Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.07

J. H. Humphrey, Literacy in the Roman World. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series, no. 3. Pp. 198; 9 figures. (available from the editor of the Journal of Roman Archaeology).

Reviewed by Callie Williamson, Indiana University.

"Levels of literacy were low in classical antiquity by comparison with those prevailing in the most educated countries of the last 200 years. That is entirely to be expected, for each society achieves the level of literacy which its structure and ethos require and its technology permits." -- W.V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (1989), p. 331.

In recent years the question of the extent and impact of literacy in the ancient world has provided work for an army of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. The efforts of this army were considerably accelerated by W.V. Harris in 1989 with the publication of his Ancient Literacy. The work at hand, Literacy in the Roman World, a collection of essays by eight scholars from England, France and the U.S., signals a return to the debate by some of those temporarily eclipsed by Harris' brilliant study. Originally solicited for publication by the editor of the Journal of Roman Archaeology as a series of articles focussed loosely on Harris' vision of literacy in the Roman world, the essays in this new and important volume offer complementary, though sometimes very different, perspectives on the complex set of issues raised by the phenomenon. The resulting collection makes a suberb contribution to the expanding body of scholarship on literacy.

It is worthwhile to begin briefly with Harris's Ancient Literacy, as do each of the essays in the volume under review. In his study Harris aimed to establish, from a primarily utilitarian perspective, the extent of use of the tools of reading and writing. Pursuing the existence of mass literacy in the ancient world, Harris took as his guide conditions deemed necessary for mass literacy in the modern world. Thus, his terms of discussion are essentially quantitative and comparative, as reflected in the quotation at the head of this review. Harris's investigation of literacy covers the Greek, Hellenistic and Roman worlds, but it is the Roman world alone which provides the meat for the contributors in Literacy in the Roman World.

A survey of the eight essays in Literacy in the Roman World cannot convey the richness and precision of detail found in each. But it can demonstrate, as the essays themselves do, that any discussion of literacy in the Roman world must accomodate at the very least tremendous social, cultural, linguistic and other differences in addition to changes over time. Given the complexity of a world stretching at its peak from the North Atlantic to the Euphrates and lasting nearly one thousand years, the range of possibilities and alternatives in the practice of writing was enormous. And just as enormous for the modern scholar is the range of materials, issues and problems involved in any historical analysis. In Literacy in the Roman World we find an exemplary recognition of the geographical vastness of this world and a fine display of the intricacies of the surviving material, centered around the main theme of the volume. I will illustrate with a summary of individual contributions in which I generally observe the editors' arrangement of contributions in the volume.

The volume begins at the beginning with T. Cornell ("The tyranny of the evidence: a discussion of the possible uses of literacy in Etruria and Latium in the archaic age") examining the earliest appearance and uses of writing in Latium and Etruria in the archaic period, as a similar but separate line of cultural development emerged among the Latins and the Etruscans. Cornell argues that writing was more pervasive in both public and private spheres than the surviving evidence indicates. Here we might expect to find the birth of a uniquely Roman experience of writing which develops further over the next centuries, but we do not: all the other contributors jump ahead in the story by several centuries, when the Romans have already established an empire outside Italy. Moving beyond Harris's utilitarian approach to the uses of writing and expanding on an earlier study, M. Beard ("Writing and religion: Ancient Literacy and the function of the written word in Roman religion") considers symbolic functions of writing in Greco-Roman religion across the Empire in its heyday.1 Examining votive inscriptions, ritual texts, and calendars of ritual observances, Beard argues that writing played as significant a role in pagan religion in shaping men's conceptions of divinity and their relationship to it as the 'book' did in early Christianity. J. L. Franklin ("Literacy and the parietal inscriptions of Pompeii") searches the surviving scraps of writing on walls in Pompeii for indicators of the levels of literacy in Latin in a town in Roman Italy in the 1st century A.D. Presenting a survey of these scraps, which reveal among other things a remarkable familiarity with literary culture on the part of scribblers, Franklin argues that the ability to read and write, and significantly also the habit of writing, was more widespread among people at the bottom of Pompeian society than Harris believed.

