From Erotica to Historical Fiction: Ancient History of Romance Novels

The last literary form to emerge from antiquity was a type of long prose fiction discussing romantic love. Unfortunately, given the Greeks’ and Romans’ reverence for tradition, the novelty of this form of literature was far from being an advantage. We can see this disadvantage even with only a few surviving references to these ancient works which would later evolve to what we know today as novels. One of these references is a quip by writer Chariton of Aphrodisias who says, “You think the Greeks will remember your words when you die, but what does someone who is a nobody in life become when he is dead?” (Epistle 66 of Pseudo-Philostratus). Another reference is a letter from the Emperor Julian (331 – 363 AD) to his high priests, urging them to avoid reading these proses. The reason for this urgent plea was because they are written in the form of history and, since these works of fiction are not historical documents, they can fool the unsuspecting reader. Clearly, for the ancient Greeks, long prose fictions (which we will refer to as novels for now) are not considered a well-respected form of literature.

Pierides Changed into Magpies (after Ovid) by Richard Van Orley (c. 1683)
Pierides Changed into Magpies (after Ovid) by Richard Van Orley (c. 1683)

The Greek novels would have fit in nicely in Rome. Writers Apuleius and Petronius, the authors of Metamorphoses and Satyricon respectively, led sensational lives that were evidently quite high-profile, as their lives were documented in other texts. Petronius is assumed to be a well-known figure in Nero’s court, referred to by Tacitus as a man of “sophisticated extravagance”. Apuleius was also well-known ins Roman Africa as a philosopher and rhetorician. According to his own defense speech, which may be fictitious but sensational nonetheless, he was once accused of using magic to attract the attention of a wealthy widow. Both authors had lives worthy of a novel. Although novels about them would have contain passages that could not be read aloud to schoolchildren due to their explicit sexuality, this would have also ensured them an enthusiastic readership elsewhere. Both writers and their works are easily incorporated into the history of the novel in English.

"The Satyricon" Paris, 1910 French translation by Laurent Tailhade. Edition illustrated by Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse, by Deniev Dagun, CC BY 4.0
“The Satyricon” Paris, 1910 French translation by Laurent Tailhade. Edition illustrated by Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse, by Deniev Dagun, CC BY 4.0

Ancient Greek novels still did not gain much of a better reputation in the eyes of 19th century readers, who saw them as texts from the degenerate East. Also in the 19th century, Latin novels were also considered texts about degeneracy and were read in a broadly Christianizing context as signs of the Roman Empire’s moral and social decline. However, this was not to say that these stories were completely ignored. The “Tale of Cupid and Psyche” by Apuleius, a 2nd century Numidian Latin-language prose writer, is  translated in the middle of Walter Pater’s novel “Marius the Epicurean” (1885). The original title of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was “Trimalchio in West Egg,” after Cena Trimalchionis (“The Dinner Party of Trimalchio”), an extended scene in Petronius’ Satyricon from  the late 1st century AD. To this day, as many a novelists, artists and filmmakers have proven time and time again, to show a Roman orgy, for example, is a particularly effective way to shock the audience, generate water-cooler debates and assert moral superiority.

Cupid and Psyche: a mythological tale, from the Golden ass of Apuleius. (c. 1800)
Cupid and Psyche: a mythological tale, from the Golden ass of Apuleius. (c. 1800)

Five extended prose fictions in Greek, written between the first and fourth centuries, survive in nearly complete forms among the fragments of over twenty surviving ancient Greek romantic books. They are “Chaereas and Callirhoe” from the mid-first century, “Leucuppe and Clitophon” from the second century, “Daphnis and Chloe”, “The Ephesian Tale”, and “The Ethiopian Tale” from the third century. Although there is no word for “novel” in ancient Greek, all five Greek texts contain elements that we associate with modern romance novels today. They are also written in a developed literary language with many echoes of earlier literature. This implies (or requires) an educated audience who is aware of the history of love stories dating back to the story of Helen of Troy as well as those who are worldly enough to understand the references contained in them about philosophy, rhetoric and historiography.

