him to decide. But when things look to get even messier (the king by now also completely smitten):
Fortune quickly put an end to all thoughts and talk of love by contriving a scenario of extraordinary events
       As if what had happened previously weren't extraordinary (or contrived) enough, it turns out the Egyptians had (conveniently) revolted and it was time to go to war. Pitched battles are fought, allegiances switched (Chaereas willing to fight for whichever side gives him the better chance of getting his beloved back), and confusion once again reigns.
       What happens at the end is hardly unexpected -- and neither is the lovers' reaction:
As they rushed into each other's arms they fainted and fell to the floor.
       All's well that eventually ends well, and here everything does.

       Callirhoe is an odd novel. Formally, there is much to complain about: descriptions are superficial (we have no idea what anyone looks like, except that everyone thinks Callirhoe is more beautiful than anything imaginable), there are big jumps in time and space, and little attention to almost any detail. There are also heaps of melodrama, much of it so over-the-top as to be almost ludicrous.
       And yet it's a charming, winning work. The story, even with its unlikely twists, is compelling, the central figures real enough to sympathise with. Some of what happens may be incredible, but the fast sequence of incidents makes it easier to overlook or excuse these. There are also a few very impressive scenes, including when the grave-robbers, lost at sea, get their just reward, as well as most in which Callirhoe figures. Goold's fluid translation reads well, which also helps -- though reference to the Greek text is recommended, as there's a bit more substance and resonance to the original.
       This is fairly light fiction, and there are parts where Chariton is simply too lazy, but it's a good, gripping read, an ancient potboiler that makes for a few hours of good entertainment. Undemanding fare, and a whole lot of fun.

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Callirhoe: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Almost nothing is known of Chariton of Aphrodisias, who lived around the first century.

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