St Ignatius: Different Versions of a Christian Letter Collection

In recent weeks the Letters project has been examining the letters attributed to Ignatius, that is to say St Ignatius of Antioch, who died during the reign of Trajan (98-117 C.E.). According to the letters themselves, he was condemned to death for his Christianity, and the main versions of the collection appear to reflect a narrative of Ignatius’ incarceration in Antioch and subsequent travel in stages to Rome for execution. If the letters are authentic, this would make them a very early example of a letter collection of a church father. (But their status is controversial!)

The transmission of the letters of Ignatius is not straightforward and forms a nice illustration of the kinds of complexities the project has encountered in several collections. Three different versions of the collection of Ignatius’ letters have been transmitted in medieval manuscripts: the so-called Short, Middle and Long versions. The Long version contains 13 letters in generally slightly extended form (as compared with the Middle version). The fullest representatives of the Middle version are Latin manuscripts containing 17 letters, of which the majority are slightly shorter versions of those found also in the Long version. The extra letters in the Latin Middle version consist of a narrative of the martyrdom of Ignatius and further letters of substantially different character, whose addressees are John the Evangelist and Mary (the mother of Jesus). The Greek manuscripts of the Middle version contain only the first 9 letters found in the Latin Middle version, ending abruptly before the end of the ninth letter, owing to the loss of the end of the codex. The Short version contains only 3 letters in a still more condensed form, and survives only in Syriac manuscripts.

Which, if any, of the versions of the collection is authentic? Which is most authoritative? A clue (but a difficult one!) is provided by the earliest certainly dateable testimony about the letters of Ignatius. This is a reference to the letters of Ignatius as a collection in Eusebius, who wrote his history of the church in the fourth century AD. At Hist. Eccl. 3.36.5ff. Eusebius refers to seven letters that Ignatius wrote while on his way from Syria to Rome to his martyrdom: during his stay at Smyrna he sent four letters (to the church of Ephesus, to the church of Magnesia, to the church of Tralles, and to the church of Rome); and from Troas he sent three letters (to the church of Philadelphia, to the church of Smyrna, and to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna). The seven letters mentioned by Eusebius appear to correspond to letters also found both in the Long and the Middle versions of the collection. It is often supposed that the evidence from Eusebius indicates a settled collection of 7 authentic letters in late antiquity, which was later supplemented by newly written letters (to produce the Middle version) and then extended through interpolation (to produce the Long Version). However, the silence of Eusebius on letters found in the manuscripts both of the Middle and Long versions cannot be taken as definitive evidence for the compilation and circulation of a collection consisting of only seven letters. Eusebius may have chosen to mention only those letters that suited his rhetorical, narrative or other purposes in the writing of his history.

At any rate, the majority of surviving Greek and Latin manuscripts of the letters of Ignatius preserve the Long version, consisting of 13 letters in the following order: 1) Maria of Cassobola to Ignatius; 2) Ignatius to Maria of Cassobola, 3) to Trallians, 4) to Magnesians, 5) to Tarsians, 6) to Philippians, 7) to Philadelphians, 8) to Smyrnaeans, 9) to Polycarp, 10) to Antiochians, 11) to Hero deacon of Antioch, 12) to Ephesians, 13) to Romans. The Middle version of the collection contains (in Greek manuscripts) 9 letters in a different order and in shorter form. It is transmitted by one Greek ms and its apographs, as well as by translations in Latin, Armenian, Syriac and Coptic. In the latter two languages only fragments remain. The oldest Greek representative of the Middle version is Mediceus Laurentianus pl. 57.7 (11th c.), in which the letters are numbered in the margin α’-θ’: 1) Smyrnaeans, 2) to Polycarp, 3) to Ephesians, 4) to Magnesians, 5) to Philadelphians, 6) to Trallians, 7) Maria to Ignatius, 8) Ignatius to Maria, 9) to the Tarsians. The final letter breaks off abruptly, apparently due to the loss of some sheets at the end of the codex.

The character and nature of each of these versions of the collection, and any principles underlying their different arrangement, still needs careful examination. However, it seems likely that the Middle Version – at least as it circulated in the Greek world – represents a collection that offers a sharper focus on the churches of Asia Minor than does the Long version. Perhaps it was put together by a proud citizen of Antioch or someone who identified in a very local sense with Ignatius?