A second or third century AD papyrus of the Callirhoe from Karanis
A second or third century AD papyrus of the Callirhoe from Karanis 

An Early Historical Novel: Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton of Aphrodisias

The oldest example of a Greek romance novel is Chaereas and Callirhoe. The story is set in around 400 BC. The handsome Chaereas and the lovely Callirhoe fall madly in love and marry. In their jealousy, former suitors of Callirhoe plot against Chaereas. They tricked him into believing Callirhoe is cheating on him. Chaereas comes home and kicks his wife in the stomach, rendering her unconscious. Chaereas believes he had murdered his wife. The town buries Callirhoe alongside her family treasure. In the funeral, a pirate named Theron saw all this free money and plots to steal it with his crew.

Later, the pirates raid the tomb and discover Callirhoe who is very much alive inside. The pirates take her and sell her in Miletus. Her new master, Dionysius, who is mourning the death of his wife, forgets his grief as the beautiful Callirhoe reawakens his passion. However, Callirhoe soon discovers she is pregnant with Chaereas’ child. Although she was loyal to Chaereas, Callirhoe decides that the extremely wealthy and powerful Dionysius would make a good father for her son. She marries Dionysius and pretends the child is his biological child.

When Chaereas and the citizens of Syracuse discover the empty tomb, they set sail in search of the missing Callirhoe. They find Theron the pirate and torture him into confessing. Chaereas ends up in Miletus, where he is discovered by one of Dionysius’ servants. The servant learns his  identity as Callirhoe’s first husband. As the servant is afraid that Chaereas will ruin his master’s happiness, he burns Chaereas’ ship and sells Chaereas into slavery.

The Derveni krater is a volute krater, the most elaborate of its type, discovered in 1962 in a tomb at Derveni, not far from Thessaloniki, and displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. By Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0
The Derveni krater is a volute krater, the most elaborate of its type, discovered in 1962 in a tomb at Derveni, not far from Thessaloniki, and displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki. By Carole Raddato, CC BY-SA 2.0

Chaereas ends up in the service of Mithridates, who has himself also fallen in love with Callirhoe during a party hosted by Dionysius. Mithridates discovers his slave’s true identity and plots how to use it to his advantage in gaining Callirhoe for himself. He sends a letter to Callirhoe informing him that Chaereas is alive. Dionysius intercepts this letter and concludes that Mithridates is attempting to seduce his wife. He requests that the case be decided by the King of Persia. All of the parties travel to Babylon. Mithridates successfully defends himself against the false accusations by producing Chaereas. The two lovers reconcile, but now the King of Persia must decide on a new case: who is Callirhoe’s true husband, Chaereas or Dionysius?

The King of Persia postpones his decision because he, too, has fallen in love with Callirhoe. However, an Egyptian rebellion interrupts his longing as he drags his entire court, including Dionysius and Callirhoe, to deal with the uprising. Chaereas decides to join forces with the king’s adversaries, the Egyptians. He rises to prominence as a military commander for the rebellion and  rescues Callirhoe. The lovers set sail for home where they live happily ever after.

Fresco depicting Bacchus wearing a brunch of grapes and Mount Vesuvius, from the Lararium of the House of the Centenary, Pompeii, Naples Archaeological Museum
Fresco depicting Bacchus wearing a brunch of grapes and Mount Vesuvius, from the Lararium of the House of the Centenary, Pompeii, Naples Archaeological Museum, by By Carole Raddato , CC BY-SA 2.0

Several Callirhoe characters can be identified with historical figures, though their portrayal is not always historically accurate. Hermocrates was a true Syracusan general who had a daughter who married Dionysius I of Syracuse. This Dionysius was the tyrant of Syracuse from 405 to 367 BC and was not a Miletus resident. The historical daughter of Hermocrates died as a result of a violent attack by soldiers. Chariton’s Artaxerxes is also a representation of Persia’s Artaxerxes II. However, because Hermocrates died in 407 BC and Artaxerxes did not ascend to the throne until 404 BC, Chariton’s depiction of Hermocrates during Artaxerxes’ reign is anachronistic.  

