Tuesday, September 17, 2019


Paola Ceccarelli, Lutz Doering, Thorsten Fögen (ed.), Letters and Communities: Studies in the Socio-Political Dimensions of Ancient Epistolography. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. viii, 373. ISBN 9780198804208. $105.00.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Mattingly Conner, University of Maryland, College Park (econner1@umd.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


How did letters construct and sustain various types of communities in the ancient Mediterranean? The volume under review, a revised collection of papers presented at a 2011 conference at Durham University, contributes to scholarly understanding of a long-neglected dimension of ancient letters: the inherently "prosocial" character of ancient epistolography. According to the editors, three main qualities contributed to the "community-building" character of ancient letters: the letter's permanence, its ability to extend social interaction beyond those who are present across space and time, and its protean generic ideology. As written texts, the letter as verbal artefact was a site of communion, memory, and authority that could enjoy countless lives in the (intended or unintended) broadcast of letter content in conversation and writing, oral presentations, private re-readings, and subsequent preservation. The letter contributed to the social cohesion and communal identities of trans-Mediterranean political, religious, and philosophical communities in unique ways while also complementing oral communication and other forms of communication (e.g., the decree). Furthermore, the ideological flexibility of ancient letters (here termed loosely as a "genre"; cf. p. 13) furnished diverse strategies for authorial self-fashioning and persuasion. In this way, the essays in the volume emphasize the "soft" power of letters to exert influence without force and to project specific moral or civic values which may also define and, in a sense, immortalize one's self and community for moments of transhistorical friendship among like-minded literati initiates.

To unpack the communal dimensions of ancient letters, the present volume contributes to dialogue between Classics and the fields of theology, notably Jewish Studies and the study of early Christianity, by bringing together case studies from four major ancient Mediterranean "cultures," notably, Judaism, Christianity, Greece, and Rome, which range from the classical Greek period to Imperial Rome. Individual contributions focus on various forms of letters, including the well-tilled literary letters of Cicero and Seneca, the political missives of classical tyrants conserved in Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch, the letters of Hellenistic monarchs and Roman representatives to Greece in the 2nd c. B.C.E. that are preserved in epigraphic form, and the use of missives and embedded epistles in Second Temple (Ezra 4-7, 2 Maccabees), early Christian (Paul's 2 Corinthians, the Epistle of Baruch, and the Letter of James), and rabbinic texts.

The first unit of this volume entitled "Theory and Practice of Epistolary Communication" contains two essays exploring how the sociological understandings of epistolary protocol (Thorsten Fögen) and the social performances undergirding epistolary exchange (Bianca-Jeanette Schröder) contributed to the letter's capacity to engender and sustain social interaction and corporate identities. Thorsten Fögen's essay outlines the social expectations of epistolary style in both rhetorical theorists (Demetrius, Pseudo-Libanius, Pseudo-Demetrius) and epistolographers (Cicero, Seneca, Pliny the Younger) to trace the discursive strategies by means of which letters forged social bonds between senders and recipients. Critical to creating common ground between interlocutors was the letter author's quasi-dramatic cultivation of an appropriate, vivid, and genteel persona to simulate synchronic simultaneity and to enhance emotional intimacy and the perception of shared identity. One laments in this context a passing mention of the ancient perceptions of the relationship between image, memory, and language which likely also facilitated epistolary parousia.1

Scholars of the ancient letter will find useful Bianca-Jeanette Schröder's stimulating essay on letter couriers in Cicero's epistolary network, which explores how the selection of carriers fundamentally shaped letter content. Depending upon the available courier, the carrier as "mobile bridge" (p. 99) and "living paratext" (p. 85) between communicants could present potential risks as well as advantages which the letter author had to manage. In Schröder's analysis, it emerges that letter writing could serve more as a ritual obligation of aristocratic friendship than a means of transmitting news, as Cicero would furnish new letters so that a courier would not leave empty-handed rather than wait for a more pressing reason to write (88-89). Interestingly, Cicero also opted not to use his characteristic seal and his own handwriting if he was particularly concerned about protecting a letter's confidentiality and avoiding detection as its author (cf. Att.10.11.1, 93). Schröder thereby emphasizes the role of known carriers in epistolary networks and hints at the social performances of the socially-dependent carrier, though in many epistolary networks in the Roman world which were less politically sensitive, the courier was not always known to either interlocutor and could easily have been a traveler or merchant (cf. Synesius Letters 54 and 101, Procopius of Gaza Letter 71). Presumably, in many cases couriers did not substantially change letter content.

Section B is devoted to the role of letters in large-scale political configurations of the ancient Mediterranean during the classical, Hellenistic, and late Roman Republic. Sian Lewis's fascinating essay (Chapter Three) on the attested letters of Syracusan rulers from Dionysius I to Agathocles (Diod. Sic., Plut. Dion) contributes not only to our understanding of how classical tyrants negotiated their rule but also bears directly on contemporary debates about the relationship between writing and orality in emerging polis constitutions, one-man rule in the classical world, and the transition to rule by letter in the Hellenistic period. Lewis asserts that the classical tyrants carefully deployed the letter form—implicitly a confirmation of the ruler's ability to speak for the whole polis—in extra-polis communications as a form of monarchic display (drawn especially from Persian models) and as a means of eliciting external legitimation. Chapter 4 by Manuela Mari explores how Macedonian kings in the fourth century B.C.E. employed written letters (missives as well as circular letters or diagrammata) to yoke together the monarchic center with its constituent periphery. In particular, Mari's survey of the role of letters in the political culture of Macedonian rule reveals how the epistatai, local magistrates responsible for communicating letters at the local level who were often selected by their home communities, were vital diplomatic conduits connecting king and subjects.

