Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.09.17

Alain Bresson, Anne-Marie Cocula, Christophe Pébarthe, L'écriture publique du pouvoir. Études 10.   Paris:  Ausonius Éditions, 2005.  Pp. 219.  ISBN 2-910023-49-4.  €40.00.  

Reviewed by Bjorn Paarmann, Université de Fribourg (
Word count: 3464 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

L'écriture publique du pouvoir (hereafter EPP) is the outcome of a two-day Round Table held at The Ausonius Institute in Bordeaux in 2002. The purpose was to examine the notion of power and its use of writing. The title does not tell us where and when, but the 14 contributors, all well-established French specialists in their respective fields, deliver a cross-cultural study dealing with European, Near-Eastern and African societies spanning over four millennia. Select bibliographies accompany each article, but there is no collective bibliography at the end, nor, perhaps even more regrettably, any index.

The study of writing in antiquity has gained increasing interest over the last decades. It began slowly in the mid-sixties, gained force in the seventies, took off in the eighties and exploded in the nineties. In terms of important collections, Detienne opened the ball in 1988 with the monumental Les savoirs de l'écriture en Grèce ancienne (Lille), and the same year saw Knoepfler's Comptes et inventaires dans la cité grecque (Genève). In 1994 Bowman and Wolf edited Literacy and Power in the Ancient World (Cambridge), with a broader perspective, including the Near East and late antiquity, an interdisciplinary approach which has been continued in Khoury's German-French joint project Urkunden und Urkundenformulare im klassischen Altertum und in den Orientalischen Kulturen (Heidelberg 1999). Finally, Brosius recently edited a volume on Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions. Concepts of Record-Keeping in the Ancient World (Oxford 2003), a truly international undertaking, ending, however, with Greco-Roman Egypt, and thus excluding Rome, and the late empire.

EPP fits into this series but is less specialized than the others. Interdisciplinary studies are important, no doubt about it. They introduce civilisations that we would not otherwise know about, or only very superficially. The downside of this is that few readers are likely to return to articles in any other field than their own. This said, EPP is a highly stimulating book: the essays are almost all very enlightening, and anyone interested in writing and power, as well as students of Classics, will profit greatly from it.

In the preface (11-16), co-editor Bresson briefly outlines the idea behind the project. The notion of power has always gained considerable attention, he argues, whereas the notion of writing is a newcomer. In recent years writing has been opposed to orality, but other oppositions have yet to be treated, e.g. writing in administration vs. public writing and archives vs. inscriptions.

Next Bresson sketches the sociological and semantic theories that he hopes will illuminate the place of writing in the different societies (13). According to Weber, Habermas and Arendt, the question of legitimacy should be the centre of all political analyses because the authority of a power stems not only from its institutions and weapons but also from the way the holders of power represent their authority. This representation can then be promulgated by different means of communication and in different places. Bresson argues that in order to pinpoint the role of writing in the communication strategy of the authority, the question must be addressed in two ways: 1) the analysis of the message and 2) the ways of transmission. The essays in the book are arranged in two sections of roughly the same size according to this division.

In the first section, "Les Literatures du pouvoir," the authors were requested to have in mind the Speech act theory developed by the Oxford school, according to which a subject using a performative announcement accomplishes an act simply by asserting it, contrary to the use of observing announcements which are only descriptive (14). In the second section, "Les affichages publics du pouvoir," the object of the articles is writing in its materialised form. The study of the way the authorities addressed their subjects is important, since, as Bresson demonstrates, the nature of power clearly influences the medium of communication (15).

Moatti is responsible for the introduction to the book and the gluing together of the different chapters, adding her own personal observations and reflections. She makes the interesting observation that if all holders of power communicate, they do not all do so by writing, and, if they write, they often do not use public space, and when they do, their writing often is not alone (17). The traditional definitions of public space is where educated people get together, where the citizens meet, or where the political authority is, in which case public writing becomes the writing of the holders of power. But, Moatti infers, this tripartite division is too rough, and, as the book should make clear, public space is a place where different kinds of powers compete. The construction of this space, she contends, is in itself the justification for a comparative study (17-18). She then goes on to explain that apart from the communicative element, writing could very well be the affirmation of power in itself. Here there is some overlap with Bresson.

In order to understand the place of writing in a given society, the addressee of a text, its reception, its readability, the degree of information it contains and the level of literacy in this society should be considered. Next, the place of writing should be viewed in relation to other types of communication. Finally, the development of official writing needs to be analysed, along with its influence on the communicational system. As a tool to get there Moatti proposes the model of "mediology" developed by R. Debray, according to which communication should be understood through the means and manners of the diffusion on one side and the agents on the other (20-21).

