Ancient and modern

Boris is taking an emperor’s approach to briefings

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

29 February 2020

9:00 AM

The PM is insisting that the briefings he finds in his red box every evening should be, well, brief, and has limited them to four sides of A4. That is three too many. Emperors too had in and out boxes and knew what hard work they could be.

Seleucus, Greek king of Asia, was said to have complained that ‘If people knew what a burden it was reading and writing so many letters, they would not bother to pick up a discarded royal crown’. It was a common gripe of Roman emperors, too, who had a remarkably small secretariat — Julius Caesar famously annoyed the crowd at the games when they saw him answering his correspondence — and were expected to be able to communicate personally with everyone who wrote to them, including ordinary Romans who could not get justice back home.


A friend of the emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote to him saying he had better cultivate his eloquence because his duties included: to instruct the senate; address the people; correct injustices; send letters all around the globe; maintain the pressure on foreign kings; keep provincials in order; praise the good, suppress the seditious and terrify the bloodthirsty. The emperor Julian talked of letters and petitions to which he had to respond ‘travelling round with me everywhere, following me like shadows’.

This is where brevity came in. We are told how the emperor Vespasian started his day: ‘He got up early, even when it was still dark, and read the letters and the official breviaria (“reports”; Latin brevis, “brief”).’ One such report to the emperor Augustus covered everything from finance to troop strength across the empire.

We have other examples in the letters from Pliny, governor of Bithynia (northern Turkey), to Trajan, asking for advice. Most of them are very brief and so too are Trajan’s replies. An exception is Pliny’s long letter to Trajan about his treatment of Christians. It receives a crisp, four-point reply.

It is said that one of the virtues of Latin prose composition is that it trains you to cut through the guff. Perhaps the PM should send out instructions for his breviaria to be written in Latin.

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