Women's Literacy in Antiquity

Pompeii, The Baker and His Wife

Woman with a Scroll The Accusation

Some people claim that women down through history have been passive spectators of a civilizational show put on by their men-folk. Women, they say, were almost never literate in ancient times:

  • “It was men who undoubtedly framed these legends and eventually recorded them, since women in that society had no access to the power that explained God or to the ability to write. . .Women thus neither influenced cultural assumptions directly nor shaped primal decisions about the nature of anything, nor were they engaged in any decision-making processes.”
  • (Bishop John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture, p. 88).

Thus Mary cannot possibly have composed her own Magnificat, because she was illiterate, of course, and therefore the Old Testament was to her a closed book. The misogynistic 'higher critics' took this tack: "Accordingly we must admit that the compilation of this hymn, consisting of recollections from the Old Testament, was put together in a natural way; but allowing its composition to have been perfectly natural, it cannot be ascribed to the artless Mary, but to him who poetically wrought out the tradition in circulation respecting the scene in question." (David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, Kindle location 3924). So they say. But is it true? Is Marian authorship of the Magnificat really out of the question? Let's see:

Women's Literacy
Cleobuline Sappho
Phaedra Daphne
Pindar's Relative Hestiaea
Agallis Arete
Hedyle 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

Woman with a Scroll Cleobuline

The evidence of ancient literature is that, at every level, women were less likely to be literate than men, but literate women were by no means unknown nor even so uncommon as is sometimes represented today. While the idea that girls as well as boys should be educated was not the majority view, some as early as Cleobulus (600 B.C.) did think so:

  • “He [Cleobulus] said that we ought to give our daughters to their husbands maidens in years but women in wisdom; thus signifying that girls need to be educated as well as boys.”
  • (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Volume 1, Book 1, Chapter 6, 91).

Cleobulus practiced what he preached: "He [Cleobulus] had a daughter Cleobuline, who composed riddles in hexameters; she is mentioned by Cratinus, who gives one of his plays her name, in the plural form Cleobulinae." (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Volume 1, Book 1, 89). Or perhaps explaining how Cleobuline "composed riddles in hexameters" without being literate will not tax our modern scholars' ambition, given what else they're willing to accommodate to their assumption of ancient illiteracy.

It would appear her given name was 'Eumetis:'

". . .Do you not yet know the wise and famous Eumetis? for so her father calls her, though others call her after her father's name Cleobulina. Doubtless, saith Niloxenus, they call her by this name to commend her judgment and wit, and her reach into the more abstruse and recondite part of learning; for I have myself in Egypt seen and read some problems first started and discussed by her." (Plutarch. Complete Works of Plutarch — Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies (Kindle Locations 9465-9467). The Banquet of the Seven Wise Men.)


"'Who was Atthis?' men shall ask,
When the world is old, and time
Has accomplished without haste
The strange destiny of men.

"Haply in that far-off age
One shall find these silver songs,
With their human freight, and guess
What a lover Sappho was." (Sappho, XXXIV)

'Who was Atthis?' A victim of child molestation, posterity replies. At any event, the evidence of Sappho's polished output is that she was literate.

Sappho was very highly regarded by the ancients:

"Contemporary with these persons [Pittacus, Alcaeus, and Antimenidas] flourished Sappho, an extraordinary woman; for at no period within memory has any woman been known at all to be compared to her in poetry." (Strabo, Geography, Book XIII, Chapter II, Section 3, p. 391).

Martial says that he knows of a woman at least as, if not more learned than Sappho:

"This is Theophila your affianced bride, Canius, she whose mind is steeped in Attic lore. . .Sappho the lover praised a poetess: More pure is Theophila, yet Sappho was not more learned." (Martial, Epigrams, Book VII, LXIX).

Lady with Scroll Phaedra

Surviving caches of letters preserved by Egypt's dry heat contain many letters written by women. The partisans of ancient illiteracy point to the presence in the ancient world of business establishments that correlate with Kinko's or Mailboxes, Etc., where an illiterate client might dictate a letter, or have one read. There were indeed such establishments, and even literate persons like Paul preferred to dictate letters, as indeed many businessmen do today.

For this reason this page stresses letters whose authors might not have wanted their contents made public, like an adulterous love note...or a suicide note. Had Phaedra called in her stenographer and purred, 'be a dear and take down this suicide note,' would not this functionary have raised a hue and cry throughout the palace, that the queen was planning to do away with herself?

The plot of Euripides' 'Hippolytus' hangs upon Phaedra's suicide note, with its lethal false accusation. After Phaedra hangs herself, her husband notices a tablet tied to her wrist:

  • “Theseus: Ha, what is this that hangs from her dear hand?
    A tablet! It would make me understand
    Some dying wish, some charge about her bed
    And children. 'Twas the last prayer, ere her head
    Was bowed for ever.
    "Fear not, my lost bride,
    No woman born shall lie at Theseus' side,
    Nor rule in Theseus' house!
    "A seal! Ah, see
    How her gold signet here looks up at me,
    Trustfully. Let me tear this thread away,
    And read what tale the tablet seeks to say.”
  • (Euripides, Hippolytus, 856-865).

Euripides, though a daring innovator at times, is here just telling the traditional story:

"Phaedra fell in love with her stepson, and sent her nurse to him; but he left Athens and, coming to Troezen, devoted himself to hunting. But when the wanton woman failed to obtain her cherished desire, she indited a false letter against the chaste youth and ended her life with a halter. Theseus believed the letter and asked from Poseidon the destruction of Hippolytus as fulfilment of one of the three wishes which he had as a concession from Poseidon." (Pseudo-Plutarch, Parallel Stories 34, Moralia Volume IV).

If Phaedra did not write this suicide note, who did? If Phaedra was illiterate, how did she manage to write a suicide note?

Whatever Phaedra's ontological status, the author and his audience saw nothing out of place in a woman writing, in her own hand, a suicide note. Phaedra may have been a touch mythical, but, hey, lots of folks were back then. For another perhaps mythical, but certainly literate, personage, see Iphigenia, who wrote out a letter to her brother, Orestes,— and unknowingly handed it to her brother. This unhappy daughter of Agamemnon, in this version of the story spared her own sacrifice only to become a sacrificing priestess, was literate:

"Whilst the fair youths carry on their contest of love, to her brother she traces written letters. To her brother she was sending the missive and he to whom it was given— behold the fate of man!— was in fact her brother!" (Ovid, Letters, Book III, Letter II To Cotta).

Another literate, if perchance mythical, personage was Carmenta, Evander's mom, who, some say, invented the Roman alphabet by modification of the Greek: "They say that Mercury first brought these Greek letters to Egypt, Cadmus then imported them from Egypt to Greece, and finally the exile Evander exported them from Arcadia to Italy where his mother Carmenta changed them into Latin characters, fifteen in number." (Hyginus, Fabulae, 277, Hackett, p. 182). Aulus Gellius chides an archaizing author for writing as if he were speaking with Carmentia herself: "You, on the contrary, just as if you were talking to-day with Evander's mother, use words that have already been obsolete for many years, because you want no one to know and comprehend what you are saying." (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights, Book 1, Chapter X). If Evander was a human being, his mom was a human being as well, and she is credited with inventing the Latin alphabet we all use.

