Letter of Condolence



  1. Structure
  2. Format
  3. Layout

This variation of the private letter is relatively rare – there are only 15 examples from the I – VII CE, 9 of which are from the Roman period and none currently extant from the Ptolemaic period. The letter of condolence was sent to express sympathy to another upon the death of a loved one or acquaintance; they refer to the deaths of both adults [41797 III CE, Arsinoite nome] and children [28407 II CE, Oxyrhynchus]. The work of reference for the letter of condolence is [Chapa 1998].


The letters made use of typical phrases of consolation some of which reflected phrases found on contemporary epitaphs, see [Kotsifou 2012 : 395-396], as well as some literary tropes: a letter from a Roman officer to an Alexandrian magistrate on the death of his daughter clearly reflects the education of the author in this respect [30997 III-IV CE, Hermopolis (?)].


Once sympathy had been expressed it was not uncommon for the letters to then move onto more mundane matters, e.g. [17411 235 CE, Oxyrhynchus] where Mnesthianos, after consoling the recipient on the loss of his son, continues with news of the apprehension of men fleeing a liturgy and attaches a relevant document, see [Worp 1995 : 153].


Other letters were dedicated wholly to expressing sympathy e.g. [30997]. A letter of condolence from Eirene [28407] was written to Philo on the death of his child; separately to this, on the same day, Eirene wrote two other letters to Philo concerning their business affairs, thus maintaining a clear distinction between both communications, see [Kotsifou 2012 : 398].



The opening formula is as for [private letters] but sometimes [χαίρειν] is replaced by [εὐψυχεῖν] ‘be of good courage’ [28407 II CE, Oxyrhynchus], or [εὐθυμεῖν] ‘be of good heart’ [17411]; one letter ends the opening formula with [εὖ πράσσειν] ‘be well’, lit.‘be prosperous’ [17952 III CE, Alexandria]. The opening formula can include a [kinship expression] e.g. [30997]; one example has the extension τῇ τιμιωτάτῃ πλεῖστα χαίρειν [41797]. Another letter is more like the opening of a [business note] than a letter of condolence: [28089 II CE] opens with the formula [to name <dat.>][from παρά name <gen.>].


The main text was usually short with standardised phrasing expressing condolence, see [Chapa 1998 : 25-43], and [Kotsifou 2012 : 394-396]; two documents are unusually long [30997 ; 17952].


The closing formula can be [ἐρρῶσθαί σε εὔχομαι] [41797]. There are examples where the opening and closing formulae are mixed: [17952] opens with εὖ πράσσειν ‘be well’ and closes the letter [εὐθυμεῖ] ‘take heart’; [28407] opens with εὐψυχεῖν ‘be of good courage’ and closes [εὖ πράττετε] ‘be well’. Another example [17411] appears more symmetrical in its opening and closing formulae in that one clearly reflects the other: it opens with εὐθυμεῖν and includes the same sentiment in its rather elaborate closing, ἐρρῶσθαί σε εὔχομαι, κύριέ μου, μετὰ κυρίου μου Σπαρτιάτου θεοῖς πᾶσιν εὐθυμοῦντα ‘I pray that you fare well, my lord, with my lord Spartiates be of good heart with all the gods’, all written in the hand of the author. A date is not usually present, but Eirene added a date to the end of her letter to Philo [28407]; the date at the end of [17411] relates to the document appended rather than the letter of condolence.



The surviving letters are mostly in pagina format with horizontal fibres; one is squarish [28407] (H. 7.9 x W. 7.6).



The layout is usually careful, e.g. [28407; 30997; 17411]. The letter to the Alexandrian magistrate [30997] is probably unfinished: there is no closing greeting and the document may have continued to a second column, see [Rea 1986 : 78, 20-21n.]. There is no closing formula at the end of [28089] even though there is a large enough space to accommodate one. The closing formula for the condolences of [17411], written by the author, is tightly squeezed between the letter and the document enclosed.


How to Cite

Ferretti, L., Fogarty, S., Nury, E., Schubert, P. Description of Greek Documentary Papyri: Letter of Condolence. grammateus project. DOI: 10.26037/yareta:qgx7o7andraaff4bctcpr7elo4