chapter  4
34 Pages


Examples of official letters about politics, governance or security or the military operations of Greek states and city states, or letters which convey the thoughts and instructions of prominent public figures, are rarely available for the Classical era. It would be wonderful to have the letters of Pericles or Cleon as we have those of Cicero or Pliny, but any genuine collections have long since vanished. Tantalizingly both Herodotus and Thucydides make use of official letters in their two different modes of history-writing, but even in Thucydides we can never be sure that we have the precise words of a quoted letter. It was also the case that most Greek city-states (particularly those with democratic constitutions) conducted their affairs by recording resolutions and decrees rather than by writing letters. Generals in the field wrote reports and dispatches which might be classified either as letters or as speeches delivered by proxy, and the delegation bringing the dispatch would often be coached as to subject-matter and the answering of questions. This type of document is occasionally recorded but, though the sense may be preserved, the original words are probably beyond our grasp. In the Hellenistic world from the time of Alexander the Great onwards, the situation changes remarkably. Monarchy was in the end a personal exercise of power and the king wrote to his subjects person to person in letter-form, the writer of the letters uttering the royal voice: the head of the royal chancery in Syria was known as the epistolographos, the Letter-Writer. After Alexander’s death and the formation of the Hellenistic kingdoms, royal correspondence is frequent and – fortunately – frequently permanently recorded, for it was often in the interests of both ruler and ruled to have the king’s decisions and instructions unarguably available in public; they were normally cut as inscriptions and fixed in one or more prominent and central places.1 Civil servants often evolve their own codes and formulas of expression, and the chanceries of the Hellenistic kings soon devised formal patterns for the conduct of typical royal correspondence. These are easily recognizable and doubtless provided a framework of mutual understanding for both officials and subjects. The royal letters very occasionally hint at the thoughts and words of the king himself, but they are mostly of interest

because of the direct insight they offer into the workings of Hellenistic government and diplomacy. They show these in remarkable detail, whether it is a matter of larger cities adjusting their allegiances and jockeying for position or of a world increasingly nervous about the expansion of Roman influence and the unmistakeable signs of a Drang nach Osten from that direction. The earliest genuine piece of state correspondence we have from the Greek

world is not strictly a Greek letter, for originally it was probably written in Aramaic or Old Persian. However, it is a letter partly about Greeks and for Greeks, and the text which has survived is in Greek and came from a Greek city, Magnesia-on-the-Maeander. The opening shows that the letter originates from a very grand person indeed, Darius, the lord of the Persian empire, and it was sent to his provincial governor or satrap who was probably in charge of the western part of Asia Minor in which a number of flourishing Ionian Greek cities were located. The address bears eloquent witness to the gap between the absolute monarch and even a quite important subordinate: ‘ … Darius … to Gadatas, his slave … ’ The Persian kings took an interest in the cultivation of trees and crops2 and Gadatas too was evidently something of a horticulturalist, for he had been responsible for transplanting a particular variety of fruit trees into southern Asia Minor. The fruit trees were native to the Syrian region – from the Persian point of view the land ‘across the Euphrates’ – and Gadatas is rewarded with a conventional formula of Persian royal praise ‘ … great gratitude … in the house of the King’. However, the surprising part of the letter concerns some rather lowly Greeks, ‘the sacred gardeners of Apollo’. The situation would seem to be that some Greek gardeners attached to the temple of Apollo at Magnesia felt aggrieved on two counts: first, they were becoming liable to fresh taxes – in their view unjustifiably – and second, they were being compelled to cultivate land outside the sacred precincts and therefore beyond their job description (perhaps transplanting the fruit trees?). Somehow they seem to have managed to get their complaint to the ears of the King of Kings himself, and surprisingly he ruled in their favour and sent the following abrupt letter to his satrap. The gardeners must have been glad to see their success recorded in Greek on Apollo’s temple wall and it must have been a useful assurance of their rights for the future. What Gadatas thought of this can only be guessed but perhaps the royal approval for the fruit trees mollified his feelings:

The King of Kings, Darius, son of Hystaspes, to Gadatas, his slave, speaks as follows: I discover that you are not obeying my instructions in all respects.