On Letter Writing

We live in an age when many say the art of writing a letter – and any need to do so – is dying, replaced by the ease and gratification of email, texting, Snapchat and Skype. But the difference between these new media and putting pen to paper can help think in more detail about the diverse reasons behind writing letters.

We have many letters from ancient Rome. Perhaps the most interesting are those written in the early 2nd century by Pliny (known to many as Pliny the Younger). We have discussed Pliny’s letters before, but particularly interesting are those he wrote while governor of the eastern province Bithynia-Pontus to the emperor Trajan back in Rome. Pliny’s letters while in office are often practical requests about complex judicial questions, doomed building projects and thorny financial tangles. These detailed reports and requests, and Trajan’s brief replies, have led to derogatory caricatures of Pliny as a weak and needy civil servant incapable of acting alone, constantly checking in with an exasperated emperor who had better things to do.

Roman cursus publicus (postal service) from a column in Igel, Trier (AD 250)

Roman cursus publicus (postal service) from a column in Igel, Trier (AD 250)

Pliny’s letters are even stranger when one takes into account the nuts and bolts of writing. Reliable and rapid correspondence was difficult in the vast and dangerous expanse of the Roman Empire. It was a little easier for those like Pliny who could use the imperial “postal service”. But even with an honest messenger and fair weather, it would have taken over a month, possibly two, for Pliny’s letter to reach Trajan in Rome. The messenger then had to wait for a response, before making the return journey. Pliny was writing while touring his province, so the messenger would not even necessarily know where to find him when he returned! These delays means that Pliny would be waiting many months for replies to his inquiries. And when he did receive a reply he might well be in a different city from the one where the problem arose!

So we ought to think more broadly about reasons for letter writing other than urgent requests. Perhaps Pliny was not as whiney, nor Trajan as terse, as first readings suggest. Trajan’s brief responses almost always affirm Pliny’s proposed actions, and encourage him to source local expertise to solve problems. In fact they sometimes look suspiciously like rubber stamping exercises. Perhaps Pliny was writing in order to be seen to be writing. How different are his letters from modern emails copied to senior colleagues to keep them in the loop and to cover one’s own back?

Finally, while the art of letter writing today is diminished, it nevertheless continues. It has become special act, a gesture to a close friend or loved one who will be thrilled to hear the thump of an addressed envelope falling from the letterbox. This physicality of letters is often forgotten. But a new world of instant communication has highlighted this value to the letter – an object the recipient can pick up, touch, read, put down, keep and pick up again. This is important for thinking about Pliny. The only reason we can read his letters to Trajan is because they were kept, collected and published (with recent scholarship arguing that this was done by Pliny himself). Pliny’s letters and Trajan’s replies are a polished collection cultivating the image of an harmonious relationship between emperor and governor. Pliny, two thousand years ago, was it seems more alive to the importance of public perception of one’s correspondence than certain officials in the modern world who should know better. The visibility of correspondence can be exploited by one’s opponents; it can also be manipulated positively by correspondents themselves.

Writing a letter is not just about the transmission of information. It’s about the communication gesture itself. And the physical preservation of that gesture can be more important than its content. Do you have any more ideas about our continuing love affair with the letter? Answers in the Comments section below. Or on a postcard.


The Trouble with Hosting: the Qatar World Cup and the Roman Games

As Brazil prepares itself for the World Cup this summer, furor is building over the hosting of the 2022 World Cup (the one after the one after this one). Qatar won hosting rights back in December 2010, but ever since the international community has debated both the transparency of the original competition and the medical risks of playing – and watching! – sport in 50 degree heat.

In fact, the World Cup is not the only international sporting occasion of 2022 whose host is unclear. It has recently been revealed that the Commonwealth Games is struggling to find willing host countries, with the high cost cited as a contributory factor to the lack of volunteers. Normally the vast cost of hosting such an event is judged worth the international prestige and recognition. But in the current financial climate the value is apparently being questioned.

These modern concerns provide a lens to study spectacles in the Roman world. Games in the Roman provinces, involving theatrical shows, racing, and gladiatorial combat, were usually hosted and paid for by members of the local elite, sometimes risking bankruptcy, because of the opportunities for recognition and renown they offered men running for public office. But the 3rd C “Magerius mosaic” from Smirat in Tunisia seems, at first look, to cast doubt on this picture.

