BMCR 2008.05.17

Cité, démocratie et écriture. Histoire de l’alphabétisation d’Athènes à l’époque classique

, Cité, démocratie et écriture : histoire de l'alphabétisation d'Athènes à l'époque classique. Culture et cité ; 3. Paris: De Boccard, 2006. 398 p. ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2701802040. €45.00.

Classicists continue to discuss writing, literacy and orality, and with good reason. The use (or the lack) of the written word in parts of the Greco-Roman world since the Bronze Age had wide-ranging implications. This is a topic (or better, a range of related topics) continuously revitalized by new evidence (mainly epigraphic) and refreshing ethnographic comparative work. Athens has always occupied pride of place in these debates, not only because of the relative abundance of documentary evidence but also, among other reasons, because of the alleged association between writing and egalitarianism advocated by many scholars — including many non-classicists, e.g., Jack Goody, the famous literacy guru, who in an influential 1963 article co-authored with Ian Watt suggested a direct link between the extensive use of writing, literacy and fifth-century Athenian democracy.1

As of late, the “writing = democracy” thesis (at least as far as the Greek world is concerned) has been largely abandoned, yet the interest in Athenian literacy and writing practices continues unabated. Pébarthe’s (hereafter P.) book is the latest attempt to examine the issues in question comprehensively. P. is known to specialists in Greek literacy matters primarily as the co-editor of the collective volume L’écriture publique du pouvoir,2 where he contributed a chapter which further discounted the alleged association between writing and egalitarian forms of political power (an issue also addressed in the book under review: see below). Cité, démocratie et écriture is the revised version of P’s doctoral dissertation. In the Introductory chapter P. draws extensively and constructively on the work of other scholars to set the tone for his own arguments. He initially defines some key terms and the scope of his inquiry, i.e. an examination of writing, literacy and orality in classical Athens. He then proceeds to offer a synopsis of scholarly debates on these very topics. Scholars conversant with scholarship on literacy might find these sections tedious, but they will be undoubtedly invaluable for those not so familiar with past and current discourses on the subject. The list of scholars whose work is briefly reviewed and evaluated includes the names more familiar to classicists of Jack Goody and Rosalind Thomas as well as the work less well known in the Anglo-Saxon world of François Furet and Jacques Ozouf on literacy in early modern France.3 Moreover, in the same chapter a number of crucial themes that are extensively examined in subsequent parts of the book are introduced for the first time, including the impact of writing on social institutions, the emergence and function of archives, the symbiotic relationship of literacy and orality as well as the need to develop more sophisticated paradigms of interpretation of the issues at hand.

Chapter I continues in an introductory tone but this time more sharply focused on Athens. It begins with a definition of alphabétisation (as P. himself points out, p. 33, a term that is semantically more restricted than the English term “literacy”) in the context of the Greek world. The evidence suggests multiple levels of literacy that cannot be reduced to a simplified clear-cut distinction between knowledge or lack of writing and reading skills. The case of literacy in Sparta is then briefly examined; P. concludes (p. 42), in tune with other recent scholarship,4 that Spartans made use of written documents in a fashion comparable to other Greek cities and that therefore there is nothing a priori exceptional in the abundance of evidence pointing to the frequent and habitual use of writing for private and public purposes in classical Athens. This assertion is substantiated in the remainder of the chapter through an investigation of Athenian evidence for literacy in schooling and the oikos, the archaic (many of private nature) inscriptions, and the institution of ostracism, the existence of which at the very least, as P. rightly points out, implies that full citizens were in principle expected to be able to read and write a name on a pottery sherd. All the above suggests, according to P., that with regard to Athens the model of “restricted literacy”, advanced by W. V. Harris,5 is untenable.

Chapter II picks up that thread and examines the various degrees of literacy in classical Athens. Instead of measuring the percentage of Athenians who could read and write, P. contends, we should instead try to determine the social attributes of writing. To that end, P. initially examines the evidence for sophisticated literary works (philosophy, historiography) and their diffusion (books and readers). He then proceeds to examine the evidence for mortgages horoi, short written notes (graffiti) and correspondence, as well as private documents of a legal nature such as wills and contracts. Banking and commerce also relied extensively on written documents. Although the evidence for most of the documents of legal and commercial character dates primarily from the fourth century, P. asserts (convincingly in my opinion) that written documentation of similar nature existed in the fifth century as well. In short, “numerous Athenians made use of written documents in their daily life” (p. 109).

