LETTERS AND COMMUNITIES: Studies in the socio-political dimensions of ancient epistolography

Edited by Paola Ceccarelli, Lutz Doering, Thorsten Fögen, Ingo Gildenhard

OUP (2018) h/b 384pp £80 (ISBN 9780198804208)

Letters provide us with some of our closest connections to individual experiences in the ancient world—the everyday business of people’s lives from Roman Britain to Hellenistic Egypt, gathered from surviving texts written and inscribed on a wide array of materials, from papyrus to stone. But, as the contributions to this volume demonstrate, letters written by or sent to communities—political, philosophical and religious—can also provide us with insights into the shared lives of those communities and their inter-connections. The chapters of this book offer a master-class in how to use the fragmentary remains of ancient letters as primary sources for the collective lives of communities, as well as some useful reflections on the methodology involved in doing so. Some chapters also explore how individuals, from the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse and Cicero in the Roman Republic to Paul in the early Christian church, used letters to negotiate relationships with distant communities. 

Ancient Greeks viewed the use of letters in political communication with some suspicion—as secret communications between individuals, they enabled intrigue and conspiracy. Sian Lewis’ essay ‘Tyrants, Letters and Legitimacy’ shows tyrants using letters in a different way, sending letters for public rather than private consumption, to assert and negotiate their status with other cities including democratic Athens. Lewis excavates the letters she cites from historical texts, so has to rely on the source criticism of their authors and engage with the letter as a literary phenomenon.      

Paola Ceccarelli, on the other hand, uses letters preserved as documentary evidence in her chapter ‘Letters and Decrees: Diplomatic Protocols in the Hellenistic Period’. These letters reveal the intricacies of a project undertaken by the citizens of Magnesia in Asia Minor in 208/7 BC to establish their festival for Artemis as the religious and diplomatic equivalent of a major Panhellenic festival. Because these letters were inscribed and displayed, a good number survive to be read today, enabling Ceccarelli to identify ‘diverse “languages of power”’ used by kings, leagues and cities responding to the Magnesians, and to offer a detailed analysis of the civic life and aspirations of a Hellenistic polis.  

Cicero inevitably looms large in this collection. His letters form the basis for Bianca-Jeanette Schröder’s methodological exploration of how the choice of couriers influenced the reception of letters, and how their possible public delivery and reading in turn affected what authors might risk including in them.

Ingo Gildenhard analyses ‘Epistolary Communities in Cicero’ as evidence for what had become ‘an important medium for doing politics’ in the late Republic, finding in Cicero’s letters of 49-44 BC evidence of a transition to the letter-writing conventions of a court society, in turn suggestive of the advent of the Empire. The political ambivalence of the letter felt by the Greeks reappears here in a Roman civic context.

This is a rich collection that offers new insights into an important strand of historical evidence for the creation and maintenance of communities within the ancient societies of the Mediterranean world, and exposition of the ways in which letters can reveal history.

Carol Atack

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