An ancient epistolary novel?

One of the most interesting and attractive collections among the Greek letter collections normally labelled as fictitious or pseudepigraphic (i.e. works whose real author was not the one with whom the work is normally associated) is that purporting to be by one Chion of Heraclea (on the Black Sea). A real Chion did exist and was responsible for killing the tyrant of Heraclea, Clearchus, in the middle of the fourth century BCE, but these letters date from the first (or possibly second) century CE.

The letters (17 in number) tell the story of Chion’s journey to Athens to study philosophy with Plato at the Academy. On his way to Athens Chion (anachronistically) meets Xenophon at Byzantium, who happens to arrive there at that time with the Greek army after their long march through Asia Minor, as described in Xenophon’s Anabasis. After five years of study, during which he sends various letters (full of everyday detail, such as 10 to his father, where he reveals he has contributed to the dowry for one of Plato’s grand-nieces), he returns to Heraclea to kill Clearchus. We hear of his plans in the final letters of the collection, the last of which is to Plato, his old teacher.

From the perspective of our project, it’s striking that the manuscripts all reflect the clear chronological and narrative order of the collection (all of the head manuscripts  of the manuscript families and sub-groups contain the letters ordered as 1-17; only a few late manuscripts contain selections from this order, which nevertheless still preserve the order within the selection, e.g. 3-6). This strongly suggests we’re right to read it as a coherent entity, an epistolary novel (or novella), and that its order and structure goes back to the author. The stability of the order of the letters in the manuscripts isn’t found in some other collections, where we also find extensive re-ordering in modern editions. Untangling those re-orderings is also a major focus of our project.

More soon on two more collections which resemble epistolary ‘novels’: Themistocles and Euripides!

Beginning the Project: which collections (and where?)?

The necessary first stage of work for our project on Ancient Letter Collections was  preliminary: which collections should be included in the project? In order to identify definitively the surviving ancient letter collections in Greek and Latin we made use of the databases of both the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and Thesaurus Linguae Latinae. Our search produced a long list of all the ancient Greek and Latin authors up to ca. 500 CE from whom more than one letter survived. We have distinguished those letters that have survived as citations or quotations in literature from those that have survived as collections (only the latter will form the focus of the project).

The list of Greek and Latin epistolographers is long and contains very many interesting examples. One of them is the collection of letters of the Saints Barsanuphius and his disciple Joannes, two ascetic monks of a monastery in Palestine, in the 6th century CE. They acquired great fame for their holiness and many people (ranging from local monks to bishops and laymen) sought them out for spiritual advice. However, the two monks kept themselves in strict seclusion, and communicated with their enquirers only through letters, transmitted by Seridus, the abbot of the monastery. Over eight hundred letters containing their replies have descended to us as a collection through medieval manuscripts, forming an invaluable source of information about early Christianity. The letters may have been collected by Dorotheos, one of the disciples of the two monks. The transmission of the collection of the letters of Barsanuphius and Joannes and the arrangement of the letters in it will be but one of the project’s collections.

From the beginning of February 2016 the main goal of the project has been to research the manuscript tradition of the letters of each ancient collection in turn and trace its roots. For many ancient authors, especially for those who have been well-studied by modern scholars with detailed critical editions, the collection of information about the tradition in ancient collections is relatively easily detectable. However, for some others who the lack an authoritative critical edition, it is necessary to research further into manuscript catalogues for relevant information about the transmission and order of the letters in order to identify the roots of each collection in antiquity.

We’ve begun with Greek fictional and pseudepigraphic letter collections, more on  which very soon!


Research Associate joins the Project Team

Welcome to the inaugural blogpost of the Ancient Letter Collections Project at Manchester!

