The Tyrant’s Network: Appearances of Characters in the Letters of Phalaris

Citation with persistent identifier:

Marquis, Emeline. “The Tyrant’s Network:  Appearances of Characters in the Letters of Phalaris.” CHS Research Bulletin 2, no. 2 (2014).

1§1 The letters of Phalaris are a fascinating object, both for their content and for their history. This epistolary fiction contains 148 letters attributed to Phalaris, the historical tyrant of sixth-century Sicily, who became a mythical figure and the archetype of a cruel ruler; the letters are all written in the first person (with the exception of Letter 57, the only instance of a correspondent’s reply) and are addressed to individuals as well as to different cities, their length varying from a few lines to a few pages. They describe the tyrant’s activities as a statesman, a military chief, and a private man, i.e. his dealings with his subjects, his enemies, his family, and friends, which they combine with general statements about the nature of tyranny.

1§2 Due to their content and their status as a “mirror of the prince,” the letters of Phalaris were a great success all over Europe during the Renaissance. They were one of the first books printed in Rome as early as 1468/1469, in the Latin translation of Francesco Griffolini; and the editio princeps of the Greek text was published in 1498. With the development of humanism, the text was soon also translated into Italian and other languages and spread across many European countries. Although Politian and later Erasmus had already considered the letters as forgeries, the question of their authenticity had its apogee in England, at the end of the seventeenth century, when a violent controversy arose on this point between Charles Boyle and Richard Bentley, as part of the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns[1]. The fortune and fame of the letters of Phalaris until that period contrast then strongly with the obscurity into which they have sunk afterwards.

1§3 Fascinating as they are, the letters of Phalaris are, however, a difficult object of study. They were transmitted to us through 132 manuscripts from the tenth to the eighteenth century, dispersed in not fewer than 18 countries[2] all over the world. The number as well as the order of the letters vary greatly from one manuscript to the other and no chronological or thematic organization can be found. Consequently, we do not know how the corpus was to be read originally. There is no modern critical edition of the letters and the scholar has no other choice than to continue working with the edition of Hercher as part of his Epistolographi graeci (1873), although this edition is unsatisfying: it uses without discussion the corpus and the numbering of the Aldine edition of the letters (1499), and is based on a small part of the manuscript tradition[3]. Hercher’s edition is accompanied by a Latin translation. Two English translations by Whately (1706) and Francklin (1749) may be cautiously referred to.

1§4 The letters of Phalaris raise many questions. Since Bentley’s brilliant demonstration[4], they are recognised as fakes: they were not written by the sixth-century BC tyrant, and are much more recent. But when were they written? The dating is disputed. Various dates have been proposed, from the fourth century BC to the fourth century AD. Bruno[5] and later Bianchetti[6] suggested that fourth-century Sicily was the background of the first nucleus of the letters, several layers then being added (both attributing the definitive form of the corpus to the imperial age[7]). At the other extreme, Tudeer[8] considered that the collection of the letters had a late origin, without further specification; Russell[9], noting that Byzantine clausulae have been observed in the letters, believed that the collection dated back to no earlier than the fourth century AD. Between these two datings, M. D. MacLeod[10] suggested that the author might be a contemporary of Lucian (second century AD), since the vocabulary, syntax, and material used by the two authors appear to be similar. The dating of the letters of Phalaris is then strongly connected to another important question: who wrote them? Is there a single author or did several hands contribute to the composition of the corpus? Scholars generally tend to see the collection as having been formed progressively by the addition of letters from different origins and authors[11]. The opinion adopted on the text’s authorship of course has consequences on the way scholars understand and interpret the corpus, especially its genre and its links to epistolary novels: what is the literary aim of the letters? Is there a unified intention? Do we have a collection of letters without real unity or a sort of epistolary novel with narrative lines[12]?

1§5 This paper is intended as a first investigation into the vast and complex material of the letters of Phalaris. It focuses on a limited inquiry: the occurrences of the characters’ names within the corpus. To whom does Phalaris write? How many recipients are there? Are series of letters addressed to the same characters or concerning the same characters? Can the reader recognize narrative threads? Because the letters, in Hercher’s edition, are presented without any chronological or thematic order, our starting hypothesis is that tracing the names is an efficient way to detect the connections between the letters and, beyond, to see how narrative lines may develop: whereas the absence of links or some incoherence between the letters would point towards a corpus that was progressively assembled with multiple authorship, might interconnections between the letters and the presence of narrative lines suggest a single author’s project? We will first look at the recipients of the letters and see how the reappearances of these characters within the corpus help to distinguish narrative lines and other links connecting the letters with each other. Thus, by bringing to light the underlying network that structures the letters, new elements will emerge to approach the broader questions of the composition and authorship of the letters of Phalaris.

