More epistolary novels (or novellas)?

Along with the letters attributed to Chion (which we discussed in the previous post), the Greek pseudepigraphic letter collections most often referred to as examples of the ‘epistolary novel’ or Briefroman (though ‘epistolary novella’ might be nearer the mark, given their length) are those attributed to two famous Athenians, the statesman and general Themistocles and the tragedian Euripides. Their manuscript history and their fate in early printed editions (the ancestors of our modern texts) shed some light on some of the problems the Ancient Letter Collections project faces, while their content and character illustrate some important characteristics of Greek pseudepigraphic letter collections.

The letters of Euripides form a tight epistolary story, depicting Euripides as a philosopher and sage (as explored in this excellent article by Johanna Hanink); the picture developed appears to respond to Euripides’ portrayal in the biographical tradition. In every case the sender is Euripides, while his addressees are famous historical contemporaries: the Macedonian king Archelaus, in whose court Euripides spent the last years of his life after his exile from Athens (letters 1, 3, 4), Sophocles (2), and the actor/slave Cephisophon, with whom (according to the biographical tradition) Euripides  had disagreements, though in the letter they are on friendly terms (5). There are clear narrative connections made between the letters and across the collection: in the first letter Euripides asks Archelaus to release some men from prison, which he then thanks Archelaus for doing in the third letter, while by the fifth Euripides is living in Macedon at Archelaus’ court. Since the order of the letters is stable in the manuscripts, with all containing the letters in the order 1-5 (the only  exception is a small group of manuscripts which contain only letters 1-3), we can be fairly confident the order can be attributed to the author of the letters. It also suggests that the letters were regarded as a separate work, distinct from Euripides’ plays, which are absent from all 34 of the manuscripts containing the letters.

All the printed editions of the letters of Euripides contain the five letters in the order 1-5, the oldest being the Aldine (1499), but the letters of Themistocles were not so fortunate: there we find extensive reordering in the early printed editions, perhaps because the collection is preserved in a single manuscript (the 9th century Codex Palatinus Graecus 398). The first printed edition of the letters was published in Rome by Caryophilus (1626), but in this edition the arrangement of the letters is different from the manuscript, perhaps due to an attempt by Caryophilus to put the letters in strictly chronological order. Ehringer published an edition in 1629, adopting Caryophilus’ text, but  re-arranged the letters according to the alphabetical order of the names of the addressees. We have Westermann to thank for restoring the original manuscript order in his critical edition of 1857/8, which has been adopted in modern critical editions and translations.  This has allowed us to see some key aspects of the collection’s structure: as Penwill has shown, it has a striking ‘diptych’ structure, where letters 1-12 and 13-21 cover the same events but present very different portraits of Themistocles, first scheming politician then Athenian patriot. It also highlights, however, those letter collections where the original manuscript order has been obscured by editorial re-ordering. We shall explore some such cases in future posts!


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