...on the letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero: proto-social networking or not? Part I

Strangely – to me anyway! – comparisons between letter writing in Roman antiquity and modern-day digital social networking have been drawn by scholars. It has even been asserted that social networking can trace its origins to ancient times. Whether social networking is a credible means of circulating modern news is irrelevant, as it is an oft-used tool today. I have examined scholarship which has designated Cicero's letters as proto-social media, and the position that letter-writing in Roman antiquity was a type of social networking does not stand up under my analyses and comparisons.


Cicero may have composed letters with the same ease as he would have spoken; however there were specific tasks assigned to the act of letter-writing (Poster, 2002, pp. 16-18), which appear to contradict the assertion of ease. In fact, one must contextualise the act of letter-writing, which in Roman antiquity, was an easy and routine task on account of the myriad individuals assigned to it, and this was commonplace at the time. Whilst it is tempting to draw similarities with Pliny and his self-promotion and aggrandising (Peachin, 2001, p. 129), there are crucial discrepancies between the behaviours of Pliny or Cicero and users of social media. Indeed, the motivations fluctuate greatly, and there were numerous letter genres employed in Roman antiquity, and by Cicero in particular. The question of applying staff to assist in letter-writing is essential, as Cicero, for example, relied on Tiro (who stands out to this day as a pioneer of dictation) for a large proportion of his correspondence.



The authors and other participants of ancient and modern social networking: Cicero


Cicero’s ease of interaction (Standage, 2013, p. 23) is confirmed by letters to Atticus, which spanned the period of November 68 BCE to late 44 BCE (Williams, 2012, pp. 218-219); gaps are present only when the two were in personal contact; and these were especially recurrent over a fixed time period (for example; Att. I 18 written in January 60, Att. I 19 written in March 60, Att. I 20 written in May 60 and Att. II 1 written in June 60) (Walsh, 2008, pp. 33-45): a reflection of the ease with which letters were disseminated.


Wealthy Romans dictated letters to scribes or slaves, Copyists were charged with reproducing official documents; for example, legal documents, and this function was also carried out by slaves, Tachygraphers were charged with taking dictation verbatim. Cicero’s Secretary, Tiro, developed a form of shorthand to aid in this task (Poster, 2002, pp. 18). Letter Delivers were both Messengers, who conducted the letters and Lectors, who read these to the intended recipient.


The purposes and means of letter writing versus social networking


The writings of Cicero fall under the category of epideictic, as in his letters, Cicero was wont to extol and shame actions in equal measure; however, letters categorised thus were pigeon-holed into this catch-all class, which included any letter not addressing legal rhetoric. Letters were similarly apportioned into praise and blame (Stowers, 1989, pp. 51-52) and those of Cicero may be defined as being one or the other, which further validates their worth. Awareness of the impetus for writing letters is integral to identifying any similarities with social networking. The fact that the benefit of hindsight permits assignment of aspects of ancient epistolography to characteristics of social networking does not insinuate that Cicero's and Pliny's letters necessarily fall under the umbrella of social networking, nor does it diminish their value with regard to noteworthy events, people or ideologies.


Expediency, incentive and impact on information-sharing


Social networking is a modern phenomenon and, as such, is also defined by the speed at which information is shared. Letters in ancient Rome, travelling by land, were not as expeditious, and letters conveyed outside of Rome moved even more slowly.  Cicero did not intend his letters for as wide a circulation as Pliny, who dictated instructions for their publication at a later date (Walsh, 2006, p. xxxiii). There is scholarly observation (White, 2010, p. 6), and indeed, evidence within the letters, that Cicero wrote for specific purposes and did not engage in "small talk," nor did he discuss his health or family or other friends unless they were the subjects of the letters. Cicero wrote for specific a purpose: to communicate, and this intention is fundamentally dissimilar to those of Pliny, and the tens of tens of millions of social networking participants. The theory of epistolary types requires that a letter must conform to the author's particular situation (Stowers, 1989, p. 53), which entailed, among other things, the particular occasion for writing. In a letter to Cicero from Trebonius, (Fam. 12.16) (White, 2010, pp. 7-9), the latter appears to be rhapsodising about the former’s son; however, this is an example of an oft-used device employed to extol the friendship the writer enjoyed with the recipient. Additionally, Trebonius enclosed a verse, which was the second impetus: he wished to promote his own writing to Cicero so that Cicero would use it in his own work (White, 2010, p. 9). Trebonius’ latter action may be closely compared to social networking and self-promotion as a means to an end: as since the letter was written after Caesar's assassination, Trebonius sought to ally himself with Cicero. Cicero wrote letters of recommendation; perhaps Trebonius sought to be a beneficiary?


