Letters back then, here now

Letters back then, here now

Marcus Tullius Cicero [106-43 BCE] was a Roman politician, orator and philosopher and a letter-writer of renown. He stood for republican principles, which led to his murder during the political turmoil producing establishment of the Roman Empire under the triumvirate who succeeded Julius Caesar. Petrarch’s rediscovery in June 1345 of Cicero’s letters when poking around in a library was a landmark event which brought letters to the fore in 14th century Renaissance Italy and wider. An earlier blog in April 2021 considered questions of authorship around these letters. Whatever it was that Petrarch found and copied out alas no longer exists. How, in what ways and with what changes did Petrarch edit what he found? Who had produced this, was it Cicero himself, a scribe or someone else? How much of the letter content did Cicero actually write given the patrician preference for dictating to a scribe, in Cicero’s case a man called Tiro? Did Cicero have a hand in preparing a selection of these letters, or was this done by someone else, perhaps a scribe, perhaps an unknown third-party? And what about the later history of the version produced by Petrarch, how and to what extent have subsequent editors (there has been a large number of editions, which differ from each other in sometimes significant ways) modified this and with what effects?

There are rich questions to ask about the letters by Cicero, then. And as part of this, the complexities of authorship intersect with the complexities of time and its passing. This blog turns attention towards the content of the letters and some of the circumstances in which they were originally written. This comes from having read an excellent book on the letters by Peter White. It not only discusses key features of letters and the conventions surrounding their writing during the Roman period but also raises many interesting comparisons with present day letter-writing, indeed letter-writing across a wide time period from then to now. I read it very attentively as a consequence, and took detailed notes which act as a précis of its content.

These notes may be of interest to present readers and now follow, in a written up form. There are some direct quotations provided, while the rest of the notes are a précis. All the quotations and page numbers provided are to White’s book. His book is much better than my notes, which should be read as an invitation to the book itself.

Peter White (2010) Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations of the Late Republic New York: Oxford University Press.

Cicero’s 900+ letters lend themselves to an analysis for three main reasons:

  • Little or no effort has been made to adjust the original texts to the perspectives of secondary readers
  • The letters are often intensely situational, the opacity of context
  • Occasional preservation of two sides of the correspondence, so the import of both can be compared

One of the points of White’s book is to compare this with what is general in the writing habits of the Roman milieu. His discussion also has rich content relevant to contemporary epistolarity, in letter-writing and also in recently emerging proxies such as email.

Chapter 1 analyses the effects of the use of scribes, precarious postal arrangements, the governing preference for face-to-face interaction, and the effects of extended absences. Chapter 2 argues that the correspondence as a whole was largely planned by an editor, most likely the man who acted as Cicero’s scribe, although there is no overt statement about this. The original editor has made a drastic selection, favouring letters and politics over other topics, and grouping them. Chapter 3 examines how an original reading experience would have been conditioned by material elements, such as whether the letter was was on papyrus or a tablet, whether Cicero was writing or dictating, if it had a seal or not; and by generic conventions, such as the tone, the opening and closing formulas, and dateline. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 explore three concerns that resonate through the correspondence: literature, the exchange of advice, the expression of leadership.

Chapter 1 Constraints and Biases in Roman Letter Writing

There are many details that indicate the context in which Cicero was writing, with the authorial stance recognisably that of a personal letter rather than an official letter, an open letter, or a public expression merely directed to a named person. Although casual and personal, there are very few comments about weather or scenery, and where there are these are dealt with briefly and then dismissed.

The correspondence is overwhelmingly political in character, with most of the people represented in it being members of the governing elite. The letters were exchanged only when one of the parties was away from Rome, when position became more vulnerable, and thus the need to supplement the missing face-to-face relationship became pressing.

The material context was such that there were human barriers and speed depended directly on distance and who the letter-carrier was. There were three options, a friend or dependent, someone connected with the addressee, or one of a number of third-parties going in the right direction. An important aspect of private delivery impinged directly on writing practice, because the moment at which the letter was dispatched might not be controllable unless a private agent was used, so that letters often had to be dashed off at the spur of the moment.

In all the extant letters, there is no one with whom Cicero had a purely epistolary relationship. The exchanges of letters occurred when known people were at removed distance for one reason or another, not a long-term epistolary relationship. And often Cicero dictated his letters, and so the presence of a secretary to one degree or another helped shape what was said (see the next paragraph) and written. In addition, letters were freely copied and kept handy. There was also nothing to prevent the person tasked with carrying a letter to make a copy and pass it on to third parties.

