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Foreign Anxiety in the Letters of Philostratus

Chris Bingley

UCLA, History Department

The Erotic Letters of Philostratus (c.170s-late 240s C.E.) consist of seventy-three letters, the majority addressed to anonymous boys and women and seventeen to named sophists and Roman authorities. Many of the letters by displaying more “classicizing” elements appear to distance Philostratus from his contemporary world (Patricia Rosenmeyer). Yet scholars have used the letter addressed to Julia Domna (no. 73) to situate Philostratus as part of the empress’s literary circle (Graham Anderson; Simon Goldhill; Robert Penella). In this paper, I extend this argumentation to locate the narrator Philostratus in the city of Rome and I show how the Letters highlight foreignness as a category important to the sophist’s conception of contemporary identities. By placing the Letters more firmly in the category of Severan literature, it becomes clear that the preoccupation with foreignness gains renewed meaning during this period.

I first argue that an identity crisis in the Letters, in which the narrator Philostratus complains about the permeability of political borders and contrasts citizens with foreigners, points to a contemporary apprehension about foreigners. The narrator of the Letters often characterizes himself as “foreign” (xénos) and laments this status. Elsewhere, he describes himself as an “exile” (fugás) pushed out of his own country and suggests the mistreatment of foreigners. Philostratus’ occasional slippage between casting himself as “Roman” and as “foreign” in the letters tends to reflect the varied treatment and status of these foreign-born residents of Rome (the peregrini).

I furthermore make links between the narrator’s identity crisis and the political and cultural contexts of the text’s composition. Caracalla’s constitution (the Constitutio Antoniniana), which extended citizenship to free men across the empire, confused the previous distinction between the categories of citizen and non-citizen as well as Roman and non-Roman. In essence, some distinctions remained between various citizen and non-citizen groups, but the edict in many ways aimed to erase these differences. The letters suggest a confusion about perceived legal status of those from throughout the empire, especially in regard to their citizenship.

The imperial family is often negatively implicated in this confusion. One cryptic letter addressed to Caracalla (no. 72) chastises the emperor for unfit rulership, but also suggests his own status as an outsider in Rome. Other contemporary narratives of this period speak of a foreign intrusion into the city of Rome, in which outside and foreign influence was a common characteristic of living under the Severan regime. I show that the letters of Philostratus participate in the same discourse. For instance, some foreign locales mentioned in the letters – especially Egypt and India – are often indicative of Severan fascination with these regions. Read in conjunction with other contemporary sources such as Dio Cassius and Herodian, these elements cast the Severan family as foreign and even dangerous. Overall, I show that the content of Philostratus’ letters reflects the complicated status of the foreign-born in Rome and I demonstrate how this status affected perceptions of the Severan family as outsiders.

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Letters in the Ancient World

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