the (Roman) art of letter writing / by Anthony Gibbins

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that there is nothing new under the sun. Despite this, Roman literature is often criticised for its reliance on preexisting Greek examples. Even the masterpiece that is Virgil’s Aeneid has suffered from comparison:

Virgil seems to have copied Greek models completely, imitating them slavishly and lifelessly, and so they appear as plagiarisms more or less devoid of spirit. (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770-1831)

The late 1st Century Roman rhetorician, Quintilian, wrote satura nostra tota est Satire is ours alone, claiming it as an (only) original Roman genre. But there is another contender for Roman Literary Creation. Consider the following;

Not Satire, however, whose genealogical credentials are rather mixed, but letters, genuine correspondence, other people’s mail, are the major contribution of Latin speakers to the development of the literary genres. (Cecelia A. E. Luschnig, Latin Letters: Reading Roman Correspondence, 2006)

So, as Miranda settles down to read Claudia’s epistula, here are three extracts, each from one of Rome’s great letter writers;

And as for you, who have so often relieved my anxiety and depression by your talk and advice, who are my constant ally in public affairs, my confidant in private, my partner in every conversation and project, where on earth are you? For my spectacular put-on friendships with the great, though they are not without glamour in the world at large, give me no enjoyment in private. Thus when my house is well filled with callers in the morning, and I go down to the Forum surrounded by troops of friends, I cannot find in all that crowd a single soul with whom I can exchange an unguarded joke or an intimate grumble. Cicero

I am delighted, and I send my congratulations on your decision to wed your daughter to Fuscus Salinator. He comes from a patrician family, his father is a most honourable man, and his mother merits equal praise. The young man himself is devoted to his books and to literature, and is also an eloquent speaker. He has a child’s openness, a young man’s affability, and an elder’s dignity. It remains for him with all speed to make you a grandfather of children like himself. Pliny

Wherever I turn, I see evidence of my advancing years. I visited lately my country place, and protested against the money which was being spent on the building. My bailiff maintained that the flaws were not his fault, ‘but the house was old’. And this the house that grew by my own hands! What has the future in store for me, if stones my own age are already crumbling? I was angry, and I embraced the first opportunity to vent my spleen. ‘It is clear,’ I cried, ‘that these plane-trees are neglected; they have no leaves. Their branches are so gnarled and shriveled.’ The bailiff swore that he was doing everything possible, but those trees were old. Between you and me, I had planted those trees myself! Seneca

Miranda carries the letter to her chair. She sits down and begins to read. The letter was written by her amica, Claudia. Miranda smiles.