&: hidden history…


The novel Imperium by Richard Harris is set in the first century AD and charts the political machinations of the Roman Republic and in particular the career of the statesman Cicero. What is interesting about it is that the narrator is a slave, named Marcus Tullius Tiro, who was secretary to Cicero. And what is interesting about Tiro is what Harris noted in the following excerpt.

Part of the reason for my indispensibility to [Cicero] was that i had devised a method of taking down his words as fast as he could utter them. From small beginnings – I can modestly claim to be the man who invented the ampersand – my system eventually swelled to a handbook of some four thousand symbols.

Yet, if one consults – as I did on reading that paragraph – any of a number of volumes on typography one won’t find the name Tiro there. The only mention I found was on…ironically, in view of my last post, wikipedia.

The ampersand symbol has been found on ancient Roman sources dating to the first century A.D. Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s secretary of 36 years, is credited as its inventor.[3] During this period the symbol was a boxy-looking ligature of the capital letters E and T. Over time the figure became more curved and flowing, until it came to resemble something like the figure above on the right, often called the “italic” ampersand.

The problem is, this story may not be true. The entry for Marcus Tullius Tiro is more illuminating:

He is credited with inventing the shorthand system of Tironian notes later used by monks among others. There is no clear evidence that he did, although Plutarch credits Cicero’s clerks as the first Romans to record speeches in shorthand.[11]


Yet, shorthand itself is a fascinating area, not least because the Ampersand used by the Romans eventually developed into the more familiar shape we know today.

And on wikipedia under the entry for Shorthand, suddenly Tiro steps back into the frame:

In Ancient Rome, Marcus Tullius Tiro (103 BC – 4 BC), a slave and later a freedman of Cicero, developed the Tironian notes so he could write down Cicero’s speeches. The Tironian notes consisted of word stem abbreviations (notae) and of word ending abbreviations (titulae). The original Tironian notes consisted of about 4000 signs but new signs were introduced so that their number could increase up to 13,000. In order to have a less complex writing system, a syllabic shorthand script was used sometimes.

Either way it seems likely from circumstantial evidence that Tiro was involved, at least in part, in the genesis of Roman shorthand. One hardly need point out the remarkable nature of such an innovation being introduced by a slave. While it’s probably dangerous to ascribe too much to it somehow this seems to fit into the sort of hidden history that has some connections with ‘people’s history’ and other historiographical approaches which eschew the traditional. Quite simply these sort of cultural linkages into other aspects of history have been largely ignored by those writing design history in the past. Although I wonder too whether there isn’t some resonance there with Eileen Gray, who was also ignored by history and design historians until relatively recently – arguably by dint of her gender.

The ampersand itself is a fascinating symbol. As an element of the Latin alphabet it has survived into broader usage with a greater degree of success than other glyphs. At one point it had a status as the 27th letter of the alphabet and in the contemporary period where there is a new fascination on the part of designers and typographers with glyphs and ligatures it continues to thrive.

Wiki has a list of usages that indicate it’s continuing vitality. Obviously it is still used as a part of business names, but also for film and book titles (apparently in films it indicates a close collaboration, as with two people working on a script).

The elegance of the symbol is probably one of the contributing factors to it’s survival. The significations are almost self-evident, purity, classicism and sophistication. Perhaps too the ability for a single symbol to encompass an entire, albeit brief, word and do so in a manner which is unambiguous.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a very local resonance to this. Tironian notes were superceded by later forms of shorthand. But some elements still remain. The z in Viz, short for videlicet – meaning “that is to say”, is one such. And the other?

Consider the ‘et’ symbol on the sign below between the words Íoc and Taispeáin which is an import into Irish and functions in precisely the same way as the ampersand between Pay and Display and has much the same root.


That too, in its own way is a remarkable survival into the present.


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