Ancient Literacy

It is foundational to contemporary liberal Bible scholarship that literacy was a very rare achievement in the ancient world. This is essential to their case, lest any think the gospels early and authentic. So they say. But is it true?:

  • “It was a consciousness-raising 'aha' kind of moment for my genial host. In the first century very few people possessed the skill of writing. That is why we discover a group of people in the New Testament who are called 'scribes.' So few people could write that a trained professional subgroup was required to handle the writing needs of the whole community.”
  • (Bishop John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture, p. 278).

A Priori Desiderata
Reality It Takes a Village
School-houses Quintilian
Public Library Grants to Education
Normalcy Hellenic Civilization
Voting Child of Destiny
Liberal Education Old Deluder
A Father Set Free Caius and Caia
Down on the Farm Learned Slaves
Women's Literacy Enlightened Audience
Invisible Ink Banquet Menu
Fame and Fortune The Public
Sign-board Fair Warning
Inscriptions Spare No Pains
Those Left Out Shorthand
Caesar's Army Small Print
Writing on the Wall Ordinary
Alexander of Abonoteichus Believe it or Not
Barbarians Balance

Pompeii, Woman with Pen

A Priori

Modern Bible scholars offer a priori assumptions about ancient literacy, based on such reasoning as this:

  1. Some parts of Europe presented very low literacy rates well into the nineteenth century. Therefore ancient literacy rates must have been even lower, or the premise of universal progress is disconfirmed.
  2. Modern universal literacy is associated with the Industrial Revolution. Cultural phenomena like literacy are dependent upon productive technology and more particularly the ways and means by which production is financed and controlled. "Before the industrial revolution, societies had no compelling reasons to invest enormous amounts of money and other resources into creating a literate population. It was only with the development of the industrial world that such a thing became both desirable and feasible." (Bart D. Ehrman, Forged, p. 71). Therefore ancient literacy rates must have been low, or Marxism is disconfirmed.

But some factors holding down European literacy are known not to have been operative in some ancient communities, like political absolutism. Despots have reason to fear a literate populace. And high literacy rates were achieved in communities not yet transformed by the Industrial Revolution, such as Scandinavia and the American republic when its populace was still overwhelmingly rural. Non-conforming sects such as the Taborites achieved a high degree of literacy without reference to the economic conditions in the surrounding society:

"Aeneas Sylvius says in one place: 'The Italian priests may well be ashamed of themselves, for it is certain that not one among them has even once read the New Testament. Among the Taborites, on the contrary, you will find hardly one young woman who is not versed in both the Old and New Testament.''" (Karl Kautsky, Communism in Central Europe in the Time of the Reformation, Chapter 2, V.)

Given that a priori calculations of ancient literacy rest upon doubtful assumptions, by far the best evidence is what the ancients, a voluble lot, themselves said about who could and who could not read and write. Rustics: shepherds, landless agricultural workers,— are often assumed in ancient drama and literature not to be literate. The fictional rural foundlings Daphnis and Chloe were taught to read and write, but this is understood as exceptional:

"When the two men had this dream, they were upset at the thought that the children were to become shepherds and goatherds, although their tokens had promised greater things. Indeed, because of this, they had brought the children up rather delicately, teaching them to read and write and to do everything that was regarded as elegant in the country." (Daphnis and Chloe, Longus, p. 291, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon).

While the slave population included learned philosophers led in chains from conquered towns, those born to the condition, like the slave-boy in Plato's Meno around whom the action revolves, could not generally expect much effort or expenditure to be put into their education. Subtracting these two admittedly large groups, rustics and slaves, leaves free-born town-dwellers. The evidence of ancient literature, surprising as some people may find it, is that this group was generally literate, women less so than men.


Writers in classical antiquity propounded universal literacy as a desideratum. Plato calls for mandatory education in his Laws:

  • “A fair time for a boy of ten years old to spend in letters is three years; the age of thirteen is the proper time for him to begin to handle the lyre, and he may continue at this for another three years, neither more nor less, and whether his father or himself like or dislike the study, he is not to be allowed to spend more or less time in learning music than the law allows. And let him who disobeys the law be deprived of those youthful honors of which we shall hereafter speak. Hear, however, first of all, what the young ought to learn in the early years of life, and what their instructors ought to teach them. They ought to be occupied with their letters until they are able to read and write; but the acquisition of perfect beauty or quickness in writing, if nature has not stimulated them to acquire these accomplishments in the given number of years, they should let alone.”
  • (Plato, Laws, Book VII).


Compulsory literacy instruction for all male citizens was enacted into law in at least one ancient community:

  • “He [Charondas of Catana] laid down that all the sons of the citizens should learn letters, with the city providing the pay of the teachers; for he assumed that people without means, who could not pay fees on their own, would otherwise be cut off from the finest pursuits.”
  • (Diodorus, xii. 12-13, quoted p. 21, 'Ancient Literacy,' William V. Harris).

Polybius seems to have considered this desideratum an established fact: "Consider, in the first place, the national education of the people — a matter on which the Greeks have expended much labor in vain, and which is the only point on which Polybius, who settled among us, accuses the negligence of our institutions. For our countrymen have thought that education ought not to be fixed, nor regulated by laws, nor be given publicly and uniformly to all classes of society." (Marcus Tullius Cicero. On the Republic, Book IV, Chapter III, Fragments, Delphi Complete Works of Cicero (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Locations 40969-40972)). The "us" are the Romans, who left the education of the young to private enterprise, to be paid for by the parents.

Although the Greeks took second place to none in their commitment to education, the student of the myths will recall they learned their letters from Cadmus, and according to Julian the Apostate, the doomed city of Carthage also boasted a 'no-Carthaginian-left-behind' mandatory curriculum:

"The moral discipline and the studies prescribed by their laws were pursued by all alike, as though the citizens were brothers, all destined both to govern and be governed, and in the matter of education they made no difference between their princes and the rest of the citizens." (Julian the Apostate, Oration No. 1, 14).

It Takes a Village

It is odd but true that the state mandated education in music before it did literacy. "All schools were, however, subject to state supervision, probably through the Council of the Areopagus. The exact course that the boy should take and the length of time he should remain in school were matters also to be determined by his father, although the state [Athens] required in general that every one should be taught gymnastics and 'music.'" (A History of Education Before the Middle Ages, Frank Pierrepont Graves, p. 159).

Plato represents 'the law' as pleading,

"Or against those of us who regulate the system of nurture and education of children in which you were trained? Were not the laws, who have the charge of this, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?" (Plato, Crito, 50d).

How much of a social responsibility education was or should be was subject to varying opinions:

"No one will doubt that the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of youth; for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution...And since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, and not private — not as at present, when every one looks after his own children separately, and gives them separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best; the training in things which are of common interest should be the same for all. Neither must we suppose that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole." (Aristotle, Politics, Book VIII, Chapter 1.)

This passage promises more than it delivers, because the "citizens" of Aristotle's ideal state are a more restricted body than at Athens. Aristotle, no democrat, leaves mechanical arts to foreign slaves, not the voting free men who pursued these vocations at Athens. For clarity's sake, there are several different categories here: no slave is ever a citizen, but not all free men are citizens; there is an ebb and flow in the political currents which makes these categories swell and shrink. To draw a Venn diagram, 'free men' is a larger circle, in which 'citizen' is incorporated as a smaller circle; notice that when this tyrant of Sicyon fell, he was blamed for enslaving, not only free men, but "even" citizens: "Once again, was he not beyond question a tyrant, when he made slaves not only free men but even citizens, and put to death and banished and robbed of property, not the people who were guilty of wrong-doing, but those whom it suited him to treat thus?" (Xenophon, Hellenica, Book VII, Chapter 3). Sometimes the category 'citizen' enlarges itself to be almost co-extensive with 'free man,' sometimes it is substantially smaller. Complicating matters further, in Athens, there were large numbers of resident aliens; citizenship could be difficult to acquire, and in an oligarchy by design restricted to a few. The student of American history will recall that, even in our own country, there were in many cases property restrictions attached to voting, though thankfully not today.

As for the curriculum, Aristotle is content with what is "customary:"

"The customary branches of education are in number four; they are -- (1) reading and writing, (2) gymnastic exercises, (3) music, to which is sometimes added (4) drawing. [...] It is evident, then, that there is a sort of education in which parents should train their sons, not as being useful or necessary, but because it is liberal or noble...Thus much we are now in a position to say, that the ancients witness to us; for their opinion may be gathered from the fact that music is one of the received and traditional branches of education. Further, it is clear that children should be instructed in some useful things -- for example, in reading and writing -- not only for their usefulness, but also because many other sorts of knowledge are acquired through them." (Aristotle, Politics, Book VIII, Chapter 3).

The prominence of music in the educational system they inherited from the "ancients" perplexed the Greek political theorists, and they explained it in various ways. One possible explanation is that Greek popular education arose from choral schools set up to train the youth choruses that would accompany the great religious processions:

"Very well, I will tell you what was the old education. . .In the street, when they went to the music-school, all the youths of the same district marched lightly clad and ranged in good order, even when the snow was falling in great flakes. At the master's house they had to stand, their legs apart, and they were taught to sing either, 'Pallas, the Terrible, who overturneth cities,' or 'A noise resounded from afar' in the solemn tones of the ancient harmony." (Aristophanes, 'The Clouds').

Instruction in reading and writing would have supplemented this choral training very suitably, as anyone can testify who has heard little ones murder song lyrics, like the rousing chorus, 'Lead On O Kinky Turtle.' Plus there is a limit to the lyrics that can be memorized, while a literate chorus can go on all day. Perhaps therein lies a clue: "At length, when various lyric, elegiac, and other poems, as well as the epic, had come to be recited to musical accompaniment, the memory became overtaxed, and it was necessary for the musicians who used them to commit them to writing. Consequently, no distinction was made between musical and literary training, and both were furnished by the same teacher, the citharistes ('lyre-player'), or 'music'-master." (Frank Pierrepont Graves, A History of Education Before the Middle Ages, 1914, p. 161.) All this singing brought people together: "But the ancient Athenian muse consisted of choirs of boys and men; and the husbandmen being collected in tribes, who had not yet wiped away the dust which they had collected in the field from the harvest and sowing, poured forth the extemporaneous song." (Maximus of Tyre, The Dissertations, Volume II, Dissertation XXI, p. 5).

So there was a practical benefit, although it did not escape notice in the ancient world that a chorus was like a city: "What we call a choir is a system of musical communion in view of one common thing, a concert of voices." (Callicratidas, On the Felicity of Families, Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Kindle location 4992). So maybe the choral instruction intended after all to teach a political lesson: how jarring is disharmony, how beautiful it is when everyone sings together: ". . .but music and its leader philosophy which the Gods ordained as regulators for the soul, accustom, persuade, and partly compel the irrational to obey reason. . ." (Timaeus of Locri, On The World and the Soul, Chapter 11, A Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Kindle location 6007).

"Then, again, the teachers of the lyre take similar care that their young disciple is temperate and gets into no mischief; and when they have taught him the use of the lyre, they introduce him to the poems of other excellent poets, who are the lyric poets; and these they set to music, and make their harmonies and rhythms quite familiar to the children's souls, in order that they may learn to be more gentle, and harmonious, and rhythmical, and so more fitted for speech and action; for the life of man in every part has need of harmony and rhythm." (Plato, Protagoras, 326).

Certainly the early Athenian curriculum, music and wrestling, seems an odd assortment. Wrestling and gymnastics have an obvious tie-in to military training, and the Spartan education system, for example, revolved around this type of training. The intent of the musical training was not to confer professional competence; professional musicians were looked down upon. But preparing the youth choirs to accompany the religious processions of the Athenian calendar was evidently important to somebody, and seems to have been the genesis of this system of education. Personally, I play the organ in church, and one can well imagine teaching illiterate parishioners to know, by heart, the hundreds of songs in our hymnal, is not doable. Unless the youth choir is just going to perform the same five or six numbers over and over, literacy is very much desirable. Literacy is no barrier to memorization, it's actually a great help. When you get stuck at, "but in a larger sense, we cannot consecrate, we cannot dedicate, we cannot hallow this ground," how to get unstuck except by peeking? If the children were not already being taught to read, we might be tempted to teach them ourselves, to broaden out their repertoire. If that modest goal is why this whole enterprise got started, it's remarkable that widespread elementary education turned into an engine of civilization like none other, a multiplying factor to every other advance.

Historian Polybius traces this ancient musical curriculum to the early Arcadians, rural people in the south of Greece:

"For music, and I mean by that true music, which it is advantageous to every one to practise, is obligatory with the Arcadians. For we must not think, as Ephorus in a hasty sentence of his preface, wholly unworthy of him, says, that music was introduced among mankind for the purpose of deception and jugglery; nor must the ancient Cretans and Spartans be supposed to have introduced the pipe and rhythmic movement in war, instead of the trumpet, without some reason; nor the early Arcadians to have given music such a high place in their constitution, that not only boys, but young men up to the age of thirty, are compelled to practise it, though in other respects most simple and primitive in their manner of life. Every one is familiarly acquainted with the fact that the Arcadians are the only people among whom boys are by the laws trained from infancy to sing hymns and paeans, in which they celebrate in the traditional fashion the heroes and gods of their particular towns." (Polybius, The Histories, Book IV, Chapter 20 Delphi Complete Works of Polybius (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Locations 5498-5505).)f

Was this the original differentiating feature of Greek culture: that no other people, prior to that point, had ever formulated the thought, 'Kids ought to learn an instrument, gosh darn it!' But they did, and the rest is history. Once a substantial portion of the populace was literate, their civilization took off for the stars.

Dance is also mentioned as an element in the musical curriculum: "What, therefore, is the basic principle of any state? The education of the youth. For vines will never bear useful fruit unless they are well cultivated; nor will horses ever excel, unless they are properly trained. . .As the earliest legislator could not render the middle class of society stable, they prescribed [in the curriculum] dancing and rhythm, which instills motion and order, and besides these they added sports, some of which induced fellowship, but others truth and mental keenness." (Diotogenes, On Sanctity, The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Kindle location 4743).

