Snapshot from a letter

For centuries, letters have been the main means of communication in the private as well as in the public sphere. Letters were used between friends and relatives generally to share information about each other’s life and health, between managers and their colleagues or subordinates to discuss work-related matters, between public officials to give instructions on how to follow specific administrative procedures. The list of reasons for a writing a letter is almost endless.

Letters never fail to reveal something about the sender and the recipient, and in the case of private letters their content provides us with a snapshot of the life of the people involved and often allows us to immerse ourselves in someone else’s thoughts many centuries later. In antiquity private letters became a proper literary genre, the most famous example being Cicero, author of collections of letters to his friends and relatives in the first century BC. Though labelled as private and often exhibiting a colloquial tone, Cicero’s letters still keep their literary verve.

Bust of Cicero, Capitoline Museums, Rome

The same goes for the letters written by Pliny the Younger, the Roman writer who in a letter to the historian Tacitus documented the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania, Italy, in AD 79. Despite being addressed to friends and relatives and often discussing everyday life topics, his letters seem to lack a certain spontaneity, as they were essentially written for publication.

Pliny the Younger and his mother at Misenum when Vesuvius erupted (Kauffmann, 1785)

Private letters we find on papyri are different. They were not written for publication, and as a consequence they still preserve a certain feel of genuinity. Even centuries later, reading a letter of a mother to his son inquiring about his health almost feels like invading someone’s privacy. Yet, this kind of letters sheds light on an essential part of the ancient society that otherwise would remain unknown: personal relationships.

Waiting to be read, some 1,900 years later, is a private letter which, through a series of unlikely scenarios, was eventually delivered to the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, Berkeley, despite being addressed to someone in Tebtunis, Egypt!

The original recipient was a person probably named Philotas (the name is partly lost), addressed by the sender as ‘brother’. The two correspondents, however, were not necessarily siblings, as it was common for husband and wife to address each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. Unfortunately the name of the sender is lost so we cannot be sure of the nature of the relationship between the two. There is no doubt though that they knew each other well. After asking for something to be done, the addressee sends his greetings ‘to her’, and asks for the cloak to be given to her. Who was this woman? It could have been their mother or sister, if the two were actually siblings; it could have been their daughter if the two were married instead. But there are other possibilities. The letter ends with the phrase ‘I pray for your health, brother’, commonly used in letters from Graeco-Roman Egypt. The exact context is still not entirely clear, but more can be reconstructed, and the letter has already found in Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, a member of our team, a new recipient, willing to recompose the puzzle.

Most certainly Philotas received this letter and did what he was asked. Then the letter was forgotten, kept maybe in Philotas’ house, for centuries until 1900, when it was found again and brought to Berkeley. Now that the letter has been found again, it won’t be forgotten.