Reading is Fundamental

on the walls

One thing I have not addressed yet which may seem obvious for my work with epigraphic texts is the subject of literacy. Of course, much has been written about ancient literacy by scholars far more expert than I, but as the basis of this project on social network analysis is epigraphic material, it seems remiss not to make my own views on the subject available.

The original scholarly argument regarding ancient literacy (which is greatly over simplified here), as developed largely in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in relation to Pompeii, goes something like this:

  1. Only the aristocratic upper classes were learned and literate. Think Livy, Cicero, Tacitus and Vergil.
  2. The graffiti of Pompeii – i.e. vulgar Latin texts – were not written by the upper classes. The aristocratic class would not be responsible for non-grammatically correct texts, spelling mistakes, and generally poor Latin, nor would they write sexual or otherwise lowbrow content.

In other words, the lower classes are illiterate, and the upper classes would not write something like this:

CIL IV 8898
T(h)iop(h)ilus canis / cunnu(m) lingere no/li puellis in muro.
‘Thiophilus, don’t be a dog and lick girls’ cunts against a wall.’

The question then must be asked, if the lower classes, of the sort who would make errors in their written Latin and engage in exchanging sexual jibes, were incapable of writing, then who wrote graffiti such as the one above?

Here is my view (for what its worth): Whilst there are certainly varying degrees of literacy to be found, much as there are in any literate society,  for the most part, the Roman world was literate on a level that was unparalleled until the modern era. Rome had, after all, a system that was based on professional and administrative writing. Laws, tax codes, calendars, trials, elections, and sundry other notices were posted publicly for all to see, not only in Rome but throughout the provinces. Dupont calls Rome ‘a civilization based on the book and the register,’ and rightfully so. Financial records of sales, leases, and property were kept on tablets. Archives of reports, magisterial actions, and court decisions were kept in administrative centres both in Rome and other cities. Aristocratic families kept their own records pertaining to ancestry, funeral orations, and other documents. Any family could be expected to have a small collection of writings containing tips on farming, remedies for illness, or prayers. Letters were exchanged with an incredible frequency, and there was even a postal system in place between provinces during the Empire. Possessing the time to write for leisure was viewed as an activity that showed a person’s wealth and standing in society. And I have not yet mentioned the public writing, the lapidary inscriptions on buildings, tombs, shrines, statues, and other edifices. Finally, add to this the graffiti, the dipiniti, and other temporary writings, and ancient Rome becomes a place covered with words – words that were meant to be read by the majority of the populace.

That the Roman people expected to have their rules and regulations readily available, in a written format, is illustrated perfectly by the outcry raised over new tax laws. Caligula, Suetonius tells us (41), enacted a new tax code but did not display it (‘vectigalibus indictis neque propositis’) specifically to raise more revenue, and was subsequently criticised and forced to post them for all to see. In typical Caligula fashion, he of course then does this in a manner which is virtually illegible. For the thousands of texts scribbled on the walls that survive from Pompeii, there were once just as many to be found in Rome, Ostia, and other settlements. We know this because of ancient literature, which recounts such instances, demonstrating that graffiti was a normal and frequent means of communication in the ancient world. Often, in the city of Rome at least, the graffiti was political in nature:

Suetonius Tib. 52.3
Propter quae multifariam inscriptum et per noctes celeberrime adclamatum est: “Redde Germanicum!”
‘Because of this the words, “Give us back Germanicus,” were posted in many places, and shouted at night all over the city.’

Suetonius Nero 39.2
Multa Graece Latineque proscripta aut vulgata sunt, sicut illa:
Νέρων Ὀρέστης Ἀλκμέων μητροκτόνος.
Νεόψηφον· Νέρων ἰδίαν μητέρα ἀπέκτεινε.
Quis negat Aeneae magna de stirpe Neronem? / Sustulit hic matrem, sustulit ille patrem.
Dum tendit citharam noster, dum cornua Parthus, / Noster erit Paean, ille Hecatebeletes.
Roma domus fiet; Veios migrate, Quirites, / Si non et Veios occupat ista domus.
Sed neque auctores requisiit et quosdam per indicem delatos ad senatum adfici graviore poena prohibuit.

