Thursday, September 30, 2010

Letter Carriers in the Correspondence of Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC - 43 BC) was not only a great rhetorician he was also a great letter writer (general orientation and on-line literature). He wrote so many letters (more than 800), and refers so often to letter-carriers that it is a bit tricky deciding how to organise a presentation of his statements and assumptions on the subject. One place to begin is when the delivery by letter carrier goes amiss. Consider the following from Cicero's reply to Servius Sulpicius Rufus (in 49 BC)

‘I received your letter on the 28th of April, while at my Cuman villa. As soon as I had read it I perceived that Philotimus, considering that he had, as you say, received verbal instructions from you on every point, had made a great mistake in not having come to me personally, but sending your letter, which I understood to have been shorter because you had imagined that he would deliver it.’

This is an interesting statement of assumptions (in Cicero's circle at least) of the role of letter carriers (which emerges with more clarity precisely when those assumptions are not met):
  1. the letter carrier is assumed to be present during the composition/writing of the letter
  2. a letter can be brief if an authorised letter carrier is present to expand on its contents
  3. the author gave verbal instructions to the letter carrier (so that they could be communicated in person to the recipient)
  4. the letter carrier is supposed to help the recipient receive/understand the letter.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (c. 345-402 CE) was a Roman senator and orator, and a leading pagan critic of Christian emperors (see further in Wikipedia). He was also a noted letter writer, and after his death a collection of around 900 of his letters was edited by his son, Q. Fabius Memmius Symmachus, in nine books of private letters and a tenth book of imperial correspondence (following the pattern of Pliny).[1] Quite a few of Symmachus' letters are quite brief, very often the letter carrier would bring the real news:
Although written as private correspondence to specific individuals, each of Symmachus' letters, when received, was read aloud to the members of the household and to friends; typically, the confidential bits of information or controversial views on public affairs would be conveyed by the letter carrier in private, oral conversation.[2]

Salzman adds in a note: 'Symmachus mentions information being delivered orally by letter carriers often; see for example, Ep. 1.11, 1.46, 1.87.2, 1.90.1, 2.11, 2.21, 3.30, 4.44, 6.13, 8.31, 9.37. Ep. 6.18, notes that Symmachus gave oral information about a grain shortage to his letter carrier, so that the recipient of the letter will learn more by listening than by reading.' [3]

[1] J.F. Matthews, ‘The Letters of Symmachus’ in Latin Literature of the Fourth Century (ed. J.W. Binns; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974), 58–99.
[2] M. R. Salzman, ‘Travel and Communication in The Letters of Symmachus’, in Travel, Communication and Geography in Late Antiquity: Sacred and Profane (eds: L. Ellis & F. L. Kidner; Aldershot & Burlington VT: Ashgate, 2004), 81-94 (citation from p. 81).
[3] Salzman, ‘Travel and Communication in The Letters of Symmachus’, n. 1, pp. 81-82.