BMCR 2020.10.18

Late Antique Letter Collections: A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide

, , , Late Antique letter collections: A critical introduction and reference guide. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017. 488 p.. ISBN 9780520308411. $65.00.


Late antique letter-writing has become an increasingly popular field of study, with books on individual letter-writers, types of letter, and geographic areas published in recent years.[1] Until the publication of this volume, few comprehensive works on letter-writing in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries existed. Late Antique Letter Collections bills itself as “the first comprehensive overview of the extant Greek and Latin letter collections of Late Antiquity.” The following review will evaluate the book’s success in helping scholars and students to read letter collections and use them to reconstruct social history.

The book focuses on the period between 300 and 600 and aims to provide an overview of “the material history of nearly all extant Greek and Latin letter collections.” This comprehensiveness, the editors suggest, allows the evaluation of common and unique features across letter collections from late antiquity. They assert that the time-period between the 340s and the early 600s was one in which the epistolary genre was both highly popular and evolving in the hands of its authors. The book consists of an introduction to Latin and Greek epistolography, two chapters offering context on Latin and Greek letter-collecting during antiquity, and twenty-three chapters on the letter collection of late antique individuals ranging from the emperor Julian to Cassiodorus (the twenty-fourth chapter, on papal letter collections, is the only one not focused on a single-author collection). The book ends with an index that includes names of letter-writers and their correspondents, places, and themes and events discussed in the preceding chapters. Editors are forthright in acknowledging omissions, such as the letters of Salvian of Marseilles, Nilus of Ancyra, Severus of Antioch, and Iamblichus (12). Each chapter addresses a major Greek or Latin collection, its compilation, dissemination, and transmission, the historical context of when it was put together, and the literary nature of the collection. The overall aim is to offer an introduction to each collection, and to the genre of epistolography as a whole (11). As an overview, the volume succeeds admirably, and fully deserves the widest possible use. As an orientation to unfamiliar letter collections, some of the chapters are more usable than others, as I will explain.

The two introductory chapters lay out a number of useful observations about epistolography as a genre, which contributors take up in relation to particular collections. Letter collections can be a difficult literary genre to study. Surviving evidence often does not allow us to piece together the steps between the original writer of the letters and the person(s) who received them. Where there is enough evidence to say, letter collections were often put together by friends or admirers of the writer, serving as ‘editor-collectors’. Most of the time, even where information survives about the path from letter to collection, the relationship between the macrotext (the collection) and the individual letter opens up possibilities for the study of both, as Cristiana Sogno points out in her chapter on Symmachus (183-4).

One question the volume leaves open for additional exploration, even as it excellently provides some of the evidence for an answer, is this: why was late antiquity such a bountiful period for letter writing and letter collections? One answer lies in the characteristics of the period, such as bureaucratic expansion, social competition, greater opportunities to reach a wider audience through the networked nature of late antique society, as well as the attempt to hang on to aristocratic interconnectedness, especially during the contraction of social networks, at least in the West, during the fifth and sixth centuries (6-7). However, as the contributors acknowledge, most late antique letter collections took a long time to come together and stabilize as units; the collection process may have begun in the late antiquity, but it often changed shape and structure in the hands of later editors. The volume opens up possibilities for study and comparison of the creation and reception of these collections across languages and geographic areas, in exciting ways.

Typically, Greek and Latin epistolography are studied separately from one another, and one of the great strengths of this volumes is that it covers collections in both languages, opening up possibilities for comparative research and teaching. Chapters might profitably be read in groups, allowing readers to compare (for example) the effects of the intervention and rearrangement of scholarly editors on how we understanding collections, (Julian, Basil, Augustine); the role of authors in actively shaping their letter collections (Sidonius, Jerome), and the status of collections where authors seem to have played a limited role (Paulinus of Nola, Theodoret). There are some cases where evidence of transmission history is limited (Evagrius, Avitus of Vienne) and others where the collection as it comes down to us displays a clear lack of organisational principles (Aeneas of Gaza, Ennodius of Pavia, papal letters). The volume treats both small collections (Ruricius, Aeneas of Gaza) and some of the largest that survive from late antiquity (Libanius of Antioch, Symmachus, Isidore of Pelusium). Cross-comparison across different chapters also raises the important issue of the fluid boundaries of epistolography as a genre (Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa, Cassiodorus, Synesius, Ausonius, Barsanuphius and John).

