- Setting the Scene:
This is a topic that have scholars under-estimating the educational level of the ancient world. Dr. Craig Evans in his most recent book, Jesus and His world pg.66, states:
“Surely such great quantities of written material argue for widespread not limited literacy? You might think so, but that is not the conclusion historians have reached. Most agree that literacy rates were somewhere between 5 and 10 per cent…”
Dr. Evans does not disagree with those figures but I do. The reason I do is that the amount of written material that has been uncovered over the years. Plus, there are just some logical reasons why the literacy rate could not be that low.
Over the next few pages I will be quoting extensively from Dr. Evans book simply because he has gathered together a large amount of information lacking in many other archaeological works. The quotes will be noted by page numbers only and any other work will be noted fully.
To set the scenario we need to discuss two things. First, the amount of people who were alive in the ancient world needs to be taken into consideration. According to Juliette Lapidos in her article 25,000 inhabitants, 2,500 years ago, talks about the major problem with knowing how many people were inhabiting the ancient world:
“No matter the methodology, population estimates always involve broad assumptions. Even evidence drawn from an ancient census can be unreliable. Some omitted women, slaves, and children, and we only have access to incomplete records of others. As a result, figures issued by different research teams often vary wildly. Estimations for ancient Alexandria, for example, range from less than 100,000 to almost 1 million” (Lapidos:2008)
In other words we do not know exactly how large the ancient population was. Given the 5-10% scholars literacy conclusion we end up with about 5,000-50,000 people on the low scale and up to 10,000-100,000 on the upper end who would be considered literate just for Alexandria.
These figures raise some important questions that we will get to later. The second thing we must consider is how many people actually were authors and how many books or other works did they write? I don’t usually use Wikipedia for reference work but for this purpose their list of prolific authors provides a good example to work from in for the comparison.
On their list is about 20-25 authors who spent most of their lives writing, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_prolific_writers, and they included those who wrote non-book material (scripts, novella etc.) These are the exceptional ones and if one totaled up their works the figure reaches approximately 22,000 pieces of written material.
Far below the 34.5 million books and other printed material gathered at the Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/about/facts.html). Who wrote these other works? They certainly could not have been produced by prolific authors alone nor could those type of authors produce that much material over the 200 years the Library has been collecting them. It is just impossible, which means that normal folk had to be literate and contribute to the collection over time.
This is just one country, who can count all the books held by the rest of the countries of the world? Clearly modern people who would fall into the historians’ conclusion of the 95-90% illiterate conclusion had to contribute written material to allow the Library to gain such an impressive collection.
When we look at the amount of material left by 1 ancient city, we cannot come to the conclusion that the modern day historians are correct in their assessment of a 5-10% literacy rate for the ancient world.
- The Ancient Reality:
Now we turn to Dr. Evans book and the information he has published:
“Writing in the third century CE a Roman official orders a number of mayors in the Hermopolite district in Egypt to post copies of his letter ‘in the metropolis an din well known places…so that no one may be unaware of my pronouncements’ (P.Oxy. 2705).” (pg. 63)
-Here we have the understanding that people could read. There would be no point in posting the letter if the literate people were gathered in one location and part of the elite.
“In every city from late antiquity we find dozens of , if not hundreds of public inscriptions…These inscriptions are dedications, lists of names, imperial decrees, statements or reminders of law, quotations of famous men and even pedestrian things, such as directions. Many gravestones and tombs are inscribed with more than the name of the deceased; some have lengthy, even poetic obituaries; others have threats and curses against grave robbers.” (pg.64)
-The ancient world is full of evidence for literacy and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“To the inscriptions we must add the enormous numbers of documents from late antiquity that have been found. One thinks especially of the finds at Oxyrhynchus ranging from 300 BCE to 500 CE. Close to half a million documents, mostly made of papyrus were recovered from the dry sands just outside the city limits…In places the heaps of papyri recovered ran as much as 9 meters deep…In rough terms this could mean that the half-million documents recovered represent only about one third of those thrown into the dump. One wonders how many millions of other documents circulated in Oxyrhynchus that were never thrown into this dump-and Oxyrhynchus was but one city.” (pg. 65)
-9 meters equals approx. 30ft or roughly a 3-4 story apartment modern apartment building. That is a deep pile and though the width is not given, we can conclude it was not just a one meter pile. Even if you multiplied wiki’s list by 10 you would not get close to the amount of written material produced in one city in the ancient world over a 1,000 year period.
On Rhodes we have a piece of a catalogue and it tells us that some ancient authors only wrote or had 1 book in the library thus not all ancient authors were prolific writers which tells us that many people wrote for whatever reason. (Casson:2001:59)
“Presumably other cities in the Mediterranean world were every bit as literate as Oxyrhynchus. One thinks of Alexandria (Egypt) and Ephesus (Asia Minor) with their impressive libraries. The former in its heyday…boasted almost half a million volumes…A nearby temple held another 36,000 books. The Celsus library at Ephesus had some 12,000.” (pg.65)
-Lionel Casson wrote a book on ancient libraries entitled Libraries in the Ancient World, though not a large volume it does give the reader the impression that literacy was well above the modern scholar’s conclusions.