Dorandi, opening the first section, shows four examples of what he calls "reverse propaganda," by which he understands the attempt of the little man, here four philosophers (Alexander of Aphrodisias, Plato, Aristotle and Philodemos from Gadara), to exert influence on governments in Greece and Rome. This brings a different colour to a book naturally devoted to communication the other way around, but, as Dorandi also shows, this kind of writing was doomed to failure.

Next, Roddaz investigates the ways Augustus made use of propaganda at a point where he had monopolised all communication. Although possessing supreme power, Augustus still had to be able to justify it, and for this purpose he needed a doctrine. To spread this doctrine he had inherited from the Hellenistic kingdoms a whole range of figurative means which could accompany writing. Roddaz clearly lays out how Augustus used these means actively in the Forum Romanum and elsewhere in Rome. But Augustus' control over writing was equally effective. Acta Diurna described the life of the emperor and his family and his decisions, and this journal was sent to representatives all over the Empire before a copy ended up in the archives, where it continued to influence historians for centuries. Roddaz concludes by saying that the Res Gestae is a neutral and sober account of diplomatic and military achievements and not propaganda because, as he says, "who were left to be convinced?" This is probably an argument that few will find attractive. Augustus wanted a glorious afterlife, and this was partly assured by this text .1 But, if this is a big issue, it does little harm to Roddaz' article, which is especially illuminating in its treatment of the interrelation between two- and three-dimensional propaganda.

Derat writes about Zar'a Ya'eqob, an Ethiopian king (1434-68) who left an important literary production behind him. These texts were sent to the Christian churches where they were meant to influence the public. Derat traces the diffusion of these texts. Having ecclesiastics as mediators between himself and the illiterate people, the king could spread a justification of his power cloaked in religious content. Derat offers a detailed and exotic insight into Ya'eqob's deliberate use of propaganda: he represented his vision of things, spread a controlled image of himself and his family, and his writings continued to be read and were influential long after his death.

It is beyond my competence to assess the next piece by Dakhlia, "Les miroirs de princes islamiques," which goes dead against the statement of Bresson that no articles are supposed to be "trop specialisé" (15). There is no reason to doubt that students in the field will find this paper to be a gold mine, but the reader not familiar with examples of the genre (in its Arabic form) as well as its modern interpreters is most likely to come out still confused, but at a higher level.

Salvaing gives an overview of the administration in some largely illiterate theocratic societies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here writing was restricted to governmental correspondence and history provided the authority with a religious justification. Writing, however, was hardly ever made public. Salvaing reveals the mechanisms of royal correspondence: few letters due to the rarity of paper, short messages, and inelegant style. In fact, writing became regular only after contacts were made with the European powers. Salvaing concludes that literacy was restricted to the governing class and that writing was used uniquely to justify power, rather than as an everyday tool.

In Europe the English monarchy was the first to replace Latin with the native language, and England was soon to produce archives that could be and were consulted even by illiterate people (although indirectly). Genet demonstrates how the chroniclers had access to and used a wide range of different kinds of documents, for instance letters between the army and the King that had been deliberately copied and diffused. The state could address a large public, although indirectly, by letting its correspondence be known and be used for publication.

In France the development of the private sphere from the public for a long time left a mixed sphere, which was somewhat private but controlled by the authority. This is where, according to Jouhaud, authors, publishers and actors worked. Louis XIV wanted the Academy to write his history. The project was abandoned after a dispute about which documents could be used. Louis XIV tried to use history as propaganda but failed, whereas those who had the power of speech were in fact being dominated. In this case, as Jouhaud's shows, all ended up as losers.

Vernus, opening the second section, tries to grasp how the Egyptian Pharaoh addressed the people and clearly illustrates the way a ruler's act can take the form of an announcement. This act can then be eternalised on stone by the ruler himself or through a secretary. But a larger public could also be addressed through the "Koenigsnovellen," i.e. orally transmitted news from the mouth of the Pharaoh. Most surprising is the revelation that the dynasty more than once tried to integrate propaganda into the limited range of literature available for the hopeful secretaries, i.e. literature at the high end. But it was equally the case on the lower end of the scale where the medium was cursive writing on papyrus. The Pharaoh succeeded in influencing the literate people, i.e. the dominating class, and, indirectly, the illiterate also through oral transmission. Vernus concludes that we can talk about propaganda as long as not all Egyptian literature is reduce to this genre.

Joannes examines the Neo-Babylonian state and its use of writing. The archives reveal that the administration of the temples enjoyed a certain legal autonomy, which let every sanctuary decide legal matters without having to refer them to the central administration. But the king did sometimes send his decisions to these temples, and the itinerary of these messages can be traced. Joannes is able to demonstrate that this diffusion could be oral before it became fixed and ended up in the archive. Next he proves that Nabonidus was particularly eager to justify his rule and the way he exercised power. These inscriptions are, according to Joannes, personal propaganda. Most surprising is the fact that the King made reference to much older events, which indicates that he had access to archives of inscriptions and that his secretaries were able to read and reproduce inscriptions from the Paleo-Babylonian period. Looking for justification for power in the misty past, it appears, is a very old invention.

