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Chapter 2: Transmission of Letters in the First Century

While writing springs from a natural feeling of the human mind and must have originated at a very remote period, and while letters must be almost as old as travelling, the proper development of epistolary correspondence depends on improvement in the method and the certainty of transmission. The desire to write a letter grows weaker, when it is uncertain whether the letter will reach its destination and whether others may open and read it. In the first century this condition was fulfilled better than ever before. It was then easier and safer to send letters than it had been in earlier time. The civilised world, i.e. the Roman world, was traversed constantly by messengers of government or by the letter-carriers of the great financial and trading companies. Commercial undertakings on such a vast scale as the Roman needed frequent and regular communication between the central offices in Rome and the agents in the various provinces. There was no general postal service; but each trading company had its own staff of letter-carriers. Private persons who had not letter-carriers of their own were often able to send letters along with those business communications.

In the early Roman Empire travelling, though not rapid, was performed with an ease and certainty which were quite remarkable. The provision for travelling by sea and by land was made on a great scale. Travellers were going about in great numbers, chiefly during the summer months, occasionally even during the winter season. Their purposes were varied, not merely commerce or government business, but also education, curiosity, search for employment in many departments of life. It is true that to judge from some expressions used in Roman literature by men of letters and moralists, travelling might seem not to have been popular. Those writers occasionally speak as if travelling, especially by sea, were confined to traders who risked their life to make money, and as if the dangers were so great that none but the reckless and greedy would incur them; and the opinion is often expressed, especially by poets, that to adventure oneself on the sea is an impious and unnatural act. The well-known words of Horace’s third Ode are typical:—

Oak and brass of triple fold

Encompassed sure that heart, which first made bold

To the raging sea to trust

A fragile bark, nor feared the Afric gust;

Heaven’s high providence in vain

Has severed countries with the estranging main,

If our vessels ne’ertheless

With reckless plunge that sacred bar transgress

But that point of view was traditional among the poets; it had been handed down from the time when travelling was much more dangerous and difficult, when ships were small in size and fewer in numbers, when seamanship and method were inferior, when few roads had been built, and travel even by land was uncertain. Moreover, seafaring and land travel were hostile to the contentment, discipline, and quiet orderly spirit which Greek poetry and philosophy, as a rule, loved to dwell on and to recommend: they tended to encourage the spirit of self-confidence, self-assertiveness, daring and rebellion against authority, which was called by Euripides “the sailors’ lawlessness” (Hecuba, 602). In Roman literature the Greek models and the Greek sentiments were looked up to as sacred and final; and those words of the Roman writers were a proof of their bondage to their Greek masters in thought.

When we look deeper, we find that very different views were expressed by the writers who came more in contact with the real facts of the Imperial world. They are full of admiration of the Imperial peace and its fruits: the sea was covered with ships interchanging the products of different regions of the earth, wealth was vastly increased, comfort and well-being improved, hill and valley covered with the dwellings of a growing population: wars and pirates and robbers had been put an end to, travel was free and safe, all men could journey where they wished, the most remote and lonely countries were opened up by roads and bridges. It is the simple truth that travelling, whether for business or for pleasure, was contemplated and performed under the Empire with an indifference, confidence, and, above all, certainty, which were unknown in after centuries until the introduction of steamers and the consequent increase in ease and sureness of communication.

This ease and frequency of communication under the Roman Empire was merely the culmination of a process that had long been going on. Here, as in many other departments of life, the Romans took up and improved the heritage of Greece. Migration and intermixture of peoples had been the natural law of the Greek world from time immemorial; and the process was immensely stimulated in the fourth century B.C. by the conquests of Alexander the Great, which opened up the East and gave free scope to adventure and trade. In the following centuries there was abundant opportunity for travelling during the fine season of the year. The powerful Monarchies and States of the Greek world keep the sea safe; and during the third century B.C., as has been said by Canon Hicks, a scholar who has studied that period with special care, “there must have been daily communication between Cos (on the west of Asia Minor) and Alexandria” (in Egypt).

When the weakness of the Senatorial administration at Rome allowed the pirates to increase and navigation too become unsafe between 79 and 67 B.C., the life of the civilised world was paralysed; and the success of Pompey in re-opening the sea was felt as the restoration of vitality and civilisation, for civilised life was impossible so long as the sea was an untraversable barrier between the countries instead of a pathway to unite them.

Thus the deep-seated bent of human nature towards letter-writing had been stimulated and cultivated by many centuries of increasing opportunity, until it became a settled habit and in some cases, as we see it in Cicero, almost a passion.

The impression given by the early Christian writings is in perfect agreement with the language of those writers who spoke from actual contact with the life of the time, and did not merely imitate older methods and utter afresh old sentiments. Probably the feature in those Christian writings, which causes most surprise at first to the traveller familiar with those countries in modern time, is the easy confidence with which extensive plans of travel were formed and announced and executed by the early Christians.

