Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Anne Missiou, Literacy and Democracy in Fifth-Century Athens. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi, 211. ISBN 9780521128766. $29.99.

Reviewed by Theodora S. F. Jim, University of Hong Kong (

Version at BMCR home site


Missiou's new book deals with a familiar subject – the relationship between democracy and literacy. Limiting her enquiry to Classical Athens, and through a close analysis of the workings of the Athenian democracy, Missiou challenges the common assumption that literacy was not widespread among the Athenians in the fifth century.

The Introduction gives a brief survey of the key developments in the study of literacy since the 1960s. Missiou makes it clear that she does not endorse the view (held by scholars such as J. Goody, I. Watt and E. Havelock) that the alphabetic script was the key to western democratic developments. Although she agrees with those historians who think that literacy was widespread in Ancient Athens, Missiou goes one step further by seeking to explain how and why literacy promoted democracy. She investigates this question by examining Cleisthenes' major reforms – tribal reorganization, ostracism, and the Council of Five Hundred – in the subsequent chapters.

Chapter One explores how the reorganization of the demes and tribes in the early fifth century might have promoted the use of writing among the Athenians. Contrary to the view that the large size and predominantly agricultural nature of Attica formed obstacles to mass literacy, Missiou argues that the tribal organization of Attica, based on democratic principles of political equality and fairness, facilitated the use of writing: it served as a means of communication for the exchange of reliable information among the demes, among the tribes, and between the urban centre and its constituent units. Important matters such as the enlistment of demesmen and the conscription of soldiers, Missiou argues, could not have depended solely on oral transmission, but must have relied on the use of the written word, which was more permanent and accurate. In short, Missiou demonstrates how the use of writing and the effective functioning of the political entities mutually facilitated each other.

Chapter Two, on the institution of ostracism, examines the role of writing in the actual procedures by which Athenian politicians were ostracized. Noting the practical difficulties in counting the large number of votes (a minimum of 6,000 votes were required) and in determining the identity of the person named in the cases of duplicate names (i.e. presence of namesakes) and a single name not accompanied by patronymics or demotics, Missiou suggests plausibly that a fixed list of candidates for ostracism must have been drawn up in advance, and that writing must have been used in the counting process to ensure accuracy. The Chapter concludes with some interesting observations on the 'voluntary secrecy' of ostracism: the voter could determine the size of the sherd to use, whether to inscribe the ostracon at home or in public, the size of the letters, and whether to write it by himself or have it written for him.

The question of whether ostracism reflected widespread (or limited) literacy is treated in the next Chapter. Through a detailed re-examination of some of the 191 ostraca found on the Athenian acropolis and bearing the name Themistocles, Missiou questions Oscar Broneer's ascription of the dossier to fourteen identifiable hands. By re- examining the inscriptions' spacing, letter forms, use of punctuation and contraction etc., she suggests that the ostraca were in fact inscribed by many hands, and that they were written in advance by private citizens instead of through the intermediary of professional scribes. Nevertheless, while Missiou is right to point out the differences among the ostraca attributed to the same hand and not taken into consideration in Broneer's classification, it is arguable whether these were variations by the same hand or inscriptions by different hands. There are also uncertainties, as Missiou admits, about these people's identity, social status and level of literacy.

Chapter Four looks at public decrees in the Classical period. Missiou cites examples in which simple writing, consisting of brief inscriptions, little more than a name (such as lists of demesmen, horoi, and coins), was used in the service of the polis, before moving on to public decrees passed by the demos in the first half of the fifth century. In her view, these inscriptions 'bear witness to a progression from the already widespread ability to write a short message or list of names to the ability to compose complicated texts' (p. 99). She shifts our attention away from the traditional scholarly focus on stone inscriptions to texts inscribed on wooden tablets (leleukomena grammateia), suggesting that such tablets were perhaps more widely used in Athenian administration than we think.

The final Chapter tackles the controversial questions of the social status and literacy levels of the Athenians serving in the boule. Missiou argues that members of the Council of Five Hundred must have been drawn from all sectors of Athenian society, including the thetes, the fourth Solonian property class, and that service in the Council required ordinary Athenians to perform literate tasks themselves despite the presence of officials and minor functionaries charged especially with writing and recording (e.g. secretaries, clerks, public slaves). The Athenians might have acquired and practised the skill of writing in such contexts as, she suggests, home-schooling and informal apprenticeship in the boule itself; the desire to participate actively in the democratic institutions would also provide incentive for councillors to acquaint themselves with the use of writing.

The contentions in this study are very similar to those in C. Pébarthe's Cité, démoractie et écriture. Histoire de l'alphabétisation d'Athènes à l'époque classique (Paris, 2006).1 Like Missiou, Pébarthe's central argument is that the use of writing in Classical Athens was extensive rather than restricted; he also discusses the use of writing in deme registers, ostracism, private communication, and public documents. Despite these overlaps, Missiou differs in examining the dynamics between the tribal organization and the use of writing, and in questioning Broneer's widely- accepted interpretation of the acropolis ostraca. She emphasizes how writing and democracy facilitated each other, whereas Pébarthe discounts the simple association between Athenian democratic development and public documents, which in his view had begun to be inscribed and displayed long before the democracy was established and had a monumental function. While Missiou's focus is much narrower and the analysis less nuanced, her work is complementary to Pébarthe's study.

