BMCR 2005.02.42

Lettres de Chion d’Héraclée

, Lettres de Chion d'Héraclée. Cardo ; 1. Salerno: Helios, 2004. 114 pages : map ; 24 cm.. ISBN 8888123075 €18.00.

This edition of the epistolary novel based on the life of the tyrannicide Chion of Heraclea, with facing translation, introduction and notes, is the first since Düring’s (hereafter D.) 1951 English edition with commentary.1 Malosse (hereafter M.) aims to introduce this unduly neglected text to a wider audience (p. 8), in particular by providing its first ever translation into French. This edition is adequately equipped to perform this task, summarising most of the important issues which scholarship on the letters has raised, and bringing together all the relevant bibliography since D., so that this edition can serve as a reference and a point of departure for further study. It includes a brief introduction, a note on the text, and fuller ‘introductory’ material postponed until after the text (M. assumes a reader new to the text and thus advises reading the edition in this order), as well as a preface by Jacques Schamp (one of the editors of this new series, Cardo: Études et Textes pour l’Identité Culturelle de l’Antiquité Tardive). M. also does a great service in making available a very affordable text of the letters now that D.’s has long been out of print. This is not a new critical edition: M. adopts D.’s text, with a few (fourteen in total) minor and mainly conservative changes flagged up and explained in footnotes. M.’s approach in the introductory material too is generally conservative, aiming for utility rather than innovation. His one major departure from this is in proposing, quite cautiously, the 4th century CE as the likely date for the work’s composition (pp. 100-104), against the traditional position of 1st-2nd centuries CE. As M. acknowledges, the evidence for any precise dating is very scarce and not at all decisive. In basing his argument mostly on stylistic grounds (as he must, in the absence of anything more substantial), he runs the dual risk of being led astray by the small and perhaps unrepresentative sample of texts we have from the centuries in question, and (as a specialist in Late Antiquity) by his greater familiarity with texts of that period, where an editor working in the 2nd century might find as many stylistic grounds for dating the Chion letters to that period. That said, the arguments M. produces are certainly worthy of consideration, and account for what evidence there is at least as plausibly as the alternatives.

M.’s treatment of the genre of this text and the Greek epistolary tradition is rather one-sided: he rightly points to the importance of rhetorical training, and to the general similarities between the composition of individual pseudonymous letters, practice declamations and meletai, but gives less attention to the novelistic aspects of the book as a whole, and thus tends to underestimate the author’s skill in composing a coherent epistolary novel (D. is much more balanced in this respect). Similarly, the suggestion of Schamp (pp. xii-xiii) that the theme of tyrannicide is influenced by rhetorical exercises only tells half the story—the less interesting half, at that. Doubtless every writer of good, Atticising Greek in the first centuries CE underwent the kind of rhetorical education implied by this suggestion, and yet by no means all Greek literature of the period turns out to be about such declamatory or meletic themes, still less to treat them in the same ways. The combination of epistolary form and the content of the text points to books of (at least in part) pseudonymous letters as models, in particular those attributed to Plato and Isocrates, but also those of Demosthenes, Phalaris, Themistocles, Euripides and many other historical figures.2 Of course, M. recognises the debt to individual letters within the Platonic and Isocratic corpora; but beyond this, the existence of books of letters attributed to historical figures, often mediating between an individual and a state (whether in the form of the Athenian assembly or a tyrant), often containing (pseudo-)biographical details and building up a picture of their public and private lives, and forming or attempting to form coherent books (e.g. by internal allusions and cross-references), is sufficient to suggest the composition of another such book without recourse to other literary genres and sub-literary exercises. Add to this the apparently increasing popularity of Greek epistolary literature of (increasingly) various forms during the Empire, including the use of letters within fictional narrative (the novels and the ‘Alexander Romance’), and narrative within fictional letters (Aelian, Alciphron, Philostratus), and earlier steps in the development of the epistolary novel (‘Themistocles’), and there is a whole literary background to this novel which goes far beyond common rhetorical training.3 With ‘Themistocles’ in particular comes a concern for moulding a book of letters into a unified narrative of sorts, and this is followed (on M.’s dating) and improved upon by ‘Chion’, where the letters which do not drive the narrative on are not merely exercises in ethopoeia nor authenticating devices, but also serve to vary the narrative pace and add suspense, as D. recognised.