This musical knowledge, both practical and theoretical, was at one time more widely disseminated than any such skill today:

"For when their wealth gave them a greater inclination to leisure, and they had loftier notions of excellence, being also elated with their success, both before and after the Persian War, with more zeal that discernment they pursued every kind of knowledge, and so they introduced the flute into education. At Lacedaemon there was a choragus who led the chorus with a flute, and at Athens the instrument became so popular that most freemen could play upon it." (Aristotle, Politics, Book VIII, Chapter 6).

Instruction in flute-playing declined in popularity, so the story goes, after pretty-boy Alcibiades complained that puffing out his cheeks ruined his appearance. Those modern Bible scholars who seek to persuade their readers that literacy was rare in antiquity, would do well to show us a comparable illiterate society in which "most freemen" can play the flute. Then skeptics will be convinced that these less literate societies really are good analogues for the world of classical antiquity. If you don't know of any society in which "most freemen" can play the flute, then you really don't know any society that is very much like classical antiquity.


History attests the existence of school-houses in antiquity, including one at Chios which suffered a frightful disaster:

  • “Likewise, about the same time, and very shortly before the sea-fight, the roof of a school-house had fallen in upon a number of their boys, who were at lessons; and out of a hundred and twenty children there was but one left alive.”
  • (Herodotus, Histories, Book VI, 27.2).

Another mention of a school-house is found in Thucydides' 'Peloponnesian War,' where the atrocities reportedly committed by the brutal Thracians in a "small city" named Mycalessus included a Beslan-style massacre of school children:

"Among other things, they broke into a boys' school, the largest in the place, into which the children had just entered, and killed every one of them." (Thucydides, 'Peloponnesian War,' Book Seven, 29).

Thucydides does not provide population numbers, but this "small city" evidently had more than one school, because this unfortunate place is said to be "the largest."

We have grown familiar in our day with school shootings; a similar sociopathic rampage was reported in antiquity of the boxer Cleomedes. Annoyed that his Olympic prize was withheld, he went postal and brought the roof down on top of a school-house full of innocent children:

"At the Festival previous to this it is said that Cleomedes of Astypalaea killed Iccus of Epidaurus during a boxing-match. On being convicted by the umpires of foul play and being deprived of the prize he became mad through grief and returned to Astypalaea. Attacking a school there of about sixty children he pulled down the pillar which held up the roof.

"This fell upon the children, and Cleomedes, pelted with stones by the citizens, took refuge in the sanctuary of Athena. He entered a chest standing in the sanctuary and drew down the lid. The Astypalaeans toiled in vain in their attempts to open the chest. At last, however, they broke open the boards of the chest, but found no Cleomedes, either alive or dead." (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.9.6-7).

Up until Cleomedes climbs into the chest (and disappears), this is a straight-forward report from the crime blotter, but then it becomes an X-File, as was prone to happen in antiquity. In any event, whether the incident actually happened this way or not, whoever told the story expected his hearers to believe that an undistinguished locality like Astypalaea would be likely to have a school with sixty children enrolled in the fifth century B.C.

Where there are schools, so there are teachers. Aeschines, whose own father reportedly practiced the trade, in his condemnation of Timarchus mentions their profession. Evidently concerned about reducing opportunities for paederasts to find victims, Solon regulated school hours:

"In the first place, consider the case of the teachers. Although the very livelihood of these men, to whom we necessarily entrust our own children, depends on their good character, while the opposite conduct on their part would mean poverty, yet it is plain that the lawgiver [Solon] distrusts them; for he expressly prescribes, first, at what time of day the free-born boy is to go to the school-room; next, how many other boys may go there with him, and when he is to go home." (Aeschines, Against Timarchus, Section 9).

The model in the early period was still fee for service, though later we hear of state subsidies:

"He is the sort of man who keeps his children from school when a festival comes, and makes excuses for them on the plea of ill-health, that he may avoid the fee for tuition." (Theophrastus, Characters, The Penurious Man, Chapter XXIII, p. 64).

"When, owing to sickness, his children are not at school the entire month, he deducts a proportionate amount from the teacher's pay; and during the month of Anthesterion he does not send them to their studies at all, on account of the frequent shows, and so he avoids tuition fees." (Theophrastus, Characters, The Avaricious Man, Chapter XXVIII, p. 79).

This story about a Sicilian school housing more than a hundred boys, sounds rather fishy, but at least the tale establishes readers' willingness to believe there was a well-attended school in Sicily at the time:

"Gelon [of Syracuse] was also once saved from death by a wolf. As a boy he was seated in a school and a wolf came and snatched away the tablet he was using. And while he was chasing after the wolf itself and his tablet too, the school was shaken by an earthquake and crashed down from its very foundations, killing every one of the boys together with the teacher. Historians, like Timaeus, Dionysius, Diodorus, and also Dio, celebrate the number of the boys, which amounted to more than one hundred. The precise number I do not know."
(Library of History, Fragments of Book X, 29.a, Siculus, Diodorus. Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32) (Kindle Locations 9149-9152).)

Plutarch mentions in passing that the Greeks sent their sons to schools, as we do today. Many people today imagine home schooling was the only educational option in the ancient world, though nothing could be further from the truth:

"For the Falerians, like the Greeks, had a single teacher for all their boys, wishing their sons from the start to grow up in a herd together." (Plutarch, Life of Camillus, 10, Plutarch Lives)

This Italian teacher showed good faith neither to his city nor to his young charges and suffered the scorn of the indignant Roman general:

"When Camillus was besieging the Faliscans, a school teacher took the sons of the Faliscans outside the walls, as though for a walk, and then delivered them up, saying that, if they should be retained as hostages, the city would be forced to execute the orders of Camillus. But Camillus not only spurned the teacher's perfidy, but tying his hands behind his back, turned him over to the boys to be driven back to their parents with switches." (Frontinus, Stratagems, Book IV, Section IV.)

While the contempt of both Romans and Faliscans for this traitor is understandable, what is less understandable is the contempt both Greeks and Romans, in spite of all their respect for education, felt for the school-teacher. Plutarch, urging his readers not to go into debt, says,

"Being unable to carry the burden of poverty you put the money-lender upon your back, a burden difficult for even the rich to bear. 'How, then, am I to live?' Do you ask this, when you have hands and feet and a voice, when you are a man capable of loving and being loved, of doing favors and being grateful for them? Live by teaching letters, by leading children to school, by being a door-keeper, by working as a sailor or a boatman; none of these is so disgraceful or disagreeable as hearing the order 'Pay up.'" (Plutarch, Moralia, That We Ought Not to Borrow, Chapter 6, Complete Works of Plutarch, Kindle location 55928)

While Plutarch's point, 'you can always get a job,' is well-taken, why are school teachers bracketed with door-keepers and boatmen? It seems this occupation was not regarded as a profession, but as what you can always do if you can do nothing else. Such is the thought of Lucian, who portrays the high and mighty in Hades, reduced to selling salt fish, or giving lessons: "You might have laughed still more if you had beheld the kings and governors of earth begging in Hades, selling salt fish for a living, it might be, or giving elementary lessons, insulted by any one who met them, and cuffed like the most worthless of slaves." (Lucian, A Descent to the Unknown). On the other hand, if literacy were a rare acquirement, the market would have set a higher price upon this rare, thus valuable, skill.


Quintillian in his Institutes of Oratory addresses the 'home-schooling versus public education' debate, realizing that public education had won the favor of the "most famous states:"

"But the time has come for the boy to grow up little by little, to leave the nursery and tackle his studies in good earnest. This therefore is the place to discuss the question as to whether it is better to have him educated privately at home or hand him over to some large school and those whom I may call public instructors. The latter course has, I know, won the approval of most eminent authorities and of those who have formed the national character of the most famous states." (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, Book 1, Chapter Two).

It is jarring to realize that there are people today who do not think this latter option, chosen by "the most famous states," was even available in antiquity. This error has clouded New Testament studies for more than a generation. Quintilian ultimately comes down on the public side, concerned that the solitary mind "becomes mildewed like things that are left in the dark": "But even if large schools are to be avoided, a proposition from which I must dissent if the size be due to the excellence of the teacher, it does not follow that all schools are to be avoided. It is one thing to avoid them, another to select the best." (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, Book 1, Chapter Two). This is a difficult choice to rationalize if the public option did not even exist.

I've added Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory to the Thriceholy Library just in case you too, dear reader, should encounter one of these 'Jesus Seminar' types who wants to deny that there were ever public schools in antiquity. Given the wealth of documentary evidence that survives from antiquity, it is hard to fathom how such misconceptions can gain a hearing:

Institutes of Oratory
Lives of the Grammarians
Lives of the Sophists
On the Training of Children

Eusebius mentions in passing that "every city" has its school: "But since the matters which have been mentioned are not known to all, it seems to me well to pass from this point to subjects which are self-evident to all the learned, and to examine the oracular responses of most ancient date which are repeated in the mouth of all Greeks, and are taught in the schools of every city to those who resort to them for instruction." (Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel, Book V, Chapter XVIII).

'Public schools' can be one of two things: those schools open to the public, whose instructors were private entrepreneurs expecting to collect a 'Minerval' fee from the parents, or those funded by the public. In time there came to be "public instructors" true to the name, paid by the state. Fronto writes a letter of recommendation for Antoninus Aquila, who was seeking such a posting: "I would wish you, honored son, to use your influence to get him an appointment as public instructor of youth in some state within your province." (M. Cornelius Fronto, Correspondence, Volume II, Loeb edition, p. 171). According to Jerome in the Eusebian Chronicles, Quintilian himself represented the transitional generation: "Quinctilianus of Calaguris from Spain, who was the first at Rome to (open) a public school and receive a salary from the exchequer, became famous." (Jerome, Eusebian Chronicles). During much of the epoch of classical antiquity, school-teachers, at all levels: primary, grammar and rhetoric,—were private entrepreneurs who collected their fees from their pupils' parents. However, at some point publicly-funded schools would seem to have become the norm throughout the empire, as Eunapius reports:

"And when Julian had departed this life, and Athens desired to choose a successor of equal ability to teach rhetoric, many others gave in their names for this influential sophistic chair, so many that it would be tedious even to write them down. But by the votes of all there were approved and selected Prohaeresius, Hephaestion, Epiphanius, and Diophantus. . .For in accordance with the Roman law there had to be at Athens many to lecture and many to hear them." (Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, 488).

In time even philosophy came to be state-sponsored to a degree. While the various schools of philosophy—Academics, Peripatetics, Stoics, etc.—were able to co-exist peacefully so long as they were competing for private funds, evidently this happy concord did not remain once they were pushing each other aside for a place feeding at the public trough. There are pros and cons to both systems, as Pliny the Younger pointed out in making his very generous offer to pay one third of a teacher's salary for his home town:

"If you put your money together, what would it cost you to engage teachers?. . .Now, as I have not yet any children of my own, I am prepared to contribute a third of whatever sum you decide to collect, as a present for our town such as I might give to a daughter or my mother. I would promise the whole amount were I not afraid that someday my gift might be abused for someone's selfish purposes, as I see happen in many places where teachers' salaries are paid from public funds. . .People who may be careless about another person's money are sure to be careful about their own, and they will see that only a suitable recipient shall be found for my money if he is also to have their own." (Pliny the Younger, Letters, Book IV, 13).

Public Library

Another institution found in antiquity was the public library. Libraries existed at Rome: "M. Varro is the only person, who, during his lifetime, saw his own statue erected. This was placed in the first public library that was ever built, and which was formed by Asinius Pollio with the spoils of our enemies." (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book VII, Chapter 31); and "This practice of grouping portraits was first introduced at Rome by Asinius Pollio, who was also the first to establish a public library, and so make the works of genius the property of the public. Whether the kings of Alexandria and of Pergamus, who had so energetically rivalled each other in forming libraries, had previously introduced this practice, I cannot so easily say." (Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book XXXV, Chapter 2). Julius Caesar envisioned a library project: "He also projected a most spacious theatre adjacent to the Tarpeian mount; and also proposed to reduce the civil law to a reasonable compass, and out of that immense and undigested mass of statutes to extract the best and most necessary parts into a few books; to make as large a collection as possible of works in the Greek and Latin languages, for the public use; the province of providing and putting them in proper order being assigned to Marcus Varro." (Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Julius Caesar, Chapter 44). In assigning priority to Asinius Pollio Pliny is overlooking Greek precursors. But why make "the works of genius the property of the public" if the public is illiterate?

The Athenians had enjoyed the use of a public library from the days of Psisistratus the tyrant:

"Psisistratus the tyrant is said to have been the first who supplied books of the liberal sciences at Athens for public use. Afterwards the Athenians themselves, with great care and pains, increased their number; but all this multitude of books, Xerxes, when he objected possession of Athens, and burned the whole of the city except the citadel, seized and carried away to Persia." (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, Volume II, Book VI, Chapter XVII, pp. 42-43).

Why are books for public use required for a populace which is, ex hypothesi, overwhelmingly illiterate? The library at Alexandria had a very extensive collection:

"A prodigious number of books were in succeeding times collected by the Ptolemies in Egypt, to the amount of near seven hundred thousand volumes." (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, Book VI, Chapter XVII, p. 43).

The author unfortunately does not break this near-seven hundred thousand number down, counting how many were unique titles. Why an illiterate populace required so many books to be written is left unexplained.

Grants to Education

The historian Polybius chides the Rhodians for accepting a charitable gift from a private citizen to pay school-teachers' salaries:

  • “The Rhodians, while in other respects maintaining the dignity of their state, slightly deviated from it at this time, in my opinion, by accepting from Eumenes 280,000 medimni of corn for the purpose of lending out the proceeds and applying the interest to the payment of the salaries of the tutors and teachers of their sons. Such a gift might perhaps be accepted from his friends by a private person who found himself in temporary straits in order not to allow his children to remain untaught through poverty, but the last thing that anyone in affluent circumstances would submit to would be to go a-begging among his friends for money to pay teachers. And, as a state should have more pride than a private person, more strict propriety of conduct should be observed in public transactions than in private, and especially by the Rhodians owing to the wealth of the community and their noted sense of dignity.”
  • (Polybius, Histories, Book XXXI, 31).