The mosaic shows four gladiators fighting four leopards. Both gladiators and beasts are individually named, so these may be celebrities; Cristiano Ronaldo toying with Pudsey. Most interesting is the central figure carrying a tray with four bags of money. The Latin on either side of him announces that at the completion of festivities, a herald has asked that somebody pay the Telegenii, who have provided the beasts and fighters. The price is 500 denarii per leopard. The crowd has taken up the call, goading the local bigwigs to pay up. Then Magerius has sent in his representative with four bags, each containing 1000 denarii – double the requested figure. His extraordinary generosity is, predictably, praised by the crowd.

The Magerius Mosaic, Smirat Tunisia, 3rd C AD

This suggests that the event was put on without a guaranteed financial backer. A risky procedure – it’s hard to imagine the World Cup being staged on a similar basis. It also raises a number of troubling practical issues, about preparations beforehand. So many, in fact, that it seems unlikely this post-payment ever occurred. Like the 2022 World Cup, perhaps we should be suspicious of this bidding process.

A more likely scenario emerges if we consider the medium on which this message is recorded. This is a mosaic, likely paid for by Magerius himself, preserving in a permanent medium a necessarily temporary occasion. It was designed for display, probably in a dining room (since the images face outwards on three sides, where diners could have reclined looking in). The mosaic is an ostentatious demonstration of Magerius’ generosity. Moreover, he has paid double the requested amount. Is it not more likely that Magerius orchestrated this theatrical gesture where he rescued  the town in order to be seen as more generous than his fellow townsmen? Or even that he has simply memorialised the event in this way, however he actually paid for it?

Protective Awning the Pompeian Riot Fresco, 59AD (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, inv. nr. 112222)

Whatever the truth, to earn the good reputation he clearly craved Magerius will have had to be as concerned for the wellbeing of his spectators as the modern opponents of a Qatar World Cup. The summer sun in North Africa wouldn’t fall far short of Qatar’s, and the hosts of Roman games needed to take precautions to protect their spectators from its worst excesses. This was often done via vast awnings fixed atop amphitheatres to provide shade. But rather more ingeniously, in a manner reminiscent of the recent Australian Open where “misters” pumped cooling air onto grateful tennis fans, Seneca tells us about “a means of spraying saffron perfumes to a tremendous height from hidden pipes, [which] fills or empties channels in one sudden rush of water… (Letters 90.5)”


It remains to be seen whether Sebb Blatter’s FIFA prove kinder organisers than Caligula, who famously removed the awning from the Colosseum and left his fellow Romans to bake in the afternoon sun (Suetonius, Life of Caligula 26.5).

The Roman Gifts You Shouldn’t Give

As the holiday season dies down, we’re left with fond memories, aching stomachs, fading hangovers, and of course the debris of gifts given and received. But amid the toys, clothes, books and edibles, there are usually a few gifts we’d rather not have received – things not to our taste, novelty items, or tat churned out by gift shops the world over. Perhaps a relative thought we’d like it. Perhaps a cheeky friend knew we wouldn’t.

The tackiest gift? Queen bobble heads, in Niagara Fall's Souvenir City

The tackiest gift? Queen bobble heads, in Niagara Fall’s Souvenir City

The Romans also had a mid-winter celebration, Saturnalia, many of the habits of which are echoed in our Christmas festivities (unsurprisingly, since the Christian holiday arguably “took over” from Saturnalia when the Roman Empire gradually Christianized in the 4th and 5th C). Gift-giving in particular was a key part of the festival. Like us, the Romans gave clothes, toys, books and foodstuffs (fish sauce, anyone?), often sourcing luxury imported goods at great expense (the womb of a virgin pig?). But is there any evidence that the Romans, like us, got gifts they’d rather not have?

Gladiator helmet glass dropper-flask (3rd C AD, Cologne), in the British Museum.

