Thursday, August 13, 2015


Jean Schneider (ed.), La lettre gréco-latine, un genre littéraire ? Collection de la maison de l'orient et de la Méditerranée, 52; Série littéraire et philosophique, 19. Lyon: Maison de l'orient et de la Méditerranée - Jean Pouilloux, 2014. Pp. 335. ISBN 9782356680457. €35.00.

Reviewed by Paola Francesca Moretti, Università degli Studi di Milano (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This elegant book collects fourteen papers that consider letters as literary products — i.e., artifacts endowed with a "qualité littéraire." Despite the apparent perspicuity of this perspective, leaving aside the referential value of letters is not unproblematic. What does "qualité littéraire" mean? It is quite difficult to give a clear-cut definition, as various aspects serve to classify a letter as literary. As Schneider suggests, one may think, for instance, of the prominence of Jakobson's poetic, emotive, phatic and metalinguistic functions, or of the presence of topoi rooted in Greco-Roman culture that make a rhetorical approach essential in order to grasp the meaning of an epistolary text. This collection is meant to replace a theoretical definition of literary letters: it aims to describe the poetics of the epistolary genre as it surfaces in comments on letter-writing within letters themselves. The essays are arranged according to the criterion of their increasing degree of presumed literarity, from first-hand documents to fictional letters embedded in a narrative. 1

Decourt examines 45 Greek texts, written on lead and ostraka, coming from marginal areas (19 of them from the northern coast of the Black Sea) and dating from the 6th to the 2nd century BC. Among them, 37 are identified as letters, relying on the presence of address and greeting formulas, senders' and addressees' names, and verbs referring to the act of sending.

Biville investigates the sub-genre of military letters. These texts are analyzed in the light of the epistolary genre codified by letter-writers. Both literary and documentary testimonies are considered: Cicero, Pliny the Younger, and letters transmitted by papyri, ostraka, and wood tablets. Biville interestingly remarks that some formal features are common to all texts, whereas language and style vary greatly, in connection with the condition and culture of the sender and addressee, and the topic dealt with.

Boehm investigates physicians' letters, whose topics, senders, addressees, and functions enable scholars to view them as technical, scientific, and also literary artifacts. She contrasts 'false' letters — the apocryphal letters ascribed to Hippocrates, some of which were fundamental in inventing and shaping the relationship between Hippocrates and Democritus — with 'true' ones, e.g., P.Merton Ι.12 (58 AD). This comparison rightly warns against overgeneralizing.

Cabouret illustrates the social role played by Libanius' correspondence, notably letters to students' fathers, recommendation letters, and letters to students. They extend Libanius' school teaching, and enhance the momentousness of rhetoric as "la quintessence de la παιδεἰα"; then — and this is an aspect that should have been pressed further2 — they serve Libanius' purpose of portraying and advertising himself as a talented, and therefore influential, schoolmaster and rhetor.

Poignault presents Fronto's view of letters as emerging from his remarks on letter-writing. Some peculiarities of Fronto's epistolography are pointed out: the display of φιλοφρόνησις as prominent even in informational and recommendation letters; the view of epistles as rhetorical works, the style of which is praised as elegans; a stress on eloquentia in letters addressed to emperors. In epist. ad Ver. Imp. II emperors' letters to the Senate are set within the framework of letters (reports) sent to the Senate by military imperatores and letters embedded in historical works. Among epistolary topoi, brevitas is shown to play a functional role3. In sum, Fronto's correspondence, which was possibly not meant for publication, is appropriately stated to be very literary.

Bady studies the 238 letters written by John Chrysostom during his second exile (404–407), in order to catch a glimpse of "le fait épistolaire lui-même": not only are material aspects described (preservation of letters; dictation vs. autographical writing4; copying; and sending of letters) but most interestingly letters are focused on as they mirror social networks: playing with the rules of social epistolary etiquette serves the purpose of establishing the mutual positions of sender and addressee.5 John's epistolary corpus bears witness to the "double paradoxe de l'édition épistolaire": although letters were written to single addressees and were not stylistically contrived, they ended up being published and viewed as literary works. Bady also demonstrates that the entry CPG 4997 must be deleted, as it indicates a short collection of excerpts from John's letters.

