Persuasive Letters in the Ancient Novel
American Philological Association; University of Georgia
May 14, 2010
Much of the interest in the representation of letters in the ancient novel has considered the letter as a plot device particularly susceptible to tuchê and hence characteristic of Bakhtin’s chronotope, the chance occurrences and disjunctions that give the novel its texture. Others have viewed the prominence of letters in these texts as evidence for the interest in psychology considered a hallmark of characterization within novelistic melodrama. In contrast, this paper contextualizes the novels’ fictional letters within the rhetorical literary culture of the Greek world of the Roman empire. Focusing on Chariton and Achilles Tatius, I argue that the novels represent letters as sophisticated texts that persuade their readers by stirring the passions through recognizable rhetorical tropes, especially vividness (enargeia, diatupôsis or phantasia). Fictional letters thus provide a concrete and self-conscious connection between the novels and the rhetorical theory of the Second Sophistic, familiar from epideictic practices like declamation and reflected in the works of theorists like Aelius Theon, Longinus, Quintilian and Menander Rhetor.
A brief consideration of Aelius Aristides’ well-known Letter to the Emperors seeking aid from Marcus Aurelius for Smyrna in the wake of a devastating earthquake sets the stage for my analysis. As Philostratus’ description of Marcus Aurelius’ reaction to the letter – groaning and wetting the letter with tears – in his Lives of the Sophists attests, Aristides’ written text succeeds in persuading the emperor by standing in for the impassioned epideictic performance recommended by the rhetorical theorists of the empire, above all by bringing the ruined city vividly before his eyes (cf. Ruth Webb 1995).
Chariton and Achilles Tatius create a number of fictional letters designed to persuade and manipulate their readers by stirring the passions in the manner of Aristides’ letter. These texts are highly rhetorical, employing figures familiar from the orators’ art, among which the vividness (enargeia) plays a central role. Moreover, the novels provide detailed accounts of the reactions to these texts, which confirm both the intent of the letters and their success. In Achilles Tatius, for example, when Cleitophon receives a letter from Leucippe chastising him for remarrying while she suffered the indignities of servitude, Cleitophon responds to the letter’s vivid evocation of her suffering as follows:
Then ... as if seeing her through the letters, I reread every word.... When I got to the part about the whips and tortures Sosthenes inflicted on her, I wept as if I were witnessing them myself, for reasoning set my mind’s eyes working on what the letter said and showed these spectacles as if they were playing out before me. (5.19)
In Chariton, Mithridates advises Chaereas to seek a similar reaction from his beloved, who, like Cleitophon, has remarried, believing that her beloved is dead:
I think it is a good idea for you first to make trial of your wife by a letter.... Write her a letter: let her grieve, let her rejoice, let her search for you, let her call for you.... Go and write! (4.4)
After demonstrating the embeddedness in the rhetorical context of imperial Greek literary culture of these letters through close readings of their texts and the reactions to them, I conclude by suggesting that the rhetorical letter provides a model for the genre of the novel, itself a vivid prose work designed to stir the passions of its reader through various techniques of vivid narration and description.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 2working papers series
Date posted: May 17, 2010
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