According to Virgil, the Cumaean Sibyl confided her prophecies to writing by her own hand: "Ashore there, when you reach the town of Cumae, Avernus' murmuring forests, haunted lakes, You'll see a spellbound prophetess, who sings In her deep cave of destinies, confiding Symbols and words to leaves. Whatever verse She writes, the virgin puts each leaf in order Back in the cave. . ." (Virgil, Aeneid, Book III, Robert Fitzgerald, p. 81). While mythical people have their own set of existential issues, those who wrote about them were real, and convinced there are literate women.


In antiquity there were women associated with temple sites who 'prophesied,'— raved is more like it,— upon exposure to noxious gases or perhaps simple deprivation of oxygen. A library of literature has come down to us under the name of Plutarch, some of which may have been written by the author of the Parallel Lives, but much likely not. One work in this library, 'On the Cessation of the Oracles,' describes the procedure employed at these places. The woman would be exposed to springs of water or vents in seismically active areas: ". . .the earth sends forth springs of water productive of various effects upon mankind—some being productive of delirium, and disease, and death; and others that are good, benignant, and salubrious, as they prove by experience to such as frequent them. But the prophetic stream or blast is the most godlike and most holy, whether it be taken in with the air or drawn from the liquid fountain. . ." (Plutarch, On the Cessation of the Oracles, XL.) In at least one instance, these fumes or the lack of oxygen proved lethal to the unfortunate woman: "At last being completely driven out of her senses, and rushing with a shriek to the entrance, she threw herself on the ground; so that not only the consulters took to flight in terror, but even the interpreter Nicander, and such of the holy men as were present. After a little while, however, they went in again, and picked her up—she was insane, and only survived for a few days." (Plutarch, On the Cessation of the Oracles, LI.) In some cases the ravings of these addled women were noted down by assistants, tidied up, rendered plausible and cast into hexameters by other hands. But in some cases they did it themselves:

"Consequently the Cadmeans left the city, as the seer had counseled them to do, and gathered for refuge by night in a place in Boeotia called Tilphossaeum. Thereupon the Epigoni took the city and sacked it, and capturing Daphnŕ, the daughter of Teiresias, they dedicated her, in accordance with a certain vow, to the service of the temple at Delphi as an offering to the god of the first-fruits of the booty. This maiden possessed no less knowledge of prophecy than her father, and in the course of her stay at Delphi she developed her skill to a far greater degree; moreover, by virtue of the employment of a marvelous natural gift, she also wrote oracular responses of every sort, excelling in their composition; and indeed it was from her poetry, they say, that the poet Homer took many verses which he appropriated as his own and with them adorned his own poesy. And since she was often like one inspired when she delivered oracles, they say that she was also called Sibylla, for to be inspired in one’s tongue is expressed by the word sibyllainein." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Book IV, 66.5-6).

Professional activity as a poet is not itself conclusive proof of literacy. The ancients themselves told of Homer, the blind bard, whose knowledge of preceding literature could only have come from recitation and memory, not reading, Braille not yet having been invented. Indeed we know of cases of illiterate authors who produced their volumes through dictation. The 'unlettered prophet,' Mohammed ibn Abdallah, although on his death-bed he requested writing materials (Sahih Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 288), possessed a degree of verbal skill falling short of true literacy. Yet he produced a large book, the Koran, parts of which are of considerable literary quality though the whole is marred by repetition and disorganization.

However, where poetry is polished and filled with literary allusions, such professional activity is at a minimum presumptive evidence in favor of literacy, if admittedly not conclusive proof. An illiterate author requires assistance as her literate sister does not; can such assistance, by literate scribes, researchers, and helpers, always be presumed available? The more precious, polished and recondite the verses, the less likely their author does not natively inhabit the poetry world. So, yes, there could be an illiterate poet, though most poets are literate, and one would not rummage through the ranks of poets expecting to find illiterates; look elsewhere. Thus, the female poets of antiquity provide circumstantial evidence against the claim of women's near-universal illiteracy. Take, for example, the poetess Aristomache:

"But Polemo the Athenian's "Commentary of the Treasures of the City Delphi" I suppose most of you have diligently perused, he being a very learned man in the Greek Antiquities. In him you shall find that in the Sicyonian treasure there was a golden book dedicated to the god, with this inscription: Aristomache, the poetess of Erythraea, dedicated this after she had got the prize at the Isthmian games." (Plutarch. Complete Works of Plutarch — Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies (Kindle Locations 3511-3513), Symposiacs, Book V, Question II: That the Prize for Poets at the Games was Ancient.)

Though I cannot find anything about her but the bare name, it seems unlikely a poet good enough to win a competitive prize would have been altogether illiterate.

Pindar's Relative

"There was an old woman in Thebes who was closely related to Pindar and had learnt how to sing most of his songs. Pindar came to this old woman in a dream and sang a hymn to Persephone; as soon as this sleep left her she wrote down everything she heard him singing in the dream." (Pausanias, Guide to Greece, Volume 1, Book IX, 23.2)

Notice she did not go out to her local Kinko's to record this posthumous work of Pindar, she wrote it down herself "as soon as this sleep left her."

Greek Red-Figure Vase

Lady with ScrollHestiaea

Hestiaea the grammarian wrote a commentary on Homer's Iliad:

"Demetrius (of Scepsis) adds the testimony of Hestiaea of Alexandreia, who composed a work on the Iliad of Homer, and discusses the question whether the scene of the war was about the present city, and what was the Trojan plain which the poet mentions as situated between the city and the sea, for the plain seen in front of the present city is an accumulation of earth brought down by the rivers, and formed at a later period." (Strabo, Geography, Book XIII, Chapter 1, Section 36, p. 364).

Another reported female grammarian, for whom little actual information is available, is Volusia Tertullina, "Selene clearly exerted a powerful influence given the overtly Egyptian style of her court and 'the unusually elevated status of women at Caesaraea in the centuries following her death,' when educated women such as the grammarian Volusia Tertullina were part of a prominent female elite." (Cleopatra the Great, Joann Fletcher, p. 336). Selene was Cleopatra's daughter. There is a North African inscription relating to this woman, unfortunately no surviving works.


Another lady grammarian is Agallis, mentioned in Athenaeus's 'Deipnosophists:'

"The dances spoken of in Homer are partly those of tumblers and partly those of ball-players; the invention of which last kind Agallis, the Corcyrean authoress, who wrote on grammar, attributes to Nausicaa, paying a compliment to her own countrywoman; but Dicaearchus attributes it to the Sicyonians." (Book I, Epitome, Chapter 25, The Deipnosophists, or Banquet of the Learned, Athenaeus).


