A Roman Letter of Recommendation

P.Ryl. 608 © The John Rylands Library

P.Ryl. 608 verso © The John Rylands Library

A letter of recommendation written in Latin, P.Ryl. 608, found its way into the exhibition since it is luckily glazed with the Latin contract of marriage P.Ryl. 612 (see Getting married in a multicultural society).

It was common in the Roman world to recommend friends or acquaintances in many occasions and for different reasons, a job, a deal or just because of travelling. Our letter was written for recommending an imperial slave, whose name is lost in a lacuna, to a Roman imperial procurator, Tiberius Claudius Hermeros.

…ius Celer to his Hermeros, greetings.

Allow me, sir, to commend to your notice …on, a slave of our lord the emperor, a member of my household and dear to me. He is most deserving of advancement and of your favour, and I do not disguise that any service you can render him in his career will be most welcome to me.

Farewell

(Address on the verso)

To Tiberius Claudius Hermeros imperial procurator

Given in Panopolis by Celer the architect

The Latin text is available through papyri.info.

The letter has received the attention of many scholars. The handwriting has been defined as an example of a standard type of script in use in the Roman Empire at the end of the 1st and beginning of the 2nd century AD, and has been compared to those of some texts coming from other parts of the Empire, first of all the Roman fort of Vindolanda on the Hadrian wall. This confirms the view that Egypt was part of a wider world, and what we observe happening there is not confined to the life of that province, but give insights in the history and culture of the Roman Empire as whole. An elegant hand penned the letter with words separated by points, as it happened also in inscriptions, and marking some long syllables with accents. The Latin is elegant although at some extent formulaic, but this is connected with the nature of the text.  The same hand has written some scribbles that we are unable to restore in the left margin of the letter.

The addressee was a very high status Roman citizen, a Tiberius Claudius Hermeros, imperial procurator (a Roman knight with administrative, financial duties in the provinces, appointed by the emperor), and the writer belonged to the Roman elite as well. The name is only partially preserved at the beginning: ‘…ius Celer’, but the address on the verso says his profession, that of architect. A hypothetical identification with the homonymous architect of Nero’s domus aurea has been proposed, but as a matter of fact we cannot be sure about the identity of any of the two correspondents.

If you want to know more about Roman letters of recommendation you can read H. Cotton, Documentary Letters of Recommendation in Latin from the Roman Empire (1981). Examples of this kind of letters came to us through the epistolary of many ancient authors from Cicero, to Pliny, and the late antique collections of Symmachus and Gregory the Great. Paul’s letter to Philemon in the New Testament could be read as a letter of recommendation, since in it the apostle recommends the man to forgive the slave Onesimos.

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Writing letters

Letters are certainly among the most fascinating documents we have from Roman Egypt. A section of Faces&Voices presents some samples from our collection, you can read the texts in translation in Keeping in touch: Writing letters.

You’ll discover that people were writing letters for reasons very similar to us: for getting in touch with family and friends, for pleasure, for work and so forth. Some letters look like our postcards, just greetings, while others are longer reports of events and facts.

We find women writing too. A piece I would have liked to include in the exhibition if I had more space is P.Ryl. 243, sent by two women, Demarion and Irene, to Syros, probably their steward.

P. Ryl. 243 © The John Rylands Library

Demarion and Irene to their dearest Syrus, many greetings.

We know that you are distressed about the lack of water; this has happened not only to us but also to many others, and we know that nothing has happened for your fault. Even now we know your zeal and that you attend to the work of the allotment, and we hope that with god’s help the field is sown. Put down to our account everything you expend on the cultivation of the allotment. Receive from Ninnarus for Irene’s account the share belonging to her, and similarly from Hatres for Demarion’s account the share belonging to her. We pray for your health.

(Address on the back): To Syrus from Irene and Demarion.

We don’t know where the letter was found and the dating to the second century AD is based on paleaography.

The tone is kind and reassuring. The letter shows that the women, possibly two sisters or members of the same family, were involved in the management of their land and the accountancy. The handwriting of the letter is that of a professional scribe, we may imagine that a slave or an employee wrote for them.

Papyri give insights on women lives and activities rarely attested in other sources. I recommend two books on this topic, J. Rowlandson (ed.), Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt. A Sourcebook, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998 and R.S. Bagnall & R. Cribiore, Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt 300 BC-AD 800, Ann Arbor: The Michigan University Press 2006.