Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.47 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.47

Owen Hodkinson, Patricia A. Rosenmeyer, Evelien Bracke (ed.), Epistolary Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and Literature, 359.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2013.  Pp. xi, 412.  ISBN 9789004249608.  $193.00.  

Reviewed by Lieve Van Hoof, Ghent University (


The last two decades have seen a significant upsurge in studies on ancient epistolography. If Latin letters, especially by authors such as Cicero and Pliny, have thus far attracted the bulk of scholarly attention, several recent publications have started focusing on Greek letters. A valuable addition to the literary study of ancient Greek epistolography is the collection of essays edited by Owen Hodkinson, Patricia Rosenmeyer and Evelien Bracke. This volume brings together discussions of the narrative forms and functions of independent and collected as well as embedded Greek letters from Classical to Late Antiquity.

The volume consists of an introduction, sixteen chapters, and a common bibliography and index. The sixteen case-studies that form the core of the book are divided into three parts, which effectively show a progression in the forms and functions of ancient Greek epistolary narratives. The first part deals with letters, mainly of the Classical period, in and as narrative. It starts off with an excellent chapter by Patricia Rosenmeyer on letters in Euripides: using various Euripidean tragedies as well as iconographic sources, she emphasizes the narrative impact and phatic function of the appearance on stage of a letter, even if unread, and shows the tragic or comic effect that can be generated by the tension between the letter as an object on the one hand and its contents on the other. Next, Angus Bowie discusses the rare but structurally significant occurences of letters in Herodotus against the background of the origins of letter-writing, whilst Deborah Levine Gera demonstrates Xenophon’s greater familiarity with the genre. The next three chapters deal with authentic and pseudonymous correspondences of historical figures. Andrew Morrison shows how the non-chronological arrangement of the collection of Platonic letters makes for an efficient narrative that gradually develops and reinterprets important themes such as Plato’s relationship with Dionysius II, and that thereby invites reflection on the power and limitations of letters. Pamela Gordon, in turn, efficiently highlights the opposition, within Epicurean letters, between fully preserved letters that tend to present a positive image of the school’s founder and fragments of letters emphasizing his putatively hedonistic style of life. The latter, mostly quoted or fabricated by hostile outsiders, capitalized both on Epicurus’ reputation as a letter-writer and on the status of letters as private but intercepted messages revealing the ‘real’ Epicurus. In the final chapter of the first part, Orlando Poltera presents a brief but very clear and interesting interpretation of the five letters attributed to Euripides but produced, in all probability, under the Roman Empire. Apart from pointing out narrative strategies aimed at entertainment such as the gradual revelation of the letter-writer’s identity, he convincingly argues that these letters not only present an alternative account of Euripides’ character and his relation with Sophocles, but also posit Euripides as a positive counterpart to Plato as far as dealings with powerful rulers are concerned.

The second part, entitled “Innovation and experimentation in epistolary narratives”, moves on in time to a period of ever more sophisticated explorations of the possibilities of epistolary narrative. Tim Whitmarsh, in his usual sparkling style, reads “the assemblage of Alexander–Darius letters, from a variety of sources, as a (stochastic) unity, even though there is no evidence that they were ever united in this way in a single text, “emphasising . . . the mulitiple possibilities for combination and recombination” (p. 175). He thus shows how fictional letters could be used to negotiate and renegotiate identities and power relations. Also very stimulating is Jason König’s chapter on Alciphron and the sympotic letter tradition: as König shows, many of Alciphron’s letters play with the sympotic tradition and the concomitant sub-genre of sympotic letters, their fascination resulting from the fact that they present a sub-elite, subversive image of what we are used to seeing as a highly refined, elite institution reflected in a most polished and sophisticated kind of literature. The next two chapters focus on Lucian: Niall Slater shows how the four letters that form the third part of Lucian’s Saturnalia turn the relations between Cronus and mortals upside down, while Silvio Bär argues that Odysseus’ prose letter to Calypso in the True Histories claims Homeric status for Lucian as a writer of an epic tale in Attic prose. Ian Repath, in turn, sees letters as a mise en abyme for Cleitophon’s narration in Achilles Tatius: both raise questions concerning believability and incite metaliterary reflections on how to respond to them. Letters in Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius form the subject of the chapter by Dimitri Kasprzyk, who underlines the narratological association of two devices of Beglaubigung, the references to Apollonius’ letters and to his presumed disciple Damis. In a rich and enticing chapter, John Morgan then examines the epistolary ghost-story about Philinnion as it can be found in the Mirabilia attributed to Phlegon of Tralles, but which, as we know from Proclus, goes back at least to Naumachius of Epirus, where it may well have been part of a mini-epistolary novel. As Morgan shows, the epistolary format was particularly well-suited to a narrative such as this one, which we would classify as a short story, especially given the fact that what we have here is a ghost story: not only do letters provide authentication, they also provide an explanation for the provenance of the material and allow the author, through the intermediary of the epistolary narrator, to get away with the omission of vital pieces of information. Equally excellent is the final chapter of Part Two, in which Owen Hodkinson zooms in on Pseudo-Aeschines’ Epistle 10, a short story about the author’s visit to Troy and the only epistle in the twelve-letter collection not to have any unmistakable link with Aeschines. Hodkinson reads the epistle as a stand-alone piece of narrative literature that is emphatically and self-consciously epistolary in its tropes, theme, and intertextual allusions, and that uses the epistolary format not so much as a Beglaubigungsapparat, but rather because of “the long and increasingly popular tradition of Greek epistolary literature, and especially . . . the epistolary form’s common use as a medium for pseudo-historical or –biographical and other fictions” (p. 336).

The third and final part of the volume deals with Jewish and early Christian epistolary narratives. Ryan Olson, discussing embedded letters in Flavius Josephus, emphasizes the contrast between the orderly and continuous flow of Roman letters predominantly from the centre of power to the periphery on the one hand, and the often inefficient and finally interrupted Jewish epistolary communication between local generals in the Jewish war and the leadership in Jerusalem on the other. The volume ends, finally, with a true gem in the form of Jane McLarty’s analysis of the epistolary martyrdom accounts of Saint Polycarp and the Martyrs of Lyons: the epistolary form of these martyrdom accounts not only intertextually alludes to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, it also unites and reinforces Christians across the world as “sharers in suffering”.

Overall, the editors have done an excellent job in bringing together this series of sixteen chapters which, although highly varied in approach as well as subject matter, clearly share a common focus and are of good to outstanding quality. The volume as a whole will no doubt be read primarily by classicists working on Greek letters and, by extension, by specialists of ancient epistolography more widely. But given the importance and omnipresence of letters in ancient Greek culture and, as amply demonstrated throughout this volume, literary scholars working in other fields should also be encouraged to read it. If literary critics of more recent letters may learn a lot about the origins of epistolary narratives as well as about their sophisticated elaborations and metaliterary reflections in antiquity, classicists working on the ancient novel may be inspired, as Hodkinson points out (p. 345), by the intertextual, formal and thematic affinities between the novel and epistolary fictions. On top of that, the volume has the potential to draw the attention of ancient historians working on texts as diverse and chronologically separate as Herodotus and Josephus to the importance of letters embedded in historiographical narratives, and it sheds innovative light on late antique martyrdom accounts cast in the form of a letter. This volume, then, forms a valuable addition to the study of ancient Greek letters.

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