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NOTAE (σημεῖα) in a technical sense means those signs and abbreviations which were used (1) for secret writing, cipher; (2) for rapid writing, i.e. shorthand or stenography.

1. We have frequent mention of the use of cipher, for despatches or letters of an important or compromising nature, at the end of the Republican period. Thus of Caesar's correspondence with Oppius and Balbus we are told by Gallus that there were “litterae singulariae sine coagmentis syllabarum: erat autem conventum inter eos (the writer and his correspondents) clandestinum de commutando situ litterarum.” The cipher used by Caesar was, according to [p. 2.244]Suetonius (Suet. Jul. 56), a simple one, and consisted in making D stand for A, E for B, and so on through the alphabet, “si qua occultius perferenda essent.” The cipher used by Augustus was on the same principle. (Suet. Aug. 88; Becker-Göll, Gallus, 1.62.) Whether the words διὰ σημείων in Cic. Att. 13.3. 2 mean, in cipher, or simply with abbreviations of words (sigla), or in shorthand, is uncertain. The letter to which he refers (13.30) does not seem to be one which particularly requires secrecy, but it is quite possible that he may have sent it in cipher: on the other hand, he may, though less probably, have sent Atticus the copy taken down in shorthand from his dictation. However that may be, we may feel tolerably certain that in Cicero's correspondence cipher was used at least as frequently as in Caesar's.

2. The whole system of signs for numeration [see LOGISTICA] is no doubt essentially stenography; but it existed quite apart from, and probably was much anterior to, the art of shorthand writing which is usually expressed by that word: the same may be said of signs or letters for money value, weights, coins, &c., which, like the signs for numeration, arose from consideration of economy in space, rather than from any necessity for rapid writing. Such a necessity was the origin of the Notae Tironianae (called also Notae Tironis et Senecae), which we may take as the representative of ancient shorthand writing.

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. We have not in fact any direct mention of its use among Greeks or Romans before the time of Cicero. (For a much earlier use in Asia, some adduce the “ready writer” in Psalm xlv., in which sense the LXX. translator possibly took it, when he rendered it ὀξυγράφος.) The use of shorthand at Rome may have been developed from cipher-writing, or more probably from the frequent use of abbreviations, such as S. C., &c. Of its use by Cicero we have abundant record. Plutarch (Cato Min. 23) tells us that the speech on the punishment of the Catilinarians was the only speech of Cato that was preserved, and that this was owing to Cicero, “who had previously instructed those clerks who surpassed the rest in quick writing, how to use certain signs (σημεῖα) which in small and brief characters (τύποις) comprehended the force of many letters, and had placed them in many parts of the senate-house. For the Romans at that time were not used to employ, nor did they possess, what are called shorthand writers (σημειογράφοι), but it was on this occasion, as they say, that they first conceived the idea.” Dio Cassius (55.7) ascribes the invention to Maecenas, which probably means merely that he, or his secretaries, made considerable additions and improvements, and this is exactly the account which Isidore gives in the 7th century, derived, as it seems, from Suetonius. He ascribes the invention of the shorthand in general use (vulgares notae) to Ennius, who used 1100 signs: for taking down public speeches or the proceedings in law-courts, there was also a division of labour among several librarii (= notarii), who took different portions. He says that Tiro had first used notae at Rome, “sed tantum praepositionum:” if that is correct, we must suppose that the actual shorthand of Tiro consisted of abbreviations (sigla), with arbitrary signs only for particles of frequent occurrence: he goes on to say that additional signs were added in succession by Vipsanius, Philargyrus and Aquila, the freedman of Maecenas, till at length Seneca reduced the whole to a regular system and increased the number of signs to 5,000. As regards the Ennius here mentioned, whom many writers have taken to be the poet (whence they make Isidore assert a much earlier date to Roman stenography), there can be little doubt that he was the grammarian Ennius of the Augustan period (see Suet. de Grammat. 1; Teuffel, Hist. of Rom. Lit. § 178, 4). Indeed the context shows clearly enough that Isidore speaks of Ennius as improving on something which existed in a smaller shape in Cicero's time. From Cicero's account of Tiro (ad Farm. 16.4, &c.; cf. Gel. 6.3, 8) it is extremely probable that the real labour of the work was his, not Cicero's, and that the title “notae Tironianae” is just: but the addition “et Senecae” seems to be rejected by Seneca himself, who says, “quid loquar verborum notas, quibus quamvis citata excipitur oratio et celeritatem linguae manus sequitur? vilissimorum mancipiorum ista commenta sunt.” The arrangement and additions were, however, probably effected by him through his notarii.

