Love Letters and Erotic Letters: Antiquity and Beyond

Old letters LCS


An interdisciplinary research project on the love letter and erotic letter genres from antiquity to the present day 

This project will establish an international Research Network involving scholars of ancient and modern languages, literatures, and cultures, in many sub-disciplines (including Classical Reception Studies, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, the History of Sexuality, Literary Criticism, Palaeography, Papyrology, Textual Criticism).

The project will begin by investigating the classical forms or genres of the love letter and the erotic epistle, encompassing both literary compositions and real documents, poetry and prose, as well as contemporary writings about the form, literary critical and prescriptive (manuals or model letters). The investigation will then draw on Renaissance and Modern texts influenced by the classical genre and the development of the genre, as well as Comparative Literature treatments of the genre across eras and across cultures, in order to place the classical forms in a wider context and shed new light on both the more and the less well known ancient letters, from Ovid to Aristaenetus.

Research Network

The research network will aim

  1. to secure funding for future conferences and projects
  2. to facilitate links and collaborations between researchers in any discipline working on the love letter and erotic letter genres, literary or documentary, who are interested in:
  • the genre in antiquity;
  • the development of the genre from antiquity to the present;
  • modern receptions / Nachleben of ancient love letters;
  • comparative literature approaches to the form.

To achieve this, the membership will be listed here along with (eventually) the contact details and relevant research interests of members, so that researchers may find others with shared interests. Any scholar or researcher (PhD candidate status or beyond) may join the network simply by request, giving their institutional affiliation and listing their research interests related to the network’s theme. Please contact to request membership.

Dr Bev Back (Leeds)
Professor Ewen Bowie (Oxford)
Professor Lucio Del Corso (Cassino)
Dr Melissa Funke (Winnipeg)
Professor Rafael Gallé Cejudo (Cadiz)
Professor Roy Gibson (Manchester)
Dr Patrik Granholm (Uppsala)
Dr Emeline Marquis (Humboldt University, Berlin)
Dr Andrew Morrison (Manchester)
Professor Ingela Nilsson (Uppsala)
Dr Federica Pich (Leeds)
Antonios Pontoropoulos (Uppsala)
Yvonne Rösch (Bonn)
Professor Patricia Rosenmeyer (UNC at Chapel Hill)
Dr Antonia Sarri (Manchester)
Professor Thomas Schmitz (Bonn)
Professor Steven D. Smith (Hofstra University, New York)
Dr Paul White (Leeds)

Ancient Love Letters: Towards a Research Network

Position Paper: Draft 1, 14.1.18

Ancient Greek and Latin love letters and erotic letters form a large and surprisingly neglected body of texts, both by modern translators and thus the wider reading public, and by students and scholars. Most of the work that has been undertaken is on the Latin side, with little or no reference to the idea of an ancient genre of love letters, and with little or no reference to the Greek side. Nevertheless, a now seldom read text such as Philostratus’ (3rdCentury AD Greek) Erotic Epistles, to take just one example, has provided the inspiration for Shakespearean sonnets and poems of Ben Jonson, and has been fruitfully compared with modern works such as Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. The themes and later influences of these texts would appeal to as wide a reading public as many other Greek and Roman classics in translation (in mass market series such as Penguin Classics, Everyman, etc.), if there were modern and accessible translations of them. Their great interest for scholars not only of classics but of the genre of love letters in modern literatures, comparatively and in reception studies, and in the history of sexuality, would also be multiplied many times from the current trickle of scholarly interest by the availability of modern and accessible translations, commentaries, and interpretative studies.

Scholarship on some of the more neglected texts has started to increase, but mainly in isolated pockets around the world, and establishing and maintaining a Research Network with conferences and an online presence would facilitate exchange of ideas and lead to greater collaboration opportunities, both on the essential pre-requisites for some of the texts (editions, translations, commentaries), on interpretation of individual texts, and engaging a wider public interest in some of the neglected texts to compare with the better known, usually Latin examples. At the same time it would serve to bring together scholars working on the better with the less known texts, the Latin with the Greek, the prose and the verse, the fictional, the literary, and the real (e.g. papyri) epistolary texts, along with Comparative Literature and Reception scholars, in order to give proper consideration to questions of (a) love letter / erotic genre(s) and their Nachleben or Reception in the Medieval, Renaissance, and modern genre of the love letter.


