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The Empire of Letters: Correspondence in the Roman World


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenor: Professor Catharine Edwards
  • Assessment: a 1000-word written assignment (20%) and 3000-word essay (80%)

Module description

Correspondence played a crucial role in the functioning of the geographically extended Roman empire, serving as a vital mechanism for the negotiation of power-relations as well as for the communication of information. Emperors kept tabs on distant provincial governors, like Pliny, by letter; remote communities could, in theory, complain to the emperor about the extortions of tax-collectors or landlords; cities could request privileges (if successful the letter and the emperor's response might be recorded on stone).

In this module, we shall explore the implications of the postal service as a technology of power. Documents from Egypt and Roman Britain illustrate the part sometimes played by letter-writing in the lives of relatively humble individuals, such as soldiers serving far from home. Letters also played a vital role in relationships between members of the Roman elite, such as political exiles like Cicero.

The letter seems to possess an immediacy and an authenticity. Yet many of the Roman letters which have been preserved are highly self-conscious artefacts. They played a key role in elite self-presentation, especially as they were routinely circulated to others beyond their addressees. While Seneca uses the letter form to articulate a lengthy course in Stoic self-transformation, Pliny's letters project their author as witty, genial and accomplished in his leisure pursuits, as well as dutiful in his public offices - the carefully crafted image of the perfect Roman senator. We will focus on this particular aspect of the use of letters.

Indicative syllabus

  • The Roman postal service and the technology of letter writing
  • The role of letters in governing an extended empire
  • The relationship between provincial governors and central government (book 10 of Pliny 's letters)
  • The use of letters by those outside the education elite, esp. soldiers; the extent of literacy (papyri from Egypt; Vindolanda tablets)
  • Letters and patronage (Cicero, Pliny, papyri)
  • Letters and friendship (Cicero and Atticus)
  • Letters and family (Cicero and Pliny)
  • Letters and literary life (Pliny, Seneca)
  • Writing the ideal senator (Pliny)
  • Letters as a medium of philosophical instruction (Seneca)
  • Love letters (Fronto)