The Rhetoric of Desire in Philostratus’s Letters
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The Rhetoric of Desire in Philostratus’s Letters1

Since Patricia Rosenmeyer’s groundbreaking 2001 study of Greek epistolography, the collections of pseudonymous and fictional letters written during the first centuries c.e. have begun to attract some scholarly interest.2 Philostratus’s Letters have not benefited from this renewed attention; they still remain relatively neglected. In the following pages, I want to suggest a new reading of these short vignettes. I will propose that they should be understood as sophisticated texts that reflect and mirror their own status as love letters on several levels. In particular, I want to argue that Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse (first published in 1977) shares a number of traits with Philostratus’s texts and that we arrive at a better understanding of the ways in which Philostratus’s Letters establish their own special discourse of desire when we read these two works side by side.

Looking at Barthes’ book alongside Philostratus’s Letters, readers will immediately be struck by a number of obvious similarities. However, as trained classicists, we have learned to mistrust analogies which may be purely serendipitous. When modern poets such as Ezra Pound or H.D. recreate the aesthetics of Greek lyric fragments, they react to a state of [End Page 257] the text produced by the vicissitudes of transmission, not (or not only?) to some quality inherent in Sappho’s or Alcaeus’s poetry (see Gregory 1997). The same is true for Philostratus’s Letters, and it would be naïve to base interpretive approaches on such contingent factors. The textual history of Philostratus’s Letters is complex and muddled. It will be necessary to summarize a few of the problems so readers will be able to distinguish fortuitous resemblances from meaningful parallels.

As Jaś Elsner (2009.6) writes, the textual history of Philostratus’s Letters creates a “nightmare for the modern editor.” There are (at least) five areas that present major difficulties: (1) The texts of numerous Letters are transmitted in both shorter and more elaborate versions, and it is unclear whether we are looking at later additions to the original or an original version that has been abbreviated. Older scholarship (Kayser 1844.i) suggested that these versions might represent two different recensions, the shorter one written by Philostratus in his youth, the lengthier one a new edition undertaken late in his life. More recent studies have rejected this hypothesis as pure speculation.3 (2) Different manuscripts contain different letters, and it is unclear whether all the transmitted letters form a unified corpus which was meant to be read as a whole. (3) The order of the letters varies in our manuscripts. (4) The usual signs of epistolary style, such as formulas of greeting and closing, are present in part of the manuscript tradition only, and they are inconsistent across textual witnesses.4 (5) All these difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that no satisfactory critical text is available. The Loeb volume (Benner and Fobes 1949), which most scholars use today, is based on Kayser’s second edition (1870–71), which, in turn, is based on Kayser 1844.5 Kayser’s editorial work was deficient even for its own time, and its shortcomings are such that a completely new edition is badly needed.6 Simone Follet (1997.135) announced such a work, but it has not yet been published.

These uncertainties make it difficult to consider Philostratus’s Letters a “book” in the sense of a structured collection of shorter texts tied [End Page 258] together by authorial (or even editorial) intention. Nevertheless, a case can be made for reading at least the greater part of the transmitted letters as a somewhat coherent corpus. A group of fifty-three letters is shared by most manuscripts;7 these are exclusively “erotic” texts, addressed to (usually anonymous) boys and women. Most of the remaining twenty letters are not erotic; they are addressed to named individuals and treat subjects other than love and desire. In some cases, the names of the addressees of this latter group are those of well-known Greek writers, and modern readers are left wondering if these are fictitious letters addressed to...