Updated: May 5, 2021
WHAT WOULD THE ROMANS HAVE MADE OF SOCIAL MEDIA?
‘Write the Facebook page of (insert famous ancient figure)’ as a revision activity has proved an amusing, and indeed very useful, mode of learning. When set the task of producing Facebook pages for the characters in Tacitus Annales, XIV, my Latin year 13 group came up with some witty takes on the text. Nero’s favourite actor was ‘himself’ and Agrippina’s status was ‘incesto paratam’. A similar revision session with a year 13 group for the old AQA ‘Augustus and the Establishment of the Principate’ paper, yielded some shrewd interpretations of the subject in the modern online venue. One student listed Augustus’ friends as ‘all of Rome’ and another achievements, painstakingly noted down all his different priesthoods and different political titles.
What would the Romans, or the ancients more generally for that matter, have made of social Media? How would they have used it? One can certainly create some humorous scenarios.
However, this speculation is more than an academic, ‘What If?’, exercise. What do we seek to achieve through social media and did the Romans have similar aims, but just different tools? We might well live in a technologically advanced age that looks very different. Wax tablets have given way to the smart phone or tablet, papyrus has been trumped by Pages and Word. But have WE changed?
The questions, ‘what do we seek to achieve with social media’, or ‘what need/role does it fill in our lives?’ are not difficult to answer. Communication, connection, development of social horizons, and seeking like-minded people are the most common and arguably the original purpose to such technology. Social Media offers a convenient and quicker means of organising and advertising an event. Had the Greeks had Facebook, organising a symposium (drinking party) would have surely benefited from the ease, graphic design, and ‘bigging up’ permitted via social media. This leads onto another function, greatly enabled and expanded via social media – Networking. With Networking comes self-promotion and advertisement. On top of that is the ability to mould the image we promote as we should wish it to be seen. Finally, and rather more darkly, there is the ability to denigrate, savage, ruin another’s reputation.
I. Social Animals
They might not have had email, but the Romans were no less keen on communication than us. We update friends and relatives on our latest news, ask for news, confide in them, let them confide in us, arrange social meets, send thank you letters, cards, and there are a host of other reasons that we communicate. The Romans were no different. We are fortunate that a considerable number of letters have survived for our perusal and even amusement, written largely by the great orator of the Republic Cicero and politician and statesman Pliny the Younger, writing under the emperor Trajan. They do not just ‘talk shop’, personal letters also survive. For example, at the end of one letter, Cicero describes how his beloved daughter Tullia has been pestering him for the present Atticus sent her.
Those familiar with these two figures may well shudder at the thought of Cicero being able to text, Tweet, or email. He was not exactly modest and was prolific in his writing and communications. He kept in contact with a variety of people. His closest correspondent (at least, the one we have most letters to and from) was Titus Pomponius Atticus, a wealthy and influential Roman. Cicero held Atticus in high regard and dedicated to him his philosophical work on friendship. Cicero wrote to Atticus about politics in Rome, or asked for information when he was absent, urgently asked for help (when exiled), and sought and received consolation. Nowadays, we do not have to wait for a letter (although our postal service is a great deal faster than theirs). An email can quickly fired off, or an announcement made on Facebook, and messages appear swiftly or by return. The principles and needs behind the messages remain the same.
Pliny would have been a true headache had he had email, Twitter, or Facebook at his fingertips. I remember well studying his letters to Trajan for Latin GCSE. While he was governor of Bithynia, Pliny seemed to somewhat badger the emperor with various queries (including the improvement of a local sewer), perhaps out of excessive conscientiousness and/or deference as a means of flattery. Emails would have been more prolific undoubtedly, but at least the patient Trajan would have been afforded the chance simply to reply ‘yes’ or ‘whatever’. Just imagine if Pliny could have updated his Facebook Status on the go. When trying to soothe his friends as they attempt to escape Stabiae as Vesuvius erupts, he may well have written:
'Status: Pliny is in the bath. It's all fine!'
He indeed took a bath before calmly dining with his friends as if nothing was happening.
Electronic communication and social media’s most basic purpose of connectivity would undoubtedly have appealed to the Romans.
II. Networking and Self-Promotion, Event Organisation and Event Promotion
Just like us, the Romans enjoyed parties, games, spectacles, and theatre. They were prolific networkers, self-promoters, and self-advertisers. But let us pause a moment to think why and how we do just that.
i) Networking and Self-promotion
We network purely for social reasons, to meet like-minded people, but also for the development of our careers through new acquaintances, who may offer new opportunities. These new connections may promote our work or recommend us to another. In turn, even if the expectation is not explicitly stated, might offer them support or some form of mutual recommendation out of gratitude, or less altruistically, in the hope of continued benefit from this new relationship. Linked In, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all offer wide-ranging and far reaching platforms for such connections to be formed, outside the more traditional (and no less valid) venues of the conference, the work dinner, drinks after work, and even work experience for young aspiring candidates.