So far the contributors offer analyses of well-defined periods or bodies of material: archaic Italy, religious texts, writing on Pompeian walls. The next three essays in this survey focus more on Harris' questions, his methods and the conclusions he reached about low levels of literacy. Selecting several aspects of mental life and habit -- among them the role of memory in learning and the spread of Christianity -- N. Horsfall ("Statistics or states of mind?") examines how reading and writing came into every-day lives. Drawing on ancient testimony that can give a different picture than the one Harris draws, Horsfall concludes that there was more widespread literacy and more extensive recourse to the practice of writing than Harris supposed. The larger point Horsfall makes, that the mind which generated the Roman practice and habit of writing needs to be understood on its own terms, is echoed also in the paper by M. Corbier ("L'écriture en quête de lecteurs"). In a rigorous examination of Harris's questions, his methods and his conclusions Corbier reiterates a position first presented in an earlier study.2 In particular she emphasizes the uniqueness of the phenomenon of writing and of literacy in the aristocrat-dominated world of the late Republic and early Empire. A brilliant discussion by A.K. Bowman ("Literacy in the Roman empire: mass and mode") follows on issues of interest and importance, among them the "profoundly literate character" of a predominantly oral world and the interplay of different literacies in the same cultural context, notably Coptic and Greek in Roman Egypt. Instructively Bowman also delineates the kinds of new questions raised by significant bodies of recently uncovered evidence such as the wooden writing tablets from the Roman military camp at Vindolanda. All of the studies summarised so far considerably deepen our understanding of the pervasiveness of writing in the Roman world from the very beginnings of Roman history.

The final contributions in this fascinating volume look closely at developments in Roman Egypt and also raise the study of writing in the administration of the Roman Empire to a broader level of significance. K. Hopkins ("Conquest by book") approaches literacy, as exemplified in Roman Egypt, as a small issue in a much larger arena. Locating the historical significance of literacy, in particular its growth, in the context of the Romans' conquest and consolidation of the Empire, Hopkins believes that writing like money was a medium of exchange (in the realm of information and knowledge) which over time helped to unify the Empire. Looking also at Roman Egypt with its intense official demand for documentation, A.E. Hanson ("Ancient illiteracy") uses the evidence of papyri, incuding a selection published here for the first time, to examine how large numbers of illiterate and semi-literate people functioned in a world that required writing. What emerges from her analysis is the importance of social networks in enabling Egypt's peasant and sub-elite population to participate in a stratified, bilingual society. While the focus of these two final essays is similar, there are signal and intriguing differences between them. To Hopkins, the levels of literacy Harris believes were reached in the ancient world are remarkably high in world history and need explaining. Thus, citing the roster of an auxiliary unit of camel troops from Egypt, one-third of whose members signed their names, Hopkins comments positively that fully one-third of these troopers were literate. But Hanson, referring to the same set of signatures, emphasizes that fully two-thirds were illiterate. Overall a detailed comparison of these two essays -- and for that matter all eight essays -- underscores the complexities in interpreting the materials on literacy available to scholars.

Comparison of the essays in Literacy in the Roman World with Ancient Literacy is inevitable, though it presents some challenges. Since a book-length study and a collection of essays are recognizably different productions, comparison is most constructive on the level of approaches. One of Harris's most striking achievements lies in the construction of an argument that gathered the many manifestations of literacy, in the three major divisions of classical civilization, into a single framework. The result is a comprehensive and coherent vision of reading and writing. Similarly the individual essays in Literacy in the Roman World presume coherence in the world they address. But here it is evident, too, that the complex phenomenon of literacy in the Roman world in fact rests on a number of different bases and accomodates many different approaches. In the range of material, problems and findings in these essays we see clearly that the manifestations, the uses, and the meanings of writing to the people who used it were highly varied and complex. In turn, as the survey above makes clear, the contributors often move beyond the theme of literacy in order to raise the refrain of larger issues. Thus, while Harris has taken one path which holds out one kind of promise, the studies of Literacy in the Roman World take different paths which, traversing other problems and smaller slices of the Roman experience than Harris's path, hold another kind of promise.

In either case, that promise is a reminder that there are an almost infinite variety of questions to be asked about the extent and impact of literacy in a world such as that of the Romans. It is a reminder that any explanation of literacy begins with the recognition that the phenomenon is shaped by the structures, patterns of life, and culture in a particular society.3 One of the particular virtues of the wide range of studies in Literacy in the Roman World is that like all exceptional scholarly reflections the reader is stimulated to ask questions beyond those posed by the individual contributors. While the studies in this collection are far from the last word on an exciting subject, they are nonetheless state-of-the-art productions which, in conjunction with Ancient Literacy, considerably advance our understanding of the complexities involved in the study of literacy in the ancient world.


  • [1] M. Beard, "Writing and Ritual. A Study of Diversity and Expansion in the Arval Acta," PBSR 53 (1985) 114-62.
  • [2] M. Corbier, "L'ecriture dans l'espace public romain," in L'Urbs. Espace urbaine et histoire (Ier siècle avant J.C. - IIIe siècle après J.C.), (Rome, 1987), 27-60.
  • [3] Other forays down this particular path include C. Williamson, Law-making in the Comitia of Republican Rome: The Processes of Drafting and Disseminating, Recording and Retrieving Laws and Plebiscites (Ph.D. diss., University of London, 1984) 64-80 and 102-242, and "Monuments of Bronze: Roman Legal Documents on Bronze Tablets," CA 6 (1987) 160-183. On the Greek side see R. Thomas, Oral tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 1989).