Early Christian Letter Collections

In recent weeks the Ancient Letter Collections Project has been examining the collections of letters (in Greek) attributed to various famous figures of the early Christian church, as we near the end of our work on the surviving collections in Greek (Latin collections will be next!). These collections include the letters of John Chrysostom, who became archbishop of Constantinople in AD 397, the letters of Basil of Caesarea, bishop of Caesarea after Eusebius from AD 370, his brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, and the ascetic Isidore of Pelusium (350-440). Their importance in the early church is underlined by the fact that all four are regarded as saints.

Many of these collections represent a challenge in terms of their scale. The letters of John Chrysostom, for instance, number 243 letters in the collection’s largest form in the manuscripts, while the letters of Basil are more substantial still, totalling some 366 letters, though no single manuscript preserves all of these letters. But the biggest collection of all in terms of the number of letters is that of Isidore, which numbers a staggering 2,000 letters (and some ancient authorities, such as the Suda, report that there were once some 3,000!). Working with such large collections is difficult, since it becomes particularly awkward to get a sense of the overall organisation and arrangement of a collection of such a size.

Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the collection of Isidore which are clear. The entire collection of the 2,000 letters of Isidore is transmitted in two late manuscripts, Vaticani gr. 649+650 (16th c.) and Ottoboniani gr. 341+383 (16th c.). The contents and order of these manuscripts are corroborated by earlier manuscripts which preserve substantial parts of the collection. The oldest ms transmitting the collection is Grottaferrata B.a.1 (10th c.), which is divided into two books bound together into a single volume: book i contains letters 1-600 and book ii contains letters 1001-1998 (i.e. a total of 1,598 letters). The 400 letters missing from Grottaferrata B.a.1 can be supplemented from the second oldest ms, Parisinus gr. 832 (13th c.), which contains letters 1-1213, divided into three books. It is from this original collection of the 2,000 letters that smaller collections of different types derive: a general feature of the smaller collections of Isidore is that they retain or reflect the arrangement of the letters in the 2,000-letter collection. This suggests that they derive from that larger collection. The challenge that remains is examining and explaining why certain letters have been selected in these smaller collections and what that tells us about why and how the letters were being read.

Attic Inscriptions in UK Collections (AIUK)

Attic Inscriptions in UK Collections (AIUK)
An AHRC-sponsored project (2017/18-2020/21). PI: Stephen Lambert (Cardiff); CIs: Polly Low (Durham), Peter Liddel (Manchester); Robert Pitt (Athens)

Inscriptions on stone are the most abundant category of written document created by the inhabitants of the ancient city of Athens, collectively and individually, that survives to the present day. Of the 20,000+ such inscriptions extant dating from the 7th cent. BC to the 3rd cent. AD, ca. 1% (ca. 220) are in British collections, the large majority (ca. 165) in the British Museum. The inscriptions currently held in UK collections comprise 33 decrees of the citizen Assembly and other bodies, 14 financial accounts and inventories, 3 sacrificial calendars, 2 leases, 11 name lists (mostly ephebic), 38 dedications, 116 funerary monuments and 2 others (including a sundial: Fig. 1). Many of them are decorated with relief sculpture (see, for instance, the reclining Herakles at Brocklesby Park: Fig. 2). They are a resource of great importance for historians, archaeologists and linguists, providing insight into the political history and institutions of the city, Athenian imperialism, the administration of Attic local communities, religious festivals (both of the city and locally), temple administration and finances, naming and prosopography, the development of ancient Greek in Attica, Attic topography, socio-economic structure and funerary commemoration, both public and private.


Fig 1. Sundial made by Phaidros son of Zoilos, ca. 400 AD. BM 1816,0610.186 = IG II2 5, 13627. © The Trustees of the British Museum.


Fig. 2. A reclining Herakles: a dedication of Timaios of Herakleia, imperial period. Brocklesby Inv. No. 28 =  IG II3 4, 1168. © Forschungsarchiv für Antike Plastik. Köln.

