Classics Roman Literary Letters
Eleanor W. Leach
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0265


Like their Greek counterparts (see Oxford Bibliographies article in Classics Greek Literary Letters), Roman literary letters have elicited an increasing amount of scholarly attention in recent years. Seeking some common ground between the two cultures, we could settle for the principle in Demetrius (or pseudo-Demetrius) de Elocutione that letters propose to bridge distance between writer and recipient, but beyond this, Roman letters differ so greatly in content and circumstance as to constitute a genre of their own. In first place, the recipients have historical identities—in certain cases famous and distinguished—many with corroborating mention in historical text and in others discoverable through prosopographical research. Even more importantly, no Roman collection is without politics, overt in the letters of Cicero, Ovid, and Pliny but perceptible as subtext in Seneca and in Fronto who writes to emperors. Embedded letters are too sparse to have generated any independent scholarly discussions. Whereas there is no such category of fictional letters as the Greek Literary Letters article compiles, questions of authenticity have haunted discussions of letters; in this their very artfulness has weighed against them. Granted that the identities of correspondents are verifiable, scholars have in the past asked whether Ovid’s exile letters, Seneca’s epistolary road-map for the Stoic initiate, or Pliny’s whole collection were genuinely intended for posting or simply for publication, but the majority of scholars now tend to favor the idea of genuine letters. Self-representation has come to be a major topic of discussion, closely related to theories of persona or ethos in Latin rhetorical literature and practice, although to date with more attention to writer than recipient. Although this bibliography concludes with Fronto and the Classical period, the long reception history of these letter collections must be credited with preserving them for our currently renewed and often revised attention. Never having been lost, Pliny’s collection enjoyed the most consistent afterlife. With a brief Late Antique decline, it was valued during the Middle Ages, and in the Renaissance such writers as Petrarch, Thomas More, Erasmus, and Justus Lipsius made it their model. Whereas the erotic and narrative Ovid were always popular, even the lachrymose Heroides found their fans (see Chaucer’s “The Legend of Good Women”). Cicero’s letters had the scrappiest record, surviving for years only in fragments, but in 1345 Petrarch found the lost manuscript of ad Atticum in Verona and was dismayed by his philosophical idol’s revelations of emotional instability.

General Overviews

Evidence for early activity in Roman letter writing comes indirectly from historical narrative and attests to the utilitarian (rather than the artistic) import of the communications, almost exclusively in conjunction with military situations. The first such notice in Livy Book 5 is a letter to the Senate from M. Furius Camillus concerning the spoils of Veii. Certain text fragments of 3rd-century letters are of interest because of their writers and circumstances, especially a letter of admonition from Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, to Gaius, her surviving son, excerpted from Cornelius Nepos’ book de Latinis historicis (see Cugusi 1970, cited under Texts, Commentaries and Translations: Republican). Because Cicero often forwarded letters he considered particularly significant to his friend Atticus, occasional communications from such key players in late Republican politics as Pompey, Caesar, and Mark Antony are embedded in the sixteen-book Atticus collection (see also Cugusi 1979, cited under Texts, Commentaries, and Translations: Republican). In approaching published collections of letters, one must recognize how relatively few the 900+ letters in Cicero’s four books are in comparison with his total output—likewise few in comparison with the voluminous productivity of Caesar, who is known even to have written on horseback while traveling. Historical rather than literary considerations were the predominant cast of early-20th-century scholarship. This tendency may partially reflect the influence of Tyrrell and Purser’s chronological reordering of all the letters in their multivolume commentary editions. Syme’s several studies of Pliny focus prosopographically on recipients’ positions rather than personalities in essays that have served as a resource for the still standard Sherwin-White 1966 (cited under Texts, Commentaries, and Translations: Imperial). Looking beyond historical inquiry, one question of interest to current scholarship is the extent to which literary writers see themselves as participants in an epistolary tradition. Augustan and Imperial writers discussed in this article frequently invoke Ciceronian precedent. Whereas poets create their own book designs, in the absence of clear authorial determination both Cicero’s and Pliny’s prose collections raise questions concerning editorial selectivity and arrangement. Even for Pliny who openly declares his intention of selecting which letters to publish. Morello and Morrison 2007 and Gibson 2012 cite Cicero and Pliny as precedents for the deliberate thematic structuring of subsequent letter books. Whether or not actually known or utilized by our letter writers, the principles of epistolary composition as outlined within Demetrius’s rhetorical treatise de Elocutione foreground both authorial self-awareness and the dialogic nature of letter exchange. Integrating these concepts into contemporary discourse Altman 1982 (cited also in Greek Literary Letters) has become fundamental for all students of ancient epistolography. Edwards 2008 (cited under Politics and Persona) is a useful introduction both to compositional strategies and to the personalities of the writers from Cicero through Pliny. Ebbeler 2010 adds Late Antique writers to the repertoire.

