chapter  3
29 Pages

BUSINESS LETTERS

Business letters are often humdrum items and, having served their purpose, are usually thrown away by the hundredweight. Most deserve oblivion but, for the historian and even for the general reader, much curious and fascinating detail about life and people can emerge from rummaging in ancient Greek administrative waste-baskets and the remains of business correspondence. A part of the picture that emerges emphasizes how different the ancient Greek world was from our own, but what often brings administrative letters of that time to life is the realization that some problems and situations are universal. Managers have to get it right when handling subordinates; they have to know how to work the system and how to deal with the unexpectedly awkward situation or the downright crisis. Subordinates too have to learn tactful ways of handling the boss, even to making sure that his ladyfriend is looked after discreetly. Local authority officials become adept at coping with applications and complaints, and law officers are well versed in those bitter neighbourly disputes, often involving land, which still form a sizeable part of a modern lawyer’s in-tray. Bureaucracy has always had its own momentum too, and some ancient Greek bureaucrats were just as obsessed as their modern counterparts with orderly record-keeping, with establishing zones of responsibility and full supporting paperwork, and with trackable accountability. It is of course the case that nearly all the ‘waste paper’ from the ancient

Greek world has now disappeared, and that the quite large quantity of business correspondence which survives has nearly all come from the Greek or Greek/Egyptian community in Egypt, thanks to the favourable circumstances of survival for papyrus in some areas of the country. A very great deal has come either from the original rubbish heaps on which it was originally piled when it became outdated and surplus to requirements in the office, or from random finds, or (in recycled form) from the papier-mâchélike cartonnage of mummy cases, the original sheets of papyrus having been separated out in modern times. There are thousands of individual documents including letters, and among them have been found those sequences of dated papers already mentioned in Chapter 1 which leave no doubt that what we

have recovered are virtually the contents of an administrator’s ‘filing cabinet’ between certain dates. Some of them give a remarkably vivid and detailed picture of what it was like to be an ancient Greek administrator and businessman at a certain point in history. Papyrologists refer to such sequences as ‘archives’, and they are usually called after the administrator from whose office they came, e.g. the Nicanor archive, the Diophanes archive, the Abinnaeus archive, etc. The most extensive is the Zenon archive, which was discovered by some Egyptian farmers in 1915. It consists of some of the working papers of Zenon, a Greek from Caunos in Asia Minor, who became estates manager and general administrator to Apollonios, the dioicetes or Minister of Finance under King Ptolemy II, who ruled Egypt between 285 and 246 BC. Apollonios was an important man at the top of the tree and Zenon must have been a loyal and trusted administrator, for the documents cover a twenty-year period from 260 to 240 BC, embracing all aspects of running Apollonios’ large estate at Philadelphia (modern Darb-el-Gerza) and a great deal else besides. The archive contains mainly business letters to and from Zenon and quite a number are quoted in this chapter. Before entering the world of Greek business and administration, two

words of caution are in order. First, the fact that pretty well all the surviving business letters come from or were written to members of the Greek community in Egypt is of some significance, since it has often been argued that Egypt, especially in terms of government and administration, was always untypical of the rest of the Greek world or, for that matter, of the Roman world too. When Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy, son of Lagos, took over Egypt in 323 BC after Alexander’s death and finally proclaimed himself king as Ptolemy I in 305 BC, he established Macedonians and Greeks as a ruling colonial elite and actively encouraged Greeks to come to share in the prosperity of one of the richest countries in the ancient world.1 He and his companions, in coming to terms with thousands of years of Egyptian tradition and a much shorter period of Persian administration, inherited a welldeveloped bureaucracy, and it can quite fairly be argued that, though the language and modes of that bureaucracy were speedily translated into and maintained in Greek, the resultant administrative culture was not the same as that to be found in mainland Greece or the other Hellenistic kingdoms. Likewise, when Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemies, committed suicide in Alexandria following the battle of Actium and Augustus established Egypt as a Roman province under tight personal control, Egypt was a province like no other. Its recent history, its wealth and, above all, its importance as one of the main grain-suppliers to the ever-growing city of Rome made it a highly sensitive area – at the start no Roman senator or member of the equestrian order was allowed to visit without the emperor’s permission. It is therefore easy to make a case for saying that Egypt was always special and that what is found there is not typical nor does it offer a true sample of the kind of life lived elsewhere in the Greek world. Yet a glance at the

surviving documentation gives pause for thought. While it is true that much of the economic and historical background is quite unlike situations elsewhere (and a huge amount of fruitful scholarly research has been devoted to economic affairs in Egypt), the human situations and transactions revealed in the letters are often only partly related to Egypt’s peculiarity and must often reflect life as it was experienced by ordinary people elsewhere in the Greek East. For many ordinary Greeks the local administrator with considerable power over their lives has always been an overwhelmingly important horizon, and the person with legal authority (or the muscle or the contacts) to sort out disputes and right wrongs has never lacked petitioners. In those respects the world revealed in the business letters of Greeks and Greek-speakers in Egypt can reasonably be thought to be not too unlike what was happening elsewhere in Greek communities and kingdoms at that time. The second and more controversial word of caution concerns not geography but time. Many of the letters in this chapter – though not all – belong to the Hellenistic world of the third century BC, and they cannot therefore be taken as representative of a culture which flourished and fluctuated in the eastern Mediterranean with a degree of continuity right through the Roman and early Byzantine periods. The main reason for this narrow focus is simply the fact that the material in the ‘archives’ gives a unique opportunity, hard to resist, for a closeness to the detail of ordinary Greek administrative activity which is not available at any other period. And, even though this sounds like an excuse, it is perhaps arguable that it was the Hellenistic world which materially helped to define the ‘Greekness’ of later Hellenic consciousness. So, a narrow focus in the following selection may not be quite so limiting as first appears. The ancient Greek business letter was an essential part of the adminis-

