Communication In Ancient Rome, Before the Development of Information Technology

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( Photo by Amy Soares)

Communication is often noted to be the strongest element of a good long lasting relationship. This is also true when applied culture and identity, this is a reason why the media is so successful, because it is a form of communication. The more concrete and stable a system of communication is between people the better educated, and sophisticated the society will be.
The Reason the Roman Empire was so strong was because of the empires ability to communicate among the masses. Communication was what held the society together, through believing in common myths laws, and demonstrating a common bond passed down from generation to generation. However in Ancient Rome, the communication infrastructure was not at all like today. Spreading ideologies today is done through electronically mediated text, mass production, and books. Therefore the Romans established their own means of communication in order to speak to large numbers of people at a time. Emperors would communicate to the people at public events while displaying gestures that could be read from afar, where voice would not carry. Also through the development of art and architecture messages were incorporated in order preserve history, and incorporate mythical themes. Rome would use gestures and art in order to instill values , express emotions and inform the people.

Medium Of Oratory (Art of Public Speaking)

Public gatherings, exhibitions and shows are what dominated the urban life of Rome. These spectacles would include various forms of entertainment such as gladiator combats, chariot races, theatre, along with religious ceremonies , holidays, court trails and especially funerals (Aldrete, xviii). Within the intensely public life of Rome, oratory otherwise known as the art of public speaking was the center of pubic event. There were manuals even written at the time to outline the important rules of public speaking. The most famous ancient writer in this field was also one of the greatest speakers of all time; his name was Quintilian and is known for his work Institutio Oratoria. Roman orators or rhetoricians divided their discipline into five categories when delivering a speech. First invention (invento) then arrangement ( collocation), then style (elocatio), then memory (memora) and finally delivery (action) ( Aldrete,4). Delivery holds the most importance out all the other 4 elements. Delivery can further be divided into two further sections known as voice tone and guesture. Therefore when the speaker would address his crowd he would be participating in verbal and nonverbal communication. And because most of the spectators were unable to hear the words of the speaker, the gesture that was communicated held a great importance. To some it was considered even more important then the verbal. Sermocorporis is the term that means language of the body (Aldrete, 5), to the Romans, this language was understood with a high regard with a much greater emphasize then it has today, it had the capability to replace spoken word all together .
One of the main goals of the speaker was to convey his emotion to the public through the act of guestures. Quintilian mentioned the importance of the correct use of eyebrows, lips, nostels. And also the importance of the gaze, it was considered important for the speaker to never have a gaze fixed in one spot, or appear to not concentrated on the entirety of the crowd. However through gestures the most emphasize was given to the actions made with the arms , hands and fingers. As Quintilian articulates it,
“ the hands may almost be said to speak . Do we not use them to demand,
promise, summon, dismiss, threaten, supplicate, express aversion or fear, question
or deny? Do we not use them to indicate joy, sorrow, hesitation , confession,
penitence and measure quantity , number, and time?” ( 11.3.86-87).
Roman hand guestures held a great deal of importance in order to communicate to the masses . Some of the gestures used in antiquity are still carried on to modern times for example the clenched fist pressed against the chest to show anger is a sign that the Romans conveyed(Aldrete, 9).


(Aldrete, Gregory. Guestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. Balitmore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1999)

In Addition, according to Quintilian the fingers were very important to making signals. The use of the fingers would be exaggerated, for example to deliver the sign of gratefulness. The speaker would hold up his right hand with all his fingers lengthened , then he would bring one finger at a time into his palm , stating with the pinky finger until forming a fist, then he would gently rotate the entire hand while opening the fingers again (Aldrete,15).


(Aldrete, Gregory. Guestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. Balitmore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1999)

There was even a gesture used while presenting arguments, also done with the finger. The index finger would be extended while the thumb and the finger next to the index were curled to touch the top half of the index finger, while the last two fingers the pinky and the ring finger would be curled into the palm.


(Aldrete, Gregory. Guestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. Balitmore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1999)

In order to denote exhortation the speaker would raise his right hand , with his elbow bent to show adoration one would turn away from his left side and point to the person or object being adored while extending their arms in the air.


(Aldrete, Gregory. Guestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. Balitmore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1999)

There are many more roman gesture that were used. In the past this was one of the primary modes of communication, From speeches, and public events, information was learned, collected and shared. Therefore Oratory was a very important medium of communication, in antiquity, it is a medium that is still present with us, but almost unrecognizable, and disapering as we hide behind our computer screens and cellphones.

Civilization Without Writing

Quipu or khipu were recording devices used in the Inca Empire and its predecessor socities in the Andean region. A quipu usually consists of colored spun and plied thread from llama or alpace hair or cotton cords with numeric and other values encoded by knots in a base 10 positional system. Quipus may have just a few strands, but some have up to 2,000 strands.(wikipedia)
During the development of the system, there was no attempt to remaster, or recreate phonetic sounds as the script in most writing sytems does. The quipu have yet to be fully deciphered, and there are a variety of theories as to how much information they contain.

Quipumakers were important in the Inca state because they composed records for the bureaucracy and as a means of communication.

What is a Quipu?
- A collection of cords with knots (represents numbers) tied in them
- Usually made of cotton and often dyed one or more colours
- Early communication medium used by the ancient Incan empire throughout the Andean region of South America

“The output of gold mines, the composition of work forces, the amount and kinds of tribute, the contents of storehouses, etc were all recorded on quipus.” (28)

“At the time of the transfer of power from one Sapa Inca to the next, information stored on quipus was called upon to recount the accomplishments of the new leader’s predecessors.” (28)

There are several extremely important properties of quipus:
  1. Quipus can be assigned horizontal direction.
  2. Quipus also can be assigned vertical direction.
  3. Quipus have levels.

Colour is fundamental to the symbolic system of the quipu:
  • The number of colours on a particular quipu depends on the number of distinctions that are being made
  • The overall patterning of the colours exhibits the relationships that are being represented
  • Yarns dyed different colours were available to the quipumaker – additional cord colours were created by spinning the coloured yarns together


Ascher, Marcia and Robert. Civilization Without Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Aldrete, Gregory. Guestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. Balitmore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1999
Atchity, Kenneth. The Classical Roman Reader. New York: Oxford University Press.1997.
Ramage, Andrew. Ramage, Nancy. Roman Art Romulus to Constatine. 3rd ed.
New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 2001.
Zanker, Paul. “ The City of Rome as a Reflection of State and Society,” and “Architecture innovation and competition,” from The Power of the Images in the Age of Augustus. Trans. Alan Shapiro. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1990.Zimmerman, J. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. New York: Bantam Books, 1964.