Ancient ‘epistolary theory’ (or literary criticism that discusses how to write letters) and model letters is often extremely detailed and prescriptive, presenting explicit and implicit typologies of letters – letters of invitation, letters to accompany gifts, etc. – as well as instruction about literary features such as style, tone, and register. Such manuals, typologies, and model letters, following the classical ones (often very closely) exist for each successive era. Alongside such theoretical texts, we find examples both real and literary, more and less elaborated from but often recognisably belonging to these prescribed categories. The love letter and erotic letter are anomalous, in that they do not appear in ancient ‘epistolary theory’ or model letters, but are no less common in literature for that. In some ways, their absence from ancient typologies is not a mystery: such typologies existed for the purpose of business letters—in which friendship featured heavily, e.g. for the maintenance of appropriate forms and formulae of amicitia between patron and client, business associates, etc. Love letter templates were not required for these purposes. But this leaves the ancient love letter and erotic letter – like the ancient romance/novel, to take another example – a genre without a specific ancient label or category, without a body of ancient literary theory either prescribing how it should be written or describing and analysing its main exponents. It is simply not mentioned a great deal outside the texts of its own authors. Despite this, there are of course similarities and patterns, developments over time, intertextualities and imitations, and so on, as in any genre (or subgenre) between several individual epistolary texts and collections or books of letters; there may also be interesting similarities between real and literary letters of this genre, as with other kinds of letters. Because of this, an ‘implicit poetics’ of the ancient love letter genre might be sought in the texts themselves, and can only emerge from a greater collaboration and cross-fertilisation of ideas between scholars working on different authors and eras, those working on Greek and Latin letters, and so on, than has hitherto been the case.

In another way, the absence of a clear category and description of the love letter or erotic letter in antiquity is still surprising, given that there are numerous examples, which have in some cases (e.g. Ovid) been extremely influential on both epistolary practice and epistolary theory in later eras; and the simple fact that we have a preconceived idea in the modern era of the love-letter as an obvious genre is neither unconnected with the ancient texts of this form – perhaps some of the less well known examples as well as the most – nor irrelevant to studying and analysing the ancient texts in terms of genre, since the formation of a literary genre(s) or sub-genre(s) of erotic letters might only be seen to have taken place in hindsight, when a significant number of examples have accrued (as with any genre). 


The corpus of investigation for the project includes:

1. all ancient* Greek and Latin, prose and verse letters and texts with epistolary features, literary and ‘real’ (e.g. papyri) that are either               

a) ‘love letters’ in the sense of being addressed by a lover to a beloved or intended beloved, or otherwise

b) ‘erotic letters’, in having eros (in any of its possible meanings) or love among their main themes—thus including e.g. love stories in the epistolary form.

The reason for this dual inclusion is simply that there is significant overlap between the contents and sometimes the authors of letters of both kinds, and no doubt mutual influence between them. It might also be the case that before the solidification of the ‘love letter’ as an established literary form or subgenre, it will be useful to consider these ‘erotic letters’ as part of the process of the formation of the genre.

*‘Ancient’ here will have a relatively generous definition, since the bulk of extant literary texts in these forms are quite late in antiquity. We shall probably take Theophylact Simocatta as the end point of the ancient phase of investigation.

2. Renaissance and modern texts belonging to these forms, similarly broadly defined as (1) above, in any language, provided that they may be fruitfully compared with the ancient texts and illuminate discussions of genre (or of the individual ancient corpora). These will be investigated under the ambits of

a) Development of the genre,

b) Receptions / Nachleben of the ancient texts, and

c) Comparative literature studies.

3. Marginal cases:

Since part of the focus of investigation is the boundaries and the development of a genre, ‘marginal cases’, texts whose identity as letters are more dubious or debatable, as well as texts whose thematic connections are not so strong, are naturally liable to come under investigation as well under both (1) and (2) above.

