Research Project
Late Antique Epistolography: Letters between Literature and Society

In recent studies of the classical world, late Antiquity and epistolography have both received much attention. Whilst late antique Latin and Christian letters have been studied in great depth, some important contemporary non-Christian Greek letters have thus far been neglected. This project wishes to fill this gap by focusing on the letters of the sophist Libanius and the emperor Julian. Libanius (A.D. 314-393) bequeathed a letter collection containing some 1500 letters addressed to students, friends, colleagues, government officials, and emperors. Only partly translated into modern languages, these letters have mainly been quarried individually for information on topics such as prosopography or education. This project first of all studies Libanius’ letter collection as a literary work in its own right: How does Libanius engage with the previous epistolary tradition? How is his collection designed, and what is the impact of this design on the interpretation of the individual letters? And what caused these letters to become epistolary style models already during their author’s lifetime?

In order to answer these questions, a close reading of the letters will be combined with a contextualized study of both the earlier tradition and the late antique reception of Libanius’ letters, including several forged letters and epistolary treatises that were ascribed to Libanius. In a second stage, Libanius’ letters and collection will then be studied from a socioliterary point of view: How does Libanius use letters in order to create a personal network, and what kind of self-presentation does he project through his collection? Social network analysis will be drawn upon for this part of the project. The letters of the emperor Julian, the so-called Apostate (A.D. 361-363), are a unique source for his policies and personality. At the same time, they present important problems: there never seems to have existed a single collection and many a letter may have circulated individually; many forgeries are to be found amongst the letters and it is often disputed if a letter is authentic; often used as historical sources, the letters have rarely been situated in the context of the rhetorical or epistolographical practice of late Antiquity. The present project combines a literary (L. Van Hoof) and a historical (P. Van Nuffelen) approach to produce an integrated study of the letters. Its aim is two-fold. On the one hand, the genesis and development of the ›collection‹ is to be revisited. This can only be understood against the background of competing stereotypical images of Julian in pagan and Christian circles, which explain the creation of forged letters from a very early date onwards. On the other hand, the individual letters need to be understood as rhetorically constructed, literary artifacts. In the ›collection‹ they are forced into a certain context, thus risking to generate a biased impression. Set in their literary and social context, their meaning may be different from what it seems to be at first sight.

Selected Publications

Van Hoof, L. 2010. Plutarch’s Practical Ethics. The Social Dynamics of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Hoof, L. 2010. Greek Rhetoric and the Later Roman Empire. The Bubble of the »Third Sophistic«. L’antiquité tardive 18: 211-224.

Van Hoof, L. and P. Van Nuffelen. 2011. Monarchy and Mass Communication. Antioch 362/3 Revisited. Journal of Roman Studies 101: 166-184.

Van Hoof, L. 2011. »Libanius and the EU Presidency. Career Moves in the Autobiography« in P.-L. Malosse and O. Lagacherie (eds.): Libanios. Le premier humaniste. Salerno: Cardo, pp.193-206.

Van Hoof, L. (ed.) (forthcoming). Libanius. A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.