Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.09.26

Carsten Drecoll, Nachrichten in der Römischen Kaiserzeit. Untersuchungen zu den Nachrichteninhalten in Briefen.   Freiburg im Breisgau:  Carsten Drecoll Verlag, 2006.  Pp. 260.  ISBN 3-939380-00-8.  €39.90.  

Reviewed by Joerg Fuendling (
Word count: 2699 words

In his book on news in letters from the Roman Empire Drecoll (hereafter: D.) presents the results of a 1999-2003 Freiburg research project and at the same time introduces himself as an independent publisher. The heart of the monograph ("Inhaltsanalyse: Die Inhalte der politischen Nachrichten", pp. 56-190) endeavours to transmit the method of content analysis from the modern media sciences to the study of both the familiar corpora -- from the Younger Pliny to Ambrose and Sidonius -- and a selection of papyrus letters beyond the manuscript tradition. D.'s aim is to establish patterns of the respective writers' specific interests in certain categories of news. Yet what might be gained from this approach is ruined by superficial treatment of far too many sources at once, by the use of hypotheses that lack consistency and by spectacular shoddiness in handling the relevant literature.

An introductory chapter, "Nachrichten, öffentliche Meinung, Nachrichtenmedien" (pp. 7-20) poses three major questions: what news were accessible to an individual of the first to fifth centuries A.D.; which types of news contents can be made out; what were the consequences of this news exchange for "the Roman society" (my translations throughout). D. operates with terms like "die Gesellschaft", "die Bevölkerung" (p. 9) as if they were self-evident. It is far from certain that within the confines of the Empire there was such a thing as one universal society: the social structure of the Egyptian chora can hardly be treated as a full functional equivalent to that of rural Gaul or even Syria, let alone a Pisidian polis, Alexandria or Rome. What the emperors ruled was rather a cluster of societies, kept compatible by some efforts.

As for the controversial issue whether the term of "public opinion" is admissible for that age, D. offers a helpful comparison to the private news-exchange networks of Early Modern letter-writers and their reading friends. He points out that correspondences and articles in epistolary shape survived well into the age of newspapers; in fact, they are still there. Consequently some functions of a modern public may be surmised for Roman correspondents, mainly the exchange and discussion of news. What D. demands of 'news' at this stage (p. 13) is oddly at variance with his earlier criterion that the news in question must be relevant beyond the life of those individuals involved (p. 11), since it now includes family events and personal health. This category virtually disappears (again) from D.'s later analysis of the letter corpora; so does the use of letters to preserve social relationships (p. 14). At the chapter's end D. outlines his subsequent reading of the letters but omits important information, especially his separate treatment of economic news in Chapter VII.

Chapter II (pp. 21-32) contains general reflections on the character of letters as preserved by literary tradition and on the changes between writing and publishing a letter. D. gives a rough chronology of the corpora under examination, compares it to the c. 300 papyri in his sample and infers that the more or less constant trickle of papyrus letters from rural Egypt excludes the renaissance of letter-writing surmised for the fourth century A.D. But it seems hardly possible to deduce valid data for the Roman Empire as a whole from this very exceptional province with its close-knit routes of communication and its almost linear geography. During the troubled third century the writing of long-distance letters across war zones and disputed provinces must have suffered to some unknown degree.

D.'s criteria to determine whether a letter was drawn up for literary reasons alone are again problematic. His observation that there is nothing about messengers in Pliny is a good point; the omission (or standardization) of opening and closing formulae, on the other hand, is very easy to bring about and independent from possible tampering with the substance. D. decides that the selection of the letters as extant mostly took place without regard to contents, except for Ambrose and Augustine (p. 30f.). This is quite unbelievable: compare the gaps in Libanius on the Antioch Rising of 387 and in the letters of Symmachus, especially to the Nicomachi, during the reign of the hapless usurper Eugenius. Again and again D. registers the marked disinterest (as he puts it) of prominent figures in wars outside their own regions but explains it away by a want of curiosity (e.g., pp. 64, 120). Wariness, not lack of concern, should be taken into consideration. There seems to be more to Symmachus' decision to separate the political news from the body of a letter (ep. VI,65; cf. Drecoll p. 37) than his regard for composition.

A third chapter (pp. 33-43) glosses over the modern research on Graeco-Roman letter-writing before a number of contemporary quotations on the importance of news are presented as proof that letters were one of the most important media for news transmission (p. 40). But only two pages later D. inverts the argument and makes the spreading of news the primary aim of writing letters, thereby discarding sheaves of recommendations, tokens of friendship or cultural reassurance. He also ignores how preciously few 'newsworthy' letters he is able to include in his analytical charts: 21 letters of Pliny among c. 250 in Books I-IX, 56 of c. 900 in the case of Symmachus, twelve letters of Synesius' 900 or so (pp. 63-66; 161; 166f.). Because of his surmise that news came mostly by letter and letters were mostly for news D. goes on to dismiss rumours as a possible source in Chapter IV (pp. 44-55), an assembly of topical sayings on the poor reliability of Fama; no analysis takes place. Some remarks on the availability and character of letter-carriers follow; if details on messengers are rare (p. 47) we wonder how D. can tell that they mostly came from the sender's social stratum (p. 55).