‘Of these many were posted or circulated both in Greek and Latin, for example the following:
“Nero, Orestes, Alcmeon their mothers slew.”
“A calculation new. Nero his mother slew.”
“Who can deny the descent from Aeneas’ great line of our Nero? One his mother took off, the other one took off his sire.”
“While our ruler his lyre doth twang and the Parthian his bowstring, Paean-singer our prince shall be, and Far-darter our foe.”
“Rome is becoming one house; off with you to Veii, Quirites! If that house does not soon seize upon Veii as well.”
He made no effort, however, to find the authors; in fact, when some of them were reported to the senate by an informer, he forbade their being very severely punished.

Plutarch, Ti. Gracchus 8.7
τὴν δὲ πλείστην αὐτὸς ὁ δῆμος ὁρμὴν καὶ φιλοτιμίαν ἐξῆψε, προκαλούμενος διὰ γραμμάτων αὐτὸν ἐν στοαῖς καὶ τοίχοις καὶ μνήμασι καταγραφομένων ἀναλαβεῖν τοῖς πένησι τὴν δημοσίαν χώραν.
‘However, the energy and ambition of Tiberius were most of all kindled by the people themselves, who posted writings on porticoes, house-walls, and monuments, calling upon him to recover for the poor the public land.’

Other literature illustrates the role graffiti took in exchanges of love, not just of the physical act as illustrated in the Pompeian graffito above, but as a means of professing romantic sentiment:

Plautus Mercator 409
Impleantur elegeorim meae fores carbonibus.
‘With their pieces of charcoal my door would be filled with elegies’

Ovid Amores 3.1.53-54
A quotiens foribus duris infixa pependi / non verita a populo praetereunt legi!
‘Oh, how often have I hung, fastened to unyielding doors, not fearing to be read by the passer-by!’

Whilst there may be little doubt as to the pervasiveness of the written word in ancient Rome, that still does not prove that a high proportion of the population could read. Rather than look to the ancient world to prove literacy levels, I think it is far more prudent to look to the world in which these judgements were made. As I noted last week, Charles Wordsworth suggested that to judge a different time or place by current standards was not only unfair, but likely wrong. He stated that though members of the Houses of Parliament may read Shakespeare, they were hardly writing it on the walls of the chamber. Wordsworth questioned whether any modern literature, if lost, could be reconstructed from the graffiti on the walls of country towns, unequivocally answering no, as ‘Our Pompeiis do not yet exhibit the words of our Virgils, nor does it seem probable that they soon will.’

One reason this is likely the case is due to the literacy rates of (modern) Europe. When Dante published the Divine Comedy in 1321, barely ten percent of the Italian population had the ability to read it. Only thirty percent of the adult population of the entirety of Europe was literate at the time Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Statistics show that in the seventeenth century, men in France, England and Scotland had a literacy rate of thirty percent or less. A century later, this had more than doubled for Scotland (25% to 65%), doubled for England (30% to 60%), but increased at a far lower rate for France (29% to 48%). The first figures for female literacy do not appear until the eighteenth century, when England boasts a literacy rate of 37.5%, with France having 27%, whereas Scotland lags behind with just 15%. By the time of the nineteenth century, largely due to industrialisation and urbanisation, along with the start of the movement (at least in Britain) to educate all children, the literacy rates continued to climb with some regularity.

What this means is this: in the eighteenth century, when Pompeii and Herculaneum were discovered and the graffiti came to light for the first time in seventeen hundred years, at least half (if not more) of the population of Europe was illiterate. Those involved in overseeing the early excavation and documentation of the sites (and thereby the texts), were educated, aristocratic, wealthy members of the European upper classes, who presumed, based on their own experiences, that the lower classes of Pompeii, like the lower classes of eighteenth century Naples, London or Paris, were illiterate.  Wordsworth was, in a sense, ahead of his time in pointing out the fallacy of this type of judgement – one that would become a crucial aspect in the methodology of ethnographers and anthropologists in the twentieth century – the same standards, morals, or practices of one’s own culture cannot be applied when evaluating another. This, I believe, is exactly what happened in regards to ancient Roman literacy, whereas the evidence we are left, especially from a city like Pompeii, proves that this was a fully literate society, of proportions unrivaled until the modern era.

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