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Letter Writing.

59. In Cicero's time letters were commonly written either upon wax tablets or papyrus. Reference is made in Cic. Cat. 3.5 to a letter upon wax tablets, and they were not infrequently used as late as the fifth century A.D.1; but the introduction into Italy of papyrus, which is mentioned as early as the time of Ennius,2 gradually restricted the use of wax tablets, so that, in so far as letters were concerned, they were in general used only in writing to a correspondent near at hand, especially when one hoped for an immediate answer upon the tablets sent. Thus Cicero writes to Lepta: simul atque accepi a Seleuco tuo litteras, statim quaesivi e Balbo per codicillos quid esset in lege.3 Such occasional notes were called codicilli4 as indicated in the extract, or sometimes pugillares. For letters, however, sent to a distance, as most of Cicero's were, papyrus was a much more convenient substance, and probably the great majority of his letters were written upon it.5 Parchment had not yet come into use for letter writing.6

60. The papyrus plant was grown principally in Egypt It grows in water two or three feet deep, and the plant reaches a height of five or six feet. The method of manufacturing writing material from it is described by Pliny.7 The stem of the plant was cut into thin strips, and these strips were laid parallel to one another upon a smooth surface; another set of strips was laid upon these at right angles, and the two layers were glued together by the gum which exuded from the strips when they were moistened with waten The layers were then hammered together into a single sheet, called a plagula, which was exposed to the sun to dry. The sheets were from 5 to 10 inches long, and probably one sufficed for an ordinary letter. If more space was needed, several sheets were pasted together. The center of the papyrus industry was Alexandria.

61. Ink (atramentum, or atramentum librarium) was ordinarily made from the liquid of the cuttle fish,8 or from a composition of soot and gum.9 The inkstand (atramentarium) was commonly cylindrical and often had two compartments, one for black and one for red ink. Pens (calami) were made of reeds grown chiefly in Egypt,10 and were kept in a case (calamarium or theca calamaria) made usually of leather. The other articles which completed a writing outfit were a piece of lead (plumbum) and a ruler (regula) for ruling lines, a pen-knife scalprum librarium) for sharpening the pens, and a sponge for erasing ink.

62. The letter regularly opened and closed with certain formulae which varied according to the relations in which the writer and recipient stood. Thus, in writing to an intimate friend like Paetus, Cicero might open his letter thus: Cicero Paeto,11 or Cicero Paeto S.12 (i.e. salutem), or Cicero Paeto S. D.13 (i.e. salutem dicit); or in a little more formal letter the praenomen or cognomen of one or of both might be added, e.g. M. Cicero S. D. A. Caecinae14, or Cicero S. D. M. Fadio Gallo.15 In formal letters, if either the writer or the recipient held an office, his title was added, e.g. M. Cicero Imp. S. D. L. Paulo Cos.16; still more formally, M. Tullius M. F. Cicero Procos. S. D. Cos. Pr. Tr. Pl. Senatui17 (i.e. M. Tullius Marci filius Cicero pro consule salutem dicit consulibus praetoribus tribunis plebis senatui).

In addressing the members of one's own family it was customary to add suo (or suae), e.g. Tullius Terentiae suae S. P.18 (i.e. salutem plurimam). After this address there often appeared some formula like Si vales, bene est, either written out in full or in the abbreviation s.v.b.e. or s.v. b. (i.e. benest).19 Cicero himself rarely used this formula.20

In writing to the members of one's own household, apparently some closing formula was ordinarily used. Such formulae are found at the end of all the letters to Terentia and to Tiro. Among those used are the following: vale, etiam atque etiam vale, vale salve, fac valeas meque diligas, cura ut valeas, ama nos et vale.21 In writing to others than the members of one's household, closing formulae were less frequently used. For instance, all of the seventeen letters from Caelius22 close abruptly. The date and place of writing, if indicated at all, are usually given at the end of the letter, the name of the place being in the ablative (sometimes with a preposition) or the locative, e.g. d. (i.e. data, datae or datum) a. d. III Non. Oct. Thessalonica, XVII. K. Apr. Corduba, K. Oct. de Venusino, ex Arpinati VI. Non., data XVI Kal. Sextiles Thessalonicae.

