Tag Archives: letters

Making (or constructing) history

When you sit down to read a book about history, it is not always apparent where the narrative set out by the modern authors has come from. Indeed, it often looks like a straightforward story of Person A doing Thing Y, while Person B does Thing Z in response. And no one need question if that is how things actually occurred. Or perhaps one assumes that modern history-writing is simply a pooling of different narrative accounts of the same events by earlier history writers — taking, say, Livy and cutting out all the bits that modern, rational, scientific history discounts, and giving us the ‘pure’ story of ancient Rome, simple, no problem.

Well, even if we actually had narrative sources like Livy for all of history, that still wouldn’t be the way we construct the stories you read in histories.

This morning I was reading through Chapter 1 of my PhD thesis in preparation for my upcoming ‘viva’ (viva voce examination). In this chapter, I discuss the life and papacy of Leo the Great from two perspectives: first, from sources he didn’t write, second, from his letters with a little support from the sermons. Leo’s correspondence is our best source for the events of his tenure in the Roman episcopate as well as for the middle decades of the fifth century more broadly.

Where to look for those other, non-Leo sources? A person might assume that the tantalisingly-titled Liber Pontificalis, or ‘Book of Pontiffs’ would be a good place to start. This contains biographies of all the Bishops of Rome into the fifteenth century, being added to successively over the years. However, the earliest layer of this series of episcopal biographies dates to the early 500s, so it is not contemporary with Leo, who died in 461. Still, it’s only about 50 years later. That’s not bad, is it? After all, our earliest narrative history of Alexander the Great is Quintus Curtius Rufus, writing over 300 years after the Macedonian conqueror died. But we know that there are lost sources that Curtius would have used, so we do not fear to use it.

As it turns out, though, not all narrative sources are created equal, and whoever wrote the Liber Pontificalis didn’t really know what he was talking about at this stage — since we have other, earlier sources (say, Leo’s letters!), we can judge how well this book tells the story of Leo. And even if some details might be true, others aren’t.

Where do we turn now, then? What can we do to construct our story? We turn to the contemporary sources for the history of fifth-century Rome. None of our surviving Latin sources for this period gives us a tidy narrative like Livy or Tacitus. We have to make it ourselves. For Leo, we turn to a different kind of history-writing, very different from the garbled biography of the Liber Pontificalis and the extensive histories of Ammianus and Gregory of Tours — the chronicle.

Chronicles, in case someone has misled you, are a genre of scientific history writing concerning with chronology. They are brief, annalistic accounts of major events organised by year. Here’s an online translation of the Chronicle of Jerome from 2005; you can also take a look at The Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, The Gallic Chronicle of 452, and The Chronicle of Marius of Avenches, from From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader by Alexander Callander Murray on Scribd. They look non-biased (but they aren’t because nothing is), and different chroniclers have different interests. Some like to tell you about strange stellar phenomena; others will tell you about church councils; some mention great battles; others great heresies; most of them most of these things to one degree or another. The entries, I repeat, are short, and organised chronologically. The genre existed in the ancient Near East, and forms of it in the Graeco-Roman world; its origins have nothing to do with Easter Tables and, in fact, nothing to do with Christianity. Finally, longer narrative histories of the Middle Ages are obviously not chronicles; they are closer to histories such as those by Tacitus and Gregory of Tours.*

For Leo, two such chronicles are important, that by Prosper of Aquitaine, finished in 455, and that of Hydatius, written in 467. Prosper wrote in Gaul, Hydatius in northwestern Spain. From these we are able to piece together a lot of facts and information about Leo’s pontificate and the wider history of the Roman Empire at the time, although both also display a certain amount of local concern. This local concern is helpful, since Hydatius shows us the impact that some of Leo’s anti-Manichaean activities had in Spain, as well as the local context of the letter he wrote to Turribius of Astorga about Priscillianism.

Prosper is especially important because he tells us about Leo’s meeting with Attila in 452 and then his attempt to dissuade Geiseric from sacking Rome in 455. Prosper is very helpful for 455, telling us about Valentinian III’s assassination of the patrician general Aetius, then the assassination of Valentinian, the accession of Petronius Maximus, and then the Vandal sack under Geiseric, during which Petronius was killed (Hydatius says a mob did the deed). Prosper also tells us, in this year, about how the date of Easter was promoted as one date by the tenacious will of Proterius of Alexandria against the proposed date of Leo.