This virtuous lady, or so she is named, was for a time the head of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, founded by her father Aristippus:

"Remarkable persons of Cyrene were Aristippus, the Socratic philosopher, who established the Cyrenaic philosophy, and his daughter named Arete, who succeeded to his school; she again was succeeded by her son Aristippus, who was called Metrodidactos, (mother-taught,) and Anniceris, who is supposed to have reformed the Cyrenaic sect, and to have introduced in its stead the Anniceric sect." (Strabo, Geography, Book XVII, Chapter III, Section 22, Volume III, p. 293).

Diogenes Laertius gives similar information,

"The disciples of Aristippus were his daughter Arete, Aethiops of Ptolemais, and Antipater of Cyrene. The pupil of Arete was Aristippus, who went by the name of mother-taught, and his pupil was Theodorus, known as the atheist, subsequently as 'god.'" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book II, Chapter 8, Aristippus, Volume I, pp. 215-217 Loeb edition).

The Cyrenaic school was similar to the Epicurean, teaching the pleasure principle and moral relativism: "They also held that nothing is just or honorable or base by nature, but only by convention and custom." (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Book II, Chapter 8, Volume I, p. 221 Loeb edition). Perhaps this leading philosopher is one of the women about whom Proclus says, "For there have been found well-educated women, who have been superior to men." (Proclus, Commentary on the Timaeus of Plato, Book I, p. 49). Clement also confirms that she educated her son: "Arete of Cyrene, too, the daughter of Aristippus, educated her son Aristippus, who was surnamed Mother-taught." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book IV, Chapter XIX).

Another female author Diogenes Laertius mentions is Pamphila, "Pamphila in the twenty-fifth book of her Memorabilia says that the Arcadians and Thebans, when they were founding Megalopolis, invited Plato to be their legislator; but that, when he discovered that they were opposed to equality of possessions, he refused to go." (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, Plato, Chapter III, 23, pp. 297-299 Loeb edition).

Cyprus, Woman Writing, Fourth Century B.C.

Lady with ScrollHedyle

The recondite style of this lady poetess suggests she was literate:

"But Hedylus, whether he was a Samian or an Athenian I know not, says that Glaucus was enamored of Melicerta, and threw himself into the sea after him. But Hedyle, the mother of this poet, and daughter of Moschine of Attica, a poetess who composed iambics, in her poem which is entitled Scylla, relates that Glaucus being in love with Scylla came to her cave—

"'Bearing a gift of love, a mazy shell,
Fresh from the Erythrean rock, and with it too
The offspring, yet unfledged, of Alcyon,
To win th' obdurate maid. He gave in vain.'" (Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, or the Banquet of the Learned, Book VII, Chapter 48).

Among the Scythians

The Scythians were a barbarous people with whom the Greeks had contact. Their region includes modern-day Russia. A civilized, Greek-speaking woman happened to marry a Scythian chieftain, according to Herodotus, and naturally enough taught her son Greek:

  • “For Ariapeithes the king of the Scythians with other sons had Skyles born to him: and he was born of a woman who was of Istria, and certainly not a native of Scythia; and this mother taught him the language and letters of Hellas.
  • (Herodotus, Histories, Book IV, Chapter 78).

How did this woman, who must have been illiterate,— as were, modern scholars assure us, almost all women in classical antiquity,— manage to teach her son the Greek language and letters?


Another woman who taught her children, learning letters late in life so that she could do so, was Euydice of Hierapolis:

"And here we may take example from Eurydice of Hierapolis, who, although she was an Illyrian, and so thrice a barbarian, yet applied herself to learning when she was well advanced in years, that she might teach her children. Her love towards her children appears evidently in this Epigram of hers, which she dedicated to the Muses:
"Eurydice to the Muses here doth raise
This monument, her honest love to praise;
Who her grown sons that she might scholars breed,
Then well in years, herself first learned to read."
(Plutarch, The Training of Children)


When the space shuttle blew up, President Ronald Reagan delivered a graceful little address that impressed people so much, they started wondering, who wrote it? When the writer turned out to be Peggy Noonan, a White House speech-writer, no one found this factoid scurrilous or incredible.

The Socratic dialogue 'Menexenus' reports that Athenian general Pericles had a Peggy Noonan; her name was Aspasia. 'Menexenus' is sometimes listed in the Platonic canon, sometimes not. This dialogue includes a 'sample' speech which, if the reader cares to analyze it, can scarcely be thought to have been written by an illiterate person. It would be difficult for an illiterate author to compile such facts and figures about military operations as are incorporated into that speech. Plutarch, a careful researcher, thought that a.) Plato had written the Menexenus, and b.) the information reported about Aspasia was accurate:

"Aspasia, some say, was courted and caressed by Pericles upon account of her knowledge and skill in politics. Socrates himself would sometimes go to visit her, and some of his acquaintance with him; and those who frequented her company would carry their wives with them to listen to her. Her occupation was anything but creditable, her house being a home for young courtesans. Aeschines tells us, also, that Lysicles, a sheep-dealer, a man of low birth and character, by keeping Aspasia company after Pericles's death, came to be a chief man in Athens. And in Plato's Menexenus, though we do not take the introduction as quite serious, still thus much seems to be historical, that she had the repute of being resorted to by many of the Athenians for instruction in the art of speaking." (Plutarch, Life of Pericles).

It seems doubtful that Plato did write the 'Menexenus,' as it breaks into the charmed circle of Socratic discourse according to which 'the many' lived lives devoted to animal pleasures. As this dialogue shows, during this period, the kind of oratory that appealed to 'the many' featured dead soldiers exhorting those who survived them to practice virtue, a familiar enough theme to readers of Greek oratory which, however, falls outside the Socratic paradigm. There is not enough of the oft-cited 'Socratic irony' in the dialogue to cover up this discordant fact about the Athenian 'many.' Whoever the author actually was, he was an ancient Athenian, and there is no good reason to discount the information about the eloquent, and literate, Aspasia. Clement thought she was: "Lastheneia of Arcis, and Axiothea of Philus, studied philosophy with Plato. Besides, Aspasia of Miletus, of whom the writers of comedy write much, was trained by Socrates in philosophy, by Pericles in rhetoric." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book IV, Chapter XIX).

Woman with Scroll, Pompeii

Lady with ScrollPythagoras' Mother

Pythagoras, the first man to call himself a 'philosopher,' was the founder of a religious sect who made extravagant claims for himself. His awed followers called him, not Pythagoras, but 'that man.' According to a skeptic, Pythagoras, bent on imposture, made a pact with his mother which implies her literacy:

"Pythagoras, on coming to Italy, made a subterranean dwelling and enjoined on his mother to mark and record all that passed, and at what hour, and to send her notes down to him until he should ascend. She did so." (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Volume II, Book VIII, Chapter 1, 41).