The Romans did not have Linked In, but networking was an integral part of their society and of the political scene. To some extent, it permeated every level. The patron/client relationship was and essential form of social and political networking. The patron was usually a member of the Roman elite, most likely a senator, who had already enjoyed some success at the polls. But this did not guarantee his continued success. He might well have been the most popular candidate for the praetorship, but this did not ensure election to the highest office of consul. There were eight praetorship posts, but only two for consul. He would have to continue to work on expanding and bolstering his support base. He might find a willing supporter in a younger senator or equestrian (namely, from the upper class, but not as high as a senator), who would seek prestigious and renowned allies, hoping to bolster his own chances by association. The senator would hope in return to gain support, bot just from the young, ambitious equestrian, but also from the younger man’s own supporter base. When equestrian Marcus Caelius Rufus’ education was entrusted to Crassus and Cicero, he would undoubtedly have enjoyed a boost in reputation through association with the famous general and extremely wealthy Crassus, and Rome’s greatest orator, Cicero. Or a senator might offer a loan to a poorer peasant or shopkeeper in exchange for support. Ambitious Roman politicians would also offer public meals or make public ‘gifts’ to entice the support of the poorer people of Roman society. Freebies can be and are used in similar ways nowadays. It also mattered with whom one was seen. Wealthy Romans campaigning for office would ensure they were always seen with a distinguished and plentiful entourage as they made their way to the forum, Rome’s social, political, and commercial hub, to begin courting the populace. A modern parallel would be how many ‘friends’ one has notched up on Facebook, or followers on Twitter. The election of Trump proved that online campaigning could be a very powerful vehicle. Social media played a central role in the political battle for the presidency in a way it never had before, broadening access to the campaigns of all parties. The Wikipedia article on this subject notes:
“…social media gave people the ability to comment below a candidate's advertisement,
news surrounding the candidates, or articles regarding the policy of the candidates.”
Would not the Romans have leapt on such tools to compete with one another, engage in political one-upmanship, and promote their own achievements? Undoubtedly, they would. Let us take Cicero as an example. When preparing his campaign for the consulship, Cicero courted the favour of the great general Pompey, whose meteoric rise to military success had ensured his popularity with the Roman people in the 60s BCE. Cicero wrote to Pompey, supported legislation that he favoured, and publicly spoke in favour of his being granted further military commands. Likes on Twitter, likes on Facebook, publication of his speech maybe in a blog, or as excerpted highlights on his Facebook page, Cicero would not have lost the opportunity to make his support clear.
It is not just the candidates who would have exploited social media’s potential. The people of Rome, who voted in elections, would likely have been intrigued to learn more about the candidates and have enjoyed the platform for making their own voices heard. Social media is the perfect tool for popular power to express itself. The equivalent at the time were election notices or graffiti posted in favour of or in opposition to a candidate.
(on the graffiti at Pompeii, see https://www.ancient.eu/article/467/pompeii-graffiti-signs--electoral-notices/)
The Roman popular assemblies were central to the legislative and electoral processes at Rome. At one time it was argued that the assemblies in reality had very little power, obeying only the will of their patron at the ballot box. However, more recently, largely thanks to the work of Fergus Millar (see his book, The Crowd in the Late Republic) the importance of winning the people’s favour is now regarded as being more pivotal at Rome.
In a bid to gain their support, Romans would hold public meetings called contiones to make speeches on legislation and candidates for election, even the open air courts provided a venue for courting the populace. It was a way of gauging their opinion, just as 'Likes/Dislikes' or online polls do today. Cicero spoke at just such a contio, when arguing in favour of Pompey being sent to defeat King Mithridates. He was undoubtedly hoping that, by being seen to favour Pompey, the people’s favourite at the time, he would win support through association. One can imagine Cicero’s tweet:
‘#PompeyForGeneral – save your grain, save Rome, save the empire. Marcus Tullius Cicero.’
The above picture of Roman elections and campaigning reveals just how little the political scene has changed. Had social media existed, they would have seized upon it.
ii) Event Organisation and Promotion
Social Media has given great ease to the organisation of events: click a button on Facebook, name your event, add a groovy pic if you wish, click on friends to invite, and press 'GO' (so to speak. It also provides an easy means to monitor replies.
