BMCR 2019.05.47

Material Aspects of Letter Writing in the Graeco-Roman World, 500 BC-AD 300. Materiale Textkulturen, 12

, Material Aspects of Letter Writing in the Graeco-Roman World, 500 BC-AD 300. Materiale Textkulturen, 12. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. viii, 388. ISBN 9783110426946. €79,95.

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This impressive book is the fruit of Antonia Sarri’s post-doctoral research carried out between 2012 and 2015 at the University of Heidelberg, where she was a member of the group Materiale Textkulturen and worked with the project A02 “Antike Briefe als Kommunikationsmedium”. The volume seeks to analyze “the material, format and other visual details in ancient letters” (a perspective usually overlooked by scholars), while also providing “an overview of the changes in the trends of letter writing from the classical Greek world to the Roman Empire” (p. 1). Although the project that Sarri sets out for herself is ambitious in scope, the book is an overwhelming success in its analysis of the materiality of letter writing and the diachronic evolution of the practice throughout Antiquity from 500 BCE until 300 CE.

This book has two main parts: a monographic study and three appendices. The study is divided into four chapters that address the following subjects: (1) the evolution of letter writing in Antiquity; (2) the available evidence for analyzing this genre; (3) the layout and format of ancient letters; and (4) means of authenticating letters. The monographic study is followed by three indispensable appendices that provide evidence for the claims made in the first portion of the book. The first appendix is lengthy and deals with the use of archives and dossiers to collect letters, while the second turns to the dimensions of fully preserved letters and the third to letters by multiple authors. In this review, I will focus my attention on the most salient aspects of the book’s four principal chapters.

The first chapter is dedicated to the evolution of epistolary culture throughout Antiquity. Logically enough, Sarri begins by delineating exactly what constitutes a “letter”, a concept the author continues to nuance throughout the chapter. In Antiquity, a letter could range from private communiqués to official or administrative documents. While letters have historically been classified in different corpora according to their contents, we often cannot draw clear lines distinguishing one epistolary genre from another. Furthermore, letters in Antiquity proved to be a pliable technology whose formats and uses continually evolved to better meet the needs of particular times and places. Beginning with a basic distinction between official and private letters, the author uses the earliest literary and archaeological evidence to lay out origins and evolution of letter writing. She makes the suggestive argument that the use of letters was perceived in different ways based on a given polis’ system of governance: in monarchies and oligarchies letters were valued for the privacy that they offered, whereas in democracies this same feature was branded as a dangerous form of secrecy that contrasted with democratic forms of assembly.

The second portion of the first chapter provides an in-depth analysis of the various Greek lexemes related to epistolary practice, including ἐπιστολή, ἐπιστολογράφος, ἐπιστολαφόρος, ἐπιστόλιον and γράμμα, pp. 16-24 (there is no such discussion of Latin terminology). After drawing a distinction between literary letters (which were copied in Antiquity and preserved in medieval compilations) and non-literary letters (which have been preserved in their original form), Sarri focuses particularly on an important subset of literary epistolography: private letters. Starting in the Late Republic with Cicero’s correspondence, such letters came to be viewed as part of a larger literary culture. Indeed, collections of private letters began to circulate as popular reading material, in large part because such compendiums offered readers good models for the letters that they themselves wrote to establish and maintain networks and relationships with members of the Roman elite. Sarri closes the chapter with a diachronic linguistic analysis of epistolary style from Archaic Greece to the Roman Empire. This analysis yields valuable observations about the shifting reflections of spoken language in this form of written discourse: in the fifth century, letter writers could use the vocative in their prescript to refer to the recipient (a reflection of oral discourse), while by the end of the fourth century only the dative is used in letter openings (p. 40). Also of note is Sarri’s discussion of the various ways that Latin formulae influenced the language of Greek letter writing (pp. 49-50)

The second chapter focuses on the material evidence for letter writing and is divided into two sections. In the first, Sarri offers an analysis of the chronological and geographical distribution of the available evidence, which is conveniently and clearly summarized in tables 1-3. Unsurprisingly, Egypt plays a leading role in this section due to the thousands of documents preserved there. Here, the author provides an extremely valuable discussion of the preservation patterns of papyri and ostraca while taking into account climate (i.e. the high humidity in the north and near the Nile delta) and the depth at which papyri were discovered. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to the various materials used in letter writing: lead, papyrus, ostraca, wood and parchment. Sarri discusses the relative availability of these materials throughout the Mediterranean, the processes for their manufacture, and their use. Finally, she lays out each material’s advantages and disadvantages, a discussion which largely revolves around questions of flexibility (i.e. foldable versus not foldable) and hence confidentiality versus openness.

