You are here

The Official and Hidden Transcripts of Callirhoe’s Enslavement

William Owens

This paper applies James Scott’s concept of official and hidden transcripts of asymmetric power relationships to a reading of the events in Chariton’s Callirhoe that lead up to the enslaved heroine Callirhoe’s decision to marry her owner in exchange for the freedom of her unborn child.  A reading of these events as an official transcript, that is, a product of the slave owner, contrasts the nobility of Dionysius, the owner, and Callirhoe (who is not a “real” slave) with the servile qualities of “real” slaves in Dionysius’ household.  Mastery and slavery are affirmed as institutions based on innate difference.  In contrast, reading the same events as hidden transcript, a slave’s response to domination, problematizes nobility and suggests that slavery is based on power.  This paper thus aligns with the work of other scholars, such as Sara Forsdyke and Amy Richlin who have turned to Scott to elucidate servile and non-elite ideas in texts.

A Syracusan noblewoman, Callirhoe is already married, to Chaereas, when she is sold as a slave to Dionysius, in Miletus.  When she meets Dionysius, the astute heroine realizes her fate depends on his good will.  Sensing his attraction, she conceals the fact she is married.  Dionysius recognizes his new slave’s nobility and promises to send her home.  But he also falls in love.  She resists, remaining faithful to Chaereas.  But when Callirhoe discovers she is pregnant with Chaereas’ child, she consents to marry Dionysius and passes the child off as his.

Scott’s official transcript is a public account of power relations.  Chariton reflects the public dimension of the official transcript through explicit assertion, either focalized through the characters—Dionysius, his slaves, and Callirhoe—or inserted by the author himself (2.1; 2.3; 2.4; 2.5).  Dionysius is handsome, refined, just, and humane.  Callirhoe is beautiful and virtuous.  Chariton transacts these assertions in public settings; for example, when Dionysius interrogates Callirhoe before an audience of his friends, his freedmen, and the most trusted of his slaves (2.5).  Deception is a servile act, but when Callirhoe deceives Dionysius about the paternity of her child, Chariton absolves her:  naïve, well-born Callirhoe did not realize the wickedness of Plangon, an ancilla callida who convinced her that deceiving Dionysius was her only option (2.10, μεῖραξ εὐγενὴς καὶ πανουργίας ἄπειρος δουλικῆς). 

Scott’s hidden transcript is an off-stage response to the public official transcript.  Chariton creates off-stage narrative space through authorial silence and irony.  At his first meeting with Callirhoe, Dionysius, proclaimed as just and humane, impulsively strikes his slave Leonas (2.3).  Chariton does not record a reaction for Leonas or Callirhoe nor does he comment himself.  However, a reader could infer the impression such violence would make on Leonas and Callirhoe.  Dionysius also neglects to honor his promise to return Callirhoe home.  Chariton makes Dionysius’ motivation clear—Dionysius is in love.  But he is silent about why Dionysius is able to forget his promise: a master was not bound by promises made to slaves. Dionysius ignores his promise because he can.  The possibility of authorial irony in Chariton’s description of his astute heroine as Plangon’s naïve victim (2.10) points to a reading in which Callirhoe is her fellow slave’s partner in deception, not the slave’s victim.  The narrative as hidden transcript thus problematizes nobility and critiques slavery as an institution based on power rather than justice or nature. 

Chariton wrote Callirhoe in the first century CE, a time when elite freedmen were making significant contributions to Roman culture and letters (cf. Christes, Kaster).  It may be significant then that Chariton presents himself as the clerk (1.1, ὑπογραφεύς) of a legal speaker, an occupation associated with educated slaves and ex-slaves.  Similarly, Chariton’s audience could have included literate ex-slaves, persons who had experienced owner-slave relations from the perspective of the slave and were prepared to read his hidden transcript.

Session/Panel Title

Voicing Slaves in the Greco-Roman World

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy