Cicero on Letter Carriers

In my pre-bed time reading, I’m working through the letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Came across this interesting statement about letter carriers:

In these letters, indeed, I am urgently pressed by you to send answers, but what renders me rather dilatory in this respect the difficulty of finding a trustworthy carrier. How few of these gentry are able to convey a letter rather weightier than usual without lightening it by skimming its contents! (Letter XVIII).

This would suggest that some letter carriers were not just Roman fedex delivery boys, but were responsible for reading the letters on delivery. Interesting implications for the role of Phoebe in Romans and Tychicus in Colossae!

  • Helenmarplehorvat

    You are the sunshine of my life !!LOL

    My daughter is a Phoebe.

  • Peter Head

    Mike, nothing in that comment suggests your conclusion that Ciceronian letter carriers “were responsible for reading the letters on delivery”. That does not follow.

  • Joel Haas

    Yes it does, Peter. Why would Cicero be worried that letter carriers are skimming his letters if ‘conveying’ them does not mean ‘reading them upon delivery?’ Why would he care what happens during their pleasure-reading?

    Or do you take this to mean that the letters were physically too heavy and the letter carrier is snipping parts out of the weightier letters to make it easier to carry? That seems the only other possible option…

  • Peter Head

    Ah. No that is not what Cicero meant. His primary issue is confidentiality, not skim reading at the destination. ‘Convey a letter’ means simply deliver the letter to its recipient. The reference to lightening the letter is a humorous figure of speech referring to reading the letter. Later in this same letter (Att. I 13) he refers to the risk that a letter might be lost, opened or intercepted. He adds, ‘I dare not intrust a letter on such weighty matters to such a casual nobody’s son as this messenger.’

  • Cory Taylor

    For anyone reading the comments who reads Latin, here’s the text of the phrase in question from Mike’s post, followed by another translation:

    Quotus enim quisque est qui epistulam paulo graviorem ferre possit nisi eam pellectione relevarit?

    “There are very few who can carry a letter of weight without lightening it by perusal.”

    Cicero’s point seems to be that he cannot find a messenger who is trustworthy enough to resist opening and reading an important letter before he/she arrives to the recipient. Thus, it seems, Peter is correct.

    As an interesting sidebar, pellectio seems only to appear here. Also, at least according to one commentator, “lightening” the letter refers to removing money that was inside it, but that seems farfetched to me.

  • Mike Bird

    Peter and Cory, granted that confidentiality is foremost, still, what then is “skimming its contents”?

  • Peter Head

    I don’t recall any incident where Cicero refers to including money inside a letter. I don’t think that is relevant here. He is worried that the letter carrier might read a fullsome and confidential letter. In fact he is so concerned by this possibility that he won’t actually write the letter he would like to write (which would have included full answers to Atticus’ questions). So it is an interesting situation where the presence/absence of a letter carrier impacts the composition and the contents of the letter. Lacking a trust-worthy letter carrier Cicero has to write a shorter, less detailed letter. The implication, in this situation, would be that Cicero did not want such a letter carrier to do any more than simply deliver the letter.

    Cicero has another delivery problem which he mentions here and in some other letters of the period, that he is not sure where Atticus is, so can’t give detailed instructions to a letter carrier.


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