In the third chapter, Sarri focuses on two questions that have largely been ignored by previous historians: the formal characteristics of letters (i.e. format) and the layout of the text (what epigraphers call ordinatio). The first section of chapter 3 (87-113) provides a diachronic overview of the evolution of letter formatting in Antiquity. Sarri begins with Archaic Greece when authors opted for rectangular formats in which lines are parallel to the long edge. Although we know that Greeks in this period used wooden tablets for writing letters, the archeological record has only preserved letters written on lead tablets. Among other pieces, Sarri discusses the anomalous SEG 53, 256 at length: this Athenian letter dated to 370/369 has an unusual upright format (i.e. lines run across the short edge) and was rolled up from bottom to top (more normally letters were rolled from side to side). While Sarri suggests that this letter “may have been influenced by the layout of long prose texts” (p. 90), I would argue that this format may better be explained by the nature of the text itself: if Bravo and Wolicki are correct 1, this text should be primarily identified as a defixio rather than a letter, in which case such manipulation of the object would be normal practice.2

Due to the vast number of papyrus letters from Ptolemaic Egypt, the author is able to provide a solid analysis of the three principal formats used in Hellenistic letters: transversa charta (a rectangular sheet with the writing following the long edge against the papyrus fibres), the Demotic style (oblong, very narrow sheets of papyrus used by the locals before the arrival of the Greeks) and pagina (a tall, thin sheet on which the text runs parallel to the papyrus’ fibres). Sarri’s analysis of the gradual change from transversa to pagina is particularly fascinating: previously papyrus had been used in Athens for writing literary texts, but as Alexandria replaced Athens as the center of Greek cultural life and papyrus became more readily available, this material was also preferred for writing letters over more traditional materials (wooden tablets and lead). From Alexandria the fashion of writing letters in the pagina format spread throughout the Greek speaking world and to Rome (see pp. 105-107).

The second part of chapter three turns to the layout, that is the arrangement of text in the writing space. The most important developments are already seen in the Hellenistic period, when authors began to differentiate different portions of their letters by various means. Accordingly, certain sections were separated by blank space (e.g. opening addresses and farewell greetings), while other sections were characterized by quick or cursive scripts (e.g. dating formulae); furthermore, certain parts were relegated to certain spaces such as the external address, which is always found on the document’s verso.

The fourth and final chapter is especially attention grabbing. Here Sarri takes on the complicated issue of how ancient letters were authenticated, which, contrary to popular belief, was not simply done with stamps or seals. Sarri begins the chapter with a discussion of the various classes of authors and makes a distinction between the professional scribes and individual authors who wrote on behalf of close friends and family members. Authors can be sorted into these two categories according to a number of factors: explicit references in the texts, the paleographic analysis of letters in a given archive as well as the identification of a second hand in the farewell greeting. Sarri argues that this final case provided various advantages: while on the one hand it was considered a sign of the author’s respect towards the recipient to finish the letter him or herself, more importantly by adding the farewell in their own hand, authors were authenticating and certifying the content found in the previous portion of the document (according to Suetonius, Augustus dated his own letters, even including the hour).

The second part of chapter four considers larger questions surrounding the change of hand in farewell greetings. In my opinion, this fascinating section is certainly one of the book’s strongest. “Hand shifting” in letters is a relatively frequent aspect of epistolary practice that has not received adequate scholarly attention. While hand shifting could certainly be an important means of authenticating a letter, Sarri masterfully demonstrates how in certain cases previous editors have misunderstood the phenomenon: often what is nothing but a shift in a single author’s style has been misconstrued as a change of author. In her analysis of a range of documents, Sarri deploys a panoply of forensic methods, such as calligraphic analysis (i.e., letter shape, size, proportion, etc.), density of the ink, letter inclination, presence or absence of abbreviations, use of punctuation, orthographic errors and textual layout in order to show that many texts that were thought to have two different authors really only had one.

To conclude, I want to highlight the innovative and fresh approach that this book brings to the topic of letter writing in Antiquity. It will be of great use and interest to specialists and generalists alike. This book, which is almost completely free of errata, must be praised for the excellent quality of its photographs, whose high resolution allows the reader to follow Sarri’s transcriptions of the texts that she discusses throughout the book. In short, Sarri provides a praiseworthy study of Greco-Roman letter writing that not only sheds new light on the formal and material aspects of ancient epistolary practices, but also provides new data that will serve the larger body of scholars interested in literacy and literary culture in Antiquity.


1. Bravo, B. & Wolicki A., 2016. “Un katadesmos du banquier Pasiôn ( SEG 53, 256)” BCH 139-140: 211-236. In her preface, Sarri notes that work on this book was completed in 2015, which means that she was unable to consider Bravo and Wolicki’s analysis.

2. As Sarri points out, defixiones and letters are closely linked given that the first “might have been regarded as letters to the underworld” (p. 73). If we turn to the corpus of Greek and Latin defixiones, there certainly are numerous parallels with respect to medium, format, layout, folding, etc. The way that SEG 53, 256 was rolled, for example, is paralleled by the Latin defixiones AE 2004, 1024, DTAud 217-223, 229, etc. (= Audollent, A. 1904. Defixionum Tabellae quotquot innotuerunt tam in Graecis Orientis quam in totius Occidentis partibus praeter Atticas in corpore inscriptionum atticarum editas Paris.)