A few years ago, Ryan Baumann, a digital humanities developer at Duke University, was flipping through a collection of ancient Greek manuscripts from the early 20th century when he came across an intriguing commentary. The author noted that there was undeciphered shorthand in the margin of a papyrus and added a hopeful note that future scholars might be able to read it. The casual side took Baumann on a new journey to unlock the mysteries of an ancient code.
At first, Baumann told me, he thought maybe everything had been deciphered. “I was like, ‘Well, it’s been like 100 years, maybe someone Has found out!’ So I looked it up, and to my delight, the system of ancient Greek shorthand appears to have been largely figured out.” To his dismay, however, this centuries-long scholarly achievement has also been largely overlooked and underexplored. Very few people are interested in shorthand.
Why is that important? Well, Ancient Greek and Latin shorthand (also known as shorthand or tachygraphy) were the basis of ancient writing and record keeping. In the first century B.C. Scripts that were created enabled people to record things faster than “normal”. As it is today, according to Baumann, shorthand was “of crucial importance” for recording court hearings and political speeches, but dictation was also used for letters, philosophy and narratives. Everything from old romance novels to basic political theories was first transcribed in shorthand. Often this was done on erasable wax tablets (we have many examples from archaeological digs), but shorthand was also used on papyri and parchment.
Although his primary education was in computer science, Baumann has worked with the Duke Collaboratory for Classics Computing since 2013 and on papyri since 2007. The Duke Collaboratory operates papyri.info, a freely accessible online resource that collects information about ancient Greek papyrus manuscripts and its contents. Duke is one of the world’s leading institutions for the work on ancient manuscripts – not only does it have a remarkable collection, but it is also home to many prominent manuscript experts. So Baumann was able to think more about these ancient codes.
There are various theories as to where shorthand came from, but most legends about its origins identify it as “slave knowledge”. Latin shorthand may have its origins in Greek shorthand, but the most popular theory since the fifth-century Christian writer Jerome links it to Tiro, the politician Cicero’s best-known secretary. According to tradition, it was Tiro who was responsible for inventing a system of several thousand abbreviations—often referred to as Tironian notes—that condensed the spoken word into a concise system. There is evidence that elite writers considered shorthand declassé: Seneca described them as “slavish brands” developed by “slaves of the lowest quality”.
It’s easy to see why this was important to Tiro, given that he was commissioned to record much of the nearly 90,000 letters Cicero wrote during his lifetime. But shorthand was not only useful for letters. It had enormous bureaucratic value (and has much in common with the abbreviation systems we find in the specialist literature on ancient science and mathematics). This meant that some important legal documents were transcribed by enslaved workers using abbreviations and symbols.
However, unlike the forms of shorthand that dominated Europe and America in the 20th century, Ancient Greek and Latin shorthand were not always standardized and uncompromisingly difficult to learn. A second-century treaty from Egypt tells us that it took an enslaved child two years to master shorthand Greek. The curriculum began with memorization of a basic set of signs, vowels, syllables, word endings, and phrases before the student progressed to a more complicated system of compound signs. In this second step, a single character was modified with a dot or dash to expand its meaning. With a few exceptions, these symbols were by no means pictorial, so that one could not guess their meaning just by looking at them. This made it useful for military communications and espionage: both Julius Caesar and the Jewish freedom fighters who led the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the mid-second century used it to send messages.
Those learning the old shorthand were aided by something called a “comment,” a series of phrases that served as a mnemonic for the student. A copy of this commentary was published in the important volume by Sofía Torallas Tovar and Klass Worp On the origins of Greek shorthand. It has helped scholars decipher more complex characters and understand how it was learned. “At the end of this process,” said Baumann, “the student would have learned a system of over 800 characters in addition to a gigantic lookup table with over 4,000 words and sentences.”
In my own work, I have argued that, to the best of our knowledge, only those who went through this laborious process – that is, enslaved and formerly enslaved workers – could actually read it. To the untrained eye, it resembles squiggles or chicken scratches. Given the transformative nature of translating the spoken word first into symbols and then into Ancient Greek (or Latin), literacy seems important. (Full disclosure: I have an article that will appear in the early next year Journal of Theological Studies discussing the implications of this for thinking about the composition of early Christian texts and the ways in which enslaved people might have resisted power structures).
To further complicate matters for modern scholars, people modified and personalized their shorthand systems. While a child may have learned a standard form as part of their education, they quickly modified it to work for them. For example, the marginalia in a fragment of Plato discussed by Kathleen McNamee uses a somewhat modified system. Those who worked in bureaucracy needed legal terms and measurements, and those who assisted doctors needed many signs for diseases and body parts. Although we have largely deciphered the Greek shorthand, we still have to pay attention. dr Jeremiah Coogan told me that it is very contextual and emerges from the practical contexts of workshops, bureaucratic spaces and households.
The problem, Baumann told me, is that scholars have not cared that much about shorthand and thus have not fully or accurately noted its presence. If an editor merely notes that there were “shorthand characters” in a particular ancient text, that doesn’t even tell us how many there were, let alone what they were. Sometimes editors of manuscripts describe it not as shorthand but as “unidentified script”. If an entire text was written in shorthand, it may have been misidentified at some point during study. And in some cases, the editors may not have registered it at all. The lack of editorial consistency makes it difficult to get a sense of how many untranslated shorthands there are. Unless we go back and sort through the hundreds of thousands of papyrological fragments held in university libraries, museums, and private collections, we can’t really be sure what’s out there.
This is an area where digitization could help if additional resources were available to scientists. We lack the proper tools for notation: we don’t have a shorthand font, so even if you wanted to transcribe old shorthand and print it in a book or put it on a site like papyri.info, that wouldn’t be possible. In 1992 Giovanna Menci started a database of papyri containing shorthand with the aim of eventually creating a corpus of shorthand texts. However, the project was abandoned due to technological challenges and lack of funding.
So what this means is that ancient manuscripts have inscribed codes that we could read but are not. This material could give us a glimpse into the hidden spaces of ancient written culture and access to scientific thinking, bureaucratic processes and literary interpretation. It holds particular promise for helping us understand the covert lives of enslaved people and deciphering the workings of the Roman military. But currently, only a select group of scholars and librarians even think about it. The first steps, Baumann said, are to make transcriptions and readings of the papyri we have and expand our understanding of how it worked. This is still an obscure sub-sub-discipline and just gathering what we know so far would allow a larger number of people to participate in the project. If we want to understand shorthand, Baumann said to me, “We must first revive the dead understanding of ancient Greek shorthand.” If we do that, “knowledge lost over a millennium can be regained.”
https://www.thedailybeast.com/there-are-still-codes-throughout-ancient-roman-literature?source=articles&via=rss There are still codes throughout ancient Roman literature