Bresson takes us back to well-known ground. Inscriptions had a great importance in Classical Greece, but the individual erection of a stele was subject to some kind of collective rule except for the sanctuary and the necropolis. This habit becomes so regular that in the end even slaves could have their funerary stele. In the political domain Bresson pursues his analysis on the structure of the decrees. Epigraphists will find little new information here, but for non-specialists a short resume can always be welcome, and Bresson adds his own lucid reflections. The importance of the law as a ruler is underlined. Bresson rightly challenges the pessimist view which sees the Greek society as mainly oral and underrates the importance of writing. He clearly distinguishes between the way inscriptions were used in Egypt, following a vertical line from the Pharaoh down to the people, and in the Greek world, where citizens addressed fellow citizens on a horizontal level. After discussing other ways to publish texts, Bresson provides the ultimate reason for publishing on stone, well-known among epigraphists, but too rarely seen on print: all stelae were in fact dedications to the gods (164).2 Pébarthe narrows the field further, focusing on Athenian society. Contrary to an old trend in Greek epigraphy, but in accordance with scholars in e.g. Near-Eastern studies, he questions the connection between alphabetisation and the birth of democracy by adducing examples of other cities where writing was known but no democracy introduced. His principal argument, however, is the fact that in Plato's Laws inscriptions are supposed to reinforce the dependence of the governing class on the lower classes, which should show that there is no direct relationship between writing and democracy. Not all would agree with this argument, nor is it likely to be the last word in the debate.3

A small objection with large consequences is that Pébarthe continues an old inaccuracy. In defence of his idea of seeing inscriptions as monuments rather than public records, he adduces the Lapis Primus of the Athenian Tribute Lists. This stele being 3.66 m. high, could not be read in its upper parts, he claims. But this is not true. Having examined the stone myself, I can now reveal, and Dr. Graham Oliver has confirmed my observation (orally and in situ), that the uppermost lines (of headings as well as the entries) are in fact perfectly readable even without a ladder. And this is so even today when the letters are mutilated and the surface very worn. Painted in red on shining white marble they would have stood out at a distance for goddess and men to read. That few people took the time to read tedious inscriptions is another matter. How many in antiquity would read the manumission decrees in Delphi? And how many today read the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. end to end? Perhaps we should distinguish between "to consult" and "to read". But as Pébarthe rightly concludes, the important thing is that anyone could read the inscriptions -- if he wanted to.

In the penultimate article Corbier examines the interaction between architecture and inscriptions in the Roman Empire. Given the nature of the latter, an inscription could be either published in Rome, Italy or one of the provinces, or in all three. The Roman cities provided public space for public display directed to the citizens, which did not prevent the latter from publishing their personal messages in the form of graffiti. As Moatti said earlier, the authority could not monopolise public space. Corbier finally addresses the question, already touched upon by Bresson and Pébarthe, of the purpose of the inscriptions. She refuses to enter a futile debate on the degree of literacy among the Roman population, but thinks that the simple and abbreviated monumental inscriptions could be read directly or indirectly even by those with a feeble literacy. Corbier announces a coming book Memoire et Communication. I look forward to reading it. With the last article Favreau gives a colourful picture of post-Roman Spain and its status as a province -- now in the Muslim empire, but not without resistance. In Asturias a Christian pocket-kingdom was created, opposing the Arabs and making extensive use of inscriptions to invoke divine sanction and protection (196-97). Architecture, art and writing went hand in hand from the very first royal building from AD 737, and the inscriptions made repeated reference to Christ and the cross as symbols against the pagans. In a society where no human representations of Christ were ever made under the influence, as Favreau argues, of Jewish and Islamic iconoclasm, crosses were used as religious propaganda.

Pébarthe concludes by summarising the articles from the collection and tying up the loose ends. 1) There is no strict relationship between monumental writing and the nature of the political regime. 2) The question whether the inscriptions were intended to be read cannot be answered conclusively. 3) Societies can be divided into three groups according to the importance of writing (no writing, limited writing for religious purpose, and writing for one or more groups). In societies characterised by restricted literacy, the holders of power must often turn to other media. And finally 4) the authority never completely controlled the public space.

