Modern Things Romans Would Love #1: Social Media (especially Instagram and Twitter)

It is quite funny that actors in Roman society were considered only a step above prostitutes. Indeed many actors ran a side business as prostitutes, so bereft of opportunities, and funds, they were in acting. I say it is funny because to an extent all Roman life was an act, an elaborate performance. If you were poor but well-connected you wanted everyone to know you had friends in high places. If you were making political moves you wanted to be seen around the Curia (the senate house) or the forum with the right people.

There’s a Netflix series about Romans – Roman Empire – that I had to stop watching in the middle of the first episode about Julius Caesar because of how much it got absurdly wrong. It put his story down as a rags-to-riches tale, this man from the disgraced, post-Marian supporting branch of the Julii family, poor but clever, working his way up from nothing to de-facto king. It’s bollocks. For one, Caesar was never ‘poor’. Not in the true sense of the word. He was also one hell of a peacock. He was known for his flamboyant fashion sense and making himself stand out. To an extent he understood that the only way to be known in Roman culture was to bend the rules and make yourself stand out. Like a modern Instagram ‘influencer’ he knew how to use what he had to get attention.

Obviously it helped that he was a respected patrician, a direct, yet eloquent orator and either a military genius or the luckiest man with an army until Napoleon. Of course he would also mention his alleged family lineage being traceable back to legendary Trojan pioneer of Rome, Aeneas and the actual goddess Venus at every opportunity, too. The fact is Caesar made himself stand out because he wanted people to see him. He played up his (clearly tenuous) family tree because he wanted to be notorious. This was Roman political life. Your clients, your patrons, your friends, there were people you kept around just so you could use them later.

People such as Caesar had slaves specifically for the purpose of remembering details about people (nomenclators – Literally ‘name summoners’), so that at gatherings, at parties, you could call them by name and ask them about specifics. If it looked like you were ignorant it worked against you. If you wanted to get ahead you needed to keep up appearances.

A frieze from the Ara Pacis, an altar dedicated to the Roman goddess of peace, Pax. It is also the Augustan equivalent of that Ellen DeGeneres Oscars selfie and a perfect analogue for an Instagram post. It features numerous members of the Imperial Family in procession including Augustus himself, his daughter Julia (or potentially his wife Livia – the debate rages), Marcus Agrippa (Augustus’ right hand man and husband of Julia), future emperor Tiberius (Augustus’ adopted son, later in life) Drusus (Tiberius’ brother) and many others. Debate rages over who is who, but we do know the short one holding the woman’s hand is almost definitely not Augustus. (Credit: Wikimedia)

That is why Romans would fucking love Instagram. “Chilling in the Forum with my boy Gaius!” captions a photo of you and Caesar looking like absolute Gs, with your abs glistening with sweat. It’s a very Roman jam. They would show off everyone and everything important.

“Oh, this!? It’s just a statue I’ve had imported from Athens to go in my garden!”

“OMG! Look at my new hair, surely someone of senatorial class wants to marry this?”

“LOL! Just carved a dick on the pillar of the Temple of Mars Ultor.”

Romanitas and vanity go hand-in-hand and Instagram is nothing but the church of vanity.

So what about Twitter? That also got a mention. Well, appearances were all very well and good for getting your reputation up but oratory skills were also important. What you had to say and how you said it was important. Some people wouldn’t do so well. Cato the Elder spamming “Carthago delende est!” (Carthage must be destroyed!) Would get kind of dull after a while.

Caesar, though, was known to use the Latin language very tersely and with elegant simplicity. Martial wrote entire poems that could have fit on Twitter when it had a 140 character limit, never mind with the extended limit.

A photograph of graffiti from Pompeii “HIC EGO PVELLAS MVLTAS FVTVI” roughly translates to “I fucked many girls here!” – Lucky Roman, and with twitter credentials like that, unlucky girls. (Credit: SnappyGoat)

Then there’s graffiti. For the high classes, or the army, it would be considered crass to graffiti anything. For the normies, though, graffiti was essentially a civic right, bordering on a duty. It was the twitter of its day; A place to spread vitriol, gossip, opinion, unsubstantiated rumours, conspiracy theories and tales of who is fucking who.

Want some good examples of Roman grafftweety?

“Fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumque”

Or

I sing of cloth-launderers and an owl, not arms and a man.

This is a reference to, indeed a response to, a poem by Virgil (specifically the opening of book I of the Aeneid), a little bit of culture, don’t get used to it.

One graffiti dialogue, a twitter thread if you will, is about a love spat

“Successus textor amat coponiaes ancilla
nomine hiredem quae quidem illum
non curat sed ille rogat illa comiseretur
scribit rivalis vale”

Or

Successus the weaver is in love with the slave of the
innkeeper, whose name is Iris. She doesn’t care about
him at all, but he asks that she take pity on him.
A rival wrote this.

And then there’s a response!

“Invidiose quia rumperes sedari noli formonsiorem
er qui est homo pravessimus et bellus”

Or

You’re so jealous you’re bursting. Don’t tear down
someone more handsome –
a guy who could beat you up and who is good looking.

Those examples taken from Wikipedia, go look them up, they’re great.

And how can we forget such Pompeian classics as;

Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates.

Amplicatus, I know that Icarus is buggering you. Salvius wrote this.

I have buggered men

And the classic;

I fucked the barmaid.

It’s fucking twitter, dudes.

Romans flaunted their lives, they were flashy, show-offish and flamboyant. To an extent the forum was their Facebook, their Instagram. The walls were their Twitter. Romans wouldn’t just fucking love social media, much like us, had they had it, it would have come to dominate their culture. Roman life was already enough of a performance, having an editable, manipulable online broadcasting platform with which to socialise, manipulate, craft your image, politic and peacock? I would say the Romans would have loved it but to an extent they invented it. With the way they acted, their statues, their friezes, their frescoes, their graffiti, their poetry and their public displays through triumphs, munera and games – it served the same function as our social media today. To craft an image of a life rather than display the grim realities of it.

When I first started this list and this suggestion came up I knew immediately it had to be number 1.

Missed anything in our top ten? You could take a step backwards and see why Romans would have loved pro-wrestling.

Or why not start at our introduction and read the full top ten?

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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