Classics Greek Literary Letters
Patricia Rosenmeyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0255


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 (second through third centuries 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 twentieth 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 twenty-first 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 broader overview, the older Sykutris 1931 entry in Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft is still valuable, while the handbook entry Drago 2022 provides a thorough introduction with valuable bibliographies. Morello and Morrison 2007; Hodkinson, et al. 2013; and Marquis 2023 are collections of essays based on conference proceedings; they delve more deeply into specific authors and texts. Drago and Hodkinson 2023 focuses on the ancient love letter. Jenkins 2006, while emphasizing Latin letters, has fascinating things to say about the role of interception in literary epistolary exchanges.

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

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199675593.001.0001

    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.

  • Drago, A. T. 2022. Epistolographie. In Die pagane Literatur der Kaiserzeit und Spätantike. Vol. 3 of Handbuch der griechischen Literatur der Antike. Edited by Bernhard Zimmermann and Antonios Rengakos, 843–901. Munich: C. H. Beck.

    This up-to-date handbook entry (in German) with comprehensive bibliography includes a general introduction to epistolography, covering editions and transmission, rhetorical influences, and the communicative strategies of fictional letter. A detailed section on individual authors from the imperial period (Aelian, Alciphron, Philostratus, Aristaenetus) is followed by a discussion of Greek epistolographers from Late Antiquity, both pagan (Libanius, Julian) and Christian (Aeneas of Gaza, Procopius of Gaza, Dionysius of Antioch).

  • Drago, A. T., and O. Hodkinson, eds. 2023. Ancient love letters: Form, themes, approaches. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    The thirteen chapters in this wide-ranging edited volume explore literary and documentary letters in verse and prose from the archaic period to the Middle Ages in both Greek and Latin. The criterion for inclusion is the presence of erotic themes in the epistolary material. Case studies address such issues as genre, intertextuality, cultural or historical context, linguistic markers, and organization of the letter collections.

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

    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.

    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.

  • Marquis, É., ed. 2023. Epistolary fiction in ancient Greek literature. Berlin: De Gruyter.

    This comprehensive edited volume divides its eleven chapters into two sections: authentic and disputed epistolary fictions, including fictional letter collections from the imperial period and later (Lucian, Alciphron, Philostratus, Aristaenetus); and pseudonymous or spurious letters attributed to famous historical characters (Phalaris, Euripides, Pontius Pilate, Christian saints). Topics include manuscript tradition, form, structure, and the relationship between (purported) author and external readers.

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

    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.

    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.

    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.

    This author (in German) 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.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.