Importantly, a Roman letter was typically not self-contained, but was often supplemented by an oral message, to which the letter drew attention. The letter that arrived without this spoken counterpart might cause annoyance or offence. The effect is of writing to a known circle or network, so that the addressee will have little need to be told either the latest news or have things explained because they will already be in the know.

Letters substituted for face-to-face contact where direct interaction was not possible, then. Much of the male elite Roman day was arranged around maintaining personal contacts of different kinds, and this structured daily activities. Letters stood in for this. They helped to guard against estrangement when the face-to-face was not possible, but this meant that they had to be carefully written to ensure that bad faith was not assumed about the way they were expressed. This explains why there are so few exchanges between people who were both in Rome. It was simpler, and less problematic, to visit each other, and failing to do so would have conveyed aloofness.

By and before the age of Cicero, personal letters had developed conventions reflecting a broad consensus about their aims and methods, and this shows the existence of a generic model. This involves the standardisation of salutation, opening, close, dateline, and also the use of conventional utterances in the body of letters which demonstrate the progress and etiquette required. That is, to an important extent the letter mimicked the face-to-face conversation.

There was also a generally accepted classificatory scheme of kinds of letters, such as political and bantering letters, condolence, congratulations, recommendation, tasks, advice given and seeking etc. This was conventional rather than literal and rigid, however.

Chapter 2 The Editing of the Collection

Cicero’s letters differ from other Latin texts in two respects: he did not arrange for his correspondence to be published; and when it was published, whoever took responsibility significantly shaped what would be read. These points can’t be proven, but they can be summarised from circumstantial evidence.

Cicero did contemplate an edition of some letters, but what he said in letters confirms that he envisaged a small project, and that he would correct them before publication. Neither can be applied to the surviving letters. It is highly probable that Cicero did not actually prepare such an edition. A better argument can be pieced together for a contrary view, that a third-party edited and published them. “No evidence has survived to tell us who that person was, whether more than one person was involved, or when, how, and why the project was carried out” (page 33). But it is certain that the letters were made public, so White takes what exists as it stands and explores it:

“I want to take the collective correspondence more or less as it stands and proceed on the assumption that it displays its purpose on its face. I believe that we were intended to read the letters which have been included and not read letters which have not been” (Page 34).

A consequence of this is that the epistolary corpus as it stands represents a selection, that selecting in of some letters means the selecting out of others, and also missing letters can be discerned in the sequences that are included as well. This gives a shape to the selection, which is also a temporal one, with many more letters from the 40s than the 50s. There is also no direct relationship between the completeness of a series to someone and dates on the included letters were written, so the unevenness needs to be accounted for in other ways.

The traces of what is missing are too numerous and too widely distributed to be caused by ordinary things such as post, archival problems et cetera, and instead the explanation lies in the types of letters that were passed over. The letters that were included and survive provide some indication of the contents of these others. They seem to have involved the range of topics such as finance and money matters, ordinary senatorial business, domestic matters. There are possible explanations which could be derived from considering in detail the content of those that were selected in.

In general, the content of the letters appears not to have been edited in the sense of having been changed, although there are four places where this is not so and text has been deliberately shortened. One is where Cicero and Claudius are accusing each other of slighting the other. The second concerns Cicero’s brother. And the other cases involve Plancus and probably concerned remarks about Mark Anthony. Even though there are few examples, they introduce the possibility of other omissions, where the absence is more difficult to discern. Drawing the threads together about this, White comments that:

“Numerous traces of excluded letters plus a small number of internal exclusions proved that Cicero’s public correspondence is an editorial construction rather than a transcription. And with these reminders of an editor’s presence, we can see that some of the most salient formal characteristics of the collection must be ascribed to an editor as well. I have in mind the treatment of enclosures and of letters of recommendation, the grouping of letters into discrete series, and the inclusion of letters written by some of Cicero’s correspondents. In each of these efforts at arrangement, the editor can be seen struggling with problems of presentation that was a consequence of preserving certain kinds of letters while discarding others” (Page 43)

In formal terms, what is most noticeable about the letters is that the corpus consists of a number of separate letter series, so structure is defined by correspondents. This might seem a simple organisational scheme, but much editorial thought went into doing it, for the series do not represent the complete letters to the persons concerned; some of the letters to a person are split between different sections; and they are concentrated around particular dates:

“What gives them their coherence is not simply that they have a single addressee, but that they are dominated by one or more sequences of topically related letters selected from a more diffuse exchange“ (page 53)

In all of these letter series, there are topical emphases which give a broad coherence to them. and “We cannot afford to forget that between us and Cicero’s letters stands someone who did a great deal to determine how we read them“ (Page 61).

