In This Article Greek Literary Letters

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Texts and Commentaries
  • English Translations
  • Epistolary Theory
  • Authenticity
  • Classification
  • Embedded Letters in Classical Texts
  • Pseudonymous Historical Letters
  • Pseudepigraphic Philosophical Letters
  • Imaginary Letters in the Second Sophistic
  • Letters and the Novel
  • Contemporary Approaches

Classics Greek Literary Letters
by
Patricia Rosenmeyer
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0255

Introduction

What do we mean by Greek literary letters. Letters in literature? Literature in letter form? Do we include “private” letters (e.g., Plutarch to his wife) if they are later published? The earliest reference to a (proto-)letter in Greek occurs in an epic that otherwise betrays no knowledge of writing (Homer Iliad 6: Bellerophon’s tablet). Yet fictive epistolography as an independent genre flourished only later, in the imperial period (2nd–3rd century CE). Hundreds of literary letters are printed in Hercher 1873 (cited in Texts and Commentaries): letters from dramas, letters from historians, letters from novels, epistolary novels, collections of love letters, and pseudohistorical or philosophical letters, among others. Yet many remain without modern editions or translations. Studies of epistolography generally explore one of three topics: Authenticity and Classification, sources and receptions, and narrative. The concern with authenticity emerged in Bentley 1697 (cited in Authenticity), and its influential declaration that most letters attributed to classical authors were actually later “forgeries.” This term was then wisely replaced by “fictive” or “pseudepigraphical,” since the letters displayed no evidence of intentional deceit, and some collections included what were accepted as authentic (e.g., Plato Letter 7) as well as spurious texts. As readers became more sensitive to issues of voice and authority, the question of authenticity was replaced by that of classification: were these letters private or public, real or imaginary? Did it matter if they were free-standing or embedded? Classical scholars in the early 20th century, in particular Deissmann 1927 (cited in Classification), engaged with their Biblical colleagues, seeking ways to identify both letters and epistles, the latter being considered more self-consciously constructed. Two other main paths of study slowly emerged. Some scholars focused on origins and influences, looking to pseudonymous letters as nontraditional sources for information on authors’ lives and teachings. Others connected Greek epistolography to the rise of the European epistolary novel. Yet others located the impulse for pseudepigraphy in rhetorical exercises. The early 21st century has turned out to be a golden era for Greek literary letters, as numerous monographs, conference proceedings, translations, and articles tapped into contemporary critical theory and became ever more sophisticated in their approaches to the field. How do literary letters work within or as part of a larger narrative context? What was so appealing to ancient authors about epistolarity as a narrative strategy? Greek literary letters have finally become (again) a legitimate and fruitful object of study.

General Overviews

Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in in literary letters. The two most comprehensive treatments are Rosenmeyer 2001 and Ceccarelli 2013; both explore the varied aspects of epistolarity in Greek antiquity and provide a solid base from which to begin studying specific texts. Muir 2009 conveniently and succinctly combines discussion of both nonliterary and literary letters, including early Christian letters. For a more cursory approach, the older Sykutris 1931 entry in Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft is still valuable, while Görgemanns 2006 in Brill’s New Pauly updates his predecessor’s epistolary categories to include private, open, dedicatory, didactic, fictitious, and poetic letters. Morello and Morrison 2007 and Hodkinson, et al. 2013 are collections of essays based on conference proceedings; they delve more deeply into specific authors and texts. Jenkins 2006, while emphasizing Latin letters, has fascinating things to say about the role of interception in literary epistolary exchanges.

  • Ceccarelli, Paola. 2013. Ancient Greek letter writing: A cultural history (600–150 BC). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199675593.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    An erudite and comprehensive study of letters and writing in general that stresses sociocultural contexts as well as geographic distinctions, and explores historiographic, literary, and documentary evidence.

  • Görgemanns, Herwig. 2006. Epistolography. In Brill’s new Pauly. Vol. 4. Edited by Hubert Cancik and Helmut Schneider, 1144–1148. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    E-mail Citation »

    A brief (5 pp.) overview of Greek and Latin letters and their influence on later European literature, condensing and updating Sykutris 1931.

  • Hodkinson, O., P. A. Rosenmeyer, and E. Bracke, eds. 2013. Epistolary narratives in ancient Greek literature. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    E-mail Citation »

    Sixteen chapters explore the narrative forms and functions of independent, collected, and embedded literary letters. The volume spans a large chronological range, from the classical period to late antiquity, and argues for letter narratives as a unique literary phenomenon across genres. Includes a substantive introduction to the topic.

  • Jenkins, T. E. 2006. Intercepted letters: Epistolarity and narrative in Greek and Roman literature. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book focuses on letters as narrative symbols. If letters fail to reach their target, they become a destabilizing force in the narrative; their presence evokes issues of power, authorial absence, and the challenges of interpretation. Slightly skewed toward Latin examples.

  • Morello, R., and A. D. Morrison, eds. 2007. Ancient letters: Classical and late antique epistolography. Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Fourteen chapters on nonliterary (papyri, scientific treatises) and literary letters. The definition of “letter” given in the introduction falls somewhere between that given in Trapp 2003 (cited in Texts and Commentaries)—namely “written message from sender to recipient”—and Derrida 1975 (cited in Contemporary Approaches) with its insistence that the letter is not a genre, but “all genres, literature itself.”

  • Muir, J. V. 2009. Letters in Greek literature. In Life and letters in the ancient Greek world. Edited by J. V. Muir, 177–210. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    E-mail Citation »

    Concise yet comprehensive chapter on literary letters in a good general book on Greek epistolography, including material on the early Christian church.

  • Rosenmeyer, P. A. 2001. Ancient epistolary fictions: The letter in Greek literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Study of fictive letters from Homer to Philostratus, analyzing the function of letters within or as narrative, including embedded letters in various genres (epic, historiography, tragedy, novel), and free-standing epistolography (pseudonymous collections, fictive letters of the imperial period). Accessible starting point for the study of Greek literary letters.

  • Sykutris, J. 1931. Epistolographie. In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Suppl. 5. Edited by A. Pauly, G. Wissowa, and W. Kroll, 185–220. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler.

    E-mail Citation »

    This author accepts the distinction in Deissmann 1927 (cited in Classification) between “real” and literary letters, but subdivides them further into five types: official, literary-private, the letter as a formal “disguise” for philosophical or didactic treatise, the letter in verse, and the fictive letter. Although dated, still an important contribution.

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