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Thirteenth Annual Graduate Student Colloquium, Charlottesville, Virginia, Saturday, March 14, 2009.

A Tyrant's Grasp of Tradition: the Letters of Phalaris | Mitto me in mare: The Philosophic Allegory of Seneca, Epistle 53 | Littera Arcana: The Literary Passion of Byblis | With Deepest Sympathy: Epistolarity and Consolation | A Gendered Genre? : Embedded Letters and Erotic Identity in Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon | "I Fear the Romans": Cicero's Epistolary Self-Representation as Hector


A Tyrant's Grasp of Tradition: the Letters of Phalaris

John Paul Christy, University of Pennsylvania

    The Letters of Phalaris, famously headlining Richard Bentley's list of spurious Greek prose works, have largely been ignored by scholars in the 20th and 21st centuries. Of those who have discussed the letters in recent decades, some have attempted to rehabilitate them as ethopoetic school exercises (e.g., Russell, 1983), while others have struggled to wrangle the unwieldy corpus into discrete narrative cycles (Beschorner and Merkle, 1994), if only to defend against the accusations that the plotlines within the collection do not cohere. My reading of the letters focuses instead on the tyrant's epistolary relationship to Stesichorus, and how his missives to the poet reveal the tyrant as a creative manipulator of Greek literary criticism, especially of Pindar (and Pindaric scholia) and Aristotle, both of whom have soundly criticized the tyrant. Unlike most other tyrant-focused letter collections, which consist either of letters penned by a wisdom figure alone (as is the case in the Letters of Euripides and Chion), or by both sage and tyrant (as with the Letters of Hippocrates, and those embedded in the Alexander Romance), the Letters of Phalaris stem solely from the hand of the tyrant himself. In this singularly lop-sided collection, the epistolary Phalaris uses Stesichorus as a cipher to engage with the later critiques of himself, casting especially Pindar and Aristotle as woefully uninformed in their attacks on the tyrant.

Beschorner, A. and S. Merkle. 1994. "Der Tyrann und der Dichter," in N. Holzberg, ed., Der griechische Briefroman. Classica Monacensia 8. Tübingen. 116-68.

Hinz, V. 2001. Nunc Phalaris doctum protulit ecce caput. Antike Phalarislegende und Nachleben der Phalarisbriefe. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde Bd. 148. K. G. Saur Verlag GmbH. Munich and Leipzig.

Russell, D. A. 1983. "The Ass in the Lion's Skin: Thoughts on the Letters of Phalaris." JHS 180. 94-106.