Monday, April 29, 2019


Anne Kolb (ed.), Literacy in Ancient Everyday Life. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018. Pp. ix, 427. ISBN 9783110591880. €79,95.

Reviewed by Minna Skafte Jensen, University of Southern Denmark & Copenhagen University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

This exciting volume builds on a conference held at the University of Zürich on November 10-12 2016, with participants from universities in Germany, Great Britain, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and the United States. The languages used are English and German, and each paper is introduced by an abstract in both languages. There is every reason to praise the editor and publisher for the efficiency with which contributions from a conference held in late 2016 have been transformed into a book published in 2018.

In her introduction the editor describes the overall theme of the volume as "ancient literacy in its day to day practice" and asks the question "to what degree ancient societies were literate and which groups possessed the ability to read and write" (p. 1). A common point of departure is William Harris' fundamental discussion of ancient literacy from 1989.1

The majority of the articles are concerned with literacy in the Roman Empire. They present to the reader a huge amount of material from papyri, ostraca, stone, bronze and wooden tablets, used for public and private messages, from clumsy graffiti to elegant inscriptions, found in many parts of the huge expanse, and over a timespan of many centuries. Some of the papers are overviews while others concentrate on special areas, periods or types of text. Together they draw a fascinating picture of an empire consisting of a multitude of cultures, religions, languages and scripts.

The two first papers, on China and India, are concerned not only with questions of literacy, but also very much with the emergence of writing. Feng identifies two different approaches, the "Gradual Developmental School" and the "Overnight School," considering the latter most likely in the Chinese case. He treats the whole timespan c. 3000 BC-AD 220, concentrating mainly on two periods, Western Zhou (1045-771 BC) and Qin Han (221 BC-AD 220). In Western Zhou a large group of inscriptions on bronze vessels suggests that the use of writing had spread from professional scribes to the social elite. During Qin Han literacy seems to have reached many other groups of society such as public officials, military officers, members of the aristocracy, merchants and landowners.

Falk describes a beginning of writing in which the system is not indigenous, but deliberately formed on the basis of other scripts. His protagonist is King Asoka, the third Maurya king, who ruled a large area of India with his capital in Pataliputra (modern Patna) c. 268-32. He had an Indian alphabet created with Greek and Kharoshti as models, called Brahmi, which he introduced into a society with old and potent oral traditions, where Aramaic scribes had taken care of matters in which writing was needed. How widely Asoka's new Brahmi script spread is difficult to ascertain. Since the huge stone pillars on which he published his Brahmi-written edicts are often found in border areas, he may especially have had foreign travellers in mind as his readers.

Ancient Iran in the Achaemenid period is Madreiter's topic, with a focus on women's literacy. Referring back to Harris's distinction between mass, scribal and craftsman's literacy (Harris 1989, p. 7), she speaks of elite, functional, technical, and cultural literacy, as well as of sectoral literacy (e.g. a use of writing only for administrative purposes) or signature-literacy (when an otherwise illiterate person is able to sign a document) (pp. 117-19). While in some of the border provinces of the huge state – Babylonia, Egypt, Asia Minor – literacy was widespread, she considers orality to have prevailed in the central area. Here Old Persian cuneiform was used for display and a simplified version of Elamitic cuneiform and Aramaic in the administration. The degree of literacy of a given community does not depend on script or writing materials, she states, but on social factors (p. 129). In Akkadia there had been high status women who could read and write and even professional female scribes, but positive conditions for women's literacy seem to have been missing in Achaemenid Persia.

The twelve papers of part II are all concerned with the Roman Empire, and even though they differ widely in material and approach they throw light on each other.

For the study of everyday life, Egypt is the great treasure trove because of its papyri: more than 60.000 from the period 332 BC-AD 642 have been published, according to Schubert (p. 336). No wonder, therefore, that half the papers concentrate on the situation in that province. The reader is invited into a world peopled with individuals involved in many kinds of affairs. An especially intriguing acquaintance is the village scribe Petaus from Fayum in the 2nd century BC (pp. 166, 171, 342-3), who struggled with the problem that he could not write.

Hübner investigates Greek writing among the Romans in Egypt, pointing out that they themselves distinguished between the illiterate, the slow writers, and the literate. She mentions quite a few literate women and even female scribes, but considers them exceptions. Two ladies from the second century AD known through private letters offer a glimpse of the role of writing in individual lives, the literate Eudaimonis and the illiterate Saturnila. In both cases most of their correspondence is written by scribes, but Saturnila's illiteracy is clear because parts of a letter written to her by one of her sons (via another son) are not meant for the mother's ears.

Speidel and Tomlin show the high level of literacy in the Roman army, on the basis of papyri from Nubia and wooden tablets from Britain. Speidel's material is exceptional in its clearly defined origin in an isolated garrison which existed only 25/4- 21/0.

Kropp studies the darker side of writing in her analysis of curse-tablets. Normally of lead, they are found in many different places, but her material is mainly from Mainz, Sousse and Bath (2nd-3rd centuries AD). She combines methods from communication theory and religious studies, explaining how the ritual establishes two axes of communication, a human and a divine. In the ritual, writing is not simply a medium; its materiality is important and is heavily loaded metaphorically. The written curse offers the illiterate access to the ritual by means of ready-made formulas and the assistance of professional scribes.

Rufino's subject is bronze tablets, mostly fragments of legal inscriptions. They are remnants of laws displayed in public; a fact that does not necessarily imply that people were able to read them. Their function was ideological rather than functional: their presence was a grandiloquent reminder of the ubiquity of Roman power.

