Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.08.24

Pat Easterling, Carol Handley, Greek Scripts: An Illustrated Introduction.   London:  Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies, 2001.  Pp. 72.  ISBN 0-902984-17-9.  $30.00 (pb).  

Contributors: John Killen, Joyce Reynolds, Harold B. Mattingly, T. R. Volk, Eric Handley, Pat Easterling, and E. J. Kenney

Reviewed by Allen Kerkeslager, Theology, Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia (
Word count: 1242 words

The expectations that the title of this book might arouse among the specialists most likely to read this review justify stating at the outset what this book is not: Greek Scripts is not an introductory guide for students of paleography. This in no way detracts from the value that it has for its intended audience. This slim volume originated with a plan to celebrate the 1998 centenary of the publication of the first installment of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri in a format inviting to the inquiring non-specialist. The scope of the finished product admittedly extends beyond papyrology to the broad range in the development of scripts used in the production, transmission, and publishing of Greek texts from antiquity. But the initial goal for the book has been admirably fulfilled by its highly-qualified contributors. The book succeeds as an informal collection that will familiarize the general reader with various phases in the historical development of Greek scripts, material culture associated with the production of Greek texts, and selected features of the sociology of this production.

The general plan of the book is chronological. The book opens with a treatment of texts from the Bronze Age and moves progressively toward its concluding statements on the Greek fonts used in modern printed books.

In Chapter 1, "The Earliest Writers of Greek," John Killen provides an illuminating study of the Linear B tablets with an emphasis on the nature and activity of the scribes who produced these documents. Among the proposals in this chapter is the suggestion that these scribes were palace administrators who specialized in one element of the royal economy. Killen also suggests that the handwriting of the tablets indicates an apprenticeship system and that the fingerprints on the tablets indicate that blank tablets were made by children aged 8-12 or mature adults whose earlier occupations had roughened their hands.

In Chapter 2, "The Greek of Inscriptions," Joyce Reynolds offers a survey of Greek inscriptions from the eighth century BCE to the Byzantine period. Besides her rich treatment of the technical details of the scripts and the production of the texts, she emphasizes how inscriptions were created and utilized in contexts shaped by limited literacy, the architecture of public display, political conditions, aesthetic concerns, and other competing demands.

In Chapter 3, "Pots and Potsherds," Harold B. Mattingly presents an insightful treatment of the use of Greek ostraca, with a special focus upon the practice of ostracism in Athens in the fifth-century BCE. No mention is made of the use of ostraca for letters, tax receipts, or other well-known documentary forms. Instead, the chapter functions as a case study in one of the particular uses of ostraca that is most likely to assist the general reader in appreciating the abiding relevance of studying the Greek heritage of western civilization.

In Chapter 4, "From Phanes to Pisanello: 2000 Years of Numismatic Greek," T. R. Volk provides a sweeping survey of practices in the use of Greek on coins from the classical city-states to the Byzantine emperors. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to developments preceding the Roman period. It is thus in the treatment of the early coinage of the Greek cities that one finds the most illuminating examples of how coins can be employed as witnesses to political, social, and ethnic interaction.

In Chapter 5, "Scribes and Scholars: Greek Papyri and the Survival of Literature," Eric Handley provides a highly compressed introduction to the kind of materials studied in papyrology. The detailed commentaries in the notes on various manuscripts reproduced in this chapter furnish a window into how papyrologists actually approach the materials that they study.

In Chapter 6, "Byzantium and the Revival of Learning," Pat Easterling traces the evolution of Greek scripts from the rise of minuscule writing to the eve of the introduction of the printing press. While no single theme dominates this chapter, significant attention is devoted to aesthetic concerns, market forces, and technological changes that had an impact on the copying of books in Greek.

In Chapter 7, "From Script to Print," E. J. Kenney presents a very short survey of some of the major figures who created and shaped the Greek fonts that appeared and continue to appear in printed books produced by major presses. These include printers such as Nicolas Jenson, Arnaldo Guillen de Brocar, Aldo Manuzio, Richard Porson, and others.

Each of the chapters concludes with a short bibliography of suggested readings. The chapters vary widely in length of their actual text, but the entire text of all the contributions together only constitutes about a third of the book. As appropriate for a work of this nature, the book is elaborately illustrated throughout with drawings and plates of tablets, pottery, inscriptions, papyri, coins, printed scripts, and other materials relevant to the history of Greek scripts. Most illustrations are black-and-white, but six are color. Generally these are of high quality. Chapters 5 and 6 are the only chapters in which lengthy notes to the illustrations appear at the end of the chapter rather than being incorporated into the captions or the text. This mild inconsistency might lead general readers accustomed to skipping scholarly apparatuses to miss out on the rich detail in these notes. Aside from the expected minor slips that easily can be corrected in later printings (e.g., in the type-set alphabet on p. 11), the editing and layout are well done and usually help the reader to visualize the concerns of each stage in the text as the discussion unfolds. The language is usually clear enough to be grasped by a reader with a modicum of familiarity with Greek history. Occasionally the general reader may be stymied by a Greek phrase or a term introduced without adequate definition.

One of these minor details that inadvertently helps to clarify the nature of the book is the unannounced use of the term "epigraphy" merely en passant on p. 4. This is representative of the entire book's focus on the materials in which Greek scripts were employed rather than the methods by which modern scholars study these materials. This focus is quite justified because the material phenomena are more likely to spark the interest of uninitiated readers than the obscure methods that scholars apply to these materials. For these readers the many illustrations will perhaps be even more illuminating and hold greater appeal than the fascinating details of the text.

Among the most likely targets for the marketing of this book will be public libraries and museum gift shops. The book is in fact reminiscent of a well-organized museum in the variability in the depth of its treatment. The chapters of Reynolds and a few others give rudimentary surveys of long periods of development, while the chapters of Killen and Mattingly remain narrowly focused. For this reason those who might consider using the book as a supplementary textbook should be warned not to assume that each chapter will fulfill the role of a comprehensive survey article. If it is understood that each chapter was only intended to be illustrative of the kind of materials and issues that arise in the study of Greek scripts, this variability can be viewed as an advantage because it will broaden the interest and appeal of the book as a whole. Considering the small size of this volume, it does a fine job in providing its intended audience with exposure to its subject matter and a sense of the historical development in this subject matter.

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