…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 tests

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.

13 thoughts on “…on the letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero: proto-social networking or not? Part I

  1. You are a brilliant scholar my fellow Emersonian Phil-living friend, and I am relieved that you have spared Cicero any contempt or blame for the age of social media spewing!


  2. Now what would Cicero say if he read some of the words we text to each other? Hahaha!! I am so amazed by your brilliance. You truly are a Master!! Please continue to share your intellect. You may not think so, but you are truly making a difference in someone’s life. xxxxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

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