The recipients of the letters

2§1 According to Hercher’s edition[13], the 148 letters are addressed to 106 different recipients, including Letter 57 addressed to Phalaris himself and Letter 47 whose recipient is not named. Letters 58 and 64 are addressed to two persons[14], and Letters 31 and 103 to an undetermined number of persons[15]. Therefore, the circle of Phalaris’ addressees is quite large. This feature augments the verisimilitude of the corpus: as a ruler, the reader expects Phalaris to have many interlocutors. But if the letters are the coherent work of (mostly) a single author, the reader may easily lose the thread. Inversely, this could explain how the corpus expanded with the participation of different authors and new recipients being added easily.

2§2 There are 25 recipients of two letters or more:

  1. Aristolokhos: 60, 63
  2. Aristophon: 16, 26, 128
  3. Epistratos: 49, 127
  4. Epikharmos: 61, 98
  5. Erythia: 18, 69
  6. Hippolytion: 41, 42
  7. Kleainete: 80, 143
  8. Lakritos: 10, 125, 126
  9. Lykinos: 1, 4
  10. Paurolas: 19, 20, 40, 67, 68
  11. Polydeukes: 34, 106
  12. Polykleitos: 70, 71, 124
  13. Polymnestor: 133, 134
  14. Polystratos: 39, 58 (Polystratos and Daiskos), 140
  15. Stesikhoros: 78, 79, 92, 94, 109, 145, 146, 147
  16. Teukros: 15, 43, 135, 142
  17. Timandros: 82, 136
  18. Timosthenes: 55, 62
  19. Enneans: 81, 137, 148
  20. Himerans: 54, 88, 93, 108, 121
  21. Katanians: 30, 104
  22. Leontinians: 5, 53,
  23. Megarians: 2, 52
  24. Melitans: 83, 117
  25. Messinans: 21, 84

2§3 The poet Stesikhoros is the addressee of 8 letters; Paurolas, son of Phalaris, of 5 letters, as well as the citizens of Himera; and Teukros, Phalaris’ steward, of 4 letters. Aristophon, Lakritos, Polykleitos, and the Enneans are the recipients of 3 letters, and the other characters or cities, of 2 letters only. On the whole, there are only 69 letters whose addressees appear two or more times in the corpus. It shows that the corpus of the letters of Phalaris is not intended as a continuous epistolary correspondence, given the few letters addressed to the same individual or city.

2§4 Yet, one should not be too quick to draw conclusions by inferring from the variety of addressees that there are no links between the letters. One notices, indeed, that several addressees of the tyrant are also mentioned within letters destined for other people[16], for example:

  1. Aristophon: 16, 26, 128 + (72), (147)
  2. Erythia: 18, 69 + (40), (51)
  3. Hippolytion: 41, 42 + (43)
  4. Kleainete: 80, 143 + (142)
  5. Lakritos: 10, 125, 126 + (133)
  6. Leon: 25 + (135), (142)
  7. Nikokles: 144 + (65), (78)
  8. Paurolas: 19, 20, 40, 67, 68 + (18), (69)
  9. Philodemos: 131 + (59), (135), (142), (143)
  10. Polykleitos: 70, 71 + (1), (21)
  11. Pythagoras: 23 + (56), (74)
  12. Stesikhoros: 78, 79, 92, 94, 109, 145, 146, 147 + (15), (22), (31), (33), (36), (54), (56), (63), (65), (67), (73), (88), (93), (103), (108), (121), (144), (145)
  13. Teukros: 15, 43, 135, 142 + (11), (64), (70)
  14. Theano: 80 + (131), (135)
  15. Timandros: 82, 136 + (105)
  16. Himerans: 54, 88, 93, 108, 121 + (73), (94), (109), (145), (146), (147)
  17. Kamarinans: 118 + (48), (75), (82), (113), (101), (136), (114)
  18. Katanians: 30, 104 + (54)
  19. Leontinians: 5, 53 + (4), (32), (40), (46), (58), (85), (86), (96), (112), (118), (148)
  20. Melitans: 83, 117 + (46)

