Empire and Communications - Chapter 5. Rome and The Written Tradition

Chapter 5. Rome and The Written Tradition

In this chapter, Harold Innis focuses on the gradual displacement of oral communication by written media during the long history of the Roman Empire. The spread of writing hastened the downfall of the Roman Republic, he argues, facilitating the emergence of a Roman Empire stretching from Britain to Mesopotamia. To administer such a vast empire, the Romans were forced to establish centralized bureaucracies. These bureaucracies depended on supplies of cheap papyrus from the Nile Delta for the long-distance transmission of written rules, orders and procedures. The bureaucratic Roman state backed by the influence of writing, in turn, fostered absolutism, the form of government in which power is vested in a single ruler. Innis adds that Roman bureaucracy destroyed the balance between oral and written law giving rise to fixed, written decrees. The torture of Roman citizens and the imposition of capital punishment for relatively minor crimes became common as living law "was replaced by the dead letter." Finally, Innis discusses the rise of Christianity, a religion which spread through the use of scripture inscribed on parchment. He writes that the Byzantine Empire in the east eventually flourished because of a balance in media biases. Payprus enabled the governing of a large spatial empire, while parchment contributed to the development of a religious hierarchy concerned with time.

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