The following essays (Chapters 5 and 6, respectively) of Ceccarelli and Osborne analyze the syntactical, lexical, and discursive ways in which the decree and the royal or proconsular letter embedded unique ideologies of power that articulated in distinctive ways the relationships between author and audience. Ceccarelli focuses specifically on a late-third century B.C.E. epigraphical dossier from Magnesia on the Maeander to explore how a polis community accommodated to royal powers superior to the city-state in the Hellenistic interstate world yet still projected its own unique identity and communal history. Osborne's stimulating chapter bears directly on the fascinating issue of the "Coming of Rome" (Gruen) to the Greek East in the early second century B.C.E. Osborne contends that the Roman decision to maintain the Hellenistic tradition of issuing letters in response to city embassies led to critical cultural misunderstandings for Greek cities who mistakenly assimilated the operating procedures of Roman magistrates to their prior experience with the political culture of Greek monarchs. Ingo Gildenhard's essay (Chapter 7) rounds out the unit by tracing how Cicero's correspondence from 49-44 B.C.E. (roughly a third of his extant correspondence) offered a means for the philosopher-statesman to project the image of a community of like-minded colleagues, a "Republic of Letters", while also reflecting upon and constructing his own identity within Caesar's world.

The third unit of essays focuses on epistolary communication and the letter form in shaping ideas of community and identity for Jewish and early Christian communities. Sebastian Grätz's chapter (Chapter 8) begins this unit by presenting a cogent case for a Hellenistic composition date of embedded Aramaic letters in Ezra 4-8 based upon their linguistic style and themes. Grätz argues that the presentation of these letters as official Persian correspondence aimed to legitimize God's special election of the kingdom of Judah by linking the introduction of the Torah to Ezra in the context of the reconstruction of the Temple at Jerusalem under Persian auspices. In Chapter 9, Philip Alexander examines how embedded letters in 2 Maccabees, Acts 9:1-2, 15:22-35, 28:17-22, the Tosefta Sanhedrin 2.6 and parallel rabbinic texts asserted the primacy of Jerusalem as the center of Jewish identity for the Diaspora periphery. Alexander then traces the diffusion of authority in the Talmudic period in the form of the responsa of the Geonim centered in Babylonia and the Galilee. Lutz Doering's succeeding chapter (Chapter 10) argues that the Epistle of Baruch (2 Baruch 78-86) telescopes the text's actual compositional context—the decades after the destruction of the second temple—with the destruction of the first temple, in order to coopt the authority of prophet Jeremiah's scribe Baruch to enunciate the unity of the tribes of Israel and to urge Israel to shift focus from national to other-worldly expectations.

John Barclay's engrossing yet brief study of 2 Corinthians follows. It exposes the managerial role of Paul's letters to shape communal perceptions and the reputations of leading figures in order to affirm the apostle's authority. The letters point, however, to the myriad social networking strategies and "stage management" of Paul and his associates; these were probably more significant in shaping Paul's contemporary communities and their longevity than his letters. This reality, however, is overshadowed by subsequent re-reading and eventual canonization of these texts by later Christian communities.

The final two chapters open onto the theme of the trans-historicity of epistolary communication. Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr's compelling essay addresses how the Letter of James, by employing the paraenesis of the Diaspora letter genre and the authority of the author (James the brother of Jesus), constructed a distinctively Christian communal ethos and eschatological message at the level of the interpretation of the implied reader, the implied author, as well as the original historical and later late-antique and medieval audiences. Catherine Edwards final chapter on Seneca's Letters to Lucilius (a concluding Unit D) investigates Seneca's exploitation of the genre's ideological capacity to cultivate fellowship among individuals neither spatially nor temporally present. Edwards contends that Seneca sets up in these letters a homologous relationship linking conversations among separated friends to the interaction between philosophical students and the great philosophical teachers of the past. In this way, the re-reading of Seneca's letters becomes a philosophical practice as well as a virtual conversation of the student with the master teachers.

Students and scholars of various types of ancient letters will find much that is useful in this volume. Especially helpful is the introduction, which sets out a compelling synopsis of the generic ideology of the ancient letter. This discussion can profitably be read in conjunction with the preface and introduction surveying approaches to defining the letter in the 2007 volume on ancient epistolography edited by Morrison and Morello.2 As is typical for volumes of collected essays of a relatively broad chronological range, every essay may not be of use for each reader, yet one may still wish to peruse many, or perhaps all, of the entries for new approaches and models for reading ancient letters. An unfortunate absence is a concluding discussion synthesizing how volume essays specifically contribute to the plastic ideology of the epistolary genre and to connect more explicitly the themes of chapters pertaining to classical studies with those focused on Jewish and/or early Christian studies.

The volume contains no combined bibliography but excellent bibliographies for each chapter including the introduction as well as several indices (index rerum, nominem, auctorum, locorum) which provide targeted points of entry for specialists and students alike. Typographical errors are rare (cf. p. 23 and p. 25; in order to indicate a contrast, the word "chance" when juxtaposed with "risk" [e.g., p. 99] should read "opportunity"). These quibbles aside, this exciting new volume nicely illuminates issues of major historiographical significance which will no doubt stimulate fascinating interdisciplinary conversations about the sociological and communal character of ancient letters.


1.   See, e.g., Ruth Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination, and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice (Farnham, England; Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate), 2009.
2.   Ruth Morello and Andrew Morrison, eds., Ancient Letters: Classical and Late Antique Epistolography (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

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