Would this have appealed to the Romans? Yes and no. The ability to reach a large number of people and communicate the event swiftly, would have worked well for them, if they were wanting to put on a showy dinner, it could be planned with ease. However, I think the sense of 'public display' and show would not be served so well. For example, if a famous senator were hosting a splendid dinner for clients, he would want it to be talked about, so that he was perceived as rich, impressive, generous, and someone with whom you should be associated. He may even wish to be seen in public asking famous connections or appearing generous in inviting less well-off clients. Similarly, for the Greek symposium, invitations would be delivered in person, which was a mark of honour, when one received it. That said, Twitter would have offered huge potential here. I still think the Romans would have favoured a bit of personal networking, but on Twitter the event could have been announced, boasted about, with a view to promoting the host and encouraging people to support him. Photos could be shared afterwards as evidence of generosity and wealth.
It was not just those seeking elections who would have seen the potential of social media for their social lives. My example here is extravagant and lavish party host Clodia. Whether she was the aggressive nymphomaniac of Cicero's pro Caelio, or simply a clever and attractive rich widow who made the most of her independence, we will not debate here. But she was known for her parties, and even Cicero questioned his friend Atticus about what had gone at one such event that he had attended. I am sure Clodia would have revelled in social media, promoting her events, using her personality/appearance to entice attendees, and cultivating her public persona. I would imagine Clodia's use of social media would have been as follows. Facebook and LinkedIn would have certainly to gather her followers and 'Friends', but she would likely have carefully tailored her privacy settings to favour an inner clique for certain things she wished to share and maybe her invitations too. Twitter would have been perfect for carefully chosen photos publicising the notorious 'events' that her parties came to be seen as. Would we have seen Keeping up with Clodia as the ancient equivalent of Keeping up with the Jones' or Kardashians?
The Romans, I argue, still would have favoured networking in person over exclusive social media campaigns, just as politicians do now. They wished, quite literally, to be seen. But social media would have presented great opportunities. The senator who was putting on lavish games could have created lovely visual advertisements for his games on Facebook, he could have boasted about the number of fights he was putting on via Twitter, and promise free food for all, whilst slipping in his candidacy at the next election. All this shows just how like us they were.
Perhaps, however, what shows this most clearly is the more malign and vicious uses to which social media can be put, and which certain Romans would undoubtedly have artfully exploited.
'Trash the Enemy' will be the final instalment, coming next week.
Final Instalment - 05/05/2021
III. ‘It’s got to be Perfect!’
Controversies over the ‘perfecting’ of pictures via technology to smooth out any flaws have raged for decades. Questions such as whether it creates unrealistic and, therefore, harmful role models for the young, what it could mean for editing photos to the point of historical inaccuracy, and more recently the problem of ‘Deep Fakes’, videos that are alarmingly realistic, but have been ‘created’ from a mash-up of real footage.
At Rome, certain leaders would have loved the chance so easily to smooth over their appearance, create an idealised image, and preserve a particular persona. Some early Roman portrait busts show a preference for a more realistic depiction, such as that of Cicero at the start of this article. Whilst it depicts and older man, and one who is perhaps a little portly, it certainly conveys his gravitas and authority.
I shall take as my example of a statue that betrays a certain leader’s preference for an idealised public portrayal, the wonderful Prima Porta. This is one of my great favourites and I was fortunate enough to receive a beautiful miniature copy as a Christmas gift from my husband last year (2020). I digress. It is a stunning statue. Augustus appears in god-like pose, barefoot, and flanked by Cupid. His face is youthful and idealised. At the time the statue was commissioned, 20 BCE, Augustus was not exactly the lithe spring chicken of the statue. He was 43 and not in the best of health. But to a public who were wearied by Civil War and longed for stability, a realistic portrayal could only have caused anxiety. The other side was securing Augustus’ position. The powerful, divine figure of the Prima Porta only helped strengthen the image of Augustus as ‘saviour’ of Rome. His so-called ‘Parthian Victory’ (it was nothing of the sort – a series of diplomatic wranglings merely resulted in the return of the Roman standards lost in defeat) had occasioned the sanctioning of the statue by the senate and the occasion is presented as a military victory in triumphant style. The message was that Romans could look to their victorious leader for protection both of themselves and of the empire. I invite you, my readers, to comment with your own examples.
IV. Trash the Enemy
Pompeian graffiti has shown us that the Romans were every bit as good at negative political campaigning, both through official attack and unofficial lampooning, as we are. And just as any person now can post their opinion on the internet, so could any Roman citizen. And just as the internet seems to have a threshold of ‘acceptability’, where many believe they can get away with posting comments they would never use face-to-face, so graffiti offered the same opportunity to the Romans (and not just the Romans). These scrawls could be explicit and insulting in the same way as modern graffiti or trolling on Instagram, Twitter, or even under YouTube videos. And that is just for starters. All stems from the darker side of the human need to communicate, the need to vent, prove superiority, or mock. I do not mean that these should be condoned or accepted. I mean that they stem from natural feelings. But just as the feeling of wanting revenge or payback is natural, it does not mean we should take such matters into our own hands. The same is true for the venting of anger, arrogance, or the desire to deride.
