Centuries before, the pagan poet Ovid had hoped for no more than a humble
readership for his plaints from exile on the Black Sea; he understood he
was out of favor with the power elite: "Therefore
be careful, my book, and look all around with timid heart, so as to
find content in being read by ordinary folk." (Ovid, Tristia, Book
I, Chapter I) [ergo caue, liber, et timida circumspice mente, ut satis a media sit tibi plebe legi.]". The problem is not that
the information is unavailable, rather that they won't believe it.
Alexander of Abonoteichus
The satirist Lucian of Samosata tells the story of Alexander of
Abonoteichus, a canny and shrewd false prophet. Trained in the tricks of the trade by no less than a
disciple of the great man Apollonius of Tyana, Alexander sets up shop in
Paphlagonia with his pet snake to fleece the gullible populace. He
urges them to make their queries to him in writing, securely sealed:
“When it was time to carry out the purpose for which the whole scheme had been concocted—that is to say, to make predictions and give oracles to those who sought them—taking his cue from Amphilochus in Cilicia, who, as you know, after the death and disappearance of his father Amphiaraus at Thebes, was exiled from his own country, went to Cilicia, and got on very well by foretelling the future, like his father, for the Cilicians and getting two obols for each prediction—taking, as I say, his cue from him, Alexander announced to all comers that the god would make prophecies, and named a date for it in advance. He directed everyone to write down in a scroll whatever he wanted and what he especially wished to learn, to tie it up, and to seal it with wax or clay or something else of that sort. Then he himself, after taking the scrolls and entering the inner sanctuary—for by that time the temple had been erected and the stage set—proposed to summon in order, with herald and priest, those who had submitted them, and after the god told him about each case, to give back the scroll with the seal upon it, just as it was, and the reply to it endorsed upon it; for the god would reply explicitly to any question that anyone should put.
“As a matter of fact, this trick, to a man like you, and if it is not out of place to say so, like myself also, was obvious and easy to see through, but to those drivelling idiots it was miraculous and almost as good as incredible. Having discovered various ways of undoing the seals, he would read all the questions and answer them as he thought best. Then he would roll up the scrolls again, seal them, and give them back, to the great astonishment of the recipients, among whom the comment was frequent:
'Why, how did he learn the questions which I gave him very securely sealed with impressions hard to counterfeit, unless there was really some god that knew everything?'”
(Lucian of Samosata, Alexander the False Prophet, Chapters
Now if in fact these gullible rubes had gone to Kinko's for
their sealed scrolls, then wouldn't their obvious resort have
been, 'No wonder he knows what the scroll says, he must have
paid off that desk clerk at Kinko's.' Isn't it apparent, rather,
that literacy must have been widespread? Not universal;
Alexander was charging good money for these prophecies, a
drachma and two obols; the "everyone" directed to write his
questions on the sealed scrolls cannot have included slaves with
no cash income, nor laborers with very small incomes. But
neither does it show literacy restricted to the one-percenters,
as imaginatively reconstructed by the Jesus Publishing Industry. He
somewhere describes the inhabitants of Paphlagonia, thusly: ". .
.with brogans on their feet and breaths that reeked of garlic,"
which doesn't sound like the one-percenters to me.
Believe it or Not
The story goes, an African tribe told a German anthropologist they had no
knowledge of any link between sex and procreation. He dutifully noted down this
fact in his notebook and went on his way, no doubt
intending to publish in the scholarly journals this startling
revelation. An English trader standing by protested, 'Why did you
tell that man that?' The tribes-people replied, 'Oh, we just wanted
to see if it's true what people say, that those Germans will believe
Some people say that, even though modern educators understand the
synergy between reading and writing, it had not yet been
discovered in the ancient world. Because educators in antiquity did
not understand the connection between these two skills, they instead
taught them separately, and consequently many could read who could not write at all.
"Today we learn reading and writing together. . .But that's because
of the way we have set up our educational system. There is nothing
inherent in learning to read that can necessarily teach you how to
write." (Bart D. Ehrman, Forged, pp. 71-72). Is
this what the ancient educators themselves say?:
"But these precepts of oratory, though necessary to be
known, are yet insufficient to produce the full power of
eloquence, unless there be united with them a certain efficient
readiness, which among the Greeks is called εξις, "habit," and
to which I know that it is an ordinary subject of inquiry
whether more is contributed by writing, reading, or speaking.
