Articles from the
Oxford Classical Dictionary
literacy | orality | books | libraries | archives | Museum | records & record-keeping | Greek education
Ancestor of the West: Writing, Reasoning, and Religion in Mesopotamia, Elam, and Greece
Jean Bottéro, Clarisse Herrenschmidt and Jean-Pierre Vernant, 2000
In this introduction to the ancient world, three leading French historians explore the emergence of rationality and writing: how it developed and how it is remarkably similar to our own tradition. We learn that the supposed twin pillars of Western civilization, Greece and the Bible, were hardly freestanding: they elaborated logical and religious structures that had developed much earlier in Mesopotamia. At the same time Ancestor of the West reminds us that these cultures were precursors of our own precisely because they possessed an intelligence that we still recognize. The ancients, even in their earliest writings, thought like us. "In this accessible introduction to the ancient world, three leading French scholars explore the emergence of rationality and writing in the West, tracing its development and its survival in our own traditions." --Translation Review.
Literacy & Power in the Ancient World
ed. Alan K. Bowman & Greg Woolf, 1994
This book consists of a series of studies, each by a specialist in a different period or area of the ancient history of the Mediterranean world and northern Europe, examining the relationship between power and the use of writing in ancient society. The studies range in date from c. 600 B.C. to A.D. 800. It is intended not to provide a complete coverage of the ancient world but to use particular case studies to examine ways in which the relationship between literacy and power can be analyzed.
This delightful book tells the story of ancient libraries from their very beginnings, when “books” were clay tablets and writing was a new phenomenon. Casson takes us on a lively tour, from the royal libraries of the most ancient Near East, through the private and public libraries of Greece and Rome, down to the first Christian monastic libraries. To the founders of the first public libraries of the Greek world goes the credit for creating the prototype of today’s library buildings and the science of organizing books in them. Casson recounts the development of ancient library buildings, systems, holdings, and patrons, addressing questions on a wide variety of topics, such as: What was the connection between the rise in education and literacy and the growth of libraries? What did ancient libraries include in their holdings? How did ancient libraries acquire books? What was the nature of publishing in the Greek and Roman world? This entertaining book offers to its perusers the surprising history of the rise and development of ancient libraries—a fascinating story never told before.
Ancient Greek Letter Writing: A Cultural History (600-150 BC)
This book offers a history of the development of letter writing in ancient Greece from the archaic to the early Hellenistic period. At the end of the fifth and beginning of the fourth century a turning point in epistolography takes place, as an epistolary language appropriate to, and standard for, private communication is developed. Highlighting the specificity of letter-writing, as opposed to other forms of communication and writing, the volume looks at documentary letters, but also traces the role of embedded letters in the texts of the ancient historians, in drama, and in the speeches of the orators. While a letter is in itself the transcription of an oral message and, as such, can be either truthful or deceitful, letters acquired negative connotations in the fifth century when used for transactions concerning the public and not the private sphere. Viewed as the instrument of tyrants or near eastern kings, these negative connotations were evident especially in Athenian drama, where comedy and tragedy testified to an underlying concern with epistolary communication.
Leaving Words to Remember: Greek Mourning & the Advent of Literacy
This volume examines the influence of literacy on the development of different genres of mourning in ancient Greece. The oral tradition of lament in the Homeric poems forms the point of departure for close readings of epigraphic material and written texts commemorating the dead in the archaic and classical periods, including grave epigrams, threnoi, tragedy, and Athenian "epitaphioi," These texts reveal the non-linear development of Greek literacy and offer insight into the ongoing influence of lament in diverse poetic genres and the evolving uses of death and mourning in different media. In particular, the discussion focuses on the role of writing in commemorating soldiers and the evolution of the written memorial into a historical and civic medium of communication.
Sound, Sense, and Rhythm: Listening to Greek and Latin Poetry
This book concerns the way we read--or rather, imagine we are listening to--ancient Greek and Latin poetry. Through clear and penetrating analysis Mark Edwards shows how an understanding of the effects of word order and meter is vital for appreciating the meaning of classical poetry, composed for listening audiences. Based on the author's Martin Classical Lectures at Oberlin College in 1998, this book will enrich the appreciation of classicists and their students for the immense possibilities of the languages they read, translate, and teach. Since the Greek and Latin quotations are translated into English, it will also be welcomed by non-classicists as an aid to understanding the enormous influence of ancient Greek and Latin poetry on modern Western literature.
