Quamquam ad te cras venio, tamen tam amicis tamque iu-
cundis litteris tuis, tam denique elegantibus nihil, ne hoc quidem
tantulum, rescribere non sustineo, mi Fronto carissime. Sed quid
ego prius amem? pro quo prius habeam gratiam?
I know I’m coming to see you tomorrow, my very dear Fronto,
but your letter was so friendly and delightful and even charming
that I simply can’t wait to write back, no matter how trifling my
response. Lets’ see – what should I cherish first? What am I sup-
posed to be thankful for first?
Marcus Aurelius(Frontonis) ad Marcum Caesarem 4.2.1
I like – no, love – to write, and letters as much as any other kind of discourse (witness the dreadful fluency of this blog!). Indeed, it might be argued that I am a compulsive word scribbler, a kind of – if you will indulge me – ‘philographist’. And few things give me as much genuine pleasure as receiving letters, whether emails or of the gastropodan variety, from friends and acquaintances all over the Americas, from Europe, and from Asia and Africa, and reading about their views of my country and their own, their interests, their friends and relationships, their families, their private lives.
Some of these individuals I have been writing to for years; most I have never met and most I never will. Yet, I feel at times that I know some of them more deeply than some people whom I see almost daily. Letters have a fascinating way of obviating secret inhibition and hastening the dissolution of those protective social carapaces that we fabricate for the world and for ourselves – so that we may keep reinventing ourselves with ever more dazzling selfs!
Although the writing of letters is a practice that began long before the ancient Greeks and the Romans marched across the earth, the earliest reference to a letter in Western literature occurs – where else? – in Homer. This “letter” was, however, hardly an auspicious harbinger for the art of Western correspondence: in a brief aside, almost, a character named Bellerophon notes that he unwittingly carried a letter to his future father-in-law that urged he be killed (Iliad 6.168-169): … σήματα λυγρά / θυμοφθόρα πολλά … sēmata lugra/ … thumophthora polla “dire tokens/ … many life-destroying [messages]”.
The Romans in particular were great correspondents. No doubt the most famous (and voluminous) epistolary corpus to have survived from antiquity (but by no means the only one) is that of the great Roman orator Cicero (106-43 B.C.). His letters tell us much about the political riptides and undertows of one of the stormiest periods in world history (the late, imploding Roman Republic) and about the great personalities sailing those blustery waters; at the same time his correspondence reveals to us his family, his friends, his wide interests, and Cicero himself, the human being with all his human weaknesses and strengths, his arrogance, his worries, his thoughts about everything under the Mediterranean sun.
Sizable collections of the letters of the younger Pliny (including the famous 6.16 on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79 A.D.) and Seneca have likewise survived from the first century A.D. On a more official level, the administrative chancelleries of the empire had large staffs of (usually Greek) slaves (ab epistulis, “secretary for letters” and tabellarius, “mail courier”) whose job it was to write and deliver imperial dispatches.
In the epigraph above, excerpted from one of the many letters of the 140s A.D. that Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.), the future Roman emperor (161-180 A.D.), exchanged with his diligent tutor Marcus Cornelius Fronto (one of antiquity’s greatest correspondents), I sense the joyous obsession of true letter writers, who cannot wait to put reed to papyrus in order to open mind and heart to their correspondents – and this though they are but shortly to meet. The desire to write, to answer questions put, to explain oneself, to create worlds with words – it simply overwhelms. This is clearly a human fixation of great antiquity.
A formal epistolary literature had also taken firm shape among the ancients. One thinks, for example, in Latin of the clever Heroidum Epistulae, or Heroides, of Ovid, in which he imaginatively enters into the complex variations on the mental and emotional universes of the great women of classical myth after their shameless lovers have abandoned them. (Need material for writing literate start-of-love letters, madly-in-love letters or end-of-love letters? Look no further!)
And in Greek we have the inventive “correspondence” of Alciphron, a younger contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, which purports to be letters written to and from a variety of marginalized characters (e.g., slaves, rustics, prostitutes) in the Athens of the fourth century B.C.
From the writings of these individuals and many others then and since it is clear that Marcus Aurelius above gives ancient expression to a deep-seated impulse to which we all more or less must own up: the need to create, shape and elaborate in words a persona of ourselves out of our own imaginings on a private epistolary stage to which friends, enemies, colleagues, family, and lovers as well as would-be lovers shall have access of an unconstrained immediacy.