For Attila, we also have the sixth-century historian Jordanes whose Getica, a history of the Goths, deals with Attila in detail. More detailed and more reliable is the Greek historian Priscus, who exists only in fragments, but who went on a delegation from Constantinople to Attila in 449 (if my date is correct). Later sources of Leo meeting Attila turn it into the, stuff of legend, including sword-bearing apostles and the like.

For the Vandal sack, Procopius of Caesarea’s account of the Vandal war of Belisarius is also of help, discussing the loot Geiseric and his men took. For the events of 455, the seventh-century Greek historian John of Antioch is also of assistance.

Besides Attila, Leo is best known for his role in the convening of the Council of Chalcedon and its outcome. This happened in 451, although if we had only Prosper, we’d think it was 453. Besides Leo’s voluminous correspondence surrounding the event, we have the full acts of the council, taken down by stenographers. You can, if you so desire, read a blow-by-blow account of everything that took place, including a lot of shouting and some great awkward silences. Most of the chronicles are very summary about Chalcedon, but Evagrius Scholasticus, c. 593, wrote a fairly extensive account (in case the three-volume version seems a bit much to you).

Unlike Evagrius Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastical History or Procopius or the chroniclers, the acts of Chalcedon are not narrative history but what we call documentary evidence. That is, it was not produced after the fact to tell a story but is an official document produced at the time. Leo’s letters would count as such evidence. The wider fifth-century context of Leo’s papacy is greatly aided by such documentary evidence; Leo’s papacy is directly illumined by two imperial edicts that serve to support Leo’s own rulings in canon law, as well as some other imperial documents concerning the treatment of bishops on the road to Chalcedon, and a letter of Marcian concerning an anti-Chalcedonian monk who tried usurping the episcopate of Jerusalem when Juvenal, Jerusalem’s bishop, voted in favour of Chalcedon’s doctrinal statement.

Although it seems long, these are the genres the ancient historian has to work with, the textual evidence for the deeds of the past. This is the raw material we are given, and then we try to construct logical, coherent accounts of events out of them. One source gives some evidence; how reliable is it? Another source gives other evidence — do we trust it? A third source is corroborated by some archaeology. What about that fourth source that is late but plausible? Taking these things and teasing out the details is what the historian does. And it’s good fun.

*For more, see R. W. Burgess and Michael Kulikowski, Mosaics of Time Vol 1.

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The Letters of Seneca

As part of the grandeur of my PhD, I’m reading a vast swath of Latin letters, as this post and this other post on Cicero’s letters attest, not to mention this brief discussion of a passage from Pliny’s letters. My adventures have taken me as late as St Boniface (d. 754), as far from Rome as Severus of Antioch (who wrote in Greek, not Latin, and is only preserved in Syriac, mind you), and as Carthaginian as St Cyprian. Today, I polished off Selected Letters by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, selected and translated with introduction and notes by the intrepid Elaine Fantham.

My fondness for Professor Fantham stretches back five years when she, in discussing U of T’s Classics department’s new locale, told my MA Latin Poetry class that one could observe the stained glass of bare-breasted women ‘with an Edwardian sensibility.’ Also, one day while discussing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she sagely said, ‘There is nothing better than reading the ancient texts themselves.’ This was my first encounter with her scholarship outside the classroom, and I am impressed.

Fantham’s selection is lucidly and intelligibly translated in a modern yet philosophical idiom. This, combined with the fact that here we have the largest selection of Seneca’s letters yet translated into English, is reason alone to purchase this particular volume. Nevertheless, Prof. Fantham gives the reader a brief introduction to each letter, usually a couple of sentences or a small paragraph that outlines the contents, making the structure clear and thus the text easier to follow. When helpful, these introductions to individual letters give references to secondary literature for those interested in pursuing a matter further, whether a question of philosophy or philology.

Mind you, I was already very pleased with the scholarship by reading the main introduction to the volume. Some scholarly introductions are boring. Others, while helpful and interesting, can be excessively long, such as Dorothy L Sayers’ 67-page introduction to Dante’s Inferno. And sometimes introductions to popular-level translations are not scholarly at all and leave the reader wanting more. Fantham’s is a good length, covers all the necessary bases of history, philosophy, and philology, and is readable. If you are looking for a brief introduction to Seneca and his world, look no further. Elaine Fantham proves herself well-versed in early imperial Roman history, the Latin literature of that period, and the ins and outs of Stoic philosophy and its milieu.

