BMCR 2021.12.31

Epicuro. Lettere: frammenti e testimonianze

, Epicuro. Lettere: frammenti e testimonianze. Biblioteca di studi antichi, 99. Pisa: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2020. Pp. x, 360. ISBN 9788833152264 €240,00.

According to Diogenes Laërtius, Epicurus was a prolific writer (πολυγραφώτατος), surpassing other authors in the sheer number of books that he wrote (X.26). However, in addition to philosophical treatises, Epicurus also wrote many letters. These were not only of the stylized, didactic kind like those to Herodotus, Pythocles, and Menoeceus, fully preserved in Diogenes, which are ἐπιτομαί of different parts of Epicurean philosophy, but also of the familiar, everyday kind, addressed to friends, including members of the school, students, and patrons. These letters, which in antiquity were edited and circulated in collections, have survived only in fragments and testimonia. Margherita Erbì has now collected for the first time what remains of Epicurus’ letters to φίλοι, in her counting 204 fragments and testimonia derived from 146 different letters.

Erbì’s edition begins with a 55-page introduction on the most important topics in the letters: what they teach us about Epicurean philosophy, the life of and interactions between members of the Epicurean school, and the organization of the Garden. The introduction also discusses the style of the different letters and the principles underlying her edition.

The next 62 pages of the book offer the text of the letters. These are organized by recipient, with fragments preceding testimonia, those texts that can be dated presented first, in chronological order, followed by the undatable ones. (Often introductory formulas explicitly state during whose archontate a letter was written.) This system of organization is inevitably responsible for some repetition, though without causing much nuisance. For instance, 32 T (in the section on letters to Idomeneus) states that Epicurus wrote καὶ Ἰδομενεῖ δὲ παραπλήσια [κα]ὶ Κωλώτει, while 38 F (in the section of letters to Colotes) repeats these words and then adds what has been preserved of a letter that Epicurus wrote to Colotes. Erbì in this section does more than collect material found in Usener’s Epicurea (1887) and Arrighetti’s Epicuro: Opere (1973), the two most important and authoritative collections of Epicurean texts. She adds further passages (all published elsewhere), some of which seem to have been overlooked, others found on papyri unpublished when Usener and Arrighetti compiled their collections. In the case of some papyri, Erbì has examined the originals and offers new readings. Some texts are accompanied by a critical apparatus, others (e.g., the excerpts from Diogenes Laërtius) are not. All fragments and testimonia are translated into Italian.

The next and largest section of Erbì’s book (154 pages) offers an extensive commentary on each of the fragments and testimonia. This commentary covers the historical background of the letters (for instance, what we know about the recipient or what we know about the general circumstances during which the letter was written), philological issues concerning word-meaning or grammatical construction, and philosophical issues arising in the letters. Erbì shows an admirable command of the secondary literature and is generally cautious as to the conclusions she draws from the material. This is very important insofar as some of the texts are extremely fragmentary. In some cases, all that has survived is a report that Epicurus wrote a letter at a certain time (e.g., 99 F or 105 T) or that he wrote to a certain person (e.g., 30 T or 43 F). In other cases, a little of the content of the letter has survived, but a coherent argument cannot be made out (e.g., 107 F or 124 F).

The main interest of the letters is that they offer insights into the life that the Epicureans actually lived as opposed to detailed technical discussions of the intricacies of Epicurean doctrines. The letters display the connectedness of the members of the Epicurean school. For instance, in 47 F, Epicurus writes to Leontion: Παιὰν ἄναξ, φίλον Λεοντάριον, οἵου κροτοθορύβου ἡμᾶς ἐνέπλησεν ἀναγνόντας σου τὸ ἐπιστόλιον. The diminutives Λεοντάριον and ἐπιστόλιον make clear the intimacy of Epicurus’ relationship with Leontion, which contrasts with formulas used in other letters to other recipients (as Erbì notes, pp. 159–60; in general, one may note that the letters are an important source for the presence of women in the Garden.)

Given their everyday nature, perhaps unsurprisingly, practical matters are the main topic of the letters; the letters contain pieces of advice in response to concrete situations that the recipients of the letters faced. This is perhaps clearest in regard to the letters to Idomeneus whom Epicurus convinced to abandon an active life in politics (see letters 20–36 along with Erbì’s commentary, pp. 134–49), that is, to follow the advice that a Sage, the ideal Epicurean agent, οὐδὲ πολιτεύσεται (fr. 8 Usener). Accordingly, reading the letters together like this in Erbì’s edition enriches our understanding of the Epicurean school.

A bibliography and variety of indices conclude the volume. I did not check all indices for accuracy, but did note that on the concordance list beginning with the fragments in Usener, fragment 178 Usener (or more precisely frr. 178a and 178b = two excerpts from Plutarch, Non Posse 1100A-C), which is split up into 41 F1b and 113 F, T1, and T2 in Erbì’s edition, was missing (see p. 320). Furthermore, while this section of the book is already quite long (c. 85 pages), an index of modern scholars would have been a helpful addition. Since there are some topics that are dealt with in different letters and so in multiple locations in the commentary, it would have been very helpful to be able to consult directly where Erbì discusses the views of this or that author.

All in all, Erbì’s collection of Epicurus’ letters is a great resource for scholars interested in Epicureanism, Hellenistic philosophy, the functioning of (Hellenistic) philosophical schools, and letter writing in antiquity. It is wonderful to have all known letters assembled in one place.