M. also contrasts the Chion Briefroman with the novels—they are the work of a forger, and a “romancier par hasard” (p. 7)—and with letters which are “délibérément fictives”, such as those of Philostratus or Aristaenetus. Whether or not their author wished to fool readers into accepting these letters as genuine is, of course, impossible to prove (and ultimately not of such great interest), but one should always be careful in applying terms such as ‘forgery’ to ancient pseudepigrapha, as has long been acknowledged.4 Of course it would be anachronistic to say that the author set out to write an epistolary novel, since he did not have a fully formed genre in which to write (although there were what may be termed early, less developed examples of the genre); and it is clear that he could not have thought of the work as a ‘novel’, since there was no ancient term for that either. Nevertheless it is equally clear, as D. has amply demonstrated (followed by M. on many points of detail) that what he set out to write, and what he did in fact write (admittedly with a few inconsistencies and inaccuracies) is an example of what we would label both a Briefroman, and a historical novel of sorts. No doubt some of the faults which M. and others have found in the work were just that, and not deliberate, but at the same time it fails to do justice to the author’s skill to call it a forgery (of which it would be a poor specimen) in contrast to a deliberately fictitious work, which it transparently is. (‘Fiction’ may also be a problematic term, particularly when qualified by ‘deliberate’; but the author was evidently not trying to write history, and if he was aiming to convince it was through plausibility, internal consistency and consistency with a few better-known essentials of the transmitted historical story, not through accuracy and citation of sources: this is the task of the historical novelist.)

Thus M. frequently gives too little credit to the author: for instance he assumes (p. 77 n. 6) him to be unaware that [Plato] Ep. 13 is spurious; this may well be the case, but not be taken for granted—after all, at a time when collections of ‘authentic’ letters by historical persons are being ‘rediscovered’ centuries after their supposed authors’ deaths, one might suppose that at least the author of another such pseudepigraphic book of letters would have his suspicions about the less convincing among his forerunners’ efforts! Likewise many of M.’s criticisms in the section ‘Les sources historiques’ (pp. 80-83) seem to disregard the fact that the author is writing a work of fiction in some sense: whether the sources were unavailable to or simply ignored by him is immaterial. Whether some omissions were deliberate or all were blunders is another question which is ultimately impossible to answer, but the author displays enough competence in this composition that one should not always decide against him when there is no evidence either way. For example, could he not have deliberately omitted to mention that the tyrannicide Chion was related to the tyrant Clearchus? Or telescoped the twelve-year reign of the latter in order to create a better narrative? (Contrast p. 81, where these features are attributed to the author’s ignorance.) Similarly, M. rejects the suggestion of D. and others that the list of presents at the beginning of Ep. 6 are an imitation of [Plato] Ep. 13, merely because they are not the same, and because similar presents were often sent in antiquity (p. 81 n. 14): never mind the great probability that our author had the Platonic letters as one of his main models, and certainly (as M. admits) used his Ep. 13. Far better to see this allusion as evidence that this book of letters was consciously following its most famous predecessor in the Greek epistolary tradition, and one to which it is naturally connected through the character of Plato, to whom Chion writes the concluding Ep. 17.

On the question of readership M.’s arguments are too hasty: while noting the similarities between this Briefroman and the Greek novels, he concludes from the fact that there are also differences, that the readership of ‘Chion’ was very different from that of Chariton (p. 6). This assumes a readership both homogeneous and very narrow in their tastes: I would not say that the readership of the Greek novels and of ‘Chion’ were identical, but they were almost certainly overlapping, and in all probability broadly the same. Both are fictional narratives, set in the past and often using historical characters; both kinds of literature have roots in historiography and biographical narratives, including pseudonymous letters (and share a focus on individuals above states); and the possibility that the ‘Alexander Romance’ may have been originally a kind of epistolary novel before the appearance of the extant novels5 suggests a close connection between these narrative forms from their beginnings. The differences of content are not so great as to outweigh the basic similarities of kind and function: both constitute leisure reading for educated Greek-speakers;6 of course there were differing tastes in reading matter within this group, but there is no reason to deny that many of them might have enjoyed both ‘Chion’ and Chariton.

