Otto Steinmayer: Classic Ground 

Feelings of the past by post

[New Straits Times, 15 April 1992]


Where does communication (mere communication?) leave off and literature begin? That question which that vexes the literary critics is one they are never likely to decide. Lucky for us classicists, the distinction is irrelevant. We're grateful as can be for even the dullest snippet of anything from the past. We read everything.

It is something of an embarrassment that the word "literature" presupposes writing; it is derived from the Latin littera, "letter" of the alphabet. Until this century, scholars assumed that Homer had been a high-toned man of letters very much as they were themselves. They imagined him sitting down at a desk with pen and paper in front of him, looking back and forth through sheaves of notes as he composed his Iliad. A fresh look at the poem destroyed this daydream, and showed that Homer was a bard who composed by ear and by memory, no differently than the poets of illiterate tribes.

I believe that in India there is still a school of Brahmins who reject the use of writing in learning and passing down the Vedas. A complex system of memory techniques has kept them---what shall we call it? If it's not written down, is it a text?--unchanged for three thousand years.
Writing was first applied (as we all know) and probably invented for recording the facts of government and business, as a tool for organizing us (e.g. taxes). Poetry came to be written down as an aid to the memory. Alexander the Great, when he came out this way, brought the Iliad with him in an ivory box he looted from Darius the Persian. He could not very well have carried along a timid Homeric specialist to recite and remind him.

How many people in ancient times could read and write? Not as many as now, certainly, but more than one would think. A little dedicatory poem from the 1st century A.D. records one woman's gratitude at getting time off of housework to go to school. 

Eurydike of Hierapolis dedicated this to the Muses,
Having obtained what her soul so much desired;
For after her children became teenagers,
With hard work she learned writing, the memory of speech.

We read so many words each day, we are study so many books--whether literature or accounting it doesn't matter---that we come to be in awe before writing and forget that it is also a means of establishing and transmitting our own thoughts and concern. Through writing we can talk with distant friends: 

Nature has found (she loves the ties of love)
For parted folks the way to meet again;
Pen, paper, ink, our own personal scrawls,
Tokens of a soul, far away, in pain. [Palladas] 

Civilization does not have a monopoly on the technique of writing. The Mangyan people of the Philippine island of Mindoro, who even now in all other respects live like the Penan, have used an alphabet as long as anyone can remember. They have no government however but their adat, and they use their alphabet only to scratch letters on slips of bamboo and ask someone making a journey to deliver them to their friends.
The Greeks, living as they did rather self-contained lives each within his own city and circle of friends, do not seem to have done much personal letter writing. The Romans were the first to make a big habit of it. With a secure and widespread civil government, and an excellent network of stone-paved highways, they could feel confident that letters would reach their destination. The public post handled only official letters, but private couriers carried ordinary persons' mail quickly and to great distances.

People kept their letters. Much of the politician Cicero's correspondence survives as a commentary on the violent times in which Rome ceased to be a republic and became an empire. (Cicero gloats over Julius Caesar's assassination.) His letters were in fact published, for historical reasons, or for use as propaganda we do not know. 

A hundred years later, a Roman nobleman we call Pliny (the Younger; his uncle Pliny produced a gigantic Natural History in 37 scrolls) made a career out of writing letters. Pliny was trained as a lawyer, which in those days meant making speeches; but under the rule of an emperor there was not much occasion for speechmaking. I imagine Pliny as a man surrounded by scribblers, himself desperate to write something, but finding inspiration only when he had someone to talk to. He pesters his correspondents: 

Gaius Plinius to his friend Fabius Iustus greetings:
You never send me any letters. "There's nothing to write," you say. But at least write this, that there's nothing to write, or just that phrase with which old-fashioned letters used to begin: "If you are well, that is good. I am well." This will satisfy me. Indeed, it's the most important thing. You think I'm joking? I ask in all seriousness. Let me know what you're doing. I am anxious when I don't know. Farewell.

Pliny published ten scrolls of letters while he was still alive. However polished they look, I am sure that most of them were really sent. Pliny kept copies to work up later. They are an amusing lot. In them Pliny gossips about notorious figures in Rome, arrests and troubles under the bad emperors Domitian, tells one of the first surviving ghost stories (with a kind of Buddhist feel to it), describes the frightful eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79 A.D., that killed thousands, including Pliny's uncle. These were refreshing to read when one was 15 and learning the language.

Ancient literary writers did not care to say much about their private lives in works meant for publication. The little chores and unambitious emotions of everyday life were thought to be too low for literature. But many private letters of ordinary people have been dug up, the papyrus still intact, from the town dump of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. We in modern times feel closer to ordinary people than to heroes. These letters give us our most sympathetic glimpse into ancient lives. This is one from the 3rd century A.D.:

Flavius Herculanus to the sweetest and most honored Aplonarion very many greetings. I was very happy to get your letter, which the knife-dealer forwarded to me. But I have not received the one which you say you sent me through Plato the dancer's son. But I was terribly unhappy that you did not come for my boy's birthday, both you and your husband, for you could have enjoyed yourself many days with him. But certainly you had more important things, that is why you have neglected us. I hope you (as much as myself) are always happy, but again I grieve that you are away from me. If you are not unhappy away from me, I rejoice in your happiness, though I myself again upset at not seeing you. Do what suits you. For when at any time you wish to see us, we shall welcome you most gladly. Please then come to us in Mesore, so we can really see you. Say hello to your mother and your father and Callias. My son greets you, and his mother, and Dionysius my colleague, who helps me at the stable. Greetings to all your friends. I pray for your health. [on the outside, address] 

The language may not be the most polished. It is less "worked up" than anything that survived to be published and copied. Yet the thoughts it contains are real, though humble, and are expressed with candor and with affection. I still marvel that writing is capable of conveying these human qualities for us.

The last letter is adapted from a translation by A.S. Hunt and C.C. Edgar in Select Papyri, v. 1, Loeb Classical Library.