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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: Two 2,500 word assessments (25% each), one 48-hour take-home exam (50%), 60% class attendance requirement

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 at least, complain to the emperor about the extortions of tax-collectors or landlords by letter; cities could request privileges by letter (if successful the letter and the emperor's response might be recorded on stone).

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 the articulation of relationships between members of the Roman elite. Political exiles like Cicero, for instance, used letters to maintain contact with the metropolis.

The letter seems to possess an immediacy, an authenticity superior to that of many other kinds of text (hence in part the attraction of ancient letters for later historians). Yet many of the Roman letters which have been preserved are highly self-conscious artefacts, attentive to the conventions of a complex generic tradition. Letters played a key role in elite self-presentation, especially as they were routinely circulated to others beyond their addressees. This aspect of the use of letters will be a particular focus of this unit. While Seneca uses the letter form to articulate a lengthy course in Stoic self-transformation,  Pliny's letters (also written with a eye to publication, it seems) project their author as witty, genial, accomplished in his leisure pursuits, as well as dutiful in his public offices - the carefully crafted image of the perfect Roman senator.