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.