Classics lecture on Late Antique letters

~ By Lisa Maria Boyles

Why do we write letters? And what becomes of the letters we do write?

From letters in antiquity to emails modern times, some of the same questions apply:

  • No matter what audience a letter is written for, who might become an unintended or accidental reader of it?
  • How are we coming across – our tone, our character, our intent – in our delivery?
  • Is the message of the letter true, ethical, spurious or fictional?

Alex Petkas, a doctoral student in Classics at Princeton University, gave a lecture on the Greek epistolographic tradition (writing letters) in antiquity on Nov. 15 in McLane Hall 121. The lecture was open to students and the greater community.

Petkas’ lecture was presented by the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures at Fresno State.

Focusing on the writings of Synesius of Cyrene, a neo-Platonic philosopher and bishop, Petkas’s dissertation is titled: “The Philosopher in Letters: Synesius of Cyrene and the Greek Epistolographic Tradition.” Petkas also has publications forthcoming  on late antique epideictic  rhetoric, as well as a co-edited volume on Hypatia of Alexandria.

During his talk, Petkas addressed issues of character in ancient letters, and Synesius’ perspective on what letters should offer to readers, both the intended audience and those who might later read the words on the page.

His concluding remarks, and some of the questions raised by the audience after the lecture, brought those ancient concerns about letters into a modern perspective.

“I recommend that we approach ancient letters just like any other ancient text – sensitive to the ways the author is presenting himself, his own rhetorical agenda,” Petkas said. “Writing and sending letters in antiquity was much more difficult and expensive than in an industrialized nation with a range of private and public courier services available. How often have you asked yourself, when writing an important email, ‘How am I coming across?’ Imagine how much more you might sweat over that question if the email were going to cost you $250 and arrive in three weeks?” 

Petkas has taught at the Paideia Institute in their summer program for 5 years, and was the lead instructor for Paideia for the Fresno State Study Abroad trip to Greece in the summer of 2015, “Greek History and the Rise of Democracy.”

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