Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.12

Harvey Yunis (ed.), Written Texts and the Rise of Literate Culture in Ancient Greece.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. 262.  ISBN 0-521-80930-4.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Jason G. Hawke, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb (
Word count: 2642 words

This volume grew out of the proceedings of two conferences held at Rice University in April 2000 and November 2001. While many volumes of this type lack depth and thoroughness given the nature of their origin, this edited collection overall impresses the reader: the contributions here are insightful, very current in their research, and Yunis himself has done a remarkable job ensuring that the selections here engage in some dialogue with one another rather than standing as a series of isolated if related topical tracts. The purpose of the conferences, as well as this volume, was to take "the inquiry into writing's effect on cultural change in Greece in a new direction" (Yunis, "Introduction", p. 16) by "understanding how specific cultural practices in Greece were affected when the people engaged in those practices began to use written texts" (p. 17). For such an endeavor, the roster of contributors represents an impressive list of scholars with whom many working beyond the specific issues of writing, literacy, and orality will be familiar: David Cohen, Lesley Dean-Jones, Andrew Ford, Michael Gagarin, Albert Henrichs, Richard Hunter, Charles H. Kahn, Geoffrey Lloyd, Rosalind Thomas, and the editor himself. Therefore, not only will those interested in the central theme of the collection find it stimulating and of value, but research in the fields of Greek law, literary criticism, science and medicine, and Hellenistic literature may also benefit from these essays.

The topics of literacy, orality, writing, and texts -- and the various epiphenomena -- have occupied great attention in classical scholarship since the 1960s and the appearance of works by figures such as Jack Goody and Eric Havelock. What the various authors of this volume purport to do is to leave aside larger issues of modes of communication and mentalities, or the extent or lack of various levels of "literacy" in given place and time and instead focus on the practical effects of the written word in Greek society and culture. Despite the aforementioned avowal by Yunis, it becomes clear that it is very difficult to separate the larger "cognitive" issues from questions of the reception, application, and manipulation of texts in more "practical" contexts. One might therefore suspect that in making such a distinction the contributors are guilty of a dodge, hoping to avoid the more controversial issues arising from the sweeping claims advanced by a Goody, a Havelock, or a Walter Ong. However, from the beginning Yunis seeks to place this volume very much in that sphere of scholarship while clearly pointing out the disagreements and departures he and the other contributors share with one another and with the aforementioned pioneers of the subject.1 The resulting, mostly compelling, essays -- while not entirely leaving behind the "cognitive" questions -- enhance our understanding of the development and consequences of a rise in literacy and textuality in the Greek world.

Particularly noteworthy is Ford's subtle and thoughtful "From Letters to Literature: Reading the 'Song Culture' of Classical Greece" (pp. 15-37). The arguments here were presumably developed during research for his new monograph.2 The insight typical of that volume is therefore present here as well, and Ford's capacity for direct and pithy observation makes this an ideal essay to open the collection. Ford reminds the learned reader of the need to separate ourselves from our own perspective and background when examining the reception of poetic or "literary" texts by Greeks of the archaic and classical ages (pp.23-4): "popular music ... is encountered primarily by the ear and not by the eye. We cannot know Greek song except through philology, but we need not therefore make singers philologists, in effect transferring to the text our own relation to the text". Ford offers an excellent, though obviously condensed, survey of relevant literary sources that should discourage future attempts to claim widespread literacy beyond the most functional levels before the late fifth/early fourth centuries. He thus advocates a "neo-Havelockian" approach, which accepts the picture of restricted early literacy, but questions the significance of that dynamic for our understanding of literature, since "a good deal of Greek song is easily memorizable and therefore can be textualized by memory" (p.22). The issue of textualization, as defined by Ford, concerns the transformation of poetry sung to poetry read as a way of "fully enjoying the benefits song was thought to offer" (pp. 18-19). His central suggestion that the textualization of song (and the substitution of reflective and repeated reading for the original performative context) "helped Greeks shift their criticism from evaluating songs in moral and social terms to focusing on their intrinsic formal properties", is demonstrated convincingly.3

