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!


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