While Valentine’s Day was added to the calendar in the year 496 AD, people have loved a good romantic story throughout history. But when was the very first romance novel written? Many scholars point to ancient times, specifically in Greece. When you think about it, the birth of romantic fiction at that time period makes sense since Ancient Greece was known for its love of love and all that entails.
One of the first acknowledged purely-romantic stories was called Chaereas and Callirhoe (also under the title Callirhoe). Scholars estimated that it was written around the middle of the first century AD on papyrus . It employed Greek mythology symbolism, referenced relevant geography, and commented on historical events of the time. The author was named Chariton, and he was born in the Greek city of Aphrodisias. A temple of Aphrodite resided in Aphrodisias, which is not a big shocker. Did the local worship of the goddess of love influence Chariton’s writing? It’s confirmed that in Chariton’s novel his female character Callirhoe is compared to Aphrodite.
But what about the juicy plot? The story is set in Syracuse around 400 BC. Chaereas, our male protagonist, falls in love with a beautiful woman named Callirhoe. The two lovers marry, and because Callirhoe is so irresistible, her turned-down suitors decide to destroy her life. They trick Chaereas into believing his new wife is unfaithful, and instead of asking his beloved if they’re correct, he decides to kick his wife so hard she dies…Or does she?
They bury her in a tomb believing that she is deceased. Chaereas drops the ball on guarding his dead wife because pirates raid her resting place. Suddenly, Callirhoe awakes from a coma as they open her tomb! They sell her as a slave to a man named Dionysius. They marry as well, and Callirhoe is too nervous to say that her previous husband got her pregnant. She gives birth and Dionysius is none the wiser, believing the child to be his own. Was this the first love triangle? Imagine the chaos if the Ancient Greeks had paternity tests!
Somehow, Chaereas magically finds out that his wife is still alive. He goes on a gallant trip to save her, but he ends up becoming a slave as well. Both of them are put before the King of the Persians. He too falls in love with the damsel and tries to take Callirhoe for himself. Thus, a war erupts in the entire city! This plot is starting to sound like a mini-Trojan War. Chaereas raids the city and destroys the naval army with Egyptian rebels. Wait, how did Egyptian rebels get in the story? The Ancient Greeks did not seem to care about continuity.
The battle was won, and the Persians were defeated. The two lovers, Callirhoe and Chaereas, are reunited and sail back home. Callirhoe must have forgotten that whole ‘kicked to death’ thing. Callirhoe sends a letter to Dionysius instructing him to raise their son as his own and then send him back to Syracuse when he’s old enough. This was personally the funniest part of the story. Dionysius gets a letter saying his son isn’t his flesh and blood, that his wife was actually married the whole time, that she is leaving him for that previous husband, and expects him to raise their child and give him back safely. The audacity!
Unfortunately, that’s where the story ends. Many copies of Chaereas and Callirhoe were found all over Greece and Egypt, suggesting it was also the first popular romance novel. I wonder what Chariton would think of the romance genre today.
-Laura Rodgers, Intern