Isidore of Seville – on the Tironian notae

From Isidore of Seville, Etmologiae, book 1, chapter 22:


[1] Vulgares notas Ennius primus mille et centum invenit. Notarum usus erat ut, quidquid pro con[ten]tione aut [in] iudiciis diceretur, librarii scriberent conplures simul astantes, divisis inter se partibus, quot quisque verba et quo ordine exciperet. Romae primus Tullius Tiro Ciceronis libertus commentus est notas, sed tantum praepositionum.

[2] Post eum Vipsanius, Philargius, et Aquila libertus Maecenatis alius alias addiderunt. Deinde Seneca, contractu omnium digestoque et aucto numero, opus efficit in quinque milia. Notae autem dictae eo, quod verba vel syllabas praefixis characteribus notent et ad notitiam legentium revocent; quas qui didicerunt proprie iam notarii appellantur. [1]

xxii. Common shorthand signs (De notis vulgaribus)

1. Ennius first invented eleven hundred common signs. These signs were used in this way: several scribes standing by together would write down whatever was said in a trial or judgment, with the sections distributed among them so that each scribe would take down a certain number ofwords in turn. In Rome,TulliusTiro, a freedman of Cicero’s, first devised such signs, but only for prepositions.

2. After him, Vipsanius, Philargius, and Aquila, another freedman of Maecenas, added others. Then, after the total number of signs had been collected, set in order, and increased in number, Seneca produced a work with five thousand signs. They are called ‘signs’ (nota) because they would designate (notare) words and syllables by predetermined characters and recall them to the knowledge (notitia) of readers. Those who have learned these signs are properly called stenographers (notarius) today.[2]

Isidore in fact lists various sorts of notae, and some of the manuscripts of the Commentarii Notarium Tironianarum quote him on some or all of them, so it’s worth a quick list:

XXI. DE NOTIS SENTENTIARVM – Critical signs.  These are things like asterisks, the obolus, the cryphia, the diple, etc.  Things that ancient scribes put in the margins of manuscripts!

XXIII. DE NOTIS IVRIDICIS – Signs used in law.  Abbreviations used in ancient law books, like “SC” for senatus consultum, i.e. a decree of the senate.

XXIV. DE NOTIS MILITARIBVS – Military signs.  These were symbols placed on the lists or rosters of soldiers, like a T “tau” meaning “alive” or a Θ (theta, for thanatos), indicating that the soldier was killed.

XXV. DE NOTIS LITTERARVM – Epistolary signs.  Secret codes used by letter writers to indicate to each other information, while looking innocuous.

XXVI. DE NOTIS DIGITORVM – Finger signals.  Gestures of particular meaning.

This work of Isidore seems full of interesting snippets of antiquity.  It really needs to be read in paper form – trying to do so from a PDF is frustrating!

  1. [1]Via The Latin Library.  An old source, online, but still valuable.
  2. [2]S. Barney &c, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, Cambridge, 2006, p.51.

An ancient handbook of short-hand: Tironian notes and the “Commentarii notarum Tironianarum”

A new article at the British Library Manuscripts blog, Emilia Henderson, “Note-worthy connections: antique shorthand in Carolingian books“,[1], discusses an obscure ancient text, the Commentarii notarum Tironianarum, or Lexicon Tironianum.  This is a handbook of short-hand, giving the symbols with the Latin word or phrase that they represent.

Bernard Bischoff wrote:

The name covers the many layers of material that we have in the Commentarii notarum tironianarum (CNT), a list of roughly 13,000 signs with their explanations, and in examples of their practical use as shorthand in many early medieval manuscripts and charters.

According to a credible statement by Isidore of Seville, M. Tullius Tiro, a freedman of Cicero’s, was the inventor of a basic corpus of signs that made writing from dictation easier for him. Other personalities of the first century BC and of the first century ad developed and expanded the system, amongst them Seneca (probably the philosopher). To the Commentarii that have been transmitted to us special lists of signs for names and concepts were added subsequently (among them Christian ones, which must belong to the latest additions, perhaps from the fourth century).[2]

There are something like 20 manuscripts of the Commentarii notarum Tironianarum, and a good number are online.  Here are some that I was able to locate.