This question we should have to examine with careful attention,
if we could confine ourselves to any one of those exercises; 2. but they are all so connected, so inseparably linked,
with one another, that if any one of them be neglected, we
labor in vain in the other two; for our speech will never
become forcible and energetic, unless it acquires strength from
great practice in writing, and the labor of writing, if left
destitute of models from reading, passes away without effect,
as having no director; while he who knows how everything
ought to be said, will, if he has not his eloquence in readiness, and prepared for all emergencies, merely brood, as it
were, over locked up treasure." (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, Book
X, Chapter 1).
Aristotle, in examining the fitness of various definitions, considers the possibility
that someone might define 'grammar' as the ability to write (how
could he have known?!):
"Moreover, see if, while the term to be defined is used in relation to many things, he has failed to render it in relation
to all of them; as (e.g.) if he define ‘grammar’ as the ‘knowledge how to write from dictation’: for he ought also to say
that it is a knowledge how to read as well. For in rendering it as ‘knowledge of writing’
he has no more defined it than by rendering it as ‘knowledge of
reading’: neither in fact has succeeded, but only he who mentions
both these things, since it is impossible that there should be more
than one definition of the same thing." (Aristotle,
Topics, Book VI, Chapter 5).
He does not say, 'this definition is very natural, because we all
know many who can read and not write,' rather
he finds the definition defective in that it omits mention of the
The unknown author of the Latin treatise 'On Rhetoric to
Herennius' simply announces that those who know the alphabet can
both read and write:
"Those who know the letters of the alphabet can thereby
write out what is dictated to them and read aloud what they have
written." (Rhetorica ad Herennium, Book III, Chapter 17).
If there is supposed to have been a disconnect between these two
skills in antiquity, why did its discovery await modern times? Perhaps
they hope to take away the sting of the popularity of alphabetic
riddles and games in antiquity, which would otherwise testify to
widespread literacy. As the curtain is coming down on the world of
classical antiquity, Procopius mentions an alphabetic riddle popular
in newly liberated Carthage:
"And they said that an old oracle had been uttered by the
children in earlier times in Carthage, to the effect that "gamma
shall pursue beta, and again beta itself shall pursue gamma." And at
that time it had been spoken by the children in play and had been
left as an unexplained riddle, but now it was perfectly clear to
all. For formerly Gizeric had driven out Boniface and now Belisarius
was doing the same to Gelimer. This, then, whether it was a rumour
or an oracle, came out as I have stated."
(Procopius of Caesarea. The Complete Procopius Anthology: The Wars of
Justinian, The Secret History of the Court of Justinian, The
Buildings of Justinian (Texts From Ancient Rome) (Kindle Locations
Why would a purely illiterate populace take pleasure in such admittedly silly things?
The Roman Empire ranged from the North Sea to Arabia, and
included within its borders both the heirs to ancient civilizations
like the Egyptians, and also wild men who lived in the woods, like
the Germans and the Britons. The Spaniards at the time of the Roman conquest
had so little concept of 'going for a walk,' a civilized pleasure, they thought the Romans who did so
must be deranged: "The Vettones, the first time they came to a Roman
camp, and saw certain of the officers walking up and down the roads
for the mere pleasure of walking, supposed that they were mad, and
offered to show them the way to their tents. For they thought, when
not fighting, one should remain quietly seated at ease."
Geography, Book III, Chapter IV, Section 16, p. 246). The Romans
began the educational process:
"But most of all were they captivated by what he did
with their boys. Those of the highest birth, namely, he collected
together from various peoples, at Osca, a large city, and set over
them teachers of Greek and Roman learning; thus in reality he
made hostages of them, while ostensibly he was educating them,
with the assurance that when they became men he would give them a
share in administration and authority. So the fathers were
wonderfully pleased to see their sons, in purple-bordered togas,
very decorously going to their schools, and Sertorius paying their
fees for them, holding frequent examinations, distributing prizes to
the deserving, and presenting them with the golden necklaces which
the Romans call 'bullae'." (Plutarch Lives, Sertorius, Chapter 15).
Many evils came along with Roman imperialism, and patriots like
Queen Boudicca and Ariovistus saw no option but armed resistance. But there
was some good as well, including broad-based education, a
novelty to some folks. While this Oscan group were later reminded they were effectively
hostages, wherever Rome set down her boot on subject people's necks,
literacy rates rose, in some cases from zero. Within a few generations, the leading Latin grammarians
were coming out of Spain.
