The Letters of Alciphron

Alciphron was an ancient Greek epistolographer. We don’t really know when he lived, but we have 116 fictional letters he wrote, supposed to have been by fishermen, farmers, parasites, and courtesans.

I’ve only read a selection, but I really enjoyed them. They are narrative letters about daily life: yesterday’s catch, a disobedient child, party invitations. Like the Heroides, these letters humanize the ancients for me. And they are pretty funny.

Glaucippe writes to Charope, her mother, to explain that she “cannot endure now to marry that stripling from Methymna, the pilot’s son,” because she’s fallen in love with someone else: “you would say that on his cheeks dance all the Graces from Orchomenus, after they have bathed in the Argaphian spring. …Either I marry him, or else like Sappho of Lesbos I will fling myself, not from the cliffs of Leurcas, but from the piers of the Piraeus into the foam.” Her mother is not having any of it: “You are mad, my dear girl; and quite out of your mind. …If your father were to hear of it, he will not hesitate or argue; he will throw you into the sea for the fish to devour.” So, everyone wins, right?

The fishermen were good, and the farmers appealed more than I’d expected. Poor Euthydicus writes to his friend Philiscus about how his good-for-nothing son went to the town and got crazy ideas; now he “denies us outright, saying that everything is the work of nature and that the cause of birth is not a father and mother but rather a combination of atoms. It is plain too that he holds money in scorn and hates farming.” Whose fault is it really? “I blame Solon and Draco: they thought proper to punish with death people who steal grapes but left these fellows unscathed who entrap young people and steal their wits away.”

Unlike with the Heroides, the characters in these letters don’t have a back story, they are just scenes, fragments. (A few refer to real people, but seem quite fictional.) A lot of them are single letters, but there are some pairs as well as, interestingly, a series in the courtesans bunch that pass back and forth among several different characters, a group of courtesans who are friends or acquaintances and their lovers. The story that builds up around them is quite a bit more substantial.

They are most interesting for the narrative of ancient life, and focus on the character of the various classes. The fishermen and farmers are modest, the parasites are plainly flatterers, and the courtesans are definitely working girls. Amid a series of pretty fun semi-erotic letters, we have, from Philumena to Crito, the abrupt, “Why trouble yourself with writing long letters? I want fifty pieces of gold; I do not want words. If you love me—pay up. If you love your money—don’t bother me. Farewell.”

(All quotes here from the interesting little edition I found—London: Artemis Press, 1958—which is some sort of combination of translations [?] by F.A. Wright, A.R. Benner and F.H. Fobes. The complete letters are available at Google Books in an unidentified parallel translation.)