Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Forerunner of Shorthand?

Marcus Tullius Tiro was an ex slave born in a small village called Arpinum, in Italy about 60 miles south east of Rome. Tiro was an intelligent man who, in 63 BC, became secretary to Senator Cicero, a man who was known to enjoy hearing his own voice. He often gave long speeches in his own particular oratory style in the Senate of Rome. But, as Tiro watched and listened, he saw an opportunity to please and be of extra value to his master. He devised a method of recording his master’s speeches using his own specific marks that he could later transcribe to a proper written form. Cicero was delighted to know his speeches were recorded and could be read back to him verbatim.

Although the concept of recording speeches verbatim had been attempted by the Greeks many years earlier, it was Tiro who mastered the speed writing technique that is perhaps the forerunner of shorthand as we know it today. Tiro shared his technique with other scribes but it was not to stop there, soon Tiro’s Marks were taught in the schools of Rome. During Tiro’s employment for Cicero, he recorded more than 600 speeches and letters using his own specialized method of rapid writing.

Over the centuries, those people who had the ability to transcribe speeches and letters verbatim were highly valued employees. These scribes adapted and changed the characters to suit the particular employment, business or profession. Therefore only they could transcribe their own marks making that individual a highly prized employee.

Today, Pittman shorthand is the most commonly used method of taking dictation and recording speeches and letters. Even in the Houses of Parliament, London, speeches are still recorded verbatim by transcribers who work on rotation. The reporters work for five or ten minutes, then they re-dictate to a secretary who types up the transcripts.

Charles Dickens was just such a transcriber. He worked in the Houses of Parliament for almost six years and was well thought of by his colleagues. One contemporary described Dickens as “universally reputed to be the rapidest and more accurate shorthand-writer in the gallery” and another wrote, “A more talented reporter never occupied a seat in the Gallery of either House of Parliament.”

Here in the US, a fledgling Senate struggled with recording the speeches given by its members. A brochure called The Official Reporters of Debates of the U.S. Senate prepared under the direction of Walter J. Stewart, Secretary of the Senate, states that sometimes the reporters had difficulty hearing the speeches and even identifying the speaker. During the First Congress, Thomas Lloyd privately reported and published the debates describing the speakers as “the baldheaded man” or “the man in blue coat and wig.”

Assistant U.S. Senate Historian Betty K. Koed reported that “the last of the Senate's Reporters of Debates who used shorthand retired in the 1980s. Other reporters had begun using stenographic machines, in place of shorthand methods, in the late 1970s.”

While he served as majority leader of the United States Senate, Lyndon B. Johnson once observed that there were few documents more important than the congressional record “Locked in its pages are the debate, the resolutions, the bills, the memorials, the petitions...and that without the able, loyal, hard working, highly skilled corps of Official Reports who take down the debates.”

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni

Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni tribe, reigned over the counties we now East Anglia with her husband Prasutagus from approximately 48AD to 60AD. She was a fine woman by all accounts, standing as tall as a man with a booming voice that could not be ignored. The Greek, Dio Cassius, described her as “a Briton woman of the royal family” and of having a mass of red locks “the tawniest hair” that hung to her waist.

During the year 43AD, the Emperor Claudius sent approximately sixty thousand troops to finally subdue the Britons. The Iceni made peace with the Romans and Prasutagus was permitted to keep his kingdom until his death in 60AD.

On the eve of his death, Prasutagus wrote a will stating that half his kingdom would be left to his wife and two daughters. The other half would pass to Rome. Boadicea would be the beneficiary of her daughters’ inheritance until they came of age or when they married, in which case it would be used as a dowry.

The Romans saw Prasutagus’ death as an opportunity to seize the whole kingdom by claiming Prasutagus’ estate owed back taxes that were due immediately. Boadicea challenged the claim and, unable to justify the accusations, the Romans knew their scheme had failed leaving only one option. They instructed their soldiers to remove Boadicea by force, to crush and humiliate her.

Records of the time tell us that Boadicea was taken from her home and publicly flogged. The noblemen and women were heartbroken as they watched in horror at the treatment of their Queen. The shame was almost too much for Boadicea to bear, but the final blow came when her teenage daughters were taken from her and brutally ravaged by the Roman soldiers.

Queen Boadicea felt such fury and humiliation that she swore revenge on Rome and the Roman people and collected an army of over one hundred thousand people from various tribes that had never surrendered to the Romans and who now joined forces with the Iceni Queen.

First, Boadicea set her sights on Colchester, the foremost Roman city in England. The 9th Legion of the Roman army was guarding Colchester but they were no match for Boadicea and her soldiers. The city was quickly burned to the ground. News of Boadicea’s success spread through Britain and many people, sensing victory over the Romans, joined the fight. It is believed that Boadicea’s army totaled over 200,000 men and women at the final battle.

Boadicea’s next target was London. In anticipation of her arrival, the city was almost deserted but she kept her promise and pillaged and burned the town until nothing was left.

After the victories in Colchester and London, Boadicea and her army marched home full of triumph and accomplishment. They were greeted with cheers and happiness for ending the oppressive rule of Rome.

The Romans, ashamed and disgraced that a woman could inflict such devastation decided to use their best and most aggressive troops led by Suetonius Paulinus to contain the uprising. Paulinus commanded the 14th and 20th Legions who were known to be particularly fierce and combative. The legions had been fighting the Druids for control of Wales but now turned their attention south towards Boadicea’s army.

The actual location of the final battle site between the Roman legions and Boadicea is unknown but according to Tacitus, a Roman historian, Boadicea appeared “tired and injured, in her clan tartan and armed to the teeth…in appearance, almost terrifying.” Some say she was captured and died from poison taken by her own hand. Others say she died in prison from wounds inflicted during the battle. Either of these would have been preferable to being taken to Rome and subjected to harsh treatment or even execution in the gladiatorial arena.

Read more about Boadicea and Colchecter Castle in my book Extraordinary Places ... Close to London