Polybius thinks it improper for such a wealthy community to "go a-begging," implying Rhodes should have paid its school-teachers from public revenues. Theodore Parker astutely notes that, without public funding, even New England, in spite of its love of democracy, would not have achieved the literacy rate it did: "If there had never been a free public school in New England, not half of her mechanics and farmers would now be able to read, not a fourth part of her women." (Theodore Parker, Works of Theodore Parker, The Public Education of the People, Onondaga Teachers ' Institute, October 4, 1849, Kindle location 6532). A willingness to expend public monies undeniably gives a big boost to the people's literacy.

In antiquity, who paid to educate the children? As today, it was a varying mix of Mom and Pop, private philanthropy, and the state, depending upon the time, the place and the level of education. When the Athenians abandoned their city in the face of the invading Persians, the city of refuge also paid to educate the children:

"On the voting of this decree [to abandon Athens], most Athenians sent their wives and children to Troezen, where the Troezenians received them most hospitably and voted to maintain them at public expense, allowing them two obols apiece daily, and permitting the children to pick fruit anywhere, and paying, too, for teachers for them." (Plutarch, Life of Themistocles, 10, Plutarch's Lives).

Another step toward subsidized public education was taken by the Emperor Vespasian, who put teachers of Greek and Latin rhetoric on the public payroll:

"He was a great encourager of learning and the liberal arts. He first granted to the Latin and Greek professors of rhetoric the yearly stipend of a hundred thousand sesterces each out of the exchequer." (Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Vespasian, XVIII.)

"Vespasian next established in Rome teachers of both Latin and Greek learning, who drew their pay from the public treasury." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 66, Chapter 12). Did this public largesse came with any strings attached? It seems that, though no uniform curriculum or 'No Child Left Behind' program was imposed, the government could use the schools when it wanted to get its point across: "Having therefore forged Acts of Pilate and our Savior full of every kind of blasphemy against Christ, they sent them with the emperor’s approval to the whole of the empire subject to him, with written commands that they should be openly posted to the view of all in every place, both in country and city, and that the schoolmasters should give them to their scholars, instead of their customary lessons, to be studied and learned by heart." (Eusebius, Church History, Book 9, Chapter 5).

Emperor Marcus Aurelius funded instruction to "all men" in Athens: "Marcus went to Athens, where after being initiated into the mysteries he bestowed honors upon the Athenians and gave teachers to all men in Athens, for every species of knowledge, these teachers to receive an annual salary." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 71, Chapter 32).

As in our present educational model, these various funding approaches supplemented one another; they did not displace one another, although the mix varied with time and place. Several well-documented examples of private philanthropy survive:

"Towards the end of the third century a certain Polythrous gave his own city of Teos a sum of thirty-four thousand drachmae, which was invested at about eleven and a half per cent and so gave an interest of nearly four thousand drachmae: this was to be used for teachers' salaries, in accordance with the terms of the foundation charter, which specified the nature of the staff and their rate of pay.
"Similarly, in 200-199 Eudemos of Miletus left his native city the sum of sixty thousand drachmae, which, when invested in the State Bank at ten per cent, yielded an interest of six thousand: a little more than half of this — three thousand three hundred and sixty drachmae — again went in teachers'  salaries, and their status and payment were again fixed in great detail; the remainder was used to defray the costs of various sacrifices. . .
"The inscriptions in Teos and Miletus (which are as detailed as could be wished for) tell us not only how many teachers there were, and what their duties were, but also how they were selected. In Miletus, apparently, they were elected annually by the citizens' assembly from candidates who had given their names to the 'pedonomos' [inspector of primary and secondary schools]. In Teos it was the same, except that the military instructors were taken on by the pedonomos and the gymnasiarch personally, and then their choice was confirmed by the people's assembly." (H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, pp. 112-113).


What skills would a Greek normally possess?:

"For some time his [Cimon's] career was entirely undistinguished, except that he earned a bad name for disorderly behavior, heavy drinking, and in general for taking after his grandfather, Cimon, who was said to have been so stupid that he was nicknamed Coalemus, or The Booby. Stesimbrotus of Thasos, who was a near contemporary of Cimon's, says that he never acquired a literary education or any other of the liberal accomplishments which a Greek normally possessed, and that he was without a spark of true Attic cleverness and eloquence..." (Plutarch, Life of Cimon, 4, Plutarch's Lives).

Though the pagans were not 'people of the book' in Mohammed ibn Abdallah's inimitable phrase, there was a book they treasured: "When a certain casket was brought to him [Alexander], which appeared to be the most valuable of all the treasures taken from Darius, he asked his friends what they thought he ought to keep in it as his own most precious possession. After they had suggested various different things, he said that he intended to keep his copy of the Iliad in it. This fact is mentioned by many historians. . ." (Plutarch's Lives, Life of Alexander, Chapter XXVI, Volume III, pp. 347-348). In the mind of some, being Greek meant knowing the Iliad and Odyssey. This accomplishment was coveted by many in antiquity including, if Dio Chrysostom can be believed, virtually the entire populace of the dilapidated frontier settlement of Borysthenes: "And although in general they no longer speak Greek distinctly, because they live in the midst of barbarians, still almost all at least know the Iliad by heart." (Dio Chrysostom, The Thirty-sixth, or Borysthenitic, Discourse).

Hellenic Civilization

The modern apostles of ancient illiteracy put Athens and Persia on the same plane, as societies where a thin literate layer rested atop a vast but powerless illiterate mass. But the self-consciousness of the Athenians and the many who emulated their civilization was quite different. They believed their investment in human resources had wrought something new in the world:

  • “Practical philosophy, moreover, which helped to discover and establish all these institutions, which at once educated us for action and softened our mutual intercourse, which distinguished calamities due to ignorance from those which spring from necessity, and taught us to avoid the former and nobly to endure the latter, was introduced by Athens; she also paid honor to eloquence, which all men desire, and begrudge to those who are skilled in it: for she was aware that this is the only distinguishing characteristic which we of all creatures possess, and that by this we have won our position of superiority to all the rest of them; she saw that in other spheres of action men's fortunes are so capricious that often in them the wise fail and the foolish succeed, and that the proper and skillful use of language is beyond the reach of men of poor capacity, but is the function of a soul of sound wisdom, and that those who are considered clever or stupid differ from each other mainly in this respect; she saw, besides, that men who have received a liberal education from the very first are not to be known by courage, or wealth, or such-like advantages, but are most clearly recognized by their speech, and that this is the surest token which is manifested of the education of each one of us, and that those who make good use of language are not only influential in their own states, but also held in honor among other people. So far has Athens left the rest of mankind behind in thought and expression that her pupils have become the teachers of the world, and she has made the name of Hellas distinctive no longer of race but of intellect, and the title of Hellene a badge of education rather than of common descent.
  • (Isocrates, Panegyrus, 46-50, p. 806, Greek Literature in Translation, Whitney Jennings Oates and Charles Theophilus Murphy).

According to modern secular Bible scholars, all this talk is empty propaganda.

But is it? These ancient institutions of Athenian democracy and the Roman constitutional republic inspired our founding fathers, who were imitators as much as innovators. Once revived after centuries of abandonment and neglect, these institutions brought out the people's dynamism and creativity...for the very first time? Why do these institutions work for us, as we certainly think they do, when they never worked for those who invented them? Did these political institutions indeed leave the Athenian populace the same hopeless, powerless, illiterate mass as the Persian population, or did they work the same then as they do now? One of the most remarkable 'achievements' of the 'Jesus' Publishing Industry is the way they simply erase ancient democracy, with a wave of their magic wand, the 'cross-disciplinary approach:' "The Premodern Domination System. . . .Central Features. . .First, these societies were politically oppressive. They were ruled by a few, typically by a monarchy and aristocracy and their associates. . .Ordinary people had no voice or power in the shaping of the society." (Marcus J. Borg, Uncovering the Life, p. 81). American public buildings like the Capitol are built to resemble Roman temples, which is truly odd because the republican system, as modern 'research' has now discovered, was a monarchy. Why did our founding fathers not know this?

The Athenians perceived themselves as world leaders in education:

"For you [Athenians], yourselves, are pre-eminent and superior to the rest of the world, not in your application to the business of war, nor because you govern yourselves more excellently or preserve the laws handed down to you by your ancestors more faithfully than others, but in those qualities by which the nature of man rises above the other animals, and the race of the Hellenes above the barbarians, namely, in the fact that you have been educated as have been no other people in wisdom and in speech. So, then, nothing more absurd could happen than for you to declare by your votes that students who desire to excel their companions in those very qualities in which you excel mankind, are being corrupted, and to visit any misfortune upon them for availing themselves of an education in which you have become the leaders of the world.

"For you must not lose sight of the fact that Athens is looked upon as having become a school for the education of all able orators and teachers of oratory." (Isocrates, Antidosis 292-297, pp. 347-349 Loeb).

Literate people can lament the downfall of ancient democracy, but to agree with the 'Jesus' Seminar that it never existed, or that it never made any difference to the character of these societies, is delusional. Isocrates' theme, that education makes good citizens, continued to be struck by orators, even long after the only functional democracy remaining in the ancient world was on the municipal level; at the level of the state, the Roman emperors were autocrats on a par with Josef Stalin:

"For nowadays, you know, you make the mistake which the Athenians once made. I mean, when Apollo said that, if they wished to have good men as citizens, they should put that which was best into the ears of their boys, they pierced one of the ears of each and inserted a bit of gold, not understanding what the god intended. In fact such an ornament was suitable rather for girls and for sons of Lydians and Phrygians, whereas for sons of Greeks, especially since a god had given the command, nothing else was suitable but education and reason, for it is natural that those who get these blessings should prove to be good men and saviors of the state." (Dio Chrysostom, The Thirty-second Discourse: To the People of Alexandria, Section 3).

The Greeks believed this was just the point in which they differed from the barbarians, though modern 'scholarship' denies they can have been any different. The modern barbarism of the 'Jesus' publishing industry rests upon the premise that any one society which uses the iron plow, say Athens, must be indistinguishable from any other society which uses the iron plow, say Persia. They thought they were different, and freedom, and literacy, defined that difference:

"For by education merely men differ from wild beasts, the Greeks from the Barbarians, those that are free from slaves, and philosophers from the vulgar."
(Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, p. 22).

The ancient world as a whole received the imprint of Greek civilization after the conquests of Alexander the Great, and the conquering Romans built upon the foundation laid by their greatly admired predecessors. Democracy requires an educated populace. If the ancient world never had one, as these people are telling us nowadays, then that would certainly explain the collapse of democracy, but it could never explain its prior flowering. Once upon a time, the vast Near Eastern and Egyptian empires featured a tiny literate elite perched atop a mass of illiterate peons; there is no doubt that in societies like that, very few people could read and write. Part of the problem was the sheer length of time it took to learn cuneiform or hieroglyphics, in contrast to the 'Phoenician letters' which made Greek literacy such a joy, a dramatically less time-consuming achievement. What is surprising, and what lets the Jesus Publishing Industry get away with it, is that many people nowadays seem not to realize the Greek city-states were simply not like that. Why did our Founding Fathers look to these polities as exemplars, if they really were the stagnant, petrified caste societies which they are now represented as being?

Racing forward to the end of the classical world, we find the barbarians are still barbarians. Their nature hasn't changed a bit, though the tongue-twisting names are new:

"When they were admitted into her presence their spokesman said: 'We have come, O queen, to tell you that we consider that the way in which you are training up our young king is altogether wrong. A Gothic king does not want book-learning; he needs to know how to fight, and, as your father often used to say, unless the art of war was learned in youth it never would be learned at all. He never allowed Gothic boys to be sent to school; it was his maxim that a boy who had trembled at the school-master's rod would never face an enemy's sword. Look at his own example. There never was a wiser or a more powerful king than Theoderic, and yet he knew nothing of book-learning, not even by hearsay. Therefore, O queen, we demand that you send these schoolmasters about their business, and let your son be brought up as befits a king of the Goths, among companions of his own age.'" (Bradley, Henry (2013-07-30). The Story of the Goths (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 2040-2046). Didactic Press.)

In the end, what people value is important. Barbarians don't value literacy. Therefore they don't have it: "Now when this was learned by Pharas, he wrote to Gelimer as follows: 'I too am a barbarian and not accustomed to writing and speaking, nor am I skillful in these matters.'" (Procopius of Caesarea (2013-02-04). 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 4681-4682)). The celebrated Gothic king Theodoric himself didn't have it; though he ruled over Rome, he had to use a stencil to approve legislation: "Now King Theodoric was without training in letters, and of such dull comprehension that for ten years of his reign he had been wholly unable to learn the four letters necessary for endorsing his edicts. For that reason he had a golden plate with slits made, containing the four letters “legi”; then, if he wished to endorse anything, he placed the plate over the paper and drew his pen through the slits, so that only this subscription of his was seen." (The Anonymous Valesianus, latter part: The History of King Theodoric, Section 79, included in Marcellinus, Ammianus. Delphi Complete Works of Ammianus Marcellinus (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 60) (Kindle Locations 27226-27229). According to the 'cross-cultural approach,' Theodoric with his handy stencil had to be exactly like the Romans, because the Goths were farmers too. One agrarian society is like another, right? Except they weren't.



People can vote in a variety of ways: by a show of hands, or by casting beans into an urn. One method of voting used in the Athenian assembly was to write a candidate's name on a broken piece of pottery. Ostracism, exclusion from the community, was voted in this fashion:

"The procedure, to give a general account of it, was as follows. Each voter took an ostrakon, or piece of earthenware, wrote on it the name of the citizen he wished to be banished and carried it to a part of the market-place which was fenced off with a circular paling." (Plutarch, Life of Aristides, 7, Plutarch's Lives).

Diodorus Siculus explains this is how they removed Themistocles from Athens:

"Each citizen wrote on a piece of pottery (ostracon) the name of the man who in his opinion had the greatest power to destroy the democracy; and the man who got the largest number of ostraca was obliged by the law to go into exile from his native land for a period of five years.

(Siculus, Diodorus. Library of History, Book XI, Chapter 55.2, Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Classics) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32) (Kindle Locations 10149-10151).)

This was a precautionary measure against tyranny:

"Now among the Athenians each citizen was required to write on a potsherd (ostracon) the name of the man who, in his opinion, was most able through his influence to tyrannize over his fellow citizens; but among the Syracusans the name of the most influential citizen had to be written on an olive leaf, and when the leaves were counted, the man who received the largest number of leaves had to go into exile for five years."