In Acts 16:1ff a journey by land and sea through parts of Syria, Cilicia, a corner of Cappadocia, Lycaonia, Phrygia, Mysia, the Troad, Thrace, Macedonia, and Greece is described, and no suggestion is made that this long journey was anything unusual, except that the heightened tone of the narrative in 16:7-9 corresponds to the perplexingly rapid changes of scene and successive frustrations of St. Paul’s intentions. But those who are most intimately acquainted with those countries know best how serious an undertaking it would be at the present time to repeat that journey, how many accidents might occur in it, and how much care and thought would be advisable before one entered on so extensive a programme.

Again, in 18:21 St. Paul touched at Ephesus in the ordinary course of the pilgrim-ship which was conveying him and many other Jews to Jerusalem for the Passover. When he was asked to remain, he excused himself, but promised to return as he came back from Jerusalem by a long land-journey through Syria, Cilicia, Lycaonia, and Phrygia. That extensive journey seems to be regarded by speaker and hearers as quite an ordinary excursions. “I must by all means keep this feast that cometh in Jerusalem; but I will again return unto you, if God will.” The last condition is added, not as indicating uncertainty, but in the usual spirit of Eastern religion, which forbids a resolve about the future, however simple and easy, to be declared without the express recognition of Divine approval—like the Mohammedan “inshallah,” which never fails when the most ordinary resolution about the morrow is stated.

In Romans 15:24, when writing from Corinth, St. Paul sketches out a comprehensive plan. He is eager to see Rome: first he must go to Jerusalem, but thereafter he is bent on visiting Spain, and his course will naturally lead him through Rome, so that he will, without intruding himself on them, have the opportunity of seeing the Romans and affecting their Church on his way.

Throughout medieval times nothing like this off-hand way of sketching out extensive plans was natural or intelligible; there were then, indeed, many great travellers, but those travellers knew how uncertain their journeys were; they were aware that any plans would be frequently liable to interruption, and that nothing could be calculated on as reasonably certain; they entered on long journeys, but regarded them as open to modification or even frustration; in indicating their plans they knew that they would be regarded by others as attempting something great and strange. But St. Paul’s method and language seem to show clearly that such journeys as he contemplated were looked on as quite natural and usual by those to whom he spoke or wrote. He could go off from Greece or Macedonia to Palestine, and reckoned with practical certainty on being in Jerusalem in time for a feast day not far distant.

It is the same with others: Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos, Silas, Epaphroditus, Timothy, etc., move back and forward, and are now found in one city, now in another far distant. Unobservant of this characteristic, some writers have argued that Romans 16:3 could not have been addressed to correspondents who lived in Rome, because Aquila and Priscilla, who were in Ephesus not long before the Epistle was written, are there spoken of as living among those correspondents. Such an argument could not be used by people who had fully understood that independence of mere local trammels and connections, and quite a marvellous freedom in locomotion, are a strongly marked feature of the early Church. That argument is one of the smallest errors into which this false prepossession has led may scholars.

Communication by letter supplemented mere travelling. Such communication is the greatest factor in the developing of the Church; it kept alive the interest of the Christian congregations in one another, and strengthened their mutual affection by giving frequent opportunity of expressing it; it prevented the strenuous activity of the widely scattered local Churches from being concentrated on purely local matters and so degenerating into absorption in their own immediate surroundings. Thus it bound together all the Provincial Churches in the one Universal Church. The Christian letters contained the saving power of the Church; and in its epistolary correspondence flowed its life-blood. The present writer has elsewhere attempted to show that the early Bishops derived their importance in great degree from their position as representatives of the several congregations in their relations with one another, charged with the duty of hospitality to travellers and the maintenance of correspondence, since through this position they became the guardians of the unity of the Universal Church and the channels through which its life-blood flowed.

The one condition which was needed to develop epistolary correspondence to a very much greater extent in the Roman Empire was a regular postal service. It seems a remarkable fact that the Roman Imperial government, keenly desirous as it was of encouraging and strengthening the common feeling and bond of unity between different parts of the Empire, never seems to have thought of establishing a general postal service within its dominions. Augustus established an Imperial service, which was maintained throughout subsequent Roman times; but it was strictly confined to Imperial and official business, and was little more than a system of special Emperor’s messengers on a great scale. The consequence of this defect was that every great organisation or trading company had to create a special postal service for itself; and private correspondents, if not wealthy enough to send their own slaves as letter-carriers, had to trust to accidental opportunities for transmitting their letters.

The failure of the Imperial government to recognise how much its own aims and schemes would have been aided by facilitating communication through the Empire was connected with one of the greatest defects of the Imperial administration. It never learned that the strength and permanence of a nation and of its government are dependent on the education and character of the people: it never attempted to educate the people, but only to feed and amuse them. The Christian Church, which gradually established itself as a rival organisation, did by its own efforts what the Imperial government aimed at doing for the nation, and succeeded better, because it taught people to think for themselves, to govern themselves, and to maintain their own union by their own exertions. It seized those two great facts of the Roman world, travelling and letter-writing, and turned them to its own purposes. The former, on its purely material side, it could only accept: the latter it developed to new forms as an ideal and spiritual instrument.

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