If you were planning on reading Seneca’s letters anyway, this is the translation I would recommend.

But why read Seneca’s letters?

I have to admit that sometimes L Annaeus Seneca talks about death too much. There is really only so much on the subject of the Stoic despisal (is that a word?) of death that a person can stand to read. Nonetheless, this repetition of the theme is part of the collection as a whole. The letters to Lucilius have chosen moral philosophy and personal growth in virtue as their theme. I, personally, believe they represent one end of a real correspondence; yet even if they represent a fictive correspondence in which Lucilius was never a real participant, the form and genre of the letter collection is present.

What this means is that the reader takes the place of Lucilius in receiving Seneca’s epistles, epistles that were (alleged to have been) sent over a period of years, as Lucilius grew in his strength of virtue and knowledge of the Stoic way of life. It is, at a certain level, a programme of training in moral philosophy. And repetition is a key element in the instilling of ideas in the mind, for it helps forge pathways in the brain. This is the background behind the Greek philosophical concept of the maxim, wherein one simply repeats a short, memorable phrase often and in certain situations and that transforms one’s thinking in the direction one wishes.

So Seneca talks about death a lot. This is because the noble death is an important aspect of Stoicism — this is a philosophy that approves of suicide when necessary. Yet it is selfless enough that Stoics will put off their own deaths when they see that dying would put undue strain upon their loved ones. However, when the time comes, Seneca is willing to die at the command of Nero.

But death is not the only Stoic subject at hand. Seneca discusses the liberal arts and literary style, he discusses contentment and luxury and food and sport and exercise and fear and endurance and duty and leisure (otium) and friendship and so forth. Part of what the epistolary form allows Seneca to do is provide shorter discourses on these subjects that a larger treatise does not — although Seneca’s moral essays tend also to be short.

What the letter also allows Seneca to do is shift between subjects at will. Any thought or occasion is opportunity to go off on a philosophical tangent. The tight structure of the essay or logical framing of the dialogue does not as easily allow for this, although Plato’s Symposium makes the different interlocutors opportunities for different subjects — but even they stay on theme to an extent. Seneca can discuss morality and style in the same breath.

Finally, the epistolary genre allows Seneca to begin conversationally and easily weave into the discourse incidental matters and anecdotes. ‘Just the other day I was visiting my old villa …’ and then he goes on to give a philosophical discussion of old age.

Today’s era may not be overfond of moralising, but Seneca does it well. Sometimes the text can be heavy reading, but I did not find myself kicking back against the Stoic too hard for the moralising, although I had a constant, lively engagement with him in my mind. This ‘moralising’ is better termed exhortation, and so I shall close this post with Professor Fantham’s words from the close of her introduction:

We have lost the art of exhortation and, worse, the willingness to learn from exhortation. But at least these letters represent encouragement to good behaviour without the bribe of either human or divine approval; if their power consists in denying the reader easy comfort, they are also fascinating in the variety of their topics and illustrations, and often brilliant in their compelling and immediate personal voice. (p. xxxiv)

PS: This post here is also about Seneca’s letters.

Cicero’s Letters to Atticus

M Tullius Cicero

In my peace and quiet on Saturday, I finished my ten-month journey through D R Shackleton Bailey’s translation of Cicero’s letters to Atticus, published by Penguin Classics (now out of print). Now, it’s not as though the letters to Atticus were all I read in those ten months. I did things like re-read Beowulf and The Hobbit and The Great Gatsby. I read Catullus. I read The Prose Edda and The Saga of the Volsungs.

But Cicero’s letters I dipped in and out of. My copy is from when Penguin still thought pocket books were a good idea, but the era when they were that matte black for spine and back cover — you know, the ones that turn 1/4 white or more by the time you’re done reading the book. Having been carted around about Britain and overseas in my backpack, suitcase, leather shoulder bag, hands, having been read in cafés, parks, libraries, in bed, in my living room, on airplanes, on the bus, this book is not in the greatest shape.

It was inevitable.

Two factors were against the book’s pristine condition, besides the fact that it wasn’t pristine when I got it: 1. The era of Penguin it is; 2. the nature of the collection; I was bound to take a long time reading Cicero.

