Distinguish Between Idealism and Parody in Leucippe and Clitophon

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  • Topic: Heliodorus of Emesa, Daphnis and Chloe, Chariton
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  • Published : May 7, 2008
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In Leucippe and Clitophon, we find a novel, at face value at least, with a similar plot to the other ancient novels: the protagonists are two young lovers who go through numerous misadventures, while staying true to each other, and are rewarded with marriage. However, it could be argued that the novel parodies its predecessors and the idealised picture of love portrayed in them, and that Achilles Tatius makes a mockery of the ideas typical of the ancient novels – or, as Morgan puts it, ‘conducts a prolonged guerrilla war against the conventions of his own genre’1.

According to the genre, the ultimate aim of the two lovers at the start of the novel is to be united in a harmonious marriage, a convention idealised in the other ancient novels, but in Achilles Tatius’ novel the main aim seems to be sex. In Chaereas and Callirhoe we see Chaereas, after his first sighting of the young maiden, ‘tell his parents that he was in love and would die if he did not marry Callirhoe’2, which is in stark contrast to Clitophon’s numerous references to ‘desire’ at the beginning of Leucippe and Chariton: ‘The male desires the female…[the palm] declines in the direction of its desire’3. Furthermore, in the same sequence, we see love depicted in a vulgar, animalistic manner, at odds with the natural, unsullied love we find in the other authors: ‘The viper, a land snake, lusts for the eel’, described as Clitophon’s ‘erotic lesson’ to Leucippe. Thus we can clearly observe an early hint of, as Kathryn Chew comments in ‘Achilles Tatius and Parody’, Achilles‘ ‘parodic subversion of romantic standards’4. Moreover, the lovers do not fall in love both instantaneously and simultaneously, as is the case in the likes of Daphnis and Chloe and Chaereas and Callirhoe, since it takes time for Leucippe to fall for Clitophon’s youthful exuberance: ‘She discretely indicated that she had not been displeased by my discourse’5.

1. Morgan 1995: 142
2. Reardon 1989: 23
3. Reardon 1989: 188
4. Chew 2000
5. Reardon 1989: 188
What is more, whereas Callirhoe does not venture to speak of her passion for Chaereas before their wedding is announced, Leucippe, with the topic of marriage not even broached, readily accepts Clitophon’s proposal to ‘add erotic grace notes’6 to their love.

The ideal of chastity is also a concept which Achilles Tatius treats differently to the other ancient novelists, since, it could be argued, his approach is to mock it. The sexual idealism found in Heliodorus’ novel, where the central characters intend to remain chaste, is the very antithesis of Leucippe and Clitophon’s predicament, since they intend to make love very early on in their relationship and are only prevented from fornicating by dreams in which gods instruct them not to. Thus, it is not their personal ideals that maintain their chastity, but rather an unwelcome external influence. Moreover, from this we can observe both Achilles Tatius’ realistic approach to sexuality, a stark contrast to the other novelists’ idealisation, and also his inclination to parody it. Indeed, from the very start of the novel, by his references to Zeus and Europa, this underlying mockery is evident. On his first sighting of Leucippe, Clitophon remarks that he ‘remembered Europa, sayling upon the backe of the bull’7 – Achilles Tatius is here asking the reader to think of the acquiescing abduction of Europa by Zeus in the guise of a bull, and thus a parallel may be drawn between the mythological story and the protagonists of Achilles Tatius’ novel. We may wonder at the likening of Clitophon to Zeus, the supreme adulterer, in a novel supposedly meant to be viewed as an idealised, serious account of unadulterated love.

The reversal of expectations is characteristic of, and a vital component to, parody, and, along with the stock ideas of the genre, such as romanctic love and chastity, being treated in an unexpected manner, Achilles Tatius’ characters also surprise the reader with their feelings...
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