We have attempted to visit all the collections across the UK where Athenian inscriptions are currently held  (see Fig. 3); where possible, we have undertaken autopsy of the inscriptions in those collections. We have also explored archival materials pertinent to the histories of their collection and acquisition.   Some of these inscribed objects are well known; others, such as the sarcophagus for Aelius Epikrates Berinikides (Fig. 4) have fallen out of the modern scholarly discussion.


Fig. 3. Current locations of Athenian inscriptions in the UK

no. 5 sarcophagus

Fig. 4. Inscribed Sarcophagus, Broomhall = IG II2 5875. Photograph: P.P. Liddel.

Over the past 150 years, a number of collections  of antiquities, such as those at Marbury Hall (Cheshire), Winton Castle (Scotland),  Lansdowne House (London), Doughty House (London) have been dissolved: their inscriptions have been transferred to the British Museum or other collections. Others have been sold to the Getty Collection in California. Some are in an excellent state of preservation; others are damaged or deteriorating. Accordingly, it is high time to produce a comprehensive study of the inscriptions in UK collections.

The stories behind the acquisition of Athenian inscriptions by British collectors reflect significant legacies of  18th and 19th-century power dynamics. They include high-profile aristocratic collectors such as Elgin and his agent Lusieri and travellers such as Thomas Legh of Lyme Park. There  were collectors with wide-ranging  interests such as the  mineralogist E.D. Clarke and the archaeologist, Lady Ruthven (Fig. 5). Hitherto-overlooked collectors include Benjamin Gott of York and Jeremiah Rawson of Halifax, Lord Aberdeen (Fig. 6) and Dr William MacMichael (Fig. 7).

Lady Ruthven

Fig. 5. Lady Ruthven (1789-1885), excavator of two Attic funerary stelai



Fig. 6. Lord Aberdeen (1784-1860), excavator of the Pnyx


Fig. 7. Dr William MacMichael (1783-1839), collector of antiquities

The starting point for research into Greek inscriptions in UK collections (and other ancient marbles) is still A.D.F. Michaelis’ Ancient Marbles in Great Britain.  The last systematic edition of the Attic inscriptions in the BM, the majority (ca. 90) of them among the ‘marbles’ collected by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century, was published in 1874, supplemented in 1916 as The Collection of Ancient Greek Inscriptions in the British Museum. Its first editor was E.L. Hicks (Fig. 8). It is for the most part this edition that is the basis for the museum’s current online catalogue.

NPG Ax39059; Edward Lee Hicks by Walter Stoneman, for  James Russell & Sons

Fig. 8. E.L. Hicks, editor of the  Greek Inscriptions at the British Museum (1874-1916)

Attic Inscriptions are engaging monuments for visitors in the context of the museums and collections where they are located. However, in recent decades these inscriptions have suffered from neglect. The British Museum’s epigraphical galleries are open only by special appointment. Currently, a handful of Attic inscriptions are  on public display in UK collections. Some collections (such as that at Chatsworth: Figs 9, 10) can be viewed by special appointment Other than the British Museum, the best places to see Athenian inscriptions on display are Leeds City Museum, Lyme Park (Fig. 11) the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam.

Photo 24-04-2019, 12 25 12

Fig. 9. Statue base for Julia Domna in the Gardens at Chatsworth. Photograph: P.A. Low.


Fig. 10. The ‘Lodge of Fragments’, Chatsworth


Fig. 11. The Library, Lyme Park, disley, Cheshire. NT Image no. 62194.
© National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel.

So far (September 2019) we have published six volumes of scholarly editions of these inscriptions (up-to-date in the light of  new discoveries and modern scholarship) on the open-access Attic Inscriptions Online website: these volumes encompass the inscriptions at Petworth, the British School at Athens,  the Fitzwilliam, the British Museum, Leeds and Lyme Park. We anticipate publishing two further volumes (Chatsworth and Broomhall) later this year. Our work has generated improved readings and new interpretations of specific points: it has emerged that several inscriptions in UK collections corpora have been mis-identified as Attic (usually because of confusion in their narratives of provenance); conversely, at least one Attic inscription has been mis-labelled as non-Athenian.