Horster investigates what literate commoners actually read and looks especially for an interest in history. She checks graffiti, papyri, private inscriptions, compendia, Byzantine lexica etc., but even in the case of an archive from the 2nd century BC which allows for detailed knowledge of the owner, the few literary texts that occur may have been used simply as writing material. Except for the popularity of Homer and Attic drama it is difficult to draw conclusions. History reading seems not to have been widespread in antiquity, but Horster admits that the existing sources are inconclusive.

The book presents to the reader a rich and multifaceted collection of material throwing light on the history of literacy as a key to a wide variety of cultural themes. Most of the authors concentrate on the wonders they present; methodologically I found most to learn from Madreiter, Kropp and Horster.

The power of the book derives from its detailed information about various functions of writing in very different societies rather than from clear-cut results. There were important differences between town and countryside, social layers, genders, professions etc. However, the authors who examine literacy in the Roman Empire converge in a cautious criticism of Harris as having underestimated the degree of literacy. Even though they agree in considering the great majority of the populations to have been illiterate, writing was omnipresent and influenced everyday life for illiterates as well as literates.

The collection suffers from some weaknesses, of which the most important is to be found in the selection of topics for treatment.

In part I, which professes "to offer an analysis of ancient literacy from a larger, historical vantage point" (p. 3), the omission of Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform is astonishing. This script is one of the world's oldest; its history is unusually well documented by means of the sturdy writing material in use; and modern research has been treating literacy questions carefully.2

Another strange omission is Greece. The title speaks of ancient literacy, not just literacy of the Roman Empire, but except for a few remarks in Harris' paper, Greece plays no part. This is all the more strange considering that questions of orality vs. literacy have been central in Greek research for decades. Especially interesting have been questions of prestige: when and why did people begin to evaluate written discourse as more important than oral? In modern times illiteracy is invariably considered a sign of backwardness, and scholars tend to transfer this etic point of view to the emic sphere.3 In the present volume only a couple of the authors (Madreiter and Wiesehöfer) do not take for granted that introduction of literacy was considered to be a progressive step by the people involved.

Even for the Roman Empire, the overall image is somewhat unbalanced, especially the impression given of the status of scribes. In the province of Egypt professional scribes seem to have been respected members of society, often attached to grapheia as described by Claytor, and the important role of scribae in the state administration is described in detail by Hartmann. But the humble scribes (librarii, notarii), who did most of the professional writing for private authors, and to whom we as readers are endlessly indebted, are not even mentioned.4

A subject index would have been helpful.

These criticisms should not overshadow the wonders of this rich collection, the high quality of the scholarship involved, and the fabulous world of written sources unrolled for us, be it the archives of Persepolis, the walls of a merchant's shop at Dura-Europos, or private households in the Fayum.

Authors and titles

Anne Kolb, Literacy in Ancient Everyday Life – Problems and Results (Introduction)

I A Global Perspective
Li Feng, The Development of Literacy in Early China: With the Nature and Uses of Bronze Inscriptions in Context, and More
Harry Falk, The Creation and Spread of Scripts in Ancient India
Katharina Zinn, Literacy in Pharaonic Egypt: Orality and Literacy between Agency and Memory
Josef Wiesehöfer, Anmerkungen zu Literalität und Oralität in teispidisch-achaimenidischen Iran
Irene Madreiter, Der Raum alltäglicher weiblicher Literalität im Achaimeniden-Reich
William V. Harris, Literacy in Everyday Ancient Life: From Gabii to Gloucestershire

II Roman Empire
Social Groups
Sabine R. Hübner, Frauen und Schriftlichkeit im römischen Ägypten
Michael A. Speidel, Soldiers and Documents: Insights from Nubia. The Significance of Written Documents in Roman Soldiers' Everyday Lives
Roger Tomlin, Literacy in Roman Britain
Kai Ruffing, Schriftlichkeit und Wirtschaft im Römischen Reich

Religious Practice
Wolfgang Spickermann, Als die Götter lesen lernten: Keltisch-germanische Götternamen und lateinische Schriftlichkeit in Gallien und Germanien
Amina Kropp, Schriftlichkeit in der Schadenzauberpraxis am Beispiel der vulgärlateinischen defixionum tabellae

A. Caballos Rufino, Monumenta fatiscunt. Meaning and Fate of Legal Inscriptions on Bronze: the Baetica
W. Graham Claytor, The Municipalization of Writing in Roman Egypt
Paul Schubert, Who Needed Writing in Graeco-Roman Egypt, and for What Purpose? Document Layout as a Tool of Literacy
Benjamin Hartmann, Schreiben im Dienste des Staates. Prolegomena zu einer Kulturgeschichte der römischen scribae

Marietta Horster, Geschichte und Geschichten im Alltag
Winfried Schmitz, Bedrohte Latinitas. Sprachliche Veränderungen auf spätantik-frühmittelalterlichen Grabinschriften aus dem Rhein-Mosel-Gebiet
Index (Locorum)


1.   William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy, Cambridge, Mass. 1989.
2.   See, e.g., Mogens Trolle Larsen, Ancient Kanesh, Cambridge 2015.
3.   Rosalind Thomas opened this debate with her two monographs, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens, Cambridge 1989, and Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece, Cambridge 1992.
4.   See, e.g., Steve Reece, Paul's Large Letters: Paul's Autographic Subscriptions in the Light of Ancient Epistolary Conventions, London 2017, especially pp. 14-16, 28-30.

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