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!