Individual agents are frequently evident in early writing and notational systems, yet these systems have rarely been subjected to the concept of agency as it is traceable in archeology. Agency in Ancient Writing addresses this oversight, allowing archeologists to identify and discuss real, observable actors and actions in the archaeological record. Embracing myriad ways in which agency can be interpreted, ancient writing systems from Mesoamerica, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, China, and Greece are examined from a textual perspective as both archaeological objects and nascent historical documents. This allows for distinction among intentions, consequences, meanings, and motivations, increasing understanding and aiding interpretation of the subjectivity of social actors. This work leads to a more thorough and meaningful discussion of agency as an archaeological concept and will be of interest to anyone interested in ancient texts, including archaeologists, historians, linguists, epigraphers, and art historians, as well as scholars studying agency and structuration theory.
Below: Hieroglyphic inscription at the Temple of Hathor in Dendera, Egypt. Source: Unsplash. Creator: Jeremy Zero. License: Unsplash license.
From the earliest scratches on stone and bone to the languages of computers and the internet, A History of Writing offers a fascinating investigation into the origin and development of writing throughout the world. Commencing with the first stages of information storage, Fischer focuses on the emergence of complete writing systems in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC. He documents the rise of Phoenician and its effect on the Greek alphabet, generating the many alphabetic scripts of the West. Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese writing systems are dealt with in depth, as is writing in pre-Columbian America. Also explored are Western Europe's medieval manuscripts and the history of printing, leading to the innovations in technology and spelling rules of the 19th and 20th centuries.
How many people could read and write in the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans? No one has previously tried to give a systematic answer to this question. Most historians who have considered the problem at all have given optimistic assessments, since they have been impressed by large bodies of ancient written material such as the graffiti at Pompeii. They have also been influenced by a tendency to idealize the Greek and Roman world and its educational system. In this book, Harris provides the first thorough exploration of the levels, types, and functions of literacy in the classical world, from the invention of the Greek alphabet about 800 B.C. down to the fifth century A.D. Investigations of other societies show that literacy ceases to be the accomplishment of a small elite only in specific circumstances. Harris argues that the social and technological conditions of the ancient world were such as to make mass literacy unthinkable. Noting that a society on the verge of mass literacy always possesses an elaborate school system, Harris stresses the limitations of Greek and Roman schooling, pointing out the meagerness of funding for elementary education. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans came anywhere near to completing the transition to a modern kind of written culture. They relied more heavily on oral communication than has generally been imagined.
Plato's frontal attack on poetry has always been a problem for sympathetic students, who have often minimized or avoided it. Beginning with the premise that the attack must be taken seriously, Mr. Havelock shows that Plato's hostility is explained by the continued domination of the poetic tradition in contemporary Greek thought. The reason for the dominance of this tradition was technological. In a nonliterate culture, stored experience necessary to cultural stability had to be preserved as poetry in order to be memorized. Plato attacks poets, particularly Homer, as the sole source of Greek moral and technical instruction--Mr. Havelock shows how the Iliad acted as an oral encyclopedia. Under the label of mimesis, Plato condemns the poetic process of emotional identification and the necessity of presenting content as a series of specific images in a continued narrative. The second part of the book discusses the Platonic Forms as an aspect of an increasingly rational culture. Literate Greece demanded, instead of poetic discourse, a vocabulary and a sentence structure both abstract and explicit in which experience could be described normatively and analytically: in short, a language of ethics and science.
What do walking, weaving, observing, storytelling, singing, drawing and writing have in common? The answer is that they all proceed along lines. In this extraordinary book Tim Ingold imagines a world in which everyone and everything consists of interwoven or interconnected lines and lays the foundations for a completely new discipline: the anthropological archaeology of the line. Ingold’s argument leads us through the music of Ancient Greece and contemporary Japan, Siberian labyrinths and Roman roads, Chinese calligraphy and the printed alphabet, weaving a path between antiquity and the present. Drawing on a multitude of disciplines including archaeology, classical studies, art history, linguistics, psychology, musicology, philosophy and many others, and including more than seventy illustrations, this book takes us on an exhilarating intellectual journey that will change the way we look at the world and how we go about in it.
Classicists have been slow to take advantage of the important advances in the way that literacy is viewed in other disciplines, including in particular cognitive psychology, socio-linguistics, and socio-anthropology). On the other hand, historians of literacy continue to rely on outdated work by classicists and have little access to the current reexamination of the ancient evidence. This timely volume attempts to formulate new interesting ways of talking about the entire concept of literacy in the ancient world--literacy not in the sense of whether 10% or 30% of people in the ancient world could read or write, but in the sense of text-oriented events embedded in a particular socio-cultural context. The volume is intended as a forum in which selected leading scholars rethink from the ground up how students of classical antiquity might best approach the question of literacy in the past, and how that investigation might materially intersect with changes in the way that literacy is now viewed in other disciplines.
Below: Greek inscription on a stone near the Temple of Apollo, Delphi, Greece. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Creator: Zde. License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.
