Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.46

Michael Trapp, Greek and Latin Letters. An Anthology with Translation. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. 348.  ISBN 0-521-49943-7.  $26.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by Catherine Conybeare, Bryn Mawr College (cconybea@brynmawr.edu)
Word count: 1128 words

"How that letter spurs us to seek you out, when it presents you to our sight!" So Augustine of Hippo to Paulinus of Nola, in one of the most rapturous expressions of epistolary possibility ever composed. "Everyone who reads it, carries it away, because he is carried away when he reads it."1

This is truly an anthology with which to be carried away. The creative industry of T[rapp] has produced a riveting collection. From the beginning of his introduction, he defies the tired old argument about the exact generic features of letters: "What is a letter? As long as this question is treated as a request for an explanation, rather than for a watertight definition, it seems easy enough to answer it usefully..." (1). T.'s choice of answer is, for the purposes of this collection, as inclusive as possible: chronologically it extends from the earliest surviving letter in Greek (the "Berezan letter", c. 500 B.C.) to an anxious production of Augustine's (c. 405 A.D.); geographically it extends most of the way round the Mediterranean and some way inland (see the useful map, ix); it embraces with cheerful egalitarianism letters accidentally preserved on wood or lead, stone or papyrus, or selected for careful transmission in literary letter collections; it vaults triumphantly over the notional separation between "real" and "fictitious" letters. In all, seventy-six texts are included, each furnished with a brisk and engaging commentary. It is this magnificent inclusivity that constitutes the novelty, and delight, of the work.

Not all letters flow so abundantly with milk and honey as those of Paulinus to Augustine. If you want letters flowing with bile, or lust, or something more unctuous, you will find them here; so too the florid, or stilted, or drily pragmatic. What you will not find are the schematic divisions which have bedevilled epistolary theory since the ancient writers T. so usefully includes at the end of his collection. T. favours a loose thematic arrangement, which is reflected in the Table of Contents and the Commentary, but not reiterated amidst the texts of the letters themselves. The effect is salutary: one reads as if working through a manuscript florilegium, and is constantly surprised by the resultant juxtapositions. By integrating the material from papyrus and epigraphic collections with more conventional items, T. makes possible a new overview of letter-writing.2

Often, these juxtapositions seem delightfully mischievous. Salacious jeux d'esprit from the Second Sophistic end up next to a "decorously erotic" letter from Pliny to his young wife Calpurnia (Letters 16-19); Cicero's sarcastic epistolary commentary from the Verrines is next to that of the insubordinate Pseudolus (this thanks to T.'s inclusion of "embedded letters", Letters 71 and 72); St Basil's exquisite flattery of a widow seems both more eloquent and less saintly when read just after Krates and Phalaris (Letters 37, 38, 40).3 The lack of section breaks is more than justified between Letters 49 and 50, where we read Catiline's reported letter of "self-exculpation" against a model letter of consolation -- not for the death of a friend but for the friend's failure to include the addressee in his will. The letters are composed 500 years apart, their context and rubrics quite different; but suddenly, Catiline's special pleading looks suspiciously formulaic.

Letter 28 is an oblique reassurance of loyalty from Cicero to Caesar under the guise of a letter of recommendation. What an extraordinary letter this is -- made even more so by juxtaposition with Horace's self-deprecation (Letter 29), "fictional" though it may be. (T. pre-empts "why didn't he include..?" questions with his own exquisite self-deprecation;4 but I do wish there had been space for just one of Symmachus' letters here, as the apogee of the art of commendatio.) Letter 28 also provides a surprising comparator for Jerome's epistolary contortions in Letter 42. Ostensibly he is writing to the aristocratic Marcella, to console and instruct after the death of their associate Lea, but very different concerns jostle to the fore: Jerome's desire for self-advertisement and identification with these exalted Roman circles; his insistence on an extreme ascetic agenda; some misplaced Biblical pedantry. Both letters are rather anxiously performing contradictory roles; each is thereby straining at the boundaries of epistolary convention.

T.'s introduction is suitably unsentimental about this sort of thing (correspondents "are constantly liable to become involved in games of etiquette and power", 41), and is to be commended for its clarity, flexibility, and breadth of scope. Sometimes, he is almost too allusive -- for example, in his use of the phrase "the epistolary habit" (7), or his suggestive comments on notions of informality (195 n.1) or the importance of social class (11 n.37). He is also all too brief on the differences between Christian letters and their antecedents -- and his own arrangement of material clearly shows how very different they are. Even when the Christian literary letters are, as here, selected for their brevity (and there are many examples from the fourth century which could have filled this volume solo), they still seem somehow more spacious. The conventional "modus epistolae" was clearly known to their authors, but they repeatedly and flagrantly exceeded it: why? Are there any precedents for Christian inversion of the idea that "present epistolary contact is only an inferior substitute" for meeting (36)? And what about the letter-carriers to whom Christian writers allude so often and so fondly: is their role, too, a product only of Christian preoccupations in a specific era? These queries are, of course, born from my own scholarly preoccupations and should not be taken as negative criticism of the work here; it is exciting that T. brings us closer to the comparisons that might give answers.

As far as I know, this is the first volume in this series to include a translation of the texts. The translation is beautifully done (to select one from many felicities, how about "armchair letters" for "umbraticae litterae" [Letter 52]?). But I could not find any explication of its presence: is this a new editorial policy? or simply due to the difficulty and diversity of the material treated here? The series is "aimed at student level" (see the series website), and certainly most students would struggle with the less "literary" material, not least because of T.'s laudable decision to preserve eccentricities of spelling and syntax. I dislike teaching from texts with facing-page translation; but this volume is far too good not to use. I am already revising my plan for an epistolography course next year to include it -- as both context and exemplar. T.'s lively selection and lightness of touch in this Anthology really does invite a "kind of written conversation between ... parties who are in different places" (Text 76.2). Can there be more fitting praise for the editor of a collection of letters?


Notes:


1.   "illae litterae cum te offerunt, ut uidearis, quantum nos excitant, ut quaereris!" and "quotquot eas legerunt, rapiunt, quia rapiuntur, cum legunt." The section begins, "legi ... litteras tuas fluentes lac et mel". Augustine, Ep. 27.2 -- not in this collection.
2.   To facilitate this integration, T. gives us a list of papyrological websites (9 n.23); to this could now be added the site on which the Vindolanda tablets have been published.
3.   For ease of reading, I cite the letters only by their numbers in this collection. Full references are as follows (in order of citation): Letter 16 = Pliny, Ep. 6.7; 17 = Petronius, Satyricon 129.4-9, 30.1-6; 18 = Alciphron, Ep. 2.24-5; 19 = Alciphron, Ep. 4.2; 71 = Plautus, Pseudolus 23-77; 72 = Cicero, Verrines 2.3.154-7; 37 = Epistles of Krates 30; 38 = Phalaris (or "Phalaris"?), Ep. 37; 40 = Basil, Ep. 10; 49 = P. Bon. 5, cols. III.3-13 and IV.3-13; 50 = Sallust, Catilina 35; 28 = Cicero, ad fam. 13.15; 29 = Horace, Ep. 1.9; 42 = Jerome, Ep. 23; 52 = Pliny, Ep. 9.2; 76 = "Libanius", De Forma Epistolari 2.
4.   "Some omissions are due to the decision to avoid lengthy items, in favour of quantity and variety... most are due to editorial ignorance" (viii).

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