(Siculus, Diodorus. Library of History, Book XI, Chapter 87.1. Complete Works of Diodorus Siculus (Delphi Classics) (Delphi Ancient Classics Book 32) (Kindle Locations 10654-10657).)

Illiterates could, and did, ask others to help them with this task:

  • “At this point Damis records an incident which in a way resembles and in a way is unlike the episode related of Aristides long ago at Athens. For they were ostracizing Aristides because of his virtue, and he had no sooner passed the gates of the city than a rustic came up to him and begged him to fill up his voting sherd against Aristides. This rustic knew no more to whom he was speaking than he knew how to write; he only knew that Aristides was detested because he was so just.”
  • (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book 7).

Oastraca, Athens

Illiterates of the present day suffer embarrassment when they must ask a literate person for help. Great ingenuity has been expended in explaining how a majority illiterate community could vote in this manner, to save the modern hypothesis of widespread ancient illiteracy. But what requires explanation is why a community would employ a method of voting embarrassing to illiterates if most members of that community were themselves illiterate. What prevented the majority from voting in a method of balloting, like raising hands, acclamation, or passing in white or black stones, which did not draw attention to their incapacity?

All these methods have been used: jurors used the pebble to render their verdict. Hippodamus suggested switching to writing tablets, so as to allow for 'split verdicts,' where the jurors could find, for instance, that the plaintiff had suffered damages, but not as much as he claimed:

"He [Hippodamus] was further of opinion that the decisions of the courts ought not to be given by the use of a voting pebble, but that every one should have a tablet on which he might not only write a simple condemnation, or leave the tablet blank for a simple acquittal; but, if he partly acquitted and partly condemned, he was to distinguish accordingly. To the existing law he objected that it obliged the judges to be guilty of perjury, whichever way they voted." (Aristotle, Politics, Book II, Chapter 8, 1268.)

As Aristotle pointed out, this method was impracticable: if the jurors came up with different amounts for the damages, how to reconcile them? But if the citizens were mostly illiterate, why suggest the change at all, to a voting method which could not have been used by the majority?

For a later Roman example of the principle, consider Tarius' home court trial of his son on a charge of attempted parricide:

"When Tarius was ready to open the inquiry on his son, he invited Augustus Caesar to attend the council; Augustus came to the hearth of a private citizen, sat beside him, and took part in the deliberation of another household. He did not say, "Rather, let the man come to my house"; for, if he had, the inquiry would have been conducted by Caesar and not by the father. When the case had been heard and all the evidence had been sifted — what the young fellow said in his defense, and what was brought up in accusation against him, Caesar requested each man to give his verdict in writing, lest all should vote according to his lead. Then, before the tablets were opened, he solemnly declared that he would accept no bequest from Tarius, who was a rich man." (Seneca, On Mercy, Book I).

Was it a given that Tarius' male relatives and hangers-on were literate because Tarius was a patrician? No, he was a self-made man: "Lucius Tarius Rufus, a man of humble provincial origins, had a long and distinguished career, rising to the rank of consul (16 B.C.) and acquiring considerable wealth." (Moral and Political Essays by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, John Madison Cooper, Cambridge University Press, footnote, p. 147). John Calvin, in his commentary on Seneca's 'On Mercy,' identifies this Tarius with one mentioned by Pliny: "This Tarius of whom Seneca speaks is he who is mentioned by Pliny, a man of humble birth, raised from abject poverty to the highest pinnacle of fortune and even elected consul through Augustus' kindness." (John Calvin, Commentary on Seneca's 'On Mercy,' Chapter 15, p. 164). Pliny says of him, "L. Tarius Rufus, a man who, born in the very lowest ranks of life, by his military talents finally attained the consulship, and who in other respects adhered to the old-fashioned notions of thriftiness, made away with about one hundred millions of sesterces, which, by the liberality of the late Emperor Augustus, he had contrived to amass, in buying up lands in Picenum, and cultivating them in the highest style, his object being to gain a name thereby; the consequence of which was, that his heir renounced the inheritance." (Pliny, Natural History, Book XVIII, Chapter 7).

Tarius was "born in the very lowest ranks of life," yet his family had no problem delivering written verdicts on sealed tablets. This 'secret ballot' method of rendering a verdict would have inconvenienced and embarrassed illiterate persons and, may I suggest, likely would not have been used if literacy were not a given.

Plutarch mentions an interesting case in which the jurors, evidently fearing violence, evaded the issue with a squiggle subject to interpretation: "However, since the people at this time set themselves against those who combined and testified against him, the jurors were frightened and surrounded themselves with a guard, and most of them cast their voting-tablets with the writing on them confused." (Plutarch, Life of Cicero, Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero (Illustrated) (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Locations 182383-182384).)

The Roman citizens, gathered at the forum, voted on tablets: "But if we are to have the comitia in the senate, let us ask for votes, let us canvass; let a voting-tablet be given us, just as one is given to the people." (Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero (Illustrated), The Eleventh Philippic, 19, (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Locations 29861-29862). It was sometimes noticed the hand-writing on the tablets was identical. Is this only natural, to be expected with an illiterate populace. . .or is it evidence of cheating?: "Favonius was a candidate for the aedileship and was losing his election, when Cato, who was present, observed that the voting tablets were written in one hand, and so proved the knavery, and by appealing to the tribunes stopped the return." (Plutarch's Lives, Life of Cato, Chapter XLVI). Perhaps those sponsoring his candidacy thought it helpful to hand out pre-marked ballots as a convenience, or perhaps it was, as Cato thought, ballot-stuffing.

Many illiterate people vote today in the Third World, and we see inventive means provided for them to do so, like colorful stickers of animal emblems by which the voter, to whom the candidates' names are indistinguishable, can make his party choice known. What we see when we look to antiquity is a preference for voting methods which might be expected to appeal to literate people.

Child of Destiny

Plutarch tells the story of Pyrrhus' narrow escape, as an infant, from his enemies:

  • “The sun had now set, and the fugitives had begun to hope that they would soon be safe, when they were filled with despair by meeting with the river which runs past the fort, a wild torrent which they found it impossible to cross, as the stream was swollen with recent rains, and appeared all the more terrible because of the darkness. They decided that they never could convey the child and his nurses across by their own exertions, but observing several of the inhabitants standing upon the further bank they besought them to assist their passage, and they showed Pyrrhus to them, crying aloud and holding out their hands to entreat for help. The men could not hear what they said because of the roaring of the water, and much time was wasted in vain clamoring until one of the fugitives, perceiving this, wrote with the tongue of a brooch upon a piece of oak bark a few words explaining who the child was, and in what danger, wrapped the piece of bark round a stone to steady its flight, and threw it across. Some say that they fastened the bark to a javelin and so hurled it across. When the men on the further bank read the letter, and perceived in what imminent peril the fugitives were, they cut down some trees, formed a raft, and so crossed over.”
  • (Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus, Chapter II, Plutarch's Lives, Volume II, Kindle location 2876).

These people, who happened to be on the other side of the river, were a true 'random sample;' they were not called there or selected by any protocol. Yet those who were protecting the child Pyrrhus felt it was worth their while, as indeed it turned out, to try the experiment of sending them a written message. If literacy rates were negligible, this would have been a waste of time.

Liberal Education

"It may hold such a place as the instruction you received in school from the teachers of reading and lyre-playing and athletics. You were learning not in order to teach those branches yourself, but to gain the knowledge needed by a free citizen of Athens. Such things are part of a liberal education." (Plato, 'Protagoras,' quoted p. 36, 'The Living Socrates,' Pearl Cleveland Wilson).

A 'liberal' education is, literally, the form of education suited for a free citizen:

"In short, this book of mine should be generally useful — useful alike to the statesman and to the public at large — as was my work on History. In this work, as in that, I mean by "statesman," not the man who is wholly uneducated, but the man who has taken the round of courses usual in the case of freemen or of students of philosophy." (Strabo, Geography, Book I, Chapter 1, Section 22).

This is not to say every free-born lad actually received such an education, but it was understood to be shameful if his parents neglected to give him his birth-right:

"'It was with higher hopes than this, men of Athens, that I reared this boy. From the hour of his birth I expected him to be a support in my old age; I gave him the upbringing that befits a free man; I gave him an excellent education; I had him enrolled in my phratry and my clan; I entered his name in the register of ephebes; I proclaimed him a fellow citizen of yours according to the laws; I anchored the whole of my life on him. But he shows no gratitude for all I have done for him.'" (An Ethiopian Story, Heliodorus, p. 363, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon).

When the conquering Roman general Mummius reduced many of Corinth's children to orphans, he sorted them out on the basis of their legal status by asking them to write down a verse:

"But that Corinthian captive boy excelled all, who, when the city was destroyed, and Mummius, taking a survey of all the free-born children that understood letters, commanded each to write a verse, wrote thus:— Thrice, four times blest, the happy Greeks that fell. ("Odyssey," v. 306.) For they say that Mummius was affected with it, wept and gave all the free-born children that were allied to the boy their liberty." (Plutarch. Complete Works of Plutarch — Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies (Kindle Location 5031-5035). Symposiacs, Book IX.)

This was an effectual method for separating slaves from free-born boys, because, in general, slaves were not taught. What percentage of the populace were free? At some times and in some places in the ancient world, a tiny elite operated a police state against the majority of inhabitants who were slaves, like the Helots of Sparta. But this nightmare scenario was not the norm in antiquity. Aristotle, for whom terminology is a big thing, will not call a 'democracy' a society most of whose inhabitants are slaves; such a society is properly an 'oligarchy,' because it is not ruled by the many but by the few:

"Therefore we should rather say that democracy is the form of government in which the free are rulers, and oligarchy in which the rich...Both of them [oligarchy and democracy] contain many other elements, and therefore we must carry our analysis further, and say that the government is not a democracy in which the freemen, being few in number, rule over the many who are not free, as at Apollonia, on the Ionian Gulf, and at Thera; (for in each of these states the nobles, who were also the earliest settlers, were held in chief honor, although they were but a few out of many.)...But the form of government is a democracy when the free, who are also poor and the majority, govern..." (Aristotle, Politics, Book IV, Chapter 4)

So, by Aristotle's terminology, the freemen at Athens, which he does term a 'democracy,' must have outnumbered the slaves. Of course they did not outnumber the women, who did not vote; but not all women were illiterate, as shall be seen.

Old Deluder

In 1647 the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay colony required towns of fifty or more households to arrange for public education. The stated aims of this venture included opening the Bible, no longer hid under strange tongues of Hebrew and Greek, or the melodious nonsense rhyme of Latin, but still hid to those who could not read their own native tongue:

  • “It being one chief point of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading them from the use of tongues, that so at last the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded by false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers, that learning might not be buried in the graves of our fathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors,—it is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households, shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns.”
  • (The Old Deluder Act, Massachusetts Bay Colony, 1647).

Readers may protest the attention given here to Athens, one city among many in the ancient world. Even at the height of her political power, when she had subverted a mutual defense pact into an empire, she was never sole mistress even of Greece. And after Cleon, the George W. Bush of his day, had persuaded the Athenians to go and liberate people who were minding their business, the city lost even what she had had. When Athens set sail to liberate Sicily, the unliberated Sicilians fought bravely for their homes. Athens lost her fleet and her army and never rose back to her pre-war military stature. So why give so much emphasis to this one atypical place?

Because communities in the ancient world far from Athens were stamped in her mold. Alexander of Macedon conquered much of the Near East, and he and his successors imposed a degree of cultural conformity upon many of these formerly very diverse places: "Although few of us read Plato's Laws, yet hundreds of thousands have made use of Alexander's laws, and continue to use them." (Plutarch, Moralia, On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander, Chapter 5, Complete Works of Plutarch, Kindle location 41474). The degree of violence Hellenizers were willing to inflict to conform once independent societies to this pattern is revealed in the books of Maccabees. The Hellenizers brought the good and the bad: good things like Greek geometry alongside worthless things like pagan worship. Israel stoutly resisted. But for reasons of its own, Israel also valued literacy, and already had an elementary school system in the first century A.D. What are the implications, either in the 'Old Deluder' act or in following the Mosaic Law, for devotion to a God who has revealed Himself in written scriptures?:

Greek Learning Eyes Front
Eunice and Timothy The Talmud
Bethar Moses
Youth of Succoth Hezekiah
Scroll of the Law Philo Judaeus
Military Man Lamentation
Signed and Sealed Court Clerks
Masada Reader's Digest
Rabha Outliers
James Son of Zebedee

Born of a Father Who Had Been Set Free

Some readers may object, 'The philosophical Greeks may well have treasured literacy, but not the practical Romans.' The literary remains of ancient Rome tell another story. Rome, which seems always to have taught its children basic literacy and enumeration, as it conquered the world grew more cosmopolitan, suffering (cultural) conquest in turn by its acquisition, Greece, until the point was reached where, "In the present age, the tenets of philosophy and the precepts of rhetoric are no longer a secret. The lowest of our popular assemblies are now, I will not say fully instructed, but certainly acquainted with the elements of literature." (Tacitus, Dialogue on Oratory, XIX). (All citizens of Rome could vote, for something, though they never had democracy because they never had 'one man one vote.') 

Was education the exclusive preserve of an hereditary elite, as is often represented? Horace was "born of a father who had been set free," a freed slave. Horace remembered his education, and its importance to his doting father, thus:

  • “But all my life was pure and innocent,
    If I do say so, and to friends endeared,
    My father was the reason. So he reared
    Me. Poor he was. His paltry little field
    Could scarcely a sufficient harvest yield;
    Yet he refused to put me in the rule
    Of Flavius who ran the village school;
    Where boys of big centurions used to go.
    Big husky boys; who carried to and fro
    On the left arm, the satchel and the slate.
    The middle of each month, they shelled out eight
    Coppers for payment. But my father dared
    To bring his boy to Rome to be prepared,
    A training any senator or knight
    Would give his sons, if they were taught aright...
    On me no breath of scandal ever came;
    He never was afraid of anyone
    Who told him he did wrong to give his son
    A liberal education."