Cicero’s letters to Atticus are not always the most rivetting material around. I mean, neither are Leo’s letters. So that is as it is. So sometimes the reader just needs a break. Sometimes it’s the sameness of them — ‘I have nothing to write, but I’m writing anyway. Whether you have something to write or not, write anyway.’ That is the most common of them.

Or, because a letter is one half of a conversation carried out over several days and great distances, it can take a very long time for Cicero and Atticus to deal with certain matters. And you never get Atticus’ half.

Nevertheless, I am  glad to have read them. It is no exaggeration that Cicero is one of the two people we know best before the modern era (the other is Francesco Di Marco Datini [1335-1410], the merchant of Prato). The letters to Atticus, unlike some of Cicero’s other missives, are Cicero laid bare. When he writes to Antony, he may say, ‘You are my best friend; to do what you want is not a duty but an honour,’ but when he says that sort of thing to Atticus he means it.

A lot of people find Cicero stuffy. Or they poo-poo him because of his pride over how he dealt with Catiline. Be that as it may, when you read the letters, especially from his exile in 58-57 BC to the end of the Atticus correspondence, you start to see him more fully, more rounded. He’s not simply stuffy. He is a real man, with real emotions and a love for his country. This is visible in the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey, and then in the aftermath of the Ides of March that covers the last period of the book.

Equestrian statue of Augustus looking much like C Julilus Caesar, National Archaeological Museum, AthensI am always struck by Caesar; at a certain level, I kind of like the guy. And sometimes I’ve even believed the lie that the Principate (aka Empire) was inevitable. Cicero’s letters pull the rug out from under these after-the-fact readings of history. He may not have the solution. You may not agree with all of Cicero’s ideals, but that doesn’t mean that Augustus (the first emperor) was a natural, unavoidable phenomenon. Reading Cicero’s letters I found myself siding for the first time with Brutus and Cassius.

You see him early in the collection mentioning letters of consolation. And then, years and years later, his daughter Tullia dies. And he grieves as deeply as I believe many a father has throughout history. He goes into seclusion for a period. He reads all of the philosophers on death and consolation. He plans building Tullia  a shrine. He goes through real grief.

Cicero is a real man. Like him or not, how can you not be moved by grief such as his?

If you are a Classicist or a great enthusiast for Cicero/the Late Republic, I recommend you read the whole of the collection of letters to Atticus. You will find reflections not only on the politics of the era but also on art and literature and philosophy and how to lead the best life. It is worth reading.

If not, I still recommend Cicero’s letters. Penguin subsequently released a Selected Letters, that draws not only from those to Atticus but to others as well, and which is smaller than the collection to Atticus, anyway. Check it out. You may just learn something and come to appreciate one of the great men of history.

Letters as Literature

Pliny the Younger

The idea of writing a post such as this has been floating around in my head for a good, long while now. Letters, epistles, epistolography, are often thought of as ‘sub-literary’ or ‘documentary’ ‘evidence’ for the study of the history of a particular period or person. That is to say, the value of the letter as a piece of writing is to be found in the information which the scholar or other interested party can mine from it.

The implication, on the other hand, that letters are actually literature says that letters are intrinsically interesting of themselves. That is to say, you can read the letters of Cicero or Pliny the Younger of Ambrose of Milan or Leo the Great or Boniface or Abelard and Heloise or Erasmus or J R R Tolkien or C S Lewis for themselves rather than for their content alone.

I am not arguing that letters are not useful documents — from them we learn the tastes and friendships and horrors of individuals as well as, quite frequently, the events of their times. So Cicero’s letters to Atticus of the latter part of 50 BC and through 48 BC provide the student of the conflict between Caesar and Pompey an interesting and informative angle on this highly important Late Republican series of events. Or the letters of Pope Leo the Great from 448 through 455 are important sources for the events leading up to and resulting from the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Nevertheless, what I am saying is that letters are more than simply useful documents. They are interesting documents. Without knowledge of Latin, certain varieties of artistry in the letters of Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61-113) can come to the fore concerning how he constructs his identity or the concerns of what good style and oratory are. The art of philosophy is readily apparent in many of the letters such as those of the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65) or the controversial philosopher-theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142).

If you can read letters in their original tongue, be it Latin or Greek, English or French, you can get a glimpse of their artistry in another manner. For Cicero the orator is not stylistically identical to Cicero the epistolary correspondent. Likewise Leo the Great. Not having read any of the letters of C S Lewis (1898-1963) as an adult, I cannot say for him, but I would be unsurprised if his letters differ from his essays and lectures in terms of style as well.