Canellis examines the letters referred to in Jerome vir. ill. 135 as the book epistularum ad diversos, written from Antioch and the desert of Chalcis around 375–378. She demonstrates that they reinterpret and Christianize the mostly Ciceronian code of epistulae familiares. She points out some autobiographical elements (such as memories of Jerome's childhood, of his physical and moral weaknesses, etc.). Lastly, she remarks that the style betrays the broad culture of the writer. In some respects, one might speak — as Canellis does — of "Jérôme mis à nu" in these letters, but we should not forget that they are part of the self-propaganda strategy Jerome was developing.6

Laurence, reprising a prior study, writes on Jerome's ep. 22 de virginitate servanda to the young Eustochium. In this lengthy epistle — which may seem a "treatise with the heading 'My dear So-and-So' " (in the words of Dem. eloc. 228, transl. Malherbe) — virginity is described and praised as a life-status achieving both physical and spiritual ξενιτεῖα from this world within this world (although the provocative character of such ξενιτεῖα should not be exaggerated7). Jerome cunningly merges teaching, exhortation, praise, defense of himself, and satire of the urban social environment — even Christian — that virgins live in.

Calvet-Sebasti's paper focuses on quotations and proverbs in epistolary texts. Hinted at by the theorists of epistolography, they feature in the Greek Christians' letters, where an encounter between secular and Christian wisdom often takes place. Letters mostly attract quotations expressing general truths on human nature, which fit their nature as sermones. Maybe the most important point made by the author concerns the public: the writers chose quotations depending on their addressees' culture (and religion) but were also aware that their letters would be read by a wider public.

Schneider offers a survey of Planudes' epistolary meta-rhetoric: reasons for writing, excuses for not replying or replying late, the letters' sending and circulation, the length and quality of a letter, mention of letters previously received from the addressee or from other people, complaints about the addressee's epistolary silence. Planudes' epistolary corpus, where the distinction between true letters and literary letters is blurred, might be viewed as a "mise en scène de la relation amicable." In Schneider's view, copious comments on his epistolary practice, which reprise and innovate topoi of the epistolary tradition, mostly pertain to Jakobson's metalinguistic, emotive, and phatic functions.

Garambois-Vasquez deals with Claud. carm. min. 19 to Gennadius, 31 to Serena, 40 to Olybrius, and 41 to Probinus, the ones that in the manuscripts bear the title of epistulae (which — we should admit — is little evidence to suggest they are letters). These poems in elegiac couplets, containing some epistolary topoi, are read as refined examples of "mise en abîme de l'écriture poétique", also in connection with Claudian's major poems. This essay once again enhances the "protean quality" of epistolography.8

Sempéré deals with letters in the tradition of the Romance of Alexander, especially in the 8th century recensio ε. Sempéré's particular focus is on letters related to women as they would mirror Alexander's problematic relationships with the female universe: Alexander — who is 'defeated' by the Amazons' letter (as they succeed in hindering him from waging war against them) and writes his mother Olympias three letters (which have neither a narrative nor an informative function) — ends up being all but an unproblematic and monolithic hero.

To sum up, except for material first-hand transmission, there seems to be no absolute criterion — prominence of Jakobson's either referential function or metalinguistic-poetic-emotive-phatic ones; opening and closing formulas; stylistic facies; topic; length; epistolary topoi; lastly, the writer referring to or commenting on his epistolary practice — enabling us to establish a clear-cut dichotomy between documentary and literary letters. The impossibility of establishing clear criteria is suggested by two examples: P.Merton Ι.12, a documentary text, that contains expressions of epistolary φιλοστοργία and that scholars would perhaps more willingly ascribe to a literary letter; and Planudes' "lettres clichés", which are true letters. That is to say that all letters are literary, in as much as all letters belong to one genre, whose code informs its representatives. Finally, this miscellaneous work only hints at some promising research fields that deserve further development, such as letters and the female universe (letters addressed to women, women's letters etc.), and circulation of written books as both spoken of and enhanced by circulation of letters.9

