Social media has been around for thousands of years but in Ancient Rome its prominent form was books, not Facebook.
Books allowed authors to create and share content in real life forums, rather than virtual chatrooms, and the best among them would quickly climb the social ladder.
For that reason, the most successful authors in Ancient Rome were also savvy PR operators. They had to sell their works by delivering excerpts directly to the public and would stand or fall on the strength of their reception.
The goal was always fame rather than fortune. Roman authors didn’t benefit from book sales financially but were rewarded in other ways; fame and notoriety brought better connections and advancement in Roman society. Not so much cash for honours as tomes for high office.
Winning recognition, though, was no easy feat and, in the same way as modern PRs plan a product launch meticulously, Roman writers followed a comprehensive checklist to ensure their book became a bestseller:
1. Firstly, dedicate the book to someone famous and wealthy (and vain, ideally)
2. Then, tell him or her to mention the book to friends…
3. …and display copies of the book prominently in their home (s)
4. Ask them to host a dinner party at one of said homes to generate social buzz
5. Suggest that the guests stop drinking for five minutes and listen to a recitatio (excerpt read by the author)
Cicero, the famous Roman writer and orator, was also a master self-publicist. He followed the checklist above to its last detail, dedicating works to wealthy statesmen with large personal libraries, writing fawning letters asking for endorsements and begging friends to host parties where he could treat guests to a chapter or three. He even said to his best friend, Atticus: ‘Whenever I write anything, I shall entrust the publicity to you” or, using an alternative translation, “Since you’re my personal PR agent…house party at yours?”
PRs will certainly recognise some if not all of these tactics and agree that social media buzz, albeit in different forms, is as precious now as it was in Ancient Rome.
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