Chaereas and Callirhoe is the first European novel. Well, if we wish to be technical it is really a romance. It is our oldest example of a Greek romance novel. Another accurate description would be to call it a melodrama with comical overtones that reads like the Ancient equivalent of a Soap Opera.
The handsome Chaereas and beautiful Callirhoe, noble citizens from Syracuse, fall passionately in love with each and get married. Former suitors of Callirhoe conspire against Chaereas; they plan to trick him into believing that Callirhoe is cheating on him. Their schemes convince him that she is unfaithful and in a fit of rage he kicks her in the stomach, which knocks the wind out of her. He believes he has killed his wife. The town buries beloved Callirhoe with the family treasure. A pirate named Theron spies all this free money and plots to steal it with a crew.
The pirates rob the grave, and discover a living, breathing Callirhoe inside the tomb. The pirates take her along and sell her overseas in Miletus. Her new master, Dionysius, grieving over the death of his wife, forgets his sorrow as the beautiful Callirhoe reawakens his passion. She is so beautiful that the citizens mistake her for Aphrodite walking around in the flesh. Callirhoe finds out that she is pregnant wit Chaereas’ kid; she would rather die than betray the marriage bed of Chaereas, but eventually decides the extremely rich and powerful Dionysius would make a good step-father for her son. She marries him and pretends the child was actually his own.
Back at home, Chaereas and the citizens of Syracuse discover the empty tomb. They sail out in search of the missing Callirhoe. They discover Theron the pirate and torture a confession out of him. Chaereas ends up in Miletus where one of Dionysius’ servants discovers him, learning his true identity as Callirhoe’s first husband. The servant fears Chaereas will upset his master’s happiness so the servant burns Chaereas’ ship, and sells Chaereas into slavery.
In slavery, Chaereas ends up in the service of Mithridates who has also fallen in love with Callirhoe during a party that Dionysius hosted. Mithridates discovers his slave’s real identity and schemes for a ways to use this to his own advantage in winning Callirhoe for himself. He writes a letter informing Callirhoe that Chaereas is alive, which Dionysius intercepts. Dionysius believes Mithridates is trying to seduce his wife. He asks the King of Persia to judge the case. All the parties head to Babylon. Mithridates successfully defends himself from the spurious charges by producing Chaereas. The two lovers reunite, but now the King of Persia must stand in judgement of a new case: who is Callirhoe actually married to, Chaereas or Dionysius?
The King of Persia delays sitting in judgement because it turns out he too has fallen in love with Callirhoe. However, an Egyptian rebellion interrupts his pining; he drags his whole court, along with Dionysius and Callirhoe, to respond to this uprising. Chaereas thinking that the King of Persia has betrayed him decides to join up with the king’s enemies, the Egyptian. Chaereas becomes a prominent military commander for the rebellion, and eventually rescues Callirhoe. The two sail off home and they live happily ever after.
If you’ve made it through the long plot outline let me inform you that my description is an extremely boiled down version of the plot, missing plenty of the details. I think one immediately understands what I mean when I say it reads like a Soap Opera: (Jim loved Maria, but his jealous passion caused him to kill her her, but wait . . . it turns out she wasn’t really dead, and pirates came to rescue her). The narrative is clearly plot-oriented, lacking rich characters, and instead populated by overacting stick figures. Melodrama is the order of the day. The introduction of my edition notes it has “a certain affinity with opera.” One of the motifs in the novel is that Chaereas continually tries to kill himself when he believes Callirhoe is lost to him forever, only to be saved by his good friend, Polycharmus. This may seem morbid, but it is done in such an over-the-top fashion and repeatedly that it comes off as hilarious instead.
This a novel that I suspect would make many a modern feminist cringe. Callirhoe bemoans her fate because of her beauty. In the melodramatic fashion I described she curses her beauty and prostrates herself in tears before Aphrodite wishing she had never been born beautiful. Likewise, her beauty itself becomes a magnet for men throughout the text, each plotting and scheming against each other so they can be with Callirhoe. The story also places value on her chastity and loyalty to Chaereas; at least, we find out from her perspective that she values them. She claims that she would rather die than remarry and betray Chaereas, but only chooses to shack up with Dionysius for the sake of her unborn child.
We learn towards the conclusion of the novel that the tragic events of the two lovers occurred because Aphrodite wanted to punish Chaereas for his unwarranted jealousy. The irony is that at the beginning Chaereas is jealous even though Callirhoe remains loyal to him and chaste, however, later she clearly sleeps with Dionysius in order to legitimize her child and now Chaereas has a real reason to be jealous. Aphrodite’s punishment fits the crime; she decides to teach him a lesson about being frivilous about nonexistence paramours by sending her off to commit real adultery. If he had not been jealous in the first place none of this would have happened. Dionysius, too, is bested by jealousy. He covets her beauty so much that he slowly grows paranoid that everyone around him is trying to sleep with Callirhoe; jealousy is what leads him to take legal action about the letters from Mithridates and accuse him of jealousy, which leads to the two lovers, Chaereas and Callirhoe being united. Dionysius later curses himself for his jealousy, realizing if he had just kept quiet about the letters he could have prevented Callirhoe from ever discovering that Chaereas was alive and would still be with her. The novel not only scrutinizes the lives of women, but also the conduct of men; jealousy unravels lives.
The novel also offers some interesting insights into history. Often we think of crucifixion as a Roman invention, but if this Hellenistic novel is to be believed it was a common method of punishment long before the Romans. I was also surprised to learn that contact with China in the Hellenistic world is attested during the 1st century B.C. as one of the footnotes mention when talking about a silk outfit the Persian king wears.
Moral themes and historical curiosities aside, the true strength of the story is as a story. It is not as complex or interesting as a modern novel. It lacks anything resembling deep characters with realistic and complicated motivations. However, Chariton knows how to tell a fun over-the-top adventure story. It was nice to just sit back for a change, not wrack my brain with deep symbolism, and have some fun with my Ancient Soaps.