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Ancient Illiteracy

Gregory Woolf

William Harris' Ancient Literacy established a new baseline for the study of the uses of writing in the past. It offered a view of a world in which writing was widespread but the capacity to read was severely limited, a world in which most were illiterate, a few had limited facility with letters and a tiny minority could produce and consume the kinds of texts through which classicists were accustomed to view the ancient world. Even more remarkable was the geographical and chronological range: where previous studies had focused on very local and short term contexts of writing, Harris told the story of the entire classical world from Homer to late antiquity from ancient Greece to Rome's least literate northern provinces. The central argument has received few challenges – critics prefering to add nuance or explore the complexities of writings use - and no-one has rivalled the project in its scope.

By the early twenty-first century, however, it no longer seems so obvious that the Mediterranean world can be studied as a universe unto itself. Following some suggestive discussion in Ancient Literacy of literacies other than Greek and Latin, this paper asks what happens if we begin the story further east. One consequence is that Greek and Latin writing systems take their place alongside other international and imperial systems, notably Akkadian and Aramaic. But another, more surprising, finding is that the story of writing can be told in ways that do not revolved around the dyad Orality/Literacy. Taking leave of Ong and Goody, it is possible to argue that the encoding of speech was a late and supplementary component of many sign systems, systems in which numbers and measures were far more significant. And if we start to measure illiteracy in terms of an inability to hand the signs and symbols uses in everyday life, then it becomes a much rarer phenomenon.

Taking as a case study the use of signs on manufactured and traded objects circulating in the Roman Mediterranean, this paper argues that it was as rare in antiquity for individuals to lack the sign-competences they needed as it is today, and that mass illiteracy may itself be a rare historical phenomenon, and one associated mainly with periods of rapid change in the uses of writing and other signs.

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