The Ancient Roman Businessman and the modern literate masses

Printing press, guillotine or pizza oven? You decide.

The printing press with movable type was first established as a new technology by one Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in the 15th century. With a few notable exceptions (including its having been banned and initially punishable by death throughout the Ottoman empire until as late as the mid-18th century), its proliferation was swift, and its use vital as a stepping stone towards what we now consider modernity. Along the way it changed the face of society. What was once considered literate (the ability to sign one’s own name) became illiterate in the face of changing standards. Literacy evolved with the spread of language, and its privileged status as being strictly for the educated classes rendered it a matter of extreme control by the upper classes. As such, dialects deemed barbaric did not count towards one’s literacy. Rather, one’s ability to read and write the official language of their era and place was the key determinant.

So, what’s changed? The standards of literacy have evolved, so where are they now? Before we examine this, it is worth investigating what the purpose of literacy is.

Literacy: not quite as necessary in some eras. Stay in school, kids.

In ancient Rome, Acta Diurna were public messages engraved on stone tablets and ‘posted’ in public places to act as official government communiqués (interesting side note: the act of ‘posting’ news in such a way became the reason newspapers adopt the term ‘Post’ in their titles with such frequency). Literacy levels in what was then (Julius Caesar era) the most modern empire in the world were hardly at an exemplary level by today’s standards, and the exhaustingly inefficient method of carving such messages into tablets meant that the vast majority of citizens wouldn’t ever end up seeing the Acta Diurna themselves, so messengers were vital. The people would scramble to relay the news of the day to one another. As such, literacy was a valued trait as the trusted and learned few who possessed it were relied upon almost exclusively to begin the trail of words.

Flashing forward to medieval Europe, town criers acted in an official capacity to achieve the same ends. Marching up and down the street and beckoning silence and attention, these uniformed officers conveyed to the public the news of the day. Again, a method lacking efficiency.

Hiring bombastic nightmares to yell at people: bureaucracy at work.

The network of official men of the crown seeding information subsided as the printing press brought the miracle of moving type into mass production, in favour of independent newspapers owned by entrepreneurs popping up. Scrutiny was uncommon in such early forms of newspaper, as the only newspaper in town had little motivation to go beyond mere information dissemination. Analysis of the news was both out of reach for the level of education most printing press operators possessed (not to mention a lack of access to substantive information concerning all of the reasons why governments acted in the ways they did), but also ethically dubious. Moreover, the owners had no motive to offer such analytical services. The only game in town needn’t cater to a niche. (The later eruption of far less ethically constrained libelles filled that void nicely.)

Regardless of how much access to real world facts the owners of printing presses actually achieved, it remained that the dissemination of facts about current events relied largely upon them. A publisher misleading (intentionally or otherwise) their public might take some time before being caught out by factors from the outside world, communication being what it was.

Successful people in rome hadn't the need for literacy beyond comprehension.

In both cases, ancient Rome and medieval Europe, a common factor is the privileged literate were the few actually able to read the posts and heralds for themselves. ‘Literacy’, then, varied between meaning the ability to literally read the news, and the ability to comprehend the content therein – achievable by far greater a number of the population than the former. The people, satisfied with their own status as ‘literate’, would rest contented. The businessman able to fling about ‘facts’ with all the pomposity and grandeur of a coliseum announcer would no doubt have been chuffed with his performance, his ability to draw a crowd and his ability to participate in public life, and would therefore not suffer a wink to the notion that he lacked education sufficient to fully comprehend the news he espoused or debated. After all, in ancient Rome, education was a pursuit of fancy: admirable for those who indulged in it, but unnecessary beyond functionality to those of more practical means.

We can all agree, however, that such a hypothetical businessman engaging with his fellows about the state of the empire as per the messenger who recited it. Similarly, the literate fellow reading aloud the tablet would be in dubious possession of the facts necessary to comment on (what I hesitate to refer to as) the real world.

How then, can we justify our contentment as citizens of the modern real world when we’re subject to a similar confusion of information? Leaving the era of one newspaper per town behind us, our being privy to the multitude of information sources at hand has created a new kind of delusion.

Maddow: a modern libelle.

Rachel Maddow illustrated the confusion surrounding an overabundance of media outlets (albeit referring specifically to ring-wing outlets) well in November on her aptly named MSNBC television show, The Rachel Maddow Show. She demonstrated the poor capacity of assorted right-wing media pundits to source their facts correctly concerning President Obama’s planned November trip to India, alleged to be costing US$2 billion, ending her jab by comparing the unanimous shrug most commentators reached when pressed for their sources to the legitimacy of the furore over selling canned unicorn meat.

This abomination of nature must be stopped at once! Unicorns are almost extinct, dammit!

Quibbling over precise figures (in the chaotic funfair that is the American mass media) is hardly pivotal to a functioning, politically-minded member of society. So for a more practical example of why such uncertainty can be detrimental, consider the case of Dr Andrew Wakefield. The British researcher posited a link between a measles vaccine and autism, and suggested an increased gap in between the necessary inoculations.

The result? A sharp decline in parents letting their children be vaccinated as instructed. The result of the result? A sharp increase in cases of measles breaking out. The particularly scary part is that this medical journal

Wakefield's supporters gathering and forming their anti-vaccine group which would survive Andrew's disgrace with no evidence to sustain it.

