Callirhoe: Displaying the Phallic Woman
Helen E. Elsom
The ancient romances were written during the last century before the common era and in the first three or four centuries of this era. A precise chronology cannot be established because (like most popular texts) the romances do not place themselves in a historical context; instead, they recycle familiar elements of high culture and plot, ringing the changes on well-received formulas. Although only five of the Greek boy-and-girl romances survive, along with papyrus fragments and citations from a number of others, they have been highly influential in Western literature. They form the model for later romances, particularly after the rediscovery of Heliodorus in the Renaissance, idealized as the modern epic ( Forcione 1972: 16-19); and they are significant in the development of the modern novel, which also, as feminist critics have noted ( Brownstein 1982: 32; DuPlessis 1985) regularly ends in marriage. Thus, the romance plot offers a guide to the historical vicissitudes of gender.
The same questions can be asked of romance as are regularly asked of pornography. Can women read it usefully, and is it worthwhile for us to try? Or does it invariably exclude female subjectivity? These questions have been widely debated with regard to pornography, modern mass-market romances, and the latter's predecessors in the European novel.
The ancient romances have not yet been interrogated in this way. Until recently, they were widely held to be written for women on the grounds that, according to male establishment critics, they are not great literature. As a result of recent changes in academic politics, the romances are now recognized as masterpieces of literary subtlety for an educated (male) elite. In fact, the emphasis of modern readings is