On the history of letters:

‘Addressing the symbolic and material functions of letters, this essay shows how a selection of their epistles served as gifts, thus conferring prestige on recipients in a society where social networking was largely defined by a cultural consensus. The sociological notion of cultural capital adopted here refers to the material and symbolic use of epistles as evidence of a person’s training in Greek παιδεία: its style of writing, discourse among powerful associates, and models of governance gleaned from its history and literature. Mastering these lessons qualified individuals as scholars, civic mediators, and patrons in a heritage of leadership stretching back to the pre-Roman era. This preparation did not always yield tangible benefits, but having this resource—especially in conjunction with holding political and economic authority—garnered one respect in a community defined by its accumulated cultural knowledge. A proficiency in παιδεία—as manifested in epistolary exchange—was evidence that one knew the rules of social interaction among elites. Individuals steeped in classical Greek studies held a profit of distinction that brought them immediate legitimacy when they interacted with persons of similar background. Thus, exhibiting this cultural capital facilitated the discourse between bishops and their correspondents.

In the eastern Roman Empire, where social standing often was based on one’s command of ancient Greek literature, individuals educated in the curriculum of παιδεία had been raised on classical Hellenic mores. Although the heritage of hellenismos (“being Greek”) had already come to be equated with “paganism” by the mid-300s, in their discourse with elite eastern Romans the Cappadocians continued to celebrate those aspects of παιδεία that represented “speaking” and “being civilized” in the Greek way. They did remain guarded, however, in proposing this education for Christian laity, who might not have sufficient discernment to dismiss its polytheistic theology and accounts of immoral behavior. One of the more salient ideals within this classical Greek heritage—rooted in the φιλία relationship—involved conferring prestige on an individual with the expectation that the recipient would reciprocate the act of honor. Presenting cultural capital in the form of epistles was not a financial transaction, but rather a reminder of mutual values that could potentially inform one’s policies. Gift exchange, in the form of sending and receiving letters, represented an exercise imbued with emotional and personal connection. To send a letter meant that one was presenting part of oneself. The nature of such a precious gift prompted the recipient to acknowledge its affective meaning and to act in the best interest of the giver. As masters of eloquent words (λόγοι), the Cappadocians asserted their erudition in a social setting based on honor and expectation… The model of ancient Greek gift-giving provided them a means by which publicly to assert the heritage of a pre-Christian Hellenism as a social and political force; it called attention to Christian participation in this practice; and it enabled them to mediate for individuals and communities under their social patronage.

Using exempla from the Iliad and the Odyssey established the writer’s command of the fundamental texts of the Greek literary heritage. And referring to motifs from venerated Attic writers underscored the writer’s affinity with an elite leadership that governed through the power of its words. Παιδεία required learning across a number of disciplines, including art, geography, mythology, and physiognomy, a comprehensive knowledge that distinguished its experts as refined and steeped in Hellenism. This education invited its recipients to display their erudition in multiple forms, ranging from textual references to visual representations on clothing and in material objects. Composing and sending epistles was only one way of signaling membership in this circle. But the epistolary medium was especially relevant because it applied Hellenic allusions and showed their relevance to current social and political circumstances. And it conveyed these sentiments in the form of a gift. The acceptability of the epistle, however, depended on high standards of writing. Not every letter was worthy of sending to a beneficiary.

To acquire gift status, an epistle had to have merit warranting that the recipient would value it and share it. Letters of great distinction were “small objets d’art, carefully articulated, circulated among a select group, collected, copied, and treasured.” Letters of premium quality “had to rise above the ordinary routine of life. There had to be a touch of elegance . . . brief and to the point, but also so fi nely crafted that the recipient would want to show it, rather read it, to his friends.” Individual honor derived from the publicized contents of the epistle, which made the recipient’s acquisition of the letter known to a greater populace, along with its message.

Letters from prominent scholars—set apart by their Hellenic education—would have been made known to the community. An individual’s collection of these written works, particularly if one wanted to appear as an eloquent Greek, enhanced one’s reputation.

…Although all epistles reflecting cultivation were to be valued, a certain gradation can be detected in their content, indicating that certain gifts carried more prestige than others. The number of literary references and their familiarity among scholars, for example, could aff ect the merits of an epistle. Inserting several uncommon classical allusions demonstrated the author’s high level of labor in composing the epistle by singling out distinct references. More obscure passages also indicated the addressee’s deeper knowledge of the ancients, as did couched metaphors, because they would have necessitated an ability to recognize them. An epistle containing a few famous phrases from Homer, for example, might present less status than one that included cryptic sayings from more esoteric sources. The latter would indicate an advanced level of παιδεία for author and addressee. It designated a person as part of a limited group endowed with the precious ability to comprehend the text. Receiving this kind of epistle would have trumpeted one’s comprehensive familiarity with the Greek literary heritage.

By emphasizing ancient Greek themes in their correspondence, the Cappadocian Fathers were reinforcing their access to a program of social and political influence in the east, one that they would not surrender to non-Christians. Through these gifts of eloquence, the bishops were coopting Hellenism, sans its pagan deities, for their own agenda.’

Nathan D. Howard “Gifts Bearing Greekness: Epistles as Cultural Capital in Fourth-Century Cappadocia.”


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