As previously mentioned, the volume’s consideration of both Greek and Latin letter writing is one of its strengths. The contributors successfully explore the flexibility, distinctiveness, and range of epistolography as a genre. The chapters in the volume chart the change in historians’ approach to letters over time, a move that they claim has gone from treating letters as unbiased documents and glimpses of actual history, to seeing them as ‘literary artefacts’ (1). The chapters in this volume explore these tensions honestly: as Ebbler notes in her chapter on Augustine: ‘to a great extent, everything we think we know is contingent’ (250). The volume’s emphasis is on establishing collections as a literary genre in their own right, leading editors and authors to consciously exclude letters preserved on their own from the discussion (for example, Neil’s essay on papal letter collections, 461, n 4). This is an understandable omission given the volume’s scope and aims, but it does give a sense that literary letters and letter collections were entirely set apart from the wider landscape of uncollected and non-elite communication.

This is but one of the many thought-provoking issues that this book raises. Contributors consistently treat issues of genre, both at the macrolevel (what is a letter collection?) and the microlevel (what is a letter?). It would be fascinating to use this collection to explore the latter question in more detail, particularly in relation to whether late antique and later readers saw a difference between letters in prose and letters in verse. A few issues are notable by their absence. The place of women within late antique letter collections is little-discussed but is surely a subject this volume will help scholars uncover further.[2] Another area for further research that struck me was the influence of Christianity on late antique letter writing and collecting (38).[3] As Ebbler notes in her discussion of Augustine’s letters, a digital mapping project that tracks the sending and receiving of letters (and thus of who knew what, when), would be an intriguing future project (247). Reception of these collections beyond late antiquity is another area in which work—especially comparative work—is another exciting possibility.

The volume is admirably free from errors. I do have a quibble: as someone who would like to use this volume to teach about late antique letter writing and conduct comparative research outside my area of linguistic and geographic specialization, the suggestions for further reading were not always at an introductory level. Information about editions and translations can be pulled from the discussion or footnotes of edition and translation history (for one example, see the chapter on Ennodius of Pavia); or from the section on manuscript history that many chapters have, but this is not listed as standard in the further reading. In my view the usability to the chapters would be increased if the recommended critical edition and any translations into modern languages were listed in this section. (I may have overlooked the obvious, but there are a few puzzling omissions in the footnotes, such as Mathisen’s Translated Texts for Historians volume on Ruricius of Limoges from his chapter on the same.) As Lieve van Hoof’s chapter on Libanius of Antioch acknowledges, some collections or portions of collections have gone relatively neglected because they have not been fully translated (113), making it clear that attention to translations is well worth a new reader’s while. Attention to surviving manuscripts of letter collections varies: some chapters include technical discussions (Procopius of Gaza, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus); in other cases, interesting manuscripts have to be tracked down via chains of footnotes (see 22, 42, 44-5, 46, 70). I especially appreciated contributors’ thoroughness regarding surviving manuscripts of the letters of John Chrysostom and Evagrius (see respectively, 193, 201, n. 15, 202 n. 21; and 173 n. 31), where links to lists of manuscripts and translations online make it easily possible to work with translations or show students images of late antique letters in class. This quibble should not be taken as criticism of the editors’ and contributors wonderful work but instead as a sign of the range of exciting possibilities this volume unfolds. Indeed, one might say that the only problem with the book is that it ends.


[1] A very partial list of books: Andrew Cain, The Letters of Jerome: Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Jennifer Ebbler, Discipling Christians: Correction and Community in Augustine’s Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Bronwen Neil and Pauline Allen, Collecting Early Christian Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Antonia Sarri, Material Aspects of Letter Writing in the Graeco-Roman World (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017); Patrick Wyman, ‘Letters, Mobility, and the Fall of the Roman Empire’ (PhD Thesis, University of Southern California, 2016).

[2] It is assumed without discussion that the collector of letters was male (5); the first observation that all the letter collections in the volume were written by men is on page 192; both John Chrysostom and Ennodius are noted to have had female correspondents (192, 371).

[3] On this subject see Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil, Greek and Latin Letters in Late Antiquity: the Christianization of a Literary Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming August 2020).