Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.01.21

ALSO SEEN: C. D. N. Costa, Greek Fictional Letters: A Selection with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  Pp. 216.  ISBN 0-19-924546-0.  $27.50 (pb).  

Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy (

Although letters seem a natural, easy, light genre, they bring to the foreground fundamental literary facts: speaker and addressee, presence and absence, immediacy and distance. They invite play, and in the Greco-Roman world their invitation was often answered. Who would not want to know what it was like to be a courtesan married to a philosopher, or what Socrates wrote to Xenophon as he set off to fight for Cyrus? In this charming, unpretentious collection, C. D. N. Costa has gathered examples of two kinds of fictitious epistle, the so-called comic epistles with entirely imaginary writers and addressees, and "philosophical" epistles alleged to be by historical figures like Themistocles or Hippocrates.

In the first category Costa includes five letters from Aelian's Ἐπιστολαὶ ἀγροικικαί, 21 of Alciphron's letters from fishermen, farmers, parasites, and courtesans, eight of Philostratus's trivial epistles, and three from the little-known collection by Aristaenetus (perhaps c. A.D. 500). In this group the influence of New Comedy appears everywhere, and their centerpiece is the well-known, touching exchange between Menander and Glycera (Alciphron 4.18 and 19).

Costa's second group, the philosophical letters, includes epistles allegedly by Anacharsis, Diogenes and Crates the Cynics, Socrates and his disciple Aeschines, and Hippocrates (the pseudo-Hippocratic letters giving an account of Hippocrates' visit to Democritus on Abdera), in addition to letters supposedly by Themistocles, Euripides, and the tyrannicide Chion of Heraclea. Some of these are well-known. Others less familiar will do what their authors intended by suggesting different perspectives on well-known persons and events. Aeschines' letter to Xanthippe, for example, presents an alternative to the traditional picture of Socrates' shrewish wife, and one of Chion's letters purports to give us an account of the events described in Anabasis 7 from a Byzantine point of view.

Costa reprints the texts of standard editions and reproduces their apparatus only when the text is uncertain. His brief commentary, which offers basic historical and grammatical information, and the serviceable facing translation suggest the audience for this book. Undergraduates, secondary students, and perhaps their teachers, can find in this collection a mirror reflecting the world of Pliny's letters, Menander's comedies, Roman elegy, and the Greek Anthology.

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