Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres

Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres

by David Konstan


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ISBN-13: 9780691606033
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 284
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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Sexual Symmetry

Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres

By David Konstan


Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03341-9


The Greek Novel: Sexual Symmetry

That the Greek novels, for all their differences, exhibit a broad affinity in the structure of their plots has often been observed. All revolve about a primary couple engaged in a relationship that is invariably heterosexual. The relationship is subjected to, and survives, a series of stresses and obstacles that involve the protagonists in a more or less conventional sequence of adventures. Thus, one recent critic, Isolde Stark, describes the common plot scheme of the Greek novels as follows: "A young couple in love, of extraordinary beauty, are plunged by a hostile fate into various adventures and dangers, until, in the end, for the most part after a rather long separation, they are united in a stable, faithful love for a life that is henceforth unchangingly happy." She goes on to explain the underlying theme that finds expression in this pattern: "This central, overall structuring element is the motif of unchanging, eternal love and fidelity. But if love and fidelity are to be confirmed as unchanging, then they must necessarily be subjected to trials. The result is a continual sequence of trial situations" (83).

This is a perceptive description, and accurate as far as it goes, but such an elementary formula, ultimately reducible to the bare triad of encounter, separation, and reunion, is too general to capture fully the specific and constitutive qualities of the Greek novel. It fails, for example, to single out or emphasize those characteristics that set the Greek novels decisively apart from their Roman congeners, such as the anonymous History of Apollonius King of Tyre (often supposed to have been based on a Greek original), and from other genres of ancient amatory literature. In this chapter is an examination of how a unique conception of eros or passionate love as a uniform and reciprocal emotion conditions the fundamental structure of the ancient Greek novels.

Hapless Heroes

In the third book of the novel by Chariton commonly called Chaereas and Callirhoe (though perhaps the better title is simply Callirhoe), the hero, who is of a noble family in Syracuse, prepares to set out in pursuit of the heroine, his bride, who has been captured by pirates and sold abroad. This much is typical of the ancient novel, though the background to the separation in this case is unusual: Chaereas had kicked Callirhoe in a fit of jealous rage, and she had fallen into a deathlike coma; the pirates found her alive when they broke into her tomb to rob its treasures (this feature has analogues elsewhere), and they sold her to a steward of Dionysius of Miletus, the most eminent and powerful of the Ionian Greeks. Quite exceptionally for the Greek novel, she marries Dionysius while her first husband is still alive, having discovered that she is pregnant by Chaereas, though she allows Dionysius to believe that the child is his. When the pirate chief falls into the hands of the Syracusans, Chaereas learns the whereabouts of Callirhoe, and the city votes in assembly to dispatch a warship at once under the command of Chaereas, even though it is winter and a dangerous time for sailing. Here is how Chariton describes the scene of the launching.

When the appointed day of the sailing came, the people congregated at the harbor, not only men, but also women and children, and there were mingled prayers, tears, groans, encouragement, fear, courage, despair and hope. Aristo, the father of Chaereas, being carried because of extreme old age and illness, threw himself upon the neck of his son and hanging from his neck said through his laments, "To what are you abandoning me, my son, a half-dead old man? For it is clear that I shall never again see you. Abide but a few days, so that I may die in your arms. Bury me, then leave." His mother seized his knees and said, "I beg of you, my son, do not abandon me here alone, but load me onto your trireme, light baggage enough. If I prove heavy or excess, cast me into the sea on which you are sailing." (3.5.3–5)

I wish to call attention to the hero's reaction in these circumstances: "Chaereas was broken by the supplications of his parents, and threw himself from the ship into the sea, wishing to die so that he might escape the alternatives either of not pursuing Callirhoe or of giving pain to his parents; quickly hurling themselves overboard the sailors barely succeeded in bringing him up" (3.5.6). Since the fears of Chaereas's parents are for his life, an attempt at suicide is not precisely the choicest way of sparing them anguish, and undoubtedly there is something comical about the scene. I am reminded of an episode in Portnoy's Complaint, in which a son who is dutiful to a neurotic degree hangs himself from the shower rod in the bathroom, but not before attaching to his shirt a message to his mother concerning a mah-jongg game that evening. In Chariton's novel, I think that one can see how this amusing if macabre little interlude arose. Chaereas is a lover given to thoughts of suicide the moment he is frustrated in his desire for his beloved. From the moment he sets eyes on Callirhoe, who is the daughter of a rival family in Syracuse, he begins to waste away till he is on the point of death (1.1.8–10). At his first suspicions of her infidelity, roused by the spite of her rejected suitors, he contemplates doing away with himself (1.4.7). After he has kicked her, he discovers the truth of the matter, and only the intervention of his friend Polycharmus prevents him from killing himself (1.5.2), as again after the public trial and verdict in Chaereas's favor (1.6.1). Later, Chaereas makes several more such desperate attempts. Chaereas's great moment, in which he defeats the Persian navy as he fights in behalf of Egypt and rescues Callirhoe in the bargain, occurs only after he has abandoned all hope of recovering his wife. Chaereas's daring represents a grand suicidal gesture, a way (on the suggestion of Polycharmus) of taking revenge and going out in glory (7.1.6–11). Suicide seems to be Chaereas's instinctive reaction to any serious obstacle, whether physical or moral.

