Letter Writing. Not all correspondence was meant for public consumption; the sending and receiving of messages in private also flourished in ancient Rome. Some writers kept their letters and later published them, so that, from a vantage point centuries later, one can peer into the daily lives of even apolitical figures, whom most primary sources ignore. Perusing some of the letters that survive from antiquity, a modern reader might be reminded of the range of his/her own correspondence, whether by letters or e-mail. Private correspondence from Rome covered many of the same areas: requests to purchase particular items on credit, wishes for a happy birthday, condolences for relatives of the deceased, descriptions of a new house, recommendations of one friend to another, and general gossip and rumor. If the sender was a high-ranking official, he might get to use the imperial post; otherwise, letters would be given to any traveler who seemed reliable and who was headed in the direction of the intended recipient. The texts would be sealed with a waxen impression that was unique to the sender, impressed with a signet ring. These letters are a treasure trove for historians who want to find out more about ordinary aspects of the daily life of ancient Rome in realms other than politics, the law, or diplomacy (although they preserve information for these areas, as well).
Cicero. The most prolific of correspondents whose works survive is the orator and statesman of the late Republic, Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero). His letters span a twenty-year career following his consulship in 63, the earliest being from 62 B.C.E. and the latest being from 43, just before his execution. They discuss the politics of the day, and demonstrate his pride and success as a former consul who had risen from humble origins to the highest office of the land. In the heady days, he was ordering works of art to be purchased in Greece, discussing works of literature with friends, and commenting on the suitors of his daughter, Tullia. Twice Cicero had to spend time abroad: first, as an exile in Macedonia, and later, as a governor of Cilicia. Exile and provincial assignments are plentiful in Roman history, but it is not until one reads the letters of Cicero that one can develop an appreciation for what life abroad was like for a man of Cicero’s station. In both cases, he dearly missed Rome and expressed an eagerness to return. His letters were directed not just to his political associates, but also to his wife, Terentia, whose letters mainly concern the family’s financial situation. From exile, Cicero bemoaned his absence from his former life. Perhaps some-what bombastically, he complained that writing was difficult because his tears were excessive and made it difficult to function.
Pliny the Younger. Another active letter writer, coming some 150 years after Cicero, was Pliny the Younger, a friend of the emperor Trajan and an eventual governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. Again, in his letters one has a multidimensional source for a Roman’s private life; they cover a broad range of topics. He wrote to the historian Tacitus to register his eyewitness account of the eruption of Vesuvius; with another friend he shared a ghost story about a haunted house in Athens; he wrote to Aefulanus Marcellinus, otherwise unattested, to console him on the death of a thirteen-year-old girl, the daughter of a mutual friend. By far his most-famous epistolary exchange was with the emperor himself, asking him for advice on how to handle Christians who refused to sacrifice to the emperor. Many of his letters, however, are more mundane. His works include formulaic letters of recommendation, where he might return the favors of an associate by encouraging a high-ranking official to hire his son.
Other Senatorial Writers. These letters are not the kinds of messages that belong on stone, destined to last for ages. Sometimes the letters preserve a slice of life that their authors may not have expected or wished to last for posterity. When Fronto and Marcus Aurelius wrote to each other, they both frequently complained of various pains and ailments throughout their bodies, betraying the hypochondria of one of the most memorable Roman emperors. More weighty concerns, however, are conveyed in the letters of Symmachus, a senator in Rome in the fourth century C.E. As Rome became increasingly Christianized, Symmachus, an old-style pagan, had cause to worry about the demise of his religion. One of his most-famous letters is an appeal to the emperor not to allow the altar of the goddess Victory to be taken down. More than two hundred years after Pliny sought to define the status of Christianity through his letters, Symmachus was endeavoring to limit it through the same medium.
In 1973 several Latin letters were found in the most unlikely of places—a damp excavation of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. Almost all of ancient writing on perishable materials, up to that year, had been found in Egypt, where the dry climate was naturally conducive to the preservation of such documents. But peculiar, anaerobic conditions of certain layers of deposits at Vindolanda allowed for the survival of these letters. Further excavations in the 1980s and 1990s have yielded more fragments that now number in the thousands.
The most famous letter from the collection has to do with an invitation to a party:
Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present. Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelms and my little son send him their greetings. [second hand] I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail. [back to first hand] To Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Cerialis, from Severa.
Source: Alan K. Bowman, Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and Its People (New York: Routledge, 1998).
The Vindolanda Archive. The largest cache of original letters written in Latin (all the correspondence of Cicero, Pliny, and others copied and recopied many times over the centuries) was found at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in Britain. The letters were written with ink on thin wooden tablets, and they provide a window into the types of day-to-day activities that would require letter writing. Since they are in a fragmentary
state, it can be difficult to determine their message or purpose, but lists of food and clothing appear to be supply inventories or requisitions. Some have specific military applications: records of the state of the native population, requests for leave, and reports to superiors. There is also a letter between brothers about money and mutual friends, and one letter preserves an invitation to a birthday party.
Curse Tablets. Letters, like tombstone inscriptions, could carry messages between the realms of the living and the dead, the mortal and the divine: archaeologists have found many lead tablets on which the writer has appealed to some supernatural spirit to harm an adversary in some way. They make reference to a variety of conflicts, including athletic competitions and law court disputes. The sheets, called defixiones, were folded and pierced with a nail and then tossed into wells or buried in the ground. Magic incantations were thought to be more effective if written down and not merely spoken. In all areas of life, the Romans, in keeping with their epigraphic habit, felt compelled to give substance, literally, to their language. To the Roman mind, words had real power; written evidence throughout the Roman world shows that they sought to harness this power through writing.
Alan K. Bowman, Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda and Its People (New York: Routledge, 1994).
Cicero, Cicero’s Letters to His Friends, translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Harmondsworth, U.K. & New York: Penguin, 1978).
Finley Hooper and Matthew Schwartz, Roman Letters: History from a Personal Point of View (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991).