Plutarch about Stenography

There is an impressing testimony from Plutarch about the beginning of stenography in the Greco-Roman culture, on the 5th of December in the year 63 BC, before the Roman senate. The writers made use of special signs instead of ordinary letters, an invention of slaves in the first century BC.
‘… and its preservation [of Cato’s oration] was due to Cicero the consul, who had previously given to those clerks who excelled in rapid writing instruction in the use of signs, which, in small and short figures, comprised the force of many letters; these clerks he had then distributed in various parts of the senate-house. For up to that time the Romans [better: one  instead of the Romans, as this expression is missing in the Greek.] did not employ or even possess what are called shorthand writers, but then for the first time, we are told, the first steps toward the practice [better: trail, according to the Greek] were taken. Be that as it may, Cato carried the day and changed the opinions of the senators, … .’
Plutarch, Cato Minor  23.3
(Transl. The Loeb Classical Library)

Stenography in Public

This is an important testimony from Plutarch (ca. 46-120 AD) about the beginning of stenography in the Greco-Roman culture. It is the oldest documented case of real shorthand: the verbatim recording of the oration of Cato the Younger against Catilina and his conspirators. The oration was held on the 5th of December in the year 63 BC, before the Roman senate.

Special Signs

Plutarch remarks that the writers made use of special signs instead of ordinary letters and that these signs did not represent one consonant or vowel each, but several sounds or letters each. This was the first stage of stenography that in its later development was characterized by one sign per syllable. This testimony was written by Plutarch in Greek about 100 AD and remarkably we don’t possess a Latin remark about the use of stenography, about this momentous step in the history of the Roman Empire.


The Romans were rather ambivalent about stenography. They admired the art and recognized the importance of it, but for long time it was still considered the work of slaves and not worth mentioning. Seneca, who lived circa 50 AD, remarked: ‘Or our signs for whole words, which enable us to take down a speech, however rapidly uttered, matching speed of tongue by speed of hand? All this sort of thing has been devised by the lowest grade of slaves.’ (Seneca, Epistles, 90.25. Transl. The Loeb Classical Library, 1920) The noble Romans did not take the trouble to give their hand this skilfulness to follow a fast spoken oration; they left the entire matter to slaves who themselves created the (steno) signs.

Plutarch’s Testimony

Plutarch wrote in Greek and used the current Greek word sèmeiographoi (stenographers, shorthand writers): ‘what are called shorthand writers’. We would say: stenographers. He says that the art of stenography originated from 63 BC when it was introduced in the Roman senate; this was the Latin variant of stenography. The combination of these two elements: the Greek term sèmeiographoi (stenographers) and the Latin start of stenography suggests that he is speaking about stenography as one Greco-Roman achievement (see further).

Older Forms of Speedy Writing

Up to that time (63 BC) the Greeks already had developed some sort of speedy writing (oksugraphy), as we can learn from the Septuagint (200 BC), where in Psalm 45:2 the word oksugraphos is used for the faculty of a writer who is able to follow the spoken word by using normal letters but less as usual, as consonants without vocals in Hebrew. Also in the Letter of Aristeas we meet secretaries in the Egyptian court taking the minutes of discussions between Ptolemaeus I (II?) and his advisors (300-200 BC). The Greek oriented Ennius (ca. 200 BC) had already introduced in Italy a Latin system of abbreviations for speedy writing based on combinations of normal letters.

Modern Debate

There is no question among scholars that Latin stenography started in 63 BC according to Plutarch’s testimony. No one doubts that he is speaking about the origin of Latin stenography, but many question whether Latin and Greek stenography developed together side by side. Many hold that Greek stenography started in about 100 AD as Plutarch at that time used the Greek word sèmeiographos (for stenographer) in his testimony. But how valid is this opinion?

Metaphor of ‘a Trail’

Decisive is that Plutarch discussing the origin of stenography uses the term ichnos: i.e ‘footprint’, or ‘trail’. TDNT (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, III, p. 402.) gives the following definition about the word: “Ichnos means ‘footprint,’ and may be used either for an individual impression on the ground or for a continuous line of such impressions, i.e., a trail.” Plutarch used the expression as a metaphor for ‘a trail (line) of stenography’. Here follows the translation word for word: For one did not yet employ or even possess the so called sèmeiographoi (Greek: stenographers), but then at first one began to follow a trail, one says.

Plutarch speaks of  ‘they, the people’ and that does not refer to any grammatical entity of the passage. So it is not permitted to fill in for ‘they’ the Romans, or the Greeks. This is a so called indefinite plural and is to be taken as a general plural.

“For one did not yet employ or even possess the so called sèmeiographous (stenographers), but then at first one began to follow the trail (i.e. the praxis).” By the use of the Greek term “the so called sèmeiographous”, which writers were Romans and Greeks in Plutarch’s time, we know that not only the Romans but also the Greeks in the Roman empire began to follow the tradition of stenography in Cicero’s time.
Plutarch is speaking about stenography in general and that makes a date possible for the beginning of Roman and Greek stenography: 63 B.C.
The expression ‘enter into a trail’, ‘stepping into a trail’ is used by him also in other occasions: Alexander 27.3; Agis et Cleomenes 18.4; An virtus doceri possit 439.F.

It Started in Rome

Plutarch says that then – in 63 BC – stenography began. Indeed the Romans received the honor for taking the initiative, but Plutarch (with one) included that the Greeks had contributed their part to the practice of stenography in the Greco-Roman culture immediately. Many in the great Greek communities in Italy saw the value of the new art of writing. Apparently they selected intelligent slaves and ordered them to also develop stenographical signs. The Greek variant of stenography started in Italy. A. Mentz, decipherer of Greek stenography, remarked about the old Greek steno signs “In everything one is reminded to the work of Tiro [who invented the Latin signs]”.

From Rome to Capernaum

From Italy stenography came to Greece, where Plutarch wrote. And from there it went to the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Latin and Greek were the two main languages in the State. Latin was the language of the representatives of the Roman government and Greek had become the language of the common people (koinè) in the East since Alexander the Great (circa 330 BC). And so stenography came everywhere: also in Judea and Galilee. Certainly, this phenomenon has been greatly underestimated among classical as well as theological scholars.

Fullness of Time

Stenography was the new fashion in speedy writing in the Roman Empire when Jesus appeared on the scene. He came in the fullness of time. His words have been delivered by his eyewitnesses also being servants of the spoken word (of the events, Luke 1:2). They did exactly what stenographers were expected to do at that time.

See also: Jesus’s Stenographers, the Story of the Red Letters