We offer our assistance to collections in terms of displaying and making their Attic inscriptions accessible (Fig. 12). Our research will feed in to the updating of online databases which include these inscriptions. We aspire  to raise the profile of Athenian inscriptions in UK collections and to promote public engagement with them, for instance by offering public events and developing open-access videos.


Fig. 14. Funerary Monument at the British School at Athens; label with QR code. Photograph: R. Pitt.

A Workshop on the Aldine Edition of the Greek Epistolographers (17 June 2019)

A.D. Morrison, Antonia Sarri

In June the Ancient Letter Collections project was able to host a workshop at the John Rylands Library in Manchester on the Aldine edition of the Greek epistolographers (thanks to the support of the John Rylands Research Institute and the Research Support Fund of the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures). The idea for the workshop arose out of the vital role the Aldine plays in the publication history of many ancient letter collections in Greek.

The Aldine edition was published in 1499 in Venice and forms a crucial document for the Letters project, since it is the first printed edition of most of the 36 letter collections that it contains, including some of the most important letter collections in Greek. These collections include not only  likely pseudepigraphic collections such as the letters of philosophers and wise men (e.g. Plato, Anacharsis, Diogenes, Crates, Pythagoras and the Pythagorean women philosophers, Hippocrates, Demosthenes, Apollonius of Tyana et al.), but fictional letter collections such as those of Aelian, Alciphron and Philostratus, and ‘real’ letters by such major figures of late antiquity as Basil, Libanius and the emperor Julian. The text of the Aldine was based on earlier medieval mss, and itself formed the basis for most of the subsequent printed editions of the collections it contains.

We gathered a number of experts from around Europe and the UK to explore the roots of the Aldine edition, its relationship to the Byzantine manuscript epistolary collections, and its legacy and relationship to modern critical editions of the Greek epistolographers. We heard papers on Alciphron and Theophylact Simocatta, Philostratus, Aelian, Basil the Great, Apollonius of Tyana and Phalaris (see the conference poster). It became clear from a number of the papers that the role of the Aldine as the junction between the medieval manuscripts and the later printed publication history of the letters is no mere accident: the Aldine’s enduring influence is also owed in large part to the high quality in its choice of manuscripts (both in primary exemplars and checking manuscripts), in its editorial corrections and interventions and so on. In the case of the letters of Basil and Libanius it is also clear that the Aldine edition involved careful selection from a much larger group of letters, since the Latin letter by Aldus Manutius prefacing the second volume makes it clear that there were many letters of Basil and Libanius (and Gregory) that it was not possible to publish in the Aldine. In the case of the other letter collections, however, the Aldine contains all the letters which they were able to gather.

The participants at the conference also had the opportunity of examining some of the treasures of the John Rylands Library in a ‘collections encounter’ with some early printed editions of Greek letters, including the Aldine itself (as you can see from the photos). We are very grateful to the Special Collections staff of the John Rylands Library for making this possible.

We hope to publish the papers from the workshop in due course: it was a heartening example of pan-European cooperation and collaboration and the project has benefited immeasurably from the expertise and good will of all of those involved!


exhibition 4exhibition 1

Women’s letters in ancient letter collections and the Pythagorean women’s letters

A.D. Morrison & Antonia Sarri

The recent symposium at Manchester on ‘Women in Antiquity’ (10 April) organised by our colleague Alison Sharrock (and including such distinguished speakers as Alison Keith from Toronto and Sharon James from UNC-Chapel Hill) gave us the welcome opportunity to give some further thought to the letters of women as find them in the ancient letter collections we’ve covered in the project so far (all in Greek). (We haven’t looked systematically at the Latin collections yet but as far as the letters of women are concerned the picture looks broadly the same, with Cicero’s Ad Fam. 14 and Ovid’s Heroides standing out.)

