Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 28.

Steven D. Smith, Greek Identity and the Athenian Past in Chariton: The Romance of Empire. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 9. Groningen: Barkhuis & Groningen University Library, 2007. Pp. ix + 282. ISBN 9789077922286. Euro77.00.

John Birchall,
P. O. Box 90, London W1H 1PJ, England, UK.

Steven Smith’s book on Chariton looks at every aspect of the evocation of Athens, and Athenian culture in Chariton. The book contains interesting thought and deep familiarity with and engagement with the secondary literature.

The first chapter, ‘Introduction: Questions and Context’ (pp. 1-22), raises the issue of Chariton’s complex attitudes to the Athenian past, and puts the question in the context of work on Chariton’s relationship with historiography. It then goes on to consider work on focalization and narrratology as a context for questions of attitudes to Athens (since it is important to be the sensitive to the narrative context in which any particular attitude is expressed). It also discusses views of earlier critics on the relative importance of Chaereas and Callirhoe, which provides some context for the argument, later in the book, that Chaereas evokes Alciabides in several respects. The ‘questions’ in the chapter title presumably refer to the questions the book will investigate. In summary, the book sets out to investigate Chariton’s complex and contradictory relationship with the Athenian past, and to explore ‘the marked dissonance between characters who profess to despise Athens and a narrative voice which continually quotes and emulates classical Athenian authors’ (p. 1). The author never raises the question, to what extent Chariton is valuable as a source for the history of ideas, and in particular for the literary construction of Athens at whatever time the text was composed; or whether on the contrary the present work is concerned primarily to illuminate the novel for readers. The underlying, unarticulated assumption is that the novel cannot be read except in its cultural context, so the two kinds of work go hand in hand.

The issue of the kind of work the author is undertaking is most obvious in the second chapter, which, by way of giving further context, provides a summary of constructions of Athens in other classical authors, primarily a list of five works by Cicero, Nepos, Diodorus, Velleius Paterculus, Seneca, and Plutarch. The author does of course see the difficulty of this procedure, and answers it is follows (p. 24): ‘[T]here is no evidence to suggest that Chariton knew Latin. Rather, the analysis of Latin and Greek authors together will show that evocations of Athens in both languages share some common themes. Against such a background, it will be easier to detect Chariton’s participation in certain literary trends and also how Chariton departs from his contemporaries in rewriting the classical world.’ He goes on to describe representations of Athens’ cultural richness, ‘the paradoxal tyranny of Athenian democracy,’ and the comparison with Rome which some authors make. He does not mention Ewen Bowie’s comparison of the hero with Cassius Chaerea until his last chapter, comparing Chaereas with Alcibiades.[[1]] He says little about how far it is fair to read comment on Rome in Chariton, here or elsewhere, although that idea hangs as a possibility in the author’s discussion of Chariton’s representations of Athens. I would have liked him to have nailed his colours to the mast a bit more clearly in this section, if only to acknowledge (even if one cannot clearly answer) the foreseeable objection that the discussion of the use of Athens as an analogue for Rome is so peripheral to the trends with which Chariton is said to interact, that there is no good reason to include it.

The remaining five chapters work much more directly on the novel, and its intertextual relationships with texts from which ancient and modern authors construct the Athens of literary tradition. Chapter 3 is entitled ‘Chariton’s Athens: Making Men, Women, and States’ (pp. 50-98). It starts with an extended discussion of Athens seen through Syracusan eyes. It goes on to consider Athens through the eyes, in turn, of Challirhoe, Theron, and Dionysius, and from the perspective of Babylon, Egypt, and finally, Athens in the background as Chaereas and Callirhoe are reunited in Book 8 and return to Syracuse. Chapters 4 to 7 explore in turn intertextuality with areas of the literary tradition set out in their titles, ‘Athenian Myth and Drama’ in Chapter 4; Chapter 5 is on ‘Athenian Law, Rhetoric, and Identity’ (pp. 120-52) and Chapter 6 on ‘Historiography and Empire’ (pp. 153-98).

The chapter dealing with law and rhetoric starts by referring to Chariton as ‘the secretary of a lawyer’, then immediately introduces Chariton’s appreciation of Lysias by referring to ‘whatever familiarity Chariton might have had with Hellenistic treatises on law and rhetorical style’ (p. 120). This formulation understates the extent to which the literary tradition, and the construction of Athens in it, which the author demonstrates, was integral to the evolving tradition of rhetorical education. Admittedly the tradition of rhetorical education is difficult or impossible to reconstruct with any clarity, but it is the way Hellenistic writers clearly learned their craft. This is true at least as early as Chariton (whatever his date). The author might have travelled further down this path had he taken into account, in his treatment of laments in Chapter 3, and his reference to rhetoric of the lament in a footnote at the beginning of Chapter 5, the present reviewer’s article on this subject,[[2]] which demonstrates that all the Greek novelists had learnt to write, in part at least, in rhetorical schools.

