Which book is the world’s earliest novel? That question will probably never be definitively answered, but Callirhoe may have the best claim of any texWhich book is the world’s earliest novel? That question will probably never be definitively answered, but Callirhoe may have the best claim of any text out there. Callirhoe is one of seven novels surviving more or less intact from western antiquity: two Roman ones (The Golden Ass and the Satyricon) and five in Greek*. There are other texts hovering around the margins that could be added to this list, most of them very fragmentary, but the seven listed here are the big ones. The brilliant Satyricon is quite probably the oldest, dating from 65 AD or so, but that peculiar combination of prose, poetry, and mayhem won’t strike many modern readers as a true "novel".
Callirhoe, on the other hand, is a novel as we understand the form today: it’s a fiction story in prose with a clear beginning, middle and end. The dates of all the early novels are very fuzzy, but Callirhoe was probably composed around the beginning of the second century AD, which could well make it the oldest of the seven (Satyricon excepted). Not only is it possibly the world’s oldest novel, but it might be the oldest example of historical fiction. The story is set around 400 BC and features real historical figures from that era, including Hermocrates of Syracuse and Artaxerxes II of Persia. The book is a romance between two young Greek lovers who are separated shortly after marriage, and describes their wild adventures as they fight to reunite with each other.
”Callirhoe” by Raymond Auguste Quinsac Monvoisin (1823)
The plot is entertaining and filled with action. In a relatively short amount of space, Callirhoe crams in kidnapping, slave trading, a character being buried alive, an attempted crucifixion, a trial, and battles on land and sea. In addition to the leading lights of Sicily, the kings of Persia and Egypt wander onto the stage. Narrative setpieces include Sicily, Turkey, Syria, Babylon, and more. The quick pace and the sheer insanity of all that befalls the two lovers makes Callirhoe a fun read, and unlike some writers of his era the author of Callirhoe manages to tie things off with a satisfying and fulfilling ending.
That said, this is not the pinnacle of ancient literature. The prose, at least in my translation, was nothing to write home about. More disconcerting for modern readers is the one-dimensional nature of virtually every character in the novel. Character development was simply not part of the formula for most ancient fiction writers, and this aspect of the book will seem very old fashioned to most modern eyes, especially when combined with the ancient author’s love of rhetoric and rhetorical flourishes. Personally, I really missed the humor that made the Satyricon such a favorite of mine; this romance is all melodrama without a laugh in sight.
Still, Callirhoe is a fun story and a quick read. I would recommend this book to readers interested in Greco-Roman literature, or readers interested in learning more about the development of the novel. Interest in the five Greek novels has picked up in recent years, with a number of fresh new translations hitting the market (I recommend the Penguin version for interested readers), and it’s nice to see these overlooked classics getting the attention they deserve. 3 stars.
*Callirhoe, Leucippe and Clitophon, Ephesian Tales, Daphnis and Chloe, and Ethiopian Tales....more