4. Theory: any literary-theoretical works, from any of the periods and cultures and languages under consideration, that discuss, define, analyse, prescribe, or exemplify with model letters, the forms of the ‘love letter’ or ‘erotic letter’.

Examples: (intended only to illustrate the breadth of possible inclusions for the sake of comparison, defining the boundaries of [a] genre[s], investigating the genre’s development, etc.)

Selected Greek and Latin epigrammatic texts bearing epistolary or similar features;

Cicero’s and Pliny’s letters to their wives;

Ovid’s Heroides and some of his Tristia;

Some of Marcus Aurelius’ and Fronto’s correspondence;

Philostratus’ Erotic Epistles, Aristaenetus, Theophylact Simocatta;

Some (only those with erotic themes) of Alciphron’s and Aelian’s Epistles;

Principle research areas and aims of investigation of the project:

(All papers for the first, March 2018 conference will shed light upon, and be discussed, in the context of one or more of these questions, but most will take the form of case studies of an individual author or text, or a small set of texts.)

  1. Definitions and development of (a) literary genre(s) of ‘love letters’ and ‘erotic letters’ in antiquity and beyond.

  2. Comparison and investigation of intertextuality between all examples within antiquity –

    a) including the question of Latin authors alluded to by later Greek authors.

  3. The question of possible reciprocal influence of real and literary letters on erotic themes upon one another.

  4. The question of possible interactions between ‘epistolary theory’ and all literary-theoretical texts on the one hand, and the form, motifs, topoi, etc., of examples of love letters and erotic letters on the other hand.

  5. Reception / influence / Nachleben of individual ancient texts or sets of ancient texts in the corpus, in Renaissance and modern texts in similar or related forms.

  6. Comparative Literature studies that, while not arguing for a direct intertextual link, shed useful light on the project’s larger questions about the genres under investigation. (An example would be Thomas Schmitz’s 2017 Arethusa article, a comparative study of Philostratus’ Erotic Epistles with Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments.)

    First phase outputs:

    Conference (1), March 2018, and edited volume.

    Focus primarily on the Ancient Corpus and on the questions of genre, including definition and development (predominantly qs.1-4 above)

The conference of invited speakers will lead to an Edited Volume, co-edited by Tiziana Drago (Bari) and Owen Hodkinson (Leeds). This will consist of (provisionally, all ca. 12) papers from the conference, plus an extensive (ca. 10,000 words) Introduction to the themes and aims of the project. Additional papers not presented at the conference might perhaps be considered for inclusion, but only subject to the following consideration. The edited volume will be produced speedily: submitted by the end of 2018 for publication in 2019, in order that it can serve as a more substantial set of Position Papers for the next phase of the project, should further funding be secured. 

Beginning the Network

The Ancient Love Letters Research Network will initially be established as a relatively small web presence, in the form of a web-page hosted under the Research pages of Classics at Leeds. This will list members of the Network and their addresses and links to their webpages, and their particular interests, areas of expertise, and publications of relevance to the project. The conference’s page will appear as a sub-page of the project page. The pages will both promote the project and facilitate future communication and collaboration by scholars with connected interests through this focal point. 

Members will initially be all invited speakers and other invited participants at the first conference, but will be expanded freely to include anyone with relevant research interests and expertise who would like to join or who is recommended by other members.

Phase 2 and beyond (subject to the success of further funding applications)

Funding applications

Applications will initially be made for the networking grants, to establish the Research Network on a larger scale and extend its activity. Such an application, if successful, could result in two further years, 2019 – 2021, with a workshop to be held in Bari in summer/autumn 2019 and another to be held in Leeds in 2020, leading to further co-edited volumes.

Subsequently, applications for different forms of project and larger scale grants will be developed, following up the outputs and applications produced to date. The timing of these applications will depend on the success and timescale of the networking grant applications, in order for the successor project to follow on from the end of the funded period.

