Reading Callirhoe through Homer: Chariton’s Deployment of Homeric Quotation

Richard F. Buxton (University of Washington)

The Imperial-era novel Callirhoe incorporates 32 quotations from Homer, placing these both in the mouth of the narrator and within the direct speech of the novel’s characters. Further, narrator and characters alike make several references to Homer’s poems, and each invokes the poet directly by name. Most frequently these quotations have been seen either as an attempt by Chariton to appropriate the prestige of epic (Müller, Fusillo) or as a means of connecting his romance with its prototype, the Odyssey (Fusillo, Scobie, Schmeling). Richard Hunter, by contrast, has suggested that Chariton deploys these frequent Homeric references in order to help orient the reading and emotional responses of his audience. This detailed study of Chariton’s use of Homer seeks to emphasize and extend the latter position by demonstrating 5 of the novel’s various and often quite intricate intertextual strategies for shaping its audience’s response to Callirhoe at the level of its individual citations of Homer:

1. Homeric quotation is primarily used to shape the audience’s approach to particular episodes and not to the over-arching romance. Despite containing an Odyssey-like plot, the majority of Chariton’s quotations come from the Iliad and Homeric reference is used only once to liken the novel and epic poem’s star couples to each other. Chariton, therefore, deploys Homer not to further amplify his central Odyssey-compatible themes, but instead to heighten the emotional significance of side elements often more amenable to Iliad-material, e.g. Arataxerxes’ court is likened to Olympus.

2. Chariton frequently incorporates emotive Homeric formulae into his narrative, e.g. “loosed limbs,” in order to generate the same emotional responses that Homer had used these formulae to produce. Already in Homer these formulae serve to provoke a generic response towards the particular situations in which they appear that Chariton can effectively reproduce for similar episodes in his own text through their employment.

3. Homeric quotation is frequently used to help the reader understand the emotional response of other characters to Callirhoe. In particular, descriptions of the heroine using Homeric quotations that refer to goddesses or dangerously beautiful women like Helen and Penelope help the reader understand the mixed attitude of reverence and desire that Callirhoe excites among other characters in the relevant scenes.

4. Several citations from Homer used at moments when it seems that the novel’s couple will never successfully reunite connect its protagonist, Chaereas, with Homeric scenes detailing how Achilles handles the death of Patroclus. This sustained comparison must be understood in light of antiquity’s erotic reading of the relationship between these two epic heroes. Through establishing such a comparison, Chariton accordingly reminds his audience of how high the emotional stakes are for the novel’s couple should they fail to be reunited by modeling the still-separated pair onto the tragically parted lovers of the Iliad instead of the successfully reunited ones of the Odyssey.

5. In contrast to the dominant use of Homeric reference in Callirhoe to help establish emotional resonance, the character Dionysius is depicted using a quotation from Homer as an exemplum upon which to model proper behavior. Such a use of Homer is alien to Chariton’s era (Lamberton), but is a regular feature of the 5th/4th c. elite milieu Dionysius inhabits in this historical novel. Dionysius’ moral use of Homeric quotation is thus a period detail that forms a part of Chariton’s historicizing esthetic.

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