Pedants in the apparel of heroes? Cultures of Latin letter -writing from Cicero to Ennodius

Jennifer Valerie Ebbeler, University of Pennsylvania


Ancient letters have generally been treated as “snapshots” of everyday life or “mirrors” of their author's soul. As such, they have been used uncritically as biographical or historical sources. The first half of this study critiques traditional approaches to ancient letters. The final two chapters, following in the tradition of recent work on the letter as a medium for self-fashioning, focuses on the intersection of epistolary form, content, and cultural context to argue that letters played an integral part in the constitution of individual subjectivity and in the management of that subjectivity. The letters under consideration are primarily prose and come from a variety of periods, ranging from Cicero's late republican Rome to Augustine's North Africa to Ennodius' sixth-century Northern Italy. Chapter 1 revisits the polemical debate (the battle of the books) at the end of the seventeenth century that produced Richard Bentley's influential Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris to demonstrate that many of the trends in contemporary epistolary studies derive directly or indirectly from Bentley's work. Chapter 2 treats the question of genre using Foucauldian genealogy to make the point that Cicero's privileged status in the genre's history, and the very notion of a coherent genre of letter-writing in classical antiquity, owes much to the genre's reception in the fourth century. Chapter 3 moves from broader questions of genre-construction and the history of reading ancient letters to a theorization of the related epistolary motifs of absence and desire. The material letter functions as a metonym for the absent body of its author; but, as a metonym, it can never fully replace the absent body and alleviate the addressee's desire for presence. Chapter 4 returns to the dynamic of the letter exchange to argue that its inherent dialogism can be used both to create and circulate a textualized self, and also to script roles for one's correspondent, as seems to happen in Augustine's correspondence with Jerome. The conclusion reflects on the potency of the letter as a metaphor for literature writ large in the works of such post-structuralist theorists as Barthes, Derrida, and Lacan.

Subject Area

Classical studies

Recommended Citation

Ebbeler, Jennifer Valerie, "Pedants in the apparel of heroes? Cultures of Latin letter -writing from Cicero to Ennodius" (2001). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3003623.