Table of Contents

J. Schneider, Avant-propos
J.-C. Decourt, Lettres privées grecques sur plomb et céramique
F. Biville, Lettres de soldats romains
I. Boehm, Lettres de médecins
B. Cabouret, L'art épistolaire de Libanios au service de ses élèves
R. Poingault, La lettre dans la lettre. Affleurement de remarques sur l'épistolaire dans la correspondance de Fronton
G. Bady, « Des lettres comme des flocons de neige » ? Le fait épistolaire dans la Correspondance d'exil de Jean Chrysostome
A. Canellis, Les premières lettres familières de saint Jérôme
P. Laurence, La correspondance de Jérôme et le monachisme : l'épître 22
M.-A. Calvet-Sebasti, L'usage des citations dans la correspondance des auteurs grecs chrétiens
J. Schneider, Quand la lettre parle de la lettre : l'exemple de la correspondance de Maxime Planude
F. Garambois-Vasquez, L'épistolarité selon Claudien : un nouvel art poétique ?
C. Sempéré, Le détournement de l'épistolaire dans le Roman d'Alexandre : de la rhapsodie initiale à la voix spéculaire. L'exemple des lettres à Olympias dans la recension epsilon
C. Chojnacki, Un genre épistolaire méconnu de l'Inde prémoderne. La lettre d'invitation officielle aux maîtres jaina


1.   The last paper is devoted to official letters of invitation addressed to spiritual teachers of Indian Jainism (14th century); they are precious artifacts, complying with an epistolary code quite different from the Greco-Roman one.
2.   See J. Ebbeler, 'Tradition, Innovation, and Epistolary Mores in Late Antiquity', in P. Rousseau (ed.), A Companion to Late Antiquity (Chichester 2012), 270–284: 272 (BMCR 2010.02.45).
3.   Similar remarks (on Jerome) in B. Conring, Hieronymus als Briefschreiber: ein Beitrag zur Spätantike Epistolographie (Tübingen 2001), 48–62.
4.   See O. Pecere, 'La scrittura dei Padri della Chiesa tra autografia e dictatio', Segno e testo 5 (2007), 3–29.
5.   As happens in the epistolary exchanges of Ausonius and Paulinus, and of Jerome and Augustine: cf. J. Ebbeler, 'Mixed Messages: The Play of Epistolary Codes in Two Late Antique Latin Correspondences', in R. Morello and A.D. Morrison (edd.), Ancient Letters. Classical and Late Antique Epistolography (Oxford 2007), 301–323 (BMCR 2008.09.56).
6.   S. Rebenich, Jerome (London 2002), ch. 2 (BMCR 2003.05.06); A. Cain, The Letters of Jerome. Asceticism, Biblical Exegesis, and the Construction of Christian Authority in Late Antiquity (Oxford 2009), ch. 1 (BMCR 2010.11.45).
7.   See F.E. Consolino, 'Tradizionalismo e trasgressione nell'èlite senatoria romana: ritratti di signore fra la fine del IV e l'inizio del V secolo', in R. Lizzi Testa (ed.), Le trasformazioni delle élites in età tardoantica (Roma 2006), 65–139.
8.   M. Wilson, 'Seneca's Epistles Reclassified', in S. Harrison (ed.), Texts, Ideas, and the Classics: Scholarship, Theory, and Classical Literature (Oxford 2001), 164–187: 186.
9.   Regrettably some typos are scattered throughout the volume, e.g.,: 21, l. 3: add new paragraph before "Massimo Planude" (and the publisher is missing); 58, no. 27, col. A, l. 4: colon before καὶ; col. B, l. 3: read ἀπο]διδῶ; 59, no. 30, col. B, l. 8: read συλη[θὲν; 60, no. 30 (transl.): read "Apatorios"; 64 (Coupry - Giffault 1990): read "février 1991"; 66 (Lang 1976): read "Athenian"; 84, n. 10: read "Trebianus"; 95, P.Mich. VIII.467, l. 9: read "libenter"; 113: P.Merton I.12, l. 11: read "βραχεῖα"; 119 (Gazza 1955): read "nei papiri"; 180, n. 71: "Callu 1986" is not listed in the bibliography; 208 (Garzya 1983): read "antichità"; 218, n. 60: "De", read "Ab".

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