Item of the Day: The Epistles of Phalaris (1749)

Full Title: The Epistles of Phalaris. Translated from the Greek. To which are added, Some Select Epistles of the most eminent Greek Writers. By Thomas Francklin. London: Printed for R. Francklin, in Russel-Street, Covent-Garden, MDCCXLIX.



THERE is no kind of writing, which can boast of more admirers than the epistolary. The letters of the Greeks and Romans, which have been preserved, are look’d upon by the learned world as the most precious remains of antiquity. This may easily be accounted for, when we consider that the real characters of great men are perhaps better known by such private anecdotes as are usually interspersed in these friendly correspondencies, than in the pompous accounts of their public transactions, which we hear from the historian. We take pleasure in seeing the prince, the lawgiver, the orator, or the poet, in the humbler sphere of domestic life, and writing without art or reserve as father, a brother, or a friend. We are proud of being, as it were, admitted to a secret intimacy with such men; a kind of pride, which may not improbably be attended with a malicious satisfaction in discovering their weaknesses and imperfections, and finding them sometimes on a level with ourselves.

Some indeed, and particularly of late years, have appear’d, which were certainly wrote with the view of making them public, and were as is apparent from their stile and matter designe’d more for the reader than the friend; which must doubtless deprive us of great part of that pleasure we should otherwise take in them.

The following Epistles, ascribed to Phalaris, were received as his for above a thousand years, and look’d upon by the antients as the most perfect things of their kind. Suidas, Stobaeus, Photius, Aretine, and many other eminent writers give them the highest character, and even those few, who deny or doubt the genuineness of them, have not refused them the commendations, which they deserve.

But before I enter into the merits of the Epistles, it may not be improper to make the reader acquainted (as far as the dark history of those times will give us leave) with the celebrated tyrant, whose name they bear.

Phalaris was born at Astypalaea, a city of Crete; where, though deprived of his parents when young, he had the good fortune to meet with friends, who bestow’d on him a liberal educaiton; by the assistance of which, together with the advantage of uncommon parts and application, he acquired great knowledge in the art of government. But, being from his infancy bold and aspiring, he engaged in an unsuccessful attempt to seize the supreme power, and was banish’d out of Crete; from whence he retired, leaving his wife and son behind him, to Agrigentum in Sicily; where the people, whom he had artfully persuaded into an opinion of his wisdom and courage, being at that time engaged in building their temple, appointed him chief surveyor of the works. He laid hold of the opportunity, and having gain’d the whole body of labourers to his party, with no other arms but their tools, he so conducted his hazardous enterprize as to terrify and subdue the inhabitants, and make himself master of the city, in the fifty-second Olympiad, and reign’d there, according to Eusebius, twenty-eight, or, according to others, sixteen years. A power so acquired could not be maintain’d without some bloodshed, and before he had fix’d himself in the government, many conspiracies must of course have been form’d against him; all which he was so fortunate as to discover and suppress. Necessity obliged him to take ample revenge on such as were concern’d in them; and to this unavoidable cruelty, which in his Epistles he so frequently endeavours to palliate and excuse, we must ascribe the many odious names, with which he is branded in history.

It has frequently been objected, that historians represent him as the most cruel and detestable tyrant, and allow him none of those amiable qualities, which these Epistles so liberally bestow on him. But this is methinks a difficulty very easily got over; for besides that a perfectly bad man, without one virtue to recommend him, is perhpas as rarely to be met with, as the perfect wife, or good, it is scarce probable that Phalaris would so long have held the power he had usurp’d without some distinguishable good qualities to extenuate his faults, and conciliate the affections of his people.

I shall pass over the story of Perilaus, as it is generally known, and because the principal circumstances of it are mention’d both in the Phalaris of Lucian, and in several of these Epistles.

Phalaris, by his courage and conduct, subdued several nations, and according to Suidas made himself master of all Sicily. That he was a great friend and patron of leaning and learned men sufficiently appears from his behaviour to Stesichorus, a celebrated poet of Himera in Sicily, and a man of the first rank for wisdom and authority amongst this fellow-citizens. The Himereans, contrary to his advice, chose Phalaris for their guardian and protector; but quickly repenting of their misconduct, Stesichorus was extremely active in promoting the design of a revolt. Being intercepted in his passage to Corinth, he was brought before Phalaris, where he behaved with a firmenss and intrepidity, which struck the tyrant with such an esteem and admiration of him as probably laid the foundation of that memorable friendship between them so often mention’d in the Epistles.

In regard to the manner of Phalaris’s death we have no account, which can be relied on, as authors are much divided about it; though the most generally received opinion is, that having maintain’d the tryanny some years, not without perpetual factions, and the utmost disquietude, the people at last rose up, and destroyed him. . . .




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Filed under 1740's, Greek/Roman Translations, Posted by Caroline Fuchs

One response to “Item of the Day: The Epistles of Phalaris (1749)

  1. Pingback: Item of the Day: Epistles of Phalaris, 1749 (cont’d) « Eighteenth-Century Reading Room

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