  • (Horace, 'The Poet's Father,' (Satire VI)
    'The Latin Poets,' Francis R. B. Godolphin, p. 296)

Roman Relief, Second Century, Teachers and Students

Notice that the fall-back position for Horace's education, had his father not sent his gifted son away to a 'magnet school' in Rome, was not illiteracy and labor in the fields, but the "village school" where Flavius taught his pupils. This transaction was a two-way street in antiquity: "Praiseworthy is Solon the legislator of Athens, for excusing the son from caring for a father in his old age, who had taken no pains to educate him." (Exhortation to the Study of the Arts, especially Medicine: To Menodotus, Works of Hippocrates and Galen,  p. 359).

Suetonius, in his 'Lives of the Poets,' mentions someone jeering at Horace because his father had wiped his nose with his fist: "...for some one with whom Horace had a quarrel, jeered him, by saying; 'How often have I seen your father wiping his nose with his fist?'" (Suetonius, 'Lives of the Poets,' Life of Horace). I've added Suetonius's 'Lives of the Eminent Grammarians' to the Thriceholy Library so that readers can see for themselves the social background of the 'big names' of Roman literature. Some notable literati were 'to the manor born,' like Persius, but very many were either the offspring of freedmen or freedmen themselves. How is this consistent with the 'Jesus' Industry's claim that literacy was the exclusive possession of the upper social orders?

This phenomenon, of literary lions rising from humble beginnings, is by no means limited to the Latins; by some accounts, Euripides' mother sold vegetables: "Theopompus says, that the mother of the poet Euripides gained a livelihood by selling vegetables. . ." (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, Volume III, Book XVI, Chapter XX, p. 177). Valerius Maximus concurs: "Whom Euripides had for a father or Demosthenes for a mother was unknown even in their own period. But the writings of almost all the learned speak of the mother of the one as selling vegetables and the father of the other as selling knives." (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, Book III.4, p. 289 Loeb edition).  General Eumenes' father drove a wagon:

"The historian Douris tells us that the father of Eumenes of Kardia was so poor that he was obliged to act as a waggoner; yet he gave his son a liberal education both in mental and bodily exercises." (Plutarch's Lives, Life of Eumenes, Chapter 1, Volume III, p. 145).

Young Themistocles heard a prophecy of his later prominence in the state from his school-teacher, "His schoolmaster was wont to say, 'You will be nothing petty, my boy; you will be either a very good or a very bad man.'" (Plutarch, Life of Themistocles, Chapter II, Plutarch's Lives, Volume I, p. 129). But why did such a person have a school-master at all; his mother was a foreigner, not even an Athenian citizen: "Themistocles came of a family too obscure to entitle him to distinction. His father, Neocles, was a middle-class Athenian citizen, of the township of Phrearri and the tribe Leonis. He was base born on his mother's side, as the epigram tells us:

"'My name's Abrotonon from Thrace,
I boast not old Athenian race;
Yet, humble though my lineage be,
Themistocles was born of me.'" (Plutarch, Life of Themistocles, Chapter I, Plutarch's Lives, Volume I, p. 129).

The Stoic philosopher Cleanthes would seem also to have been of humble circumstances, "King Antigonus asked Cleanthes, when he met him in Athens after not seeing him for a while, 'Are you still grinding corn, Cleanthes?'. . .What a great spirit the man had who came from the mill and the kneading-trough, and with the hand which ground the flour and baked the bread wrote about the gods, the moon, the stars and the sun!"  (Plutarch, Moralia, That We Ought Not to Borrow, Chapter 7, Complete Works of Plutarch, Kindle location 55940). This learned philosopher was obviously literate, writing treatises about the moon and the stars, but was not in possession of landed estates, or he could have dropped the corn-grinding side-line. For those readers interested in hearing the living, breathing voice of the laboring classes in antiquity, here from the Thriceholy Library is Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus. Other witnesses say that Cleanthes was a water-carrier not a corn-grinder: "Cleanthes gained his livelihood by drawing water from a well [Cleanthes aqua de puteo extrahenda victum quaerebat]. . ." (M. Cornelius Fronto, Correspondence, Volume II, Loeb edition, pp. 64-65). Presumably he did whatever it takes:

 Hymn to Zeus 

At least some persons of modest means in ancient times perceived education as, not a luxury their kind could not afford, but rather as the very means of upward mobility which would enable their children to enjoy a better life than they had:

"'Hey, Agamemnon!. . .You're a cut above us, and so you laugh at what us poor people say. . .And my kid is growing up to be a pupil of yours. He can divide by four already. If God spares him, you'll have him ready to do anything for you. In his spare time, he won't take his head out of his exercise book. . .Still, he's already well ahead with his Greek, and he's starting to take to his Latin, though his tutor is too pleased with himself and unreliable — he just comes and goes. He knows his stuff but doesn't want to work. There is another one as well, not so clever but he is conscientious — he teaches the boy more than he knows himself. . .Anyway, I've just bought the boy some law books, as I want him to pick up some legal training for home use. There's a living in that sort of thing. He's done enough dabbling in poetry and such like. . .Well, yesterday I gave it to him straight: "Believe me, my lad, any studying you do will be for your own good. . .An education is an investment, and a proper profession never goes dead on you."'" (Petronius, The Satyricon, Book XV, Dinner with Trimalchio, pp. 60-61.)

This character, Echion, is identified as a "rag merchant," yet he found the means to educate his son. Pliny the Younger, in a letter of recommendation, associates industry with humble origin, "Of illustrious birth and ample fortune, he is as much devoted to study as poor men are wont to be." (Pliny, Book VII, Letter 22, To Falco, Complete Works of Pliny the Younger, Kindle location 4167). Juvenal perceives most of the successful lawyers are of humble origin, as would be expected in a meritocracy: "And yet, you'll find in the lowest riffraff Some eloquent Roman who knows how to plead lawsuits on behalf Of illiterate lords. The men who solve the riddles and split The knots of the law come out of the common herd." (Juvenal, Satires, Satire VIII, p. 136).

Plotinus expected, as do we, that those youngsters will gravitate toward shop who are not good at other things: "The relation of action to contemplation is indicated in the way duller children, inapt to study and speculation, take to crafts and manual labor." (Plotinus, The Enneads, The Third Ennead, Eighth Tractate, Chapter 4). But what the Jesus Seminar is telling us is that almost all children, regardless of ability, were altogether deprived of any opportunity to "take to" anything other than manual labor. Why didn't Plotinus realize this?

School-boys in antiquity used to copy out edifying mottoes on their waxed tablets, an exercise which did double duty, inculcating not only penmanship but inscribing useful and memorable sayings on the mind. Several of these sayings make the point that education is, not a luxury for the already-wealthy to enjoy, but an investment that can never be stolen:

"There are observations on the value of education, of course, such as: 'Men's culture is a prize that none may steal,' 'Their education men can never lose,' or 'By education all are civilized,' together with incentives to industry and exhortations to avoid idleness: 'Work hard, and you will win fair livelihood,' 'Though rich, if you are idle, you'll be poor.'" (Stanley F. Bonner, Education in Ancient Rome, p. 174).

It's hard to argue with these sentiments. If you invest your money in a farm, all it takes is a string of bad harvests and your creditors own your farm, whereas, who can take from you what you know? Lucian the Syrian is another who remembered his family background as far from affluent; a woman in his dream rails, "At the moment you're poor, the son of a nobody..." Yet, as with Horace, literacy was not at issue; he first received a primary education, and only when he left school in his teens did the question of his life's work come up:

"When I was a teenager and had just left school, my father started consulting his friends about my further education. Most of them thought that an academic training took too much time and effort, besides being expensive and requiring considerable capital -- whereas we had very little, and needed a quick return for our money. But if I was taught some ordinary trade, I could earn my keep right away, as a boy of my age ought to do, instead of living on my family." (Lucian, 'The Dream, or A Chapter of My Life')

He was thereupon apprenticed to his uncle, a stonemason and sculptor. This did not go well; the first day on the job, he broke a marble slab, was beaten by his uncle, and decided upon a literary life. This ambition he pursued, "undeterred by poverty." Why, if John Dominic Crossan and his peers are right about ancient literacy, had a young man who was "poor, the son of a nobody," already attended primary school?

Caius and Caia

Cicero defended Lucius Murena against the accusation of bribery brought by his friend and political ally Servius Sulpicius and the esteemed Marcus Cato. Though it might not be evident to modern readers why 'dissing' the opposing counsel is an important part of any court case, Cicero does take the time and trouble to disrespect Sulpicius' imposing reputation as a legal expert. Though the law was Sulpicius' "darling daughter" and his constant study, Cicero was not impressed; after all, "all" men know the law:

"Nor has any one any right to be considered skillful in law, because there cannot be any difference between men in a branch of knowledge with which they are all acquainted." (Cicero, For Lucius Murena, Chapter 13).

Cicero had already explained that the law in former times was an arcane pursuit understood by only a few, but that the publication of 'cheat sheets' of legal terminology by a certain notary had de-mythologized the law: "A certain notary was found, by name Cnaeus Flavius, who could deceive the most wary, and who set the people records to be learnt by heart each day, and who pilfered their own learning from the profoundest lawyers." (Cicero, 'For Lucius Murena,' Chapter 11). He goes on to mock the very law itself for its 'mumbo-jumbo' and slavish devotion to precedent, epitomized by the fact that the Roman legal system kept on mindlessly marrying the same two people over and over again, Caius and Caia.

While Cicero's contention that "all" men understood the law was doubtless an exaggeration, and excludes at the outset women and slaves who were not eligible to plead in the law-courts, it remains difficult to place in the context of John Dominic Crossan's ancient world where hardly anyone was literate. If hardly anyone was even literate, how did it come about that "all" men, "omnes," knew the law? Of what use to illiterates were Cnaeus Flavius' 'cheat-sheets'? Since Sulpicius' specialized knowledge would inevitably be open to very few in an illiterate world, why embark upon the pointless, lost-cause pursuit of disrespecting it? Why represent it as a common thing when it cannot have been? But Cicero says that it was. He mentions, in his On Invention, that "any boy" could write: "And that it is on this account that the framer of the law appointed judges of a certain rank and age, in order that there might be men, not capable merely of reading out what he had written, which any boy might do, but able also to understand his thoughts and to interpret his intentions." (Cicero, On Invention, Book II, Chapter XLVII.) Now we know this is an exaggeration, because many slave-boys could not read; but if Bart Ehrman is right and only one percent of these people could have been literate, then it is insane to say "any boy."

Down on the Farm

There is good reason to think the literacy rate in the country-side was lower than that of the towns. See for instance Proclus's Commentary on Plato's Timaeus; Plato accounts for the brief period of recorded history by explaining that periodic conflagrations and deluges wipe away civilization, because the mountain-dwelling herdsmen who survive are illiterate and cannot transmit information:

"For from a deluge, Plato says, that herdsmen and shepherds are left, but that the inhabitants of cities are destroyed. Hence those that remain are illiterate and without the Muses. And on account of the former, indeed, they are unable through writing to transmit memorials of the pre-existent period; but on account of the latter, they are not sufficiently capable of preserving in verse or melody the events that happened prior to the deluge. Hence they become oblivious of all things. But through oblivion they return to the life of children." (Proclus, Commentary on Plato's Timaeus, translated by Thomas Taylor, p. 113).

But the rural literacy rate was far from zero. Varro advises farm proprietors to arrange for their herds to be tended by educated masters:

"'As to what pertains to the health of man and beast," resumed Cossinius, 'and the leech craft which may be practiced without the aid of a physician, the flock master should have the rules written down: indeed, the flock master must have some education, otherwise he can never keep his flock accounts property.'" (Varro, Of Country Life, 'Of Shepherds').

There are two reasons the herd master should be literate: keeping accounts, and keeping track of all the various recipes for ointments and medications the animals will need when they injure a hoof, etc. There are too many of these for the herd master to store them all in his head:

"So far as concerns the health of the flock, there are many things I might add, but, as Scrofa has said, the flock master keeps his prescriptions written down in a book and carries with him what he needs in the way of physic." (Varro, Of Country Life, 'Of Sheep').
"What shall I say of the health of these animals who never have any [goats]? yet the flock master should have written down what remedies are used for certain of their maladies and especially for the wounds which often befall them by reason of their constant fighting among themselves and their feeding in thorny places." (Varro, Of Country Life, 'Of Goats').
"As to medicine for the horse, there are so many symptoms of their maladies and so many cures that the studgroom must have them written down: indeed, on this account in Greece the veterinarians are mostly called hippiatroi (horse leeches)." (Varro, Of Country Life, 'Of Horses').

Varro suggests the herdsman will find it helpful to read Mago the Carthaginian's treatise on farm management:

"The rules for taking care of the health of neat cattle are many. I have those which Mago has recorded written out and I take care that my herdsman reads them frequently." (Varro, Of Country Life, 'Of Neat Cattle').

Varro also advises that the farm house rules should be written out and posted:

"All these rules should be written out and posted in the farmstead and the overseer especially should have them at the tip of his tongue." (Varro, Of Country Life, 'A Calendar of Agricultural Operations').

Why this would be helpful if the rural population is altogether illiterate, Varro doesn't say. I've uploaded Varro's 'Of Country Life' to the Thriceholy Library for the reader's benefit.

Pliny describes the landscaping on his country estate. The ancient Romans enjoyed clipping hedges into the shapes of animals, but also other things: "In others box shrubs, which are trimmed to a great variety of patterns, some of them being cut into letters forming my name as owner and that of the gardener." (Pliny the Younger, Letters, Book V, Letter VI, Complete Works of Pliny the Younger, Kindle location 2702). It is easy enough to see why the owner would want to see his name in shrubbery, they were not modest people, but if the gardener actually cared enough to 'sign' his work, he must have been literate.

Pliny also complains about the petitions his tenant farmers submitted for his attention:

"I am troubled with such numerous applications on all sides from the farmers, and such grumbling ones; productions which I am rather more unwilling to read than my own writings; for even my own writings I read unwillingly." (Pliny the Younger, Book IX, Letter 15, to Falco, Complete Works of Pliny the Younger, Kindle location 5238).

If these people were illiterate, they chose a strangely unsuitable means of making their grievances known.

Learned Slaves

The literacy rate amongst the slave population, amounting to perhaps a third of the total population, cannot have been high, yet it was not zero. A fair way of stating the case might be, that the miniscule literacy rates the Jesus Publishing Industry apply to the population at large, were actually characteristic of the slave population.