Orality, Literacy, Memory in the Ancient Greek & Roman World
The volume represents the seventh in the series on Orality and Literacy in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds. It comprises a collection of essays on the significance and working of memory in ancient texts and visual documentation, from contexts both oral (or oral-derived) and literate. The authors discuss a variety of interpretations of ‘memory’ in Homeric epic, lyric poetry, tragedy, historical inscriptions, oratory, and philosophy, as well as in the replication of ancient artworks, and in Greek vase inscriptions. They present therefore a wide-ranging analysis of memory as a fundamental faculty underlying the production and reception of texts and material documentation in a society that gradually moved from an essentially oral to an essentially literate culture.
The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World
The Library of Alexandria was one of the greatest cultural adornments of the late ancient world, containing thousands of scrolls of Greek, Hebrew and Mesopotamian literature and art and artefacts of ancient Egypt. This book demonstrates that Alexandria became - through the contemporary reputation of its library - a point of confluence for Greek, Roman, Jewish and Syrian culture that drew scholars and statesmen from throughout the ancient world. It also explores the histories of Alexander the Great and of Alexandria itself, the greatest city of the ancient world. This new paperback edition offers general readers an accessible introduction to the history of this magnificent yet still mysterious institution from the time of its foundation up to its tragic destruction.
Walter J. Ong's classic work provides a fascinating insight into the social effects of oral, written, printed and electronic technologies, and their impact on philosophical, theological, scientific and literary thought. This thirtieth anniversary edition - coinciding with Ong's centenary year - reproduces his best-known and most influential book in full and brings it up to date with two new exploratory essays by cultural writer and critic John Hartley. Hartley provides: A scene-setting chapter that situates Ong's work within the historical and disciplinary context of post-war Americanism and the rise of communication and media studies; A closing chapter that follows up Ong's work on orality and literacy in relation to evolving media forms, with a discussion of recent criticisms of Ong's approach, and an assessment of his concept of the 'evolution of consciousness'; Extensive references to recent scholarship on orality, literacy and the study of knowledge technologies, tracing changes in how we know what we know. These illuminating essays contextualize Ong within recent intellectual history, and display his work's continuing force in the ongoing study of the relationship between literature and the media, as well as that of psychology, education and sociological thought.
Drawing on a wide range of disciplines—linguistics, phenomenological analysis, cultural anthropology, media studies, and intellectual history—Walter J. Ong offers a reasoned and sophisticated view of human consciousness different in many respects from that of structuralism. The essays in Interfaces of the Word are grouped around the dialectically related themes of change or alienation and growth or integration. Among the subjects Ong covers are the origins of speech in mother tongues; the rise and final erosion of nonvernacular learned languages; and the fictionalizing of audiences that is enforced by writing. Other essays treat the idiom of African talking drums, the ways new media interface with the old, and the various connections between specific literary forms and shifts in media that register in the work of Shakespeare and Milton and in movements such as the New Criticism. Ong also discusses the paradoxically nonliterary character of the Bible and the concerted blurring of fiction and actuality that marked much drama and narrative toward the close of the twentieth century.
Language in all its modes—oral, written, print, electronic—claims the central role in Walter J. Ong’s acclaimed speculations on human culture. After his death, his archives were found to contain unpublished drafts of a final book manuscript that Ong envisioned as a distillation of his life’s work. This first publication of Language as Hermeneutic, reconstructed from Ong’s various drafts by Thomas D. Zlatic and Sara van den Berg, is more than a summation of his thinking. It develops new arguments around issues of cognition, interpretation, and language. Digitization, he writes, is inherent in all forms of "writing," from its early beginnings in clay tablets. As digitization increases in print and now electronic culture, there is a corresponding need to counter the fractioning of digitization with the unitive attempts of hermeneutics, particularly hermeneutics that are modeled on oral rather than written paradigms.
Music, Text, and Culture in Ancient Greece
ed. Tom Phillips & Armand D'Angour, 2018
This book explores the interaction between music and poetry in ancient Greece. Although scholars have long recognized the importance of music to ancient performance culture, little has been written on the specific effects that musical accompaniment and features such as rhythmical structure and melody would have created in individual poems. The chapters in the first half of the volume engage closely with the evidential and interpretative challenges that this issue poses, and propose original readings of a range of texts, including Homer, Pindar, and Euripides, as well as later poets such as Seikilos and Mesomedes. While they emphasize different formal features, they argue collectively for a two-way relationship between music and language. In part two, the focus shifts to ancient attempts to conceptualize interactions between words and music; the essays in this section analyse the contested place that music occupied in Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and other critical writers of the Hellenistic and Imperial periods. Thinking about music is shown to influence other domains of intellectual life, such as literary criticism, and to be vitally informed by ethical concerns.