  • British Library Additional 21164 – Here fol. 2v begins “De notis Militaribus”, and ends with “Incipiunt Notae Senecae”, before we get the title page on fol. 3r.:
BL. Add. 21164, folio 3r.
Fol. 1r.
Fol. 1v
Geneva Latin 85, fol. 1v.
BNF lat. 7493, folio 106r.
BNF latin 8777, fol. 1v
BNF latin 8779, fol. 15r.
Vatican latin 3799, fol. 1r
Wolfenbuttel 9-8-aug-4f

All these manuscripts are from the 9th century, I believe.  They show a common motif at the beginning, the dagger.  Some give a whole page, others abbreviate it; but perhaps it suggests that they derive from a common ancestor which was laid out like this.  I read somewhere that the tironian notae are used extensively in the post-Roman Merovingian period, becoming increasingly corrupt, but are then restored at the start of the Carolingian period by the discovery of a late-antique exemplar, from which these copies derive.  Unfortunately I do not have the reference for this claim.

There is an edition of the Commentarii notarum Tironianarum available, by W. Schmitz (1893),[4] and it may found downloaded from here.  P. Legendre, Etudes tironiennes, Paris. (IV. Les manuscrits tironiens), 1907, contains a list of 21 manuscripts of the work, and is also online at here.  R.M. Sheldon, Espionage in the Ancient World, 2015, p.90 (preview here) gives a bibliography and advises the reader to look at this work:

Herbert Boge, Griechische Tachygraphie und Tironische Noten: Ein Handbuch der antiken und mittelalterlichen Schnellschrift.  Boge begins with definitions of Tachygraphy (stenography) then goes on to discuss the examples found in the Greek world from the fourth century be including the Acropolis system, the consonant tables from Delphi, and examples from the second and first century BC. He then goes on to discuss Tironian notes and Roman shorthand writing. He includes an excellent bibliography.

It is, sadly, offline; and in German, so perhaps no loss.

The tironian notae may seem an old and obscure subject.  Yet they remain in use even today, in Southern Ireland.  The nota for “et”, , looking like a small numeral seven, is in unicode.  An Irish blogger, Stan Carey, posted this use on a street sign, as well as other examples in his post, “The Tironian et (⁊) in Galway, Ireland”.

How fascinating to see such a survival!

  1. [1]12th August, 2019.
  2. [2]Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages. p.80.  Preview here.
  3. [3]I did attempt to transcribe the prologue, probably not well: “Incipit de vulgaribus notis quomodo prius inventae sunt. Vulgares notas ennius primus mille & centum invenit notarum.  Usus erat repertus utquicquid procontentione aut iniudicus divisis incerse oartibus quod quisq: verba et quo ordine exciperet.  Romae primus Tullius tyro ciceronis libertus commentator est notas.  Sed tantum praepositio num; postcum tertius vipersammius philargius et aquila lib.tus mecenatis alius alias addiderunt.   Deine Seneca contractoque et aucto numero opus efficit in quique milia.  Notae autem dictae eo quod verba vel syllabas praefixis caracteribus notent, ut ad notitiam legentium revocent; quas qui didicerint. Propriae iam notarii appellantur.  Explicit prologus de vulgaribus notis.”
  4. [4]Commentarii notarum tironianarum cum prolegomenis adnotationibus criticis et exegeticis notarumque indice alphabetico : edidit Guilelmus Schmitz.

The origins of marking written work in red ink – Cicero and Atticus

While reading Tiziano Dorandi’s fascinating work, Le stylet et la tablette, on how ancient authors composed their works, I find on p.113 a little snippet.

Cicero sent his works to Atticus for correction and publication.  It seems that Atticus would ‘mark’ the work in red ink, just like a modern school-teacher.

We learn from Cicero’s letter to Atticus (book 16, 11, 1) that the former pretended to have just the same feelings, as a modern pupil would:

Nostrum opus tibi probari laetur … cerulas enim tuas miniatulas illas extimescebam!

I am glad that my work pleases you … for I was afraid of your little red crayon!

How little some things change down the centuries.  Red and black have been the standard colours for inks for centuries, probably because they were easiest to prepare.  I wonder whether Roman schoolboys did homework?  There are certainly schoolboy exercises among the papyri from Egypt.

From my diary

A virus has left me stuck at home, and I am therefore in need of  the less taxing kind of literature to pass the time.  I have fallen back on Cicero’s Letters to his friends, in the two volume Penguin edition from 1978, translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey.[1]

Letters are a strange form of literature to peruse, and require a certain state of mind to read with enjoyment.  They are usually short, which makes them slip down easily.  At the same time they are inevitably very “bitty”.  Each is a short piece of this, a short piece of that.  There is a correspondent whom we will not know and who needs to be identified by a brief well-considered footnote.  This may not be an end-note, under any circumstances, for the reader will die of flipping to and fro very quickly.  But it may be supplemented by a longer end-note for important personages now known only to specialists.

