Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.35

Kevin Robb, Literacy and Paideia in Ancient Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Pp. 320. $45.00. ISBN 0-19-505905-0.

Reviewed by Carol Thomas, University of Washington (

Just as Albert Lord first assisted, then enlarged the achievement of Milman Parry, so has Kevin Robb carried the work associated primarily with Eric Havelock to new levels of understanding. His Literacy and Paideia in Ancient Greece reflects the full explication of the thesis trumpeted to an unreceptive world in Havelock's Preface to Plato (1963); in fact, it is dedicated to the memory of Eric Alfred Havelock. Drawing on evidence ranging from understanding of morphological characteristics of languages to vase paintings and inscriptional evidence to fundamental institutions of ancient Greek culture, Robb tracks the insertion of literacy into Greece from the eighth century into the fourth. Since its use eventually penetrated every aspect of life, the account offers vivid insights into the very workings of society during those centuries.

The author's largest premise is that unless something unforeseen comes to light, "the greatest discovery of the century in classical scholarship will be the rediscovery of the oral dimension of Greek life in the Geometric and Archaic periods with strong residual effects in culture of High Classical and Classical periods" (253). It is a bold claim, one that will not staunch debate on the issue. Yet it is a relief, especially to those of us who found merit in Havelock's original assertions, to read Robb's thorough, cogent and civil exploration of that position.

Robb understands the massive barriers still standing against the view that literacy came late to Greece, that Athenian society was fully literate in the "institutional" sense only by ca. 350 B.C., a date even later than that argued by Havelock. How could Greeks forget knowledge of writing possessed during the Mycenaean Age? How can we explain the Hellenic literacy achievement if we believe that the Classical Age continued to rely on oral discourse and a system of education that was itself founded on oral paideia rather than mastery of written texts? His case batters such defenses and, at least in the eyes of this reviewer, renders them useless as defense. One need not dismiss the literacy accomplishment in order to appreciate the sophisticated mechanisms of a predominantly oral society. Rather, the two skills grew together slowly, gradually altering the basic nature of Classical Greece.

The story unfolds chronologically, beginning with the origins of Greek literacy in the eighth century, turning then to the alliance between literacy and the law during the seventh and sixth centuries, concluding with the alliance between literacy and paideia established finally about the middle of the fourth century. An epilogue exploring the invention of the Greek alphabet in both linguistic and historical terms completes the book's deftly interwoven argument.

Robb tells the story well, using full notes to treat highly specialized issues as well as to provide bibliographic references. His discussion falls into individual sections within each chapter with a conclusion at the end that urges "let us now draw the threads together" (61) and points briefly to the next step of the discussion. By the end, a rich picture emerges, composed from all the topics. Socrates' indictment, for example, may plausibly be charged to his undermining of the traditional institution of sunousia inherent in the oral paideia which continued in Athens until well into the fourth century. The nature of the law under which Socrates was tried, by contrast, can be seen as reflecting a new alliance between law and literacy.

Especially pleasing is Robb's use of the work of others; he builds his account by recognizing the past and current scholarship out of which his own views have grown. In the process, he acknowledges the well-known accomplishments of scholars like Milman Parry but also rescues from near oblivion classicists like Frank Byron Jevons, writing in the 1880s, who is "known today only to a scattering of the world's classicists and a handful of scholars associated with his home university" (258). Every scholar should acknowledge debts but Robb is exceptional in his graciousness -- Henry Immerwahr "putting Greek scholarship in his debt" (185). Even in criticism, he is kind: showing his debt to Michael Gagarin, he admits "I am less sure, but possibly Gagarin is right, as often on these matters he is" (113). On an even larger scale, Robb manages to avoid hostile debate; in the epilogue on the origin of the alphabet, the simplification of writing achieved in the Semitic unvocalized syllabary of the sixteenth century is credited with preparing the way for the later Greek invention. I detect nothing vituperative in the entire book, a greater accomplishment when one remembers how Havelock's thesis was greeted in reviews!

The range of primary evidence is equally wide and mixed together. In addition to inscriptional material, Robb looks to the information to be gained from physical remains themselves noting, for example, the nature of fabric for dating purposes or when professional tools were employed for inscribing. The Homeric corpus is of primary importance to his case; comparative evidence plays a role; and common sense is ever present. For example, in arguing against a complete text of the Iliad, Robb asks how one accounts for the source of the 300 feet of papyrus needed for a text of the Iliad if trade with Egypt began only in the seventh century.

Paideia and law are the main thrusts of the study. They are happily joined in Robb's view of the earliest evidence for literacy, namely that the motive for adoption of the alphabet was to record hexameter verse, not as literary text, but in short inscriptions that probably served votive uses. The earliest inscriptions demonstrate a widespread absorption of Homeric or epical verse at the popular level, indicating that the social motive behind such absorption was the role epical verse played in oral paideia. While always artful narrative, verse was also prescriptive, carrying in it the rules of society.

The first new alliance of orality/literacy occurred in defining these rules. The Gortyn Code is both a key document in the history of Greek law and a key to understanding advancing literacy. Robb masterfully treats the two roles of judicial officials: one procedure existed in cases that were regulated by written regulation while another was linked to reliance on ancient, oral custom. The discussion of witnessing, maturia, as procedural witnessing is compelling. Not so persuasive is the view that "oral societies ... do not really have 'law' as we understand the term" (n. 25, p. 41). "It is very strange that written laws first addressed matters not felt to be at the core of communal concern or accepted practice" (87), yet these core concerns were not as closely regulated by oral procedure as written provisions were by other means. And the "missing" binding element is surely non-human enforcement, the thioi addressed at the onset of the Gortyn Code. I am altogether ready to admit that after 399 B.C., at least in Athens, nomos was equated with written law. Earlier, however, in Athens and elsewhere oral "law" was nomos.

On only one other subject is Robb's contention not fully convincing. Linking fifth century Athenian progress toward popular literacy with democracy and written law, Robb states that written skills were needed by citizens "to fulfill their political -- and especially legal obligations and opportunities" (125). What literate skills were required for assembly, boule or heliaia? Do deme lists truly require extensive records at local levels? And how were such skills to be gained in a polis where, as Robb argues persuasively, paideia was still primarily oral and poetic? Even as late as the time that the Republic was composed, "participation in the communal life of the city ... was the primary mechanism of this oral paideia" (197).

On the other hand, he makes a good case for growing reliance on literacy as a result of demands of empire and careful cataloging of laws in the Nichomachian code. Their effect can be seen in changes in paideia proposed in the Republic and, following Robb's view, put in place in the Academy. While there is no provision for teaching of letters in Plato's dialogue, those very dialogues may well have been "textbooks", putting students in direct contact with the methods of Socrates (235). As such they were transitional texts; only in the Lyceum did the systematic study of texts replace reliance on oral habits (221). The possible historical evolution of the Academy is skillfully recreated.

And since the author probes paideia as the nature of life, the study contains much insightful social history; the Ithacan wine jug serving as a xenos-gift (51), a father turning to Homeric speech to compose an epitaph for his son which his friend, a local stonemason, would inscribe on the grave-marker (65); the interaction between a friendly Phoenician and a Greek craftsman in giving birth to the Greek alphabet (272 f.). Wonderful turns of phrase increase the effectiveness of these insights: "'Homer' helping nobles get through those long, cold Geometric nights" (177).

The book does not want for controversial issues, Robb admits candidly (252). His non-confrontational manner goes a long way in explaining his success. Literacy and Paideia in Ancient Greece is a fit tribute to Eric Havelock. It is also the mark of continued growth in our understanding of the inmost workings of Classical Greece.