Monday, October 15, 2012


Biagio Virgilio, Le roi écrit: le correspondance du soverain hellénistique, suivie de deux lettres d'Antiochos III à partir de Louis Robert et d'Adolf Wilhelm. Studi ellenistici, 25. Pisa; Roma: Fabrizio Serra editore, 2011. Pp. 335. ISBN 9788862273213. €225.00 (pb).

Reviewed by R. Malcolm Errington, Berlin (

Version at BMCR home site

Biagio Virgilio, the founder and spiritus rector of the research series Studi Ellenistici, of which this is the 25th volume, has written a very personal book, resulting from his uninhibited admiration for the work of Jeanne and Louis Robert, to whose memory the book is dedicated. It is rather sad, but only fair, to say at the outset, that it is not one of the more convincing volumes of that flourishing series. It originated in a prolonged period of study in Paris, where Virgilio had access to the papers of the Roberts, which he cites extensively and illustrates luxuriously, indeed excessively: one must ask what advantage the reader of this expensive book might have from pictures of the outside cover of travel notebooks (five times!) or of a typed letter—one knows what such things look like. The quality of many of the reproductions is also inadequate: many of the photos of pages from Louis Robert's travel notebooks are so feebly printed that they would be incomprehensible without the printed version. The Roberts indeed deserve respect and admiration for their life-long devotion to Greek epigraphy and for their great achievements, but this verges on cult.

The main text of the book consists of three disparate parts. The first is an unsystematic essay on some aspects of hellenistic royal epistolography based on a selection of the evidence. The king as administrator is the central figure, the main theme communication between center and periphery. The selection of evidence cited is, however, irritatingly incomplete, even though Virgilio's plans for a new complete edition of all known royal letters to replace Bradford Welles's Royal Correspondence in the Hellenistic Period are apparently well advanced (he outlines his plans pp.69-75), and he clearly could have offered a more substantial discussion here. The main evidence used is disappointingly late, belonging mainly to the reigns of Antiochos III and the later Attalids. More interesting for the historical development would have been attention to the known correspondence, particularly that with the Greek cities, in the formative phase of the monarchies in the 4th and early 3rd centuries, for which the evidence is not so good, but sufficient to illustrate the development of that delicate relationship.

The second section of the book consists of a study of an epigraphic letter from Carian Sinuri, preserved in the Robert papers, but so fragmentary and difficult to decipher that Louis Robert never committed himself to a full publication. Virgilio had access to squeezes, travel-notebooks and photos preserved in the Robert papers, and with the aid of digital enhancement has produced a more extensive text, which he attributes to Antiochos III and reconstructs as a royal letter restoring sacred slaves belonging to the sanctuary, who had been forcibly removed by unknown forces. The detailed epigraphic work is preceded by an exhaustive (and exhausting) 20-page account of Louis Robert's visits to Sinuri, which contributes nothing to reconstructing or to understanding the document. Virgilio's text reconstruction (p.123), which he justifies in the next ten pages, is indeed a tour de force, but in my view cannot be correct. Virgilio has produced a hapax legomenon when he claims to have read [ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ] ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΣ ΜΕΓΑΣ in line 3 and then reconstructs the text so as to make Antiochos the author of the letter. Such a formal title for the writer of a hellenistic royal letter is not otherwise attested—Aspourgos of the Bosporos, who called himself ΦΙΛΟΡΩΜΑΙΟΣ as author of a letter more than 200 years later (SEG 46, 940), is not really a hellenistic king and neither the circumstances nor the message conveyed by the title offers a real parallel. Virgilio has therefore either misread the fragmentary letters preserved on the squeezes or (more likely) the letter was not issued by Antiochos himself but comes from a subordinate officer, who refers to Antiochos with the title in the nominative case as subject of a subordinate verb. This solution would require a new and different view of the previous lines of the inscription, where only scattered single letters are legible, and which Virgilio—naturally, given his interpretation, but epigraphically unnecessarily—regards as belonging to a different document.

The third section of the book is a study of the well-known letter from Soloi in Cilicia, first published by Adolf Wilhelm (now Welles, Royal Correspondence 30). It begins with a rather laborious account of modern exploration in Cilicia (pp.179-199). The raison d'être of this material is not explained and is not self-evident, since it contributes nothing whatever to understanding the inscription. Virgilio's new text, which follows, makes some minor improvements to the standard text in RC. They do not, however, affect the sense of the document. Virgilio's main contribution to understanding the letter, which since Welles has been attributed to one of the later Ptolemies (IV or V), is his discussion of comparative epigraphic material that shows (as Wilhelm in his editio princeps suggested and Holleaux did not wish to exclude) that there is no formal epigraphic or stylistic objection to the letter's being of Seleucid origin. This demonstration does not, of course mean that it was Seleucid. Virgilio argues indeed at length for Antiochos III and a date of around 197 BC in connection with his conquest of the southern coast of Asia Minor, but unless new evidence emerges, he has merely demonstrated a possibility, not a necessity. The argument is unfortunately once again cluttered up with a largely irrelevant survey of the changing control of Cilicia, and of Soloi in particular, from Alexander the Great to Antiochos IV, which offers no new insights, and is "backed up" with a largely irrelevant collection of mainly historical illustrations, especially of the dramatic Roman imperial-period colonnade (9 photos), which has nothing to do with Antiochus (or Ptolemy), and photographic excerpts from the travel notes of Radet (8 photos), who travelled in the area but did not know the inscription.

This rather self-indulgent book closes with an appendix related to the visit of Jeanne Robert to Pisa in 1985, a substantial bibliography and adequate indices. A more disciplined approach to and presentation of the main points of the research would, however, have rendered the book half as thick, less expensive and much easier for the reader to assess what Virgilio regards as important.

1 comment:

  1. Va nuovamente segnalato l'elevatissimo prezzo di copertina! Non è la prima volta che si sottolinea in questa rivista tale aspetto negativo dei volumi pubblicati dall'editore Serra, ma nulla sembra essere cambiato. Prezzi così elevati, inspiegabili nel presente caso (si tratta di un libro non voluminoso), non solo finiscono per impedire al pubblico anche meno abbiente di acquistare tali volumi, ma sono uno schiaffo alla crisi economica che colpisce attualmente parte del mondo.


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