Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.05.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.05.08

Karen Radner (ed.), State Correspondence in the Ancient World, From New Kingdom Egypt to the Roman Empire. Oxford studies in early empires.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Pp. xiv, 306.  ISBN 9780199354771.  £48.00.  

Reviewed by Silke Knippschild, University of Bristol (


[The reviewer sincerely apologises to the editors for the time it has taken to deliver the review.]

Radner’s edited volume “takes its departure from a single claim: long distance communication plays a key role in the cohesion and stability of early states, and in turn, these states invest in long-term communication strategies and networks” (p. 1). The merit of the book lies in its wide geographical and temporal scope (Amarna Egypt to Late Imperial Rome), the expertise of the scholars participating in the project, and the inner cohesion, which one rarely encounters in edited volumes. In addition, very little background knowledge is taken for granted, thus facilitating use for scholars from different disciplines and for students.

In the Introduction (pp. 1-9), the editor poses a set of key questions relevant to all the chapters: “What is the role of envoys and letters in long-distance communication? What is the role of scribes or secretaries? What languages are used for the state correspondence? Is there a privileged state communication system? How is it organized? How is information safeguarded while in transit? Are there patterns and routines of state communication? Are there obligatory rules of communication? When and how are letters publicized? Are letters archived for future reference?” (pp. 3-4) The editor then highlights some common practices of the empires under discussion, as well as some of the differences.

In chapter 1, “Egyptian State Correspondence of the New Kingdom” by Jana Mynárová (pp. 10-31), the author focuses on the reigns of the pharaohs Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) and the rich evidence of the Amarna tablets. The chapter deals with administrative structure, followed by a Quellenkritik, a section on the vassal correspondence and a discussion of scribes and messengers. Mynárová also offers an original document in translation as an example of the kind of source she is addressing. The cross-references could have been more helpful, since they generally refer to whole chapters rather than to individual practices on specific pages.

Chapter 2 by Mark Weeden, “State Correspondence in the Hittite World” (pp. 32-63), is an excellent example of the scope of this volume. Beautifully structured, it addresses geography and history, and the corpus of extant Hittite state letters, dealing with their different languages and the information provided by them as well as with the writing materials. It also provides useful links to relevant research material.

In the third chapter, “An Imperial Communication Network: The State Correspondence of the Neo-Assyrian Empire” (pp. 64-93), Karen Radner focuses on the reign of Sargon II because of the comparatively large amount of source material it offers. She discusses the standardized shape of the letters (including envelopes). The Royal Roads, an Assyrian innovation outlasting the Empire by centuries, and their regulations and infrastructure, take up a significant part of the chapter. Considering that the “relay system set the standard for communication speed” until the advent of the telegraph (p. 74), there could hardly be a more appropriate focus. Radner also addresses different forms of communications, e.g. public proclamations (i.e. letters addressed to entire communities, not just their leaders) or letter streams (e.g. letters between governors, rather than from governor to king, or letters quoted in other letters).

Chapter 4, “The Lost State Correspondence of the Babylonian Empire as Reflected in Contemporary Administrative Letters” (pp. 94-111) by Michael Jursa, starts by discussing the uneven distribution of sources and, especially, the fact that the Babylonian state correspondence has not yet been discovered. This may be a result of Aramaic being written on perishable materials that have not survived. He circumnavigates this problem by employing the Temple Letters, a corpus containing royal letters. He points out that the majority of the communications between king and temple were conducted in writing, rather than by messenger. Accordingly, the letters dealing with cult and people management give at least an idea about the structure of royal Babylonian letters.

The fifth chapter, “State Communications in the Persian Empire” by Amélie Kuhrt (pp. 112-140), deals effectively with the background. While this does mean the chapter starts with a lot of narrative, it is probably unavoidable when dealing with a state like the Persian Empire. The focus of the chapter is on the role of state correspondence in promoting the cohesion of the empire. The discussion of the sources is somewhat disparate, which is of course partly due to the disparate nature of the sources themselves. However, Kuhrt offers an instructive and interesting cross-section, including the usual suspects (e.g. Greek sources or the OT) as well as documents one encounters less often. This reviewer was particularly pleased by the inclusion of documents from the Eastern ranges of the Empire, such as Bactria/Sogdiana, and the discussion of different types of relationships between the king and varying peoples, such as the nomads. The chapter also features seals and letter authentication, including useful illustrations of good quality.

In chapter 6, “The King’s Words: Hellenistic Royal Letters in Inscriptions” (pp. 141-171), Alice Bencivenni focuses on contact between the Greek city-states of Asia Minor and the Near East, especially under the Seleucids and Attalids. She discusses the types of royal communication and the survival of the inscriptions. A particular focus is given to the style and language of the letters, e.g. the language of euergetism versus terseness, depending on the letters’ recipient. The chapter is richly illustrated, with good quality images of key inscriptions, although the small size made them hard to read for this reviewer.

Chapter 7, “State Correspondence in the Roman Empire: Imperial Communication from Augustus to Justinian” by Simon Corcoran (pp. 172-209), focuses on the Emperor and the Imperial household (freedmen and slaves), with special emphasis on the Late Empire because of the better source situation. The author discusses the range of evidence available, e.g. inscriptions, papyri, and “literary” letters such as Pliny’s epistolary exchange with Trajan. Corcoran addresses the petition and response system, the fact that the Emperor remained closely involved with all correspondence sent in his name, e.g. by signing each letter, and style changes over time. He also discusses the cursus publicus, or public post system, in which one messenger covered the distance, changing mounts as required. This chapter depicts a very distinct image, with major differences vis-à-vis Ancient Near Eastern practices, which show a certain amount of continuity. A closer link to the rest of the book to highlight these differences would have been worthwhile.

Overall, this book fills a gap in scholarship and is exemplary for its scope, drawing together evidence from different cultures across nearly two millennia, while generally maintaining cohesion. Each chapter introduces the context, making it accessible to a wide audience. The writing is concise, clear, and well structured with plenty of subchapters.

Each chapter includes a high quality map, which is helpful. The translated extracts from the sources in question in each chapter are useful and interesting. An extensive bibliography at the end facilitates further research. The book is a valuable asset to scholarship and should find a place in every good library.

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