(Image of a Roman Forum)
The origins of social media begin more than two thousand years ago in Rome, in the 1st century BC. It was crucial to keep up to date with the latest gossip and political news. This type of information was normally exchanged in person, in a central public area where most activities took place, known as a Forum. Those who lived out with the city engaged in the information by writing letters. Rome’s ruling class members shared information and maintained relationships through written correspondence. Scribes and messengers who were mainly slaves were a fast and economical way of copying and delivering messages.
Exclusively written, political news and gossip began to disperse in large capacities for the first time in history. The messages that were traded were usually formal but could also be intimate and casually written as well as including jokes, puns and abbreviations. The most common abbreviation used in letters was SPD, which meant salutem plurimamdicit (sends many greetings). This was used as a greeting at the beginning of the letter. SVBEEV was another beloved acronym which was short for si vales, bene est, ego valeo (“if you are well, that is good, I am well”). These are incredibly similar to the text abbreviations that we frequently use today through social media or text messages: LOL (Laughing out loud), BRB (Be right back), IDK (I don’t know), BTW (By the way), TTYL (Talk to you later) and ASAP (As soon as possible).
Nine hundred of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s letters have survived and they show the array of tone in Roman correspondence. His letters ranged in being written during traveling or between the courses of a meal; others were academically written with the help of a scribe. Cicero would include Greek words when writing to close friends, which displayed his adoration for the Greek culture. Cicero become so accustomed to exchanging letters that it was seen as a development of spoken conversation. In ‘Writing on the wall, Social Media the first 2,000 years’ Tom Standage quotes a sentence that Cicero shared with one of his correspondents:
“we will avail ourselves of the boom of letters, and thus secure almost the same objects in our separation as if we were together.”
Wealthy Romans had their letters written and read aloud for them so it was crucial to find a skilled and dependable scribe. It is rumoured that Julius Caesar was able to dictate more than two letters to two different scribes at the same time. Cicero’s slave, Tiro created a form of shorthand that allowed the dictation of speeches and letters to be produced much faster as well as being able to handle a larger amount of correspondence.
(A replica of a wax tablet)
When a quick response was needed to a message it was written on a wax tablet with a stylus. The wax tablet was mounted in wooden frames that folded together just like a book.When the wax tablet was delivered, the recipient could write their response directly onto the same tablet and then it could be quickly returned to the sender. These tablets could be reused by rubbing the flat end of the stylus over the wax that had been written on to smooth it out. Using these wax tablets was efficient for sending a quick question to
someone and getting a response within a couple of hours. These wooden tablets closely resemble the tablets that we currently use. It is fascinating that the Romans communicated in an extremely similar way that we interact with one another today, despite being 2,000 years in the past.
Standage, T (2013). Writing On The Wall, Social Media – The First 2,000 Years. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Publishing. p22-25.