Ancient Novels Like the Gospels: Mixing History and Myth

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by Neil Godfrey

Statue of Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican Museums.
Image via Wikipedia

The earliest ancient novel we have is a tale of two lovers, Chaereas and Callirhoe, by Chariton. A summary of its plot can be found here. It is dated to the early second century.

I have discussed or alluded to this novel in the various posts found on this page as a comparison to the Gospels, and this time I will show that its characters, plot and setting are drawn from a mix of historical and mythical sources.

Not a few scholars today who specialize in literary analysis of the Gospels have argued that this is how the Gospels were also constructed: from a mix of history and myth. Most recently along these lines I have posted a few times on Spong’s arguments that Gospel characters like Judas, even the “Twelve Disciples”, Jairus’s daughter who was raised from the dead, blind Bartimaeus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth (the parents of John the Baptist) are all cut from literary fictions. The character of Jesus himself is based on Moses in the Gospel of Matthew and on Elijah in the Gospel of Luke. At the same time, however, we have obviously real people — e.g. Herod and Pilate — appearing in the Gospel narratives.

Some criticisms of these posts have been along the lines of saying that ancient authors did not write stories with historical characters mixed up with fictional characters whose creation was inspired by mythical tales.

Well, that particular criticism is wrong. Chariton is evidence that ancient authors did indeed make up stories that included a mix of historical persons, events and settings along with character and plot details drafted from popular myths and older fictional literature.

This post draws its details from The Myths of Fiction: Studies in the Canonical Greek Novels by Edmund P. Cueva.

Cueva himself does not discuss the Gospels and makes no comparisons with them at all. The comparisons are entirely my own. (This post is really intended to be understood within the context of my earlier post on Michael Vines’ book presenting reasons to understand the Gospel of Mark as a Jewish novel. Cueva is looking at Greek novels, of course, but I am drawing attention here to the way novels themselves could and did at times construct their characters, settings and plots out of a mix of history and myth.)

Chariton, History, and Myth

The heading is taken from Cueva’s chapter of the same title. Will first look at History.

Historical characters in the novel

The quotations are from Cueva’s book (and any emphases are mine) unless otherwise stated throughout.

[T]he reader of Chaereas and Callirhoe finds veritable historical detail in the correctly assigned dates, accurately related events, and realistically depicted places and figures of the novel. (p. 16)

Historical details are discussed in the Wikipedia article linked above. I take a few of the historical details from Reardon’s introduction:

The father of the fictional heroine (Callihroe) is Hermocrates. Hermocrates really did exist.

Hermocrates . . . was a Syracusan statesman and leader in the successful resistance to the Athenian expedition against Sicily in 415-413. He died in 407, but the story reflects a number of historical events and people distributed over most of the fourth century, including the siege of Tyre by Alexander the Great in 332. Callihroe herself shares this historical aura to some extent, for Hermocrates did have a daughter who died accidentally. (Reardon, p. 18)

The father of the fictional hero (Chaereas) is Ariston. There was an historical Ariston at the same time and place as Hermocrates. Chaereas’s own fictional adventures in the novel are based on the real historical adventures of Alexander and another historical military man, Chabrias.

[Chaereas’s] adventures recall, as well as those of Alexander, the exploits of an Athenian professional soldier of the early fourth century, Chabrias; and his father, Ariston, has the same name as the prominent member of the victorious Syracusan navy. (Reardon, p. 18)

The Persian king in the novel is based on historical Persian kings of the same name:

The Persian king Artaxerxes clearly represents the historical Artaxerxes II Mnemon (reigned 404-338), whose wife, like Chariton’s Persian queen, was called Statira; he may also recall Artaxerxes III Ochus (reigned 358-338), for he too successfully withstood a revolt by Egypt, as does Chariton’s king. (Reardon, p. 18)

The nobleman Dionysius in the novel also reflects a historical nobleman Dionysius:

Dionysius, the noble seigneur in Chariton’s story, has the same name as two fourth-century tyrants of Syracuse. His domain, Miletus, is in the Persian Empire, but historically Miletus was not under Persian control in the fourth century until 368. (Reardon, p. 18)

Reardon also draws attention to the opening lines of this novel, pointing out how they mimic the opening lines of the works of the two most famous of Greek historians, Herodotus and Thucydides. I illustrate the point by quoting from the MIT online texts and Reardon’s translation of Chariton.


