HABEAS EPISTOLAM (Or: 'You've Got Mail!')

By Freivalds, John | Communication World, December 1999 | Go to article overview

HABEAS EPISTOLAM (Or: 'You've Got Mail!')


Freivalds, John, Communication World


How will you mark the millennium? One way would be to read yet another endless tract on how the Internet will change our lives and the way we communicate in the next millennium. Another would be to look at the history of communication to see how we got to where we are. I have chosen the latter. I decided to look at how people communicated around the year 01 plus or minus 100 years.

Many ancient peoples developed some rather sophisticated methods of communicating. We gain a lot from the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and Arabs because they wrote it down. So it is not surprising that a Roman patriarch, home from a hard day at the Forum, would be told by his wife, "Habeas Espistolam."

I have come to the conclusion that we have an inability to look back and learn from history beyond the previous generation. Yet in looking at how the "ancients" handled communication in the year 01, one can only be impressed. The technology was primitive, but the organization was outstanding and the message writing precise. I think there is an inverse relationship between the ease of sending messages and their clarity. How many of us have sent e-mails in a nanosecond only to get a phone call five minutes later asking, "What did you mean by that?"

Peter James and Nick Thorpe, authors of "Ancient Inventions," aptly point out in their fascinating book that the achievements of ancient societies in communication probably bring them closer to us than their feats in any other technical field. Not only are the systems they invented remarkably similar to those of our recent past, but their obsession with preserving records of their own times provides us with an invaluable source of information about life in the ancient world.

Writing

Historians Will and Ariel Durant tell us that Romans wrote on a variety of papers: "a folded sheet of membrane, or vellum, constituted a diploma, or two fold. Usually a literary work was issued on a roll (volume, 'wound up') and was read by unrolling as the reading progressed." Anyone could publish a manuscript by hiring slaves to make copies and selling the copies. Rich men had clerks who copied any book they wished to own. And because copyists "were fed rather than paid, books were cheap."

No one knows when the first shorthand was invented, but a Roman system was developed by Tiro, a freed slave employed by Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero was longwinded, so we can see Tiro's motivation. His note taking system began in 63 B.C.; another shorthand was invented in China 1,000 years later. The first writing was on walls and later clay, then papyrus and parchment.

It was possible to send letters and messages, though wheeled messengers would have had a hard time in Rome from Caesar's day to Commodius's. You could walk or, if rich, be carried in slave-borne chairs. The public post, which worked 24 hours a day, averaged one hundred miles a day. Private persons could use it only by special permission through a government diploma. Unofficial correspondence went by special carrier or merchants' traveling friends, It was an efficient system. In 54 B.C. Caesar's letter from Britain reached Cicero in Rome in 29 days.

Books

One of the oldest books dates back to 400 B.C. The pages were just leaves bored for binding with a cord.

In China around the same time a different bookmaking technology was used. Texts were written on rolls of wooden strips. Each strip carried a single column of writing.

Around the year 01, first "printings" usually produced a thousand copies or less. Booksellers bought wholesale from publishers and sold at retail in arcade bookstalls. No royalties were paid!

The first encyclopedia was penned by Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79). His "Natural History," completed in A.D. 77, comprised 2,500 chapters in 37 volumes. Curiosity killed this remarkable man -- he went to Pompeii to investigate Vesuvius and was suffocated by the fumes.

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