The Edinburgh Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome

By Edward Bispham; Thomas Harrison et al. | Go to book overview

44.
Letters

Michael Trapp


Varieties of letter

At first sight, the four dry, formulaic lines of an invitation to a religious festival somewhere in Egypt in the third or fourth century AD, and the fifty-eight polished elegiac couplets in which Penelope complains to Odysseus about the slowness of his return from Troy, seem to have very little indeed in common. Yet both of these pieces of writing – Oxyrhynchus papyrus 112 and Ovid Heroides 1 – are letters. Together, they mark points towards the extremes of the spectrum of material to which this name can be given, and begin to suggest its diversity in form, circumstances of origin and modes of preservation.

P. Oxy. 112 is – to use a popular but tendentious distinction, which needs some deconstructing – a ‘real’, utilitarian piece of correspondence: a written message of modest length, made to be conveyed between physically separate parties, and framed by conventional formulae of salutation and farewell. It is written in unsophisticated style by and to correspondents otherwise entirely unknown to history; it survives as an individual item, in the original form in which it was first sent; and it is known to us as a result of archaeological research and excavation. Thousands of examples of this category of letter survive, embracing private, business and low-level administrative concerns; most are in Greek but there are some in Latin. The majority are on papyrus (see chapter 32), discovered in Egypt from the 1890s onwards, and dating from between the third century BC and the sixth century AD. Others, including the oldest yet known, are incised on thin sheets of lead; others still are on wood and potsherds (ostraka). A number of more public communications, from kings, emperors and governors, survive as inscriptions (see chapter 34), carved copies on stone set up to publicise their contents to the communities addressed. In general, these archaeologically recovered letters share the characteristic that they are primarily functional items, never intended for a general readership distinct from their original recipients.

Heroides 1, in contrast, is a highly sophisticated exercise in literary creativity, meant from the start for the delectation of a reading public. In a clever variation on the declamatory suasoria (invented speech in character), Ovid imagines what character X might have said to character Y, but at a point in their story where they could not meet face to face and had to communicate via the written word instead; and he does so not in the standard epistolary medium of prose but in the most elegantly pointed of verse. This too stands for a larger category, that of ‘fictitious’ epistolography. Greek authors working in this field, all somewhat later than Ovid, and all writing in prose rather than verse, include Alciphron (second to third century AD), with his corresponding fishermen, farmers, parasites and courtesans (imitated from the characters and episodes of New Comedy and pastoral poetry); Aelian (third century AD), with his rustics; and Philostratus (third century AD) and Aristaenetus (fifth century AD), with their lovers. In all these works it is obvious that the element of fiction embraces both the characters and a fortiori the sending of their supposed missives, even when the characters and situations are not strictly invented, but inherited from traditional mythology.

-335-

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The Edinburgh Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction ix
  • Acknowledgements xi
  • Part One- Classics and the Classical World - A. Classics in the Twenty-First Century 1
  • 1 - The History of the Discipline 3
  • 2 - History 9
  • 3 - Archaeology 15
  • 4 - Religion 21
  • 5 - Economy 24
  • 6 - Gender 27
  • 7 - Philology and Linguistics 30
  • 8 - Literature 35
  • 9 - Philosophy 41
  • 10 - Art History and Aesthetics 49
  • 11 - Classical Legacies 57
  • B - The Regions of the Ancient World 65
  • 12 - The Ancient near East 67
  • 13 - Iron Age Europe 72
  • 14 - Regions of Antiquity 78
  • C - Periods 85
  • 15 - The ‘Dark Age’ of Greece 87
  • 16 - Archaic and Classical Greece 92
  • 17 - The Hellenistic World 98
  • 18 - The Roman Republic 102
  • 19 - The Roman Empire 108
  • 20 - Late Antiquity 114
  • Part Two - Material Culture 121
  • 21 - Landscape 123
  • 22 - Marine Archaeology 135
  • 23 - Sites and Features 146
  • 24 - Buildings and Architecture 160
  • 25 - Coinage 173
  • 26 - Sculpture 183
  • 27 - Painting, Stucco and Mosaic 194
  • 28 - Pottery and Metalwork 206
  • 29 - Gems, Jewellery and Glass 217
  • 30 - Dress and Textiles 226
  • 31 - Arms and Armour 231
  • 32 - Papyri 238
  • 33 - Manuscripts 251
  • 34 - Inscriptions 262
  • Part Three- Texts and Genres 275
  • 35 - Greek Epic 277
  • 36 - Roman Epic 282
  • 37 - Greek Tragedy 288
  • 38 - Roman Tragedy 295
  • 39 - Greek Comedy 299
  • 40 - Roman Comedy 309
  • 41 - Greek Lyric Verse- Melic, Elegiac and Iambic 313
  • 42 - Latin Poetry Other Than Epic and Drama 323
  • 43 - The Novel 329
  • 44 - Letters 335
  • 45 - Rhetoric 339
  • 46 - Literary Criticism 351
  • 47 - Grammar and Linguistics 355
  • 48 - Philosophy 361
  • 49 - Greek Historiography 377
  • 50 - Roman Historiography 384
  • 51 - Geography and Ethnography 391
  • 52 - Mythology 396
  • 53 - Christian Literature 402
  • 54 - Science and Mathematics 407
  • 55 - Music 413
  • 56 - Medicine 423
  • 57 - Greek Legal Texts 428
  • 58 - Latin Legal Texts 433
  • 59 - Technical Writing 439
  • Part Four - Essential Information and Systems of Reference 445
  • 60 - Politics 447
  • 61 - Names and Naming Systems 465
  • 62 - Measures, Weights and Money 471
  • 63 - Writing Systems 477
  • 64 - The Ancient Calendar 485
  • 65- Metre 489
  • 66- Time-Charts 495
  • 67- Maps 520
  • 68. Glossary of Ancient and Modern Terms 530
  • 69 - Resources 545
  • 70 - Abbreviations 559
  • Contributors 582
  • Index 588
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