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date: 26 June 2022



  • Rosalind Thomas


The number of people who could read and write in the ancient world is hard to determine. Without statistical evidence, we must rely mostly on chance information and inference: for example, the institution of *ostracism implies that most Athenian citizens could be expected to write a name. Our evidence (written) indicates the literate, not the illiterate, and especially the highly educated élite. The ancient habit of reading aloud meant that written texts could often be shared the more easily by others; the presence of inscriptions (see epigraphy, greek) does not itself imply that they were read by everyone, since their symbolic value added another dimension to their written contents. There are also many different levels of literacy, which complicate the picture, from the basic ability to figure out a short message, to functional literacy or ‘craft literacy’, to the skill required for reading a literary papyrus (reading and writing skills may also have been separate). However, certain broad generalizations are possible. The ‘mass literacy’ of modern industrial countries was never achieved in the ancient world (cf. Harris (see bibliog. below), who believes a maximum of 20–30 per cent literacy was achieved, and that in Hellenistic cities). Women, slaves, and the lower social levels would usually be less literate. Archaic Greece and particularly Archaic Rome have left fewer instances of writing (graffiti, inscriptions), implying sparse literacy, and Archaic Greek cities sometimes attempt to ensure an official's power over the written word was not abused. However, there were pockets and periods where a higher rate of basic literacy among the adult citizen-body is probable: for instance, under the Athenian *democracy, when there was a relatively high level of reading-matter and incentives to read (even the sausage seller can read a little, Ar.


  • Greek Literature
  • Latin Literature

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