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Social Networks in Ancient Rome: Cicero’s Political Web

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When one hears of networks, especially social networks, one usually thinks of it as a recently developed study, especially considering the rapid development of mass media in the past two centuries and that of social media in the past decade. However, the article above talks about a sophisticated information exchange-network developed by the politicians of Ancient Rome and actively used by a Roman statesman & philosopher Cicero. This is a clear example of the social network in the ancient world, 1,500 years before printing press and more than 1,800 years before any electronic devices. In fact, there might’ve been even earlier networks that we do not know as much about.

When Cicero was appointed a governor of Cilicia (modern-day Turkey) in 51 B.C., he needed a way to keep up with the ever-changing political situation in Rome, considering he was now far away from the capital. The network that Cicero was using was mostly relying on letters, transcriptions of political speeches, and copies of documents on papyrus rolls. The article quotes Tom Standage, saying that “…Cicero’s own correspondence… shows that he exchanged letters constantly with his friends… keeping them up to date with the latest political machinations… Letters were often copied, shared, and quoted… Some letters were addressed to several people and were written to be read aloud, or to be posted in public for general consumption.” This shows that Cicero used this network for a dual purpose: to receive information about political intrigues in Rome and to spread his word among people.

Moreover, the article talks about the different types of connections Cicero had in the network. Obviously, not all of these connections were equally strong, and some of the people Cicero wrote letters to were in a closed circle, so he could entrust them with more important tasks related to spreading information within the network. However, if one wanted to classify the connections Cicero had, one would have to use more categories than two for “strong” and “weak” connections. For example, his friend and protégé Marcus Calius Rufus could be classified as the “strongest” connection. Cicero’s close associates, who were given the copies of his noteworthy speeches, could read them out loud and pass them to others. They could thus be classified as “very strong” connections. Cicero’s political friends in Rome could be classified as “medium-strong” connections – even if they were trustworthy, they were too far away. Even Cicero wrote: “Others will write, many will bring me news, much too will reach me even in the way of rumor.” “Others” in this case could be classified as “strong” connections (including those mentioned above); “many” could refer to “medium” or “weak” connections that could be represented, for example, by people who visited Cicero’s house as guests or messengers; finally, “much” could refer to random people that Cicero barely knew or didn’t know at all, like merchants on the street or other guests at the events Cicero would visit – “weakest” or “random” connections. One could even go as far as trying to construct Cicero’s ego network, showing all the politicians that he worked with or against throughout his political career.

It is fascinating to explore the connections between men in power in the ancient world, as it shows that even back then politicians between themselves had many more ties than one would expect. Another example of a network in Ancient Rome involves Julio-Claudian tree (shown below), which shows the family connections between the first five emperors of Roman Empire (or Julius Caesar and the first four emperors, to be more precise). Interestingly, not everyone on this tree was even involved in politics. It is thus important to remember that the study of networks has extensive applications and not to think that it only became relevant with the advance of mass media, Internet, and online social networks.


Julio-Claudian family tree 


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