Meno Grammarian Slaves
Human Resources One Third
Great Emancipator Servius Tullius
Tromes Phaedo
Epictetus Prohibition
The Braggart Soldier Arms Control
Sparta Bookkeeping
First Generation Secret Agent
Peevishness Shepherd of Hermas

If, as we've seen, literacy was a foundational skill for the citizens of a republic, acknowledged and understood as such for the same reasons as today, the literacy rates of a pauperized population groaning under despotism are not so very relevant. Rather, it becomes important to tease out the percentage of the general population who were free. Some people seem to think the great majority of the population in antiquity were slaves, but a more realistic figure is a third, as in the American south-land before the Civil War. A society one third slave and two thirds free is stable and sustainable. The number of slaves who came onto the market-place was a function of the wars taking place and fluctuated greatly. 'Citizens' are free men, though for some legal purposes women, who had no political rights, were accounted citizens. Their number may or may not include artisans, and may or may not involve a property qualification; unfortunately there is no uniform definition. But let's take a stab at it. The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus here gives a proportion between the "citizens" and the larger population,

"For of adult citizens [of Rome] there were more than 110,000, as appeared by the latest census; and the number of the women, children, domestics, foreign traders and artisans who plied the menial trades [γυναικων δε και παιδων και της οικετικης θεραπειας εμπορων τε και των εργαζομενων τας βαναυσους τεχνας μετοικων] — for no Roman citizen was permitted to earn a livelihood as a tradesman or artisan — was not less than treble the number of the citizens." (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book IX, Chapter XXV).

In other words, the (male) citizens make up one-fourth of the total populace; add to these a second fourth, their citizen wives, for one half (six-twelfths). Of the remainder, subtract the citizen children, resident aliens, and such of the artisan class as were free but did not enjoy political rights,— very conservatively, one sixth, which leaves four-twelfths, or one third, in servitude. Naturally this percentage must vary with the fortunes of war, but it cannot be expected the 'normal' figure was very much higher. Those places which did have a higher ratio of slave to free stand out, because society must be organized like an armed camp, as was Sparta, if a minority of free men must keep the majority in subjection. Warfare in antiquity was labor-intensive; numbers matter.

Seneca mentions a proposal for slaves to wear distinctive costume: "A proposal was once made in the senate to distinguish slaves from free men by their dress; it then became apparent how great would be the impending danger if our slaves should begin to count our number." (Seneca, On Mercy, Book I). If slaves had been a large majority of the population at that time, it is difficult to imagine they needed to discover that fact. Their number does, however, fluctuate, and moreover there is distressing evidence that the trend-line ran in the wrong direction. In Republican times, slavery seems to have been on a more human scale, whereas under the Empire we start to hear of astronomical numbers of slaves belonging to one estate. Abraham Lincoln's father, a free dirt farmer, could not compete with slave labor, and neither could the honest free-holder of antiquity, and thus this dreadful institution exercised its degrading and destructive effect throughout the period.

There is no doubt that, owing to the prevalence of warfare, there were times and places where a huge majority of the populace was enslaved, for instance,

"But Ctesicles, in the third book of his Chronicles, says that in the hundred and fifteenth Olympiad, there was an investigation at Athens conducted by Demetrius Phalereus into the number of the inhabitants of Attica, and the Athenians were found to amount to twenty-one thousand, and the Metics to ten thousand, and the slaves to four hundred thousand." (Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, or Banquet of the Learned, Book VI, Chapter 103).

But these same people remembered a past in which slavery was uncommon! Two tendencies were at war, one the humane custom of manumitting slaves: "Do we not free our slaves chiefly for the express purpose of making out of them as many citizens as possible?" (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LVI, Chapter 7.6); the other the incessant wars which produced a flood of slaves. So it seems a firm, constant number cannot be obtained, because the percentage was too variable.

The percentage of slaves in the population of the holy land would be expected to be smaller, owing to Moses' institution of the sabbatical year and jubilee. At the time of the return from exile, "The whole assembled people numbered forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty, apart from their slaves, male and female, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred and thirty-seven; and they had two hundred singers, men and women." (Ezra 2:64-66, NEB). Nearer in time to our focus period, "An official document of the year AD 71 shows that in one region where the fiscal authorities counted three hundred and eighty-five tax-payers, all these people together owned no more than forty-four slaves, that is to say, one slave between nine of them." (Henri Jules Charles Petiot, Daily Life in Palestine at the Time of Christ, p. 141.)

"Although the percentage of slaves in Gaulish society was probably well below that in the Greek and Roman world (where slaves could form a third of the population of a city), they were still to be found at every turn." (The Philosopher and the Druids, Philip Freeman, p. 95). So if, in general, we count slaves as one-third the population, then free-born men would be one-third and freeborn women one-third of the total. One third of the population, therefore, inherited literacy as a birth-right; however, disadvantages such as rural residence would have impeded their progress. Not until big yellow school buses criss-crossed the land was universal rural literacy in view. Yet there were volunteers to fill in the depleted ranks, from the outlying groups: slaves and women; their literacy rate was not zero, though literacy was not their norm. But perhaps there were not so many literate volunteers as to fill up the gap completely, of free-born men 'missing in action.'

As seen, rates of slavery were 'lumpy,' not evenly distributed as to time and place, and moreover there was a disturbing trend over time toward gigantism, as the myriad small freeholds of Italy and other places were displaced by huge estates run by slave labor. Nevertheless, one-third is a generally reliable average estimate of servitude: "With a third of Rome's population made up of slaves, Caesar himself took pains to buy the best: 'So high were the prices he paid on slaves of good character and attainments that he became ashamed of his extravagance and would not allow the sums to be entered in his accounts.'" (Cleopatra the Great, Dr. Joann Fletcher, p. 110).

A conservative estimate of ancient literacy would thus be one-fourth of the total population, 25%, not the 5%, or even less, we hear of today. Most people were illiterate, yet this skill was not so uncommon as to force the gospels to have been written long, long after and far, far away, which was the point of scaling down this number. Ancient testimony will not allow such a dramatic down-grade.

This would mean that the literacy rate did not advance but declined during the Dark Ages. People compare apples with oranges when they surmise that if the barbarian hordes who brought down the empire had a very low literacy rate, as they surely did, and their children and grand-children also had very low literacy rates, as they also did, then the inhabitants of the empire brought down can never have had any higher rate. This is the same as to say, if the barbarian hordes did not know how to make realistic-looking portrait busts, as they did not, then the Greeks and Romans never knew how to make them either.

Literacy rates in classical antiquity for one-half the human race were nothing to brag about, but neither were they zero as is alleged:

Pompeii, The Baker and His Wife

Women's Literacy
Cleobuline Sappho
Phaedra Daphne
Pindar's Relative Hestiaea
Agallis Among the Scythians
Eurydice Aspasia
Pythagoras' Mother Leontion
Telesilla Megisto
Polycrite Corinna
Praxilla Lovers' Leap
Anyte Kratesiklea
Sophonis Timoxena
Love-Letters Philenium
Hortensia Virginia
Attica Caecilius's Girlfriend
Neaera Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi
Sulpicia Heroides
Cleopatra Perilla
Thisbe Caenis
Persinna Sempronia
Cornelia, Pompey's wife Pompeia
Fulvia Apicata
Caligula's Sisters Detractors
Cydippe Calpurnia
Fundanus' Daughter Verania
Saturninus' Wife Marcia
Callirhoe Manto
Leucippe Melite
Rectina Baker's Wife
On the Wall Aurelia
Midwives Domitia Lucilla
Commodus' Marcia Zenobia
Vivia Perpetua Domitia
Sosipatra Julia Domna
Hypatia Chrysanthius' Melite
Bassula Serena

Hypatia's Bookshelf

One special category are Christian women who were literate:

Grapte Thecla
Basilna Waiting for Baptism
Watching and Praying Vivia Perpetua
Aetheria Olympias
Laeta's Daughter Fabiola
Eudocia Demetrias
Eustochium Paula

Enlightened Audience

How did literary artists describe their audience?

  • “Perchance you fear that the audience is too stupid to grasp your subtleties, but be reassured, for that is no longer the case. They are all well-trained folk; each has his book, from which he learns the art of quibbling; such wits as they are happily endowed with have been rendered still keener through study. So have no fear! Attack everything, for you face an enlightened audience.”
  • (Aristophanes, 'The Frogs,' 1114).

The word 'book' here need not imply a 300-page tome such as would be delivered by the Literary Guild, suitable also for use as a door stop; it could have been a pamphlet or flyer. What is the book from which the audience has learned to dispute: a manual entitled 'The Art of Disputation'? Or political broadsides? Or a plot synopsis or copy of the script for the play they are viewing? Whatever it was, it is unclear why an illiterate populace would bother carting around a book, pamphlet or flyer in the first place.

Art can be so much more, and also so much less, than a mirror to the world. What people do in the movies may or may not tell us about life outside of Hollywood. But gleaning literacy information from ancient literature is nevertheless a more promising and empirical approach than handing down verdicts from on high, delivered by the priesthood of an economic scholasticism, who decree what people must have done in place of what they say they did.

The Roman public likewise came equipped with pamphlets: "The multitude, under the burden of the famine and the tax and the losses sustained by fire, were ill at ease. They discussed openly many schemes of insurrection and by night scattered pamphlets [βιβλια] more still: this move was said to be traceable to a certain Publius Rufus, but others were suspected of it." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 55, Chapter 27). To whom did the "multitude" hope to distribute pamphlets? To others like themselves, who might sympathize with their sentiments, or to the one-percenters?

Invisible Ink

Those of us who played at spying when little know all about writing with 'invisible ink.' These fluids appeared clear until treated or rubbed with another substance. The Christian apologist Hippolytus was familiar with this technique, though the people he knew of who used it were not spies. Pagan thaumaturgists, eager to impress the gullible public, would instruct their clients to write their pleas to the demon in 'water' on a paper which was then consigned to the flames, although not before the necromancer had recovered the 'secret' information:

"And (the sorcerer), taking (a paper), directs the inquirer to write down with water whatever questions he may desire to have asked from the demons. Then, folding up the paper, and delivering it to the attendant, he sends him away to commit it to the flames, that the ascending smoke may waft the letters to demons.. . .And within (the house), into a vessel full of water (the sorcerer) infusing copperas mixture, and melting the drug, having with it sprinkled the paper that forsooth had (the characters upon it) obliterated, he forces the latent and concealed letters to come once more into light; and by these he ascertains what the inquirer has written down. And if one write with copperas mixture likewise, and having ground a gall nut, use its vapor as a fumigator, the concealed letters would become plain. And if one write with milk, (and) then scorch the paper, and scraping it, sprinkle and rub (what is thus scraped off) upon the letters traced with the milk, these will become plain. And urine likewise, and sauce of brine, and juice of euphorbia, and of a fig, produce a similar result. But when (the sorcerer) has ascertained the question in this mode, he makes provision for the manner in which be ought to give the reply. And next he orders those that are present to enter, holding laurel branches and shaking them, and uttering cries, and invoking the demon Phryn." (Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book Four, Chapter 28, ECF pp. 70-71).

If almost everyone was illiterate, as is alleged, who made up the target audience for this clever fraud? The super-rich? The gilded, Epicurean youth? Asking the demon-caller's factotum to write down the message for an illiterate client would scarcely yield the desired astonishment when, as it turned out when the performance unfolded, the demon 'revealed' to his boss the client's innermost thoughts, bared moments earlier for the demon's eyes only. Even the most gullible client must recall he had himself shared the information with someone on the demonologist's staff. To work, the 'invisible ink' scam requires a literate client.

Pagan religion greatly valued knowing the question before it was asked: "The Pythian Priestess indeed was accustomed to utter some of her oracles at the very moment before the question was put: for the god whom she serves 'understands the dumb, and hears the mute.'" (Plutarch, Plutarch's Morals, Treatise: On Talkativeness, Section XX). There are ways and means of achieving this feat: a friendly face in the vestibule, a chance meeting with a stranger not known to be a confederate of the Pythoness, a good listener eager to share whispered confidences,— is one promising route. In the particular case discussed by Hippolytus, the means chosen imply widespread literacy.

Banquet Menu

According to Athenaeus, ancient banquets featured written menus distributed to the guests:

"It was a custom at feasts, that a guest when he had lain down should have a paper given to him, containing a bill of fare of what there was for dinner, so that he might know what the cook was going to serve up." (Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, or Banquet of the Learned, Book II, Chapter 33).

One wonders why, with illiteracy so prevalent amongst the population. Or maybe, the 'Jesus Seminar' will explain, the papers handed out showed little line drawings of the various dishes. It may be that the 'banqueting class' was a subset of the population, but at the great festivals, not a tiny subset.

Likewise with the "play-bills" of the gladiators:

"Why need I mention the countless mass of papers, the innumerable autographs which have been brought forward? writings of which there are imitators who sell their forgeries as openly as if they were gladiators' playbills." [Quid ego de commentariis infinitis, quid de innumerabilibus chirographis loquar? quorum etiam institores sunt, qui ea tamquam gladiatorum libellos palam venditent.] (Cicero, The Second Philippic, 38. 97).

What really is the need for written playbills advertising gladiators' performances, if only two percent of the population could possibly read them?

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Fame and Fortune

To judge by the testimony of the Latin poets, the literary market of their days was so structured that fame and fortune lay within the grasp of the poet who could connect with the public:

  • “All Rome is mad about my book:
    It's praised, they hum the lines, shops stock it,
    It peeps from every hand and pocket.
    There's a man reading it! Just look -
    He blushes, turn pale, reels, yawns, curses.
    That's what I'm after. Bravo, verses!”
  • (Martial, Epigrams, Book VI, 60).

  • "May I present myself - the man
    You read, admire and long to meet,
    Known the world over for his neat
    And witty epigram? The name
    Is Martial, Thank you, earnest fan,
    For having granted me the fame
    Seldom enjoyed by a dead poet
    While I'm alive and here to know it."
  • (Martial, Epigrams, Book I, 1)

How did Martial the poet come to be "known the world over" in world where almost everyone was illiterate? He says that "Rome" reads his book: "And if by chance — yet can I — scarce so hope — he shall be at leisure, bid him offer with his own hand my verses to our Chief, and in four words only let him commend my shrinking and brief little book: 'This thy Rome reads.'" (Martial, Epigrams, Book XII, XI.) Hyperbole, no doubt.

