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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Alciphron (Second Century)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Harry Thurston Peck (1856–1914)
 
IN the history of Greek prose fiction the possibilities of the epistolary form were first developed by the Athenian teacher of rhetoric, Alciphron, of whose life and personality nothing is known except that he lived in the second century A.D.,—a contemporary of the great satirical genius Lucian. Of his writings we now possess only a collection of imaginary letters, one hundred and eighteen in number, arranged in three books. Their value depends partly upon the curious and interesting pictures given in them of the life of the post-Alexandrine period, especially of the low life, and partly upon the fact that they are the first successful attempts at character-drawing to be found in the history of Greek prose fiction. They form a connecting link between the novel of pure incident and adventure, and the more fully developed novel which combines incident and adventure with the delineation of character and the study of motive. The use of the epistolary form in fictitious composition did not, to be sure, originate with Alciphron; for we find earlier instances in the imaginary love-letters composed in verse by the Roman poet, Ovid, under the names of famous women of early legend, such as those of Œnone to Paris (which suggested a beautiful poem of Tennyson’s), Medea to Jason, and many others. In these one finds keen insight into character, especially feminine character, together with much that is exquisite in fancy and tender in expression. But it is to Alciphron that we owe the adaptation of this form of composition to prose fiction, and its employment in a far wider range of psychological and social observation.  1
  The life whose details are given us by Alciphron is the life of contemporary Athens in the persons of its easy-going population. The writers whose letters we are supposed to read in reading Alciphron are peasants, fishermen, parasites, men-about-town, and courtesans. The language of the letters is neat, pointed, and appropriate to the person who in each case is supposed to be the writer; and the details are managed with considerable art. Alciphron effaces all impression of his own personality, and is lost in the characters who for the time being occupy his pages. One reads the letters as he would read a genuine correspondence. The illusion is perfect, and we feel that we are for the moment in the Athens of the third century before Christ; that we are strolling in its streets, visiting its shops, its courts, and its temples, and that we are getting a whiff of the Ægean, mingled with the less savory odors of the markets and of the wine-shops. We stroll about the city elbowing our way through the throng of boatmen, merchants, and hucksters. Here a barber stands outside his shop and solicits custom; there an old usurer with pimply face sits bending over his accounts in a dingy little office; at the corner of the street a crowd encircles some Cheap Jack who is showing off his juggling tricks at a small three-legged table, making sea-shells vanish out of sight and then taking them from his mouth. Drunken soldiers pass and repass, talking boisterously of their bouts and brawls, of their drills and punishments, and the latest news of their barracks, and forming a striking contrast to the philosopher, who, in coarse robes, moves with supercilious look and an affectation of deep thought, in silence amid the crowd that jostles him. The scene is vivid, striking, realistic.  2
  Many of the letters are from women; and in these, especially, Alciphron reveals the daily life of the Athenians. We see the demimonde at their toilet, with their mirrors, their powders, their enamels and rouge-pots, their brushes and pincers, and all the thousand and one accessories. Acquaintances come in to make a morning call, and we hear their chatter,—Thaïs and Megara and Bacchis, Hermione and Myrrha. They nibble cakes, drink sweet wine, gossip about their respective lovers, hum the latest songs, and enjoy themselves with perfect abandon. Again we see them at their evening rendezvous, at the banquets where philosophers, poets, sophists, painters, artists of every sort,—in fact, the whole Bohemia of Athens,—gather round them. We get hints of all the stages of the revel, from the sparkling wit and the jolly good-fellowship of the early evening, to the sodden disgust that comes with daybreak when the lamps are poisoning the fetid air and the remnants of the feast are stale.  3
  We are not to look upon the letters of Alciphron as embodying a literary unity. He did not attempt to write one single symmetrical epistolary romance; but the individual letters are usually slight sketches of character carelessly gathered together, and deriving their greatest charm from their apparent spontaneity and artlessness. Many of them are, to be sure, unpleasantly cynical, and depict the baser side of human nature; others, in their realism, are essentially commonplace; but some are very prettily expressed, and show a brighter side to the picture of contemporary life. Those especially which are supposed to pass between Menander, the famous comic poet, and his mistress Glycera, form a pleasing contrast to the greed and cynicism of much that one finds in the first book of the epistles; they are true love-letters, and are untainted by the slightest suggestion of the mercenary spirit or the veiled coarseness that makes so many of the others unpleasant reading. One letter (i. 6) is interesting as containing the first allusion found in literature to the familiar story of Phryne before the judges, which is more fully told in Athenæus.  4
  The imaginary letter was destined to play an important part in the subsequent history of literature. Alciphron was copied by Aristænetus, who lived in the fifth century of our era, and whose letters have been often imitated in modern times, and by Theophylactus, who lived in the seventh century. In modern English fiction the epistolary form has been most successfully employed by Richardson, Fanny Burney, and, in another genre, by Wilkie Collins.  5
  The standard editions of Alciphron are those of Seiler (Leipzig, 1856) and of Hercher (Paris, 1873), the latter containing the Greek text with a parallel version in Latin. The letters have not yet been translated into English. The reader may refer to the chapter on Alciphron in the recently published work of Salverte, ‘Le Roman dans la Grèce Ancienne’ (The Novel in Ancient Greece: Paris, 1893). The following selections are translated by the present writer.  6
 
 
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