The Romans gave way to these urges, just as we do. I include the link below for your own perusals.
Let us turn now to consider some individual Romans, who would certainly have enjoyed the potential offered by social media for their campaigns, targeting their rivals, and conveying their messages. The first in fact will not be a Roman, but their arch-rival and brilliant general, Hannibal. My use of Hannibal as an example is inspired by a a revealing account of Hannibal that comes from Polybius’ Histories. In book III (ch.62), in a bid to ensure his mainly mercenary army’s cooperation and zeal for fighting the Romans, Hannibal sets up a pitched battle between several of his prisoners. Upon seeing those who fall in the fight carted away, his troops are inflamed with a desire to fight or die and come to regard being captured alive as shameful. I strongly suspect that if Hannibal had been able to create a video that he could post to his YouTube account, he would have done so, using it as a re-watchable, but brutal carrot for his troops.
Secondly, the ruthless and pro-senate general L. Cornelius Sulla. Once he had marched on Rome and defeated Marius and his supporters, his bloody proscriptions began. So much potential on social media for Sulla to have executed (pun intended) his designs and his enemies. One can imagine Tweets pinging away with names of enemies to be culled, a proscriptions group on Facebook, the property of the proscribed sold to the highest bidder on eBay, photos published on Instagram…It of course also would have offered the opportunity for abuse. Abuses seem to have occurred. Cicero neatly deflects the suspicion from his client Sextus Roscius by insinuating that his jealous cousins Magnus and Capito, wanting to get their hands on Roscius’ father’s extensive country estate, inserted his name on the proscription lists with the assistance of Sulla’s freedman, Chrysogonus, and framed Roscius the younger in the process. Quite possibly. Whatever the truth of it, the Perry Mason-like tactic worked and Roscius was acquitted. Had social media been available, hackers would have had a field day breaking into and altering the lists in a bid for self-enrichment.
My third is Fulvia, Marc Antony’s feisty wife, before she was forced into exile, after which he married Octavia, Augustus’ sister. She was very loyal to Antony and joined his brother in his challenged to the power of Octavian in Italy. They laid siege to Perusia 41-40 BCE. The siege ended when Octavian forced the city into submission. The Pact of Brundisium was signed between Antony and Octavian, Fulvia forced into exile and divorced. One can well imagine Fulvia exploiting social media to drum up support for Antony: Tweets to supporters (#Perusia), Facebook support group with invitations to like…A more grotesque example of Fulvia using social media to make her point. Octavian and Antony, as Sulla had done almost forty years previously, instituted their own proscriptions, and the great orator Cicero was on the list. I have always suspected this was Antony’s influence because of Cicero’s vitriolic Philippics. After poor Cicero had been beheaded executed – beheaded and with his hands removed, for a gruesome and mocking triumph – Fulvia pierced the dead Cicero’s tongue with her brooch pin, the tongue that spoke the Philippics against her beloved Antony. I am quite sure, had she been able to, Fulvia would have taken a selfie or had herself photographed clutching Cicero’s severed head with pierced tongue and posted it on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
Finally, Clodius. He was Cicero’s enemy, from the patrician family of the Claudii, highly ambitious, and a clever mobiliser of the people and their power for his own gain and to others’ detriment. He would undoubtedly have taken advantage of modern technology and social media in particular. What a perfect way to mobilise the Roman city guilds, key members of his violent populist gangs? A Facebook group? But I suspect he would have been smart enough to use invisible or ghost accounts when he wished to organise gatherings, so he could not be pre-empted. In a letter to Atticus, Cicero writes about a heckling gang led by Clodius outside the senate house, where the issue of the throne of Ptolemy Auletes XII was being debated. He would certainly have turned to Twitter to boost his anti-Cicero campaign which resulted in the orator’s exile in 58 BC (equally, Cicero’s supporters would I am sure have countered on Twitter when trying to secure his return). One can just imagine some of Clodius’ possible Tweets: #CiceroPublicEnemy, #IHateCicero, #NoExecutionWithoutTrial, #PollShouldCicerobeexiled? Cicero’s precarious political position following his execution of the so-called Catilinarian conspirators without trial made Clodius’ campaign rather easier. He would also have surely trolled Cicero online, watching Cicero’s discomfort with enjoyment.
V. Who Would Have Been the Dark Web Fan?
Finally, I would like to end with an invitation to discussion. Who would have been the dark horse who would have trawled the corners of the internet, where some of us fear to tread? Quite possibly Clodius?
I would like to suggest Domitian. Tacitus has a very dark line at the start of the Agricola, which describes how Domitian enjoyed watching the tortures he inflicted. Would he have been gruesomely indulgent enough to have recorded and posted his exploits?