Robin Osborne, ‘The letter: a diplomatic history’ (London, January 28th)

(Paper given at the Ancient History Seminar, London, January 28th, 2010. Brief report by Charlotte Tupman.)

The letter: a diplomatic history

Robin Osborne

Osborne began his paper by explaining that his main focus would be upon examining structural points in the genre of the letter. A letter is a composition of a very strong generic type: whatever the context of the letter, its writer is bound by conventions that lead to what is written being framed in a particular way, which in turn defines the relationship between the letter-writer and the recipient. Letters must not only be seen in the context of other letters; rather, they must be viewed in the context of other methods of transmitting information. In this way we can examine how convention influenced content.

Making use of some of the earliest epigraphic examples of letters, including the Berezan lead letter (L. Dubois, Inscriptions Greques Dialectales d’Olbia du Pont (1996), no. 23, 550-500 B.C.), Osborne discussed their characteristics. These included the identification of the addressee; a presupposition of prior knowledge on the part of the addressee as to the information being conveyed; and the inclusion of two or more apparently unconnected messages. This placed the receiver of the letter into an intimate contact with the letter-writer: a letter conveyed information directly from one individual to another, in a private manner. However a letter was also susceptible to interception, and private comments could ultimately be transmitted to a wider public.

The earliest example of a political letter that surivives is a communication from Darius to Gadates (R. Meiggs and D. Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (Oxford, 1988), 12, which is illustrative of the fact that the use of letters in this period is not associated with the Greek city, but with the Persian Empire. Greek cities in the Archaic and Classical periods communicated using messengers rather than documents. They sent representatives, whereas in the world of Persian kings letters were seen as a more appropriate mode: there was no need for an intermediary. The recipient saw exactly what the sender wanted him to see, and thus the recipient entered into a relationship with the sender, rather than with a messenger. The letter from Darius to Gadates is almost conversational in tone: it begins with a criticism (“I learn that you do not in all respects obey my orders,”) and then commends some aspects of the behaviour of the recipient (“…I praise your application, and because of this great gratitude will be laid up for you.”).

The interception of letters as a tactic for obstructing insurgency is demonstrated in a letter from Aeneas Tacitus, How to survive a seige 10.5-6, 8-10, 13, 14 (tr. Whitehead): “Both outgoing and incoming letters must be submitted to a board of inspectors before delivery.” A passage from Thucydides (7.8, tr. Crawley) demonstrates that despite the fear of interception, Nicias was more worried by the thought that his messengers “…either through inability to speak, or through failure of memory, or from a wish to please the multitude, might not report the truth, and so thought it best to write a letter to ensure that the Athenians should know his own opinion…” By sending a letter, the writer could control the way in which the message was received by the recipient, and could convey his own words in a way that would not be guaranteed by the use of a messenger.

Whilst Greek cities did not use the medium of the letter to transmit information, a large number of Hellenistic kings did so. These letters were modelled on both personal letters and city decrees, but were closer in form to personal letters. Such letters were suitable for use by Hellenistic kings because by transmitting the words of the ruler they conveyed royal authority, and his subjects could feel a personal connection with their king, who had personally demonstrated his concern for them. These letters were highly rhetorical, in that they tried to transmit something of the tone of voice of the writer, and their verbosity gave an impression of an unedited text. Moreover, the use of the form of a letter permitted, and indeed encouraged, an explanation of the thinking behind the decisions and judgments of the sender. In contrast, city decrees were highly edited and simply stated the decisions that had been made, with no room in the format for a description of the process by which they had been reached.

From the second century B.C. onwards diplomatic relations were dominated by the letter, an example which is the letter of Flaminius to Khyretiai (197-4) (R. Sherk, Rome and the Greek East to the Death of Augustus: Translated Documents of Greece and Rome, 4.4). It follows the form of the letters of Hellenistic kings in giving explanations for the decisions that were made: “Whatever properties have been lost by you… we give to your city, in order that also in these matters you may learn our nobility of character and because in no way at all have we wished to be avaricious…” This is in clear contrast to texts such as P. J. Rhodes and R. Osborne, Greek Historical Inscriptions 404-323 BC (Oxford, 2003), 101, on the restoration of exiles at Tegea, which is simply a set of instructions: “The exiles who are returning shall recover their paternal possessions…”; “…If a house has a garden adjacent to it, let him not take another…” There is no room in the format for a discussion of principles or reasoning.

Osborne concluded by reasoning that although letters varied in content, the letter form itself encouraged relationships to form between the writer and the receiver, and promoted explanation rather than simple statement of fact. Letters therefore contrasted considerably with city decrees that essentially offered no possibility of correspondence. Roman officials adopted the letter form of Hellenestic kings, even though individual magistrates could not act with the same level of authority: this mismatch in form is comparable to that which occurred when Roman generals were celebrated with Hellenistic-style statues. Subsequently, of course, this type of communication was adopted by Roman emperors. The genre of the letter, then, carries its own diplomatic history. Only when letters are compared with the other formats that were available at the time can we understand the significance of this particular form of communication.

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