trative machine and in form it was very similar to the private letter. ‘A to B, greetings’ at the start and, at the end, ‘Farewell’ or ‘Best wishes’ in a single word. It differed in that it was almost always precisely dated and it also very commonly acquired a filing note or a record of action taken or to be taken, this being added by the clerk or official who dealt with the document. We possess only the tiniest fraction of what was written, but it is patently obvious that, then as now, administrators generated much paper – or properly, papyrus. If the Hellenistic monarch has sometimes been pictured as living an easy life enjoying the fruits of luxury or decadence, the picture is often misleading: he was more likely to be groaning under the weight of paperwork. In a little essay entitled ‘Whether government should be entrusted to the elderly’ Plutarch reports the following rueful verdict, probably from Seleucos I Nicator, founder of the Hellenistic royal line in Syria: ‘people said Seleucos repeatedly declared that, if most people knew just the tediousness of writing and reading so many letters, they would not wish to pick up a diadem, even if it had been thrown away’.2 We are told in an account of 258-257 BC that two branches of a large-ish office – belonging to the Apollonios mentioned above – used 434 rolls of papyrus over a thirty-three

day period.3 There is no standard length for a papyrus roll, but such evidence as there is suggests that it was usually between 2.20 m and 4.80 m. So Apollonios’ staff in these two offices got through some one and a half kilometres of papyrus in just over a month. Not all of it would have been letters, but even half the quantity generates a fair amount of correspondence. Most senior administrators like Zenon, Apollonios’s subordinate, would not normally write business letters themselves. They might dictate them or draft them on scrap papyrus, but the final version would be written by a professional secretary. The safe delivery of letters was a problem in the ancient Greek world, but less so for an administrator in Egypt. For many purposes it was a matter of finding someone or sending someone to take the letter and deliver it personally, and this is doubtless why the ‘address’, usually on the reverse side of the papyrus, consists often of a simple ‘To A’, except in the rare instances of letters conveyed over long distances by official networks like the Roman army postal service. For official purposes Egypt was in that respect unusually well organized, for the Ptolemies had a fast delivery service within Egypt for government documents. Doing business in the Greek world has always been closely linked to personal

contacts, and in the ancient world it mattered even more whom you knew and what your connections were. Whether it was St Paul in prison in Rome or a Greek giving a helping hand to a fellow-Greek newly arrived in the locality, the letter of recommendation was a vital tool. One of the earliest recorded letters of this kind is one written in 340/339 BC by the speech-writer, teacher and statesman-on-paper Isocrates to Antipater who was ruling Macedonia in the absence of King Philip. Isocrates was an old man of eighty at the time and it was a tribute to his reputation that he was able to make such a request to the ruler of a land with which Athens was currently at war. The letter is written on behalf of one of Isocrates’ past pupils, Diodotos, and on behalf of Diodotos’ son too who seems to have had some kind of physical disability. Like many another great teacher Isocrates was proud of his successful pupils and was pleased to offer them and their offspring a little help. The letter does not ask Antipater to give Diodotos a specific post but looks for general patronage and support for him and his son. It contains all the usual ingredients of letters of recommendation but is quite untypical in that it is a long, consciously rhetorical set-piece, and was clearly designed not only to commend an ex-pupil but also to give Antipater a literary present – an example of that stylistic fluency and persuasive advocacy for which Isocrates was famous. One strongly suspects that publication and a wider public were never far from Isocrates’ mind. The opening of the letter gives the flavour:

To Antipater. Although in our situation it is dangerous to send a letter, not only

now when we are at war but in time of peace too, all the same I have decided to write to you about Diodotos, thinking it right to

take some trouble over those who have associated with me and have developed into people worthy of me, and not least this man, both because of his goodwill towards me and because of his other deserving qualities. I would have wished that he could actually have been introduced to you by us, but, since he has met you through others, it remains for me to give testimony on his behalf and to confirm your acquaintance with him. Many men from many places have studied with me, some with great reputations, and of all these, some have become experts with words, others with ideas and actions, and others have been sensible and cultivated in their lifestyle but with no gifts at all for other useful activity. This man, however, has such harmonious gifts that he is most accomplished in all the matters I have mentioned. And I would not be so bold as to say these things if I had not myself had the most particular experience of his company and anticipate that you would too, partly from your own acquaintance and partly by hearing of him from others who have encountered him. Of these there is no-one who would not agree, unless he is very jealous, that both in speaking and giving counsel Diodotos is no-one’s inferior, and that he is both very just and very sensible, and is most competent in monetary affairs. Further, he is the pleasantest and nicest person with whom to spend the day – or one’s life – and in addition he is very frank, not in an inappropriate way but in the proper way, which is an unmistakeable sign of goodwill towards friends.4