The enigma of letter-writing

The enigma of letter-writing

An interesting book by Elder and Mullen on Roman letters raises something enigmatic about letters, a mystery that remains in view but is unsolvable.

The book explores bilingualism and the use of Greek phrases and terminologies within the letters of well-known Romans including Cicero and Fronto, with close attention given to what such things performatively accomplish. There are, for example, implications in these bursts into another language for how being Roman is presented, how being educated and accomplished is presented, and so on.

This is interesting, both for its own sake and also because it throws some light on such things in contemporary forms. But what is enigmatic is something beyond this, and it concerns the strong sense that is gained that this letter-writing conjures up something glimpsed but not grasped, something that seems to be so but surely cannot be. This is that such letters are, or at least they seem to be, tantalisingly similar to how letters and cognate forms are written now. A very similar kind of feeling is occasioned by reading and writing about the letters from the Roman forts at Vindolanda in North Britain, that their concerns with shoes and socks, holidays, requests for leave, chasing up people not doing their jobs, moaning about the price of goods bought, seems so familiar, but presumably are worlds away. This is the enigma, the profound gulf that exists between how the letters read and how the reader engages with them on the one hand, and on the other hand what the mind tells, that this is a different world nearly 2000 years ago. And it must surely have meant something different to them, something that we would be floored by should we be jettisoned back and were watching Cicero reading or writing a letter. So why don’t they seem more different?

Last updated: 4 March 2022


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