2§5 The list above shows that Stesikhoros is mentioned in 26 letters, Paurolas and Teukros in 7; among the cities, the Leontinians appear in 13 letters, the Himerans in 11, and the Kamarinans in 8. Thus, by tracking the names inside the letters, the general picture changes. Links appear connecting letters together. Of course, some mentions of a name may be fortuitous and may have little significance. However, the frequent repetition of a name suggests that common topics are dealt with in letters addressed to different characters: thus the variety of addressees would hide a certain thematic continuity or even narrative lines. If this is the case, it reveals a conscious design: telling a story using different perspectives, developing a fiction through different points of view (by the multiplication of the letters and addressees). This writing technique would then points towards a single author, mastering his art.

Narrative lines 

3§1 The contents of the letters mentioning a same name show that there is a continuity between these letters and, even more, that stories develop throughout them. Scholars working on the letters of Phalaris have identified several narrations. The most precise account is given by Stefan Merkle and Andreas Beschorner[17] who distinguish the following groups of letters[18]: the Polykleitos-letters (4 letters), the Lakritos-letters (5), the Philodemos-letters (7), the family-letters (8), the Leontinian-letters (11), and the Stesikhoros-letters (25). Our study of the principal names reappearing throughout the letters gives parallel results if one keeps in mind that some of these narrations combine the actions of several characters: for example, the Philodemos-letters include the letters concerning Philodemos, his wife Kleainete, his daughter Theano, and Leon; the family-letters focus on Phalaris’ wife Erythia and his son Paurolas, while the Stesikhoros-letters subsume all the letters naming the Himerans and other characters like Nikokles. A short summary is necessary to understand what these six narrative lines are about[19].

The Polykleitos-letters

3§2 Letters 1, 21, 70, and 71 concern Polykleitos, Phalaris’ doctor. In Letter 1, the reader learns that Polykleitos cured Phalaris of a extremely serious illness. This causes him to be unjustly accused of treachery by Lykinos. In Letter 21, the same accusation is attributed to the Messinans: Phalaris mocks them and praises the doctor’s probity. Letters 70 and 71 are addressed to Polykleitos himself: Phalaris, immensely grateful, thanks the doctor for having cured him, when he could have let him die and received the title of tyrannicide. He offers him generous presents (Letter 70) and, to please him, lets Kalliskhros go free although he was convicted of conspiracy (Letter 71).

The Lakritos-letters

3§3 Letters 10, 125, 126, 133, and 134 concern a military chief and close friend of Phalaris, Lakritos. Letters 125 and 126 are addressed to him: he is engaged in a battle and Phalaris is both confident in the fact that he will be victorious and yet also fearful that his friend’s courage will lead him to audacious actions instead of preserving himself. Letters 133 and 134 take place after a battle, most probably the battle mentioned in the previous letters. They are addressed to Polymnestor: Lakritos informed Phalaris of the heroic actions of his ally and the tyrant wants him and his soldiers to accept his presents. Letter 10 is a consolation letter addressed to Lakritos who lost his son in a victorious battle—presumably the same event referred to in the other letters.

The Philodemos-letters

3§4 Seven letters deal with the wedding of Theano, the daughter of Philodemos, a Syracusan friend of Phalaris (25, 59, 80, 131, 135, 142, 143). Letter 142 is addressed to Teukros, Phalaris’  steward. He must give Kleainete a dowry of five talents for the wedding of her daughter Theano and pretend that the money is the reimbursement of a debt that Phalaris owes to her husband. Teukros has the task to hasten the wedding, to give presents to Theano, and to organize the party at Phalaris’ expense. In Letter 143, Phalaris urges Kleainete to marry her daughter without waiting for the return of her travelling husband Philodemos: with the five talents which Phalaris pretends to owe to Philodemos, there is no reason to postpone. From Letter 59 addressed to a Nausikles, the reader is informed that a certain Hermokrates wanted to keep Theano from receiving Phalaris’ presents. The other letters are situated after the wedding. Phalaris hears immediately of its having taken place, even before his steward writes to him. He asks Teukros to ensure that Theano and Leon continue to live in the house where they first met and that Philodemos will be envied rather than pitied by the Syracusans for having such a friend as Phalaris (Letter 135). Letter 25 is to be placed soon afterwards: Phalaris answers to Leon that the only thanks he owes is to love his wife. In Letter 80, Phalaris thanks Kleainete and Theano, but asks them not to name the latter’s child after him. Lastly, Letter 131 is addressed to Philodemos: Phalaris did not make vows for his safe return on account of interest (to be reimbursed for the five talents he gave for the dowry), but out of friendship; the tyrant also mentions his satisfaction that Theano, now a mother, confided to her father her gratitude towards him.