Literacy & Paideia in Ancient Greece
This book examines the progress of literacy in ancient Greece from its origins in the eighth century to the fourth century BCE, when the major cultural institutions of Athens became totally dependent on alphabetic literacy. By introducing new evidence and re-evaluating the older evidence, Robb demonstrates that early Greek literacy can be understood only in terms of the rich oral culture that immediately preceded it, one that was dominated by the oral performance of epical verse, or "Homer." Only gradually did literate practices supersede oral habits and the oral way of life, forging alliances which now seem both bizarre and fascinating, but which were eminently successful, contributing to the "miracle" of Greece. In this book new light is brought to early Greek ethics, the rise of written law, the emergence of philosophy, and the final dominance of the Athenian philosophical schools in higher education.
This book explores the role of written and oral communication in Greece and is the first systematic and sustained treatment at this level. It examines the recent theoretical debates about literacy and orality and explores the uses of writing and oral communication, and their interaction, in ancient Greece. It is concerned to set the significance of written and oral communication as much as possible in their social and historical context, and to stress the specifically Greek characteristics in their use, arguing that the functions of literacy and orality are often fluid and culturally determined. It draws together the results of recent studies and suggests further avenues of enquiry. Individual chapters deal with (among other things) the role of writing in archaic Greece, oral poetry, the visual and monumental impact of writing, the performance and oral transmission even of written texts, and the use of writing by the city-states; there is an epilogue on Rome. All ancient evidence is translated.
Scholars are becoming increasingly aware that, despite its written literature, ancient Greece was in many aspects an oral society. In the first major attempt to study the implications of this discovery, Thomas stresses the coexistence of literacy and oral tradition in Greece and examines their interaction. Concentrating on the plentiful evidence of Classical Athens, she shows how the use of writing developed only gradually and under the influence of the previous oral communications. Using insights from anthropology, the author isolates different types of Athenian oral tradition, constructing a picture of Athenian traditions and exploring why they changed and disappeared. Thomas researches not only the nature of individual traditions, but the mechanisms of oral tradition and memory in general; then the possible effect of writing on oral tradition. This study provides crucial insights into the methods and achievements of the Greek historians and therefore into the very material of Greek history.
Below: Graffiti writing in Mérida, Spain. Source: Flickr. Creator: Daniel Lombraña González.
License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.
In this work, Yun Lee Too argues that the ancient library was much more than its incarnation at Alexandria, which has been the focus for students of the subject up till now. In fact, the library is a complex institution with many different forms. It can be a building with books, but it can also be individual people, or the individual books themselves. In antiquity, the library's functions are numerous: as an instrument of power, of memory, of which it has various modes; as an articulation of a political ideal, an art gallery, a place for sociality. Too indirectly raises important conceptual questions about the contemporary library, bringing to these the insights that a study of antiquity can offer.
This work examines the origin of the Greek alphabet. Departing from previous accounts, Roger Woodard places the advent of the alphabet within an unbroken continuum of Greek literacy beginning in the Mycenean era. He argues that the creators of the Greek alphabet, who adapted the Phoenician consonantal script, were scribes accustomed to writing Greek with the syllabic script of Cyprus. Certain characteristic features of the Cypriot script--for example, its strategy for representing consonant sequences and elements of Cypriot Greek phonology--were transferred to the new alphabetic script. Proposing a Cypriot origin of the alphabet at the hands of previously literate adapters brings clarity to various problems of the alphabet, such as the Greek use of the Phoenician sibilant letters. The alphabet, rejected by the post- Bronze Age "Mycenaean" culture of Cyprus, was exported west to the Aegean, where it gained a foothold among a then illiterate Greek people emerging from the Dark Age.
In this book, Roger D. Woodard argues that when the Greeks first began to use the alphabet, they viewed themselves as participants in a performance phenomenon conceptually modeled on the performances of the oral poets. Since a time older than Greek antiquity, the oral poets of Indo-European tradition had been called 'weavers of words' - their extemporaneous performance of poetry was 'word weaving'. With the arrival of the new technology of the alphabet and the onset of Greek literacy, the very act of producing written symbols was interpreted as a comparable performance activity, albeit one in which almost everyone could participate, not only the select few. It was this new conceptualization of and participation in performance activity by the masses that eventually, or perhaps quickly, resulted in the demise of oral composition in performance in Greece.
The landmark developments of Greek culture and the critical works of Greek thought and literature were accompanied by an explosive growth in the use of written texts from the sixth through the fourth centuries B.C.E. The creation of the "classical" and the perennial use of Greece by later European civilizations as a source of knowledge and inspiration would not have taken place without the textual innovations of the classical period. This book considers how writing, reading, and disseminating texts led to new ways of thinking and new forms of expression and behavior.
Below: Paper lanterns with Japanese characters in Kyoto, Japan. Source: Unsplash. Creator: Marek Piwnicki. License: Unsplash license.