Irrespective of the outcome of further funding applications, the Research Network as a minimum will continue as a web presence as described above, facilitating collaboration and communications and leading to future projects, and future conferences or workshops hosted by any members who wish to do so, and funded by smaller, conference-specific grants.

Outline activities and outputs

Academic activities and outputs will at this stage expand their remit to all questions (1-6) detailed above, while continuing to include papers and chapters dedicated to individual authors/texts and smaller groups of texts as well as to broader generic questions.

Impact and Public Engagement activities will be built into all future applications for the project. These will include:

  • a public exhibition of real and literary love letters from antiquity to the present, in all their variety, in the form of papyri, manuscripts, incunabula, letters, etc.

  • Commissioning translations of selected examples from the corpus – especially the less well known and less available texts – by well known authors and poets, in order to create a published anthology for a wider public, with examples to be included on the project webpage. (A) public reading event(s) by some of the commissioned authors.

Areas facilitated by network – individual members

While events organised by the Network, and outputs produced or published by the Network, will focus on questions 1-6, i.e. the genre, its limits, its development, connections between texts, and studies of individual texts in order to illuminate some of those questions, it will also be the Network’s aim to encourage, facilitate, and publicise, collaborative and individual projects by its members, working on any of the texts in the corpus, in the form of:

  • critical editions;

  • new translations, into any language, aimed at an academic or a wider audience, including anthologies;

  • commentaries;

  • literary studies in the form of monographs, articles, or edited volumes, etc.

It will particularly be concerned to encourage a wider reading knowledge and accessibility of some of the less well known (mainly the Greek, and the non-literary texts preserved on papyri) texts, through translations for any audience and in any form and language (including with notes or with full commentary), so that students and future students and scholars, including those working in modern and comparative literature, and authors and poets who translate or write work that responds to the classics, will be more likely to come across such texts in the corpus and produce future works in these areas. This is because there are many such texts with no modern and/or no currently in-print translation of any kind into some of the main modern languages in which the Greek and Latin classics are read or studied; many more have no in-print translation aimed at a wider public (such as the Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics or Everyman series in English); and almost none have a full commentary in any language or of any date devoted to them. (Tiziana Drago’s commentary on Aristaenetus is the notable exception). 


Conference 2018

Ancient Love Letters

University of Leeds, 22-23 March 2018 Baines Wing Seminar Room G.37

Speakers and titles:

Ewen Bowie (Oxford) “Letters before letters”

Lucio Del Corso (Cassino) “In a sentimental mood? Love, sex, marriage (and other catastrophes) in personal  letters (and everyday documents) from Graeco-Roman Egypt”

Tiziana Drago (Bari) “The Letters of Aristaenetus: Hyperliterary, intertextuality and formalized erotic language”

Melissa Funke (Winnipeg) “Epistolarity, eroticism, and agency: the female voice in fictional Greek love letters”

Rafael Gallé Cejudo (Cadiz) “Mapping some of the generic borders of the Greek love letter”

Owen Hodkinson (Leeds) “Philostratus and Latin elegy revisited”

Emeline Marquis (Humboldt University, Berlin) “Alciphron: the erotic letters in the spotlight”

Andrew Morrison (Manchester) “Order and structure in the Letters of Philostratus”

Antonios Pontoropoulos (Uppsala) “Erotic correspondences: Issues of structure and organization in the Philostratean Erotic Letters

Yvonne Rösch (Bonn) “Great expectations: Love letters in Ovid’s Amores 1.11–1.12 and Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans 10”

Steven D. Smith (Hofstra University, New York) “Is Diogenes in love with a eunuch? The erotic subtext of Theophylact Simocatta Ep. 43”


Organisers: Owen Hodkinson (Leeds) and Tiziana Drago (Bari)

University of Leeds, School of Languages, Cultures and Societies in partnership with the Department of Linguistics and Philology, Uppsala University.

With financial support from the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond: The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences.

For more information please contact

Publications and outputs

Download a copy of our abstracts.



Download a pdf of the conference programme

Download a pdf of the conference poster