The underground sojourn became part of the discipline imposed on the postulant: ". . .he imitated it and himself also taught his disciples to be silent, and obliged the student to remain quietly in rooms underneath the earth." (A Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library, Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Kindle location 6362, quote from Hippolytus of Rome, Refutation of All Heresies, Book I, Chapter 2). If there is factual basis to the story, then his mother was literate. At any rate, Diogenes thinks it plausible that she may have been, so much so at least as to make it worthwhile to repeat the story.

He also evidently attracted women converts. According to his biographer Iamblichus, Pythagoras lectured to women in the temple of Juno in Crotona. Evidently he made an impact: "But through this praise pertaining to piety, Pythagoras is said to have produced so great a change in female attire, that the women no longer dared to clothe themselves with costly garments, but consecrated many myriads of their vestments in the temple of Juno." (p. 26, Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras, Chapter XI). A female disciple named Theano wrote philosophical treatises, or at any rate such were attributed to her:

"Moreover, some say that Phanothea, the wife of Icarius, invented the heroic hexameter; others Themis, one of the Titanides. Didymus, however, in his work On the Pythagorean Philosophy, relates that Theano of Crotona was the first woman who cultivated philosophy and composed poems." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Miscellanies, Book 1, Chapter 16).

Theano is sometimes stated to be Pythagoras' wife; whether the writing Theano was his wife, or was some other party, perhaps named after her, is unclear. Clement quotes Theano, "For the Pythagorean Theano writes, 'Life were indeed a feast to the wicked, who, having done evil, then die; were not the soul immortal, death would be a godsend.'" (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book IV, Chapter VII). There is a tendency in religious sects for names to be recycled: just think of how many 'Muhammad's' and 'Fatima's' there are, in circles devoted to following the unlettered Arabian prophet. The writing Theano may thus have been a disciple of the next generation. The Pythagoreans became notorious for forging later writings under the names of earlier dignitaries; still one cannot rule out the possible existence of an 'historical Theano.'

According to Clement, Theano had a daughter, Myia, who was also educated in the Pythagorean philosophy:

"Themisto too, of Lampsacus, the daughter of Zoilus, the wife of Leontes of Lampsacus, studied the Epicurean philosophy, as Myia the daughter of Theano the Pythagorean, and Arignote, who wrote the history of Dionysius. And the daughters of Diodorus, who was called Kronus, all became dialecticians, as Philo the dialectician says in the Menexenus, whose names are mentioned as follows — Menexene, Argia, Theognis, Artemesia, Pantaclea." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book IV, Chapter XIX).

At its best, Pythagorean ethics can ascend nearly to the heights of Christianity: "Such as you wish your neighbor to be to you, such also be to your neighbors." (Sentence 20, Sentences of Sextus the Pythagorean; since there is no evidence of this treatise existing prior to the Christian era, it is not really a prefiguring of the Golden Rule). At its lowest, however, it reflects confusion about beans. The sect produced its own body of literature. There survives a Pythagorean treatise, 'On the Harmony of Women,' whose stated author is Perictyone, a female name, also 'On Woman's Temperance,' whose stated author is Phyntis, Daughter of Callicrates. Pythagoras' sect flourished for some centuries, attracting many converts, but then fell on hard times, at least as a communal, self-perpetuating fellowship, although some of their tenets were revived by Plato and others. It is customary for critics to deny that the treatises in the Pythagorean corpus were written by their stated authors, but the forger's choice is not likely to have fallen on people who were non-existent in the first place. It is common for religious sects to recycle the names of the founding generation; think of all the Muslim 'Fatima's' and Christian 'Mary's.' While it is not now possible to unravel who some of these people were, there were evidently literate, treatise-writing women within the Pythagorean ranks. If the skeptic says there were not, he must also explain why they kept making them up.


Epicurus the philosopher is reported to have written letters to Leontion the courtesan and to Themista, the wife of a disciple:

"Also that in his letters he wrote to Leontion, 'O Lord Apollo, my dear little Leontion, with what tumultuous applause we were inspired as we read your letter.' Then again to Themista, the wife of Leonteus: 'I am quite ready, if you do not come to see me, to spin thrice on my own axis...'" (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Volume II, Book X, 5)

Diogenes, an Epicurean, waxes indignant at these reports and seeks to discredit them, although he concedes these women were part of Epicurus' social circle. Whether or not the philosopher who made pleasure the end of life corresponded with courtesans, these reports cannot have originated in a social milieu in which women were assumed illiterate and incapable of assimilating private correspondence.

Some people say: a.) it is a known fact that virtually all Greek women were illiterate, however b.) there are courtesans like Leontion known to be literate; therefore c.) the Greeks must have nurtured an institution like the Japanese Geisha, whose handlers caused them to be educated to enhance their value as high-priced prostitutes. No Greek author, however, is aware of any such institution or set of circumstances. Let us rather examine premise a.). Is it really known that virtually all Greek women were illiterate? What Greek author ever says so? Why allow an exception for those few women employed as courtesans while continuing to sweep the massive collection of literate Greek women who were not courtesans under the rug? Premise a.) is not fact but fiction. Women like Leontion likely acquired their education in childhood before making the life choices which resulted in their chosen profession. Greek culture put its stamp upon a wide swath of the ancient world in consequence of the Macedonian conquests. To judge by facts rather than one-size-fits-all templates, it seems Greek women of affluent background were often literate; however, this presumption of literacy does not descend as low down the social scale for women as it does for men. There is a presumption in Greek society that free-born males ought to be educated; but a middle class family willing to scrimp and save so that Junior could be educated was not often willing to make a comparable sacrifice for his sister.


"Above the theater stands a sanctuary of Aphrodite. In front of the goddess's place Telesilla, the composer of the songs, has been carved on a slab of stone; her books are thrown about at her feet; she is looking at a helmet she has in her hand and is going to put on. Telesilla was a very famous woman and a distinguished poet." (Pausanias, Guide to Greece, Volume 1, Book II, Corinth and the Argolid, 20.7)

Pausanias quotes verses by Telesilla, so evidently there remained poetry circulating under her name. Plutarch mentions her also:

"Of all the deeds performed by women for the community none is more famous than the struggle against Cleomenes for Argos, which the women carried out at the instigation of Telesilla the poetess. She, as they say, was the daughter of a famous house but sickly in body, and so she sent to the god to ask about health; and when an oracle was given her to cultivate the Muses, she followed the god's advice, and by devoting herself to poetry and music she was quickly relieved of her trouble, and was greatly admired by the women for her poetic art." (Plutarch, On the Bravery of Women, Chapter IV, The Women of Argos).

Evidently she treated mythological themes; Apollodorus cites her version the tale of Niobe, Amphion's wife, who incurred Latona's jealous anger by boasting of her many children:

"But according to Telesilla there were saved Amyclas and Meliboea, and Amphion also was shot by them [Artemis and Apollo]." (Apollodorus, The Library, Book III, v. 6-7, Loeb p. 343).

