BMCR 2002.06.20

Ancient Epistolary Fictions: the Letter in Greek Literature

, Ancient epistolary fictions : the letter in Greek literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (x, 370 pages). ISBN 0511017774. $64.95.

This is the first book to deal synoptically with the phenomenon of the letter in Greek literature from Homer to Philostratus. The field of ‘letters’ is of course potentially limitless, and some important parameters have been adopted: the reference to ‘literature’ in the title is an index both of the subject-matter and of the approach adopted. The dynamics and materialities of epistolary practice in the ‘real’ world are not a central concern here; this is not a work of social or cultural history, though R. periodically enriches her analyses with examples from contemporary practice (showing, for example, how greeting and sign-off conventions are manipulated). The primary focus is upon the function of letters within narrative economy, upon their seductions, lures, assassinations, lies and treasons. The dust-jacket blurb refers to the book’s uncovering of a ‘wealth of Greek antecedents for the later European epistolary novel tradition’; and cross-cultural analysis spots the book throughout, pointing to a continuing power accorded to the letter from Homer through to Laclos and Richardson.

The book is divided into four sections: section 1 contains a single, introductory chapter; section 2 (‘Epistolary Fictions’) chapters on Homer, Herodotus and Thucydides, Euripides and Hellenistic poetry; section 3 (‘The Epistolary Novel’) chapters on the novel, the Alexander Romance, pseudonymous letter collections and Chion of Heraclea; section 5 (‘Epistolography in the Second Sophistic’) chapters on the letter collections of Alciphron, Aelian and Philostratus. The coverage, then, is broad, but not comprehensive: comedy, notably, receives little attention (though undoubtedly the evidence here would be more difficult to deal with1).

The Homeric chapter occupies an important role in the argument, constructing a putative fons et origo for the subsequent tradition. As one might expect, discussion revolves primarily around the story of Bellerophon and the σήματα λυγρά that he unwittingly conveys to Anteia’s father ( Iliad 6.167-70). According to R., this account ‘contains within itself the seeds of epistolary fiction that will develop over the next millennium and beyond’ (p. 42). The three elements upon which she focuses are treachery, the association with women, and (though the expectation of this is here thwarted) friendship with an absent figure. These are certainly elements within the story, but it might have been preferable to read the story within the context of the Homeric narrative, with its emphasis upon deceptive exchange (between Diomedes and Glaucus), rather than a later, and necessarily shifting, tradition. The emphasis upon the gendering of the letter, in particular, is slightly misplaced. It is not quite the case that Anteia, Proetus’ wife (whose furtive advances have been rebuffed by Bellerophon) ‘in essence dictates [the letter’s] contents’ (p. 43) or that she is ‘a woman thwarted in love who turns to the power of writing to exact vengeance’ (pp. 43-4), since the narrator explicitly attributes the idea for the letter trick to Proetus (6.167). The choice of the letter as weapon is due to the man’s embarrassment ( κτεῖναι μέν ῤ’ ἀλέεινε, σεβάσσατο γὰρ τό γε θυμῶι, Iliad 6.167), not the woman’s trickery. Moreover, for a stronger sense of the influence of the passage, one might have wished for more insight into its later reception, particularly in the (admittedly exiguous) Sthenoboea tradition. (The brief mention in Chion of Heraclea 7 is discussed on pp. 240-1.)

Chapter 3, on Herodotus and Thucydides, is an efficient survey: Herodotean letters are used for intrigue, secrecy and political manoeuvring (territory already well covered by Deborah Tarn Steiner2), Thucydidean letters to substantiate the account archivally and to vary the focalisation of the text. But it is with chapter 4, on Euripides, that the argument gathers pace. Here we have a narratologically sophisticated dramatist capable of exploiting the form to generate a new voice of repressed interiority, a voice laying claim to ‘authenticity’ but simultaneously problematised by the (justified) fear of deception. R. sees Euripides (and the subsequent comic tradition) as the culmination of a transition: for Aeschylus, the letter represents the cloaked secrecy of an anti-democrat, whereas by Euripides’ time epistolography has become a naturalised phenomenon, even if it retains its power to disturb profoundly (p. 71). The subject-matter is congenial to R.’s approach, incorporating intrigue, complex focalisation and peripeteia. She places particular emphasis upon the formal properties of Euripidean letters, that is to say their facility for constructing involved webs of (mis)communication across time and space, and also their ‘kinetic’ powers in relation to plot development: as well as broadening the options for the articulation of the characters’ will, letters can also function as material props, and thus as concrete phenomena to be coveted, intercepted, interpreted.

