Writing to power: Tyrant and sage in Greek epistolography

John Paul Christy, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation stems from an interest in how archaic and classical wisdom figures, such as Stesichorus, Heraclitus, Hippocrates, and Plato, are received and refigured in fictional epistolography, a field that exploded in popularity in the Hellenistic and imperial eras. My research investigates the significant role that tyrants play in the genre, as correspondents with (or as persons of interest to) the "stars" of Greek paideia. Most scholars have acknowledged the presence of tyrants in Greek epistolography only vaguely, listing them among the traditional features of the genre, or as a "commonplace" unworthy of much attention. I contend instead that the epistolary genre becomes an ideal vehicle for the examination of the problems that plague the relationships between tyrants and sages in the Greek literary tradition. After an introduction that discusses the history of scholarship on Greek letter writing, I consider the case of the Platonic Epistles, arguably the locus classicus of correspondence with a Greek tyrant. I move away from the famous and intractable issues of authenticity to discuss instead how the dynamics particular to correspondence create a particular set of problems for the philosopher, with recurring issues of distance, hearsay, and jealousy. These models of tyrant-sage correspondence in the Platonic Epistles have a demonstrable effect on other letter collections, but perhaps nowhere so much as in the Letters of Chion of Heraclea. Chion alludes to the Platonic collection in several respects, but uses its points of contact with Plato to create a markedly alternative scenario to Plato's disastrous engagement with Syracusan politics. In the cases of the Letters of Hippocrates and the Epistles of Heraclitus, I investigate the particular fascination of Greek epistolography with Eastern dynasts. In both collections, Greek wisdom is highly sought after by Persian rulers, but kept out of their grasp. Finally, I discuss how the letters attributed to the tyrant Phalaris toy with both their affiliation to the tyrant-sage epistolary subgenre and the classical tradition that so soundly condemned their nominal author.

Subject Area

Classical studies|Classical Studies

Recommended Citation

Christy, John Paul, "Writing to power: Tyrant and sage in Greek epistolography" (2010). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3429180.