Tag Archives: Chariton: Chaereas and Callirhoe

Ancient Heroes Surviving Crucifixions

Another element that the gospels and ancient fiction have in common is the trope of the innocent hero who is ordered to be crucified by an innocent/ignorant/unjust ruler but who nonetheless survives.

The silent victim

The first instance comes from the same novel that contained the empty tomb adventure, Chaereas and Callirhoe. The chief victim is silent.

They were brought out chained together at foot and neck, each carrying his cross — the men executing the sentence added this grim public spectacle to the inevitable punishment as an example to frighten the other prisoners. Now Chaereas said nothing when he was led off with the others, but Polycharmus, as he carried his cross, said: “Callirhoe, it is because of you that we are suffering like this! You are the cause of all our troubles!” (4.2)

The king changes his mind and orders Chaereas to be taken down from the cross.

This story was greeted with tears and groans, and Mithridates sent everybody off to reach Chaereas before he died. They found the rest nailed up on their crosses; Chaereas was just ascending his. So they shouted to them from far off. “Spare him!” cried some; others, “Come down!” or “Don’t hurt him!” or “Let him go!” So the executioner checked his gesture, and Chaereas climbed down from his cross — with sorrow in his heart, for he was glad to be leaving a life of misery and ill-starred love. As he was being brought, Mithridates met him and embraced him. “My brother, my friend!” he said. “Your silence almost misled me into committing a crime! Your self-control was quite out of place!” Straightaway he told his servants to take them to the baths and see to their physical well-being, and when they had bathed, to give them luxurious Greek clothes to wear. He himself invited men of rank to a banquet and offered sacrifice for Chaereas’s rescue. They drank deep, and there was generous hospitality and cheerful rejoicing. (4.3)

Prayer for salvation from the cross

In another novella, An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon of Ephesus, another injustice is done by the ruler and an innocent man is ordered crucified. The hero prays from the cross and the god miraculously rescues him — twice, actually.

Meanwhile Habrocomes came before the prefect of Egypt. The Pelusians had made him a report of what had happened, mentioning Araxus’s death and stating that Habrocomes, a household slave, had been the perpetrator of so foul a crime. When the prefect heard the particulars, he made no further effort to find out the facts but gave orders to have Habrocomes taken away and crucified. Habrocomes himself was dumbfounded at his miseries and consoled himself at his impending death with the thought that Anthia, so it seemed, was dead as well. The prefect’s agents brought him to the banks of the Nile, where there was a sheer drop overlooking the torrent. They set up the cross and attached him to it, tying his hands and feet tight with ropes; that is the way the Egyptians crucify. They then went away and left him hanging there, thinking that their victim was securely in place. But Habrocomes looked straight at the sun, then at the Nile channel, and prayed: “Kindest of the gods, ruler of Egypt, revealer of land and sea to all men: if I, Habrocomes, have done anything wrong, may I perish miserably and incur an even greater penalty if there is one; but if I have been betrayed by a wicked woman, I pray that the waters of the Nile should never be polluted by the body of a man unjustly killed; nor should you look on such a sight, a man who has done no wrong being murdered on your territory.” The god took pity on his prayer. A sudden gust of wind arose and struck the cross, sweeping away the subsoil on the cliff where it had been fixed. Habro- comes fell into the torrent and was swept away; the water did him no harm; his fetters did not get in his way; nor did the river creatures do him any harm as he passed, but the current guided him along. He was arrested him and took him before the prefect as a fugitive from justice. He was still angrier than before, took Habrocomes for an out-and-out villain, and gave firm orders to build a pyre, put Habrocomes on it, and bum him. And so everything was made ready, the pyre was set up at the delta, Habrocomes was put on it, and the fire had been lit underneath. But just as the flames were about to engulf him, he again prayed the few words he could to be saved from the perils that threatened. Then the Nile rose in spate, and the surge of water struck the pyre and put out the flames. To those who witnessed it the event seemed like a miracle: they took Habrocomes and brought him before the prefect, told him what had happened, and explained how the Nile had come to his rescue. He was amazed when he heard what had happened and ordered Habrocomes to be kept in custody, but to be well looked after till they could find out who he was and why the gods were looking after him like this. (4.2)

Mocking procession

We only have an ancient summary of A Babylonian Story (by Iamblichus). It reads like a set of notes for a story to be fleshed out at a later time. It begins with a summary of the plot:

The characters in the story are the attractive Sinonis and Rhodanes, who are joined by the mutual ties of love and marriage, and the Babylonian king Garmus. After the death of his wife, he falls in love with Sinonis and is eager to marry her. Sinonis refuses and is bound in gold chains. The king’s eunuchs Damas and Sacas are given the task of putting Rhodanes onto a cross for this reason. But through Sinonis’s efforts he is taken down, and they each avoid their fate, he of crucifixion, she of marriage.

The mocking procession to the crucifixion:

When Soraechus was being taken to be crucified, Rhodanes was being led to and hoisted onto the cross that had been designated for him earlier by a garlanded and dancing Garmus, who was drunk and dancing round the cross with the flute players and reveling with abandon.

