BMCR 1999.04.15

Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt. American Studies in Papyrology, 36

, Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt. American Studies in Papyrology, 36. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996. xiv + 316; ill. $49.95.

This revised Columbia University dissertation marks a first step in a scientific understanding of the process of learning to write in the ancient Greek and Latin world. The importance of this study is not diminished because it does not deal with the teaching of professional writing by scribes for chanceries or for book production. C. provides us with the tools that will enable future scholars to investigate a set of problems of profound interest to palaeographers.1

Central to the study is the list of 412 school exercises divided up into categories that the author discusses in detail (see below) as well as a list of documents that had been incorrectly assigned to this group by earlier scholars. There are also eighty plates of photographs of written materials for the most part not previously published. Unfortunately, however, the majority of documents discussed in the body of the book are not illustrated here. To make proper use of the book, then, would require an extensive papyrological library, not conveniently available to every reader.

The evidence for schools and teachers in antiquity is sparse. There is some evidence from handbooks on education and a few examples from papyri. A “school” was not a clearly defined place, but an area in which the teaching of writing occurs. The teacher could be a friend, a parent, a priest, someone hired to teach, while the classroom could be a room in a private house, the shaded porch of a temple, or even the dusty ground beneath a tree. Home schooling also took place, whether by parent or tutor. But schooling was generally not a long term process, and practice in writing may have been sporadic. The author notes that we have some evidence of female teachers, which she has gleaned mainly from papyri.

The types of material that one considers in such a study are varied, and fall roughly into the categories of books and documents. Documentary hands in antiquity were difficult to read, but in fact were no more intended for reading than our insurance policies or car-rental agreements. Such documents are available mainly for proof of something and are not authored or produced in a way that encourages reading. Documents, such as those that issued from chanceries or private letters, which were intended to be read, were written in more legible hands. As today, personal note-taking and the like appear in hands that are legible to the individual writing the notes, but not necessarily clear to another reader. There were, then, styles of writing, and accomplished writers knew a variety of writing styles and when and where one or another was appropriate. These styles of writing can be fitted into a hierarchy of styles moving from formal stylized scripts for copying literary texts (bookhands) to various more flowing (cursive) hands for private exercises and the like. To grasp these varieties in their details requires a careful analysis of the palaeography of the written materials and an intensive study of student writing (7).

The intention of this work is to refine the terminology for the hands of those learning to write and to develop a typology of school hands that reflects the attainments of the students. Models written by teachers were fundamental for the process of learning. These were produced on sturdy materials, and had various purposes, in particular as exemplars for copying. Thus the pupils could learn different scripts, and, in the process, begin to produce their own books.

As the author points out, “literacy and writing were not indispensable skills in the ancient Mediterranean world” (3). Writing was an art that individuals might exhibit even if they were limited to the writing of their own names. This was true throughout the time and area that the book focuses on: “Egypt during the Ptolemaic, Roman, and early Byzantine times from the introduction of Greek to the time of the Arab conquest” (3).

Reading, however, was central to ancient education, and the sequence of learning to read was fixed. The student moved from letters to syllables to monosyllabic words and finally to sentences. There was then a mechanical building up of syllables, and content was of secondary importance. Often, indeed, words were fabricated to make sure all syllabic combinations were considered.

Writing was not, it turns out, governed by the same rigid rules that regulated learning reading skills. Indeed, the author suggests, a limited ability in writing usually preceded extensive training in reading. Little attention was given in the ancient sources to the skill of writing, perhaps because the skills of reading and writing were not interdependent. This book focuses on writing as learning to write, and then learning to write by copying and taking dictation. The skills of creating texts are outside the author’s subject. Thus the book deals with copiers, and not composers of texts.

The author treats school exercises, a set of documents not closely studied before. In developing her catalogue of these, she differentiates between school texts and school exercises. Texts were professionally produced books intended to circulate in the class and to be used by the students; exercises were work students did for and in school and included teachers’ models. Her primary interest is to investigate how the beginning student acquired the skills of writing. Obviously elementary students would not be using many texts, but relied mostly on copies, dictations, and teachers’ models. Unfortunately, this study lacks Latin examples, which, even if few and scattered, could have been a help to the student of early Western manuscripts.

C. lists some eleven different types of school exercises and these types are important in helping her arrange her catalogue of these exercises (31).

1. Letters of the alphabet. The writing of single letters over and over again, moving to joined letters that do not follow any alphabetical order.

2. Alphabets, both complete and incomplete.

3. Syllabaries, which are not distinguished according to the number of syllables.

4. Lists of words.

5. Writing exercises, which consisted of copies from teachers’ models, often words or short passages repeated several times.

6. Short passages: maxims, sayings, and small numbers of verses. These texts were usually not longer than eight lines.

7. Longer passages, that is, copies or dictations that ran to more than eight lines.

8. Scholia minora : Homeric commentaries where the Homeric text is divided into lemmata with accompanying glosses. Here we find the writing of students as well as the display hands by teachers.

9. Compositions, paraphrases, or summaries. These are basically compositions on set subjects, but also include summaries of Homeric episodes or books of epic, as well as dialogues.

10. Grammatical exercises.

11. Notebooks: collections of exercises of multifarious content. Sometimes they were compiled by more than one student, but most often they were tablets which were the property of the teacher or the school, and were passed around in class for student use.

One of the new observations made by this book is that writing preceded reading at the school level. The author suggests that the practice of exposing the students to much copying before teaching them to read has implications for the questions of silent writing and reading in antiquity. For, she notes, if one learned to write larger units from the beginning it is unlikely that these were said aloud. While the conclusion may be true for the school, it is unlikely that elementary students who came to the ancient school were unacquainted with reading. Since reading can easily begin several years before writing can be attempted, it is likely that the skills of deciphering a text began in the home at about the age of four or even earlier, just as is the case today.

C. maintains that the ability to read and write were not coupled. Writing was a skill left mainly to a small class of scribes and clerical workers. It was regarded as a menial task left for professionals who aimed to make it as uniform and impersonal as possible. A limited competence in writing was reserved in the main for writing one’s name and perhaps personal letters (see the famous opening scene of Plautus Pseudolus, where the imperiled girl writes a letter to her lover, a letter whose quality of writing is disparaged by Pseudolus).

C. provides a set of appendices, which list teachers and students, and analyzes the terms for teachers. This is followed by a catalogue of the school exercises, broken down into the various categories discussed in the text. This will prove to be the most useful part of the book for scholars who want to go more deeply into the processes and aims of ancient education. A brief list of items excluded from the catalogue is followed by a bibliography, tables of concordances to other collections, and a too brief index.

The book as a whole has not been sufficiently revised from its dissertation form. It is repetitive and lacks sufficient organization to make the book of use to a general scholarly audience. The author includes papyrological lore that may be of interest to professionals, but which is lost on the ordinary reader. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the plates are basically useless, since they exhibit only texts which were not previously photographed, and are not discussed in this book.

Despite the need for a general book that aims at these important educational issues, this volume will remain a central reference to anyone undertaking such a study. The care and thoughtfulness that went into this compilation are worthy of praise and for this every reader will be grateful to the author.


1. There is a sympathetic and searching review by William A. Johnson, CP 93 (1998): 276-279.