In the Greek letter collections we find (remarkably rarely, it must be said) women as addressees, such as Xanthippe, consoled by Aeschines on the death of Socrates in Socrates and the Socratics 21, with frequent reference to the well-being of the children of Socrates and Xanthippe, or the wife of Arinthaeus consoled by Basil in letter 269, or the anonymous women in Philostratus’ erotic letters  (e.g. 60, 33, 32 to Γυναικὶ καπηλίδι, a woman-innkeeper), and as senders, such as the isolated examples in the letters of farmers and fishermen of Alciphron (e.g. the exchange of mother and daughter in 1.11 and 1.12, where the mother warns her daughter that ‘if your father finds out about any of these things, he won’t think it over or pause, but throw you to the sea-creatures as food!’) or the more sustained correspondence visible in the letters of hetairai  of Alciphron book 4 (19 letters, most by hetairai who are historical figures, including Phryne, defended on a charge of impiety by Hypereides). But the nearest thing we find to a discrete collection of women’s letters is that often described as the ‘letters of Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans’ or the ‘Pythagorean letters’. These are, we should say, almost certainly pseudepigraphic (dating from the Hellenistic period or later). The great majority are written in the personae of Pythagorean women philosophers, including Theano, the wife of Pythagoras, and their daughter Myia.

There are two main arrangements of the collection in the mss:

The β tradition transmits 6 letters in the following order:

  • Lysis to Hipparchus, about Pythagoras’ way of life.
  • Melissa to Cleareta, on the dress and behaviour of a virtuous woman.
  • Myia to Phyllis, about the nursing of a new-born child.
  • Theano to Euboule, about the bringing up and training of children. [‘Theano 1’]
  • Theano to Nicostrate, on how a woman should deal with an adulterous husband. [‘Theano 2’]
  • Theano to Callisto, on how to treat household servants. [‘Theano 3’]

The α tradition, on the other hand, transmits 5 of those 6 letters in a different order:

  • Theano to Euboule. [‘Theano 1’]
  • Theano to Nicostrate. [‘Theano 2’]
  • Theano to Callisto. [‘Theano 3’]
  • Melissa to Cleareta.
  • Myia to Phyllis.

There is considerable overlap between these two arrangements, since the group of Theano letters has the same internal order in both, as does the pair Melissa-Myia. The main difference in content is the addition of a letter to Lysis (a male Pythagorean) to the beginning of the collection in the β tradition.

From the perspective of women’s letters, two things emerge from examining the orders as transmitted in the manuscripts. First of all there is a clear focus in the collection on women’s letters, both in terms of content (the subject-matter of the letters concentrating on material traditionally regarded as the province of women, such as the management of the oikos and the care of children) and in the senders and addressees of the letters: in one family of manuscripts the collection is made up solely of women’s letters to other women, and in the other the five women’s letters are prefaced by one letter of one male Pythagorean to another. Secondly, the collection is clearly separate from the letter of Pythagoras to Hieron with which it is often associated in modern discussions and in editions such as Hercher’s Epistolographi Graeci, which presents the collection as that of ‘Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans’ (Pythagorae et Pythagoreorum Epistolae). But the letter of Pythagoras to Hieron, while it is found in epistolaria collecting the work of several epistolographers (such as Harleianus 5610, from the β tradition, or Parisinus gr. 1461, from the α tradition, in both cases between the letters of Phalaris and those of Anacharsis), does not form part of the same collection as the five or six letters listed above. The focus is rather on the letters of the Pythagorean women (with the exception of the Lysis letter in one version of the collection). It is also clear that this collection of Pythagorean women’s letters is separate from the group of four letters of Theano (to a varied group of male and female addressees) which is found in one codex of the sixteenth century (Vaticanus gr. 578): these letters are not transmitted with the main collection of Pythagorean women’s letters and are different in character, being both shorter and more personal (rather than advisory) in tone.

In general it seems fair to conclude that interest in the letters of the Pythagorean women’s letters as an entity in itself already existed in antiquity, since there seems to have been a discrete collection concentrating on the correspondence between Pythagorean women.



Dead Letter Office? Making Sense of Greek Letter Collections

A.D. Morrison

On 6 February I gave my inaugural lecture as Professor of Greek at Manchester. I used the opportunity to think about ancient letter collections (esp. those in Greek!) and what they can tell us about the changes in the discipline of Classics, as well as why they deserve more critical attention than they have sometimes had from classicists. After all, the letter collections of Greco-Roman antiquity dwarf in total size all of ancient drama or epic combined.