Perhaps she wrote about a pet nightingale, if Martial refers to the ancient poetess in saying, ". . .if Telesilla has set up a monument over her nightingale. . ." (Martial, Epigrams, Book VII, LXXXVII, Kindle location 4304). According to Clement of Alexandria, she seems also to have produced martial and patriotic poetry: "And they say that the Argolic women, under the guidance of Telesilla the poetess, turned to flight the doughty Spartans by merely showing themselves; and that she produced in them fearlessness of death." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book IV, Chapter 13).

Another female poet Pausanias mentions is "Moiro of Byzantium, who composed epic and elegiac verse" (Pausanias, Guide to Greece, Volume 1, Book IX, Boiotia, 5.4).


The tyrant Aristotimus, according to Plutarch, desired the women he had treacherously imprisoned to write letters urging their freedom-fighter husbands to desert the cause. Why did he make such a request, futile as it turned out? Had no one told him women in antiquity were illiterate?

"Aristotimus, alarmed at this, went to see the imprisoned women, and, thinking that he should accomplish his purpose better by fear than by favor, he gave orders to them to write and send letters to their husbands so that the men should leave the country; and if they would not write, he threatened to put them all to death after torturing them and making away with their children first. As he stood there a long time and urged them to say whether they would carry out any part of this programme, most of the women made no answer to him, but looked at one another in silence, and showed by nods that all their minds were made up not to be frightened or perturbed at the threat. Megisto, the wife of Timoleon, who, on account of her husband and her own virtues as well, held the position of leader, did not think it meet to rise, nor would she allow the other women to do so; but, keeping her seat, she made answer to him: 'If you were a sensible man, you would not be talking to women about husbands, but you would send to them, as to those having authority over us, finding better words to say to them than those by which you tricked us. But if you despair of persuading them yourself, and are attempting to use us to mislead them, do not expect to deceive us again, and I pray that they may never entertain such a base thought that, to spare their wives and little children, they should forsake the cause of their country's freedom.'" (Plutarch, On the Bravery of Women, XV. Micca and Megisto).

Plutarch mentions an uncharacteristic sally of gallantry on the part of the Athenians, who refrained from opening Philip of Macedon's letters to his wife, thinking these should be private:

"And I do not believe that the Thebans either, if they had obtained control of their enemies' letters, would have refrained from reading them, as the Athenians, when they captured Philip's mail-carriers with a letter addressed to Olympias, refrained from breaking the seal and making known an affectionate private message of an absent husband to his wife." (Plutarch, Moralia, Precepts of Statecraft, Complete Works of Plutarch, Kindle location 55054).

How could this principle, that communications between husband and wife, ever have occurred to anyone, if the wife was always obliged to find someone to read it to her? Plutarch also reports Alexander reading a "confidential" letter from Olympias: "Once when he was reading a confidential letter from his mother, and Hephaestion, who, as it happened, was sitting beside him, was quite openly reading it too, Alexander did not stop him, but merely placed his own signet-ring on Hephaestion's lips, sealing them to silence with a friend's confidence." (Plutarch, Moralia, On the Fortune or Virtue of Alexander, Book I, Chapter 11, Complete Works of Plutarch, Kindle location 41595). But if the 'scholars' of the Jesus Publishing Industry are right, there can be no such thing as a "confidential" letter from a woman.


There was a war going on between the Naxians and Milesians, and the Erythraeans were allied with the Milesians. Polycrite managed to sneak a message to her people. How, if she was illiterate?

"Diognetus, the general of the Erythraeans, entrusted with the command of a stronghold, its natural advantages reinforced by fortification to menace the city of the Naxians, gathered much spoil from the Naxians, and captured some free women and maidens; with one of these, Polycrite, he fell in love and kept her, not as a captive, but in the status of a wedded wife. Now when a festival which the Milesians celebrate came due in the army, and all turned to drinking and social gatherings, Polycrite asked Diognetus if there were any reason why she should not send some bits of pastry to her brothers. And when he not only gave her permission but urged her to do so, she slipped into a cake a note written on a sheet of lead, and bade the bearer tell her brothers that they themselves and no others should consume what she had sent. The brothers came upon the piece of lead and read the words of Polycrite, advising them to attack the enemy that night, as they were all in a state of carelessness from drink on account of the festival. Her brothers took this message to their generals and strongly urged them to set forth with themselves." (Plutarch, On the Bravery of Women, XVII, Polycrite).


Another woman poet reportedly won a prize in competition with Pindar, though Pausanias grouses it must have been her dialect that won, not her poems:

"The memorial of Korinna, the only Tanagran composer of songs, is at a conspicuous point of the city; in the training-ground there is a picture of Corinna tying her hair with a ribbon for the victory she won over Pindar at Thebes." (Pausanias, Guide to Greece, Volume 1, Book IX, Boetia, 22.3)

She reviewed Pindar's poems:

"Which admonition Pindar laying up in his mind, wrote a certain ode which thus begins:
"Shall I Ismenus sing,
Or Melia, that from spindles all of gold
Her twisted yarn unwinds,
Or Cadmus, that most ancient king. . .

"Which when he showed to Corinna, she with a smile replied: When you sow, you must scatter the seed with your hand, not empty the whole sack at once." (Plutarch, Whether the Athenians were more Renowned for their Warlike Achievements or for their Learning, The Morals, Volume 5, Section 4).

The first century Latin poet Statius mentions her in a eulogy for his departed school-teacher father, who evidently held her poetry in high regard:

"Hence came it that thou wert trusted with the fond hopes of parents, and under thy guidance noble youths were ruled, and learnt the ways and the prowess of men of old—the fate of Troy, Ulysses' tardy return, what power has Maeonides to describe in song the battles and steeds of heroes, how the bards of Asera and of Sicily enriched the faithful husbandman, the law that sways the recurrent, winding rhythms of Pindar's lyre, Ibycus who besought the birds, Alcman whose strains warlike Amyclae sang, proud Stesichorus, and bold Sappho who feared not Leucas, but took the heroic leap, and all others whom the harp has deemed worthy. Skilled were thou to expound the songs of Battus' son [Callimachus], and the dark ways and straitened speech of Lycophron, and Sophron's tangled mazes and the hidden thought of subtle Corinna." (Statius, Sylvae, Book V, III, lines 146-158, p. 317 Loeb edition).


"Praxilla, the Sicyonian poetess, was also celebrated for the composition of scholia." (Athenaeus of Naucratis, The Banquet of the learned of AthenŠus, Volume III , Book XV, 49).