If Ford's analysis of the development of literary criticism cautions against overdrawing the advent of literacy and written texts as the direct source of a broad range of "significant developments in intellectual activity" (p. 17), Lloyd's contribution buttresses the argument nicely ("Literacy in Greek and Chinese Science: Some Comparative Issues", pp. 122-138). Readers should find the comparisons between Chinese and Greek attitudes toward the authority and transmission of written texts both stimulating and informative. Knowing his audience, Lloyd wisely spends more time establishing the traditions of (fictive) intellectual lineages in ancient China responsible for the transmission of canonical texts -- scientific, philosophical, and mathematical -- from one generation to the next. After establishing the basic pattern of the preservation and uses of Chinese knowledge, he underscores that among Chinese "literati" there was great variation; a desire to follow "the Way" did not necessarily intimate an admiration or dedication to the canonical Daodeching. Rather, principles might be shared, but differences arose over the best method for following "the Way" (pp. 125-6). However, such disagreements did not lead to the types of intellectual exchange one might assume, since "[t]he target at which much Chinese philosophical writing is aimed is the ruler, to whom advice was often offered in the form of 'memorials to the throne'" (p. 128), texts that must be written, for the practices and values of the Chinese court precluded a philosopher or learned man pontificating in the presence of the emperor. By contrast, written texts in the Greek world from Anaximander onward were typically consulted in more open fora, "read out and discussed [rather] than studied privately and in silence" (p. 130). In contrast to Chinese examples of philosophical writing, Greek texts, though expert in origin, would have as audience not a ruler to be persuaded but a peer group and, not infrequently, even a lay audience. Lloyd then proceeds to a specific consideration of mathematical thought and writing, contrasting the Chinese desire to establish the guiding mathematical principles, with the axiomatic-deductive proof of specific problems in Euclidean mathematics. He argues that the difference in these intellectual approaches cannot stem from the fact of writing (without which both classical mathematical traditions will have been impossible) but from the underlying modes of oral communication and social-political factors.

Both Ford's and Lloyd's contributions to this volume are indicative of an underlying theme that emerges from the vast majority of these studies, namely, the idea of the written text as an instrument far more important to the "expert" in a given realm of knowledge. Throughout, the reader is reminded of the fluidity between orality and literacy in Greek society ("a distinction that, expressed in those terms, would be meaningless in the ancient world" as Hunter puts it [p. 217]), and that the value or utility of written texts depended in large measure on the contexts of their employment and the subject matter of such texts. This is especially apparent in the essays by Cohen ("Writing, Law, and Legal Practice in the Athenian Courts", pp. 78-96) and Dean-Jones ("Literacy and the Charlatan in Ancient Greek Medicine", pp. 97-121). The pairing of these essays in the text is especially felicitous, since the points they raise, though concerning different areas of expertise, constitute a stimulating series of observations that speak to similar problems regarding the use of texts and their use or reception by layperson and expert alike. By concentrating on three forensic speeches on the matters of citizenship and testamentary devices in fourth century Athens,4 Cohen illustrates "the tension in Athens between, on the one hand, an administrative, document-oriented understanding of civic identity, and a much more powerful oral culture of informal knowledge" (pp. 82-83). Cohen argues that in the regular courts of Athens, the very notion that written records were mutable and corruptible led to a certain kind of social control, since having one's name inscribed in the deme rolls might profit one nothing in the end: the name could be removed by enemies, or enemies could claim that the name appeared there only through fraud; likewise, the contents of a will could be decried as forged. While documents pertaining to citizenship and bequeathal of property might be validated only through the "web of social relations that can give [them] social meaning and make [them] appear real" (p. 92), for other matters such as maritime trade, the written contracts used for commercial transactions were the beginning and end of all discussion in the courts dedicated to such problems, the dikai emporikai. In this venue, those with expert knowledge of the relevant laws presided -- not the lay audiences of the dikasteria -- and the only authoritative "speakers" were the carefully examined provisions of the contract.

