Hello friendly friends, I’m back, doing my blogs. Parents have been visiting, seeing the most cutest little baby in the history of babies. I swear, sometimes I look at my baby and I think, I honestly think the sight of this baby could bring about world peace. Like, no, I’m serious, I don’t think it would be possible for two people to hate each other if they were both shown the image of this baby. Because they’d both go, "That baby is the cutest baby ever!" and then they’d be like, "Wow, you love this baby too??? I guess we have more in common than we think." It’s kind of an update of the now-widely-mocked theory that two nations that have a McDonald’s will never go to war (in case anyone cares, Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia all have McDonald’s restaurants).
The point I am making here is that our baby is just that cute. Like, I genuinely believe she could be the baby equivalent of a movie star, but of course we don’t want that life for her.
I know that most parents believe this about their baby, but you know what? Some baby does have to be the cutest! And in this case that’s our baby.
What we were we talking about? Books? Oh yeah, so the other day I picked up a book I purchased on the Kindle ten years ago (yes it’s insane that the Kindle has been around this long). It’s the Penguin Classics compilation of Ancient Greek Novels. Some might say that novel is a misnomer, and that it might be more appropriate to call them prose romances. But you know what? The book I read, Callirhoe, was definitely a novel! It was about a boy, Chaereas, who falls in love with a girl, Callirhoe, and marries her, and through some weird events, she gets sold into slavery and marries another guy, and then the King of Persia gets involved, and Chaereas also gets sold into slavery, but he escapes and joins a rebellion in Egypt, and…it’s really complicated.
The book was written in the first or second century AD by Chariton, a Greek writer from the Ionian coast of what’s now Turkey. The book is a historical tale, being set during the Peloponnesian War, and it spans across Sicily, Ionia, Persia, and Egypt.
It was an extremely solid book! I picked it up out of extremely passing interest, and I read it in about two hours (it’s quite short) without stopping. I’ve gotten really into medieval history lately, and I started idly wondering if there was Byzantine literature, and I discovered that there’s a whole tradition of medieval Byzantine novels that are descended from the Greek and Latin prose fiction tradition, and I remembered that I had this book and so and so forth.
The book contains more than a few outrageous coincidences: Chaereas originally thinks Callirhoe is dead, and he mistakenly entombs her, and then some grave robbers find her and free her. But I think we could still call it a novel. I think people who draw this rather arbitrary distinction between the novel and the prose romance must be people who don’t read many fantasy or historical novels. The thing is, the prose romance wasn’t some antique form that was supersede by the realist novel–both forms have continued to the present day. I also thought that Callirhoe was plenty realistic, especially on a psychological level. There was actually quite a lot of attention paid to people’s mental states. For instance, the man who buys Callirhoe, Dionysius, doesn’t want to force her to have sex with him, but he also doesn’t want to free her, so he’s sort of trapped in between, and there’s a constant tension between all these men wanting to be good and honorable, and also their really, really strong desire to get what they want. It’s a tension you see in a lot of great literature, but rarely is it made so explicit, and rarely is it decoupled so wholly from grand events. Although the book features great personages, it really is just a story about two people trying to find each other (and a whole bunch of other people who want to have sex with one of the people who doesn’t want to have sex with them).
I was impressed!
The introduction to the volume, I think, hits the nail on the head, when it notes that if you see the novel as being uniquely modern, then Callirhoe seems like an outlier, but if you look with a broader lens, you can see that prose storytelling was a pretty common form throughout antiquity. Plato’s dialogues are all in prose, and they feature lively debates and interesting characters. You also have the tradition of the history or chronicle, which is a tale, often quite embroidered, that is in prose. Indeed, some of the later Greek novels are just histories that’ve been embroidered so elaborately that it’s clear people weren’t meant to take them seriously (one of the novels that’s come down to us is a account of the life of Alexander). Right now I’m reading Xenophone’s Anabasis (another book I bought ten years ago), and I’m surprised at how novelistic it is. I’ve read plenty of Greek histories, but rarely were they so intimate and contained. Anabasis is about a troop of Greek mercenaries, and their struggle to escape from Persia. It’s been the basis of a number of successful science fiction novels (most recently, Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet), so I’m stoked to get into it!
Anyway, old Greek novels. They’re a thing.