  • Altman, J. G. 1982. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press.

    This theoretical study offers many generalities pertinent to our subject, especially Altman’s key premise that absence can often be more effective than presence in creating closeness. Absence allows the letter writer to not only create the desired presence but also allow this presence to fashion a desired self. As the author points out in her study of multiple letters in the fictive correspondence of Les Liásons Dangereux, the identity of the recipient reflects the letter writer’s values and self-perception. Ancient letter writing can evidence a similar flexibility.

  • Ebbeler, J. 2010. Letters. In Oxford Companion to Roman Studies. Edited by Barchiesi and Scheidel. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Features broad geographical coverage within a temporal framework extending from the Republican fragments in Cugusi 1970 (cited under Texts, Commentaries, and Translations: Republican) and Cugusi 1979 (cited under Texts, Commentaries, and Translations: Republican) into Late Antiquity (200–600 CE), which Ebbeler calls the Golden Age of Latin (and Greek) letters. Distinguishes categorically between pragmatic communications and literary letters self-consciously composed to display talent and social connections, yet within this latter category the author allows for common ground between historically grounded prose letters and their fictional counterparts. Observes a change in audience orientation from the two-party, private correspondence of early years to Republican letters intended for possible publication. Theoretical treatments of epistolography stress dialogue. Within the politics of letter exchange, failure of reciprocity constitutes a grave offense, and some letter writers demand response to specific topics or questions.

  • Edwards, Catharine. 2006. Epistolography. In A Companion to Latin Literature. Edited by S. Harrison, 270–283. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    In her initial remarks on the parameters of epistolary composition, Edwards notes the conversational nature of letters, the value of reading both prose and poetic letters in conjunction, and the designations of private versus public. Sections on individual writers from Cicero through Pliny focus on the significant issues of interest to each and highlight the interrelationships of each one to his predecessors.

  • Gibson, Roy. 2012. On the Nature of Ancient Letter Collections. Journal of Roman Studies 102:56–78.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0075435812000019

    Following Beard 2002 (cited under Cicero), Gibson argues that the chronological reorderings of Cicero’s collections by Tyrrell and Purser 1904–1933 and Shackleton Bailey 1965–1970 (both cited under Texts, Commentaries, and Translations: Republican), as influenced by Nepos’ praise of the ad Attiicum as history, have diverted attention from their original manuscript, arrangements as Classical letter books. Taking Cicero as the background model, he discusses nine later collections: five pagan and five Christian as ordered by their authors with hypothetical observations on Pliny as model. He himself favors thematically grounded analyses of book design and cites analogies between letter and poetry books.

  • Malherbe, Abraham. 1988. Ancient Epistolary Theorists. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

    Following a short introduction on the rhetorical relevance of epistolography in thought and education, the volume contains Demetrius’s de Elocutione along with brief selections from Cicero and Seneca. While the dating of Demetrius’s treatise remains indeterminable, its paragraphs on the personal voice in letter writing and its dialogic aspect have a timeless applicability to Cicero and his successors.

  • Morello, R., and A. D. Morrison, eds. 2007. Ancient Letters: Classical and Late Antique Epistolography. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The fourteen collections represented, ranging from papyrus to Early Christian, exemplify diverse methods and themes. The introduction asks the basic question why any writer would choose to adopt letter form; its circuitous investigation involves some texts once called letters that fail to meet criteria and some others that “don’t quite fit.” The conclusion, insofar as it can be deciphered, is that letters do not form a clear-cut category sealed off from other modes of text, but those texts that can be called “letters” deserve to be studied for their epistolary qualities.

  • Rees, Roger. 2007. Letters of Recommendation and the Rhetoric of Praise. In Ancient Letters: Classical and Late Antique Epistolography. Edited by R. Morello and A. D. Morrison, 149–168. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199203956.003.0007

    Comparison with an actual early-20th-century letter of recommendation sharpens insights into ancient formulae and variations in letters of Cicero, Pliny, and Fronto. Within the framework of Rome’s social patronage system, the relationship between letter writer and recipient overshadows any individual merits of the candidates themselves. The rhetoric of Pliny’s and Fronto’s letters often engages elements of panegyric but offset by self-conscious concern to project sincerity.

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