Acta Diurna: The First Roman Newspaper

Feb 8, 2022 0 comments

According to Cicero, from the beginning of Roman history the Pontifex Maximus compiled on a white table the most important events that had occurred in Rome during the year, as well as the names of the consuls and other magistrates of the Republic, and placed it in a public place where everyone could read it.

These records were called Annales Maximi and were compiled annually until, for reasons that Cicero does not explain, they ceased to be made in the year 131 BC. From that year onwards the annals began to be compiled by writers like Cato, but privately.

A Roman flower market. A painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836—1912)

The citizens of Rome had no official source of information in their daily lives that would provide them with knowledge of what was happening in the city, beyond popular gossip and word of mouth. That is why Julius Caesar decided in 59 BC that it was necessary to create a kind of daily bulletin to fill this gap.

In that year he ordered that public officials publish daily minutes, on the same type of white board (called an album ) that was used in ancient times for annals, and post them on bulletin boards or public places, such as the Forum of Rome, so that everyone could read them.

Upon taking office, Caesar was the first to establish that a diary would be kept of all the acts of the senate and the people, and that this diary would be made public.

Suetonius, Life of Caesar 20

They were called Acta diurna  (literally daily events ) and due to their own characteristics, many historians consider that they were a clear predecessor of modern newspapers. According to Luis Alberto Hernando, it is the first reliable example of journalism in the history of mankind, although, as is logical, it does not have all the characteristics that are currently required, but it does have many more than one might think.

They not only included the matters dealt with in the Senate, the laws and official and public dispositions of the magistrates, but were complemented with social gossip, exceptional, curious or interesting events, information on crimes, construction of new buildings, and various notices of a social (births, marriages, divorces, deaths), military or municipal nature (announcements of public games, festivities, supply of grain, etc.).

They were probably not published daily, but with some regularity. After being exposed to the public for a few days, they were removed and kept together with other public documents. Public and private scribes made copies of the Acta, adding other current information to the official news, and sent them to the governors and the provinces for distribution as well.

Comparison. A painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836—1912)

After Caesar's death, Emperor Augustus continued this publication, acknowledging the usefulness of the Acta as government propaganda, although excluding from them the details of the sessions of the Senate. Some scholars believe that they must have even contained graphic representations of battles and victories of the empire, similar to the representations on the triumphal arches.

We know what type of content they included and we have a certain idea of ​​what they were like thanks to the mentions of some Latin authors. Petronius, in his work Satyricon, offers a parody of the Acta diurna , in which a series of ridiculous facts are listed:

July 26: On the estate at Cumae thirty boys and forty girls were born. Forty thousand bushels of grain were transferred from the threshing floor into storage. Five hundred oxen were broken to the yoke. The slave Mithridates was crucified for cursing the guardian spirit of our Gaius. On the same day, ten million sesterces were returned to the treasury, for lack of investment opportunities. Also, there was a fire in the Gardens of Pompey; it broke out in the mansion of the overseer Nasta.

Pliny the Elder recounts several stories that he read in the Acta diurna , one about a dog's fidelity to his master, another about the conflict between two families during a funeral, and a third about a trial. Cassius Dio collects the story of an architect who saved a portico from collapse, also taken from the records, but only to note that Emperor Tiberius did not allow the savior's name to be published, as he was jealous of the architect's great achievement.

Seneca complains that the Acta publish long lists of divorces, for since every gazette has a divorce case, they (the Romans) have learned to do what they previously only knew by hearsay.

The Acta diurna were published until at least 235 AD (or possibly until the transfer of the imperial capital to Constantinople in 330 AD). Unfortunately, no original fragment has survived to this day, only mentions of them in the work of writers such as Tacitus or Suetonius. It is known that all the Acta included, at the end of the news and notices, the phrase publicare et propagare (publish and propagate), that is, the obligation for all citizens and non-citizens to publicize and disseminate them.

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.


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