Part of the reason for the lack of sustained interest in Greek letter collections, at least, is that (Greek-focused) Classics long concentrated on classical Athens, that is the literature, culture and history of the fifth and fourth centuries BC (alongside important antecedents, of course, such as Homer). Many of the Greek collections which have survived from antiquity have come down to us under the names of famous figures from classical Athens, such as Themistocles, Socrates, Plato, Euripides, Aristotle, Demosthenes and so forth and while these letters were considered authentic, there was considerable interest in them, as a means for accessing the ‘private lives’ of the authors concerned (particularly seductive in the case of figures such as Socrates, who left no writings, or Plato, whose philosophical dialogues are emphatically not in the form of treatises, despite the best efforts of some of his modern interpreters). Hence we find an Aldine edition of the Greek epistolographers published at Venice in 1499, good evidence that the letters were of considerable interest in the Renaissance.

Once, however, scholars began to doubt that the letters were authentic and to suspect that they were instead the work of later writers characterised by Richard Bentley (whose Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris &c. of 1697 is key in casting doubt on the authenticity of many Greek letter collections) as ‘puny sophists’ and ‘little pedants’, interest in them began to wane, with a few notable exceptions (including the Epistles of Plato), which were defended as (perhaps) authentic, at least in part. Now, of course, classicists are much more interested in periods outside the classical age of Athens, such as the Hellenistic period or Second Sophistic, in which the bulk of the Greek collections purporting to be by famous classical figures must have been produced. We’re no longer as inclined as Bentley to see such writers as ‘puny sophists’ in comparison with the giants they impersonate. This has led to much greater interest in the letters themselves as important literary products of those periods (as well as important documents of the reception of classical Athens).

Nevertheless, there remain some obstacles to full appreciation of some of these epistolary collections. One of the most important (and one which the AHRC Ancient Letter Collections Project is attempting to address) is lack of knowledge of (or misapprehensions about) the orders and arrangements of these collections. Several collections, such as those of Alciphron and Philostratus, are sometimes characterised as preserved in the manuscripts in a chaotic situation which makes the study of the collection as a coherent entity impossible. But as we’ve explored in this blog before (Aelian and Philostratus: contrasting manuscript traditions of two Greek fictional letter collections), such disorder can be exaggerated and there is good reason to think that we can establish at least some key aspects of the orders and arrangements of many letter collections, such that we can regard these collections as meaningful entities. The order of the letters in Kayser’s Family 2 of the manuscripts of Philostratus, for instance, is much more likely to be authoritative (it is tempting to say authorial!)

The letters in Family 2 are carefully arranged so as to produce an alternation in addressees between male and female, while also forming clear thematic sequences and juxtapositions, such as the long run of letters involving roses at the beginning, but also pairs of letters on similar themes, such as natural beauty, the poverty of a lover, long letters on being a foreign lover and so on. It is unlikely, I suggest, to be the creation of a later editor who has been lucky enough to stumble upon these patterns and fashioned the collection with this shape: it is much more probable that the letters were all composed with this particular arrangement in mind. But the intricate nature of this arrangement is entirely obscured in Kayser’s edition because he chooses instead to follow the arrangement in Family 1.

It’s clear that editors can make the wrong choice in selecting which order to present in their critical editions of texts such as the letters of Philostratus. In some cases, of course, editors impose an order which they find in no manuscript. But editors can’t really be blamed for this – one needs, in the final analysis, to present the letters in some order, and editors select the order they think is closest to the ancestor of the manuscripts and/or is the most convenient for modern readers. It’s important, however, to note that these editorial choices are necessarily distorting and affect the ways in which readers read and interpret the letters. It’s also clear that presenting the variation in order and arrangement that one often finds in the manuscripts of letter collections is a real challenge and one might say a blind spot for many critical editions. Discussion of different orders tends to take place only in prefaces to critical editions, if at all, and even if an editor is careful to provide an indication of the alternative position of a given letter by giving a number in brackets, that can’t really give the reader a sense of the overall effect of a differing order or arrangement. Nevertheless, the difficulty of representing these basic features of manuscripts in critical editions reminds us of the distance between the critical editions we use today to read not just letters but all ancient Greek and Latin texts and the manuscripts in which they were read by earlier generations of readers (and by extension the differences between our OCTs and Teubners and the ways in which ancient readers read these texts). Critics (not only classicists) have become increasingly interested in the paratextual material which accompanies texts – covers, titles, marginalia, blurbs, footnotes, etc. and the effect these have on interpretation. We need also to factor in the character of our critical editions and what they miss. For many ancient letter collections (and other Greek and Latin texts) one thing which is missed is the order and arrangements in which the letters were read by generations of readers.