Chapters III and IV are comprehensive surveys of the evidence for archives in classical Athens. The discussion commences (Chapter III) with the problems surrounding the civic archives at the Bouleuterion and the Metroon. Issues examined include the revision of laws in the late fifth century, the manner of archivization and the personnel of the archives. Again, most of the evidence dates from the fourth century and illuminates the workings of the archive at the Metroon. An important question is how accessible to the average Athenian these quite sophisticated archives were. P. concludes that consultation of the archives was indeed possible and at times necessary to the extent that “the civic archives constituted a fundamental institution without which the Athenian democracy as we know it could not function” (p. 169). Chapter IV corroborates this assessment (see e.g. the conclusion in p. 206) through an examination of what P. calls “official peripheral archives”, i.e. archives maintained by magistrates, often on behalf of subsections (e.g. demes; cavalry) of Athenian society. Not surprisingly, P. emphasizes the importance of these archives in cultivating a common Athenian identity (especially among individuals with full citizenship rights), in recruiting and mobilizing the armed forces, and in facilitating the operation of the judicial system.

Chapters V and VI are in a way the climax of the book. In Ch. V P. revisits a fundamental issue: the relationship between epigraphic habits and political regime (in this case, democracy). Athenians used inscribed and publicly displayed laws and other civic documents long before the establishment of their democracy, and so did many other polities in the Greek world, including most prominently some with oligarchic constitutions (e.g. Dreros and Gortyn in Crete). In the case of Athens, a marked increased in the production of inscriptions is not to be observed until after the middle of the fifth century. From that point onwards, the evidence suggests that Athenians increasingly relied on the written word for the smooth functioning of many facets of their political and legal system (cf. also P.’s discussion of relevant evidence in Chapter VI, especially regarding the use of written documents in the legal system and other contexts in fourth-century Athens). However, as P. points out, perhaps the main issue is not whether a direct connection exists between Athenian democracy and the written word but whether the written word, and especially civic inscriptions, were the result of “a policy of public communication on the part of the city”. In this respect, the monumentality of civic inscriptions can be as revealing as their content. The fifth-century tribute lists are a case in point. A related issue is the use of the written word for the emergence of a public space and opinion (in P.’s parlance this is almost synonymous to Habermas’ “public sphere”) in classical Athens. The book is rounded off with a short concluding section where some of the conclusions of the previous chapters are summarized.

For the most part, the material relating to literacy and the use of writing in classical Athens has been extensively discussed before. Yet in an ever-growing field monographs like Cité, démocratie et écriture offer interested scholars a valuable synthesis and perspective. P. quotes ancient texts at length, sometimes almost in paratactic fashion, in a manner that somewhat disrupts the flow of the discussion. But in other parts of the book he integrates disparate threads into an overarching argument that accounts for the growing importance of the written word in fifth- and fourth-century Athens. The vitality of scholarly output on literacy and orality in ancient and modern societies, combined with recent valuable additions to our evidentiary corpus (in the case of Athens one can point to the Vari graffiti which await publication),6 ensures that scholarly assumptions will be constantly challenged and books with a scope like the one here under review will continue to be written.


1. J. Goody and I. Watt, “The Consequences of Literacy”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5.3 (1963), 304-45; reprinted in J. Goody (ed.), Literacy in Traditional Societies, Cambridge 1975, 27-68.

2. Reviewed for BMCR by B. Paarmann, 2005.09.17.

3. F. Furet and J. Ozouf, Lire et écrire: L’alphabétisation des Français de Calvin à Jules Ferry, Paris 1977.

4. E.G. Millender, “Spartan Literacy Revisited”, ClAnt 20 (2001), 121-64.

5. W.V. Harris, Ancient Literacy, Cambridge MA, 1989.

6. M. Langdon, “A New Greek Abecedarium”, Kadmos 44 (2005), 175-82.