From this time its use spread. It served not only for taking down public speeches (as in Plutarch, l.c.), but also for the use of students in the lecture-room (Quint. Inst. proem. 7), and for any writing from dictation, e. g. for the rough draft of wills: “Silius notario testamentum scribendum notis dictavit, et priusquam litteris perscriberetur (the full text for signature) defunctus est” (Dig. 29, 1, 40). The same distinction between notae and perscriptio may be seen in the fragment of Valerius Probus about cipher-writing, “est etiam circa perscribendas vel paucioribus litteris notandas voces studium necessarium.” It was taught in schools: see Prudent. Περὶ Στεφάνων, 9.

Praefuerat studiis puerilibus et grege multo

Saeptus magister litterarum sederat,
Verba notis brevibus comprendere cuncta peritus, Raptimque punctis dicta praepetibus sequi.

So Fulgentius (Mythol. 3.10) divides the writing lesson into the abecedaria or regular alphabet, and the notaria. Many Romans kept slaves trained for the purpose [NOTARII], and Suetonius tells us that Titus, who prided himself on his skill in writing, and said that he was a “forger spoilt,” used to race his secretaries in shorthand writing (Suet. Tit. 3). The use was still further developed among the Christians for taking down sermons, episcopal addresses, &c.; and, if it was not as old as Xenophon in Greece, [p. 2.245]it was at any rate widely employed in early Christian times. The extant examples of Greek shorthand writing are considered to date only from the 10th century (see the article Palaeography in Encyclop. Brit.), but we can have no doubt that if the art was originated at Rome it was not much later in reaching Greece. As to its general use in Christian synods, St. Augustine (Ep. 141) says that eight notarii in relays of two at a time followed the speeches of bishops assembled at Carthage: and we are told by Trithemius (abbot of Wurtzburg in 1506 A.D.) that St. Cyprian added to the original Tironian notes. The words are worth quoting, since the learning and research of the writer make it likely that his account of the development of the notae is correct: “M. Tullius Cicero librum scripsit notarum quem Sanctus Cyprianus multis et notis et dictionibus ampliavit, adjiciens vocabula Christianorum usibus necessaria ut opus ipsum fieret non solum utile paganis sed multo magis etiam fidelibus.” The notae fell apparently into disuse for a considerable time, but were revived under the Carlovingian dynasty and used in Capitularies, &c. The MSS. written in the “Tironian” character long remained incomprehensible, till Charpentier deciphered them and published an account of them in 1747.

As to the ancient system itself, we have some contemporary description from the passage of Plutarch cited above (Cat. Min. 23), who tells us clearly that arbitrary signs, not merely abbreviations or sigla, were used. Compare Manilius 4.197:

Hic et scriptor erit velox, cui littera verbum est,

Quique notis linguam superat, cursimque loquentis Excipiat longas nova per compendia voces.

Auson. Epigr. 146:

Cui multa fandi copia

Punctis peracta singulis Ut una vox absolvitur.

From the passage of Seneca quoted above, and from Mart. 14.208, we can merely gather that the writer could keep pace with the speaker. It is impossible to say how far what we possess under the name of notae Tironianae reproduces the system used in the Augustan age. Common sense would suggest what Trithemius states to be the fact, that great additions were made at various times; and the view which he gives may fairly be accepted, that the system of Tiro was much the same in its general outlines as that which is still extant under his name, though far less full and elaborate. The system consists mainly (1) in using an alphabet more or less based on the Roman letters which can be so modified as to facilitate the junction of letters.

(2) In representing terminations by arbitrary signs, such as B. for bam, .B for bant (or, instead of the regular letters, new characters similarly multiplied by the variation of the point). To this the “punctis” in the passages of Ausonius and Prudentius refer.

(3) In employing all sorts of abbreviations (sigla) independently of the character used. (Cf. “cui littera verbum est” above.)

(4) In adopting arbitrary signs, such as Trithemius describes, for words in common use. With this correspond the τύποι πολλῶν γραμμάτων ἔχοντα δύναμιν of Plutarch and the “nova compendia” of Manilius.

For further information on the subject, see Kopp, Palaeographica Critica, vol. i.; Ruess, Tachygraphie; and especially Jules Tardiff, Mém. sur Not. Tiron., Acad. des Inscriptions, sér. 2, vol. 3.1852, who all give tables of the alphabet and examples of the writing as it has come down to us.

[W.S] [G.E.M]

hide References (7 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (7):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 13.3.2
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 56
    • Suetonius, Divus Titus, 3
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 88
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 6.3
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 6.8
    • Martial, Epigrammata, 14.208
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