Many of Missiou's arguments remain uncertain or unconvincing: as Missiou acknowledges herself (p. 110), the suggestions that a list of candidates for ostracism was prepared (Chapter Two) and that the ostraca were inscribed by many more hands than traditionally believed (Chapter Three) do not rule out the possibility that most Athenians relied on others to read the list and to help write the preferred candidate's name for them. Nor does the increased use of written public documents in the fifth century constitute sufficient proof of widespread mass literacy (Chapter Four): the ability to read and write long texts was perhaps quite restricted or at least varied between individuals, hence the need to choose the grammateus of the Council by election (instead of lot) in the fifth century. It is not until the last chapter that Missiou tries to show that public inscriptions and ostraca were written, read, and comprehended by ordinary people, but even here the evidence is far from conclusive: there are still considerable uncertainties about the actual representation of the Attic population in the council, the precise nature of the tasks in which councillors were involved, and the extent to which information was transmitted orally and/or in writing in the day-to-day running of the boule. It seems unlikely that the councillors would be required to read and write documents themselves as part of their duties in the early days of the democracy; and there was nothing that prevented an illiterate boule member from participating by listening and speaking.2 Even if service in the boule offered some form of 'informal apprenticeship', this was limited to two non-consecutive years, and epigraphic evidence suggests that relatively few citizens exercised this right to serve twice.3 Throughout the study there is a lack of distinction between democratic ideologies and realities: it is doubtful how motivated the people would be to learn to read and write in the boule for the sake of participating fully. The fixed bouleutic quota, while certainly an attempt to ensure representation from all areas of Attica, seems to reflect the reluctance (instead of widespread enthusiasm) of some Athenians, especially those in the more remote demes, to take part in political activities. Furthermore, the selection of some offices (such as the grammateis, strategoi, archons) by election instead of lot points precisely to different levels of participation resultant from different levels of expertise, not least the ability to read and write, among the Athenians in the fifth century. Debates about mass literacy or illiteracy in Classical Athens or ancient Greece will surely continue.

While Missiou's focus is fifth-century Athens, it may be worth considering evidence from other democracies in which writing was used. Relevant examples are 1) the cache of 158 lead tablets discovered in the temple of Athena at Camarina in south Sicily, inscribed with a citizen's name with his patronymic on one side, and a number indicating perhaps his phratry on the other, generally believed to relate to Camarina's civic organization after the city's refoundation in c. 461 B.C.;4 and 2) the fourth-century archive of some 134 inscribed bronze tablets recently discovered in Argos, inscribed in epichoric Argive alphabets and recording mainly matters concerning sacred funds. 5 Comparisons with contemporary democracies and investigations of the possible interactions between democratic institutions in Greece would enrich Missiou's study, especially given that one of her aims is to explain the distinctiveness of Athens as compared to other cities and democracies (p. 6-8).

Missiou's study offers many interesting insights on the character of Athenian society and democracy. It not only concerns ancient literacy, but also touches upon important issues such as information transmission and communication in the ancient world, as well as the actual running of the democratic institutions. The book will be of interest to students interested in Athenian democracy and the socio-political history of Classical Athens.


1.   Pébarthe (2006) is mentioned in Missiou's bibliography and in various places in her footnotes, but does not feature in the main text or in the brief survey of existing literature in the Introduction.
2.   See also the recent discussion in R. Thomas, 'Writing, Reading, Public and Private "Literacies"', in W.A. Johnson and H.N. Parker (eds.), Ancient Literacies (Oxford, 2009), p. 13-45, which suggests that the level of literacy expected of ordinary people in the democratic process could have been extremely basic (little more than 'name literacy', the ability to write and recognize one's or others' names) in the 480s or even 460s, and that it was not until the polis extended its use of written texts in the second half of the fifth century that 'functional democratic literacy' was expected for fully active members.
3.   See M.H. Hansen, 'The Average Age of Athenian bouleutai and the proportion of bouleutai who served twice', LCM 13 (1988), p. 67-9.
4.   F. Cordano, Le tessere pubbliche dal tempio do Atena a Camarina (Rome, 1992); O. Murray, 'Rationality and the Greek City: the Evidence from Camarina', in M.H. Hansen ed. The Polis as an Urban Centre and as a Political Community (Copenhagen, 1997), p. 493-504.
5.   See e.g. SEG LI, 410, LIV, 427; C.B. Kritzas, 'Nouvelles inscriptions d'Argos: les archives des comptes du trésor sacré (IVe s. av. J.-C.), CRAI (2006), p. 397-434; C.B. Kritzas, 'Ετυμολογικές παρατηρήσεις σε νέα επιγραφικά κείμενα του Άργους', in M.B. Hatzopoulos and V. Psilkakou (eds.), Φωνῆς Χαρακτὴρ Ἐθνικός (Athens, 2007), p. 135-160.

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