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This paper argues that the ancient Greek novels represent a transition period for the meaning of the word sōphrosynÄ“, with respect to male characters, between the Classical/ Hellenistic periods (7th c. – 1st c. BCE) and the time of the early Church fathers (2nd-5th cs CE). By examining philological evidence in three novels, from early (Callirhoe 1st c. CE), to middle (Leucippe and Clitophon late 2nd c. CE), to late (Aethiopica 4th c. CE), I will demonstrate that these works embrace sōphrosynÄ“’s early (“self-control”) and later (“chastity”) meanings for males. This finding, to look beyond the boundaries of this paper, contributes to the dialogue on the putative literary interactions between ancient novels and early Christian writings (which is my larger research topic), and addresses an issue, male sōphrosynÄ“ in the novels, which has received little scholarly attention (Jones 2012 engages the topic of novelistic masculinity but takes a theoretical rather than philological approach).

The standard study of sōphrosynÄ“ in the ancient world is Helen North’s SOPHROSYNE: Self-knowledge and Self-restraint in Greek Literature (1966). North’s book was published a year before the ancient novels entered upon the scholarly scene, with B. E. Perry’s The Ancient Romances: A Literary-Historical Account of their Origins (1967). Consequently, North’s analysis covers the Classical period in Greece, touches on the Hellenistic period, and then skips over the Imperial period, during which the ancient Greek novels were written, to the writings of the early Church fathers. SōphrosynÄ“ was the traditional virtue, for both men and women in the ancient Greek world. North notes that sōphrosynÄ“ has a consistent meaning of “chastity” for women throughout all these periods, but for men it undergoes a significant transformation. In the Classical and Hellenistic periods, male sōphrosynÄ“ means “self-control”, not only with respect to food and sex, but also to behavior, making it a virtue of the mind as well as the body. In early Christian writings, male sōphrosynÄ“ becomes equated to female sōphrosynÄ“, that is, it means “chastity” in the traditional sense of sexual self-restraint.

The Greek novels are midpoint between the gendered classical definition of sōphrosynÄ“ and the early Christian adaptation of sōphrosynÄ“ as a single virtue for both sexes. For instance, Callirhoe’s hero Chaereas undergoes a transformation from a foolish youth who knows nothing of sōphrosynÄ“ (evidenced by his pathetic behavior and attempted suicides), for which reason he loses his beloved Callirhoe, to a man who gains control of himself, behaves heroically in war, and consequently recovers his lost bride. Leucippe and Clitophon redefines novelistic erotics so that words can substitute for deeds, with the result that the hero Clitophon can verbally both manipulate the definition of chastity (8.5) and couch his sexual indiscretion in terms of traditional self-control (5.27). Theagenes, the hero of the Aethiopica, melds the discipline and courage of a pre-rage Achilles with a monk’s disdain for sex, tantalizing and untouchable at the same time.

As for the relationship between the Roman and the early Christian worlds, as mediated by the ancient Greek novels, rather than seeing a direct influence upon novelistic literature by Christian culture (pace Ramelli, I Romanzi Antichi e el Cristianesimo: Contesto e Contatti, 2001), I interpret this shift in male virtue to parallel the shift in social reality from the political to the personal (e.g., Whitmarsh, Greek Literature and the Roman Empire, 2001), and thus am in alignment with scholars like Judith Perkins, who argues in The Suffering Self (1995) that the social conditions of the Roman world in the first few centuries predisposed it to be receptive to Christianity’s message.


  • Jones, Meriel. 2012. Playing the Man: Performing Masculinities in the Ancient Greek Novel. Oxford.
  • North, Helen. 1966. SOPHROSYNE: Self-knowledge and self-restraint in Greek Literature. Cornell.
  • Perkins, Judith. 1995. The Suffering Self: Pain and Narrative Representation in the Early Christian Era. Routledge.
  • Perry, B. E. 1967. The Ancient Romances: A Literary-Historical Account of their Origins. California.
  • Ramelli, Ilaria. 2001. I Romanzi Antichi e el Cristianesimo: Contesto e Contatti. Signifer Libros.
  • Whitmarsh, Tim. 2001. Greek Literature and the Roman Empire: The Politics of Imitation. Oxford.

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