A man who gets few letters does not open one lightly. He hefts it for weight, reads the name of the sender on the envelope and the address, looks at the handwriting, and studies the postmark and the date.
—Steinbeck (East of Eden, p. 486)
I’ve been reading a lot of letters lately; not that the vast circle of my acquaintance (this, I trust you will notice, is intended ironically) has been spurred to take up pens, paper, and postage stamps by these ‘troubled [and troubling] times’ or some private demon. No, no, no—nothing of the sort. Rather, I have been reading collections of letters written on papyrus well more than a millenium ago.
Sarapion to his brothers Ptolemaeus and Apollonius, greeting. If you are well (it would be excellent). I myself am well. I have made a contract with the daughter of Hesperus and intend to marry her in the month of Mesore. Please send me half a chous of oil. I have written to let you know. Goodbye. Year 28, Epeiph 21. Come for the wedding-day, Apollonius. (Addressed: to Ptolemaeus and Apollonius)
—UPZ 66, 154 BCE1
What I like about these letters is precisely their lack of interest. It is the rare letter in which one finds something out of the ordinary; instead, one reads of people going about their daily lives—getting married, having children, arguing with their parents, siblings, spouse, boss, worrying about food, worrying about clothes, the rent on their land, etc., etc. Occasionally, of course, one finds some spark of interest in the letters, one which sheds an unexpected light on the society of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt.
Hilarion to his sister Alis very many greetings, likewise to my lady Berous and Apollonarion. Know that we are still in Alexandria. Do not be anxious; if they really go home, I will remain in Alexandria. I beg and entreat you, take care of the little one, and as soon as we receive our pay I will send it up to you. If by chance you bear a child, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, cast it out. You have said to Aphrodisias ‘Do not forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you not to be anxious. The 29th year of Caesar (Augustus), Pauni 23. (Addressed: Deliver to Alis from Hilarion)
P.Oxy. 744, 1 BCE
There is, though, a moral issue involved in reading these letters. After all, reading other people’s mail is something that ‘is not done’ — not quite taboo (especially now, in the age of e-mail, when friends and family members can, with the possession of a single password, unlock the secrets of one’s correspondence), but close.There’s something more at stake, though, in digging these dead letters out of the sand and attempting to decipher them: the hunger for knowledge overtakes and overwhelms other aspects of human decency or, if that oxymoron displeases, the mos maiorum.
Horus to the most honoured Apion greeting. Regarding Lampon the mouse-catcher, I paid him on your account 8 drachmae as earnest money to catch mice in Toka. You will kindly send me this sum. I have also lent 8 drachmae to Dionysius, president of Nemerae, and he has not sent them back; this is to inform you. Goodbye. Pauni 24.
P.Oxy. 299, first century CE
For we are not content with taking up with trembling hands the papyri found in rubbish dumps or buried in the basements of houses and temples. Our hunger for ‘facts’ goes beyond all this. We are avaracious, ravenous, insatiable when it comes to the desire for information. So tombs are thrown open, the cartonnage stripped from the mummified corpses of crocodiles and people, the plaster-stained papyri scanned with restless eyes—the body thus laid bare a curio, nothing more. We seize the private copies of the Iliad upon which the skull of its owner spent millennia, and are vexed when it crumbles into dust as we grasp it; we snatch from the long-since vanished lips the gold plates inscribed with Orphic hymns—paeans to immortality and life beyond the grave—and feel no qualm in the theft.
That the ‘soul’ of the dead lives on is unlikely; that it should wreak revenge, doubly so. Yet it strikes me as one of the finest ironies, that in trying to decipher the lives of ancient peoples, we should so callously and so willingly go against their last wishes.2 I wonder, too, what it matters if the furnishings and household goods, the weapons and jewelry thus found (assembled, of course, under the name ‘artifact’) are broken up, reused, melted down or sold for profit, or if they end up tucked away in some museum, leagues away from their ‘final resting place.’ Institutionalize any monstrosity, as grave-robbing is, and it becomes socially acceptable.
Aurelius Dius to Aurelius Horion, my sweetest father, many greetings. I make obeisance for you every day before the gods of this place. Now do not be uneasy, father, about my studies; I am working hard and taking relaxation; I shall do finely. I salute my mother Timiea and my sister Tnepherous and my sister Philous, I salute also my brother Patermouthis and my sister Thermouthis, I salute also my brother Heracl[…] and my brother Kollouchis, I salute my father Melanus and my mother Timpesouris and her son. Gaia salutes you all. I pray for your health, father. (Addressed: Deliver to Aurelius Horion from his son Dius)
P.Oxy. 1296, 3rd century CE
And yet without scruple, without regret, I continue to read these letters. It may be, then, that I have the makings of a soulless, bloodless, heartless academic in me;‡ it may be that I have no moral sense, no conscience, no shame. All of these are possible. I continue reading, though, not as a means to an end, but as an end unto itself—for it is not the mouse-catchers, the exposure of female infants, or the sums disputed in financial wranglings which draws me on from word to word, page to page. Not at all. It is the sound of one voice calling to another, the echo of living voices, which catches my attention, much as a shout from the sidewalk will startle me, or raise my curiosity. Having gone through the trouble to unearth these scraps, to steal them away from oblivion, the least we can do is listen.
Listen, that is, not in hopes of discerning the social counterpoint behind the words, but listen as one person should listen to another when they are in the same room; listen with more interest and sympathy than when we ask a bore a question, just to be polite. For we have more than feigned an interest here; we have robbed and plundered and overturned much we claim to hold sacred. We are implicated in our query, and if we do not stay for the answer, we would justly be condemned. Bid the past speak and one cannot expect a Demosthenes, a Cicero, a Pericles at every turn, for the Sarapions, the Dionysioses, the Apollonarions far outnumber those few and eloquent men who shaped the course of history. The voces populi are not much concerned with history, with the riots in Alexandria or the persecutions in Memphis—they want to tend their gardens, see their wives, raise their children, pay their mortgage. Even this general conclusion, though, robs them of the sole possession remaining to them: their individuality.
- Pictures of papyrus letters from the P.Oxy website. [↩]
- Most people (if such an entity exists) would be appalled to think some years hence an enterprising young man should dig up their dead grandmother, snatch up such jewels as she was buried with, wonder at the remnants of the coffin and try to make some sense of it. Yet when Schliemann dressed up his wife Sophia in the gold of ‘Spartan Helen’ he’d unearthed there at Hisarlik, this was merely evidence of eccentricity, not a desecration. [↩]