Chariton Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Chariton fl. 1st century ?-

Greek romance writer.

Chariton is the author of the earliest extant Greek romance, Chaereas and Callirhoe (1st century ?). Although he is thus the earliest known European novelist, critics speculate that he was most likely preceded by others, whose works are now lost. The story of Chaereas and Callirhoe involves a newly married couple who are initially very much in love. After a fight with her jealous husband, Callirhoe is rendered unconscious, mistaken for dead, found by a grave robber, and sold into slavery in Asia Minor, where she discovers she is pregnant. The romance details a series of events that keep the couple apart until their final reunion at the end. While Chaereas and Callirhoe is an exciting adventure complete with crises, kidnapping, love affairs, a court trial, and battle, it is set apart from other such tales by its emphasis on the psychological details of its characters. Commentators have also responded favorably to Chariton's straightforward style and unadorned prose in this work.

Biographical Information

Virtually nothing is known of Chariton's life. He begins his romance by stating that he is from Aphrodisias and that he is employed as secretary to Athenagoras, a lawyer. Scholars are uncertain whether to take this as a true fact, or simply view it as part of the narrative frame of the novel. Beyond these meager possible facts, little if any other biographical material exists about the writer. A few ancient references to Chariton and to Callirhoe have been identified, but scholars have been unable to determine the exact subject of these references.

Major Works

Chariton's only known work is Chaereas and Callirhoe, an ingenious adventure that incorporates a love triangle, a dramatic courtroom scene, and a glorious battlefield rescue. Chariton sets his story in the fifth century b.c. Chaereas and Callirhoe was long believed to be the work of a relatively late Greek novelist, but in 1900 and 1910 papyrus fragments of the work were discovered and dated to no later than 200 a.d. Further analysis has led many scholars to the conclusion that Chaereas and Callirhoe probably dates from the first century. B. P. Reardon has held that the work stems from about the time of the reign of the Emperor Nero, which lasted from the year 54 to the year 68. The knowledge that Chaereas and Callirhoe may have been written hundreds of years earlier than originally thought has generated a critical reevaluation of the genesis and history of the Greek novel. There is also considerable disagreement among scholars over the proper title of the work. It is unclear if Chariton himself titled his romance at all, although there is some evidence, emphasized by Reardon, that he called it Callirhoe. Warren E. Blake asserts that the title is Eight Books of the Love Story of Chaereas and Callirrhoë, and still other critics have proposed The Erotic Adventures of Chaereas and Callirhoe.

Critical Reception

Aristotle and his followers did not consider the novel serious literature worthy of study. This lack of respect for the novel also meant a lack of respect for the novelist, and thus Chariton's critical reputation suffered for many centuries. There is considerable evidence that novels were popular among the common people in ancient Greece, but it is impossible to know how Chaereas and Callirhoe was received in its own time. It was not widely reprinted in modern times until 1750, and by then other early novels already had become the favorites of critics. In addition, the idea that Chariton was one of the last of the Greek romance writers, or even an early Byzantine one, had gained wide acceptance; instead of being revered as an originator, he was declared an imitator and his work was dismissed as unimportant. It was not until papyrus fragments of his manuscript were discovered in the early twentieth century that Chariton's proper position in literary history was realized. Much of modern Chariton scholarship involves assessing correctly both his true period and his literary and historical importance. To help meet this challenge, critics including B. E. Perry, investigate the possible use of legendary sources in Chaereas and Callirhoe, as well as signs of its influence on other novels. Chariton's work has also recently been studied carefully for what it can reveal about early Christianity; Douglas R. Edwards and Richard S. Ascough explore its influence on the author of Luke-Acts. Chariton's choice to set his tale centuries before his own time has also generated critical attention. Jean Alvares explores this technique and posits that Chariton sought to create an alternate Greek history, one that emphasized love over warfare.