These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.


Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians, beginning at the moment that it broke out, and believing that it would be a great war and more worthy of relation than any that had preceded it.

Chariton‘s opening sentence in Chaereas and Callirhoe:

My name is Chariton, son of Aphrodisias, and I am clerk to the attorney Athenagoras. I am going to tell you the story of the love affair that took place in Syracuse.

In Chariton’s novel, “history has a tremendous effect on the behavior of the characters.

In this way Chariton imitates the classical historians in technique, not for the purpose of masquerading as a professional historian, but rather, as Hagg (1987, 197) suggests, to create the “effect of openly mixing fictitious characters and events with historical ones.” (p. 16)

Myth used to characterize the fictional persons

[T]hroughout the text the novelist assigns his leading characters analogues in the form of mythical or legendary beings. (p. 16)

There are, of course, obvious differences here from the Gospels. I don’t think the Gospels explicitly compare Jesus to Moses or Joshua, for example. (Nonbelievers in the Gospels, however, are said to compare him to or identify him with one of the prophets.) The Gospels are not Greek novels. But the similarities need as much attention — and explanation — as the differences.

Chariton explicitly models his hero, Chaereas, on Achilles, Nireus, Hippolytus and (even the historical) Alcibiades. The heroine, Callirhoe, is likened to Aphrodite and Ariadne, as well as Artemis, Helen, Medea, and the nymphs.

The myths of Ariadne are the structures used to construct the heroine Callirhoe in this novel. (Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete. He was the one who had the Athenian king Theseus wind his way through a labyrinth in order to kill the bull-man monster, the Minotaur. Ariadne was the daughter of Minos who gave Theseus the ball of string to enable him to trace his way back out of the labyrinth.)

In Chariton’s novel the hero, Chaereas, is fooled into suspecting his love, Callirhoe, of being untrue to him, so he kicks her to death. (If you don’t know the story I know you’re shocked by this, but don’t worry: though he was put on trial the jury did have the decency to acquit him.) But as it turned out, she was not really dead. Unfortunately the first people to discover this fact were the grave-robbers who were in the act of plundering her tomb. So they decided to take her along with the rest of their booty in order to sell her in a foreign land.

Now Ariadne was also taken away from her homeland to a foreign land, as well as (unjustly accused and) killed according to the classical literature. Homer had spoken of Ariadne in The Odyssey (11:321-325) as being taken away by Theseus from Crete to Athens, though he abandoned her on the island of Naxos (Dia) where she was killed. Hesiod related another tale (Theog. 947-9) where she was married to the god Dionysus (Bacchus) and made immortal. Chariton has his Ariadne-like heroine also married to a Dionysus, though this one was a mortal.

But this is just the beginning of the story.

Cueva demonstrates that from this point on it is clear that Chariton is using a literary source for his story of Chaereas and Callirhoe. Now that literary source was Plutarch’s Theseus. Moreover, Plutarch cites six different versions of the Ariadne myth. And Cueva shows us that Chariton picks and chooses details from several of these in order to create his novelistic narrative.

Damn WordPress, or Firefox, or Netgear

If I had not lost the first draft of all the presumed “saves” of this post through either the fault of my WordPress blog tool, or of my Firefox browser, or Netgear modem (I don’t know which, or maybe my wireless network supplier whom I hate too passionately for words to express) I am sure I would have completed this post by now. As it is, this second attempt will be posted even though it stops short of where I had hoped to finish.

More in a future post.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Ancient Novels Like the Gospels: Mixing History and Myth”

  1. Cueva sits on my shelf. Great book.

    Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel, the best book on Mark, relates Jesus to Habrocomes, as I recall, from The Ephesian Tale.

    I think it was Pervo who said that scholars have struggled mightily to hold the greek historical fiction and the NT documents at arms length….

  2. Neil, I think this is a profitable investigation and should lead to deeper understandings of the literary origins of some of the early Christian texts (certainly ones like the Acts of Thomas and possibly ones like the Gospel According to Mark. I appreciate your alerting me to the book by Cueva and plan on trying to get hold of a copy.

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