This underestimation of the importance of the rhetorical tradition is reflected in the surprising description of Chariton as the secretary of a lawyer, when what he says is that he was the amanuensis of a rhetor.[[3]] Either the author wanted to emphasise Chariton’s appreciation of law, when choosing this translation, or he was relying Brian Reardon’s loose translation, ‘clerk to the attorney Athenagoras.’ The rhetorical tradition is important not only because it is a context for the literary construction of Athens in the texts, but because the very act of studying rhetoric made the student a literary debtor to Athens. Given the detail in which the book treats Chariton’s reactions to Athens, it might have been worth exploring this additional layer of meaning. In this context the author could have developed further his discussion of the Atticising tendencies in Chariton. But the book might have been significantly longer: although not over-long, it is already a substantial piece of work.

The last chapter of the book compares Chaereas with Alcibiades. Necessarily, it deals less than the other chapters with modern discussions of the novels, and contains more reference to ancient sources than the other chapters. The author says, ‘it is important to remember that Chariton was not simply constructing an Alcibiades in disguise for the hero of his novel. Rather, motifs from the Alcibiades tradition provided a host of alternatives and tropes for conceptualizing a legendary hero within a romantic tradition’ (p. 212). He makes particular (but by no means exclusive) use of Plutarch’s life. He does not attempt to show, neither does he say that he has tried and found it impossible to show, that Chariton had read Plutarch. The implication is that Chariton was familiar with a tradition of writing about Alcibiades represented by Athenian authors, Nepos and Plutarch. The tradition is treated monolithically. This is problematic: just how capacious was the tradition of now lost descriptions of Alcibiades, and how many such books were available to Chariton? It appears from the general and thematic nature of the comparisons between Chaereas and Alcibiades that we should not expect close linguistic parallels. However the implications of their absence should be addressed squarely, in my view. There are some very tentative attempts to find linguistic echoes of passages describing Alcibiades,[[4]] and the author’s use of underlining (see footnote) appears to suggest a possible linguistic echo, but he does not clearly assert that it is there, and to do so would have been unrealistic.

Leaving aside the lack of direct linguistic echoes, is the case that Chariton drew heavily on Alcibiades-like features made out? The case is thought-provoking, the author argues it at its highest, and argued in that way I regard it as overstated. Here again I pick up a translation quibble. The author says, ‘the narrator says that Chaereas is like Alcibiades OI(/ON . . . *)ALKIBIA/DHN.’ However, what Chariton says (filling in the gap) is ‘like Achilles and Nereus and Hippolytus and Alcibiades.’ The translation quibble, however, is that even this is not really what Chariton says. The author is again perhaps working with Reardon’s translation of the sentence, which is fair if loose, provided it is quoted in full: ‘There was a young man called Chaereas, surpassingly handsome, like Achilles and Nireus and Hippolytus and Alcibiades as the sculptors and painters portray them.’ The Greek at 1.1.3 reads, *XAIRE/AS GA/R TIS H)=N MEIRA/KION EU)/MORFON, PA/NTWN U(PERE/XON, OI(=ON *)AXILLE/A KAI\ *NIRE/A KAI\ *(IPPO/LUTON KAI\ *)ALKIBIA/DHN PLA/STAI TE KAI\ GRAFEI=S DEIKNU/OUSI. In other words (ignoring the editor’s commas), ‘Chaereas was a lad who was fine-looking beyond everyone else in the way that sculptors and painters depict Achilles and Nireus and Hipplytus and Alcibiades.’ Since the author relies on what he regards as a programmatic comparison with Alcibiades, this little point is important.

Chapter 7 ends with a conclusion to the book as a whole, which without seeking to draw the threads together in detail (an exercise which would probably not have added much), the author briefly discusses the ‘novel’s overarching concern with tyranny’ (p. 247).

Steven Smith’s book is a worthwhile contribution to the discourse surrounding the ancient novel, containing more than its share of interesting ideas. It need not be regarded as a weakness that the author has developed his reading on the basis of no clearly indicated literary theory. In terms of development and analysis of ideas, and of advocacy for a particular reading of Chariton, the work is strong. The book is weaker in terms of its treatment of relevant technicalities of rhetoric and language (although, in spite of two objections I have made to translation points, the author’s numerous translations of extended Greek quotations are good). For me the general thrust of the argument, that Chariton’s writing has political undertones, is made out, although many of the specific arguments cannot be said to be proved on a balance of probabilities. Perhaps in a book of this kind, to ask whether they are so proved would be to ask the wrong question. As you would expect from a book which started life as a Boston University dissertation, and appears to have benefited from substantial further work, there is here a great deal of interest in a short compass, and this quality makes it a very good book, in spite of the serious objections I have touched on.


[[1]] Ewen Bowie, 'The Chronology of the Earlier Greek Novels since B.E. Perry: Revisions and Precisions', Ancient Narrative 2 (2002) 47-63.

[[2]] John Birchall, ‘Laments as a Rhetorical Feature in the Greek Novel' GCN 7 (1996) 1-17.


[[4]] For example at p. 233f. the author compares Chaereas' popularity with his peers with Alcibiabes' popularity in Athens as referred to by Aristophanes, specifically comparing, 1.1.10 E)PO/QEI DE\ TO\ GYMNA/SION *XAIRE/AN KAI\ W(/SPER E)/RHMON H)= E)FI/LEI GA\R AU)TO\N H( VEOLAI/A, with Ar. Ran. 1425 POQEI= ME/N, E)XQAI/REI DE/, BOU/LETAI D' E)/XEIN.