The project begins on 1 December 2016 and the team is now complete: we are delighted to announce the appointment of Dr Antonia Sarri as the project’s Research Associate. Dr Sarri is an expert in ancient epistolography, papyrology and the transmission of texts. She completed her PhD at UCL in 2011, on literary and documentary papyri from Oxyrhynchus (the transmission of the text of Xenophon’s Anabasis also formed a major part of the PhD). Dr Sarri has worked as Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Heidelberg’s Institut für Papyrologie’s Research Project (SFB 933) on ‘Material Text Cultures‘ – she has a monograph (Material Aspects of Letter Writing in the Graeco-Roman World) in press with De Gruyter (2017). This book examines the development of letter writing conventions in antiquity and sheds light on changing trends in Graeco-Roman epistolary practice over some eight hundred years.

The first task for the project (which will occupy the first month or so) is to to establish the total number of letter collections to be included in the project, as well as gathering and organising the material for the first group of collections we shall examine.

There will be monthly updates on this blog about the project – watch this space!

Ancient Letter Collections Project

We’re delighted to announce that the AHRC is to fund a four-year project at Manchester on Ancient Letter Collections (£500k), co-ordinated by Prof. Roy Gibson (PI) and Dr Andrew Morrison (CI). The project will begin in December 2016.

The Project:

The letter collections of Greco-Roman antiquity dwarf in total size all of ancient drama or ancient epic put together. Yet, unlike epic or drama, they have little visibility as a distinctive area of study. This is due in large part to the fact that no one definitively knows – because no one has thought to ask – how many letter collections actually survive from antiquity. This project will establish for the first time how many such collections survive. More significantly, through diachronic critical review of each collection to survive from the fourth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D., the project sets itself the task of establishing the study of ancient letter collections as a discrete and unified field. Included in that survey are numerous foundational texts of ancient literature and thought, from the letter collections of Plato through those of Cicero and the Christian New Testament to Saint Augustine’s collections in later antiquity. From this survey it will emerge that – like ancient drama or epic – there is significant generic unity across time, above all in terms of formal features, despite differences in content and focus between individual texts.

Alongside the creation of a field of study, it is an important part of this project to establish how ancient letter collections were ordered and read. A good number of surviving ancient letter collections – perhaps the majority – are available only in standard modern editions which have abandoned the distinctive ordering that is found in the ancient manuscripts of these collections. For example, Cicero’s Letters to Friends show a particular ordering by addressee or theme in all ancient manuscripts; but modern editors have re-ordered these letters entirely by chronology, thus obliterating the format in which the letters were read for first 1,500 years of their history. By seeking to establish how each letter collection to survive from antiquity was originally arranged in its manuscript form, we aim to recover, and promote the importance of, distinctively ancient reading practices in relation to letter collections.

The project will result in two substantial books: i) a critical review of each of the c. 70 surviving Greco-Roman letter collections before 500 A.D., and ii) an accompanying synoptic interpretative monograph.
The major component of the critical review is a series of cross-referenced discursive essays. Each essay will include the following information for each surviving letter collection:
a) basic information on authors, dates and other works;
b) total number of letters in the collection and total number of addressees (in the largest surviving version of the collection);
c) a detailed descriptive essay on the main patterns of arrangement visible in the available manuscripts, including key information on the earliest evidence available for an existing collection (and whether the arrangements visible in the manuscripts go back to antiquity or even the author’s hand).
d) an essay-survey of modern editions and short critical bibliography of significant items.
The synoptic interpretative monograph – building on the foundations of the critical review – will look at the field as a whole and ask questions about wider patterns of organization and associated reading practices.

The project will also include lots of impact and outreach activities, one of which will be regular posts on this blog once the project gets under way in December 2016.

Encounter with a Squatting Komast in Athens (aka more on ancient poo)

IMG_0286For a fortnight in April I had the pleasure of a stay at the British School at Athens. As well as digging-in for some serious research time (and eating spinach pies, and tortoise hunting in the garden), I spent an afternoon at the Cycladic Art Museum and their wonderful temporary exhibition, Hygeia: Health, Illness, Treatment from Homer to Galen. Among the many fabulous things on display – including some definitely not for the squeamish – there was this little chap, labelled “Perfume Vase in the Form of a Squatting Komast, 600-575 BC’ (picture below).