The contemporary United States of America is without doubt a literate country, yet American poets can scarcely aspire to the rewards Martial and Horace looked for. Isn't that strangely inverted, if the Roman Empire was filled with illiterates?

There was a book-selling industry. Horace concurs that popular poetry gathers money for the Sosii, book-sellers:

"The centuries of elders damn a play
That nothing that's instructive has to say;
The haughty Ramnes scout the austere alway;
But every vote polls he that knows to blend
The pleasant with the useful, and to lend
The reader counsel and delight together.
Such books for Sosii the money gather;
They make their way across the ocean main,
And they immortalize the author's name.
(Horace, The Art of Poetry)

Catullus asked, "I beg you, if I may without offense, show me where is your dark corner. I have looked for you in the lesser Campus, in the Circus, in all the booksellers' shops, in the hallowed temple of great Jove." (Catullus, Poems, LV, p. 63 Loeb edition). Cicero recalls a politician who would have been murdered by Marc Antony had he not found shelter in a bookshop: "You have said that Publius Clodius was slain by my contrivance. What would men have thought if he had been slain at the time when you pursued him in the forum with a drawn sword, in the sight of all the Roman people; and when you would have settled his business if he had not thrown himself up the stairs of a bookseller's shop, and, shutting them against you, checked your attack by that means?" (Cicero, Second Philippic, 21).

Another perk successful poets enjoyed, is the approval of the fairer sex, which is odd given their purported illiteracy:

"Reading my poems she'll aver
Rich men are odious to her,
For never woman more than she
Devoutly worshipped poetry." (Propertius, The Dream).

Pliny the Younger was surprised at the success his works enjoyed as far afield as Lyons:

"As I did not imagine there were any booksellers at Lugdunum, I am so much the more pleased to learn that my works are sold there. I rejoice to find they maintain the character abroad which they raised at home, and I begin to flatter myself they have some merit, since persons of such distant countries are agreed in their opinion with regard to them." (Pliny the Younger, Letter XCIX, to Geminus, Part XI, Letters).

Modern scholars like Bart Ehrman claim that all authors in antiquity were amateurs. This plainly is not so. Much of their income came through business strategies not now common, such as public readings and patronage, but they plainly did receive income from their literary endeavors.

Even back in Xenophon's fifth century, books were an article of commerce widely distributed, included among plundered items salvaged from shipwreck here on this remote and barbarous coast:

"Here many vessels sailing to the Pontus run aground and are wrecked; for there are shoals that extend far and wide. And the Thracians who dwell on this coast have boundary stones set up and each group of them plunder the ships that are wrecked within their own limits; but in earlier days, before they fixed the boundaries, it was said that in the course of their plundering many of them used to be killed by one another. Here there were found great numbers of beds and boxes, quantities of written books, and an abundance of all the other articles that ship-owners carry in wooden chests." (Xenophon, Anabasis, Book VII, Chapter V, 13-14).

The Public

What did these best-selling authors call their readership? "The public:"

"But if novelty had been as offensive to the Greeks as it is to us, what in these days would be ancient? What would the public have to read and thumb, each according to his taste?" (Horace, Epistles, II. 1.90).

When you stop to think about it, that is a really odd thing to call a small group of people who numbered less than 10 percent of the population.

"The fickle public has changed its taste and is fired throughout with a scribbling craze...skilled or unskilled, we scribble poetry, all alike." (Horace, Epistles, II. 1. 108-115).


'For sale' signs and other public notices were commonly seen in the ancient world. Pompeii was plastered with election notices. Pliny the Younger mentions a 'haunted house' at Athens with a 'for sale' sign posted:

"However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this great calamity which attended it, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold." (Pliny the Younger, Letters, Book Seven, Letter 27).

When the cynic Diogenes wanted to shame some young hoodlums who had assaulted him, he walked around with their names on a sign-board:

  • “One day he [Diogenes] made his way with head half shaven into a party of young revellers, as Metrocles related in his Anecdotes, and was roughly handled by them. Afterwards he entered on a tablet the names of those who had struck him and went about with the tablet hung round his neck, till he had covered them with ridicule and brought universal blame and discredit upon them.”
  • (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Volume II, Book VI, Chapter 2, 33).

Why would walking around with town wearing a sandwich-board bring Diogenes' attackers into "universal blame" when most people could not read? Why, for that matter, were ancient cities littered with written material: campaign posters, expensive chiselled inscriptions, even extemporaneous graffiti, invisible to the average person? I suppose they were waiting for the Industrial Revolution when people would at long last be able to read all that stuff, at least what survives? Basil tells a similar tale of Socrates: "A certain man once kept striking Socrates, the son of Sophroniscus, in the face, yet he did not resent it, but allowed full play to the ruffian's anger, so that his face was swollen and bruised from the blows. Then when he stopped striking him, Socrates did nothing more than write on his forehead, as an artisan on a statue, who did it, and thus took out his revenge." (Basil, Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature, Chapter VII). Since 99% of all people could only have taken it for a smudge, one wonders why he bothered.

Antiphon, inventor it would seem of the 'talking cure' for mental illness, set up a bill-board to this effect:

"And having at Corinth built him a little house, in or near the market, he set a notice over the gate to this effect: that he had a way to cure distress of men's minds by words; and let him but know the cause of their malady, he would immediately prescribe the remedy, to their comfort." (Plutarch, Moralia, Lives of the Ten Orators, 1. Antiphon, Complete Works of Plutarch, Kindle location 56022).

At their first settlement of Greek affairs, the Romans liberated the Greeks from their vassalage to Perseus, the last king of Macedon. But he looked for ways to restore Macedonian hegemony over the region, seeing opportunity in social discontent:

"Having renewed the alliance with Rome, Perseus immediately began intriguing in Greece. He invited back into Macedonia absconding debtors, condemned exiles, and those who had been compelled to leave their country of charges of treason. He caused notices to be put up to that effect at Delos, Delphi, and the temple of Athena at Iton, offering not only indemnity to all who returned, but also the restoration of the property lost by their exile." (Polybius, Histories, Book XXV, Kindle location 15557).

It is not so surprising that a king looking for a restoration to power should appeal to malcontents, and people who have gone bankrupt are certainly that. Nor is it surprising that one might seek to communicate with this group by putting up placards in public places. It would not be surprising at all, except that the Jesus Seminar assures us that the only people who could read in antiquity were in no danger of going bankrupt,— it was a stagnant 'peasant' society, don't you know,— and "absconding debtors" had no chance of being literate.

When Augustus Caesar was emperor, he feared the people might be so rude as to elect candidates to office whom he disliked. To correct their error,— did they think this was a democracy or something?— he issued a bulletin indicating who were the approved candidates: "Instead, he had the previous year personally appointed all who were to hold office, because there were factional outbreaks: this year and those following he merely posted a kind of bulletin and made known to the plebs and to the people what persons he favored." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 55, Chapter 34).

The brutal dictator Sulla published the names of proscribed persons on "whitened tablets," and those concerned ran to it "in crowds:"

"But Sulla was not satisfied, nor was he content to do the same as others: a certain longing came over him to far excel all in the variety of his slaughters, as if there were some virtue in being second to none even in blood-guiltiness, and so he exposed to view a new device, a whitened tablet, on which he inscribed the names. . .The tablets were exposed like some register of senators or list of soldiers approved, and all those passing by at one time or another ran eagerly to it in crowds, with the idea that it contained some favorable announcement: then many found relatives' names and some, indeed, their own inscribed for death, whereupon their condition, overwhelmed by such a sudden disaster, was a terrible one; many of them, making themselves known by their behavior, perished. There was no particle of safety for any one outside of Sulla's company. For whether a man approached the tablets, he incurred censure for meddling with matters not concerning him, or if he did not approach he was regarded as a malcontent. The man who read the list through or asked any question about anything inscribed became suspected of enquiring about himself or his companions, and the one who did not read or enquire was suspected of being displeased at it and for that reason incurred hatred. Tears or laughter proved fatal on the instant. . ." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Remains of Books 30-35, B.C. 81, Fragment CVI, Kindle location 4174, Delphi).

Diodorus Siculus mentions a similar set of circumstances: "The names of those that were proscribed being fixed up in the market-place, on a sudden a multitude of people came flocking in to read it, of whom very many pitied those that were thus condemned to die." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Fragments of Book XXXVII, Chapter 17). There were thus a "multitude" of literate persons.

Claudius Caesar caused coming attractions for the spectacles to be put up for the public's convenience:

"Yet a lion that had been trained to eat men and on this account greatly pleased the crowd he ordered killed on the principle that it was not fitting for Romans to gaze on such a sight. He received abundant praise, however, for appearing in the people's midst at the spectacle, for giving them all they wanted, and for his employing a herald so very little and announcing most events by notices written on boards." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 60, Chapter 13).

Would an illiterate public be grateful for his announcing the games in a way they could not decode?

Trade-marks early came into use; a potter's name marking his wares afforded a measure of quality control: "In the above-mentioned Cales there appears to have been devised soon after its foundation a peculiar kind of figured earthenware, which was marked with the name of the masters and the place of manufacture, and was sold over a wide district as far even as Etruria." (Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Book 2, Chapter IX, Kindle location 8865). How useful or recoverable this information might have been to an illiterate buying public is unclear.

Fair Warning

Gentiles were forbidden to enter the temple at Jerusalem:

"Enemies have stretched out their hands
over all her precious things;
she has even seen the nations
invade her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade
to enter your congregation." (Lamentations 1:10)
"Say to the rebellious house, to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: O house of Israel, let there be an end to all your abominations in admitting foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, to be in my sanctuary, profaning my temple when you offer to me my food, the fat and the blood...Thus says the Lord GOD: No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary." (Ezekiel 44:7-9).

A written sign stating this in Greek and Latin was considered adequate notice:

  • “When you go through these [first] cloisters, unto the second [court of the] temple, there was a partition made of stone all round, whose height was three cubits: its construction was very elegant; upon it stood pillars, at equal distances from one another, declaring the law of purity, some in Greek, and some in Roman letters, that “no foreigner should go within that sanctuary” for that second [court of the] temple was called “the Sanctuary,” and was ascended to by fourteen steps from the first court.”
  • (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book V, Chapter 5.2).

  • "Have not you been allowed to put up the pillars thereto belonging, at due distances, and on it to engrave in Greek, and in your own letters, this prohibition, that no foreigner should go beyond that wall. Have not we given you leave to kill such as go beyond it, though he were a Roman?"
  • (The speaker is Titus, quoted in Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book VI, Chapter 2.4)

Realizing that the penalty for a curious Roman soldier who happened to wander past the line was death, why was written notice deemed adequate, if almost everyone of that day was illiterate?

On a like note, Hannibal's Carthaginians has seized Tarentum, and gave instructions to the inhabitants:

"Presently when Hannibal had marched his forces into the market-place, and the Romans had retired into the citadel, as having been previously secured by them with a garrison, and it had become broad daylight, the Carthaginian general caused a proclamation to be made to the Tarentines to assemble in full number in the market-place. . .and he dismissed the crowd with an injunction to each man, to go with all speed to his own house, and write over the door, 'A Tarentine's;' but if any one wrote the same word on a house where a Roman was living, he declared the penalty to be death. He then personally told off the best men he had for the service, and sent them to plunder the houses of the Romans; giving them as their instructions to consider all houses which had no inscription as belonging to the enemy: the rest of his men he kept drawn up as a reserve." (Polybius, The Histories, Book VIII, Chapter 33).

Had the homeowners not been literate, they'd have been out of luck; had Hannibal's soldiers not been able to read 'A Tarentine's,' they'd have plundered their friends.


What reason did the Greeks themselves give for their habit of carving public inscriptions? So that everybody might know:

  • “I have thought it well to append the decree also which the Athenians passed concerning him [Zeno]. It reads as follows:
    "'In the archonship of Arrhenides, in the fifth prytany of the tribe Acamantis on the twenty-first day of Maemacterion, at the twenty-third plenary assembly of the prytany, one of the presidents, Hippo, the son of Cratistoteles, of the deme Xypetaeon, and his co-presidents put the question to the vote; Thraso, the son of Thraso of the deme Acacaea, moved:
    "'Whereas Zeon of Citium, son of Mnaseas, has for many years been devoted to philosophy in the city and has continued to be a man of worth in all other respects, exhorting to virtue and temperance those of the youth who come to him to be has seemed good to the people -- and may it turn out well -- to bestow praise upon Zeno of Citium, the son of Mnaseas, and to crown him with a golden crown according to the law, for his goodness and temperance, and to build him a tomb in the Ceramicus at the public cost...and the Secretary of State shall inscribe this decree on two stone pillars and it shall be lawful for him to set up one in the Academy and the other in the Lyceum. And that the magistrate presiding over the administration shall apportion the expense incurred upon the pillars, that all may know that the Athenian people honor the good both in their life and after their death.'”
  • (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Volume II, Book VII, Chapter 1, 10-12).

If the purpose of all this engraving is "that all may know," how does this expensive practice serve any such purpose in a society where almost everyone is illiterate?

Spare No Pains

That it is the duty of parents to superintend their children's education is a commonplace of ancient literature:

  • “Now, first of all, a parent is a builder of a child.
    He lays the groundwork, as it were, sees that he's styled.
    He brings him up, prepares him to grow tall and straight,
    In hopes that what he builds may some day serve the state --
    Or stand alone at least. In all events,
    They spare no pains, and they spare no expense.
    Then it's lots of schooling: arts and letters, legal lore to build his brain.
    Expensive. Parents strain
    To raise a son who'll show the level others might attain.”
  • (Plautus, The Haunted House, 120-129).

Those Left Out

The literacy that was the normal condition for free-born town-dwellers was harder for other social groups to achieve. We are accustomed, when talking about the 'citizens' of the U.S., to mean just about everybody who lives here, excluding only illegal aliens. It must not be forgotten that in the ancient city-states, the 'citizens' were a sub-set of the population: offspring of two free-born residents, or indeed: sometimes legitimate offspring only, with both parents native-born.

