chapter  2
26 Pages


Reading other people’s letters has always been a tempting prospect. Private letters seem to give unique clues to the way people think and feel, or, at the very least, to the way they want to present themselves to their addressees. Private letter-writers certainly use conventions of both form and style, but even ancient letters are not all formulaic and readers must have expected that the voice they heard through the words was a fair reflection of personality. Letters do seem to get near to the heart of a person and, if we cannot still talk with them, the chance to hear ‘one side of a conversation’ may be the next best thing. Nearly all the letters in this chapter were written with no self-conscious

eye on the future and with no attempt to win admiration for their cleverness or learning. They were written by ordinary people in ordinary situations for ordinary purposes, and the writers would have been surprised to learn that their letters had survived and were still the subjects of attention. They capture flashes of real life in the ancient Greek world, moments of pleasure, panic, stress, joy, frustration, anxiety and so on. These feelings often strike a chord of familiarity – young men are still proud of their first career successes and parents are still anxious when their children leave home and go on risky journeys – and this sense of being in touch with long-gone emotions makes an immediate contact with the past which is rare. However, the temptation to assume that we are therefore in touch with a world not so very different from our own is soon dispelled. The material circumstances are obviously different and the attitudes implied or stated are sometimes startlingly alien. At this point it is only fair to come clean and say that the nature of the

material in this chapter involves severe limitations, both geographical and temporal. The fact that the originals of the letters survive has to be set beside an awareness that they all come from Greek communities in Egypt – and a small part of Egypt too – a society which was initially imposed on a native population and which increasingly accommodated itself to an ancient and very different culture in a way that the population of mainland Greece did not. Moreover, there is a time-shift as compared with Hellenistic royal

communications or business letters; many of these private letters were written in the first centuries AD when Egypt was a Roman province and it was – as an essential contributor to the corn-supply of the city of Rome – carefully watched over and managed by Roman garrisons and at the highest levels supervised by Roman administrators.1 The effects can be seen in the correspondence: Greek, Roman, Egyptian and occasionally Jewish names begin to intermingle. Greek continues to be the language of business and administration, and Greek language and culture, the path to career and social success, is sought after by people with an increasingly wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Surprisingly, Rome does not occur in the letters as a particularly resented or oppressive power so much as one which offered career prospects, particularly in the armed forces. The more attractive parts of Egypt, such as the Fayyum,2 became favourite places to which those who had served their time in the Roman army retired, and the evident relative prosperity of such veterans (plus doubtless some old soldiers’ tales) probably helped to inspire lively young Greeks to follow suit and see the world. However, although Greeks, Egyptians and Romans began to extend their mutual contacts and family connections and although Rome maintained an iron grip and constant military presence, the impression remains that ordinary Greek family life continued in recognizable, if modified form, and that some of the people we meet in the letters would not have seemed utterly foreign to the characters portrayed in the cameos of Aristophanes or the New Comedy. They enthusiastically maintained some of the typical institutions of Greek city life like the gymnasium and the ephebeia, and, as ‘colonials’ do, used them as a carefully watched means of entry to their own circle. In Alexandria too there was the foremost research institute and library of the ancient Greek world, and, though the eternal character of academics led to it being wryly described as the ‘bird-cage of the Muses’,3 its scholars were working to preserve and explain the heritage of classical Greek culture. Ordinary Greeks working in ordinary jobs probably never went there but its presence and mission mattered. A letter probably from the third century AD well illustrates the mix of

cultures that could be involved in family life in Graeco-Roman Egypt. A lady called Diogenis was writing to her brother, whose name had both Greek and Roman components – Aurelius Alexandros – on a number of domestic points. She had been looking for a new house and had found one which had taken her eye when she was last house-hunting. Her brother had been instructing someone with an Egyptian name on her behalf – perhaps a kind of estate agent. She gave the location of the house in the usual ancient way – adjacent to a landmark and near someone else’s house (again a Latin name) – and an approximate moving date. One or two domestic details settled, there followed a touching and mildly intriguing sending of good wishes to ‘little Theon’ – presumably Alexandros’ small son. The eight toys as presents for him had been given to Alexandros’ sister, who was not only the

deliverer of the toys but also the channel of greetings from Alexander to ‘the lady’. It is a pity that the rest of the letter is lost.