BMCR 2006.11.18

Ancient Greek Literary Letters: Selections in Translation. Routledge Classical Translations

, Ancient Greek literary letters : selections in translation. London/New York: Routledge, 2006. 1 online resource (viii, 168 pages). ISBN 0203964780 £16.99 (pb).

Supplementing her monograph Ancient Epistolary Fictions: the Letter in Greek Literature published in 2001,1 Patricia A. Rosenmeyer’s [R.] small volume comprises selected ancient Greek letters in English translation covering the period from Euripides to Philostratus. The letters are arranged chronologically in specific historical and thematic chapters, each supplied with brief introductory comments. Once again R. addresses the genre of letters in literary contexts that she has already tackled so successfully in her pioneering monograph. It is a real pleasure to read this fine volume aimed at “students of Greek epistolography”.

Although this book does not require any particular knowledge about ancient Greek epistolography, the specialist reader might find it efficient to read R.’s monograph from 2001 previously—her methodological approach is identical and the main authors discussed are the same.

The book itself is divided into six chapters each dedicated to a certain period of Greek literature and focusing on specific authors: ‘Classical Greek literary letters’ (Euripides, Herodotus, Thycydides, Xenophon), ‘Hellenistic literary letters’ (Antiphanes, Rufinus and Philodemus, Anacreontea), ‘Letters and prose fictions of the Second Sophistic’ (Lucian, Phlegon of Tralleis, Chariton, Achilles Tatius, The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre), ‘The epistolary novella’ ( The Letters of Themistocles, Chion of Heraclea), ‘Pseudo-historical letter collections of the Second Sophistic’ (Aeschines, Anacharsis, Apollonius, Demosthenes, Diogenes, Hippocrates and Democritus, Isocrates, Plato, Socrates and the Socratics, Solon and Thales), and ‘Invented correspondences, imaginary voices’ (Aelian, Alciphron, Philostratus). Each of the six main chapters begins with a general introduction describing the basic context of the passage and the main problems of the work quoted from, and then the relevant texts are presented in an English translation without any further annotations or comments.

Naturally, the introductory sections to every chapter differ in length and depth. For instance, chapter 1 ‘Classical Greek literary letters’ opens with a brief retelling of the content of the texts the extracts are taken from and the presentation of some of the overall ideas linking the texts with each other (pp. 11-15). Such brevity is understandable since Euripides ( Iphigenia in Tauris and Hippolytus), Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon ( Education of Cyrus) are some of the best-known classical authors. In contrast, the introduction to chapter 4 ‘The epistolary novella’ (pp. 48-55) deals with the fundamental questions of date, genre, content, socio-cultural background, and plot, and discusses the problem whether or not the Letters of Themistocles should be categorized as novelistic. These letters are joined with those of Chion of Heraclea, which is “our only extant example from Greek antiquity of a historically inspired prose fiction composed solely of letters, arranged for the most part chronologically, and containing a number of unifying themes and concepts; in other words, an epistolary novella.” Underlining the significance of these two epistolary collections, R. presents their translation in full, so that the reader gets a good impression of the literary character of each (pp. 56-96). Unfortunately, here as well as in all the other chapters R. does not state any reference to the Greek editions she has used.

The book itself opens with an introduction that raises the most crucial questions. Moreover, it arouses interest in further reading about the topic (see the well-chosen suggestions at the end of this short ten-page introduction). R. points out that some letters in literary works might provide trustworthy details about the times they are part of, while others are purely fictitious compositions to serve a narrative function.2 For the attentive reader it is self-evident that pseudonymity is actually both a stylistic trick to gain credibility and at the same time a problem of not telling the truth. Here, R. could have expounded the problems of pseudonymity more carefully, for example, by referring to some of the writings of the New Testament and the matters discussed in the relevant theological disciplines. What is significant and what should have been stressed more explicitly by R. is that most of the literary compositions she presents do actually offer the response of the partner(s) in communication, but we often only have one side of a communication left, as far as letters preserved on papyrus or many of the pseudonymous letters of early Christianity demonstrate. Moreover, it remains doubtful whether R. is right to ask “What was it about epistolarity that appealed so strongly to the Greek imagination?” In Ptolemaic and Greco-Roman Egypt and later on among Roman authors the use of the letter-form (not only papyrus documents or semi-documents) was popular, too, so that epistolarity might not have been that typical of the Greeks. In addition it is surprising that the front cover shows a papyrus letter from the second or third century C.E., though the book does not tackle papyrus letters at all.3

The book comes with a bibliography of fundamental titles for studying ancient Greek letters (pp. 161-4) and one index of names, keywords, and works (pp. 165-8).

Leaving these minor points of criticism aside, R. succeeds in introducing interested readers to the genre of letters in ancient Greek literature. Her selection of texts offers a wide range of letters embedded in various genres of literature or even forming a genre on their own (see chapter 4 ‘The epistolary letters’). R. is aware of the limits every selection of texts are confronted with: they cannot be exhaustive. Furthermore, R.’s collection is “intended primarily for the general reader”, which qualifies the few critical statements made above. She even briefly touches the genre of comedy by presenting a passage from the fourth-century writer Antiphanes in her introduction (p. 8). This might indicate that she appreciates the problem pointed out by Tim Whitmarsh in his review of R.’s monograph from 2001, who notes that R. excluded the (new) comedy from her approach to letters in Greek literature.4

R.’s collection and her precise introductory comments are very much welcome, because they will hopefully help to revive and refresh the discussion of ancient Greek letters in antiquity and late antiquity, and motivate scholars to consider the genre of literary letters more adequately in that discussion.


1. Patricia A. Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions: the Letter in Greek Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

2. See, for instance, Stanley K. Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Library of Early Christianity 5. Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press 1986, referred to by R. at the end of her introduction (p. 9).

3. R. offers a translation of most of the letter on the back cover of the book. The correct reference to the astounding letter of young Theon to his father Theon is P.Oxy. I 119.

4. Cf. Tim Whitmarsh, Review of Patricia A. Rosenmeyer, Ancient Epistolary Fictions: the Letter in Greek Literature, in BMCR 2002.06.20.