All in all this is a rich collection of thought-provoking articles. The editors have done a good job in giving the book a theme and clearly presenting the theory behind their investigation -- which is why this review has accorded so much attention to the opening and closing. Sometimes the contributors lose sight of the underlying theory, but the contrary would have been a surprise: it is difficult to impose a general consensus on several studies, and well-founded research without a philosophy is always preferable to the opposite. Most articles are highly informative and well-written. Sometimes one has the feeling that little has been gained since the appearance of the titles mentioned at the beginning of this review, e.g. the statements that even developed societies can exist perfectly well without reading, that societies can know literature without making ample use of it, and that writing does not necessarily entail intellectual progress.4 Nevertheless, the reader closes the book having gained an insight into how writing has been used as propaganda in different times and places, and that was exactly the aim of the editors. EPP is not a replacement of Literacy and Power in the Ancient World but supplements it brilliantly.

What we need now is an international collaboration treating European, Near-Eastern, African as well as Central-American and Far-Eastern cultures.5 The future belongs to interdisciplinary studies, not because it is better to replace Euro-centricism by Ethiopianism or other -isms, but because comparative analyses can show us how the Greeks and Romans could have lived and behaved but happened not to have. In other words, if the study of Classics is important because it gives us a significant Other in which we can mirror ourselves and look for differences and similarities, the comparison with other pre-modern societies provides an Other for the Other, or just other Others. After all, as Blaise Pascal wrote, the history of mankind is the history of just one Man, although, of course, this man behaved differently according to his surroundings. If no one is preparing such a volume at this moment, we may have to wait another five to ten years. But Bresson, Cocula and Pébarthe have shown how it can be done. In the meantime we are eagerly awaiting the announced La circulation de l'information dans les structures de pouvoir du monde antique in the same series, although by different editors, as well as Pébarthe's Cité, démocratie et écriture. Histoire de l'alphabétisation d'Athènes à l'époque classique.

I noted two misprints: litteracy (90) and a problem in the title on p. 78: for 2. READ 1.2.


Alain Bresson "Avant-Propos" (11-16)

Claudia Moatti "Introduction" (17-23)

Tiziano Dorandi "Le philosophe et le pouvoir" (27-34)

Jean-Marie Roddaz "Auguste et la transmission du message idéologique" (35-44)

Marie-Laure Derat "Les homélies du roi Zar'a Ya'eqob" (45-57)

Jocelyne Dakhlia "Les miroirs de princes islamiques" (58-74)

Bernard Salvaing "Écriture, pouvoir, religion dans les sociétés islamiques ouest-africaines" (75-87)

Jean-Philippe Genet "La monarchie anglaise et l'écrit: public ou privé?" (89-102)

Christian Jouhaud "Pouvoir et publication dans la France d'ancien regime" (103-109)

Pascal Vernus "L'écriture du pouvoir dans l'égypte pharaonique" (123-42)

Francis Joannes "Povoir et communication écrite sous la dynastie néo-babylonienne" (143-52)

Alain Bresson "Les cités grecques et leurs inscriptions" (153-68)

Christophe Pébarthe "Inscriptions et régime politique: le cas athénien" (169-93)

Mireille Corbier "Usage public de l'écriture affichée à Rome" (183-93)

Robert Favreau "La 'croix victorieuse' des rois des Asturies (VIIIe-Xe siècles)" (195-212)

Christophe Pébarthe "Conclusion" (213-19)


1.   Cf. e.g. Paul Zanker, Der Kaiser baut fürs Volk (Opladen 1997) and Paul Veyne, Le pain et le cirque (Paris 1976), 241-44.
2.   See however P. Pucci's instructive remarks in "Inscriptions archaïques sur les statues des dieux," in Detienne op. cit. 480-97, at 484.
3.   It is also partly contradicted by the fact that in Hellenistic times it was mainly the democratic poleis which made use of inscriptions, for this see e.g. P. Gauthier Les cités grecques et leurs bienfaiteurs (Paris 1985), 3-4.
4.   All of this was already touched upon by Detienne, op. cit., "Introduction", 10-11.
5.   The difference between alphabet and sign systems must have a large impact on the way communication is made. Francis Spufford in his delightful The Child that Books Built (London 2002) 68, basing his account on the theory of Noam Chomsky contrasts the reduced number of letters users of the Roman and Arab alphabets have to learn with the Chinese sign system which will always have a bulk of signs in reserve which even intellectuals cannot understand and have to consult the dictionary before they can continue their reading in any sensible way, which is, by the way, exactly what happens to the young Yung Chang in Wild Swans. Compare also the status of Chinese secretaries below the Emperor but above the generals and the non-professional secretaries in Athens, where was no "cult" of secretaries and they were not represented iconographically. One exception is the marble group in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, which Minna Skafte Jensen, Symbolae Osloenses 74, 1999, has plausibly interpreted as the commemoration of the recording of the Homeric poems. On the whole, as Skafte Jensen has pointed out, writing was a job for slaves in Greece and Rome.

Read Latest
Index for 2005
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:30:23, Friday, 03 April 2009