63. When a letter was ready to be sent, it was rolled up; a thread was wound about the middle of it and sometimes passed through the papyrus itself, and a seal was attached to the ends of the string.23 The seal was the guarantee of genuineness; so, for instance, upon one occasion, when Cicero had opened some letters from Quintus to certain friends, on the suspicion that they contained slanderous remarks about himself, he was not afraid of the consequences, because Pomponia, the wife of Quintus, who was not on good terms with her husband, had her husband's seal and would not object to sealing the letters again.24 The seal often had for its design the likeness of the owner25 or of one of his ancestors.26 Wax was commonly used to receive the impression, but sometimes Asiatic chalk.27 Upon the outside of the roll the name of the person addressed was written in the dative, sometimes with his title and the place where he could be found, e.g. M. Lucretio flamini Martis decurioni Pompeus.28

64. Letters were often written by secretaries from dictation, but most of Cicero's letters to Atticus and Quintus at least were written with his own hand; for in 59 B.C. he writes to Atticus: numquam ante arbitror te epistulam meam legisse, nisi mea manu scriptam29; and in 49 B.C.: lippitudinis meae signum tibi sit librarii manus30; and in 54 B.C. to Quintus: scribis enim te meas litteras superiores vix legere potuisse, in quo nihil eorum, mi frater, fuit quae putas; neque enim occupatus eram neque perturbatus nec iratus alicui, sed hoc facio semper ut, quicumque calamus in manus meas venerit, eo sic utar tamquam bono.31 During the latter part of his life, however, especially during the years 44 and 43 B.C., even the letters to Atticus were written by a secretary.32 Cicero's principal secretary was Tiro. Mention is also made of another, Spintharus by name.33

As there was no postal system at that time, letters had to be sent by one's own messengers (tabellarii.) or the messengers of one's friends. This made the composition of a letter a more serious matter in Cicero's day than it is in ours. But his letters were not always studied productions: some of them were written while he was traveling; others between the courses at dinner34; and he writes to Cassius35: praeposteros habes tabellarios . . . cum a me discedunt, flagitant litteras . . . atque id ipsum facerent commodius, si mihi aliquid spatii ad scribendum darent, sed petasati veniunt, comites ad portam exspectare dicunt.

Some idea of the speed with which letters were carried may be gathered from the following instances: letters arrived at Rome from Brundisium on the sixth day, from Sicily on the seventh day, from Britain on the thirty-third day, from Africa and also from Athens on the twenty-first day, from Syria on the fiftieth day.36 A messenger in Cicero's time traveled from 40 to 50 (Roman) miles per day.37

1 Thompson, Greek and Latin Palaeography, p.22.

2 Marquardt, Handbuch, vol. VII. p.808, n. l.

3 Fam. 6.18.1.

4 Cf. also Seneca, Ep. 55.11.

5 Cf., however, exaravi, Epist. LXIX. 1 n.

6 Birt, Das antike Buchwesen, p.61.

7 N. H. 13.74-83; Cf. also Birt, pp.227-247.

8 Persius, 3.13.

9 Plin. N. H. 35.6.25.

10 Martial, 14.38.

11 Fam. 9.20.

12 Fam. 9.21.

13 Fam. 9.24.

14 Fam. 6.5.

15 Fam. 7.23.

16 Fam. 15.13.

17 Fam. 15.2.

18 Fam. 14.7; Cf. sect. 69.

19 Fam. 11.3; Cf. also Epist. LII.1 n. See Sen. Ep. 15.1; Pliny, Ep. 1.11.

20 Cf. Epist. LVI. n.

21 Cf. nos diliges, Epist. XVIII. (end) n.

22 Fam. Bk. 8.

23 Fronto ad M. Caesar. 1.8, p.24 Naber: Versus, quos mihi miseras, remisi tibi per Victorinum nostrum, atque ita remisi; chartam diligenter lino transui et ita linum obsignavi, ne musculus iste aliquid aliqua rimari possit.

24 Att. 11.9.2.

25 Plaut. Pseud. 56 and 988.

26 in Cat. 3.10.

27 pro Flacco, 37.

28 From a Pompeian wall-painting preserved in the Museum at Naples.

29 Att. 2.23.1.

30 Att. 8.13.1.

31 Q. fr. 2.14 (15b). 1; Cf. also 2.15 (16).1.

32 Att. 15.20.4; 12.32.1.

33 Att. 13.25.3.

34 Att. 14.6. 2; 14.12.3; cf. dictavi ambulans, Epist. IX.1n.

35 Fam. 15.17.1.

36 C. Bardt, Quaestiones Tullianae.

37 E. Ruete, Die Correspondenz Ciceros, p.121.

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  • Cross-references from this page (1):
    • Cicero, Against Catiline, 3.5
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (23):
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 11.3
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 14.7
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 15.13
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 15.17.1
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 15.2
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 6.18.1
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 6.5
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 7.23
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 9.20
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 9.21
    • Cicero, Letters to his Friends, 9.24
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 11.9.2
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 13.25.3
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 14.6
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 15.20.4
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 2.23.1
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 8.13.1
    • Cicero, Letters to his brother Quintus, 2.14
    • Cicero, Against Catiline, 3.10
    • Plautus, Pseudolus, 1.1
    • Pliny the Younger, Epistulae, 1.11
    • Seneca, Epistulae, 15.1
    • Seneca, Epistulae, 55.11
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