Chapter 3 Frames of the Letter

Romans compared letters to life exchanges and did so in a context where the face-to-face was valued as the prime kind of interaction. The differences that arose were that –

1, the correspondence was a delayed interaction between people who were separated temporarily, but with the face-to-face at a further time point being resumed;

2 letters are exclusively written forms of communication, although when scribes were involved it becomes more complicated, but even a dictated letter is slower to produce and usually more circumspect than talk; and

3 participation is usually more restricted than conversation, which tends to be multi-person rather than one-to-one.

Letters could be inscribed with a dry stylus on wooden tablets or in ink on a papyrus, so the format of the letter made explicit something about the likely circumstances in which the letter was written, as well as its handwriting et cetera indicating whether it was written in haste, with its length showing whether it was limited in content or not. Long letters in both mediums were noticeable, eg. with papyrus that looked like a book roll and was cylindrical. The preference for dictating was not simply to save labour, because many were written. And this was not entirely a matter of status, but perhaps a conscious effort to depersonalise, for in writing to communicate with peers and rivals, what was said and how it was written needed to be circumscribed to prevent possible offence and suspicion.

The formal features of Latin letters are obvious at first glance in the choice of tablets or papyrus, and the seal; but also each element of content was shaped around conventional expectations as well. An important aspect of this was the degree of formality or informality that was achieved.

Even if stripped of these generic elements, however, no one would mistake a letter for any other kind of text, because its basic definitional element is the I-you polarity, I am communicating something to you, with the “something’ here being discussed regarding three particular aspects in chapters 4, 5 and 6. Whenever substantive content is minimal, the effect is of throwing the I-you frame into high relief.

The high use of forms of politeness and courtesy that mark these letters exists because writers can use such expressions during periods of separation to prevent relationships becoming more precarious. They construct a kind of idealised reality. Among other effects, this puts the emphasis on the relationship with the addressee and highlights its importance, while also under-representing relationships and engagements with other people.

Chapter 4 The Letters and Literature

This chapter takes a literary letter as one that presumes an audience beyond the addressee, even though this distinction did not hold entirely true of the general run of letters. So it is expanded by White around four criteria:

  • Publication
  • Accessibility to secondary readers
  • Topic
  • Language and manner

It also needs to take into consideration whether the addressee is themselves a literary figure, of which there were many in the case of Cicero’s letters.

Bringing literature into play accomplishes four purposes simultaneously. It complements the addressee on their knowledge, it asserts solidarity with them, it enables reinterpretation around the examples given, and it opens up possible opportunities for discussing topics in a different way. In summary, it helps in managing social relations as these are being conducted in letter form. Literary culture is exploited as a kind of code which both the writer and the addressee have in common.

Chapter 5 Giving and Getting Advice by Letter

The dialogue of consultation was an important part of oiling the wheels of social interaction for the Roman male elite. It was a social obligation that was seen as part of the duties of friendship. And, consultation was valued for something beyond the specific problem being consulted about. It is a key feature of what would now be called networking.

Chapter 6 Letter Writing and Leadership

Cicero’s correspondence illustrates the mentality of an important set of Roman leaders at a particular political point in time. It shows how they were thinking, or at least how they were situating themselves in relation to others in their highly performative letters.


The Cicero corpus is exceptional because it is so rare. But that aside, it is important for other reasons:

  1. Cicero was aware of the decline of the political system he was a proponent of and comments on this throughout his letters.
  2. The letters are not simply commentaries, but are participant within the unfolding political crisis.
  3. If the corpus had contained Cicero’s exchanges with literary figures and foreign intellectuals, bankers and others including his family and staff, a different impression would be given. This brings into sight “that our impressions have been manipulated. If the present corpus can be fairly characterised as a political correspondence from a period of crisis, that quality is somebody’s design, and the design can only have been an editor’s” (Page 169).
  4. This original editor has made the letters less representative, but also made them more significant by focusing them, so that overall they give the impression of there being an unfolding story or plot emerging in the letters over time, a linear narrative that adds up and culminates.


Last updated:  14 April 2022