Cicero’s letters were collected in antiquity, probably by Tiro his secretary.  He kept copies of his letters — I have just read one where a correspondent had torn up a letter and then apologised for doing so, and Cicero replies that he need not worry, “I have it here”, and that a fresh copy can be sent.  Books of letters addressed to particular recipients circulated.  These included great men of the late Republic, like Cato and Julius Caesar, which have not come down to us.  But sixteen books of letters have reached us, so it makes for a lengthy correspondence even so.  Thankfully the Penguin translation reordered the letters into roughly chronological sequence.

In a separate volume are the great mass of letters to Cicero’s friend and publisher, Atticus.  I confess that I have always found this very hard to read, partly because Penguin issued it in a single monster volume, rather than splitting it into two.  I could wish that some publisher took the obvious step and combined the two sets of letters, producing a  set of four volumes in chronological order.

For the “story” of the book is the story of Cicero’s life.  That is what unites the letters, and makes it possible for the reader to read such a mass of short pieces.  In two separate series it is quite difficult to do.

The Roman attitudes expressed in these volumes can sometimes be quite alien.  In one case Cicero writes to ask a friend to hunt down an escaped library slave of his own named Dionysius and return him, evidently for punishment.  In a later letter Vatinius, then on campaign in Dalmatia, writes to say he has heard that the slave is hiding among a local tribe, and states his intention of ferretting him out, wherever he goes, in order to please Cicero.  The idea that Dionysius should be left alone occurs to neither.  Their own advantage is all.

Likewise there is a casual indifference to marriage and divorce.  The noble Romans of this period dumped their wives at their pleasure, while the abuse of their slaves in every household was taken for granted.  Meanwhile their cradles were empty and their lineages perished.  Their society was morally bankrupt.  Tyranny followed.

  1. [1]Pleasingly this is currently available from Oxford University Press repackaged into a single volume, here, ISBN13: 9781555402648, for a mere $32.  The translation is also in the current Loeb edition.

Some sayings by Cicero from the ‘Saturnalia’ of Macrobius

I have been reading the Saturnalia of Macrobius, that curious store of Latin learning from the very end of the empire.  Book 2 contains a collection of witticisms.  Here are a few.

[ 1] But I am surprised, continued Symmachus, that none of you have said anything of Cicero’s jests, for here, as in everything else, he had the readiest of tongues. If it is your pleasure, then, I shall play the part of the mouthpiece of an oracle and repeat as many of his sayings as I can remember. All were eager to hear him and he began as follows.

[2] When he was dining at the house of Damasippus, his host produced a very ordinary wine, saying, “Try this Falernian; it is forty years old. ” “Young for its age,” replied Cicero.

[3] Seeing his son-in-law Lentulus (who was a very short man) wearing a long sword, he said: “Who has buckled my son-in-law to that sword?”…

[ 11] There was another occasion on which Cicero openly jeered at the readiness with which Caesar admitted new members to the Senate; for, asked by his host Publius Mallius to procure the office of decurion for his stepson, he said in the presence of a large company: “Senatorial rank? Well, at Rome he shall certainly have it, if you so wish; but at Pompeii it isn’t easy.”

[ 12] And indeed his biting wit went even further; for, greeted by a certain Andron from Laodicea, he asked what had brought him to Rome and, hearing that the man had come as an envoy to Caesar to beg freedom for his city, he made open reference to the servile state of Rome by saying, in Greek, “If you are successful, put in a word for us too.”

Cicero at Oxyrhynchus

I wonder how many people know that 10 papyrus fragments of Cicero exist from Oxyrhynchus, etc, the earliest dating from the start of the 1st century AD and the latest from the 6th? I certainly didn’t!

I owe this knowledge to CEDOPAL, the online database of 7,000 papyri.  A look at the drop-down list of authors is interesting by itself.  Julius Africanus is represented.  Three fragments of the lost works of the 2nd century jurist  Ulpian are there.  A few bits of Galen; surprisingly few, really, considering that his works amount of 10% of the now-surviving Greek literature before AD 300.  A fragment of Juvenal Satire 7 from ca. 500 AD from Arsinoe is a poignant relic, considering that he ended his days in exile in Egypt.

Only two snippets of Libanius were found, one from his Monody for Julian the Apostate.  A fragment of an epitome by Manetho exists from the 5th century.  Another 2nd century fragment is from the Chronicle of Phlegon of Tralles; and Hippolytus gives us a fragment of his own Chronicle, 6-7th century.  Polybius is present in a 1st century AD fragment.  And so the list goes on.

I was glad to see that links are starting in CEDOPAL to appear to online images of some of the papyri.  This must come, I think, and will put an end to the absurd concealment of these things behind barriers of money and privilege.  But much remains to be done.