Ancient Greek and Roman shorthand

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Inasmuch as we recently puzzled over modern shorthand, it should be fun to take a look at what shorthand was like two millennia and more ago.

There Are Still Codes Throughout Ancient Roman Literature

For centuries we’ve ignored the marginalia writing of slave stenographers, but focusing on it now could give fresh insight into their lives, and into military and literary history.

By Candida Moss, The Daily Beast (11/5/22)

What happened is like a rediscovery of a century-old discovery of a cultural practice that was common two millennia and more ago.

Several years ago, Ryan Baumann, a digital humanities developer at Duke University, was leafing through an early 20th-century collection of ancient Greek manuscripts when he ran across an intriguing comment. The author noted that there was an undeciphered form of shorthand in the margins of a piece of papyrus and added a hopeful note that perhaps future scholars might be able to read it. The casual aside set Baumann off on a new journey to unlock the secrets of an ancient code.

Initially, Baumann told me, he thought that perhaps everything had been deciphered. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, it’s been about 100 years, maybe someone has figured it out!’ So, I looked into it, and to my delight, the system of ancient Greek shorthand does seem to have been largely figured out.” To his dismay, though, this century-spanning scholarly achievement has also been largely overlooked and underexplored. Very few people are interested in shorthand.

Why does this matter? Well, ancient Greek and Latin shorthand (also known as stenography or tachygraphy) were the bedrock of ancient writing and record keeping. The scripts that emerged in the first century BCE allowed people to record things faster than “normal.” Just like today, said Baumann, stenography was “crucially important” for recording courtroom proceedings and political speeches, but dictation was also used to compose letters, philosophy, and narrative. Everything from ancient romance novels to foundational political theories were first transcribed in shorthand. Often this would have happened on erasable wax tablets (we have many examples from archaeological excavations), but shorthand was also used on papyri and parchment.

The scribes of ancient Egypt were engaged in a hieratic practice, the diviners who wrote divination texts on the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty were likewise charged with a sacred task.  But when it came to speed writing in the classical Mediterranean world a thousand years later, it was entrusted to slave stenographers.

There are various different theories about where shorthand came from but most of the legends about its origins identify it as “slave knowledge.” Latin shorthand may have had its origins in Greek shorthand but the most popular theory, since the Christian writer Jerome in the fifth century, connects it to Tiro, the best known of the politician Cicero’s secretaries. According to tradition, it is Tiro who was responsible for inventing a multiple-thousand system of abbreviations—often referred to as Tironian Notes—that condensed spoken word into a terse system. There’s some evidence that elite authors thought shorthand was déclassé: Seneca described it as “slavish brands” devised by “the lowest quality slaves.”

It’s easy to see why this was important for Tiro as he was charged with recording a chunk of the nearly 90,000 letters that Cicero wrote in his lifetime. But shorthand wasn’t only useful for letters. It had huge bureaucratic value (and has a great deal in common with the systems of abbreviation that we find in technical literature about ancient science and mathematics). This meant that some important legal documents were transcribed by enslaved workers using abbreviations and symbols.


For historians of writing, the role of shorthand and its practitioners are vital topics deserving much greater attention.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Don Keyser]


  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    November 9, 2022 @ 10:02 am

    Many a resource:

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 9, 2022 @ 11:53 am

    From Joe Farrell:

    It happens that one of our grad students just finished a dissertation in which tachygraphy plays a role. He is working with a Latin text that he argues convincingly began as classroom lectures that were transcribed via shorthand and eventually published. An important point is that he discovered along the way that elite Greek students scorned tachygraphy as a servile technique, but elite Roman students did not. It's not obvious why this would be, but it seems incorrect to lump the two groups together (as can often be done in various respects, however).

    The student's name is Nikola Golubovic and the text he's working on is a corpus of minor declamations ascribed to Quintilian. He didn't actually discover the discrepancy between Greek and Roman attitudes to shorthand; he found it in the subject literature. His argument about the Minor Declamations, though, is wholly original and astoundingly significant.

    Another person working on this sort of thing is Joe Howley at Columbia, who has actually teamed up with Candida Moss to edit a book on slaves and book production, and is also writing a monograph of his own on that subject. It's an interesting field!

  3. Polyspaston said,

    November 9, 2022 @ 9:57 pm

    "And she said, as Amun endures and as the Ruler endures, I shall make the people whom I have recorded as free people of the land of Pharaoh l.p.h., and a son or daughter or brother or sister of their mother or their father shall make a claim against them (…) a donkey shall copulate with him, and a donkey shall copulate with his wife, the one who shall say 'slave!' to one of them." (p. Ashmolean Museum 1945-96)

    One can overdo the sacredness of Egyptian writing, but it was certainly a professional competence.

    Nevertheless, some abbreviations do exist in Egyptian – the most common being sp-sn (x2) and the use of three hieroglyphs to represent the phrase ꜥnḫ wḏꜣ snb, "live, prosper, be healthy" (= l.p.h. above), which usually comes after the name of the king or the palace. Those are the two that come to mind right now, because they're written so frequently.

    Hieratic *practice* is of course an interesting point in its own right- Gardiner Sign List Z5 is a transcription convention for what a fellow student when I was an undergrad referred to as the 'lazy scribe sign' – the use of a curved stroke when the scribe couldn't be bothered to write out the whole sign, which becomes quite common in later New Kingdom hieratic, particularly in administrative documents, along with an increase in the use of ligatures. This isn't a shorthand per se, since it's not a thoroughgoing revision of the script to produce a new one so much as a series of variably-applied practices. It is presumably motivated by the same desire to write faster, though. The same argument can probably be made for the development of both the 'abnormal hieratic' and demotic scripts in the Late Period.

  4. Ellie Kesselman said,

    November 10, 2022 @ 7:02 am

    Modern cultures have different attitudes about transcription, taking shorthand, and related activities. In the USA, to use "secretary" to describe an administrative assistant's role would likely be considered offensive (although the title of Secretary as a board or committee member has no pejorative connotation). In contrast, in parts of the Commonwealth in the past and present, there was/is no negative association, nor is it looked down upon as "women's work".

    The sacred aspect of ancient Egyptian and Shang dynasty shorthand scribes gave the role gravitas. That would be lacking in the context of using stenography for political speeches and court proceedings. Maybe this is an explanation for it being perceived as work for "low quality slaves" by Seneca et al. in the Greek and Roman world?

    Polyspaston : I enjoyed reading your comment. The abbreviation l.p.h. = "live, prosper, and be happy" following the Pharaoh's name immediately reminded me of the use of p.b.h. or p.b.u.h. = "peace be upon him", many centuries later.

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