Thus it happens that Chaereas elects to drown himself when his parents oppose his desire to sail after Callirhoe, even if this merely guarantees the consequence that they fear in his behalf. But I do not believe that the scene at the beach is simply an unconscious and ludicrous reflex of a formulaic narrative motif. In the first place, the scene is carefully constructed to highlight the peculiarity of Chaereas's reaction. The reader may already have noticed that Chariton has modeled his episode on the twenty-second book of the Iliad, in which Priam and Hecuba, along with Helen, plead with Hector from the wall of Troy not to sacrifice his life in a confrontation with Achilles. But for anyone who might fail to catch the allusion, Chariton inserts, as often, a brief quotation from the relevant passage in Homer. Chaereas's mother, he says, "tore bare her chest, held forth her breasts, and said, 'Respect these, and pity me, since I once offered you the soothing bosom'" (Iliad 22.82–83). Hector, too, had to make a choice between obedience to his parents and a desire to risk his life for a personal goal, in this case salvaging his honor for having encouraged the Trojans to engage the Achaeans after Achilles' return to battle. Hector, of course, chooses the path of honor, against the wishes of his parents. Chaereas, whose love for Callirhoe cannot be in doubt, nevertheless fails to put his desire to recover her above the claims of filial duty. Rather, he is paralyzed by the conflicting demands and seeks a way out in suicide. The contrast with Hector underscores the anomalousness of his response.

It may be objected that Chariton did not intend so precise a comparison between Hector's situation and that of Chaereas. Chaereas, while not unvalorous, is not an epic hero. But another detail in this same episode suggests rather that Chariton is quite conscious of the peculiarity of Chaereas's behavior and is concerned that the reader should be alerted to it. After Chaereas is rescued from the water, Hermocrates, the political leader of Syracuse and father of Callirhoe, "scattered the crowd and ordered the pilot to weigh anchor." At this point, Chariton tells us, Polycharmus gave another noble demonstration of his friendship. He was not immediately visible in the crowd, but "he said to his parents, 'Chaereas is a friend, yes a friend, but not to the degree that I would run ultimate risks with him. That is why I shall keep out of the way until he sails off.' But when the ship pulled away from the land, he waved goodbye to them from the stern, so that they could no longer restrain him" (3.5.7–8). This section has the appearance of an afterthought. Polycharmus must have addressed his parents and slipped away from the mass of people while they were still congregated on the shore. At some later point, he got on board the ship. That is plausible, though the tense of the verb "he said" (ephe), instead of "he had said (to his parents)" makes the sequence a trifle unclear. But we have to assume also that his parents, for no particular reason, managed to linger on after Hermocrates had sent away the rest of the people, so that they could see their son's gesture of farewell. Well, so they might have; in any case, it is easy to overlook so slight a contradiction, if it is one ("the crowd" [to plethos] might conceivably refer, as elsewhere in this text, specifically to the commons, as distinct from the nobility, among whom Polycharmus's family perhaps was numbered). I am suggesting only that the slight inconsequentiality in the text may be due to Chariton's intention to set off the description of Polycharmus's generous behavior by reserving it until the end of the narrative of Chaereas's little drama. This helps to underscore how different Polycharmus's response is to much the same kind of parental pressure. He deceives his parents simply to get out of their immediate power. Once he is beyond their reach, he does not hesitate to make his presence on the ship known to them; nor does he seem to entertain any scruples about their possible reaction. Not for him is the decision to toss himself overboard because his parents might disapprove of his adventure. Loyalty to a friend, despite his feigned protestations to the contrary, overrides obedience to his parents' will. It is thus all the more notable that Chaereas's love for Callirhoe and his desire to rescue her from captivity do not have the same authority with him. Rather than act boldly to reclaim his beloved, Chaereas is torn beyond endurance and chooses death.

I wish now to examine an episode from the fourth book of Daphnis and Chloe, ascribed to Longus. It is the occasion of a visit of Dionysophanes and Cleariste from their city residence in Mytilene to their rural property, where Daphnis, a foundling raised by the slave couple in charge of the estate, has been employed as a goatherd. A cowherd named Lampis, himself in love with the foundling Chloe, has trampled the flower garden of Lamo and Myrtale, Daphnis's foster parents, in a fit of jealous spite. Fearful of the anger of their master and mistress, Lamo, Myrtale, and Daphnis plead for the mercy of Astylus, the son of Dionysophanes and Cleariste, who has arrived in the country earlier than his parents. Astylus, a kind and forgiving young man, agrees to make excuses in their behalf. The episode of the trampled flowers might have ended there, but a complication is introduced in the person of Gnatho, a parasite in the company of Astylus. As a glutton and slave to his own belly, Gnatho is a familiar figure from New Comedy, and recalls his namesake in Terence's Eunuch. But the Gnatho of the novel is also lecherous, and he conceives a passion for Daphnis. An initial attempt at sex is repulsed by Daphnis, but Gnatho then begs Astylus to place Daphnis in his charge, for otherwise, he says, he will kill himself before Daphnis's door (4.16). Here, as lover, Gnatho too lets his thoughts turn to suicide. But Astylus, still the compassionate young master, consents to intercede for him with his parents.

