The Hellenistic Romances – Five Surviving Ancient Greek Novels

ImageImageFor my Ancient History major, I wrote my publication project on The Dominance of Heterosexual Passion in Post-Classical Literature. I had discovered from a Lecturer that there was a shift in Greek attitude from Classical literature focusing on homosexual relations, to Post-Classical literature idealising heterosexual couples. He had also mentioned the Ancients had been writing novels that would be considered to our standards as Mills and Boons. I came across these five (completed) surviving Ancient Greek Novels.

  • Chariton of Aphrodisias’s Chaireas and Callirhoe was dated to be the earliest surviving completed Greek novel from the first century B. C. E. to the end of the second century C. E. that revolved around the Syracusian love story of Chaireas (the hero) and Callirhoe (the heroine).
  • Xenophon of Ephesos’s Ephesiaka (early or middle second century C. E) was the second, narrating the Ephesian Tale of Habrokomes (the hero) and Anthia (the heroine).
  • The third was Achilles Tatius’s Leukippe and Kleitophon (from the second century C. E.) that was narrated in first person from Kleitophon’s point of view.
  • The fourth, Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe (late second century C. E.) represented the pastoral, Lesvian love story of Mytilene.
  • Lastly, Heliodoros of Emesa’s Aithiopika (dated between the third and fourth centuries C.E.) focused on Theagenes (the hero) and Charikleia’s (the heroine) love story which started in the middle of the narrative where they have travelled around Egypt and Greece.

Each completed Greek novel conformed to a basic narrative framework that was divided into three parts: the meeting and falling in love of the hero and heroine, their trials and adventures together or separation in a foreign world, and their ultimate union/reunion/marriage.

– Part one usually took place at a festival, where the lovers met and exchanged eye contact and where they were overcome with love.

  • Habrocomes and Anthia met at the festival of Artemis, ‘then they saw each other, and Anthia was captivated by Habrocomes, while Love got the better of Habrocomes. He kept looking at the girl and in spite of himself could not take his eyes off her. Love held him fast and pressed home his attack. And Anthia too was in a bad way, as she let his appearance sink in, with rapt attention and eyes wide open…’
  • Theagenes (leader of a mission of the Aenianes to Delphi to perform sacrifices in honour of Neoptolemus) during the Pythian games saw the priest of Apollo, Charicles and his foster daughter, Chariklea, who was a ministrant holding a torch, ‘Theagenes made to take the fire; and in that instant it was revealed to us, Knemon, that the soul is something divine and partakes in the nature of heaven. For at the moment when they set eyes on one another, the young pair fell in love, as if the soul recognised its kin at the very first encounter and sped to meet that which was worthy of its own. For a brief second full of emotion they stood motionless; then slowly, so slowly, she handed him the torch and he took it from her, and all the while they gazed hard into one another’s eyes’ as if calling to mind a previous acquaintance or meeting.’

But, two completed novels did not follow this plot, where one couple met at one of the lover’s house, where the other couple’s love grew and developed from friendship.

  • Kleitophon fell in love with his cousin, Leukippe when he first saw her arriving at his house to stay, ‘As soon as I had seen her, I was lost. For Beauty’s wound is sharper than any weapon’s, and it runs through the eyes down to the soul. It is through the eye that love’s wound passes, and I now became a prey to a host of emotions: admiration, amazement, trembling, shame, shamelessness.’
  • Chloe developed feelings for Daphnis, ‘She also persuaded him to another bath; and as he bathed, she watched him, and after watching she touched him; then she went away, thinking again how handsome he was. And that thought was the beginning of love. On the other hand, Daphnis developed feelings later for Chloe; ‘Then, for the first time, he realised with admiration that her hair was golden, that her eyes were as big as cow’s, and that her face was really even whiter than goat’s milk. It was as if he had then, for the first time, acquired eyes, and had been blind before.’

– Part two occurred while the couples were separated or together while they were travelling, one or the other was kidnapped, accidents happened, pirates intervened, a shipwreck occurred, a protagonist got sold into slavery, and they explored new worlds of religion.

– Part three occurred at the beginning or the end of the novel because love only happened once in the narrative, falling and being in love was explored throughout, which led the couples to marry because of their reciprocated and symmetrical love.

The undertone of the Greek novels was for reproduction. Heterosexual couples were loyal and chaste, which resulted into them marrying. Therefore, the novels were a celebration of fertility for the Hellenistic and Imperial worlds which depended on the novels to influence people. They were the only forms in Post-Classical literature that represented a fully reciprocal and symmetrical heterosexual bond as the fundamental structuring principle of their narratives. As a result, heterosexual passion represented in the novels engaged people to love and marry as a social choice, and not restrict marriage as a social order, even though the novels were used to promote fertility and happiness in a cosmopolitan world.

These 5 surviving Ancient Greek Novels show modern readers and writers where the beginnings of the romance genre started, the interests and themes ancient societies wrote about, and their creativeness of how they mirrored socio-sexual relations throughout ancient times.

ImageImageImageTo read about the Ancient Novels and other surviving Fragments check out B. P. Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels.


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