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The Documentary Letters of the Alexander Romance

Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne

The Alexander Romance, a historical novel composed between the late Hellenistic and High Imperial period, features over thirty letters inserted into the narrative framework. The drastic variation in length, content, and style of these letters has made it difficult to understand what role they play within the novel. Reinhold Merkelbach’s seminal study of the Alexander Romance in 1954 established a helpful distinction between the novel’s fantastical letters and those with a semblance of historical authenticity. However, neither Merkelbach nor successive scholars (Häag 1983, Rosenmeyer 2001) have established criteria for determining the historical plausibility of a given letter, or interrogated the author’s motives for embedding such letters into an explicitly fictional text. This paper remedies these methodological gaps first by determining what constitutes a historically plausible letter in the Alexander Romance, and then by explaining the purpose of historical letters within the novel at large.

First, I pinpoint distinctive features of non-literary correspondence from the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, using letters preserved in papyri and inscriptions. I identify common linguistic and stylistic features, such as the profusion of koine sound changes, hiatus, and formulaic lines of greeting and farewell (Welles 1934). This analysis also highlights three important narrative features of non-literary correspondence from this period: (1) acknowledgement of the writing activity and the materiality of the epistolary medium, (2) specificity of requests, and (3) demands for return mail. Only by determining the essential qualities of non-literary correspondence is it possible to speculate on the credibility and persuasiveness of historical letters in the Alexander Romance.   

Second, I demonstrate how the criteria of non-literary correspondence established in the first section of my paper map onto two letters of the Alexander Romance: Alexander’s letter to the Tyrians (1.35), and Darius’ letter to Alexander (2.10). The letter to the Tyrians masquerades as an authentic, historical document by adopting the stylistic features of Alexander’s genuine edicts, preserved in inscriptions from Priene and Chios. Darius’ letter to Alexander employs narrative features of non-literary correspondence to persuade the reader of its historical credibility: Darius references his own writing activity, makes a series of specific requests, and then demands return mail from his adversary. The letter of Darius becomes even more persuasive through its resemblance to the genre of petition letters (ἐντεύξεις) sent to Ptolemaic rulers from the third to first centuries BCE.

In the last section of my paper, I explain the role of historical letters in the Alexander Romance with a final example: the letter of Queen Candace of Meroë to Alexander (3.10). Meeting all the criteria of non-literary correspondence, this letter provides a perfect model of a historically plausibility, but Candace, the addressee, remains a semi-mythological character. By combining factual features and a fantastical addressee in the same letter, the author tests the boundaries of the reader’s credulity, entertaining him or her in a game of wits: can the reader distinguish fact from fiction? Thus I argue that the novel’s historical letters are best understood as products of pseudo-documentarism, a phenomenon identified by Hansen (2003) and Ní-Mheallaigh (2008) as the presentation of fictitious documents as authentic in ancient works of fiction.

While the Alexander Romance has often been regarded as a mediocre work of Greek prose, this paper argues for its greater literary sophistication by examining the novel’s historical letters as the techniques of play in a game of wit between writer and reader.

Session/Panel Title

Documentary Fallacies

Session/Paper Number

69.1

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