Only a scattering of fragments of this woman's literary output remain, which is understandable if this memorial of Adonis is typical: "Finest of all the things I have left is the light of the sun, Next to that the brilliant stars and the face of the moon, Cucumbers in their season, too, and apples and pears." Cucumbers? This verse, according to Zenobius, was the basis for the proverbial expression, "sillier than Praxilla's Adonis." Nevertheless, she must have been literate. Tatian thought little of her poems:

"For Lysippus cast a statue of Praxilla, whose poems contain nothing useful, and Menestratus one of Learchis, and Selanion one of Sappho the courtesan, and Naucydes one of Erinna the Lesbian, and Boiscus one of Myrtis, and Cephisodotus one of Myro of Byzantium, and Gomphus one of Praxigoris, and Amphistratus one of Clito. And what shall I say about Anyta, Telesilla, and Mystis? Of the first Euthycrates and Cephisodotus made a statue, and of the second Niceratus, and of the third Aristodotus; Euthycrates made one of Mnesiarchis the Ephesian, Selanion one of Corinna, and Euthycrates one of Thalarchis the Argive." (Tatian, Address to the Greeks, Chapter 33).

Tatian brings these considerations up, not as an unprovoked attack against the pagans, but in answer to their charge that Christian assemblies include women: "You who say that we talk nonsense among women and boys, among maidens and old women, and scoff at us for not being with you, hear what silliness prevails among the Greeks." (Tatian, Address to the Greeks, Chapter 33). This misogynistic charge against the Christians was a frequent resort of anti-Christian polemicists.

The Myrtis he mentions was known also to Plutarch: "And when Colonus had given judgment, Ochne's brothers were banished, and she threw herself from a precipice, as Myrtis, the lyric poetess of Anthedon, has related." (Plutarch, Moralia, Greek Questions, Chapter 40, Complete Works of Plutarch, Kindle location 40669).

Thriceholy Radio

Lady with ScrollLovers' Leap

"The lofty promontory gives a suggestion of the following tale: A boy and girl, both beautiful and under the tutelage of the same teacher, burned with love for each other; and since they were not free to embrace each other, they determined to die at this very rock, and leaped from it into the sea in their first and last embrace." (Philostratus the Elder, Imagines, Book I. 12.3)

The Loeb edition adds another citation for this tale: "Cf. Xenophon, Conviv. 4. 23...'This hot flame of his was kindled when they used to go to school together.'" I'm not suggesting this event actually happened any more than that jilted Indian maidens flung themselves from all the rock outcroppings in New Jersey and Pennsylvania from which they are alleged to have done so; certain landscape features just seem to elicit this story.

Nevertheless, to those to told the story to Philostratus and to Xenophon before him, there seemed nothing implausible about a boy and a girl going to school together. It still wasn't implausible when Philo Judaeus makes the disgraced Egyptian governor Flaccus reminisce about his days as the "school-fellow" of Augustus' grand-daughters: "I, Flaccus, who was born, and brought up, and educated in Rome, the heaven of the world, and who have been the schoolfellow [συμφοιτητης, 'school-fellow,' Liddell andd Scott Intermediate Lexicon] and companion of the granddaughters of Augustus, and who was afterwards selected by Tiberius Caesar as one of his most intimate friends, and who have had entrusted to me for six years the greatest of all his possessions, namely, Egypt." (Philo Judaeus, Against Flaccus, Chapter XIX, Section 158). How can a man be the "schoolfellow" of girls, if girls do not go to school?


"The Sanctuary of Asklepios was in ruins; it was originally built by Phalysios, a private individual. He had an eye disease and was nearly blind, and the god at Epidauros sent Anyte the poet to take Phalysios a written and sealed tablet. She thought this order was a dream, but she suddenly awoke and found the writing with the seals on it really in her hands: so she sailed to Naupaktos and told Phalysios to take off the seal and read what was written. He felt it would be beyond him to see this writing, because of the state his eyes were in, but hoping for a blessing from Asklepios he took off the seal and as he looked at the wax he was cured; so he gave Anyte what was written on the tablet: two thousand gold pieces." (Pausanias, Guide to Greece, Volume I, Book X, 38.7)

Leave aside for the moment the entrepreneurial Anyte's creative way of making a living: I'm surprised she didn't tell Phalysios she was from Nigeria and had cancer. She was nevertheless a real person, and a real poet.


Kleomenes, ruler of Sparta, was obliged to send his aged mother and offspring as hostages to Ptolemy, king of Egypt. She was every inch a Spartan:

"When all was prepared for her voyage, Kratesiklea proceeded to Taenarus escorted by Kleomenes with all his troops under arms. Before embarking she retired alone with him into the temple of Poseidon, where, after embracing him as he sorrowed at her departure, she said, 'Now, king of the Lacedaemonians, take care when we come out that no one sees us weeping or doing anything unworthy of Sparta.'" (Plutarch's Lives, Kleomenes, Chapter XXII., Volume IV, Kindle location 590).

So far as can be judged by the account, she did not bring a retinue to Egypt: "Saying thus, she fixed her eyes upon the ship, walked swiftly to it carrying the child, and bade the pilot start at once." (Plutarch's Lives, Kleomenes). Held hostage in Egypt, she corresponded with her son, advising him to hang tough:

"When she reached Egypt, as she heard that Ptolemy had received an embassy from Antigonus, and was told that although the Achaeans wished to come to terms with him, he had feared on her account to make peace with them without consulting Ptolemy, she wrote to him bidding him act worthily of Sparta, and consult her interests, and not fear to displease Ptolemy because of what he might do to an old woman and an infant." (Plutarch's Lives, Kleomenes, Chapter XXII).

Certainly king Ptolemy might have provided her with scribal services of the Kinko's variety, like they always say. But why, then, did the letter not read, 'you should play ball with Ptolemy'?


Just as Greek culture presented a challenge to the Romans, a proud and insular people, so it did to the Carthaginians. Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, nevertheless educated his daughter to a "liberal" education:

"She [Sophonis] was conspicuous for beauty, had been trained in a liberal literary and musical education, was of attractive manners, coy, and so lovable that the mere sight of her or even the sound of her voice vanquished even a person quite devoid of affection." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 17, Frag. 56).

Unfortunately he promised her hand in marriage to two rival retainers, Masinissa and Syphax, which created a problem, and brought about her tragic end: "Syphax for these reasons attached himself to the Carthaginians, and Masinissa on the contrary took up with the Romans and from first to last proved very useful to them." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 17, Frag. 56).


"As for love of ornament, do you, Eurydice, read and try to remember what Timoxena wrote to Aristylla." (Plutarch, 'Rules for Husband and Wife,' 48).

Timoxena was Plutarch's wife. His little daughter Timoxena, whose untimely death prompted his 'Letter of Consolation to His Wife,' was named after her: "But this one I know was especially dear to you...and so I gave her your name."

Pompeii, Woman with Pen

Lady with ScrollLove-Letters

One of the givens of the modern assault on ancient literacy is that women were almost never literate. This assumption can be confirmed neither from ancient Greek nor Roman literature, which reports unfaithful wives writing love-notes to their lovers:

  • “But why is Censennia the best of wives, as her husband swears?
    Her dowry was in the millions; at a price so right, he declares
    Her chaste...In turn,
    For her it bought liberty. She may flirt before his eyes
    And write love letters; the wealthy wife of a man who sighs
    For nothing but money is really unmarried in any case.”
  • (Juvenal, Satires, VI Why Marry?, 136-141).