The archaeological record certainly preserves objects that seem temptingly close to novelty items. This perfume bottle is designed in the shape of a gladiator’s helmet. In a world where gladiators were both celebrities and sex symbols, it’s hard not to see it as the Roman equivalent of a One Direction duvet cover. The famously tacky character Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyricon remarks at his dinner party that “I’ve got the fights of Hermeros and Petraites on a series of cups all of massive metal (Satyricon 52).” The Roman world did kitschy just as well as us.

Moreover, a shipment of crates which arrived in Pompeii on the eve of the infamous 79AD eruption hints at mass-produced gifts. It contained 76 pottery bowls from Southern Gaul (modern France) and 37 lamps from Northern Italy. There’s no shop connected to the find site, so the shipment doesn’t seem to have been for resale. Scholars have suggested instead that this is a box of gifts, to be split up and distributed. It arrived in late August/early September, near the end of the shipping season. We might complain about shops preparing for Christmas in November, but spare a thought for the Romans, who had to do their Christmas shopping even earlier. 

It’s harder for us to know whether these gifts would have been welcomed. But there are hints in Roman writings that gifts were sometimes neither appropriate or appreciated. The poet Martial (second half of the 1st C AD) dedicated a whole book of epigrams to messages for gift tags. And as we’d expect from a tongue as ascerbic as Martial’s, these sentiments sometimes have a sting attached. When giving a leek, write, “Whenever you have eaten strong-smelling shreds of the Tarentine leek, give kisses with your mouth shut (Epigram 18).” Similarly, the Roman biographer-cum-historian Suetonius notes of the first emperor, Augustus, that:

“On the Saturnalia, and at any other time when he took it into his head, he would give gifts of clothing or gold and silver; again coins of every device, including old pieces of the kings and foreign money; another time nothing but hair cloth, sponges, pokers and tongs, and other such things under misleading names of double meaning.”

If the culture of Roman gift-giving was as fraught as our own, with pressure to buy imported gifts and a culture of double-edged presents, perhaps we can find new meaning in Virgil’s famous words, “I fear the Greeks, especially when they come bearing gifts.

Celebrity, Sexting, and Pliny the Younger

The media has been filled with stories recently about the unintentional consequences of people’s writing. A driver was convicted for knocking over  a cyclist only because her tweet about it brought her to the attention of the police. Careers services tell job hunters to assess their “online profiles”, worried that a compromising photo or an unwisely expressed opinion could be the difference between dream job and dreaming of a job. And Snapchat’s seeming reassurance of “private” sexting has got parents lying awake in fear. All this comes in a world where people are desperate to be famous. We live in a world where people want to be known and remembered, but cannot necessarily control for what.

It’s usually thought that things were very different in the ancient world. There was no instant messaging, no mass media and no printing – if you wanted a friend to read something you had to physically take it to them, or else have someone take it for you. If you wanted a copy of a book, you had to physically copy out its contents (or get a slave to do it for you).

But our concern with audience would have been familiar to many Romans. The late 1st/early 2nd century writer Plinius Secundus (who we now usually refer to as Pliny the Younger) seems as hungry for celebrity as any X-factor contestant. A letter of his to a friend, for example, records his pleasure at being recognised at a dinner party a long way from Rome, and cites it as just reward for his labours (Letter 9.23). In another he envisages the wide audience his writings will have and the praise they will garner (Letter 7.17).

Pliny also seems desperate to be remembered. He had given a lot of speeches as a lawyer, the records of which he hoped would secure his legacy. This Plinian “tweet” (Letter 7.20, to his friend Tacitus, the acclaimed historian of the day) for example seems to make clear his craving for fame.

Pliny carefully collected and edited his private letters into nine books of letters that he intended for publication. But there is a tenth book containing (often fawning) letters between Pliny and his boss, the emperor Trajan, from a period towards the end of his life when Pliny served as governor of the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus (in Asia Minor). Many scholars in the past thought Pliny didn’t intend the general public to read these letters. They therefore seemed to offer secret glimpses into aspects of Pliny’s personality that he would have preferred to have remained in confidence. But more recently, it has been suggested that perhaps Pliny also intended this tenth book to be published as well. In which case, perhaps we’re better off looking at them as deliberately “leaked” documents. In the ancient world as much as today, historians have to ask why we have access to a document. Who gave us access? And did they mean to?