The notes accompanying the translation offer useful assistance with the historical and geographical contexts and with points of interpretation, with a few remarks on style and rhetorical and epistolary conventions. In his preface Schamp notes that M. has “réduit à l’essentiel” his commentary, which no doubt helps to keep the volume affordable and accessible; however, more notes on literary features might have been welcome, particularly given M.’s aim to convert a new readership to this novel. As it is, the notes point out its flaws with regard to historical accuracy, but do not do enough to demonstrate what makes it successful as a narrative or what is interesting and innovative about its literary form—after all, this is the closest thing we have to a fully-fledged epistolary novel in the modern sense. Likewise ancient sources for the Chion legend are referred to, but comparative references to other novels and epistolary books (including other ancient epistolary novels such as ‘Themistocles’) are absent.

To summarise, the appearance of this edition is very welcome, and it will especially prove a valuable introduction for readers new to the ‘Chion’ Briefroman and to the scholarship on it, particularly the scholarship concerning the historical contexts of its narrative and of its production. The revised date proposed by M. is a position which anyone working on this text must at least now take into consideration, if not accept. The introductory materials and notes would have benefited from more attention to literary matters, in order to suggest to readers new to ‘Chion’—the audience M. claims it deserves (rightly, I think)—why it might be worth reading. The quality of the book is unfortunately marred by several glaring errors,7 perhaps because this is a French text produced by an Italian press (and it is quite possible that there are many further errors which a fluent francophone reviewer would have spotted where I have failed).


1. I. Düring, Chion of Heraclea. A Novel in Letters. Göteborg: Högskolas Ärsskrift, 1951.

2. The chronology of most of these collections is difficult to sort out, but at least on M.’s late dating of Chion’s letters, some of the Phalaris letters and the Themistocles novel are very likely to be earlier than the former.

3. On these issues see further O. Hodkinson, ‘ “Novels in the Greek Letter”: inversions of the written-oral hierarchy in Themistocles and other epistolary novels’ in V. Rimell, ed., Orality and Representation in the Ancient Novel ( Ancient Narrative special issue). Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing, or online, forthcoming 2005.

4. Cf. R. Syme, ‘Fraud and imposture’ in K. von Fritz, ed., Pseudepigrapha I. Pseudopythagorica – Lettres de Platon – Littérature pseudépigraphique juive. Geneva: Fondation Hardt, 1972.

5. As M. acknowledges (p. 6 n. 15); cf. L.L. Gunderson, Alexander’s letter to Aristotle about India. Meisenheim am Glan: Anton Hain, 1980, ch. 2.

6. Cf. E.L. Bowie, ‘The ancient readers of the Greek novels’ in G. Schmeling, ed., The Novel in the Ancient World. Leiden: Brill, 1996: 87-106.

7. The errors I noticed are: xi, 2nd paragraph extra ‘m’ in M[m]emnon; xii, n. 10 ς has become ‘d’ at the end of ἔναρχος and τύραννος; 3, last line “grâce” sc. ‘à’; 5, n. 11 last clause lacking a verb (sc. ‘ce soit’ between “que” and “ceux”?); 6 “de[s] Callirhoé” should read ‘de …’; 7, 1st paragraph “parce” sc. ‘que’; 46, line 8 superfluous hyphen; 79, 2nd paragraph “qu’il s’entendent” should read ‘qu’ils …’; 82, n. 21 “Phercl” should read “PHerc”; 85, 1st paragraph “embouché” should read ’embauché’; 88, n. 46 repeated “que”; 98, n. 93 repeated “pas”; in Bibliography and elsewhere, “Konstans & Mitsis” should read ‘Konstan …’.