15 November 2013

Social Media And The Romans: What have the Romans ever done for us?

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Click to watch the Life of Brian Video Clip:
“What have the Romans every done for us?”

Social Media And The Romans

It is often easy to assume that social media platforms are a modern phenomenon. But the origin of exchanging of media through social networks and to friends and acquaintances can be found much earlier in human history than the advent of Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter dating back to social media and the Romans!

Arguably the Romans were making use of social media platforms as early as the 1st Century BC. At this time there existed no printing presses and no paper as we would recognise it. Information circulated through the close networks of intermarried families which comprised the Roman elite. This information was circulated through the exchange of printed papyrus rolls. To demonstrate social media and the Romans, the written personal interactions of the Roman statesman and now famous philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero form the largest collection of the most well preserved written letters remaining from this period. These letters chronicle the latest political developments They exchange items of interest from others and providing their own insights and comments where they felt appropriate. What is most interesting about this collection is that it clearly demonstrates that they were writing to each other constantly.

In one example Cicero writes to his friend, “”I sent you on March 24th a copy of Balbus’ letter to me and of Caesar’s letter to him.” Interestingly, these letters were frequently copied, shared and even quoted in later letters. Furthermore, there were letters which were addressed to a number of people. What is perhaps more surprising, however, is the fact that some letters were designed to be read aloud or in public to a gathered audience. An example of this would be when Cicero or one of his contemporaries delivered a particularly rousing speech, they would then make copies which would be distributed among their friends. These friends were encouraged to read this content and once they had finished to pass it on to others to read. Through this method of communication a far greater number of people were then able to gain access to the speech than those who had gathered to hear it in person.

Social media and the Romans Twitter

Books were circulated in the Roman Republic in a similar way. Any reader who wished to keep hold of a personal copy of a book or speech would have it copied by a scribe before passing it on.

With information in such wide circulation in 1st Century BC Rome, information was able to reach the farthest flung corners of the empire in a matter of weeks.

On average news from Rome took approximately five weeks to reach the shores of Britain in the west and seven weeks to reach the easterly province of Syria.

The transmission of this information was greatly helped by merchants, soldier and sailors who were posted in these distant regions. These individuals would transmit news and information from the senate and the capital among their own friendship and professional circles. This information would be in the form of excerpts from speeches, letters or even the state Gazette.

In short this informal system of information transmission between friendship, family and professional circles was a primitive form of social media. It can be all too easy to dismiss the past as technologically and socially primitive, when compared to the technologically driven, globalised world in which we live. However, each time you send a tweet or post on your preferred social media platform, remember that you are merely continuing a tradition of information sharing which can be traced back to the Roman Republic of 2000 years ago. In truth, social media not only binds and links us to those we communicate with today; it is also a continuation of one of the oldest forms of communication in existence. Social media and the Romans, hey something else the Romans did for us!

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