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BOOK REVIEW: Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece

History of Reading News. Vol.XIX No.1 (1995:Fall)
by James T. Chambers

Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece by Rosalind Thomas, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. xii, 201. llustrations. Index. $54.95 (cloth); $17.95 (paperback).

Like other offerings in the series "Key Themes in Ancient History," this volume is designed to introduce students and teachers to the state of current research in a particular area of classics or ancient history. Thomas is well qualified to undertake an introduction to this topic by her previous work, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens (Cambridge, 1989), which in a strictly Athenian context dealt with many of the issues discussed in the present volume. While her focus remains the classical and archaic periods with much attention to Athens, she has broadened this new study to cover the Greek world in general and provide an extended discussion of recent trends in methodology. She relies on her previous Athenian studies but also draws upon recent work from other locales and cultures, including Ptolemaic Egypt, medieval Europe, and modern Africa and Asia. Indeed, this far ranging, cross-cultural approach is a refreshing aspect of the book.

In the first chapter Thomas points out some often overlooked complexities of studying ancient literacy and provides a brief overview of the arrival and progress of writing in ancient Greece. Perhaps her most fundamental point is the following: despite its extensive use of the written word and its obvious proper claim to the status of a "literate society," ancient Greece remained "in many ways an oral society in which the written word took second place to the spoken" (p. 3). Consider the following examples. Most literature was meant to be heard, and even the extended written text of Herodotus' Histories was read aloud. Written law did not supplant but merely supplemented traditional unwritten custom, while written documents had relatively little weight in court. Politics was conducted orally, and the only Greek word for "politician" was "orator" (rhetor). Socrates conducted his philosophical inquiries through conversations and left nothing in writing.

In such a society simple "phonetic literacy" (the ability to understand and memorize texts by pronouncing them orally syllable by syllable) would have been especially relevant and functional even if accompanied by minimal skills of writing and a complete lack of "comprehension literacy" (the ability to decode a text silently word by word with full understanding). Awareness of these kinds of distinctions makes Thomas skeptical of those studies that have attempted to compare ancient and modern rates of literacy as if they were equivalent phenomena. On the question of ancient levels of literacy she will venture only the following: more people could read than write; the ability to read or write short messages was probably not rare; phonetic literacy was fairly widespread in Athens, less so in other cities; the reading audience of literary texts was confined to a very small elite and their secretaries.

Chapter two surveys recent approaches to the subject and groups them into two schools. Those scholars who follow the "autonomous model" attribute to literacy per se certain inherent, predictable effects and seek its broad psychological and cultural implications, such as democratization and a more analytic frame of mind. In this camp Thomas places well known scholars such as Eric Havelock, Jack Goody, and Walter Ong, all of whom stress the transforming effects of the arrival of literacy. The very title of Havelock's The Literate Revolution in Greece and its Cultural Consequences reveals this point of view. In contrast, scholars such as Brian Street, Brian Stock, and M. Carruthers, who adopt the "ideological model," emphasize the extent to which literacy and orality are shaped by their cultural context. Instead of seeking the general effects of literacy, they concentrate on specific uses of literacy in a particular culture. Thomas questions many of the claims based on the "autonomous model" and argues convincingly for the alternative approach, which is well illustrated by her analysis in the subsequent chapters of this volume.

The remaining chapters explore a huge variety of specific manifestations of literacy and orality in various Greek cultural environments. Chapter 3, "Oral Poetry," provides an introduction to the debate over the composition of the Homeric poems. Rejecting a rigid application of the Parry-Lord oral theory, Thomas argues that the sophisticated literary qualities of the Iliad are best explained by allowing for reflection, memorization, and dictation, in which writing played a part. Chapter 4, "The Coming of the Alphabet," maintains that the arrival of writing did not revolutionize Greek life and thought. Instead, the new technique was grafted onto long standing uses in magic, ritual, and memorial. Other chapters examine in fascinating detail the importance of oral performance over silent reading, various "non-literate" functions of writing, and the remarkably limited use made of writing for public administration and bureaucratic record keeping. A brief epilogue on the Roman world concludes the main text.

The book is well crafted to fulfill its introductory mission. Practically all Greek passages are translated, and the text is clearly written. A very complete bibliography com- plements an adequate analytical index, while the five-page bibliographical essay provides welcome guidance to further reading.

Reviewed by James T. Chambers, associate professor of history, Texas Christian University. Chambers' research interests include ancient Sparta, Thucydides, and ancient Greek warfare.




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