  • "You'll have to despair of knowing any peace at home
    If your mother-in-law's alive. She teaches your wife to delight
    In stripping you of wealth, she teaches her how to write
    Replies, in a style not crude or naive, to the billets-doux
    Of seducers, and she eludes or bribes your retinue
    Of guards."
  • (Juvenal, Satires, VI Why Marry?, 231-236)

  • "What notes, what love letters, though,
    There'd be to read if you opened the desk of your jealous whore!"
  • (Juvenal, Satires, VI Why Marry?, 276-277)

  • "Her mother's games
    Were known to the child, who now inscribes, as Mommy dictates,
    Her own little love notes and sends them to her chosen bedmates
    By the same fairy messengers."
  • (Juvenal, Satires, XIV Evil Precedents Set by Parents, 28-31)

Tacitus illustrates the strong social disapproval of adultery amongst the rude Germans by noting they were innocent of love letters: "Because of these customs, they live with their chastity well protected; they are corrupted by no enticements like spectacles and by no desires for banquets. Men and women are equaly ignorant of secrets in letters." (Tacitus, Germania, 19, quoted p. 372, Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World, Kennedy, Roy, and Goldman). To illiterate people, there is no such thing as "secrets in letters"; in such a world, Kinko's knows all secrets.

The premise that almost all the populace in antiquity was illiterate is crucial to the modern deconstruction of the New Testament. It is assumed by secular Bible scholars from Rudolph Bultmann onward that Jesus' lore was conserved orally for decades before ever being committed to paper, as if he were a sage on a savage South Seas Island. This idea never could have gained credence when most people had a basic familiarity with the literature of the Greeks and Romans, because widespread illiteracy is not what's found in that literature.

Ovid also offers the advice to the would-be adulterer to start by sending letters:

"By letters, not by words, thy love begin;
And ford the dangerous passage with thy pen;
If to her heart thou aim'st to find the way,
Extremely flatter and extremely pray. . .
Write then, and in thy letter, as I said,
Let her with mighty promises be fed.
Cydyppe by a letter was betray'd,
Writ on an apple to th' unwary maid;
She read herself into a marriage vow,
(And every cheat in love the gods allow.). . .
If seal'd she sends it back, and will not read,
Yet hope, in time, the business may succeed. . .
Perhaps she writes, and answers with disdain,
And sharply bids you not to write again:
What she requires, she fears you would accord;
The jilt would not be taken at her word." (Ovid, The Art of Love, Book I).

Why would this be safe advice if the woman were presumed illiterate? The author of the pseudonymous Clementine Homilies gives an example of such a letter: "Then Appion asked if it were possible to send a letter to her. Then I said: ‘That indeed may be done.’ Then Appion said: ‘This very night I shall write a paper on encomiums of adultery, which you shall get from me and despatch to her; and I hope that she shall be persuaded, and consent.’" (Clementine Homilies, Book V, Chapter 9). In the view of the Jesus Seminar, with whom exactly was this woman expected to share the letter so as to discover its contents? Her husband? Someone in the employ of her husband?

We think of the Romans of this period as decadent, as indeed they were, and as they also saw themselves. However, adultery was with them at various times a criminal offense, as it is not with us, and throughout, the husband who returned home to find an intruder in his bed was fully within his legal rights to kill him then and there. If she responded to an unexpected letter by wandering around the house asking any available male, including her husband, to read it to her, this might have unwelcome consequences. Ovid's specific instructions to the maid who is to deliver the love-letter is to stand there and watch as she reads it:

"Tell her the letter will the rest explain,
And does my soul, and all its hopes contain.
But time, while I am speaking, flies: be sure
To give the billet in a leisure hour:
Don't be content with her imperfect view,
But make her, when she has it, read it through.
[Vacuae bene redde tabellas,
Verum continuo fac tamen illa legat.
Adspicias oculos mando frontemque legentis;
Et tacito vultu scire futura licet
. Line 15-18]
I charge thee, as she reads, observe her eyes,
Catch, if thou canst, her gentle looks and sighs;
As these are sure presages of my joy,
So frowns and low'rs my flattering hopes destroy.
Pray her, when she has read it, to indite
An answer, and a long epistle write.
I hate a billet, where at once I view
A page all empty, but a line or two.
Let her without a margin fill it up,
And crowd it from the bottom to the top.
But why should I her pretty fingers tire?" (Ovid, Amores, 1.11).

If this correspondent were illiterate, how could she reply, either with a trembling or a steady hand?: "Yesterday I saw a lady walking in the portico beneath the temple of Apollo. At once I fell in love with her and importuned her in writing. In answer, with a trembling hand, she wrote: 'Impossible.'" (Ovid, Amores, Book II, Elegy II). Later in the same piece he asks, "Is she reading a letter in secret?" How can she do that if she's illiterate? He speaks about the guilty pair writing notes in the wine spilled on the table, "Your eyes were not silent; I saw letters writ in wine upon the table, even thy fingers had their tale to tell." (Ovid, Amores, Book II, Elegy V). Tibullus mentions the same trick: ". . . and see that she take not wine on her fingers and trace signs on the table's round. [digitoque liquorem ne trahat et mensae ducat in orbe notas.]" (Tibullus, Book I, Chapter VI, To Delia, p. 223 Loeb edition). 'Nota' can mean signs or marks, or it can mean just what our word 'notes' means: "nota. . .notae, a writing, letter, Ov.)" (Cassell's Latin Dictionary). It would be awkward indeed to have the functionary from Kinko's as the third on the couch between them.

Ovid specifically warns women to be careful to whom they entrust their love-letters, because of the danger of black-mail:

"But since (tho' chastity be not your care)
You from your husband still would hide th' affair,
Write to no stranger till his truth be tried;
Nor in a foolish messenger confide.
What agonies that woman undergoes,
Whose hand the traitor threatens to expose;
Who rashly trusting, dreads to be deceiv'd,
And lives for ever to that dread enslav'd!" (Ovid, The Art of Love, Book III).

Ovid actually advises them to disguise their hand-writing: "But since your letters may be brought to light, What if in sev'ral hands you learn to write?" (Ovid, The Art of Love, Book III). If they are dictating these letters to a paid scribe, why is this precaution necessary? Or the precaution of writing her letters while in the bathroom, or with invisible ink?:

"Tho' stuck with Argus' eyes your keeper were,
Advis'd by me you shall elude his care.
When you to wash or bathe retire from sight,
Can he observe what letters then you write?" (Ovid, The Art of Love, Book III).