Chapter 5, on Hellenistic poetry, addresses the interesting question of epistolary epigrams, before moving on to Callimachus’ celebrated narrative of Acontius and Cydippe. The section on epigrams introduces the subtleties of transferred identification, whereby the reader mimes the personal voice of the narrator, whether to seduce her or his own beloved (R. suggests that anonymous epigrams might have been open to recycling for any erotic context, p. 103) or for the poetic pleasures of simulating the other (what William Fitzgerald, in a fine study not cited here, calls lyric poetry’s ‘drama of position’3). Churls may quibble with R.’s periodisation here: the emphasis upon Ptolemaic context at the beginning of the chapter (pp. 98-100) jars with the exemplary status within the discussion of Philodemus (p. 106) and Crinagoras (pp. 102-5), both composing in the very different context of first-century BCE Roman patronage. The discussion of the Acontius and Cydippe narrative (the Callimachean fragments supplemented from Ovid and Aristaenetus) focuses on the letter as an instrument of control, and particularly of the control of women by men (and of resistance to that control). The material form of the apple, too, is emphasised, with the classic love-token itself (R. argues) functioning as a signifier independently of its incised words.

Sections 3 and 4 enter what will be for many readers less familiar territory, the prose texts of Roman Greece. The chapter on the Greek novels, however, is too descriptive, at least for my taste: if any material from the period is well-known, it is that of the novel. The discussion proceeds sequentially through the texts, not always with the same degree of analytical texture that other chapters offer. Again, the emphasis is upon continuity in the tradition: ‘[l]etters in erotic contexts always threaten to become repetitions of the Bellerophon story’ (p. 154). But letter-writing in novels surely represents something distinctive as well, in terms of both ‘literary’ content (the interplay between public role and private emotion drives novelistic plot powerfully) and mentalité : the context of the new privileging of the interior voice and the skein of philosophical concerns with emotional and psycho-sexual life analysed by Foucault under the rubric of ‘the care of the self’.4 In largely isolating the letters from the larger narratives, R. restricts the scope and depth of her commentary.

The Alexander Romance, R. argues, represents a new phase in the tradition, a bridge between the material covered so far and the exclusively epistolary texts: here we see ‘a movement from individual letters scattered about or embedded in an ancient novel … to the more formally sustained epistolary voices of the pseudonymous letter writers and Chion of Heraclea‘ (p. 174). In dealing with this chain of letters and responses, the descriptive approach is more successful, unpacking the strategies of coercion and insinuation that underlie Alexander’s exchanges with Darius and the ambiguities, flirtations and self-fashionings enacted through his correspondence with women. This chapter offers an increased sense of the sophistication and resourcefulness of the Alexander Romance, of its ability not only to vary the formal functions of letters but also to provoke and tease the reader with hinting, fragmentary discourse.

The chapter on pseudonymous letter collections is sensible in its claims, that the effect of such letters is to construct a secret life for glamour-figures from the past: they ‘offer an opportunity to explore aspects of history that could never have been part of the standard historical record’ (p. 203). In addition, R. convincingly argues, these letter collections (particularly those of Themistocles, Diogenes, Socrates and Anacharsis) play self-consciously with their own fictitious status, asking for letters to be destroyed, reframed or re-edited; or alluding to and/or exploding the formal conventions of the genre. This chapter also contains some brief but valuable comments on the important issue of the ordering of epistolary collections (pp. 215-7), observing that the principle of narrative concatenation often stands in tension — sometimes spectacularly so — with the deracinated fragmentariness of individual letters. A more coherent narrative can develop when a sequence of letters is exchanged between the same figures, and R. caps the chapter (apart from an epilogue on Themistocles) with useful discussions of Hippocrates’ correspondence with Democritus, Crates’ with Hipparchia, and Phalaris’ with various figures.