A Story of Mistaken Identities: Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius

An unnamed narrator is approached by a young man named Clitophon who is persuaded to tell him about his exploits. In Clitophon’s story, his cousin Leucippe  visits him in Tyre. Clitophon falls in love with Leucippe despite the fact that he is already engaged to be married to his half-sister Calligone. Clitophon wins Leucippe’s love after several attempts, but his marriage to Calligone is fast approaching. The marriage is averted, however, when Callisthenes, a young man from Byzantium who has heard of Leucippe’s beauty, comes to Tyre to kidnap her, but instead kidnaps Calligone by mistake.

Clitophon tries to visit Leucippe in her room at night, but her mother is awakened by an ominous dream. Clitophon and Leucippe leave Tyre to elope, but their ship is destroyed in a storm. They arrive in Egypt and are apprehended by Nile delta bandits. Clitophon is saved, but the bandits sentence Leucippe to death. Clitophon witnesses the alleged sacrifice and attempts suicide on Leucippe’s grave, only to discover that she is still alive, the sacrifice having been staged by his captured friends using theatrical props.

The Egyptian army arrives quickly to rescue the group, but the general in command also falls in love with Leucippe. Leucippe suffers from insanity as a result of a strange love potion given to her by another rival, but is saved by an antidote given by a helpful stranger named Chaireas. The bandits’ camp is destroyed, and the lovers and their friends flee to Alexandria only to be betrayed once more as Chaireas kidnaps Leucippe and takes her away on his boat. Chaireas’ men apparently chop off her head and throw her overboard as Clitophon pursues them.

Clitophon, heartbroken, returns to Alexandria. Melite, a widowed Ephesian lady, falls in love with him and persuades him to marry her. Clitophon refuses to marry her before they arrive in Ephesus. Once there, he discovers Leucippe, who is still alive as another woman has been decapitated in her place. Soon it is also discovered that Melite’s husband, Thersandros, is still also alive and, rather predictably, also found himself in love with Leucippe. Thersandros returns home and attempts to rape Leucippe while also framing Clitophon for adultery and murder.

Clitophon’s innocence is eventually proven and Leucippe proves her virginity by entering Artemis’ magical temple. Leucippe’s father arrives in Ephesus and reveals that Clitophon’s father gives the lovers his blessing. Callisthenes, Calligone’s kidnapper, is also shown to have matured into a faithful and honest husband. Clitophon and Leucippe eventually marry in Byzantium, Leucippe’s hometown.

The first assessment of this work comes from Photius, also known as Photios I of Constantinople, recognized in the Eastern Orthodox Church as Saint Photios the Great. In his Bibliotheca, Photius references Clitophon and Leucippe when he writes, “the obscenity and impurity of sentiment impair his judgement, are prejudicial to seriousness, and make the story disgusting to read or something to be avoided entirely.”

An Erotic Novel: Daphnis and Chloe by Longus

The only known work of the second-century AD Greek novelist and romance writer Longus is “Daphnis and Chloe,” an ancient Greek erotic novel written in the Roman Empire. Lamo and his wife, Myrtale, discover a baby boy suckling one of their goats in their Lesbos field. The boy is dressed in a purple cloak and wields a dagger with a pearl handle. Lamo realises the boy must come from a wealthy family, but he conceals the cloak and adopts the boy as a foster child, believing he was abandoned by his mother and father. Daphnis is the boy’s name. Two years later, the shepherd Dryas discovers a young girl suckling one of his sheep in a cave teeming with nymphs on his property. Dryas adopts the child and names her Chloe.

Photographic image of Russian dancer Michel/Mikhail Fokine (1880 – 1942), in costume for Daphnis and Chloe, 1912
Photographic image of Russian dancer Michel/Mikhail Fokine (1880 – 1942), in costume for Daphnis and Chloe, 1912

Daphnis and Chloe are drawn to one another and begin to fall in love. Both, however, are too young and too sheltered to understand what love is. When the children are fifteen and thirteen, they are each assigned a herd to care for. They begin to spend their time together in the fields while the animals graze. They fall in love, but because they are naive they do not understand what is happening to them. Philetas, a wise old cowherd, explains to them what love is and that kissing is the only cure. This is something they do. Lycaenion, a city woman, eventually teaches Daphnis how to make love. But Daphnis decides not to put his newly acquired skill to the test on Chloe because Lycaenion warns him that Chloe “will scream and cry and lie bleeding heavily as if murdered.”