IMG_0307Our komast, or ‘reveller’, is about 10 cm tall, and may or may not be naked depending on how you interpret the dots and swirls which cover his body. There are many other examples of similar vases from the Archaic period, thought to have been made mostly in Corinth. Why is he in an exhibition about health and healing? The answer is partly because he’s a perfume bottle, designed to make the body smell nice, but some have also suggested he is squatting to – in non-technical terms – have a poo. In the exhibition, this vase is next to a urinal (amis) from the Athenian Agora. Added to this, excitingly for the linguist, there is a short text scratched across his back and shoulders (drawing below — and of course he was facing forward in the cabinet, so I found myself doing yoga to try to see his back).

The first part the text may be interpreted as χέζει (chezei), the 3rd person singular (‘he’) of a verb which LSJ coyly translates as ‘ease oneself’, found many times in Aristophanes. So the vase is indeed, it would appear, having a poo, and text and object are in concord. But why? This is an oil flask. It this all a joke…? There is however an alternative interpretation: these letters may write instead the word ψήχηι, ‘rub down’, i.e. instructions on how to use the contents of the flask, so something entirely different and nothing to do with excretion at all. Other ways of reading these letters have also been proposed, each inspiring a different story about the writer of the text and their relationship with the pot. It may however be that our komast isn’t actually doing anything surprising at all, but rather sitting, only in a way which is less familiar to the Western Europeans who first commented on such objects when they were published. Squatting for us is perhaps inherently associated with toilet practices, whereas in the original somewhat alien context of the object’s creation this may not have been the case. Here we have a good example of how latent cultural assumptions can be tacitly applied to an ancient object, and can change what we think about that object. This also reminds us how our early Greek texts are not so easy to read as we might think, and how object and text can interact in ways which radically alter what we believe the original scratcher of his message was saying, and why he or she were saying it.


Copyright © 2015 Amy Coker. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Medical Mysteries & Linguistic Detective Work: the Latin Alexander

David Langslow writes about his work on the ‘Latin Alexander’…

One of my research projects this year concerns an ancient medical text in Latin. It is a long text (500-600 pages) in three ‘books’, or parts. The first two books set out diagnosis and treatment of diseases ordered from head to toe, from hair loss at the start of Book 1 to gout at the end of Book 2; Book 3 gives symptoms and treatment of various types of fever. Like many Latin medical texts, it is a translation of a Greek original. Often the Greek original is lost, but in this case it survives in two Greek works, the Therapeutics and the On Fevers by the Greek doctor Alexander, who lived around AD 500 and came from Tralles in what is now south-western Turkey. We know little of Alexander’s career except that in old age he accepted a high-level public medical appointment in Rome, which may explain why his Greek writings were translated into Latin soon after (even during?) his lifetime, and with less abridgement than is usual in Latin versions of long Greek medical works.

The first folio of the oldest known copy (made in Fleury in France about AD 800) of the Latin version of the medical handbook of Alexander of Tralles, perhaps the greatest Greek doctor of late antiquity (c. AD 500).

The first folio of the oldest known copy (made in Fleury in France about AD 800) of the Latin version of the medical handbook of Alexander of Tralles, perhaps the greatest Greek doctor of late antiquity (c. AD 500).

Who made ‘the Latin Alexander’, when and where, we do not know, but it was something of a best-seller! It was widely copied both in its entirety and in various sets of excerpts, or ‘useful bits’. The Latin Alexander was one of the first medical books to be printed (first in 1504), even before the Greek original! In Greek and in Latin, Alexander remained central on European university syllabuses alongside Hippocrates, Aristotle and Galen until the 18th century.