The family-letters

3§5 These letters (18, 19, 20, 40, 51, 67, 68, 69) form a fourth narrative line. From Letter 4, we know that Phalaris was exiled from his home city Astypalaea and became tyrant of Agrigente. He is thus separated from his wife Erythia and his son Paurolas, who are still living in Crete. Letters 18 and 69 are addressed to Erythia: Phalaris thanks her for not marrying again (although she has many proposals) and for taking care of their son by being both his father and his mother. In Letter 69, Phalaris presses her to send Paurolas to Agrigente: he is getting old and ill, and their son will soon come back, after being given a substantial patrimony. Letter 51 closes the narrative line: Erythia was poisoned by a certain Python, because she had refused to marry him and wanted to follow Phalaris; this cruel action the tyrant will never forgive. The other letters are written to Paurolas: they take place between 18 and 69. Letter 19 echoes Letter 18: Paurolas’ mother takes care of him in every manner, by being mother and father. While behaving well towards her, Paurolas wins his father’s gratitude. In Letters 20 and 67, Phalaris reproaches his son for neglecting the education of his mind and he warns him against tyranny (Letter 67) but he does not hesitate to praise him when he shows generosity towards his father (Letter 40) or towards friends (Letter 68).

The Leontinian-letters

3§6 These 13 letters[20] present Phalaris as a statesman and military chief in a war opposing the troops of the tyrant to the Sicilian city Leontinoi. The letters are divided in three phases: before (53, 58, 86, 96, 112), during (4, 5), and after the conflict (40, 32, 85, 46, 118, 148). Letters 58, 86, and 96 are addressed to orators who raised the Leontinians against Phalaris, while Letter 53 is addressed to the Leontinians themselves. Phalaris is not the least troubled by these men, and he mocks the Leontinians’ preparations for the war. He has the right on his side, as he reminds them in Letters 96 and 112, and is sure of his superiority (Letters 53 and 112). In Letter 4, Phalaris writes to Lykinos, an orator who spoke against him at the assembly of the Leontinians, about his hopes that his fellow-citizens will deliver him to the tyrant and thus end the war. The same demand is made to the Leontinians themselves in Letter 5. Phalaris announces his victory in an arrogant way to an enemy (Letter 32) and with humility to a friend—the victory is due to τύχη (Letter 85). In Letter 40, Phalaris mentions to his son a sacrifice that he made to celebrate his victory against the Leontinians. Letter 46 reports the Leontinians’ δουλεία (for having sunk a warship) and in Letters 118 and 148, Phalaris asks some Sicilian cities for money and mentions that the Leontinians already gave some without hesitation.

The Stesikhoros-letters

3§7 The biggest group of letters are those mentioning the poet Stesikhoros, a citizen of Himera (15, 22, 31, 33, 36, 54, 56, 63, 65, 67, 73, 78, 79, 88, 92, 93, 94, 103, 108, 109, 121, 144, 145, 146, 147). The group integrates then all the letters concerning the Himerans, and contains both public and private letters. These letters relate the development of the relationship between Phalaris and the poet. In seven letters, Stesikhoros is considered a political enemy (121, 108, 109, 88, 93, 94), whom Phalaris hunts down, puts in jail, and finally releases. Another seven letters display a closer connection to Stesikhoros (145, 146, 147, 22, 73, 63): they are based on the contrast between political and poetic activity (Stesikhoros should turn away from the first and devote himself to the second) and show that Phalaris is confident in Stesikhoros’ loyalty. Letters 78, 144, 79, and 65 deal with a poem that Phalaris asks as a big favor from his friend Stesikhoros and include his thanks to the poet whose verses he highly praises. The last five letters (103, 31, 15, 33, 54) are written after Stesikhoros’ death: they concern his last wills as well as his legacy and express Phalaris’ immense admiration towards the poet.

