A Brief History of Applause, the 'Big Data' of the Ancient World

Once, people measured their leaders -- and themselves -- one clap at a time.

[optional image description]
The Dionysus Theater in Greece, from a German encyclopedia, 1891 (Wikimedia Commons)

And then, suddenly, just when the colors and outlines settle at last to their various duties -- smiling, frivolous duties -- some knob is touched and a torrent of sounds comes to life: voices speaking all together, a walnut cracked, the click of a nutcracker carelessly passed, thirty human hearts drowning mine with their regular beats; the sough and sigh of a thousand trees, the local concord of loud summer birds, and, beyond the river, behind the rhythmic trees, the confused and enthusiastic hullabaloo of bathing young villagers, like a background of wild applause.
-- Vladimir Nabokov

In the seventh century, as the Roman empire was in the decline period of its decline and fall, the emperor Heraclius made plans to meet with a barbarian king. Heraclius wanted to intimidate his opponent. But he knew that the Roman army, in its weakened state, was no longer terribly intimidating, particularly when the intended intimidatee was a barbarian. So the emperor hired a group of men to augment his legions -- but for purposes that were less military than they were musical. He hired the men to applaud.

Heraclius's tactic of intimidation-by-noisemaking, the audible version of a Potemkin Village, did nothing to stanch the wounds of a bleeding empire. But it made a fitting postscript to that empire's long relationship with one of the earliest and most universal systems people have used to interact with each other: the clapping of hands. Applause, in the ancient world, was acclamation. But it was also communication. It was, in its way, power. It was a way for frail little humans to recreate, through hands made "thunderous," the rumbles and smashes of nature. 

Applause, today, is much the same. In the studio, in the theater, in places where people become publics, we still smack our palms together to show our appreciation -- to create, in cavernous spaces, connection. ("When we applaud a performer," argues the sociobiologist Desmond Morris, "we are, in effect, patting him on the back from a distance.") We applaud dutifully. We applaud politely. We applaud, in the best of circumstances, enthusiastically. We applaud, in the worst, ironically.

[optional image description]
Tumblr.com

We find ways, in short, to represent ourselves as crowds -- through the very medium of our crowd-iness. 

But we're reinventing applause, too, for a world where there are, technically, no hands. We clap for each others' updates on Facebook. We share. We link. We retweet and reblog the good stuff to amplify the noise it makes. We friend and follow and plus-1 and plus-K and recommend and endorse and mention and (sometimes even, still) blogroll, understanding that bigger audiences -- networked audiences -- can be their own kind of thunderous reward. We find new ways to express our enthusiasms, to communicate our desires, to encode our emotions for transmission. Our methods are serendipitous and also driven, always, by the subtle dynamics of the crowd. We clap because we're expected to. We clap because we're compelled to. We clap because something is totally awesome. We clap because we're generous and selfish and compliant and excitable and human.

This is the story of how people clapped when all they had, for the most part, was hands -- of how we liked things before we Liked thingsApplause, participatory and observational at the same time, was an early form of mass media, connecting people to each other and to their leaders, instantly and visually and, of course, audibly. It was public sentiment analysis, revealing the affinities and desires of networked people. It was the qualified self giving way to the quantified crowd. 

It was big data before data got big.

'This Is How You Gauge the People'

Scholars aren't quite sure about the origins of applause. What they do know is that clapping is very old, and very common, and very tenacious -- "a remarkably stable facet of human culture." Babies do it, seemingly instinctually. The Bible makes many mentions of applause - as acclamation, and as celebration. ("And they proclaimed him king and anointed him, and they clapped their hands and said, 'Long live the king!'")

But clapping was formalized -- in Western culture, at least -- in the theater. "Plaudits" (the word comes from the Latin "to strike," and also "to explode") were the common way of ending a play. At the close of the performance, the chief actor would yell, "Valete et plaudite!" ("Goodbye and applause!") -- thus signaling to the audience, in the subtle manner preferred by centuries of thespians, that it was time to give praise. And thus turning himself into, ostensibly, one of the world's first human applause signs.

[optional image description]
Roman mosaic of choregos and actors, from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii (Wikimedia Commons)

As theater and politics merged -- particularly as the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire -- applause became a way for leaders to interact directly (and also, of course, completely indirectly) with their citizens. One of the chief methods politicians used to evaluate their standing with the people was by gauging the greetings they got when they entered the arena. (Cicero's letters seem to take for granted the fact that "the feelings of the Roman people are best shown in the theater.") Leaders became astute human applause-o-meters, reading the volume -- and the speed, and the rhythm, and the length -- of the crowd's claps for clues about their political fortunes.

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

Just In