Latin Letter-Writing

Latin 409
Spring 1998
Thursday, 1:30-4:00
Logan 203
J.J. O'Donnell
Office:  3401 Walnut, Suite 230A
Phone:  417-5024

Letters are a transparent, easily understood genre of literature: we all know how to read and write them.  For this reason, we should be suspicious of them.  The goals of the course are these:

  • to learn to think hard about a literary genre,
  • to historicize the study of that genre,
  • and to come away with enhanced habits of reading, particularly habits of reading Latin.
  • Tasks:
    Cicero, Petrarch and Hooper/Schwartz (see below) are available on order for this course at the University bookstore
    Classroom exercises:

    We will spend our time in class in several ways:  discussing required readings, working in small teams on unseen texts and discussing the results, and presenting orally the results of individual investigations leading to preparation of web-based projects.  An e-mail list will be maintained through the course for supplementary discussion, course management, etc. The course projects are posted here.


    When you begin to read a letter, here is a template of questions to pose for it and yourself.

    A few letters of Pliny

    The first Latin grammarian to theorize letter-writing was apparently Julius Victor in the fourth century CE.

    Web-based projects:

    There will be further discussion in class on the nature of these projects and some tailor-making to accommodate to level of preparation and other interests.  For the moment I will supply two lists of authors, antiquiores and recentiores.  The moderns provide comparanda for the study of letter-writing and you will do some reading and reporting from among them by the middle of the term, to broaden our overall discussion and to prepare you for the closer study of some ancient author.  The lists are suggestive, not exclusive:  in other words, you will be encouraged to find an author to make your own; all authors here are welcome, but many others would be as well.  These are recommended.  (See Hooper/Schwartz, Roman Letters:  History from a Personal Point of View:  This is strongly recommended as source of background, context, secondary literature, and project ideas.  That said, there is no satisfactory book on Latin Letter-Writing and the topic of the textual status of "letters" is seriously under-attended in all literatures known to me.)


    Horace Madame de Sévigné
    Ovid, Heroides/Tristia/Ex Ponto Pascal, Provincials
    Seneca the Younger Nabokov-Wilson
    Pliny the Younger Mary Wortley-Montagu
    Vindolanda (and other papyri etc.) Lord Chesterfield
    Fronto Medieval and modern manuals of letter-writing
    Symmachus Richardson, Clarissa
    Jerome Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
    Augustine Horace Walpole
    Sidonius Apollinaris Letters of Junius
    Ennodius Queen Victoria 
    Cassiodorus Epistulae Obscurorum Virorum
    Gregory the Great Erasmus

    I have deliberately left aside Greek letter-writers of the Hellenistic and Roman worlds, but would entertain proposals to devote projects to them as well. See Hooper/Schwartz for some suggestions, not to forget the earliest Christian letter-writers (Paul, etc.).


    From medieval to modern times, people have written and published manuals for proper letter-writing. Why bother? To enter that topic, see Roger Chartier et al., Correspondence: models of letter-writing from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century (1997).

    What we take for granted in epistolary correspondence involves a huge infrastructure, both physical and social, that gets tiny pieces of flimsy property from one location to another quickly and reliably. To see this modern system in the making, see G.E. Hargest, History of letter post communication between the United States and Europe, 1845-1875 (1971).

    Internet links

    Diotima: Materials for the Study of Women and Gender in the Ancient World, including in the very helpful on-line anthology "De feminis Romanis" both Pliny 3.1.6 (to Arria) and 7.5 (to his wife: very short).

    Pliny made easy

    The Duke Papyrus Archive: images and information about literary and documentary papyri, including many private and business letters (all or almost all in Greek).

    If you have comments or suggestions, email me at