Wherein the Romans used pre-digital social media to tell friends and family all about themselves and others—which could be a fatal mistake.
The social media universe is all atwitter (yes, a terrible pun—we’re into more than just song lyrics around here) regarding a recent study which concluded people are terrible about remembering what personal information they’ve shared online. Even more, says one of the authors,
There are also scenarios where users don’t realize that they are sharing posts containing personal information with an audience that includes their co-workers or the general public. Conversely, there are cases where people might not share enough, not realizing that there are certain pieces of information that their friends and followers might want to know.
This problem of balancing sharing and oversharing isn’t just a modern dilemma: it was also experienced by the Romans. This is particularly exemplified, historian Tom Standage tells us, by the well-connected orator Cicero.
I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) was a lawyer and politician whose extensive collection of letters (he wrote approximately 72 volumes of letters, although only 37 of these survived; his letters such people as Julius Caesar, Pompey and Octavian have all been lost) are considered some of the most reliable documents about the late period of the Roman Republic. His contemporary, Cornelius Nepos, even said his letters to Atticus contained a vast amount of information “concerning the inclinations of leading men, the faults of the generals, and the revolutions in the government.”
Cicero’s letters, to be sure, were intended in part to craft a vision of Rome as he believed it should be, and of his part in guiding the Republic through its tumultuous times. As John Henderson snarkily observes,
Letters invest heavily in denial that they are chiselling, usually by massaging what’s wanted into some soft-soaping version of yours sincerely worthiness shared between sender and receiver. Through smoke-signals of embarrassment, assumed-paraded-overdone-gauche…or whathaveyou, ‘masterstrokes’ and/as ‘fumbles’ smarm or sidle towards incorporation in family or cause and, the ultimate, not two participants, but one outlook.
At the same time, though, his letters also give remarkable insight into his opinions about himself and others. Most notably, Cicero wrote to friends and family because he had an insatiable desire for personal interaction. As he wrote to Atticus, “I have begun to write to you something or other without any
definite subject, that I may have a sort of talk with you, the only thing that gives me relief.”
Like a modern Facebook post with a string of comments attached to it (with Cicero himself playing the role of the friend who just can’t keep politics out of it), Cicero wrote both to inform his confidantes of personal information, and to share his opinions for interaction with the wider world. Standage explains,
Cicero’s own correspondence, one of the best-preserved collections of letters from the period, shows that he exchanged letters constantly with his friends elsewhere, keeping them up to date with the latest political machinations, passing on items of interest from others, and providing his own commentary and opinions. Letters were often copied, shared, and quoted in other letters. Some letters were addressed to several people and were written to be read aloud, or to be posted in public for general consumption.
Cicero was aware that his writing could cause trouble; he even advised Marcus Fabius Gallus, “Hear this secretly; keep it to yourself.” Marcus Antony was disinclined to follow this advice; his sharing the contents of one of Cicero’s letters provoked a howl of outrage in Cicero’s Second Philippic. These Philippics provoked Antony to order Cicero’s murder—a very literal form of canceling.
World Shut Your Mouth
Ironically, in the Middle Ages Cicero was seen as the ultimate orator, “the god of eloquence” whose example should be followed by all masterful communicators. Petrarch’s 1345 discovery of the letters to Atticus, however, upended this, as Petrarch realized that his idol had seriously overshared. He lamented,
Thou ever restless and anxious, or to quote to thee thine own words thou headstrong and ill-starred elder, what hadst thou to do with all this strife and with feuds which could not profit thee? Why did the false glamour of glory entangle thee when old in the battles of younger men, and after a stormy career drag thee to a death unworthy of a philosopher?
While modern social media users are unlikely to be beheaded like Cicero, we can still lose jobs and relationships by letting our fingers tap too much onto the Internet. Heather Havrilesky describes the problem of oversharing like this:
Oversharing is like drinking too much: You don’t recognize you’re the only one doing it until it’s too late. And just like looking around at midnight and realizing you’re the only one at the party with a drink in your hand, there’s this feeling of shame that washes over you when you look back on a conversation and realize that you emptied the contents of your brain all over the place and the other person revealed nothing.
So perhaps social media oversharers can meld this with the story of Cicero: stop yourself from emptying the contents of your brain before you lose your head.
Image: The vengeance of Fulvia by Francisco Maura Y Montaner (1888) (Source)