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Roman contributions to journalism: The acta

Posted by: | February 23, 2016 | No Comment |

The Roman acta was the first example of a newspaper to be produced in Western civilization. The acta began being posted publicly in 59 BCE during the reign of Julius Caesar, and its contents were actually similar to the newspapers of today.

There were two different types of acta when Caesar decided to make the recorded information public. The first was acta senatus, a record of the senate in Rome’s activities. The second was acta diurna, or the news of the people.

Bust of Julius Caesar

             Bust of Julius Caesar

It is important to note that before Caesar decided to make the acta public in 59 BCE, the acta may have been recorded privately as early as 449 BCE. Caesar’s decision to open the information to the public was not entirely well received, and some of his successors chose to close the acta from public view.

During its time of open publication we can see through the example of Cicero just how important the Acta was to both Roman citizens at home and those abroad who wanted to keep track of the city. Cicero references reading the acta while abroad multiple times in letters to friends explaining his thoughts on current events.

Today, the Latin word acta is translated as gazette in English, another sign of the comparability of the acta to the newspapers of today. The content within the acta was similar as well, as it contained a mix of political, social, and even criminal news.

Like many people today who complain about seeing too much of the Kardashians in the news, Cicero is seen complaining about the amount of “tittle-tattle” in the acta that he believes distracts from the more important political news contained within the acta.

To be clear though the news the Romans were reading was not entirely like the news we read today in the United States. Unlike here in the States, all of the news presented by the Acta was directly from the governement; there were no independent news sources.

Roman Acta

      Roman Acta Diurna

Thanks to this control, many consuls and emperors viewed the acta as a way to reach and control the people. Some emperors like Commodus took advantage of the acta to promote themselves and build themselves up.

During times when the acta was not abused by those in power, it truly was the best source for news in Rome and surrounding areas. Despite having to be hand-copied, the acta was able to spread far and wide thanks to Roman roads and trade routes.

Overall, the acta was useful both to the general populace at home, as well as politicians abroad for staying up on current events in the world’s most powerful city. Politicians like Cicero, Cassius, and Cornificius were all able to keep track of events whether they were in Africa, the Middle East, and even parts of Asia as well.

The Roman acta certainly was a precursor to the eventual magazine that was to follow. The ability of Rome to create this type of meaningful information source for the public was something that would not be perfected until centuries later. All of this shows just how important the acta was in the history of journalism.

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