News of this arrangement reaches Daphnis and his foster parents. Daphnis prepares either to flee or to kill himself and Chloe. In this case, the response is not necessarily exaggerated. The threat to Daphnis is serious, and Longus sometimes allows the harsh realities of power and dependency to invade the pastoral world of his novel. But Lamo decides to reveal the secret of how Daphnis was exposed to die, together with the rich tokens in his possession, in the hope that he will appear to be of too high a station to be subjected to the whims of Gnatho. Needless to say, Daphnis is recognized as the son of Dionysophanes and Cleariste.

Here is where events take an interesting turn. Chloe, learning of Daphnis's new status, concludes that he has forgotten his vows to her and resolves to die. But at that moment, Lampis, the cowherd, intervenes with a group of rustics to carry her off, confident that her parents, the shepherd Dryas and Napa, will accept his suit now that Daphnis is out of the contest. The rape is not entirely consistent with his plan to ask for Chloe's hand in marriage. I suspect that Longus wanted to introduce a dramatic episode of kidnap and separation—in the manner of the nonpastoral novels in which plunderers carry men and maidens across distant seas—but without entirely violating the fundamentally humane or innocent spirit of his rustic world. At all events, when Chloe's parents hear what has happened, they immediately inform Daphnis. Daphnis, "out of his wits, did not dare speak to his father, and yet was unable to control himself. He went into the garden enclosure and lamented: 'O, bitter discovery! How much better it was for me to tend my flock! How much happier 1 was as a slave! Then I would look upon Chloe, then I would kiss her, but now Lampis has gone and snatched her, and when night has come he will sleep with her. But I am drinking and reveling. In vain did I swear by Pan and the goats and the Nymphs'" (4.28). Gnatho, however, overhearing Daphnis's complaints, has the wits to collect a band of Astylus's men, locate Lampis's hut, and free Chloe just as she is being dragged inside. He then delivers Chloe over to Daphnis, exploiting this service to win his new master's pardon for his former offenses.

Consider the pattern: like Chaereas, Daphnis is inhibited from pursuing his beloved by a pious fear of his parents. He is not willing to confront or defy them, but he cannot endure the thought of his love abandoned to another man. Chaereas leaps into the sea; Daphnis withdraws in solitary grief. Both are paralyzed. To be sure, there are differences. Daphnis has not yet disclosed to his parents his love for Chloe. Having been raised as a goatherd, he is understandably still shy of approaching the august figure he now knows to be his father. More to the point, Daphnis is a pastoral hero, not, like Chaereas, the scion of a powerful family who is destined to lead armies and perform feats of courage. And yet, Daphnis is a rugged fellow, more than a match for Gnatho and, one presumes, for Lampis too. The point is that for all their differences, and the differences in the style and form of the two narratives, Daphnis and Chaereas are alike as novelistic lovers. They are utterly enamored, but their passion is not primarily revealed in heroic enterprises to claim or rescue the beloved. Rather, it is their helplessness and suffering that are emphasized. They do not lack courage: both Chaereas and Daphnis give abundant evidence of that. But courage and bold action are not the means, or at least not the chief means, by which their affection is exhibited and characterized. The strength of their attachment to the beloved is not in doubt, but it is their anguish in the face of loss that bears witness to it. In this episode in Daphnis and Chloe, resolute action was necessary and effective, but it was left to the agency of a subordinate figure who not only acted somewhat out of character, given his servility and appetites, but also, more important, acted for motives having nothing to do with erotic desire. The lovers are reunited, but not by decisive action on their part. Rather, this action is displaced onto a marginal character. To be sure, this provides a convenient means of reconciling Gnatho with Daphnis, but much more significantly, it juxtaposes Gnatho's decisive behavior with Daphnis's passivity. When a damsel is in distress in a Greek novel, her lover is no less so. The role of rescuing hero is not the primary narrative expression of romance in this genre.

In these two episodes, the obstacle that induces the hero's paralysis in the pursuit of his beloved is the fear of offending a parent, but I believe this is quite incidental to the motif that is being investigated. In the novel, fathers do not play the part of blocking figure that is characteristically theirs in New Comedy, for example. Dionysophanes and Cleariste consent to Daphnis's marriage to Chloe before they discover who her true parents are, though to be sure she does possess trinkets that intimate high birth. In Chariton's novel, a political rivalry between the families of Chaereas and Callirhoe stands in the way of their marriage, but both fathers quickly swallow their pride in the interests of their children and at the urging of the populace at large.


Excerpted from Sexual Symmetry by David Konstan. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


A Note on the Spelling of Greek Terms



Ch. 1 The Greek Novel: Sexual Symmetry

Ch. 2 Greek Novels: Variations on a Type

Ch. 3 Roman Novels: Unequal Love

Ch. 4 Before the Novel: Passion and Power

Ch. 5 Modern Novels: The Division of Desire

Ch. 6 Conclusion

Works Cited


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