Letters are among our most important types of sources for understanding ancient societies, and one that can seem to offer a rare immediacy, catching individuals dealing with specific issues of business or friendship in particular moments of time. Letters offer us access to a level of daily life and language missing from more forensic literary genres or more monumental artefacts. But letters are also amongst the most heterogenous of ancient sources. The modern printed edition may inadvertently conceal vast differences in form: texts preserved as monumental inscriptions on city walls, in multiple medieval manuscripts, or as unique originals on the workaday materials of papyri and wood or deluxe ivory – all may be ‘letters.’ The content of letters is no less Protean: we are used to thinking of letters in manuscript collections as ‘literary’ and those on original materials as ‘documentary,’ but papyri originals may demonstrate the same rhetorical conceits as those in manuscript, while among the most numerous letters bequeathed by the manuscript tradition are thousands of governmental memoranda repackaged as the great Roman imperial law codes. Letters were ephemera – but both the careful archiving of original papyri documents and the gathering of letter-collections consciously overrode that transience. Letters were cultural markers of classical Greek and Roman societies – but the vast bulk of extant originals come from Egypt, carrying forward both Hellenistic and Near Eastern epistolary traditions. The Augustan age produced the great models that shaped later epistolary practice, of the aristocratic érudites Cicero, Pliny, and Horace – as well as St. Paul and others later canonised in the New Testament – but the largest and most numerous letter-collections are overwhelmingly those of Late Antiquity, especially the often data-rich letter-collections of Christian bishops. Letters were the written products of highly literate societies – but often depended on a human bearer to deliver an oral message constituting the essential communiqué. Letters chart for us physical and social networks throughout ancient societies – but only occasionally do we have before us two sides of any conversation. Letters could be intimate and personal – but with personae constructed from venerable literary topoi.
Please join a symposium of historians, papyrologists and linguists for a day of discussing these and other issues shaping our understanding of the ancient letter.
Speakers include: Professor Pauline Allen, Dr Malcolm Choat, Dr Geoffrey Dunn, Dr Trevor Evans, Assoc. Prof. Andrew Gillett, Dr Stephen Lake and Dr Bronwen Neil.
Date: Monday 15 November 2010. 9.30am to 5.30pm
Venue: Macquarie University Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, Building W6A, Floor 3, Western End.
All welcome. There is no charge for attendance, but please RSVP for catering purposes.Enquiries and RSVP to: firstname.lastname@example.org