Tag Archives: Ancient Rome

Letters of the Ancient Romans

We all share an appreciation of what is good in both the very old and very new.

These days we worship at the temple of the techno-geek god who rewards us with an endless smorgasboard of new and improved whiz bang toys – the soft and the hard. With this comes the promise of convenience- a reduction in time wastage thereby giving us more leisure time, so we are told…Ironic considering  now we not only work more hours per week but even our leisure time is owned by these toys. It seems our age is increasingly becoming articulated by information overload as we take the many tantalizing turn offs along the super highway. As enriching as it is, it also has it’s drawbacks, but it is our thing in the 21st century.

On the other hand we are fascinated by the lives and technology of antiquity and it’s inherent simplicity, it’s uncomplicated nature. Perhaps what also holds our fascination is the intuitive glimpse it provides, a deep recognition of what we are losing in our own time: a *long hand* way of living as opposed to our twitterized, shorthand cyberworld; supersized, and with instant everything. At a root level perhaps there’s a little bit of Amish in all of us; a yearning for a simpler, closer knit community of people we actually know rather than a thousand and one aquaintances we only think we know. How can we relate to that which we don’t understand?

In my opinion, the technology of any era defines the sociology of the day. The two go hand in hand – contemporaries – and reflect eachother. But even so, technology doesn’t change the psychology of people. We are what we are because of our humanness. I think this is well illustrated by the personal epistles of the ancient Romans. The letters show how little difference there is between peoples, no matter what time in history we belong to. Their virtues and vices, noble endeavours and petty jealousies are our own. And regrettably some of their more dignified qualities are less and less our own. By and large though it is the customs and culture of the ancient worlds that differentiate us.

While reading these ancient Roman letters I was immediately struck by their salutations and closes. With a few exceptions the salutations were formal, lengthy affairs while the closes ended with just one word, “Farewell.” Today we’d probably begin a letter with…”Dear Agnus, how are you?” Compare this with an opening from the 5th century Egyptian Claudius Terentianus, a soldier in the Roman legion:

 “Claudius Terentianus to Claudius Tiberianusl, his lord and dearest father, very many greetings. Before all else, I pray that you be strong and cheerful and well, together with our entire family, and I am pleased whenever I have news from you.”

With time to pause and think in a less complex world there is a deliberate consideration in their words that have a distinct charm all their own…and yet that practical Roman soul still show’s itself with that one stoical word at the end: “Farewell.” Roman heads are always held high in their letters.

The following is a letter from Tabetheus to her brother Claudius Tiberianus, in which our 21st century angst can be seen in hers even though the letter was written around 1,600 years ago. Different civilizations but same concerns.

“Tabetheus to Claudius Tiberianus, her brother, very many greetings. Before all else I pray for your health and I make obeisance for you in the presence of the lord Souchos. I was happy that you sent my son in order that I might greet him. But you have not . . . . For Saturnilus has not found out what I did for him. I bought three minai of linen and I sent them. Do not blame me if you did not deliver them to Metellus the soldier. I want you to write concerning a friend; deliver them to him immediately. I was much annoyed. I was able to send you the robe this year; I did not send it last year(?), but I sent and sold them to Kabin the attendant. When I went down from our home at Tonis and came to Saturnilus’s lodging and saw our things – may the evil eye not touch them, I did not approve that he, my son, should trust Menas. And after he had killed him, he told me not to be distressed; I told Saturnilus that I was sleepless from worry. Since you caused me damage to the extent of twelve hundred drachmai, let them go to my son’s ransom. And I went down to Alexandria with my son. For this reason a madness took hold of him, because he did not approve that he [i.e. Menas] and his family should consume the rations. If god wills and you receive the rations that I put up for you, do not you also . . . them. Concerning last year’s rations, I did not prepare them; . . . prepared them last year. I sent them from Alexandria as late as the second shipment upstream. And he became ill. I was tortured with the grief that he caused me, but I was utterly happy that he remained alive. I have insistently urged him, “Take a taste of Alexandria,” and he says to me, “I don’t want to.” I thank the gods that he is like you; no one can mock him. Salute all your people, each by name. How much damage have I incurred this past year on account of Saturnilus! Neither was he(?) liable for it nor was I, but I have incurred damage on every side. Farewell.”

