LITERACY IN ANCIENT EVERYDAY LIFE

Edited by Anne Kolb

de Gruyter (2018) 424pp £72.50 (ISBN 9783110591880)

This is the book of the conference—an ambitious and fascinating conference at the University of Zürich in 2016. The study of literacy in the ancient world has been an uncommonly rich vein of enquiry in recent years; the concept itself has been considerably refined and diversified beyond simple distinctions between literacy and orality, and there have been many particular studies of people in the ancient world who needed and developed some kind of literate practice associated with craft, religion, administration, soldiering, education, literary activity, or even personal exuberance. The papers assembled in this book represent a varied and often adventurous addition to this process; the time-frame, with one or two exceptions is roughly that of the Roman Empire.

There is a clear and helpful introduction by the editor, Anne Kolb, which sets out the design and intentions of the proceedings and summarizes each of the contributions; she does her best to fit them into a coherent pattern. There are eighteen papers in all, nine in German and nine in English; each is prefaced by abstracts in both English and German and there are clear and relevant illustrations (even, at the end, a charmingly informal photo of the conference members). There is an appendix with an index of all the ancient sources quoted.

The papers are grouped in five sections. The first—‘A Global Perspective’—encompasses China, India, Pharaonic Egypt and Iran as well as the classical world. Professor Li Feng looks at the emergence of writing in early China, posing the old conundrum of what actually counts as writing, and emphasizing the importance of writing used for divinatory purposes—the readership of many of the early oracle-bone, turtle-shell inscriptions and Zhou bronzes was assumed to be the ancestors in heaven. Harry Falk looks at the links between the world of King Ashoka and the Hellenistic Greeks and the seminal importance of the development of the Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts. Katharina Zinn offers interesting reflections on Pharaonic Egypt, a society in which writing had very important social, administrative and cultural functions, yet involved such a complicated writing system that its practice was largely restricted to a professional guild—yet how ‘literate’ were those who cut or wrote the hieroglyphic or hieratic texts? To what extent was writing a part of social memory? Josef Wiesehöfer looks at Teispid/Achaemenid Iran and gives some intriguing insights into the complications of a huge, multi-language state: instructions given in Old Persian have to be translated into Aramaic and thence possibly into Elamite or Egyptian—and all this in the context of a predominantly oral culture. Irene Madreiter looks at the scant evidence for women’s literacy in the Achaemenid Empire and places it in the context of a male power-wielding elite. It is generally recognized that William Harris’s book was a landmark in our understanding of ancient literacy, and he is not only a contributor to the conference but also the starting-block for many of the participants. He rounds off this section with a quite short paper surveying—with characteristic critical, scholarly gusto—some recent publications and pointing to two areas which he believes need more attention: the role of ideology in altering educational ideas and practice in late classical and Hellenistic times, and the decline of literacy in late antiquity. 

The second section of the book—‘The Roman Empire’—moves in more familiar territory. Sabine Hübner takes the comparatively well-trodden path of women’s literacy in Roman Egypt. She examines two case-studies from the papyrus record and points to the undoubted existence of strong, determined characters who were not only impressively literate but quite prepared to use their literacy in independent ways. Michael Speidel offers one of the most intriguing contributions to the collection: a study of Roman army documents found in the excavations at Qasr Ibrim, a Roman garrison stationed for roughly four years in the 20s BC about 120 miles south of the Egyptian frontier. Many of the papyri found are letters written to soldiers of the garrison—including one from a military trumpeter to his fellow-trumpeters. There are also military lists (one with personnel in military formation) and some of the more familiar bronze discharge tablets. There is a good case for supposing that service in the Roman army required many to cope with a remarkably organized and literate administration, and that levels of literacy were correspondingly higher than might be expected, albeit often functionally focused. The same theme of a possibly wider reach of literacy emerges from Roger Tomlin’s careful and cautious exposition of what is to be learnt from the collection of tablets found beneath the Bloomberg building in London and from the so-called curse-tablets from Bath and Uley. This section ends with a timely consideration from Kai Ruffing of a somewhat neglected topic: the Roman imperial economy could not have worked without reasonably extensive and broadly uniform accounting procedures and these in turn required a degree of accurate, professional literacy. 

The third section—‘Religious Practice’—is smaller, consisting of two quite specialized papers. Wolfgang Spickerman looks at one aspect of the Romanization of Gaul and western parts of Germany. The gods of Celtic lands belonged to a society without literacy; when they came within the orbit of Rome (the Roman army again), they needed to be ‘converted’ and sometimes assimilated. This process can be followed over time in the archaeological record and especially in the memorial inscriptions for soldiers; curious hybrids appear like Mars Cicollos or Hercules Magusanus. Amina Kropp renews the theme of the curse-tablets and usefully warns that, in spite of the personal vehemence which obviously lies behind many of the tablets (e.g. ‘pinning’ the name of the addressee), they cannot necessarily be taken as evidence for the literacy of the sender; professionals were at work. 

The fourth section looks at literacy in the context of administration. Antonio Caballos Rufino examines Roman legal and administrative documents surviving in bronze inscriptions from Further Spain and, after examining their legal and urban contexts, poses a difficult and important question. A lot of trouble was taken to display copies of important civic documents in public places but how many of the population could read—let alone understand—them? Graham Claytor looks at the development of municipal administration in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt and shows how seemingly universal tendencies towards centralization affected ordinary people in their encounters with bureaucracy. The functions of the grapheia (record office) which had been central features of village life became more and more transferred to the nome capitals, especially after the granting of autonomous city councils in 199/200 A.D. Paul Schubert goes into the complexities of officialdom in closer detail. Both Ptolemaic and Roman administration required office staff with a considerable command of customary vocabulary and formulaic documentation. He takes two case-studies and shows how the technique of ‘windows’ in documents—i.e. standard forms with gaps to be filled—was a part of administration in Egypt too. Finally, Benjamin Hartmann takes up a topic long ago pioneered by Ernst Badian, the role of the scribae in Roman administration. 

The fifth and final section—‘Education’—is disappointingly small, and this is really a matter of conference planning; such a central topic and one for which there is quite a lot of evidence surely deserved larger representation. Marietta Horster bravely takes on some interesting and difficult questions. How much history was actually read in antiquity outside the circle of the ‘professional’ intelligentsia and what expectations did people bring to their reading? To what extent does surviving evidence suggest an ‘awareness’ of history? Nowadays it is unfashionable to regard professional historical writing as literature but the balance was clearly otherwise in antiquity. Finally, Winfried Schmitz looks at what late antique and early mediaeval funeral inscriptions from the Rhine and Moselle valleys can tell us about the decline of literacy and the transition from late Latin to the beginnings of the Romance languages.

This is clearly a book for libraries and a collection of papers for and by specialists; it cannot be expected to tell a unified and coherent story. If that sounds too limiting, it must be said that no library with claims to a serious interest in literacy can afford to be without it. It is expensive, but it contains much of value, and Anne Kolb has done an absolutely first-rate job in editing and presenting the contents; de Gruyter have matched her excellence with a handsome, well-designed book. Both deserve our warm thanks.

John Muir—King’s College London

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