The Latin Alexander interests me for three main reasons. First, it has never been edited. That is to say, we have many hand-written copies (from the 8th to the 16th century), but no printed edition that attempts to capture the original version. No doubt the length and difficulty of the text explain perfectly why it has never been edited! Still, it is a challenge and a privilege to be at work on a first edition.

Secondly, the Latin Alexander is actually a compilation. Yes, it is very largely a Latin translation of the Greek Alexander, but it contains also chunks of other Greek works turned into Latin and inserted among the Alexander chapters. These include bits of Galen on facial and dental diseases, chapters on internal organs from Philagrius and Philumenus (which have not survived in Greek), and others of unknown origin. In other words, there are several different ‘voices’ in this single text.

Thirdly, the Latin itself is fascinating and raises several fundamental questions, including:

  • how many translators were involved?
  • did the translator(s) of Alexander translate also Galen, Philagrius, Philumenus, etc?
  • how ‘correct’ or poorly controlled is the Latin of the various parts?
  • what was the first language of the translator(s)? – Latin or Greek?
  • are there features of the Latin that link the Latin Alexander with other Latin medical texts?
  • are there features of the Latin that allow us to locate the translator(s) in space and time?

In other words, this is a project that satisfies both the historian of medicine and the linguistic detective!

Manumission and Sexuality in Ancient Greece, and a Friendly Visitor to Manchester

This week we bid farewell to our friend and colleague Deborah Kamen. Professor Kamen, of the University of Washington, Seattle, was our Simon Visiting Professor in Ancient History. Taking time out from her sabbatical at the American Academy in Rome, we had the pleasure of her company for a fortnight, during which she offered us a wonderful array of contributions.

Professor Kamen, Visiting Simon Professor of Ancient History, November 2014

Kamen’s work is characterised by its readiness to tackle broad-reaching, interdisciplinary, questions in a critically-informed way, and its re-assessment of the role of groups traditionally perceived as peripheral. Her publications have concentrated on slavery and status in classical Greece; her work on slave-prostitution, manumission, slave agency and slave invective constitutes an important contribution to the history of non-elite groups in classical Athens. Her most recent major publication is Status in Classical Athens (Princeton University Press, 2013), which has been heralded by Professor Sara Forsdyke (Michigan) as an ‘important contribution to scholarship’. Kamen challenges the widely-held belief that questions of status in classical Greece can be reduced to the tripartite division between citizens, metics (resident foreigners), and slaves, a division which is predicated largely upon the high valuation of citizen-male-oriented civic and political freedoms. The book has wider implications, too, leading its readers to ask whether Greek thought (about status, and other subjects too) was as binary as it is presented by modern scholars.


While she was with us only for a short time, she made great contributions to our teaching and research, and, admittedly we worked her very hard. She gave a lucid and informative lecture to our first-year students on slavery in archaic Greece, introducing them to sources, scholarship, and problems with the topic. Deborah and I co-taught an MA core module on Greek epigraphy, with Deborah introducing and opening up discussion of three epigraphic documents important for research into status and status-dynamics in ancient Greece; this was followed up by a Friday-morning seminar for our graduates and undergraduates. Last but not least, Deborah gave our Research Seminar an excellent paper, entitled ‘Prostitutes, maidservants and slave boys: manumission and sexuality in ancient Greece’.  Sex with slaves – including slave-prostitutes, beloved maidservants, and attractive slave boys – was commonplace in ancient Greece. Deborah explored  the role that sex and sexuality played in who was freed and why, drawing on inscriptions, literary texts, and legal evidence. In particular, she drew upon the texts inscribed upon the ‘Manumission Wall’ at Delphi, which documents the manumission process of several hundreds of slaves, many of whom were freed through the process of a fictive sale to the god Apollo. The evidence of these records strongly suggests that sexual relations may well have played an important role in the selection of individuals for liberation.Her paper went down a treat with the audience, and after the paper and she was joined for dinner at Zouk by 18 colleagues and postgraduates.

Thank you, Deborah, for all your work while you were here; we look forward to seeing you again soon!