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The Paradoxical Program of Chariton’s Callirhoe

Stephen Trzaskoma

Chariton’s fondness for paradox on various levels from the rhetorical to the situational has been noted frequently by critics (e.g., Anderson [1982] 19, Hunter [1994] 1076–7, Reardon [2003] 331–2, Whitmarsh [2005] 116 w. n. 43, Smith [2007] 141, Doulamis [2011] 30), but little attempt has been made to connect Chariton’s novel to the wider interest in the paradoxical that swept through the contemporary Greek and Roman worlds. This paper, by contrast, proposes a reading of the novel that promotes paradox from an apparently ornamental feature of composition to a principal hermeneutic concern, both in the construction of plot and character, but also in the assessment of Chariton’s literary aims and methods.

The centrality of paradox is laid out clearly in the novel’s prologue (1.1.1–4), where there is an emphatic repetition of key vocabulary associated with the paradoxographers and other wonder literature (for which see Schepens & Delcroix [1996]): θαυμαστόν, παραδόξου, ἴδιον, παραδόξοις. I begin, therefore, with a close reading of this opening, which I view as a programmatic literary statement that comprises a statement of novelty with regard to the identity of its author (a mere clerk with Thucydidean pretensions), its heroine (a virginal Aphrodite) and its literary program (in which the humble and contemporary novel is superior to earlier literature of prestige). A survey of the use of the language of paradox throughout the rest of Callirhoe, allows us to see how consistently this program is carried out and suggests that we ought to read (pace Tilg [2010]) the avowed “novelty” of this particular work less as evidence for the invention of the genre before our very eyes and more as a interpretive guide to Chariton’s ambitions vis-à-vis his novelistic and non-novelistic predecessors. The central literary paradox, in other words, is that Chariton reuses familiar elements and language, from stereotypical beauty to citations of Homer and tragedy, to create something that is yet novel enough to cause wonder, much as his heroine appears at once prototypical when viewed against her generic successors but stands alone because of her act of faithful infidelity in marrying a second husband.

Having introduced the idea that paradox is a way of mediating literary influence for Chariton, I will conclude with a brief analysis of the four-way comparison of Chaereas to Achilles, Nireus, Hippolytus and Alcibiades, proposing that we must interpret this comparison as a single unit (rather than, for instance, singling out Alcibiades as Smith [2007] does) and that paradox once again provides a framework for a hero who can be likened to four such disparate figures, each associated particularly closely with other literary genres (epic, elegy, tragedy and history) that Chariton uses as models for his paradoxical blend of simultaneous imitation and deviation.

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Ancient Receptions of Classical Literature

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