Ancient Letters

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This page is part of the Jesus Database project.

Letters in the Roman world

The letter was popular with philosophers, statesmen and poets. School children were trained in the various forms of the letter as part of their study of rhetoric, and the form was used to communicate with a wider audience. Even letters that were addressed to individuals and dealt with rather personal matters were often composed with an eye to their public impact.

Perhaps more importantly for our purposes, letters were also composed by ordinary people. Thanks to the chance survival of material from ancient rubbish dumps in the dry climate of Egypt, we have thousands of letters recovered by archaeologists. These texts provide insights into everyday life in the ancient world as they include love letters and marriage contracts, tax and bank accounts, commodity lists, birth records, divorce cases, temple offerings, and many other types of subjects.

For a helpful introduction to this material see:
<a href="http://www.athenapub.com/egypap1.htm" target="_blank">http://www.athenapub.com/egypap1.htm</a>

For links to the Advanced Papyrological Information System APIS) see:
<a href="http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/cul/resolve?ATK2059" target="_blank">http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/cul/resolve?ATK2059</a>

The Duke Papyrus Archive lists examples by selected topics and includes images of the papyri:
<a href="http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/papyrus/" target="_blank">http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/papyrus/</a>

In the ancient world, letters were intended to be heard as oral communication. On arrival at their destination, letters were read out aloud by the messenger or the recipient.

In the absence of a public postal service, the sending of a letter could be quite complex. Someone had to be engaged to deliver the letter, and that involved some trust that they would represent your interests and not take advantage of the information in the letter.

In one famous case of a letter having a difficult delivery, a letter from Augustine to Jerome took nine years to reach its famous recipient — and then only because Augustine included a copy of the original in a second letter explaining the loss of his earlier communication:

To my venerable lord Jerome, my esteemed and holy brother and fellow presbyter: Augustine sends greetings in the Lord.

1. Never since I began to write to you, and to long for your writing in return, have I met with a better opportunity for our exchanging communications than now, when my letter is to be carried to you by a most faithful servant and minister of God, who is also a very dear friend of mine, namely, our son Cyprian, deacon. Through him I expect to receive a letter from you with all the certainty which is in a matter of this kind possible. For the son whom I have named will not be found wanting in respect of zeal in asking, or persuasive influence in obtaining a reply from you; nor will he fail in diligently keeping, promptly bearing, and faithfully delivering the same. I only pray that if I be in any way worthy of this, the Lord may give His help and favour to your heart and to my desire, so that no higher will may hinder that which your brotherly goodwill inclines you to do.

2. As I have sent you two letters already to which I have received no reply, I have resolved to send you at this time copies of both of them, for I suppose that they never reached you. If they did reach you, and your replies have failed, as may be the case, to reach me, send me a second time the same as you sent before, if you have copies of them preserved: if you have not, dictate again what I may read, and do not refuse to send to these former letters the answer for which I have been waiting so long. My first letter to you, which I had prepared while I was a presbyter, was to be delivered to you by a brother of ours, Profuturus, who afterwards became my colleague in the episcopate, and has since then departed from this life; but he could not then bear it to you in person, because at the very time when he intended to begin his journey, he was prevented by his ordination to the weighty office of bishop, and shortly afterwards he died. This letter I have resolved also to send at this time, that you may know how long I have cherished a burning desire for conversation with you, and with what reluctance I submit to the remote separation which prevents my mind from having access to yours through our bodily senses, my brother, most amiable and honoured among the members of the Lord.
(Letter 71) [SOURCE: <a href="http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102071.htm" target="_blank">http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102071.htm</a>]

It is helpful to remember that silent reading was not common in ancient world — perhaps because the convention of continuous script meant there were no gaps between the words, and reading out loud may have assisted in determining the word breaks.

Photo of 1C private letter:
<a href="http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/papyrus/images/150dpi/98r-at150.gif" target="_blank">http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/papyrus/images/150dpi/98r-at150.gif</a>

Letters were composed partly with their aural characteristics in mind. In most cases this dimension of the ancient letter is lost in the process of translation.

Letters were understood by both sender and recipient as a way of being present although absent. We find this reflected in some parts of the Pauline corpus in the NT:

For though absent in body, I am present in spirit;
and as if present I have already pronounced judgment. (1Cor. 5:3)

For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit,
and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ. (Col. 2:5)

The typical structure for an ancient letter was as follows:

Opening Formula (Sender, Addressee, Greetings)
Prayer of Thanks to the Gods
Message
Closing Formula

This basic structure is well attested in the NT letters, although Paul sometimes varied from the traditional pattern in order to express a particular emphasis.

 

Examples of Letters from Roman Antiquity

The following are just a few examples of surviving letter from the many thousands that have survived:

BGU II 530 - Letter Regarding a Vineyard in Trouble
<a href="http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/%7Ekloppen/bguII530.htm" target="_blank">http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/bguII530.htm</a>
Date: I C.E.
Provenance: Fayûm (Egypt)

 

Hermokrates

to Chaeras  his son, greetings.