3§8 Merkle and Beschorner only mentioned the six narrative lines they thought most important. However, complementary “stories” may be added. They concern especially Phalaris’ relationships to other cities such as Kamarina (48, 75, 82, 101, 113, 114, 118, 136), Katania (30, 54, 104), Ennea (81, 137, 148), Malta (46, 83, 117), Messina (21, 84, 85?), Megara (2, 52), or Segesta (46, 3)[21]. These “short stories” explore the political and economical relations that Phalaris develops in his Sicilian environment and show a variety of situations. Thus they enlarge the picture and supplement the main narrative lines described above: they show different aspects of Phalaris’ behavior as a statesman and military chief.

3§9 The same remarks work for individual characters. Teukros is mentioned in seven letters (11, 15, 43, 64, 70, 135, 142), Pythagoras and Kleisthenes in three (23, 56, 74 and 77, 95, 110, respectively). These sequences of letters also form short narrative lines and enrich the portrait drawn of Phalaris, by exploring his dealings with a close subordinate and with a philosopher[22] or a democratic politician.

Secondary links and bridges between the lines: a network of letters

4§1 As has been shown, an examination of the occurrences of names in the letters leads to the following statement: several narrative lines of various extent unite the letters of Phalaris. But they are not the only way the letters are linked to each other. There are also secondary links and—more importantly—“bridges” between the narrative lines: these features reinforce the coherence of the corpus.

4§2 Even within the short complementary lines we have listed, further connections may be established. In Letter 121, Phalaris asks the Himerans to hand over the same Nikarkhos who addresses the Kamarinans in Letter 114. Letter 116 mentions the miserable fate of Kleombrotos, also alluded to in Letter 136 addressed to Timander. Timander is, in turn, mentioned as a counterexample in Letter 105. As for the Messinans who kept the offerings sent by Phalaris to the gods (Letter 84), Letter 140 explains without naming them that they sent the goods back, for fear of danger[23].

4§3 Among the letters addressed to Teukros, Letter 43 mentions Aristomenes and Hippolytion, two men who are also direct addressees of Phalaris in Letter 28 (Aristomenes), and in Letters 41 and 42 (Hippolytion). Furthermore, Letter 70 alludes to the naval captains already mentioned in Letter 7. To these secondary links (with isolated letters), connections to other narrative lines also appear: Letter 15 makes a link to the Tauromenitans and to Stesikhoros, and Letters 135 and 142 build a “bridge” to the story of Theano’s wedding.

4§4 In the letters concerning Polykleitos of Messina, Letter 21 addressed to the Messinans and Letter 70 addressed to Teukros connect the doctor’s story with these two other narrative lines[24].

4§5 In the letters dealing with Theano’s wedding, Letter 59 mentions that a certain Hermokrates wants to keep Theano from receiving Phalaris’ presents. It is probably the same Hermokrates whom Phalaris orders the Himerans to deliver up in Letter 121, building, then, a “bridge” to the Stesikhoros letters.

4§6 The family-letters also comprise connections to several other narrative lines: Letter 40 in which Phalaris thanks his son for the crown he sent to him, adding that he wore it for the sacrifice in honor of his victory against the Leontinians[25]; Letter 67 where Phalaris explains to his son that he heard in Himera Stesikhoros’ daughters singing; and Letter 69 where Phalaris’ allusion to the incurable illness he just recovered from  provides a link to the Polykleitos-letters.

4§7 Among the letters concerning the war against the Leontinians, Letter 46 mentions a war ship lost by Phalaris, and thus draws a secondary link to Letter 7, addressed to Evenus whose son has wronged Phalaris’ naval captains, and to Letter 8 addressed to Sameas in which Phalaris rejoices in his victory in a trial as well as in naval, infantry, and cavalry battles. The links extend even further as Letter 8 gives the result of the trial opposing Phalaris to his neighboring cities mentioned in Letter 2 to the Megarans, and Letter 121 shows the same Sameas sent in an embassy to Phalaris instead of Hermokrates, Konon, and Stesikhoros. Letters 46, 2, and 121 then connect the Leontinian-letters to the Maltese, Megaran, and Himeran plots. Furthermore, Letter 85 to Timonax explains that Phalaris is not only victorious over the Leontinians, but also over their allies the Tauromenitans and the citizens of Zankle and that he received 100 talents as a ransom for the prisoners. Thus Letter 85 builds a link to Letters 15, 31, and 33, i.e. all the letters concerning the Tauromenitans and the ransom they have to pay: the dealings with the Tauromenitans then just appear as one of the consequences and developments of the Leontinian-narrative line. Maybe it is even possible to make further connections: given that the war with the Leontinians seems to comprise all the battles and war events mentioned in the letters of Phalaris, one may assume that the whole set of letters concerning Lakritos (10, 125, 126, 133, 134), which also refers to a victorious battle, take place during the same war: they would form a subplot of the Leontinian-letters. Other letters would be added: Letter 28, where Phalaris is wounded during a victorious battle and Letter 138 where the mercenaries are said to have arrived when the battle was already won; Letters 55 and 62 to Timosthenes after the taking of a fort might also be part of the same narrative line. These elements suggest that the details of the war with the Leontinians are only progressively transmitted to the reader by small touches; he has the task to reconstruct the whole action, as he goes along with new pieces of information.