Dean-Jones, on the other hand, examines the relationship between the written medical texts of the Hippocratic corpus and the rising and falling fortunes of the profession's reputation in the fifth and fourth centuries. She offers the intriguing hypothesis that the appearance of untrained medical practitioners "in the fourth century is due in part to the early and widespread use of writing among the bona fide medical profession" (p. 97). Literacy becomes a sine qua non for quackery, but Dean-Jones suggests that there may be something of an irony lurking here. As she argues, traditional medicine arose through the intrafamily, apprentice-like training of most medical practitioners, who could point to their teacher/relative as the source of their authority and knowledge (pp. 99, 107). With the rise of greater literacy and greater demand (and rewards) for practitioners and competent teachers, "[m]edicine ... was one of the earliest technai to employ technical treatises to disseminate its knowledge, though ... they would be of little value without some medical expertise to the texts themselves" (p. 114). The growth of complaints in the Hippocratic corpus against frauds and charlatans -- and some of the attending mistrust of "doctors" in the fourth century -- becomes representative of a growing number of individuals who employ written texts on medicine to pursue its practice but do not have the orally based training and experience to practice it properly. In this case, the text becomes an important aid to the expert practitioner, but his expertise can be truly grounded only in a more traditional, face-to-face training.

Essays by Thomas and Yunis deal with aspects of the reception of texts in their "performance" or expectations during their composition. Thomas ("Prose Performance Texts: Epideixis and Written Publication in the Late Fifth and Early Fourth Centuries", pp. 162-88), with her usual scholarly aplomb, examines the relationship between epideictic lectures and the written texts that may (or in some cases, may not) have originally informed them. Any reader interested in the problem of what "publication" means in this period and the possible connection between the nature of publication and the rise in anonymous texts c. 400, will find Thomas' essay stimulating and well worth the while. Yunis' own contribution to the volume ("Writing for Reading: Thucydides, Plato, and the Emergence of the Critical Reader", pp. 189-212), tackles the problem of how authors c. 400 BCE grappled with the "potential gaps between words and meaning" (p.198) once poetic interpreters (such as Plato's Ion and the author of the Derveni Papyrus) had exposed such gaps and made possible competing interpretations of older texts. Yunis argues that Thucydides and Plato, both conscious of what he characterizes as the problem of the "absent author", sought different means of handling the possibility of the critical reader (mis)interpreting their meaning. Though his evaluation of Thucydides depends much on accepting a premise that is not as settled a question as Yunis implies,5 his discussion of what the respective authors hoped to achieve -- Thucydides through opposed "Protagorean" speeches, Plato through his literary compromise between written text and engaged dialectic -- is clear, thoughtful, and intelligent. Indeed, one imagines that advanced undergraduate students might be directed to it with confidence as a point of departure for understanding why these two authors may have employed the literary devices they chose. While space precludes an at length examination of the contributions of Henrichs ("Writing Religion: Inscribed Texts, Ritual Authority, and the Religious Discourse of the Polis", pp. 38-58) and Hunter ("Reflecting on Writing and Culture: Theocritus and the Style of Cultural Change", pp. 213-234) are very much in keeping with the quality and direction of the majority of the essays.