Though identifying similarities between Cicero and users of social media, the position of equivalence is not supported by scrutiny. And as such, the stance that letter-writing in Roman antiquity was a type of social networking does not stand up under analysis and comparison. Recognition of both ease of communication for Cicero and tasks involved has allowed a deeper perception of the act of writing letters. Pliny’s letters share both similarities and differences with Ciceronian texts; though, differences in the behaviours of Cicero and users of social media have been identified in this context, and there exist vast differences between letter-writing in Roman antiquity and modern-day social networking.


Ancient source texts


Walsh, P.G. (trans.) (2008) Cicero: Selected Letters, Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Modern scholarship


Peachin, Michael (2001) Aspects of Friendship in the Greco-Roman World (DuBois, L: The political significance of friendship in the letters of Pliny the Younger) Ann Arbor, MI, Cushing-Malloy


Poster, Carol (2002) The Economy of Letter Writing in Graeco-Roman Antiquity: Rhetorical Arguments in Biblical Texts; Notes from the Lund 2000 Conference, Ed. Tom Obbricht, Walter Ubelacker and Andreas Ericksson, Harrisburg, PA, Trinity Press International.


Standage, Tom (2013) Writing on the Wall: Social Media -- the First 2,000 Years, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.


Stowers Stanley (2004) Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Philadelphia, Westminster Press.


White, Peter, (2010) Cicero in Letters: Epistolary Relations of the Late Republic, Oxford University Press, New York.


Williams, Craig A. (2012) Reading Roman Friendship, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


Thomas Sutrina Added Sep 11, 2017 - 8:29am
Great article, as an engineer this is not an area I studied.   What is not present is almost as important that what is.  First of all we have at least a portion of the population that is literate and wealth is not the only separation, slaves worked as secretaries.   Captive wealth from other lands is possible but they would be using a different language before capture.  
Do we expect to see social media kept centuries from now?  Examples yes but most will be lost, and the examples will be no from average writers but from those gifted.  This is what we find from history.  Even the writings of solders on the battle fields are selected very carefully.  The collectors want their words read so pick and choose.  
The majority of social media that will be kepts will be from those that stand out in other areas and they will be gifted writers.  They will being gifted put a lot of information into few words and the mean of those words will stand for centuries.  
The rest of us will have to store our own writing some how if it is to survive.  Put in in jars dig a hole and bury it.   And 1% of those jars may get found undamaged.
Leroy Added Sep 11, 2017 - 9:00am
Interesting article.  To answer the question, perhaps we need a definition of Social Networking.  Merriam-Webster defines it:
the creation and maintenance of personal and business relationships especially online
Was he trying to create or maintain personal or business relationships?  I think not.  He had something to say and wanted his voice to be heard.  He wanted to influence.  Facebook allows you to see what your family, friends, and colleagues are up to and the show them what you have been doing.  It is superficial.  Expressing your opinions can be dangerous to your relationships.  It is not conducive to serious dialog.  I don't think anyone has ever been influenced in a positive way on Facebook.  LinkedIn is more professional.  The idea is to get to know people who might further your career.  I don't think that was the purpose of his writing, but I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to state that as a fact.
His primary purpose was, I think, to communicate his ideas.  Social media is not the place to do that.  How about WB?  I could see him using such a site if he were alive today to test his ideas.  Is WB social networking?  I say it doesn't quite meet the definition above.  If I were required to give over my social media accounts, I would not think to include WB.
Dino Manalis Added Sep 11, 2017 - 9:11am
Ancient scholars knew they couldn't communicate with the entire society, that's a modern-day phenomenon, they sought to spread their ideas merely to a group of individuals at the time.
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 11, 2017 - 12:22pm
TS -- you make an excellent point about literacy, which was a contributory factor. I am panning a part II and a part III, which will include research done in this area, and also the Roman networks.

L -- you are quite correct. Cicero was also an expert navigator of the Roman patronage system, and many of his letters speak to this aim. But, social networking? Naaaaah!

DM -- nicely said!