4§8 Lastly, in the letters concerning the Himerans and their fellow-citizen Stesikhoros, Letter 63 has the same addressee as Letter 61 (Aristolokhos); Letter 121 mentions, apart from Sameas, a man named Nikarkhos who is also the recipient of Letter 114; Letter 145 compares Stesikhoros’ nephew to the gymnasiarchos Agesilas, the addressee of Letter 132, and draws a parallel situation to Letter 36 sent to the gymnasiarchos Kleomenidas; and Letter 147 informs Stesikhoros of Aristophon’s punishment, a man who is also an actor in Letters 16, 26, 72, and 128[26]. Finally, as Stesikhoros has links with the Tauromenitans (15, 31, 33), who are also part of the Leontinian plot as seen above, the main two narrative lines (Phalaris’ dealings with Stesikhoros and the war against the Leontinians) are interconnected.


5§1 We started this paper by looking at the names of the addressees in the letters of Phalaris and by tracking the reappearance of these names from one letter to another. In this way, different narrative lines became visible: not only the six lines distinguished by Merkle and Beschorner, but also other complementary lines. These narrative lines also extend if one takes into account the secondary links they build with other isolated letters. Up to this point, the image best describing the structure of the letters of Phalaris would be the image of a galaxy: several planets (the narrative lines) with one or a few satellites (the secondary links) gravitating around a common star (Phalaris). But we have also seen that there were further links, which we called “bridges,” connecting one narrative line to another. The frequency of these connections between the narrative lines shows that they are not incidental. What emerges is a network of interconnected letters, whose center is Phalaris: the letters of Phalaris look then rather like a web. They describe a small world, a coherent universe where people interact. Characters come back from one letter to another, with different roles, and the reader is expected to recognize them. Phalaris is therefore inscribed within different circles of relationships, circles which are interdependent and evolve with the time.

5§2 From the results of this initial investigation, broader conclusions emerge concerning the composition of the corpus and its authorship. Firstly, the letters work together as a whole. Placing Phalaris in the center of various relationships, both public and private, they construct a moral portrait of the tyrant, and are intended as an ethopoiia (i.e. the representation of a character by imitative speech). The portrait grows richer with the variety of situations which Phalaris faces, and this explains why the parallel series are important: for example, in the relationships between Phalaris and the other Sicilian cities, many scenarios appear (friendship, conflicts and plotting, war, debts, subjection, and freedom). On the one hand, the corpus looks then more realistic (all these dealings are expected of a ruler’s life), but on the other hand, it allows also the reader to compare the reactions of Phalaris in these different situations and consequently to better understand his behavior and feelings—and their evolution or change. More generally, there lies the function of the narrative lines: they contribute to the moral portrait of Phalaris and deepen the description, by working on a larger scale and allowing evolutions and nuances; they draw, so to say, a portrait in action. The aim is the moral portrait and the use of narrative lines is one of the ways to achieve it. This touches one of the issues discussed in the introduction: inside epistolary fiction, which label should be used to describe the letters of Phalaris? The conclusion drawn from our inquiry is that they are neither a random collection of (disconnected) letters nor an epistolary novel, but a curious object equidistant from these two poles: they are a large but coherent set of letters exploring Phalaris’ personality. The term coherent, though, has to be clarified: it refers to the fact that the interconnected narrative lines that emerge throughout the letters build a consistent world and give a unified image of Phalaris; it does not mean that the letters are ordered chronologically or thematically.