Less satisfying, especially considering his many valuable contributions to the study of Greek law, is Gagarin's essay ("Letters of the Law: Written Texts in Archaic Greek Law", pp. 59-77). Much of what is here will be very familiar to anyone who has read his Early Greek Law (Berkeley 1986). Gagarin insists, as he did in the latter, that without writing there can be no "law" in any real sense of the word, a distinction which on the surface might be appreciated if not for the fact that he does little to make the case convincingly (aside from citing a tendentious analogy, p. 68). The one argument that intrigues and speaks most directly to the central theme of the volume is the statement that "writing down rules conveyed the idea that there are fixed standards, and this helped create the idea that some rules existed as standards or laws" (p. 67, with author's emphasis; point reiterated on p. 76). This notion that the idea of legal equality was more the result of legal transcription rather than its design is, in the opinion of the reviewer, an unfortunately oft overlooked point, but nevertheless one that has been raised before.6

Also problematic is the essay by Kahn, "Writing Philosophy: Prose and Poetry from Thales to Plato" (pp. 139-61). Much of the argument regarding the transition from meter to prose in Greek philosophy rests upon several large leaps of faith or the citing of evidence which is assumed to have exhibited certain features but about which we can by no means be certain.7 One of his central hypotheses -- that the existence of the syngraphai from which Heraclitus accused Pythagoras of plagiarizing proves there were a considerable number of prose technical treatises dating to the mid-sixth century and earlier -- rests on three assumptions: first, that Heraclitus means the same thing as later authors in referring to syngraphai -- reasonable enough, since most editors agree that he did (though no less than Diels was skeptical); second, is it in fact "plausible to assume that there were other prose writings in the sixth century and that it is simply an accident that so few books are attested for this period" (p. 151)? For that to be true, it seems that a third supposition would have to hold, namely that one can rely on a passage from Vitruvius8 which implies that such books existed, but does not suggest exactly when they may have been authored. Overall, the argument here fails to convince, because of these and other suppositions that are simply too large to accept all at once.

In all, however, this is an excellent volume, and it demonstrates an additional benefit of continued dialogue on the central themes of literacy, orality, writing, and texts, despite the fact that some may consider it ground well-worn: the opportunity for scholars working in different subjects to carry on a continued conversation and provide stimulus across those subjects.


1.   For example, p. 9: "The breadth and boldness of Havelock's vision still impress. His comprehensive knowledge of Greek culture and forthright style add greatly to his persuasiveness. He opened intriguing questions by moving the focus from Homeric orality in the archaic period to the transition from orality to literacy in the classical period ... In this book, we neither follow in Havelock's footsteps nor repudiate him. We take an altogether different approach, relinquishing the grand scheme in favor of specific questions that arise from particular cultural practices."
2.   The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece (Princeton 2002). See the recent review by Eustratios Papaioannou, BMCR 2003.06.07.
3.   My one quibble regards his use of the story preserved in Diogenes Laertius (1.60) regarding the textual revision of a poem of Mimnermus by Solon, which he posits as an indication of oral poets being sensitive to "getting the words 'right'" (p. 23). Though he questions whether this might not be a case of privileging or imposing our own "textualist values" on the story, it seems the explanation might be simpler: that Laertius was imposing his own assumptions and values as a critic on the story.
4.   Demosthenes 57; Isaeus 4 and 9.
5.   P. 201 with n. 38: Yunis assumes that the speeches recorded in Thucydides -- even those of Pericles -- are more or less entirely Thuc.'s own creation, with little relation to what may have actually been said on each occasion. While I am sympathetic to the author in this case (cf. Yunis, Taming Democracy [Ithaca 1996]: 61-3; H. Erbse, Thukydides-Interpretationen [Berlin 1989]: 131-4), the matter scarcely seems closed; T.F. Garrity, "Thucydides 1.22.1: Content and Form in the Speeches", AJP 119 (1998): 361-84.
6.   Carol G. Thomas, "Literacy and the Codification of Law", SDHI 43 (1977): 455-458.
7.   For example, p. 150: "We might think of Hippodamus as the last representative of the Milesian school ... No quotations from Hippodamus have been preserved but his book must have been in prose in the tradition attested for the earlier Milesians and for the Samian and Ephesian architects".
8.   De Architectura, 7.praef.10.

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