Daphnis and Chloe by John-Étienne Chaponnière, 1828, marble
Daphnis and Chloe by John-Étienne Chaponnière, 1828, marble 

Throughout the novel, Chloe is courted by suitors, two of whom (Dorcon and Lampis) attempt to abduct her with varying degrees of success. Dorcon approaches Chloe’s father and asks for her hand in marriage. Dorcon is declined by her father, who knows Chloe prefers Daphnis. Dorcon, dissatisfied with the rejection, disguises himself as a wolf and infiltrates Dryas and Chloe’s property, intending to kidnap Chloe. However, before he can reach Chloe, the guards who are watching over the flock attack him. Chloe and Daphnis save Draco, assuming he was just playing a joke and meant no harm.

The drama continues when pirates attack Daphnis while attempting to steal his oxen. They wound Daphnis and imprison him on their ship so he cannot reveal their location.  Chloe hears Daphnis calling from the ship and rushes to his aid. Daphnis instructs her to take his horn and summon the cattle. When they hear the horn, the cows rush off the ship’s stern towards Chloe. The pirate ship sinks due to their sudden weight shift, drowning the pirates on board. Daphnis saves himself by clinging to one of the ox’s horns and swimming to safety with the ox.

Daphnis and Chloe by Camille Félix Bellanger, 1893
Daphnis and Chloe by Camille Félix Bellanger, 1893

Following these incidents, Daphnis and Chloe unsuccessfully attempt to practise the art of lovemaking as Chloe is soon kidnapped by raiders. At the end of the story, Daphnis and Chloe are married and live happily together as herders after being reunited by the god Pan’s intervention.

The novel inspired several later literary works, including Elizabethan pastoral romances like Thomas Lodge’s Rosalynde (1590) which later served as the source book for William Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

A Tale of Love and Improbable Adventure: The Ephesian Tale by Xenophon of Ephesus

 Habrocomes was known in Ephesus as an attractive and cultured 16-year-old man. Anthia, a 14-year-old attractive and chaste young woman, was well-known throughout the city for her beauty. After a brief meeting at the Artemis Festival, the two fell in love with each other. But because each was afraid to reveal their love to the other, they both suffered miserably and began to deteriorate.

The parents of the two young people became concerned and attempted various soothsayers and sacrifices to effect a cure. But nothing worked, so they dispatched emissaries to the Apollo shrine at Colophon. The message returned addressed the fate of Habrocomes and Anthia as a whole, foreseeing pirates, tombs, fire, and flood, followed by an improvement in their condition. Horrified by the evils of the description, the parents arranged for the two to be married quickly and sent abroad for their safety. The entire city turned out for the celebratory nuptials and the couple then had a wedding night filled with passionate lovemaking. Soon after, the parents loaded the two, along with many gifts and valuables for the trip, onto a well-equipped ship bound for Egypt.

On this journey, Habrocomes and Anthia promised to stay faithful to each other even if they were separated. The ship soon arrived in Rhodes, where the couple was greeted with great fanfare. This attention, combined with the wealth of goods and slaves aboard, tipped off a crew of Phoenician pirates posing as merchants. When the ship of Habrocomes and Anthia set sail again, the pirates captured it and set it aflame. The couple was taken captive.

The pirates then sailed for the Phoenician city of Tyre, where they unloaded their booty at a nearby pirate stronghold. Corymbos, the pirate captain, confessed his love for Habrocomes to a fellow pirate, Euxinos, who confessed his own love for Anthia. So the two pirates devised a plan in which they would each persuade the other’s love object to cooperate. This they did, but Habrocomes and Anthia both told them that they needed more time to think before making a decision.

woman reading a book

After that, in private, Habrocomes and Anthia decided that their only option was to commit suicide together. However, Apsyrtos, the chief of the pirates, was struck by the young couple’s beauty and concluded that they would fetch a high price on the slave market. He took them from Corymbos, along with their loyal servants Leucon and Rhode. He entrusted them to the care of a trusted slave while transporting them to his home in Tyre. Then he went to Syria. While Apsyrtos was away, Manto, his daughter, fell in love with Habrocomes and wrote him a note expressing her feelings. But Habrocomes turned her down. When Apsyrtos returned with a young man named Moeris as a husband for his daughter, Manto retaliated against Habrocomes by telling her father that Habrocomes had raped her. Apsyrtos then whipped and tortured Habrocomes. He then married Manto to Moeris and gave the couple three slaves as a wedding present: Anthia, Leucon, and Rhode.

