CfAR (March 2015)


by Karen Radner

OUP (2014) h/b 306pp £48 (ISBN 978019935477)



by John Muir

Routledge (2012) p/b 240pp £30 (ISBN 9780415518376)


Karen Radner’s collection of scholarly papers covers state correspondence from Egypt’s New Kingdom (1530-1069 BC), the Hittites, Neo-Assyrians, Babylonia, Persia, the Hellenistic world and Roman Empire from Augustus to Justinian (6th C AD). Much detail of importance to scholars lurks in these pages, but the broad thesis is one of great simplicity: that, if you wish to control a large tract of territory in the ancient world and keep it stable and coherent, you had better invest in efficient ways for the centre to communicate with the periphery, especially in times of trouble. That meant developing information networks by means of roads (or their equivalents), horses, mules and either envoys reporting back and forth or messengers carrying letters to and fro.

Xenophon made the point succinctly in relation to the huge Persian Empire: its messenger network was ‘the fastest land travel on earth’ with the result that the centre could be ‘informed of everything as quickly as possible and so deal with it at top speed’. The Greek (not Roman) orator Aelius Aristides made the same point about the Roman Empire: the emperor could stay put and rule the whole world by letters, ‘which arrive almost as soon as they are written, as if carried by winged envoys’. Pliny’s famous correspondence with Trajan about Christians and much else illustrates the point.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire was responsible for the major development in speed of delivery: instead of a single messenger or envoy making the whole journey on his own, a series of mounted couriers relayed the message, each responsible for one stretch of the route. If messages were confidential, however, the single messenger was preferred (that was always Augustus’ option). A further development was the Assyrian Royal Road, which by 670 BC connected the Mediterranean coast to the Persian Gulf. A message from the westernmost province (S.E. Turkey) to the centre would need to cover about 700 kms (430 miles). It would surely take a minimum of five days. Even so, it set the standard for that region till the advent of the Ottoman telegraph in 1865.

Given the speed of our communications, the problem of unintentional ‘crossed wires’ in the ancient world must have been severe. A lot could happen while a message from A was taking a month to reach B. A famous story—possibly invented by that imaginative fellow Ben Trovato—illustrates the point. In AD 40, Caligula wanted a statue of himself as Jupiter erected in the temple at Jerusalem. The local governor Petronius wrote suggesting this was really not a very good idea. At the same time, Herod Agrippa, a local tetrarch of the region, was in Rome, heard of Caligula’s plans and dissuaded him. So Caligula wrote to Petronius cancelling the project—and only then received Petronius’ letter. Seeing it as insubordination, he wrote back, ordering Petronius to top himself. The letter was delayed by storms, eventually arriving 27 days after news had already reached Petronius that Caligula had been assassinated. Phew! So there is something to be said for delays in the mail after all.

John Muir casts a wider net over a smaller pond: Hellenistic correspondence of all sorts, from the literary, religious and philosophical (mostly found in ancient texts that have survived down the millennia) to the business and private letters surviving on papyrus dug up from the desert. It makes for fascinating and highly accessible reading.

M. begins with a general introduction to the conventions of letter-writing, the materials used, the mechanics of sending letters and so on, and kicks off with the personal and family letters. They give a good flavour of the content and style of the whole book. M. notes that all these letters derive from papyrus finds among Greek communities in Egypt when it was a Roman province and describe a mixed culture, but do not suggest that Rome was a burdensome master (neither, for that matter, does most of the New Testament). There are letters about house-hunting, children sent away to school (the child is reading Iliad book 6), sons begging their father to visit the teacher (‘this is the fifth time I have written’), financial problems (no money to buy clothes), life in the army (at Ostia and preparing to go to Rome for a posting), romance (‘I die if I do not see you every day’), marriage (misunderstandings about who was providing the flowers), parties (‘send Zenobios the drag-artist’), building works (delays in completion), farm management (‘about the pig-food and the rest of the payment for the hay, settle the accounts until I come’).

Equally judicious and informative are the selected letters in the other chapters on business (a money order goes astray ‘eaten by mice’: mice found papyrus very tasty); letters of state (the anti-Roman king Mithridates writes to a local commander telling him to hunt down a wealthy Greek and his two sons sympathetic to Roman power in the area; ‘if anyone bring them in alive, he will receive 40 talents, and if anyone brings in a head of any of them, he will receive twenty talents’); letters as tracts for the purpose of persuasion and instruction (‘To the rich: hang yourselves…you are traitors, tyrants and murderers’); the New Testament letters (the bachelor Paul on marriage: ‘I wish you all were as I am’) and finally literary letters, especially those that tell a story, a forerunner of the letter in novels.

Here M. relays the glorious sequence of letters between the great doctor Hippocrates and the people of Abdera who are worried about their famous philosopher Democritus (he of the atomic theory), who spends his time laughing his socks off at everyone and everything; he has clearly gone bonkers; can Hippocrates please cure him? The story of Hippocrates’ journey is told—much incidental detail of finding lodgings and so on—and eventually the two meet. Democritus continues chortling away and the Abderites are in despair, but then Democritus explains why: how else can one respond to the follies and paradoxes of human behaviour, which he lists in great detail? Hippocrates is completely won over: far from being crackers, Democritus is the wisest of men!

All in all, a most enjoyable introduction.

Peter Jones


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