The long Chapter V, "Inhaltsanalyse der politischen Nachrichten" (the table of contents gives a different title, quoted above), sorts news into three categories (cf. pp. 18f.): politics (A), subdivided into matters concerning emperor and court, wars, provincial news, disasters of all sorts and urban affairs such as legacies; a 'geographical analysis' (B) to what province or what post-395 half of the Empire the letter was sent; matters of economics (C) are kept for Chapter VII. Not much is made of this material later on. Chapter V, the main part of the book, is reserved for political news only; no hint to the reader why some other categories introduced on p. 13 have vanished from the inquiry.

Twelve corpora of letters are taken into account: Pliny, St. Cyprian, Libanius, Julian, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa, Symmachus, Synesius, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose and Sidonius Apollinaris. Of these, the Libanius passage (pp. 79-122) seems to be the nucleus of the book and is the most elaborate by far. D.'s research and grasp of literature are barely above student level and at the worst times well below. Apparently in full earnest he declares that, to judge from the letters, the question why God allowed an empire under Christian rule to be defeated by pagan barbarians was "a problem (...) probably discussed among a larger circle of Christians", including Augustine (p. 172). Orosius and De civitate dei have never happened in this book. The reference of choice in many paragraphs is to the Cambridge Ancient History; efforts to use (or at least to quote) in-depth studies are rare indeed. Whenever something specific crops up in the footnotes one cannot be certain to find the corresponding title in D.'s bibliography.1

Some examples may be given for the case of Pliny. Book X ought be excluded from the sample as official correspondence with Trajan (cf. p. 15). Yet it appears all the same because of the allegedly 'special relationship' between Trajan and Pliny; special because they knew each other -- but every senator is supposed to know the emperor, of course, and every consular official is supposed to be his amicus. This is why Pliny repeatedly asks Trajan for favours (pace p. 67) just as he asks his office-holding amici in Books I-IX (and was doubtless asked himself by others). Pliny's verbal bow to Tacitus -- that his modest letter on the Vesuvius eruption is not worth publishing (VI,16,22) -- is taken as proof that a later publication of the letters was not intended, although the preceding sentence leaves no doubt that this is merely a formal permission to rearrange Pliny's information as Tacitus sees fit.

As D. turns to the letters' subject matter he keeps them oddly at a distance. Next to nothing is done to link this paraphrased Pliny to persons, events or sources. One would expect the circle of correspondents to be of special interest for the spreading and selection of news; at least their precise identities should be given for accuracy's sake. D.'s advice is to look them up in Sherwin-White's completely outdated index or in "PIR s.v."; additionally there are "einzelne Lexikonartikel wie Valerius Paulinus" (p. 65 n. 171), whatever the "Lexikon" in question may be. It is a fair guess that most if not all of the post-1966 literature has been ignored or indeed never been looked for.2 The result of this method is as follows: most of the receivers were senators, some were equites (two dozen bare names in p. 66 n. 174, and Calestrius Tiro becomes "Caelestrius Trio"); most will usually have lived in Italy, some in Rome; people from the Transpadana are important and include many equites, probably friends of the family. In a 'content analysis' (pp. 63-66) we are informed that Pliny's main concerns are political trials and those cases of civil law involving himself; few urban affairs, nothing on wars or grand imperial policy, no catastrophes. This is supposed to be decisive evidence against any public enthusiasm for Trajan's wars. D. turns it against M. T. Schmitt's Die römische Aussenpolitik des 2. Jahrhunderts n. Chr. and wonders why Schmitt (no page reference given) quoted Fronto, Pliny and Tacitus in favour of this because "Fronto's letters say nothing on political news at all" and Pliny's "news profile" lacks war. We may safely conclude that D. never looked into Pliny's Panegyricus or Fronto's Principia historiae. Pliny's letters do allude to the wars against Decebalus, by the way.3

The later sections of Chapter V show similar faults. The old academic sarcasm that ignorance of literature is the first step to spectacular discoveries comes to mind. We are told that Julian did not depend on private correspondents alone since he was an emperor but that emperors certainly had a private correspondence (pp. 124f.). The section on the two Gregories declares that they used letters to carry news (p. 146). In the Symmachus part D. explains Ausonius to be "a professor of rhetorics from Bordeaux" (p. 151) but virtually obliterates the difference between the elder and the younger Virius Nicomachus Flavianus (cf. pp. 157, 159f.). No literature on Augustine apart from (yet again) the corresponding CAH volume, one single reference to Peter Brown's biography and another to PLRE.

