On Letter Writing

We live in an age when many say the art of writing a letter – and any need to do so – is dying, replaced by the ease and gratification of email, texting, Snapchat and Skype. But the difference between these new media and putting pen to paper can help think in more detail about the diverse reasons behind writing letters.

We have many letters from ancient Rome. Perhaps the most interesting are those written in the early 2nd century by Pliny (known to many as Pliny the Younger). We have discussed Pliny’s letters before, but particularly interesting are those he wrote while governor of the eastern province Bithynia-Pontus to the emperor Trajan back in Rome. Pliny’s letters while in office are often practical requests about complex judicial questions, doomed building projects and thorny financial tangles. These detailed reports and requests, and Trajan’s brief replies, have led to derogatory caricatures of Pliny as a weak and needy civil servant incapable of acting alone, constantly checking in with an exasperated emperor who had better things to do.

Roman cursus publicus (postal service) from a column in Igel, Trier (AD 250)

Roman cursus publicus (postal service) from a column in Igel, Trier (AD 250)

Pliny’s letters are even stranger when one takes into account the nuts and bolts of writing. Reliable and rapid correspondence was difficult in the vast and dangerous expanse of the Roman Empire. It was a little easier for those like Pliny who could use the imperial “postal service”. But even with an honest messenger and fair weather, it would have taken over a month, possibly two, for Pliny’s letter to reach Trajan in Rome. The messenger then had to wait for a response, before making the return journey. Pliny was writing while touring his province, so the messenger would not even necessarily know where to find him when he returned! These delays means that Pliny would be waiting many months for replies to his inquiries. And when he did receive a reply he might well be in a different city from the one where the problem arose!

So we ought to think more broadly about reasons for letter writing other than urgent requests. Perhaps Pliny was not as whiney, nor Trajan as terse, as first readings suggest. Trajan’s brief responses almost always affirm Pliny’s proposed actions, and encourage him to source local expertise to solve problems. In fact they sometimes look suspiciously like rubber stamping exercises. Perhaps Pliny was writing in order to be seen to be writing. How different are his letters from modern emails copied to senior colleagues to keep them in the loop and to cover one’s own back?

Finally, while the art of letter writing today is diminished, it nevertheless continues. It has become special act, a gesture to a close friend or loved one who will be thrilled to hear the thump of an addressed envelope falling from the letterbox. This physicality of letters is often forgotten. But a new world of instant communication has highlighted this value to the letter – an object the recipient can pick up, touch, read, put down, keep and pick up again. This is important for thinking about Pliny. The only reason we can read his letters to Trajan is because they were kept, collected and published (with recent scholarship arguing that this was done by Pliny himself). Pliny’s letters and Trajan’s replies are a polished collection cultivating the image of an harmonious relationship between emperor and governor. Pliny, two thousand years ago, was it seems more alive to the importance of public perception of one’s correspondence than certain officials in the modern world who should know better. The visibility of correspondence can be exploited by one’s opponents; it can also be manipulated positively by correspondents themselves.

Writing a letter is not just about the transmission of information. It’s about the communication gesture itself. And the physical preservation of that gesture can be more important than its content. Do you have any more ideas about our continuing love affair with the letter? Answers in the Comments section below. Or on a postcard.


Goths, Ancient and Modern

What do modern Goths have to do with ancient and medieval ones?

asterix and the goths

Ostensibly, the answer to this question is ‘not much’, apart from a name. The Goths were a group of Germanic tribes who during late antiquity sometimes fought against the Romans and sometimes served in the Roman army. They killed the Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378, sacked Rome in 410, and later formed kingdoms in southern France, Spain and Italy that turned out to be quite ‘Roman’ in the way that they were run. Modern-day Goths wear black clothes, like depressing music and are generally a miserable bunch, at least if you believe South Park.

Some students and I did a bit of work on modern Goths in the last semester and here’s what we came up with by searching for videos on YouTube of people talking about what it meant to be a Goth in the modern world or that made some other kind of comment on Gothic identity:

The videos reveal how important it is to think about identity as a constructed by individuals and groups and that ideas of ‘who we are’ rely on a kind of interaction between both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ perspectives. The problem in antiquity is that we usually only have partial evidence and it’s often from a strongly ‘Roman’ or ‘Gothic’ perspective. For the modern Goths, that’s not such a problem – there’s lots of evidence out there, if you know where to look.

Modern-day Goths on YouTube self-define their identity culturally. According to them, Goths have a distinct sense of fashion and style. Musical tastes are often mentioned as important defining features of what is means to be a Goth today. This identity is grounded historically by reference to ‘the Gothic’ rather than to ‘the Goths’ of the past: for example, having read 19th century Gothic novels. Ancient Goths are only mentioned (infrequently) as fellow ‘outsiders’: they occupied a place outside the Roman imperial system just as Goths today often see themselves as standing apart from conventional society. Some Gothic YouTubers have a strong sense of what it means to be a ‘proper’ Goth and exclude from the category those who do not meet their criteria, while others are concerned to draw distinctions with other groups (Emos, Punks…) or to break down modern Goths into sub-groups.

