The group “Legal Documents in Ancient Societies” was established in 2008 to enhance collaboration among students of everyday documentation in the Ancient Near East, Ancient Egypt, the Greek and Hellenistic states, as well as the Roman and the Islamic world. A key means of achieving this goal is a series of annual meetings, focusing each on a different topic. The first meeting, whose proceedings are now presented, was held at the American Academy in Rome on 28–30.9.2008, and focused on the study of different documentary uses of the letter from the third millennium BCE to late Antiquity.
Letters, then as now, helped to bridge distances, empowering the machinery of ancient empires and connecting distant colleagues, businessmen, family and friends, allowing them to shape and monitor the actions of their representatives abroad or on-site, or simply to convey their everyday concerns to each other. In the societies discussed in the seminar, the scheme of the letter also became an established format for certain legal and administrative acts, even when the parties were not acting at a distance: this is in particular the case with the cheirographon, a letter-format that emerged in the Hellenistic period and eventually became, in the Byzantine period, the default framework for the documentation of legal transactions. The twelve papers presented in this volume pinpoint different uses, and stages in the evolution of the letter as a documentary genre, illustrating its potential as a source for the study of ancient bureaucracy and state, economy and trade, social dynamics and law.