Justus Lipsius distinguished himself as a student of the classics, first at the Jesuit college at Cologne and then at the university in Leuven (Louvain). In 1569, soon after completing his studies, he published a precocious volume of Varia Lectiones, a collection of philological observations on classical texts. This initial work had significant and lasting effects on his career, the most immediate being an appointment as Latin secretary to Cardinal Granvelle, chief minister of Philip II in the Low Countries, who took the young man to Rome, where he was introduced to international power politics as well as to the treasures of Italian libraries, including the Vatican’s. After two years in Rome, Lipsius began his uneasy roaming, traveling from Vienna to Jena to Cologne, serving in a variety of posts. In 1579, he accepted a position at Leiden University in Holland, where he found a haven from his home province for nearly thirteen years. It was there that he delivered the lectures on letter-writing that later became Epistolica Institutio. In 1591, when Leiden University became too stridently Calvinist for Lipsius, he returned to Leuven as professor of Latin and was once again reconciled with the Catholic Church. There he remained for the rest of his life, resisting numerous appeals from foreign courts and especially from Italian churchmen.
As a particularly suitable commentator on the letter, Lipsius, like so many humanist scholars, was a prolific correspondent and published many of his own letters. In the manner typical of his age, he used the published letter as a kind of forerunner to the scholarly article. Yet his chief distinction as an epistolary theorist lies in his view of the letter as a means of personal expression. His purpose was to recover the classical Roman view of the letter as written conversation, a conception lost during the Middle Ages and only imperfectly restored during the earlier Renaissance. Hence, the Epistolica Institutio assumes an important position in the Lipsius canon: as an effort to restore the authentic features of the classical genre, it bespeaks the humanist scholar; in marking out a space for individual self-definition during a period of increasingly powerful and alienating social and religious pressures, it anticipates the ideological preoccupations of the contemporary world.