Moeris later returned to Antioch with Manto, the slaves, and their other wedding gifts. Once there, Manto separated Leucon and Rhode from Anthia by selling them to an old man living far away in Lycia at Xanthos. Manto then completed her vengeance by marrying Anthia to another of her slaves, a rural goatherd named Lampo. Meanwhile, Apsyrtos discovered the love letter written by his daughter Manto to Habrocomes. He immediately released Habrocomes from his bonds, declared him a free man and hired him as the house manager.

Anthia, on the other hand, lived in the country with Lampo, a man who respected her desire to remain faithful to Habrocomes. Moeris, Manto’s husband, visited the goatherd and fell in love with Anthia as a result. He then sought Lampo’s assistance in wooing Anthia. Lampo feared Manto and informed her of this development. Manto became enraged ordered Lampo to take Anthia into the forest and kill her. Lampo promised to do so, but later sold Anthia to Cilician merchants instead.

These merchants set sail for their homeland but were shipwrecked along the way. The survivors managed to reach shore with Anthia but were then captured in the forest by a robber named Hippothoos and his band. During this time, Habrocomes managed to learn that Lampo had sold Anthia. So he secretly left Apsyrtos’ house for Cilicia in search of her.

After many adventures and misunderstandings, Habrocomes and Anthia reunited. They went home, made sacrifices to Artemis, raised tombs for their deceased parents, and passed the remainder of their days in Ephesus with the faithful friends they made along the way.

A Young Woman’s Quest to Reclaim her Birthright: An Ethiopian Tale by Heliodorus of Emesa

After years of infertility, King Hydaspes and Queen Persinna of Ethiopia finally have a child, but when the child is born with white skin, Persinna abandons the baby for fear of being accused of adultery. At Delphi in Greece, a philosopher rescues the newborn and fosters the child with a priest named Charikles, who names his new daughter Charikleia.

older woman reading a book

When she was older, Charikleia falls in love with Theagenes, a young man from Thrace who is visiting Delphi. The oracle of Delphi predicts adventures, hardship, and eventual success for this couple in shrouded language. The appearance of Kalasiris, an Egyptian priest on a secret mission for Queen Persinna to find and retrieve her long-lost daughter and only child, solves their romantic predicament. The three of them flee Delphi and travel to Ethiopia, where they encounter a slew of mishaps which includes a shipwreck, pirates, a lecherous Persian queen, battles, a witch, torture and slavery. Then, a renegade son of Kalasiris rescues Theagenes from Persian captivity and taken to Memphis in Egypt.

When Kalasiris and Charikleia arrive, a dramatic scene of reunions takes place, with Charikleia reuniting with Theagenes and Kalasiris reuniting with his two sons. Egypt, on the other hand, is under Persian control, and the satrap’s wife, Arsake, lusts after Theagenes, vowing to go to any length to seduce him. When summoned to appear before the queen, Theagenes refuses to bow to her, infuriating the court, but she ignores the offence, excusing the blunder as Theagenes is a Greek and therefore naturally arrogant. As Theagenes and Charikleia pose as brother and sister,  there appears to be no impediment to her plans for him. Complications ensue, including an attempt on Charikleia’s life.

woman reading a book

Despite being written in late antiquity, An Ethiopian Story received its first printed publication in 1534, and the earliest surviving manuscript, discovered in the Vatican library, is from the eleventh century. In the sixteenth century, King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary amassed an extraordinary library in Buda, collecting Greek and Latin works from the ancient world. When Sultan Sulyman of Turkey annexed Hungary to the Ottoman Empire in 1526, a soldier stole the manuscript of An Ethiopian Story from Corvinus’ library for its beautiful binding. The book eventually made its way to Basel, Switzerland, where it was published.

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