“What about Corinth, Athens, Rhodes and –by the first century CE- Rome? Recall too, that Marcus Antonius apparently gave Cleopatra…some 200,000 books. Pliny the Elder claims that in preparing to write his Natural History he read 2,000 books.” (pg. 65)
-It would stand to reason that those cities would collect books to be used for communication, entertainment, research and so on. One cannot think that all the ancients did was sleep, work, pray and eat during their lifetimes.
“The same thing is observed at Vindolanda, the site of a Roman fort and settlement just south of Hadrian’s wall in Northumberland, England, where writing tablets were found in 1973…Some 500 tablets… have been discovered” (pg. 68)
“For our concerns, the biggest find was the excavation of the so-called Villa of Papri in Herculaneum. The Villa is halfway up the slope of Mount Vesuvius and was discovered in 1750…workers recovered some 1,100 scrolls, a few tablets and broken pieces of both.” (pg. 69-70)
-Here we see that private libraries existed. Hard to say if these people were part of the elite but we know now that private parties collected and probably read books.
From the work of Dr. Evans we can see that large caches of works have been uncovered. These do not include the more famous discoveries like the Amarna letters and other great ancient literary finds. Nothing we have found supports the idea that the ancient world was illiterate. Of course, this does not mean that everyone was educated or literate. Some were not. Even in a modern country like America which prides itself on educating its youth, many still are not literate.
- The Questions:
Given the evidence discovered by modern archaeologists then looking at the conclusion made by modern historians and scholars the two just do not correspond. This realization brings us to the first question—why did they write so much material?
There are two basic reasons why people write, one they want to communicate whether it is quoting, recording, or acknowledging a departed loved one, they are communicating a message to future readers. Two, they want to make a living. As modern publishing houses can attest the people who write are far more in number than those who get published.
Since archaeology is a very limited field, one must wonder how much written material we have lost to erosion and other destructive forces? It is not wise to draw conclusions based upon the amount of evidence we do recover for it only tells part of the story.
The second question is—Who were they writing to? If 90-95% of the population were illiterate, why waste time writing information down? It would be lost on the intended audience and a very wasted effort. Not to mention a waste of time and resources.
If only the elite knew how to read and write, why would they need to produce so much written material? Their small number would not require such a large use of writing or resources nor would it demand that inscriptions be placed upon tombs or other personal property of the common folk.
Since authors write to make a living, what good is writing if so few people would buy their works? A mass market would mean more income but if no one could read then there would be no point in writing, the income just wouldn’t be there to sustain an author for very long.
The amount of written remains contradict the conclusions of the scholars and historians. There is just no logical reason for the ancient world to spend so much of their time producing material if the projects were ignored and left to rot. Writers would be discouraged and stop writing. Even governments would not see the need to spend valuable tax dollars on producing records if no one would be able to read them. They would return to an oral system of communication.
Literacy does not depend upon production of written materials. Not everyone writes but yet they have that ability and the ability to read as well. As evidenced by the modern world, some people went to school, were educated yet all they produce(d) throughout their lives were a few personal letters and a weekly shopping list.
This is the injustice inflicted upon the ancient world. Modern scholars and historians stand in judgment over a people long dead while using a limited amount of materials and a warped sense of human behavior and what literacy really is.
It is unrealistic to expect the majority of the ancient world to sit down and write long tomes or epic poems. The ancients may have been too busy, have no interest in writing novels or poems or other works and on it goes. There are a variety of reasons why written material is limited, and we only have to look to the modern age to see them.
2000 years from now, I can see future archaeologists calling the western world illiterate because the amount of written material left behind was as sparse as the ancient world’s remains. Yet people in the western world spent 12 years in school becoming literate. Archaeological remains do not tell the whole story and it is not wise to draw conclusions about the past when the evidence or reality are just not there to support them.
Given what Dr. Evans has published in his book, I cannot agree with those who conclude that the ancient world was 5-10% literate. It just doesn’t make sense and when you add in population size, there is no way such wealth of material would be produced by so few people. It doesn’t work mathematically or logically.
The need to keep a society or civilization functioning demands that more of its people be literate than just the elite. Slaves do not even come into the argument simply because so few of them would have the chance to learn how to read and write. Such accomplishment relies too much upon a benevolent nature of their owner and so few had that towards their slaves.
The evidence that we have seen from Dr. Evan’s book also demands that more than a few were educated or the production of written materials does not make any sense at all. The pro-illiteracy group seem to want to create an ancient world that is to their liking and not the reality.