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The Imperial Bellerophon: Reading Archaic Tablets as Modern Books in the Second Sophistic

Joseph Howley

Columbia University

The folded tablet (Iliad 6.169: πίνακι πτυκτῷ) in which Bellerophon unwittingly carries the baleful signs (168: σήματα λυγρά) of his own death sentence in Iliad 6 has long tantalized modern readers with its early and allusive reference to the act and idea of writing.  And though many features and motifs attended Bellerophon as a mythic figure in antiquity (monster-slayer, wanderer, atheist), this chapter of his story became enough identified with him that by the time of tenth century, all the Suda would see fit to say of him was that Bellerophon was “the man whom Proitos wished to kill through his letters/writings to Iobates” (ὃν ὁ Προῖτος ἐβούλετο διὰ γραμμάτων αὐτοῦ τῶν πρὸς Ἰοβάτην ἀνελεῖν).  This paper argues that a crucial inflection point in this process was the first and second centuries CE, when Greek writers under Roman rule re-imagined Bellerophon’s tablets as modern—and hazardous—written media.

Bellerophon’s tablet has symbolized many things for modern scholars: for some, proof that Homer himself must have been literate (BELLAMY); for others, a foundational moment for understanding Greek ideas about written communication (STEINER).  Almost certainly a σύμβολον or “hospitality token” reimagined by the Homeric narrator as a “folded tablet”, it was recognizable to authors in Classical Athens as a δέλτος, familiar from their own daily lives.  This δέλτος appears Bellerophon’s hand everywhere from Greek pottery to Campanian wall painting (MORET, MEYER).  Bellerophon’s association with tablets becomes axiomatic, appearing not only in Greek and Latin literature but also the paroemiographic tradition, where we see that “Bellerophonic writings” and “being a Bellerophon against oneself” became common enough figures of speech to require glosses. By the early Roman imperial period Bellerophon’s association with tablets and writing was secure.

It is in the time of the so-called “second sophistic” that we see the format of Bellerophon’s writings updated more pointedly.  In Plutarch’s On Curiosity, the philosopher considers immoderate appetites for knowledge alongside those for sex, food and wine, and suggests that the written word can be as dangerous a site of seduction as the bedroom of a married woman.  Drawing a connection with another tradition of Bellerophon as continent, Plutarch equates his resisting the advances of a seductress to his not opening the “letters” with which he was entrusted (519D-E).  Only slightly later, Lucian, in his Against the ignorant book-collector, imagines his satiric target being asked his opinion of one of the deluxe editions he carries around as accessories: the humiliation would make him regret that he had, like Bellerophon, “carried around a book he hadn’t read” (18).

Both authors reimagine Bellerophon’s writing as a contemporary and threatening form of writing: Plutarch knows (and alludes to) a range of ways in which correspondence, one’s own or others, could be life-threatening at Rome, while Lucian reflects on the diverse catastrophic consequences of mishandling literary text under the power and social dynamics brought by Roman rule.  While Greek associations of writing and tyranny date back to Herodotus (STEINER, ZADOROJNYI), the imperial-era refiguring of Bellerophon’s tablets as modern books and letters points to more acute  anxieties about the handling and use of written media.  Plutarch and Lucian also reimagine Bellerophon as a non-reader, allowing us to see his story in the context of what the book historian Leah PRICE has called “doing things with books,” and alongside Roman practices of textual handling and destruction (HOWLEY).  Finally, the way that the flexibility and ambiguity of the myth is collapsed and reevaluated by Plutarch and Lucian gesture to not only the semantic but also the conceptual ranges of ancient ideas like “book,” “tablet,” and “writing.”  The Iliadic Bellerophon may belong to longue-durée narratives of the history of literacy, but his imperial inflections offer us a way to begin imagining an ancient history of the book written in the specific terms antiquity itself used.

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Materiality and Literary Culture

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