First of all I pray that you are well...

5

and

I beg you... to write concerning your health and whatever you wish.

Already indeed I wrote you regarding the...

10

but

you neither answered nor came. And now unless you come I run the risk of losing the

allotment of land that I now own.

15

Our

partner has not worked with us, for not only was the well not cleaned out, but in

addition the irrigation channel was choked

20

with

sand, and the vineyard is uncultivated.

None of the tenants was willing to cultivate it; only I

25

continue

paying the public taxes without getting back anything
in return. There is hardly a single plot that the water will irrigate. Therefore

you

30

must

come; otherwise there is a risk that the plants will perish.

Your sister Helene greets you and your mother reproaches you

35

because

you have never answered her. But there is another matter:

security is demanded by the tax collectors because you did not send

40

the

tax collectors to you (?); but now also send (them) to her.
I pray

that you may be well. Pauni
.


< verso>Deliver from Hermocrates to Chaeras his son.

BGU II 423 + II 632 - Letters from a New Recruit to the Roman Legions
<a href="http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/%7Ekloppen/BGUII423.htm" target="_blank">http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/BGUII423.htm</a>
Date: II C.E.
Provenance: Fayûm (Egypt)

 

Apion

to his father and lord, Epimachos, very many greetings. Before all else, I pray that

you are healthy and that you may have continual good fortune along with my sister

5

and

her daughter and my brother. I give thanks to Lord Sarapis because, when I was
endangered from the sea he saved me immediately. When I arrived at Misenum I received

three gold pieces as a viaticum from

10

Caesar;

and I am well. Therefore I request, my lord father, that you write to me a little
letter, first  concerning your health, second concerning that of my brothers [i.e., my brother

and sister],

15

and

third, so that I may to obeisance to your hand(writing), because you trained me well. I
hope by this means to advance quickly, if the gods are willing. Greet Kapiton very much

and my brother

20

and

sister and Serenilla and my friends. I sent you a picture of me through Euktemonos.

My name is Antonius Maximus. I pray that you are well. Centuria Athenonike.


(Along the side)
Serenos the son of Agathodaimon greets you and […], and Toubon the son of Gallonios, and D[…]nas the s[on of][…
 
(Addressed)
To Philadelphia, to Epimachos from his son Apion.
 
(Another hand) Deliver to the camp of the Prima cohors of the Apameni to Julianus, vice-secretary, (this letter), from Apion to be forwarded to his father Epimachos.

BGU II 632

 

Antonius

Maximus to his sister, Sabina, many greetings. Before all else I pray that

you are healthy,

5

for

I myself and healthy. Making mention of you before the gods here, I received a little

letter from Antonius our fellow citizen. And when I learned that

10

you

were well I rejoiced much. And I do not hesitate to write to you about my welfare and

that of my family at every opportunity. Greet Maximus and

15

Kopres,  my

lord. My wife Aufidia greets you and so does Maximos my son, whose

birthday is the thirtieth of Epeiph, according to Greek

20

reckoning,

as well as Elpis and Fortuna. Greet my lord […] I pray that you may be well.(Addressed) To his sister, Sabina, from her brother

Antonius Maximus.

 

ZPE 12 (1976) 159-81 - Letter from a Family Archive
<a href="http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/%7Ekloppen/ZPE12.htm" target="_blank">http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/ZPE12.htm</a>
Date:  late II CE
Provenance: Alexandria (Egypt)

Sempronius

to Satornila his mother and lady,
very many greetings. Before all things I pray that you are
healthy and at the same time I make obeisance for you daily

before the god Sarapis. I am amazed that you did not write to me

5

either

via Celer or via Sempronius. For when I turned
up after my absence I found them and sought them out to learn
the reason why they did not bring a letter for me, they said, ‘Because
of your absence’. But when I learned about your health,

I became less anxious. Accordingly my lady,

10

since

you’ve been asked, write to me without delay about your health.
I received a letter via Sokrates and another brief one via Antonianos,
and I received a letter from Hexas and another from Lo-

botes. You wrote to me also about…

[lines 14-22 are too fragmentary to translate]

..]is

no small matter. Now I am writing to you

that you might remember him. For now his letters have been falling on

25

your

deaf ears. And you wrote a second letter to me about these matters.
I am writing to you about these things. For I also was wanting to do all I
could and to come to you first to do obeisance to your good
and childloving disposition, and second concerning these matters. But I

have not found occasion, now, but while I was on a journey I wrote

30

to

you about these very matters. Greet Maximus and his wife,
Sempronius, Kyrillos and Satorilus,
and Gemellus and Julius and his family and Helen and her
family, and Scythikos and Kopres, Chairemon, Themou-

this, and her children. Farewell always,

35

my lady.

< Verso> Give to Maximus from Sempronius his brother.