Letter writing in ancient Greece and Rome was more than just a way to keep in touch with friends and relatives or to carry on business. Letter writing was also used to tell stories in prose or poetry, to express philosophical or political views, or to convey official or scholarly information. Letters were written most often with a reed pen and ink on papyrus*, which was then rolled up and tied with thread. Other materials were sometimes used instead of papyrus, including metal, wood, wax, pottery, or animal skin.
* papyrus writing material made by pressing together thin strips of the inner stem of the papyrus plant
Letter Writing in Greece. The earliest known letter from ancient Greece dates to the 500s B.C., although it was not until about 300 B.C. that letter writing became widespread. Starting from about the middle of the 200s B.C., several different types of letters have survived. Many of these were letters written by unknown private individuals and government officials, ranging from business reports to students’ letters home. These letters reveal a great deal about the language as well as the social and economic conditions of the times.
Other letters that have survived include official letters between government leaders, which were preserved mainly in inscriptions on monuments, and private letters written by famous people, including the philosopher Aristotle. Many of Aristotle’s letters were collected and published, usually by someone other than the author himself. There were also public letters that were written to apologize, persuade, advise, or instruct, including letters written by the Greek philosophers Plato and Epicurus. Finally, there were fictitious letters, in which a story was told through a series of letters.
Letter Writing in Rome. Letters of all types played an even more important role in ancient Rome because of the vastness of the empire. Although there are fewer surviving examples of Roman letters, the importance of letter writing in ancient Rome is evident from the establishment of a system of postal carriers for official correspondence by the first Roman emperor, Augustus. In addition, private individuals sometimes used slaves to carry letters, and companies of farmers had their own postal service.
The best-known Roman letters are the nearly 800 letters that were written in the last century B.C. by the Roman statesman Cicero. They consist of many different types of letters, and they provide important insights into Cicero the man. They also paint a clear picture of the turbulent political conditions of his time. Similarly, letters of the Roman author Pliny the Younger, which were collected in ten books, reveal a great deal about Roman society and politics under the emperor Trajan, around A.D. 100.
As in Greece, letters were written by Roman philosophers to convey their views. Letters on morality written by Seneca the Younger are the best- known examples. Unique to Roman letter writing was the use of poetry. Roman poets Horace and Ovid, among others, wrote many letters in verse.
Letter writing of all types was especially common among Christians in Rome, perhaps because the New Testament and other early Christian texts used this form of expression. The collected letters of St. Augustine and of St. Jerome are notable examples of letter writing during the last years of the empire. (See also Alphabets and Writing; Books and Manuscripts; Literacy; Postal Service.)