DY, my friend -- I hope your friend is alright and that you have a nice visit. You have such an impressive breadth of knowledge of Native American culture and I would be most interested to learn more from you about their methods of communication. Especially as their oppression was likely to result in their becoming nomadic to a large degree.
Ian Thorpe Added Sep 11, 2017 - 12:31pm
I now have visions of Cicero tweeting (on a wax tablet) something like this:
@JoolsBigJCaesar. Great to see #IamSpartacus sticking it to that clown Crassus LOL
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 11, 2017 - 12:35pm
IT -- cackle!  Although I don't connect him wish social networking, that image shall now follow me as well!
opher goodwin Added Sep 11, 2017 - 6:41pm
Letter writing is a great art. I used to write lots. I still have a big batch of love letters. It's not the same with emails - they are too disposable.
Autumn Cote Added Sep 12, 2017 - 12:30am
Whoever said social networking had to be an online endeavor?  No matter the era, one has a social network that they often wish was larger than it currently is.  The difference between then and now, is the sheer quantity of connections one can have.  However, with higher quantity, probably comes a lot less quality. 
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 12, 2017 - 8:09am
OG -- I agree; and more care is given to letters than emails, which, you rightly point out, are disposable.  So much so that even at work, people do not bother to even spell check or take any care...
AC -- very true and what you say about wishing for a larger circle was definitely true to the younger Pliny!!; however, the research I undertook was based on the statement that Cicero was a progenitor of digital social networking.  Palpably, I vehemently disagreed!  Cicero's communication, when not intimate letters to friends or family, had a purpose: patronage.  And unlike what we see on sites such as Facebook, he won't have engaged in small talk.  And certainly wouldn't have drawn a picture of his drink to include in a letter = )))  
Ari Silverstein Added Sep 12, 2017 - 12:23pm
My apologies for being blunt, but I can’t think of anything more yawn inducing than a multi-part series on the purpose of letters in ancient Rome.  Whether there is a great correlation or no correlation to today’s social networking, does the answer really matter?  I’m really into birding, if I wrote some long-winded, multi-part article on how to tell the differences between a hairy woodpecker and a downy woodpecker, I imagine my readership would be zero.  The only reason people read this stuff is I believe the think they’re talking to an attractive woman (note the dearth of females on this site).  Based on your choice of photos, that might not even be true. 
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 12, 2017 - 12:30pm
If you think it's tedious, you needn't read it. And you certainly needn't insult me based upon how I look.  Jerk.
Ari Silverstein Added Sep 12, 2017 - 12:40pm
I complimented you on how you look.  
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 12, 2017 - 12:47pm
DY -- my learned, intelligent, grounded friend, who makes me think, who makes me laugh, and who just made me blush...thank you!  = )
AS -- that didn't seem like compliment to me; however, looks are irrelevant; and perhaps another article about delving beneath the surface.  I would like to think the people on WB are more enlightened and intelligent than you assert.  Example of enlightened: DY.  You may wish to avoid the one in the pipeline about Suetonius!!
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 12, 2017 - 1:38pm
I just got a notification!
"Look at the size of those puncers!" = )))))
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 12, 2017 - 1:59pm
You already have it = ))))
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 12, 2017 - 2:08pm
OMG!  Last words!!! =')
Henry Ortiz Added Sep 12, 2017 - 4:07pm
Coming back to the point of your article, "social networking" is a new "name" to a way of communication.
I think the matter is communication, Cicero and other very well known "intellectuals" used to communicate with what they had at that time, paper, metal, rocks...
It is what you communicate that makes the difference. Today, trivial things in Facebook, business in LinkedIn, etc.
A Classicist Writes Added Sep 12, 2017 - 4:16pm
HO -- yes, that is true; however, Cicero wrote letters for vastly different reasons: mainly as a means to navigate the patronage system -- as patronis to cliens -- and also letters of recommendation.  It is precisely why the assertion of proto-social networking doesn't stand up to my scrutiny...
Ben Paine Added Sep 17, 2017 - 4:26pm
I have not read any of the comments, so I am writing ONLY in response to the original post.  Writing and reading in classical times was restricted to a small %age of the populace, doubtless less than 1%.  Today, any idiot who was a high school drop-out is as convinced as anyone else that he is SMART and RIGHT, and he has a Facebook and Twitter, etc. account.   Different worlds.