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Bill Thayer

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 p806  Nota

Unsigned article on pp806‑807 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

NOTA, which signified a mark or sign of any kind, was also employed for an abbreviation. Hence notae signified the marks or signs used in taking down the words of a speaker, and was equivalent to our short-hand writing, or stenography; and notarii signified short-hand writers. It must be borne in mind, however, that notae also signified writing in cipher; and many passages in the ancient reciters which are supposed to refer to short-hand, refer in reality to writing in cipher. Thus both Julius Caesar and Augustus wrote many of their letters in cipher (per notas, Suet. Jul. 56, Suet. Aug. 88; comp. Gell. XVII.9). Still short-hand was well known and extensively employed. Among the Greeks it is said to have been invented by Xenophon (Diog. Laërt. II.48),​a and their short-hand writers were called ταχιγράφοι, ὀξυγράφοι and σημειογράφοι. The first introduction of the art among the Romans is ascribed to Cicero. Plutarch, in speaking of the speech of Cato in the senate on the punishment of the Catilinarian conspirators, relates, "They say that this is the only speech of Cato which is preserved, and that it was owing to Cicero the consul who had previously instructed those clerks, who surpassed the rest in quick writing, in the use of certain signs which comprehended in their small and brief marks the force of many characters, and had placed them in different parts of the senate-house. For the Romans at this time were not used to employ nor did they possess what are called note-writers (σημειογράφοι), but it was on this occasion, as they say, that they were first established in a certain form." (Cat. min. c23, Long's transl.) Cicero himself sometimes wrote in short-hand for the sake of brevity or secrecy (διὰ σημείων scripseram, Cic. ad Att. XIII.32). Dion Cassius (LV.7) attributes the invention of stenography to Maecenas. Eusebius, in his Chronicon, ascribes it to Tiro, the freedman of Cicero, and hence continue system of abbreviated writing, has received the name of Notae Tironianae; but there is no evidence to show whether this species of short-hand was really the invention of Tiro. It would appear, moreover, from several passages in ancient writers, that the system of short-hand employed in the time of the Roman empire must have been of a much simpler and more expeditious kind than the Notae Tironianae. Thus Seneca says (Ep. 90): "Quid verborum notas, quibus quamvis citata excipitur oratio, et celeritatem linguae manus sequitur." Manilius speaks to the same effect (IV.197):—

"Hic et scriptor erit velox, cui litera verbum est,
Quique notis linguam superet, cursimque loquentis
Excipiet longas nova per compendia voces."

And likewise Martial (XIV.208):—

"Currant verba licet; manus est velocior illis:

Nondum lingua suum, dextra peregit opus."

Many of the wealthy Romans kept slaves, who were trained in the art (Senec. Ep. l.c.). Thus the elder Pliny, when travelling, used to carry a notarius with him, that the slave might be ready to take down any thing that he wished (Plin. Ep. III.5). The art was also learnt even by the Roman nobles, and the emperor Titus was a great proficient in it (Suet. Tit. 3). At a later time, it seems to have been generally taught in the schools, and hence Fulgentius (Mytholog. III.10) divides the writing taught in schools into two kinds, the Abecedaria and Notaria; the former being the regular letters of the alphabet, ABCD, &c., and the latter, stenography. There were, moreover, short-hand writers (notarii) by profession, who were chiefly employed in taking down (notare, excipere) the proceedings in the courts of justice. At a later  p807 period, they were called exceptores (Dig. 19 tit. 2 s19 §9). These short-hand writers were also employed on some occasions to take down a person's will (Dig. 29 tit. 1 s40).

This is the chief information we have respecting the use of stenography by contemporary writers. But Isidorus, who lived in the seventh century of the Christian era, gives a more detailed account of the history of the art (Orig. I.21 p836, ed. Gothofred). He ascribes the invention of the art to Ennius (?), who he says invented 1100 marks (notae); but the first person who practised it at Rome he states to have been Tiro, the freedman of Cicero, who, however, according to Isidore's account, used only notae for prepositions. Isidore then goes on to say that the additional notae were invented by Tertius Persannius, Philargius, and Aquila, a freedman of Maecenas, till at length Seneca reduced the whole to a regular system, and increased the number of notae to 5000. What truth there may be in this account, it is impossible to say; but the view which it gives of the gradual improvement of the system by successive persons is, from the nature of the case, most probable.

The system of short-hand called Notae Tironianae is explained in a work printed by Gruter in his Thesaurus Inscriptionum. This work is ascribed in the manuscripts to Tiro and Seneca, but contains many words, which were only used at a much later age. It appears from this work, that the Notae Tironianae were very different from our system of stenography, and were simple abbreviations of the words, such as were used, only to a smaller extent, in ordinary writing. We likewise have some manuscripts written in Notae Tironianae, of which an account is given in the work of Kopp quoted below (Carpentier, Alphabetum Tironianum, Paris, 1747; Kopp, Palaeographica Critica, 1817, vol. I; Becker, Gallus, vol. I pp197, 198).

Thayer's Note:

a A conclusion unwarranted by the passage in Diogenes; I agree with the article as rewritten for the 1890 edition of Smith's Dictionary:

As to the history of this art, it is impossible to say with certainty whether the Romans originated their own shorthand and communicated it to the Greeks, or whether the Greeks had it first. The idea of its earlier use in Greece is started by a passage of Diogenes Laertius (2.48), which states that Xenophon took down lectures ὑποσημειωσάμενος τὰ λεγόμενα. It is quite possible that this may, as some think, mean that he wrote in shorthand; but, in the absence of other mention of the art at that time, we should prefer to understand it merely of ordinary note-taking.

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