Yet even slaves can not always be assumed to be illiterate, as already noted. Ancient Rome was a city of immigrants, though many of them arrived in chains. Those reduced to slavery in war included northern barbarians who lacked any written alphabet; the literacy rates amongst such groups were zero, by definition. Even within the bounds of the long-civilized nations hugging the Mediterranean, literacy was lumpy. Modern-day detractors therefore prefer to focus on such countries as Egypt, where literacy was long the preserve of a small coterie of scribes. Lacking for a long while a true phonetic alphabet, this area likely did lag. Though the Chinese are showing the world a phonetic alphabet is not a prerequisite to universal literacy, a simple, easily-learned alphabet like the Greek is undoubtedly a great help.

Origen says that uneducated people outnumber the learned:

"And although, among the multitude of converts to Christianity, the simple and ignorant necessarily outnumbered the more intelligent, as the former class always does the latter..." (Origen, Contra Celsum, Book 1, Chapter 27).

He does not specify how many of the 'simple and ignorant' possess bare literacy and how many none at all. In a similar vein, Tertullian explains that 'the simple' are the largest group: "The simple, indeed, (I will not call them unwise and unlearned,) who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation (of the Three in One), on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world's plurality of gods to the one only true God;. . ." (Tertullian, 'Against Praxeas,' Chapter III.) But who are "the simple"? People without a theological education? Or people who can't read?

Certainly some groups were left out, looking in on the literate world from the outside. But even the left-out groups: country-dwellers, women, and slaves,— were never left out to the very last person; in all these groups some were literate. One literate rustic was Aeschylus, called by the daemon to literary pursuits from his vineyard, as Amos was called by the living God from his herds and sycamores:

"Aischylos said that when he was a boy he was asleep in the country looking after a vineyard, and Dionysos met him and told him to write tragedies. When day broke he wanted not to disobey, so he tried, and composed with the greatest ease. That is what Aischylos said." (Pausanias, Guide to Greece, Volume I, Book 1, 21.3).

The rustic population, whose opportunities for education were spotty, must have been vast. It is interesting to note that this population lagged, not only in literacy, but also in adoption of Christianity; the word 'pagan' originally meant simply 'peasant, country-dweller.' But the urban population was also huge, nor was there any wall between these two worlds. Many city-dwellers, namely women and slaves, lagged behind, though none of these classes was completely locked out. A conservative estimate for the percentage of the total population, including all classes and conditions, who were literate, in the civilized world of the first century, is 25%.


It is sometimes alleged by the modern 'Jesus' industry that people in ancient times had no concept of an actual quotation, offering as evidence historians like Thucydides, who admitted to composing such speeches for his generals and politicians as seemed suitable. But not only did the ancients comprehend this distinction, they even employed shorthand-takers:

"He [Cicero] had previously taught those secretaries who were especially rapid writers to use symbols which served to compress the sense, and then had these men dispersed here and there through the senate house. Up to that time the Romans had not trained or even possessed what we call shorthand writers, but that day, they say, the first move towards employing some such method was made." (Plutarch, Life of Cato the Younger, 23, Plutarch's Lives).

Nor does Thucydides explain that he does not comprehend the difference between a quote and a paraphrase; rather, he apologizes that verbatim transcripts were not available to him. Stenographers were employed not only by the law-courts but also by private persons: "Accordingly, I engaged a stenographer, so that: '. . . the winds might not scatter our labor,' and I allowed nothing to be lost." (Augustine, Against the Academics, Book One, Preface, Ancient Christian Writers No. 12, 1950, p. 39.) If there ever were a never-never land whose inhabitants did not understand the difference between a verbatim transcript and a free invention, such would not have been the place that invented stenography, which assumes a meaningful difference between the two.

Julius Caesar could, according to Pliny the Elder, dictate four letters at once: "We find it stated that he was able to write or read, and, at the same time, to dictate and listen. He could dictate to his secretaries four letters at once, and those on the most important business; and, indeed, if he was busy about nothing else, as many as seven." (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book VII, Chapter 25). Some transcribers were speedy, like the trusty Tiro, some slower: "Consequently I did not dictate it even to Tiro, who usually takes down whole periods at a breath, but syllable by syllable to Spintharus." (Cicero, Letters, Book 13, Letters to Atticus, Letter 25). The Jews were aware of the technology:

"He answered me and said, 'Go and gather the people, and tell them not to seek you for forty days. But prepare for yourself many writing tablets, and take with you Sarea, Dabria, Selemia, Ethanus, and Asiel — these five, because they are trained to write rapidly; and you shall come here, and I will light in your heart the lamp of understanding, which shall not be put out until what you are about to write is finished." (The Fourth Book of Ezra, Chapter 14, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James H. Charlesworth, p. 554)

Christian authors like Origen used dictation to compile their voluminous writings; when his staff deserted him during the controversies surrounding his departure from Egypt, he couldn't get anything done: "Indeed, the ready writers who usually attended me brought my work to a stand by failing to appear to take down my words." (Origen, A Commentary on the Gospel of John, Book 6, Chapter 1, p. 558, ECF_0_10).


Caesar's Army

Caesar's army was swept by a 'The Germans are Coming' scare, and the men spent what they feared would be their last days on this earth putting their documents in order:

"Throughout the camp all the men were signing and sealing their wills." (Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.39)

How were they doing that, if they were entirely illiterate?

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Small Print

Gaius Caligula Caesar levied "new and unheard-of taxes." The people wanted to know these laws, so as not to liable for fines in addition to the tax owed. But the devious and greedy Caligula published the small print:

"When taxes of this kind had been proclaimed, but not published in writing, inasmuch as many offenses were committed through ignorance of the letter of the law, he at last, on the urgent demand of the people, had the law posted up, but in a very narrow place and in excessively small letters, to prevent the making of a copy." (Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Gaius Caligula).

If hardly anyone was literate, why would the people have demanded this measure, and why would they have been inconvenienced when the 'small print' made it difficult to copy the new laws?

From old times the Roman twelve tables had been inscribed on tablets open to public view: "Though the laws be graved on twelve tables, and the statutes publicly lettered on entablature of brass, amid those very laws is wickedness committed, amongst those statutes are offenses wrought." (The Treatises of Caecilius Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and Martyr, Charles Thornton, Treatise I, On the Grace of God, addressed to Donatus, Chapter 9).

Athens under the democracy had similar publication requirements:

"Those laws which are approved shall be inscribed upon the wall, where they were inscribed aforetime, for all to see.

"There was a revision of the laws, gentlemen, in obedience to this decree, and such as were approved were inscribed in the Portico. When this had been done, we passed a law which is universally enforced. Kindly read it. 'In no circumstances shall magistrates enforce a law which has not been inscribed.'

"Is any loophole left here? Can a single suit be brought before a jury by a magistrate or set in motion by one of you, save under the laws inscribed? Then if it is illegal to enforce a law which has not been inscribed, there can surely be no question of enforcing a decree which has not been inscribed."

(84-86, Andocides, Speeches, On the Mysteries)

In other cases there is mention of painting or inscribing the laws on wooden tablets: "And Croesus, we are told, asked Pittacus, "What is the best form of government you have seen?" And he replied, "That of the painted wood," referring to the laws." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Book IX (fragments), Chapter 27). A convenience for a literate populace, of uncertain benefit to the presumed illiterate herd.

Writing on the Wall

When the Roman city of Pompeii was entombed by the eruption of Vesuvius, ephemeral bits and pieces of city life were preserved, including graffiti. The messages left on the wall do not confirm that only upper-class people were literate; one exchange involved a romantic rivalry between two weavers:

"Yet to judge from the numerous expostulations and invocations of Venus on Pompeii's walls, romantic love was still a potent force in at least some people's lives. Vignettes of jealous needling or flirtatious wheedling capture moments of passion that leavened their subjects' hard lives, as in the case of two weavers from nearby workshops, Successus and Severus, who traded barbed comments on the walls of a bar. 'Successus the weaver loves a barmaid named Iris who does not care about him. And the more he begs, the less she cares,' writes one rival, only to be swiftly rebuffed in what develops into an increasingly ill-tempered exchange. Innumerable other couples flirt and bicker, their tortured emoting the only mark they left on history."  (Pompeii, the Living City, by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence, p. 128)

If they were able to put "tortured emoting" up on the walls, then they must have possessed basic literacy skills. Some scrawls recommended barbers: "And there is no lack of other messages — such as price lists, recommendations for barbers, and naturally the ubiquitous obscenities — indicating that, fortunately, everyday life often diverged greatly from the austere ideal of the reigning ideology." (Paul Zanker, Pompeii: Public and Private Life, p. 116). One might suspect the barbers themselves, were it not known that only the elite could read and write; but why the elite took time out from ruling the empire to recommend barbers, they do not tell us. A written warning at Pompeii chased away street people:

"At one point in a Pompeian street, the eye of a straggler would catch this notice in doggerel verse:

"'Here's no place for loafers.
Lounger, move along!'
" (The Common People of Ancient Rome: Studies of Roman Life and Literature, Frank Frost Abbott, p. 111).

No doubt it is the upper crust against whom 'No Loitering' signs are directed, vagrancy being a common condition of the upper classes: "Writing in antiquity was an upper-class activity. . .Those who had learned to read and write in antiquity were the rulers, the wealthy, or their scribes. . .These very few atop the social pyramid cared little about the vast majority of people. . ." (John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus, Kindle location 1192).

When the Roman citizen Tiberius Gracchus proposed land reform, people flocked to his standard; they even wrote slogans on the walls:

"But the energy and ambition of Tiberius were mainly excited by the people, who urged him by writing on the porticoes, the walls, and on the tombs, to recover the public land for the poor." (Plutarch's Lives, Life of Tiberius Gracchus, Chapter VIII., Volume IV., Kindle location 939).

Who did this, the rich or the poor? Why were the rich in favor of land reform?

Plutarch, in his diatribe against busy-bodies, suggests refraining from reading this material, which evidently included simple greetings: "What difficulty is there about refraining from reading the inscriptions on tombs as we journey along the roads? Or what is there arduous in just glancing at the writing on walls when we take our walks? We have only to remind ourselves that nothing useful or pleasant has been written there: merely 'commemorates' so and so 'wishing him well,' and someone else is the 'best of friends,' and much twaddle of this sort." (Plutarch, Moralia, On Being a Busybody, Chapter 11, Complete Works of Plutarch, Kindle location 47200). Perhaps scrawling stuff on the wall was the equivalent of texting. In any event, the elite would not have needed to resort to this means of communication.

Martial mentions people reading scurrilous verses, about themselves, scrawled in the latrine: "Look out, I advise you, if you are anxious to be read of, for some dark cellar's sottish poet, one who with coarse charcoal or crumbling chalk scrawls poems which people read in the jakes." (Martial, Epigrams, Book XII, LXI.) No doubt the social and cultural elite were the people scrawling notes in the bathroom.

Even in Gaul, those employed in the textile factories idled away their time scrawling love notes: "A set of clay spindle whorls from eastern France bear flirtatious graffiti written by young men and women working in the textile industry of Roman Gaul. . .'Give in, city girl.'" (Philip Freeman, The Philosopher and the Druids, pp. 190-191). Maybe someone can explain why the top one percent were working in a textile mill in Gaul.



The reader of ancient biographies not infrequently encounters anomalously literate walk-ons, like the innkeeper who was whiling away a slow day by reading a biography of a former emperor, when future emperor Severus came to Rome:

"On his arrival at Rome he chanced upon an innkeeper who was reading the Life of the emperor Hadrian at that very time. This he seized upon as an omen of future good fortune." (Lives of the Later Caesars, Severus, p. 202 Penguin edition).

If only the top one percent could read, then what was the desk clerk doing, reading a biography?

Septimius Severus was not born to the imperial purple, his seizure of power was not a likely thing, though it happened, and some of the people he brought with him into public life from his native Libya were not of any more impressive background that was he, like Plautianus: "As a youth this Plautianus had been a poor man" (Herodian, History of the Roman Empire, Book Three, Chapter X, Section 6). Nevertheless Plautianus was literate. When he proposed that the tribune Saturninus assassinate the aged Severus so that Plautianus could seize power, Saturninus demanded to see the order in writing:

"Pretending therefore to be hearing things long prayed for and warmly welcomed, the tribune prostrated himself before Plautianus as if he were already emperor and begged him for a written memorandum ordering the murder. If a man were condemned to death without a trial, the tyrants customarily put the order in writing so that the sentence might not be carried out solely on verbal authority. Blinded by his ambition, Plautianus gave the tribune a directive in writing and sent him off to commit the murders."
(Herodian. History of the Roman Empire (Kindle Locations 1820-1825). Book Three, Chapter XI, Section 8-9.)

Saturninus promptly took this piece of incriminating evidence and went to the emperor with it. Or perhaps they will say Plautianus went to Kinko's. Is that very likely? It's an assassination order.


According to John Chrysostom, writing in the fourth century A.D., literacy is an "ordinary" achievement. Notice too how John says "children" learn letters; not 'some children' or 'noble children' but "children":

  • “For what is more ordinary than the learning of letters? nevertheless thereby do men become rhetoricians, and sophists, and philosophers, and if they know not their letters, neither will they ever have that knowledge.”
  • (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel according to Matthew, Homily 49, 8).

In a similar vein, though in a pagan context, Herodian describes the education of emperor Pertinax' son as "ordinary:" "Pertinax was so modest and unassuming that he did not bring his own son, then a young man, into the imperial palace. The youth remained in his father's house and continued to attend his regular school and gymnasium; in his education, as in all his activities, he was an ordinary Roman citizen, and displayed none of the imperial pomp and arrogance." (Herodian, History of the Roman Empire, Book II, Chapter IV, Section 9).

It sounds like, for those within the sound of John's voice, the illiterate man had become the exception, not the rule. John even gave a reading assignment to his congregation to complete at home:

The Accusation Apostolic Literacy
Many Magicians Letters of Commendation
Perpetua Oracles of God
All and Some Exhortation
Any Passer-by Pseudo-Ignatius
John Chrysostom Those Left Out
Christian Educators The Clergy

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 19-20).

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 anything.'

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 matching skill.

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 4266-4269).

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." (Strabo, 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 philosophy students:

"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." (Strabo, 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. . ." (Aulus Gellius, 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 writing?


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.