Writing on the Wall

Social Media is So Old Even the Romans Had It

What do ancient graffiti, Renaissance pamphlets, and English coffeehouses have in common? They are all forms of social media. Nick Romeo reviews a new book by the digital editor of The Economist that argues social media is an old phenomenon.


Some of the earliest wall posts in human history were scratched on the sides of shops and homes in the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. “I screwed a lot of girls here” and “Secundus defecated here” are two of the dirtier graffiti preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, but the messages range from gossip to personal exchanges to flourishes of wit and erudition.

Two brothers, for instance, left notes for each other on a wall inside the house of a shared friend: “Onesimus greets Secundus, his brother.” “Secundus sends very many and perpetual greetings to Onesimus.” (This was probably not the defecating Secundus; the popular Roman name meant “second-born son”). On the wall of a tavern two rival lovers traded taunts. “Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. His rival wrote this. Bye, loser!” Below came the reply: “Envious one, why do you get in the way? Submit to a handsomer man who is being treated very wrongly and is darn good-looking.” On a prominent wall inside a prosperous home, various writers inscribed popular couplets, a line of Lucretius, and poetic fragments they embellished and improved. The names and allusions are first-century Roman, but the raucous mixture of jokes, boasts, conversation, and intellectual posturing seems familiar to anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account.

The surprising antiquity of social media is the theme of Tom Standage’s new book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media: The First 2000 Years. It’s tempting for technophiles to assume that humans languished for most of history in a vacuum of information, but a wide variety of social networks and media has satisfied our fundamental hunger for news, gossip, and information over the past two millennia.

Scribes were the voice recognition software of the ancient world, and messengers known as tabellarii were the delivery mechanism interconnecting the Roman elite stationed in distant provinces. Julius Caesar was supposedly able to dictate two letters at the same time to different scribes. Notes sent short distances were scratched into wax tablets on which the recipient could add a reply, while letters sent long distances were written on papyrus scrolls. The fact that we use the word “scroll” in digital contexts is a vestige of this analog ancestor: papyrus scrolls were unfurled horizontally while reading, whereas now we scroll vertically through digital texts.

Chatty abbreviations were common in Roman messages: SPD stood for salutem plurimam dicit, or “sends many greetings.” And the seemingly modern craving for constant updates also afflicted ancient Romans. “Whether you have any news or not, write something,” Cicero implored a friend in Rome while traveling in the provinces.

Roman letters often reached a broad audience among the elite. A timely analysis of politics or a juicy bit of scandal would be “forwarded” to friends, who might then add comments and send the whole discussion thread to other friends. Official news also traveled by informal social networks. One of the earliest ancestors of the modern newspaper was the Acta Diurna Populi Romani, or “Daily Acts of the Roman People.” Julius Caesar established the Acta Diurna to weaken his political opponents by revealing the proceedings of government. But soon the Acta also included news on funerals, divorces, and even human interest stories, such as a piece on a loyal dog who swam after the corpse of its executed master as it floated down the Tiber.

One copy of the Acta was published on wooden boards in the forum each day, and wealthy Romans would send slaves to copy all or part of its contents. Scribes were thus a human version of a news filter. If you were particularly interested in one topic, you would order your scribe to write down only the relevant items. Friends often exchanged interesting or timely sections of the Acta, which allowed elites throughout the Roman world to monitor news in the capital.

Historical parallels and precedents for social media abound. The querulous, interconnected pamphlets printed in seventeenth-century Europe prefigure the culture of modern blogging. The technique of quoting chunks of your opponent’s text and replying to each became popular in pamphlets long before bloggers revived the practice. Miscellanies and commonplace books from Tudor England allowed people to collect and share jokes, recipes, poems, quotes, and diary entries. The dual purpose of such books was remarkably similar to the function of contemporary social media: to share useful or enjoyable media with friends and to project a certain image of yourself to the world.

In periods of strict censorship, underground social media systems developed to spread gossip and ideas. Paris police archives from the mid-eighteenth century preserve easily concealed slips of paper with politically charged rhymes and anecdotes. Such proto-tweets allowed some full-time gossips to work as compilers of the “trending” topics of the day. Even online chat rooms have an antecedent in the exchanges of nineteenth-century American telegraph operators. When there were no official messages to transmit, distant operators used Morse code to chat, tell jokes, play chess, and occasionally fall in love.

Standage skillfully traces the many incarnations of social media in the last two thousand years, but he also reveals how closely modern anxieties and arguments about new media echo earlier sentiments. The rise of seventeenth-century coffeehouses as hubs of discourse and social exchange prompted complaints that evoke contemporary critiques of the Internet: both forums let people waste time when they could be doing something serious. Just after the explosion of printing presses in sixteenth-century Europe, stationers and intellectuals complained that now any ignorant fool could disseminate his thoughts to the world. The gripe is much older than the bloggers and tweeters who are its latest targets. Standage shrewdly notices the nuances of these debates. There are many bad bloggers today, just as there were bad pamphleteers in the sixteenth century, and people do waste time in coffeehouses and on the Internet (now often simultaneously). But the advent of the printing press helped spark the Reformation and the Renaissance, and English coffeehouse culture contributed to the formulation of Newton’s law of gravitation.

Back in Pompeii, people were already complaining about the quantity of dull written material: “Oh wall,” one graffito says, “I am amazed you haven’t fallen down, since you bear the tedious scribblings of so many writers.” It takes a little perspective to appreciate the value of certain wall posts.