The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World

Christian Laes


“What a great topic” – “I had never ever thought about it” – “There should be a book about this” –

“Let’s discuss this further, later on”. Such were almost invariably the reactions of colleagues when, during a break at a conference or in more informal meetings, I brought up my interest for the theme of single people (sometimes called ‘singletons’) and the single life in the ancient world.

So, what do you when you feel you have a good and innovative idea?

First, try to define it properly, and to find out which research questions you would really like to address. For singleness, this is not that easy. In the terminology of present-day languages the terms used to denote ‘a single person’ point to at least three different aspects: the legal fact of not being married or not being in an exclusive relationship with another person; living alone and the possible economic or emotional consequences of this loneliness; a happy-go-lucky lifestyle mostly associated with youth. It seemed like a good start to look for these aspects in the world of Antiquity, and to see how and whether such conditions were connoted under the heading of a terminology that is somewhat similar to our singleness.

Second, try to bring together as many colleagues as possible who are passionate about the new topic and – in this case – knowledgeable about family history. You obviously need a nice place to get together, to deliver presentations and to exchange thoughts and ideas. Finding such a spot was not that difficult: the Academia Belgica in Rome was the best venue we could dream of.

Third, one needs the inevitable money and funding. The History Department of the University of Antwerp generously provided funding, as did the Roman Society Research Centre (Universities of Ghent and Brussels). Above all, I was fortunate that Sabine Huebner, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Basel, shared the same interests. Without generous Swiss funding, the conference could not have taken place. At the same time, we were kindly supported by the Istituto Svizzero di Roma, the Institutum Romanum Finlandiae and the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome.

The conference was held from 28 to 30 May 2015, and it stuck in the in the minds of its participants as a most interesting event, full of engaging exchange and scholarly discussions. But after this, (academic) life goes on. Getting ready a volume out of the conference meant several years of hard work, patience, readers’ reports, revisions, proofreading. But, it was very much worth the effort. Readers will be treated by a first set of chapters that take fully into account the demographic, archaeological and socioeconomic conditions of singleness. Then follows a section on the Roman world: Augustan marriage legislation, Cicero, poets as Virgil and Catullus, or the image of procuresses in Augustan literature. Judaism is an integral part of the Roman Empire, hence contributions on Nazarite vows and celibacy, as well as the famous and intriguing question on Jesus being single. In late antique Christianity, singleness became an ideal as is witnessed in the chapters of the following section. Here, we encounter literary case studies on writers as Libanius and St. Augustine; the gendered aspect with an inquiry of virgins and their heavenly family; an exploration of early Byzantine literature – but also a minute epigraphical analysis of the inscriptions from Rome, and a papyrological chapter on widows and divorcées in the Coptic record. The volume ends with some highly needed comparative voices: celibacy and sexual abstinence in Early Islam, not being married in fifteenth and sixteenth century Flemish towns, and singleness in the Libri Animarum of nineteenth century Italy.

The last phase of proofreading was partly spent at my new workplace in the University of Manchester. And Fortuna has it that the book will appear almost at the same moment of the introduction of a brand new course on Families in the Greek and Roman Worlds at the Department of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology. I can only hope that the volume will testify of the strong and vibrant research culture of our department. After all, in the words of late Beryl Rawson (1933-2010), who stood at the front of Roman Family studies: “Classics might be called the originally ‘multidisciplinary’ subject (…) New disciplines have evolved, and Classics has embraced some of those – Sociology, Anthropology, and, more recently, Demography (…) It is important, however, that we make the effort to engage with new developments. If we do not, there are two-way consequences: our own studies are deprived of possibly helpful and stimulating new insights, and other fields do not get input from us which would enhance their understanding and would help Classics be an integral part of the modern intellectual world”.