Chion of Heraclea is a central exhibit: here, finally, we have a continuous narrative, exploiting to great effect the limited focalisation and incoherences of the ‘epistolary novel’. This fascinating text describes Chion’s study of philosophy under Plato and subsequent involvement in a plot to kill off the tyrant Clearchus; but it does so in the form of a series of letters, addressed variously to his father, a friend, Clearchus and Plato. The form is ingeniously manipulated, R. shows, to dramatise the developing perspective of the epistolographer, the ‘private’ thoughts of a ‘political’ agent, the material and cognitive fragility of communication, and the narrative gaps, particularly in conclusion: the climax of the story, the attempt on Clearchus’ life, is missing (though Chion’s death in the attempt is foreshadowed by omens: pp. 244-5). Since this text ’embodies a fictional history of its own production’ (T. Castle, cited at p. 247), such absences become implicated in the narrative: is the absence of letter-writing a sign of death?

Section 4, ‘Epistolography in the Second Sophistic’, enters fertile, but largely uncultivated, territory. The long chapter on Alciphron is highly successful, a sparkling exposition of the variety and sophistication of these letters. They are, as she claims, primarily ‘miniatures’, elegant foils to the glamorous grandiosity of Roman-Greek elite culture: they offer a walk on the wild side (inflected with classicising fantasy) to the urban sophisticate. But they are also self-conscious meditations upon identity-shifting and role-playing (pp. 280-98), with the epistolary characters themselves as captivated as the implied reader by the lure of playing the other (dreaming as they do of wealth, power, status). The most subtle and interesting impersonators, she shows, are the courtesans, ‘women of the world’ less confined by social roles (p. 298). It is in book IV of Alciphron’s letters, then, that we encounter the most brilliant and involved manipulations of literary self-consciousness (pp. 298-307).

The chapter on Aelian, on the other hand, is slight. Aelian, R. claims, ‘seems to beg for comparison with his fellow epistolographer Alciphron’ (p. 321), a comparison in which he is apparently doomed to come off worse. The final chapter, on Philostratus’ Love Letters, engages closely with this author’s sophistical ingenuity: Philostratean letters are elegantly contrived but intractable fictions, provocatively flouting conventions of verisimilitude. R. is a careful reader of these letters, if at times she betrays the Platonist’s contempt for sophistry. In her reading, the author emerges as a clever mannerist, whose experiments with form and convention harm rather than enhance the literary experience: Philostratus, she argues, ‘seems torn between the demands of epistolarity and his own instinct for the rhetoric of dialogue, drama and encomium’ (p. 337). But, we might counter, sophistical writing requires the adoption of sophistical cognitive parameters. The ‘dialogic’ incorporation of the voice of the addressee into the epistolary text (pp. 330-2), for example, is not simply an affront to realism: it could be parallelled in other Philostratean experiments with textuality, the virtual-reality animation of the pictures in the Imagines, say, or the necromantic narration of the Heroicus. Sophistic letters are not ‘epistolary fictions’ in the eighteenth-century mould, and to read them with such expectations is inevitably to court disappointment.

This is a bold and often captivating book, covering mostly new ground. If it does present methodological problems — the insistent trajectory towards early-modern ‘epistolary fiction’, the attempt to create a unified paradigm of epistolarity, the tendency towards intermittent descriptivism — these are balanced by frequent subtle and insightful interpretations. The broad range is welcome (though the omission of specific discussion of middle and new comedy is a gap, particularly in the accounts of the Roman Greek texts). A welcome step, then, towards the recuperation of this ever-inventive and intellectually coruscant tradition.


1. Plautus’ Pseudolus and Trinummus make powerful use of the device of the letter, but the question of Greek originals is ever problematic. Fragments of Greek comedies allude to the role of letters, though: see e.g. Men. Fr. 238 K-A (from Misogynes), and frr. adesp. 1096, 1139 K-A.

2. Deborah Tarn Steiner, The Tyrant’s Writ. Princeton, 1994.

3. William Fitzgerald, Catullan Provocations: Lyric Poetry and the Drama of Position. Berkeley, 1995.

4. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, volume 3: The Care of the Self, tr. R. Hurley. Harmondsworth, 1988.