In this paper I establish an intertextual relationship between Chariton’s Callirhoe and Aelian’s story of Aspasia (VH12.1) that highlights their contrasting representations of Greek identity. Aspasiais different from romantic heroines in important ways (Pervo), but further comparison of Aelian’s Aspasia with Chariton’s Callirhoe is justified.
Aspasia of Phokaia (notto be confused with the famous companion of Perikles) was born into poverty and became a beautiful woman after being cured of a facial disfigurement by the goddess Aphrodite. Captured by Persians, she is forced to become the concubine of the satrap Cyrus, whom she grows to love; Aspasia eventually passes to Cyrus’ brother Artaxerxes, to whom she also develops a strong emotional attachment. Aspasia of Phokaia is discussed by Xenophon, Plutarch, and Athenaeus, but Aelian’s is the most elaborate account.
Chariton and Aelianare both interested in self-fashioning, but they differ in the representation of their versatile heroines’ Greek identity. Though flexible in enduring her life’s misfortunes, Callirhoe never lets go of the belief that she is Greek to the core and that her superiority over Persian slavery is based on essential differences between Greek and barbarian. Aspasia’s story, by contrast, is marked by metamorphosis and her versatility is shown to be not just a strategy for survival but the undoing of Greek identity; in the story of Aspasia, Aelian shows that the essentialism of Greek identity, the belief that one has a Greek nature, is illusory.
Aspasia and Callirhoe are contemporaries in the historical fictions that Aelian and Chariton construct. The Artaxerxes with whom Aspasia ends up in Aelian’s story is the same Persian King whose passion Callirhoe ignites. There are other hints that Aelian has Chariton’s heroine in mind. Aelian says that “she had an abundance of charms (χαρÎ¯των),” thereby writing the romancer’s name into Aspasia’s physical description and signaling her literary genealogy. Aelian also notes that the remarkable necklace Cyrus tries to present to Aspasia was brought from Sicily, a superfluous detail that evokes Chariton’s description of Callirhoe as the á¼„γαλμα τá¿†ς á½…λης ΣικελÎ¯ας (1.1.1). Aspasia’s adaptability to her role as concubine and her gradual love for Cyrus recall Callirhoe’s own adaptability: Callirhoe marries, has a sexual life with, and even develops an affection for Dionysius (cf. her love-at-first-sight romance with Chaereas).
The women’s Greek identity is tested by their respective confrontations with eunuchs at the court of Artaxerxes. After the eunuch Artaxates propositions her for the king, Callirhoe’s first impulse is to gouge out his eyes; instead she dissembles, remembering that she is educated and prudent (6.7.8). In their subsequent meeting, when the eunuch insults Chaereas as a slave, Callirhoe finally lashes out, invoking the memory of Marathon and Salamis to remind the eunuch of Greek superiority (6.7.9-10).
Aspasia’s encounter with a eunuch reveals a different attitude toward Greek identity. Early on Aspasia rejects the gaudy dress of a courtesan as an admission of slavery. But Aspasia gradually welcomes Persian luxury: though politely declining the ornate necklace, she happily sends wealth to her father, modulating her style as appropriate to both Greek and Persian standards. The story’s climactic final scene nevertheless astonishes, as Aspasia consoles Artaxerxes for the death of his beloved eunuchby voluntarily dressing herself in the eunuch’s cloak. Gone are the scruples about her supposed Greek identity; Aspasia fully admits her status as the slave of the Persian king.
Aelian frequently explores different ways of understanding Greek identity, and reading Chariton’s Callirhoe alongside the story of Aspasia reveals an interesting variation on one of Aelian’s favorite themes. Aphrodite’s early intervention to remove Aspasia’s disfiguring growth (φá¿¦μα, from φÏσις) teaches her about the metamorphic power of á¼”ρως. Freed from the constraints of an essentialist Greek nature such as abides in Callirhoe, Aspasia transforms herself into the perfect Persian woman.