We flatter ourselves about the advance of our species but it’s really our technology that progresses. People remain people throughout the timeline of history, regardless of the state of their civilizations. The only true differences between now and then are values and the speed of life. Here are a couple of casual letters fired off by Pliny the Younger in the 1st century AD of a still pagan Rome.

” TO CANINIUS RUFUS.
How is Comum looking, your darling spot and mine? And that most charming villa of yours, what of it, and its portico where it is always spring, its shady clumps of plane trees, its fresh crystal canal, and the lake below that gives such a charming view? How is the exercise ground, so soft yet firm to the foot; how goes the bath that gets the sun’s rays so plentifully as he journeys round it? What too of the big banqueting halls and the little rooms just for a few, and the retiring rooms for night and day? Have they full possession of you, and do they share your company in turn? or are you, as usual, continually being called away to attend to private family business? You are indeed a lucky man if you can spend all your leisure there; if you cannot, your case is that of most of us. But really it is time that you passed on your unimportant and petty duties for others to look after, and buried yourself among your books in that secluded yet beautiful retreat. Make this at once the business and the leisure of your life, your occupation and your rest; let your waking hours be spent among your books, and your hours of sleep as well. Mould something, hammer out something that shall be known as yours for all time. Your other property will find a succession of heirs when you are gone; what I speak of will continue yours for ever — if once it begins to be. I know the capacity and inventive wit that I am spurring on. You have only to think of yourself as the able man others will think you when you have realised your ability. Farewell.”

And the other side of Pliny:

” To Septicius Clarus.
What a fellow you are! You promise to come to dinner and then fail to turn up! Well, here is my magisterial sentence upon you. You must pay the money I am out of pocket to the last farthing, and you will find the sum no small one. I had provided for each guest one lettuce, three snails, two eggs, spelt mixed with honey and snow (you will please reckon up the cost of the latter as among the costly of all, since it melts away in the dish), olives from Baetica, cucumbers, onions, and a thousand other equally expensive dainties. You would have listened to a comedian, or a reciter, or a harp-player, or perhaps to all, as I am such a lavish host. But you preferred to dine elsewhere, — where I know not — off oysters, sow’s matrices, sea-urchins, and to watch Spanish dancing girls! You will be paid out for it, though how I decline to say. You have done violence to yourself. You have grudged, possibly yourself, but certainly me, a fine treat. Yes, yourself! For how we should have enjoyed ourselves, how we should have laughed together, how we should have applied ourselves! You can dine at many houses in better style than at mine, but nowhere will you have a better time, or such a simple and free and easy entertainment. In short, give me a trial, and if afterwards you do not prefer to excuse yourself to others rather than to me, why then I give you leave to decline my invitations always. Farewell.”

I’ll end the letters with this simple note from Aline to her husband (she calls him “brother”) who has gone off to fight in a Roman civil war:

“Aline to Apollonios her brother greetings. I am terribly anxious about you because of what they say about what is happening, and because of your sudden departure. I take no pleasure in food or drink, but stay awake continually night and day with worry, your safety. Only my father’s care revives me, and I hope to see you safe, I would have lain without food New Year’s Day, had my father not come and forced me to eat. I beg you to keep yourself safe, and not go into danger without a guard. Do the same as the strategos here, who puts the burden on his officers…”

The rest of the letter is fragmentary. No doubt it would have ended with one word. Farewell.

Empathy is the best word to describe what I feel; a recognition of myself in the letters. The times and social customs, though of great interest, are secondary to an affinity with these people who lived thousands of years before us. The papyrus that transports their world through time to us is also a bridge. And their words flag to us what must not be forsaken – the importance of truly touching one another – even as it is ironically being lost as our global village shrinks too fast for us. In the rush for global unity and oneness, perhaps true community is the thing that will suffer most.

Some useful links: 

http://tinyurl.com/m6lfts Women’s Letters From Ancient Egypt 300BC-800AD

http://tinyurl.com/nc4dod Roman Letters- History From A Personal Viewpoint

http://tinyurl.com/m8qcd8 Letters of Pliny the Younger

http://tinyurl.com/nsvnhv Claudius Tiberianus

http://tinyurl.com/m6sz3c Letters by Pliny (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus)

http://www.vroma.org/ The VRoma Project

Leave a comment

September 21, 2009 · 12:18 am