Literacy rates were low amongst some 'barbarians' even in the
presence of large populations and big cities. Strabo quoted Megathenes as witness to conditions amongst the inhabitants of
India, who could field a large army yet were: ". . .a people who
have no written laws, who are ignorant even of writing, and regulate
everything by memory." (Strabo, Geography, Book XV, Chapter 1,
Section 53, Volume III, p. 105). Apparently the individuals with whom this
witness was interacting were not literate. Literacy is sometimes imagined to be a
simple function of population or economic development, although this fantasy
cannot be confirmed by observation. Rather, certain polities set this as a
central desideratum, others do not.
The longer a place had been plugged into the system, the
more local conditions resembled those at Greece and Rome.
France's Mediterranean coast was so fully civilized that Marseilles,
originally a Greek colony, rivalled Athens as a magnet for
"The aspect of the city at the present day is a proof of
this. For all those who profess to be men of taste, turn to the
study of elocution and philosophy. Thus this city for some little
time back has become a school for the barbarians, and has
communicated to the Galatae such a taste for Greek literature, that
they even draw contracts on the Grecian model. While at the present
day it so entices the noblest of the Romans, that those desirous of
studying resort thither in preference to Athens. These the Galatae
observing, and being at leisure on account of the peace, readily
devote themselves to similar pursuits, and that not merely
individuals, but the public generally; professors of the arts and
sciences, and likewise of medicine, being employed not only by
private persons, but by towns for common instruction."
Geography, Book IV, Chapter 1, Section 5, pp. 270-271).
It's interesting that these people drew contracts on the Greek model.
Aulus Gellius, summarizing a case that came before him as judge,
recapitulates the argument of a man against whom a monetary claim was made:
"Yet he, along with his numerous advocates, noisily protested that the
payment of the money ought to be shown in the usual way, by a receipt for
payment, by a book of accounts, by producing a signature, by a sealed deed,
or by the testimony of witnesses; and if it could be shown in none of these
ways, that he ought surely to be dismissed at once. . ."
Attic Nights, Book XIV, Chapter II). Why, in a society purportedly with 2-3%
literacy, do all the common ways of showing payment save one involve
In the nineteenth century classicists idealized the civilization of Greece
and Rome. The classicists of that era were likelier to overstate ancient
literacy than to deny it. These optimists ignored substantial evidence
against universal literacy in the ancient world. There were certainly very
many illiterate persons, such as Justin describes:
"Among us these things can be heard and learned from persons who do not even know the
forms of the letters, who are uneducated and barbarous in speech, though wise and believing in mind; some,
indeed, even maimed and deprived of eyesight; so that you may understand that these things are not the effect
of human wisdom, but are uttered by the power of God."
(Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 60).
Yet this modern correction, which emboldens secular Bible scholars to think
it plausible the gospel existed for decades only as oral tradition such
as might be heard amongst a South Seas tribe huddled around the fire, is
no correction at all. It falls overboard in the other direction, ridiculing
and rejecting almost all of what ancient authors say about who could, and
who could not, read and write. Why not credit their testimony?
Theory should be corrected to conform to facts, not facts trimmed to fit
theory. Marxist economics, in the experience of the many countries who
turned to this 'science' for guidance in managing their economies during
the twentieth century, cannot explain even the simplest of things such
as how to keep store shelves stocked with merchandise. Watching this 'science'
throw up its hands in bewilderment at buying and selling, and seeing its
expectations fail over and over in the last century, why would modern academics
trust so fervently in Marxism's predictive powers as to deny a recorded
fact: that free-born city-dwellers in classical antiquity were general
literate,— because this theory confesses itself unable to account for
the fact? Given this unsuccessful theory's many failed predications, why
not discard Marxist economics instead of discarding the ancient literacy
which it cannot explain?
To the Marxist, democracy is a dodge. But history shows that democracy
really is different. Ancient literacy first stirred in the cradle of democracy:
"Elementary education for all citizens was achieved early in Athens,
at least a century before Socrates, and literacy seems to have been widespread.
This reflected the rise of democracy." (I. F. Stone, The Trial of
Socrates, p. 42).
After Philip of Macedon had enslaved the once free Greeks, his son Alexander
proceeded to make the world safe for Hellenic civilization. What democracy
had brought to birth was spread by methods by no means democratic. Greek
slaves abducted from their homeland taught the Romans who had captured
them how to sing praises to freedom. This paradox is not resolved by denying
the Greeks, nor the peoples who learned from them, their literacy.