(The Lancet) is the one source which opponents of vaccination (read: conspiracy theorists) rely upon heavily to justify their stance. Which wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the Sunday Times hadn’t found conflict of interest in Wakefield’s dealings, and if ten of the thirteen authors of the paper hadn’t stepped down their support for the section where the analysis made its conclusions, and if The Lancet hadn’t retracted the paper entirely, and if Wakefield hadn’t been struck from the medical register in the UK in May this year.

Are we really rollicking about in an echo chamber (as Maddow would put it) so large that we’re confounded by information to the extent that we lose sight of it all?

A fake representative of Dow Chemical takes full responsibility for Bhopal on their behalf, pledging US$12 billion live on BBC news.

Consider the implications of such a scenario for literacy. What good is it being able to read and write when the words you read are false? You require the literacy of criticism to achieve an adequate picture of truth. The scale of media tends towards the simplest in tone for the largest audiences. This is not the fault of the people absorbing it, it is too heavy a constraint on their time to even consider fully researching everything they hear. A story, even by a reputable news source, can often be completely false. Placing the burden of research on each and every recipient of slanted, falsified or incongruous news is perhaps a touch farfetched.

The most reputable ‘news’ sources on the planet are likely the academic journals. They are peer-reviewed, subject to immense scrutiny prior to publication, and are constantly being falsified by a continuing push to outdate the last riveting discoveries. Yet, as we’ve seen, even these often produce interesting results. And moreover, the majority of academic papers (the lifeblood of inquiry) are still paid journals. Not only do the barriers to their consumption lie in literacy and education, but in spite of our immense so-called progress throughout modernity, the socio-economic factor remains prevalent. (As I’m attending university I have access to a treasure trove of studies and experiments from a number of fields. Without attending university, I’d have to pay for such academic luxuries. Who would do that for the sake of verifying their local news anchors’ claims?)

Looks simple enough, but read the article comparing measurement scales and tell me it's within the grasp of the common person.

Legitimate academic papers can yield bizarre interpretations by wider society when they’re being misread or misappropriated by the middle-men: the mass media. The interpretation of scientific data is largely left up to these outlets as go-betweens for the rest of us. Very few of us would actually read the raw data behind even the most topical and imperative of subjects (such as global warming – thanks, Cam). Again, this is not a criticism of people – we’re all time-poor and unable to fully research everything, but using that global warming link as an example, even the most fundamental question about the nature of climate change (whether or not the Earth is, in fact, getting warmer) has become such an elitist pursuit as to automatically cast out the majority of the population. If a qualified statistician and geographer were to inform us of one thing, either in person or via a news outlet, we’re hardly in a position to cross-check his information with other people in their field.

These specific instances aside, we’re staring at a wider trait here which mimics a familiar milieu. The so-called ‘literate’ amongst us, even the educated, are functioning on a political level wherein we can merely engage with one another on certain topics. The more educated we become, the more exclusive and elitist the topics on discussion. Yet still, we’ve discovered a new kind of hyperliteracy, wherein even a university or college graduate will likely be unable to ascertain truth on the majority of topics they desire, nor engage in the debates dur to their relative illiteracy.

Is literacy the ability to function in society? If it once meant simply the ability to sign your own name, which would’ve been the only function needed to operate successfully within societal parameters, what are the criteria today? The ability to read or write on the most basic of levels and comprehend broadcasters’ messages (and become enraged when necessary) seems to power an incredible portion of the population. It’s simple enough for anyone to write off more educated discussions than their level of learning permits as hoity-toity.

Are we different than the ancient Roman businessman, going about his day content that his being able to converse about the supposed nature of things renders him privileged? As the range of topics available for discussion becomes so interminably deep that only the most learned amongst us can participate, ‘literacy’ loses all meaning. The ‘literate’ amongst us range from the dispossessed homeless to those analysing the images from the Hubble telescope.

So it becomes a matter of contentment. You are ‘literate’ only if you are content with your space in the great fish pond of life. You are ‘illiterate’ if you’re not. Literacy has been reduced to mean merely a personal goal. Literacy is relative and dependent for definition upon its specific discourse, and as such, only the third dictionary definition below seems to continue to apply…




the quality or state of being literate, esp. the ability to read and write.


possession of education


a person’s knowledge of a particular subject or field

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3 Responses to The Ancient Roman Businessman and the modern literate masses

  1. Cam says:

    You raise questions quite similar to what I see as being the challenge of being skeptical. As you say, “[very] few of us would actually read the raw data behind even the most topical and imperative of subjects”. I’m constantly irked by the spread of misinformation when I hear it (in the few areas I’ve really been able to dig deep in), and also worry about the anecdotes or tidbits I pass on, for fear the source from which it came wasn’t reliable.

    Perhaps there’s some literacy in skilfully applied skepticism, that ability the divine when the digging ought to be done without becoming swamped by it all. All the while avoiding becoming ‘that guy’ who tediously, ‘helpfully’ insists upon factual correctness at all times.

    Nonetheless, by your contentment-based definition above, enlightenment is to be illiterate – “To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.” Right?

  2. Cam says:

    Oh by the way, if you want some seriously intimidating climate change reading material, check out

    Like, whoa.

  3. Andrew says:

    nice discussion of literacy—like the end in which you give a very broad and perhaps ideal if at the same time pragmatic definition of literacy as general social functioning (not the easiest literacy to command these days!) versus the individualist and functionalist take .. thought provoking …

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