The king orders the hero to be taken down from the coss and appoints him general of his army:

While this is happening, Sacas informs Garmus by letter that Sinonis is marrying the youthful king of Syria. Rhodanes rejoices up high on the cross, but Garmus makes to kill himself. He checks himself, however, and brings down Rhodanes from the cross against his will (for he prefers to die); he appoints him general and sends him to command his army . . . .

Reardon, Bryan P., ed. 1989. Collected Ancient Greek Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Another Empty Tomb Story

Someone asked for examples of the ancient literature that contain motifs echoed in the biblical narratives. I’ll post a few, beginning Chariton’s novella Chaereas and Callirhoe. I do not believe that we have any reason to think that there is any genetic relationship between the following extract and the gospels. The similarities arise entirely from a shared cultural and thought world. It appears to me that the evangelists were drawing upon stock literary tropes when they related their respective empty tomb scenarios.

A mourner comes very early in the morning to the tomb where his beloved was placed the evening before. He finds it open. He is fearful and confused. Others come to see but none dare go inside. When the body is found to be missing the first thought of the mourner is that she has been taken up to heaven as a living goddess — as per otherwise unknown variants of the myths of Ariadne and Semele who were made divine after apparently dying. I have highlighted the passages that remind us of the gospel empty tomb narratives. (One of the more interesting details — I think — is that the first to arrive at the tomb do not enter until someone else arrives later and does so. Compare the Gospel of John’s sequence of Peter and the beloved disciple.)

As for the date of Chariton’s work, B. P. Reardon (whose translation I am copying) thinks it belongs to the mid first century CE.

Chariton’s employer may possibly have been a known figure of the early second century A.D., but Chariton’s style suggests a rather earlier date for his work: he does not “atticize,” that is write in the archaizing Greek fashionable from the late first century A.D. onward, and was an ambitious enough writer to have done so had he lived in that period. But style is an unreliable criterion, and Chariton has been placed as early as the first century B.C. My own guess at his date is about the middle of the first century A.D. The geographical and social background of one of the story’s main locations, the region of Miletus, certainly seems to fit that area of Asia Minor in the early Roman Empire. (pp. 17f)

Here is the passage. It is from Book 3, Section 3 of the work:

The tomb robbers had been careless in closing the tomb — it was at night, and they were in a hurry. At the crack of dawn Chaereas turned up at the tomb, ostensibly to offer wreaths and libations, but in fact with the intention of doing away with himself; he could not bear being separated from Callirhoe and thought that death was the only thing that would cure his grief. When he reached the tomb, he found that the stones had been moved and the entrance was open. He was astonished at the sight and overcome by fearful perplexity at what had happened. Rumor—a swift messenger—told the Syracusans this amazing news. They all quickly crowded round the tomb, but no one dared go inside until Hermocrates gave an order to do so. The man who was sent in reported the whole situation accurately. It seemed incredible that even the corpse was not lying there. Then Chaereas himself determined to go in, in his desire to see Callirhoe again even dead; but though he hunted through the tomb, he could find nothing. Many people could not believe it and went in after him. They were all seized by helplessness. One of those standing there said, “The funeral offerings have been carried off — it is tomb robbers who have done that; but what about the corpse — where is it?” Many different suggestions circulated in the crowd. Chaereas looked towards the heavens, stretched up his arms, and cried: “Which of the gods is it, then, who has become my rival in love and carried off Callirhoe and is now keeping her with him — against her will, constrained by a more powerful destiny? That is why she died suddenly — so that she would not realize what was happening. That is how Dionysus took Ariadne from Theseus, how Zeus took Semele. It looks as if I had a goddess for a wife without knowing it, someone above my station. But she should not have left the world so quickly, even for such a reason. Thetis was a goddess, but she stayed with Peleus, and he had a son by her; I have been abandoned at the very height of my love. What is to happen to me? What is to become of me, poor wretch? Should I do away with myself? And who would share my grave? I did have this much to look forward to, in my misfortune — that if I could not continue to share Callirhoe’s bed, I should come to share her grave. My lady! I offer my justification for living — you force me to live, because I shall look for you on land and sea, and in the very sky if I can reach there! This I beg of you, my dear — do not flee from me!” At this the crowd broke out in lamentation; everyone began to lament for Callirhoe as though she had just died. (pp. 53f)

Chariton. 1989. “Chaereas and Callirhoe.” In Collected Ancient Greek Novels, translated by Bryan P. Reardon, 17–124. Berkeley: University of California Press.

For those curious about the story, Chaereas had kicked his betrothed, the goddess-like Callirhoe to death (or so he and everyone else thought), but the author clearly expects readers to sympathize with him because he did so sincerely believing (although falsely) that he had a good reason to be angry with her. How times and values change! However, Callirhoe had only been winded and recovered in the cool of the tomb. When tomb robbing pirates found her alive when they broke into the tomb they took her to sell her as a slave.