5§3 This question of the letters’ organization leads to the aesthetic choices developed within the corpus. The letters of Phalaris consciously play with two features characteristic of epistolary writing: the poetics of fragment and the poetics of variation. When told through several letters, a story cannot be linear, there are natural breaks in the narration, namely, the separations between the letters. Furthermore, many elements of the context are implicit between the narrator and his addressee and elements known from both are just alluded to, not detailed. Epistolary writing is then often fragmentary: the reader has to reconstruct the story. In addition, the presence of different narrators and/or addressees allows variations in the point of view: seen by other eyes, a story may appear under a different light, and the narrator also adapts his story to his recipient. These two aspects, fragmentary writing and variation, are particularly present in the letters of Phalaris. Indeed, the reader is invited to a sophisticated game. As we have seen, the cohesion between the letters is hidden by the multiplicity of addressees.  At first sight, the letters do not seem to deal with the same questions, because they are not addressed to the same persons; the reader feels even more lost as the number of recipients is high. Progressively though, more elements appear, skillfully distilled from one letter to another, which allow us to reconstruct what happened (for example, we learn unexpectedly in Letter 140 addressed to a certain Polystratos that the Messenians who had kept gifts that Phalaris consecrated to the gods had to give them back). This reconstruction game is particularly complex since, first, the reader has only one half of the correspondence (except for Letter 57, we have no response of Phalaris’ addressees) so that the other half has to be inferred from the existing letters and, second, there are several plots going on. Variation also adds to the complexity of the reconstruction. For example, three letters deal with the dowry of five talents which Phalaris gives to Theano: Letter 131 is addressed to Philodemos, the girl’s father; Letter 142 to Teukros, Phalaris’ steward; and Letter 143 to the mother. To Teukros, Phalaris orders that he should pretend that the five talents are a debt he owes to Philodemos, while to the mother he personally attests it. The letter to Philodemos serves as a proof to what really happened: there never was debt of five talents. Phalaris has lied to Theano’s mother in order to make the arrangements easier and hasten the wedding. Thus the three letters deal with the same topic, but from different perspectives and it is by comparing them that the reader can approach the truth. To resume: the letters of Phalaris play with suspense and comprise a part of surprise; they require an active and careful reader, attentive to the clues spread throughout the letters to recompose the different plots and draw a complete portrait of Phalaris. In this respect, they display a sophisticated composition whose literary value should not be underestimated.

5§4 At this point, a few words must be said about the order of the letters. As we saw, the original order of the letters was lost during the process of transmission or there never was a specific order because different letters or groups were progressively added. Or could it be that they were originally presented in disorder voluntarily[27]? The last arguments we developed suggest that it may indeed have been the case to spice up the task of the reader.

5§5 Finally, let us turn back to the authorship of the letters. The links between the letters, the consistent image of Phalaris they draw, as well as the literary techniques adopted point to a coherent project designed as a whole. Of course, there are additions to the corpus, as shown in Letter 57 addressed by Abaris to Phalaris and Letter 27 also attributed to Libanios[28], but the extent of these additions remains doubtful. If our analysis does not prove that the letters of Phalaris were mostly written by a single author—a common project may also be achieved by several hands—it suggests that this hypothesis should not be rejected before further examination.


Bentley, R. 1699. A Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris. With an answer to the Objections of the Honourable Charles Boyle, Esquire. London.

Bianchetti, S. 1987.  Falaride e Pseudofalaride. Storia e leggenda. Rome.

Bruno, O. 1967.  “L’epistola 92 dello Pseudo-Falaride e i Nostoi di Stesicoro.” Helikon 7:323–356.

Dyce, A., ed. 1836–1838. The Works of Richard Bentley I–III, London. [contains A Dissertation upon the Epistles of Phalaris. With an answer to the Objections of the Honourable Charles Boyle, Esquire, London, 1699].

Hercher, R. 1873. Epistolographi Graeci. Paris.

Hinz, V. 2001. Nunc Phalaris doctum protulit ecce caput. Munich.

Holzberg, N. 1994. Der griechische Briefroman. Tübingen.

MacLeod, M. D. 1987. Luciani Opera IV. Oxford.

Merkle, S., and A. Beschorner. 1994. “Der Tyrann und der Dichter: Handlungssequenzen in den Phalaris-Briefen.” In Holzberg 1994:116–168.

Rosenmeyer, P. A. 2001. Ancient Epistolary Fictions. Cambridge.