Furthermore, an investigation of the style of these letter-writers will reveal their use of literary devices, from devices of sound to puns to literary tropes. I, myself, have done an analysis Pope Leo the Great’s Letter 28, the ‘Tome’, and have found it full of rhetorical devices of balance and antithesis, thus mirroring the theological content of the letter.

Of course, my reference to Leo’s ‘Tome’ brings up another issue surrounding the literariness of letters. All letters, whether real ones such as Cicero’s or fictive ones such as C S Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm, are written with a particular audience in view. Many of these, however, including many of Cicero’s, have a wider immediate audience than the ‘intended’ recipient — most famously, the letters of Paul the Apostle (AD 5-67) have found themselves in almost every language on earth in the hands of people living in places the Apostle did not know even existed. Certainly, Paul did not think of the Papuan living in the 21st century when he wrote. Yet he was also undoubtedly thinking beyond the Corinthians of his own day as well.

Thus does Leo write his ‘Tome’ to Flavian of Constantinople yet put enormous rhetorical effort into it, not only in the devices employed but also in the cadence and rhythm of the words, consistently using a prose rhythm known to us best from Ammianus that will last throughout the Middle Ages, but also the prose metre known to us best from Cicero. This consciousness of a wider audience in the letters of people such as Cicero or Pliny or Leo or Erasmus leads to more careful artistry in both the original copy as well as in polished versions presented for publication.

This careful literariness in so many of the famous epistolographers of history should make us pause when we read them, then. How are we to say that this is a less ‘mediated’ version of the character we are reading? Pliny has polished his letters and arranged them to produce a particular vision of himself. Leo has similarly polished his letters and sought to uphold certain values throughout. Who knows what that pope would fear and wonder in the dark nights of Vandal invasions of Rome?

All of this is to say — read some published letters. They run through a range of subjects from oratory to philosophy to poetry to any other piece of literature to art and architecture to theology to politics to daily life to economics. They do so with a certain style that raises them above mere ‘documentary’ evidence for the past.

Recommended Letter Collections (chronologically)

Ancient

M. Tullius Cicero. I would recommend them all, but they are legion, so read D R Shackleton Bailey’s Selected Letters (Penguin Classics) instead. Online: The complete letters in English at the Perseus Project.

L. Annaeus Seneca. A nice sampling of Seneca’s letters is in the Penguin Classic Letters from a Stoic translated and selected by Robin Campbell.

Pliny the Younger. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. Translated by Betty Radice (Penguin Classics). This corpus is short enough that you can read them all; furthermore, there is much to be said for reading an entire collection of letters as its author/editor intended.

Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose’s letters vary greatly in subject matter; therefore, to get a sense of the man, read the selections gathered in the Translated Texts for Historians volume, Political Letters and Speeches as well as the small sampling in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Ambrose volume, available online.

Pope Leo I (the Great). No translation exists of all of Leo’s letters, but the bulk can be found in the NPNF volume, available online, and a somewhat different selection in the volume from The Fathers of the Church, translated by Edmund Hunt.

Medieval

Boniface. I’ve not read all of Boniface’s letters, but I found those I did read to be of interest. There is a recent edition by Ephraim Emerton, and they are also available through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Peter Abelard. There is a Penguin Classic, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated by Betty Radice, where I first met these two star-crossed (and on his part castrated) lovers/monk and nun.

Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch, as a ‘Renaissance’ humanist, takes up many of the perceived ideals of epistolary writing found in Pliny and Cicero. A selection is available through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Modern

C S Lewis. Letters to Children. This I own and enjoyed in my youth.

—. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. This is an interesting series of fictive letters to a correspondent called Malcolm. An interesting project from a literary standpoint.

—. Letters. Walter Hooper has edited all of them, I think; but there must be a ‘selected letters’ out there for the faint of heart!

J R R Tolkien. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: A Selection, ed. Humphrey Carpenter.

—. Letters from Father Christmas. This amazing volume contains letters Tolkien wrote in the person of Father Christmas to his children. It is a delight!

There are, of course, many more bodies of correspondence out there to be discovered. I just know very little about them or have not read them at all, so I am not keen to recommend them. Add your own recommendations in the comments!