YouTube also contains plenty of videos which provide us with ‘outsider’ views on the Goths, in the same way that we’re reliant on Roman source for early Gothic history in antiquity (and, some scholars would argue, for most of the rest of their history too). On YouTube this often takes the form of satire/ comedy, as in the case of South Park’s Goth Kids (see above) or Richmond from the IT Crowd.

Interestingly, the ‘outsider’ videos often pick up on the same characteristics as the ‘insider’ YouTube clips: music, fashion, attitude (though often satirised as unremittingly miserable). Culture defines identity for those poking fun at the Goths as well.

Viewing this topic through the YouTube videos provides a novel perspective on the issue of identity in ancient history which often seems so distant and abstract. Modern Goths may not have much at all to do with ancient ones, but they can help us think about some of the issues that confronted the Goths as outsiders within a largely Roman world.

For more on this and other teaching using digital methods at the University of Lincoln, see our Making Digital History website or follow us on Twitter @MakDigHist.

The Trouble with Hosting: the Qatar World Cup and the Roman Games

As Brazil prepares itself for the World Cup this summer, furor is building over the hosting of the 2022 World Cup (the one after the one after this one). Qatar won hosting rights back in December 2010, but ever since the international community has debated both the transparency of the original competition and the medical risks of playing – and watching! – sport in 50 degree heat.

In fact, the World Cup is not the only international sporting occasion of 2022 whose host is unclear. It has recently been revealed that the Commonwealth Games is struggling to find willing host countries, with the high cost cited as a contributory factor to the lack of volunteers. Normally the vast cost of hosting such an event is judged worth the international prestige and recognition. But in the current financial climate the value is apparently being questioned.

These modern concerns provide a lens to study spectacles in the Roman world. Games in the Roman provinces, involving theatrical shows, racing, and gladiatorial combat, were usually hosted and paid for by members of the local elite, sometimes risking bankruptcy, because of the opportunities for recognition and renown they offered men running for public office. But the 3rd C “Magerius mosaic” from Smirat in Tunisia seems, at first look, to cast doubt on this picture.

The mosaic shows four gladiators fighting four leopards. Both gladiators and beasts are individually named, so these may be celebrities; Cristiano Ronaldo toying with Pudsey. Most interesting is the central figure carrying a tray with four bags of money. The Latin on either side of him announces that at the completion of festivities, a herald has asked that somebody pay the Telegenii, who have provided the beasts and fighters. The price is 500 denarii per leopard. The crowd has taken up the call, goading the local bigwigs to pay up. Then Magerius has sent in his representative with four bags, each containing 1000 denarii – double the requested figure. His extraordinary generosity is, predictably, praised by the crowd.

The Magerius Mosaic, Smirat Tunisia, 3rd C AD

This suggests that the event was put on without a guaranteed financial backer. A risky procedure – it’s hard to imagine the World Cup being staged on a similar basis. It also raises a number of troubling practical issues, about preparations beforehand. So many, in fact, that it seems unlikely this post-payment ever occurred. Like the 2022 World Cup, perhaps we should be suspicious of this bidding process.

A more likely scenario emerges if we consider the medium on which this message is recorded. This is a mosaic, likely paid for by Magerius himself, preserving in a permanent medium a necessarily temporary occasion. It was designed for display, probably in a dining room (since the images face outwards on three sides, where diners could have reclined looking in). The mosaic is an ostentatious demonstration of Magerius’ generosity. Moreover, he has paid double the requested amount. Is it not more likely that Magerius orchestrated this theatrical gesture where he rescued  the town in order to be seen as more generous than his fellow townsmen? Or even that he has simply memorialised the event in this way, however he actually paid for it?

Protective Awning the Pompeian Riot Fresco, 59AD (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, inv. nr. 112222)

Whatever the truth, to earn the good reputation he clearly craved Magerius will have had to be as concerned for the wellbeing of his spectators as the modern opponents of a Qatar World Cup. The summer sun in North Africa wouldn’t fall far short of Qatar’s, and the hosts of Roman games needed to take precautions to protect their spectators from its worst excesses. This was often done via vast awnings fixed atop amphitheatres to provide shade. But rather more ingeniously, in a manner reminiscent of the recent Australian Open where “misters” pumped cooling air onto grateful tennis fans, Seneca tells us about “a means of spraying saffron perfumes to a tremendous height from hidden pipes, [which] fills or empties channels in one sudden rush of water… (Letters 90.5)”


It remains to be seen whether Sebb Blatter’s FIFA prove kinder organisers than Caligula, who famously removed the awning from the Colosseum and left his fellow Romans to bake in the afternoon sun (Suetonius, Life of Caligula 26.5).