Russell, D. A. 1988. “The Ass in the Lion’s Skin: Thoughts on the Letters of Phalaris.JHS 108:94–106.

Tudeer, L. O. Th. 1931. “The Epistles of Phalaris. Preliminary investigation of the manuscripts.” Annales scientiarum fennicae, ser. B, 26:1–128.

[1] On the history of the letters of Phalaris from the Renaissance to the seventeenth century, cf. Hinz 2001:146–384.

[2] Greece, Germany, US, Italy, Belgium, Roumania, UK, Spain, Turkey, Israel, Netherlands, Russia, France, Czech Republic, Vatican, Austria, Croatia, Switzerland.

[3] Hercher 1873 mentions only three manuscripts in his adnotatio critica: Paris. gr. 1038, 2012, and 3047.

[4] Bentley 1699 cf. Dyce 1836–1838.

[5] Bruno 1967:353n92.

[6] Bianchetti 1987:150, 228–234.

[7] Bruno 1967:325, 348; Bianchetti 1987:169, 199.

[8] Tudeer 1931:4.

[9] Russell 1988:97. See also Hinz 2001:13n10.

[10] MacLeod 1987:XVI. See also Merkle and Beschorner 1994:116, 164n112.

[11] Hinz 2001:415 and 13n10 refering to Tudeer, Russell, Bianchetti.

[12] On the links of the letters of Phalaris with epistolary novel, see Merkle and Beschorner 1994.

[13] Hercher’s Epistolography Graeci remains the standard edition of the letters of Phalaris and hence the base of this paper. The manuscripts present some variations in the name of certain addressees: since these differences seem to concern a limited amount of letters, it should not alter our general results.

[14] 58: Πολυστράτῳ καὶ Δαΐσκῳ; 64: Ἀμφιδάμαντι καὶ Θρασυβούλῳ.

[15] 31: Ταῖς Στησιχόρου θυγατράσι / Stesichori filiabus; 103: Τοῖς Στησιχόρου παίσιν / Stesichori liberis.

[16] We use parenthesis to indicate that the letter mentioned contains the name of a character or a city but without this character or city being the recipient of the letter.

[17] Merkle and Beschorner 1994:120–165.

[18] We order them from the smallest group of letters to the most developed group.

[19] We adopt in the following summary Merkle and Beschorner’s division and chronology of the letters. The place of a few letters could be discussed in details but we agree with the arguments developed by the two authors against the apparent inconsistencies raised by Bruno 1967:347–352, Bianchetti 1987:201–203, 227f., and Russell 1988:97–101.

[20] Merkle and Beschorner 1994:120–121 count 11 letters (4, 5, 32, 46, 53, 58, 85, 86, 96, 112, 118); two are to be added: Letter 40 and Letter 148. The two scholars mention Letter 40 but consider it primarily as a family letter. As we will see for others, this letter is part of two narrative lines.

[21] All these cities are direct addresses in one or more letters. The Syracusans (36, 78, 100, 111, 120, 124, 135, 142), Agrigentians (4, 21, 39, 79, 84, 94, 136), Tauromenitans (15, 31, 33, 85) and the Gelians, Hyblaeans, and Phintians (118, 148) are also mentioned in the letters but are never recipients of Phalaris’ letters. They form the background of the letters of Phalaris and add to the Sicilian flavor of the corpus. Their mentions in the letters do not constitute proper narratives lines (except maybe, for the Tauromenitans, who are part of the Leontinian plot, cf. infra).

[22] See also Letters 56 and 57, concerning the Scythian Abaris, considered as a philosopher as well.

[23] Similarily, Letter 140 may allude to the seven talents stolen by the Katanians: Phalaris is precise that those who stole his possessions were compelled to give them back.

[24] According to Hercher, letter 1 is addressed to a Lykinos, one of the doctor’s accusers, thus drawing a link to letters 4 and 5 and the Leontinian-narrative (Phalaris asking the city to hand over Lykinos to him), but there are divergencies in the manuscript tradition.

[25] Cf. n21.

[26] The addressee of the Letters 16 and 26, however, is doubtful in the manuscript tradition.

[27] Rosenmeyer 2001:225f. explores this possibility. Consequently, she refuses to reorder the letters in a chronological sequence and insists on the active participation of the reader as part of the epistolary game (229–230).

[28] Letter 27 = Epist. 1574 in Libanios’ corpus.