One persistent evil is literalism. D. comments on Koehler's suspicion that Sidonius' letter I, 7 to Vincentius, a very systematic report on the Arvandus affair, might not be a genuine letter but an insertion. Koehler surmised that the epistolary form of I, 7, including Vincentius, is a topos; D. replies that nobody would suppose Tacitus' interest in the Vesuvius eruption to be an invention of Pliny, so why doubt Sidonius? (p. 177) But as it is we know something about Tacitus' person and interests while there is no more to Vincentius than his name. Sidonius wrote a very necessary explanation how far his dangerous involvement with Arvandus went. To address such a text to a fictitious friend -- instead of embroiling a real correspondent in that matter -- would have been considerate.

Libanius, to repeat this, fares slightly better. A conspectus of major events during a given year is followed by summaries of letters dating from that time. There is a slight increase in the use of literature but not much beyond the most basic introductions and works of reference. It would require an ingenious handling of all the sources, not only the letters in splendid isolation, to compensate for this, and D. would have done well to limit his study to these 2000-plus letters alone. As he chose to include several thousands of letters at once, the summaries for each and every corpus are painfully redundant. Again and again D. states that the author in question is mostly absorbed by the affairs of his own province, has some attention left for the surrounding provinces and usually also for the goings-on in the capital(s) but does not care much for wars outside his immediate neighbourhood. The result for papyrus letters (pp. 183-90) is likewise formulaic -- domestic concerns and business prevail, politics only if they somehow relate to the writer's private affairs. The Vindolanda tablets are thrown in for good measure but no work is done with them.

Chapter VI undertakes a comparative view on Cicero's letters ad Atticum -- on a mere eight pages (pp. 191-98). Instead of giving access to the literature on this formidable source; D. offers some mixed observations of his own. About half of Chapter VII on economic news (pp. 199-219) derives from papyri: notes on prices of several commodities, especially grain, directions to the family members at home and errands for those abroad in Egypt. No synthesis follows. In the literary part D. concentrates on Pliny's acting the knowledgeable landowner. A flimsy chapter on "Kulturelle Nachrichten" (pp. 220-22) informs us that Libanius, Pliny and others had cultural interests and even wrote about them. Some source references, no literature. This method continues throughout most of Chapter IX on the appearance of news-bearing letters in Roman historiography. D. quotes from Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Ammianus and Eusebius; Suetonius, also counted as a historian, is attested to have used "authentic material" for the early part of his Caesares (p. 225) and that seems to be enough. The section on imperial correspondence is purely symbolic.

D.'s summary in Chapter X, "Nachrichten und die römische Gesellschaft (pp. 234-40), declares that all the authors under examination convey mainly items of immediate concern to them; there was no common stock of empire-wide news. A comparison on p. 236 to persons from two modern German cities is misleading, given both the diversity of the Roman Empire and the actual problems of news exchange between a present-day German from Hamburg and, say, a Canadian from Toronto. The chapter's conclusion is reserved for a somewhat incongruous encomium on the Late Empire's abilities for innovation and reform that stem, in D.'s opinion, from its readiness to digest news.

In D.'s bibliography the source section on "Weitere Quellen" (p. 244) is riddled with misprints. The 1908 edition of Ihm's Teubner Suetonius appears under its date of reprint, 1978. For unknown reasons several corpora of letters and their editions, like the Vindolanda finds, are hidden inside the section on literature. D., whose dissertation covered the third and fourth centuries A.D., is convinced that RAC stands for "Realenzyklopädie für Antike und Christentum" (p. 253, entry "J. Schneider"; cf. p. 144). The index is as pell-mell as it is incomplete. A mere fraction of names, places and subjects is included, with only sporadic references to each one. Various typos, a few troubles with the Greek font and confusions caused by the hideous German spelling reform are minor grievances. Who goes out to seek for the "Lutzensgebäude" on top of p. 7 ends at the Reuters building by Sir Edwin Lutyens, Fleet Street, London.

For the actual contents of the present dysfunctional book, apart from the letters retold, a rather short essay would have sufficed. If modern contributions have been consulted they are all but banned from the text. Notions of one chapter collide with those of the next; breaks of argumentation occur within a few pages. Far too much has been tried on an impossibly limited scope, with a disturbing lack of diligence to boot. Drecoll leaves his readers, in every respect, at a dead end and with all the work to do that by rights would have been his own.


1.   Ghost entries in footnotes: p. 63 n. 164 (three out of four); 164 n. 577; 166 n. 589; 188 n. 661 (two); 215 n. 726; 199f. n. 674f. (four).
2.   R. Syme, "People in Pliny," JRS 58 (1968), 135-51 = Roman Papers II (1979), 694-723; id., "Correspondents of Pliny," Historia 34 (1985), 324-39 = Roman Papers V (1988), 440-77; id., "The Dating of Pliny's Latest Letters," CQ 35 (1985), 176-85 = RP V, 478-89; A. Krieckhaus, "Vermutungen zu zwei Korrespondenten des jüngeren Plinius," Rheinisches Museum 144 (2001), 175-85. Instead of Sherwin-White see A. R. Birley, Onomasticon to the Letters of the Younger Pliny, Munich (K. G. Saur) 2000.
3.   R. Syme, "Pliny and the Dacian Wars," Latomus 23 (1964), 750-59 = Roman Papers VI (1991), 142-49.

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