To be sure Ovid addresses himself to those who are likely to purchase his books, not rural slaves. But if literate women were rare exceptions to the general rule, then his advice is pointless (and not only in this ill-favored case). Connect the dots. If most city-dwellers were literate, then there is no reason to suppose the memoirs of Jesus' followers conserved in the New Testament are anything but early and authentic. The contrary premise is therefore critical to modern 'Jesus' scholarship and thus should be examined carefully by fair-minded seekers.

As a concrete example of such a love letter, consider the case of Servilia, Brutus' mother, "passionately in love with" Caesar:

"While this was going on, a small letter was brought in and given to Caesar, which he read silently, whereon Cato called out that Caesar was doing a shameful thing in receiving communications and letters from their enemies. Many of the Senators hereon made a tumult, and Caesar gave the letter just as it was to Cato, and it was a passionate letter from his sister Servilia, which he read and throwing it to Caesar said, 'Take it, drunkard,' and he again turned afresh to his argument and his speech." (Plutarch's Lives, Life of Brutus, Chapter V, Volume IV, Kindle location 5447).

Now, they say, she went to Kinko's. Would that have been smart? Bear in mind the offended husband, if he came home and found his wife in bed with a lover, was within his rights to run them both through with the same sword. Kinko's lays open a vulnerability.

Lucian offers a raw satire of the life of the paid companion-scholar in a Roman household:

"If we had only men to deal with, it would be something: but there are the women too. For among the objects of feminine ambition is this, of having a scholar or two in their pay, to dance attendance at the litter's side; it adds one more to the list of their adornments, if they can get the reputation of culture and philosophy, of turning a song which will bear comparison with Sappho's. So they too keep their philosopher, their orator, or their litterateur; and give him audience--when, think you? Why, at the toilet, by all that is ridiculous, among the rouge-pots and hair-brushes; or else at the dinner-table. They have no leisure at other times. As it is, the philosopher is often interrupted by the entrance of a maid with a billet-doux. Virtue has then to bide her time; for the audience will not be resumed till the gallant has his answer." (Lucian, The Dependent Scholar).

Notice the maid and the lady ignore their philosopher-servant while concentrating on answering the love-letter. Why is this, when, ex hypothesi, he is the only literate person in the room? The evidence is there in bushels, because the ancients, for all their purported illiteracy, were a voluble lot who couldn't stop themselves from filling up libraries, all unread. A good place to start:

Hypatia's Bookshelf

Lady with ScrollPhilenium

One of the issues that came up during the 'palimony' legal controversies in the United States is that a sex-for-money contract is not legally enforceable. Or so it has been since the day-star of Christianity dawned. Let us travel back to the days when you could make a legally binding sex-for-money contract, and read one of 'em, from the comedies of Plautus:

"Diabolus, the son of Glaucus, has made a present to CleŠreta, the procuress, of twenty silver minŠ, that Philenium may be with him night and day for this whole year. . .The door must be closed to all men except to yourself. On the door she must write that she is engaged. Or, because she may affirm that the letter has been brought from abroad, there is not to be even any letter in the house, nor so much as a waxed tablet; and if there is any useless picture , let her sell it; if she does not part with it, within four days from the time when she has received the money of you, let it be considered as your own; you to burn it if you like; so that she may have no wax, with which she may be able to make a letter. She is to invite no guest; you are to invite them." (T. Maccius Plautus, (1912). The Comedies of Plautus (H. T. Riley, Trans.). Medford, MA: G. Bell and Sons. 'The Ass-Dealer,' Act 4, Scene 1).

The contracting party's concern is that she be prevented from doing business with any other customer during this time-frame. If Philenium may be presumed illiterate, why withhold from her wax?


From Cleobulus' day to Quintilian, there was never a time when women's literacy lacked advocates, nor practitioners such as the eloquent Hortensia:

  • “I would, therefore, have a father conceive the highest hopes of his son from the moment of his birth. If he does so, he will be more careful about the groundwork of his education. For there is absolutely no foundation for the complaint that but few men have the power to take in the knowledge that is imparted to them, and that the majority are so slow of understanding that education is a waste of time and labor. On the contrary you will find that most are quick to reason and ready to learn. Reasoning comes as naturally to man as flying to birds, speed to horses and ferocity to beasts of prey: our minds are endowed by nature with such activity and sagacity that the soul is believed to proceed from heaven...As regards parents, I should like to see them as highly educated as possible, and I do not restrict this remark to fathers alone. We are told that the eloquence of the Gracchi owed much to their mother Cornelia, whose letters even to-day testify to the cultivation of her style. Laelia, the daughter of Gaius Laelius, is said to have reproduced the elegance of her father's language in her own speech, while the oration delivered before the triumvirs by Hortensia, the daughter of Quintus Hortensius, is still read and not merely as a compliment to her sex.”
  • (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, Book I, Chapter 1, 1-6).

Lady with ScrollVirginia

The nefarious Appius Claudius sought to abduct the chaste Virginia where?-- on her way to school:

"Appius Claudius was seized with a criminal passion for violating the person of a young woman of plebeian rank. Lucius Verginius, the girl's father, held an honourable rank among the centurions at Algidum, a man who was a pattern of uprightness both at home and in the service. His wife and children were brought up in the same manner. He had betrothed his daughter to Lucius Icilius, who had been tribune, a man of spirit and of approved zeal in the interest of the people. Appius, burning with desire, attempted to seduce by bribes and promises this young woman, now grown up, and of distinguished beauty; and when he perceived that all the avenues of his lust were barred by modesty, he turned his thoughts to cruel and tyrannical violence. Considering that, as the girl's father was absent, there was an opportunity for committing the wrong; he instructed a dependent of his, Marcus Claudius, to claim the girl as his slave, and not to yield to those who demanded her enjoyment of liberty pending judgment. The tool of the decemvir's lust laid hands on the girl as she was coming into the forum--for there the elementary schools were held in booths--calling her the daughter of his slave and a slave herself, and commanded her to follow him, declaring that he would drag her off by force if she demurred. The girl being struck dumb with terror, a crowd collected at the cries of her nurse, who besought the protection of the citizens." (Livy, History of Rome, Book III, 50)

Some might object: but she just happened to be walking by the school booths, that doesn't mean she was a student. But what is proper procedure for kidnapping? Isn't it best to map out the target's daily route and lay in wait where you expect to find her? But was there a school for Virginia to attend? Were any Roman schools co-educational? It would seem so, to judge from evidence of a later date:

"In educational contexts, the use of the word pueri is so ubiquitous that one might naturally assume that all Roman classes were composed exclusively of boys. Quintilian, particularly, at all three stages of education, constantly speaks of boys, but this is understandable, as he is concerned throughout with the training of the orator. But the most exactly contemporary evidence of Martial shows that, at the primary stage at least, both boys and girls might be present in the same school; for he addresses an 'accursed schoolmaster,' whose shouting disturbs his early morning sleep, as 'a fellow hated by boys and girls alike.'" ('Education in Ancient Rome: from the Elder Cato to the Younger Pliny,' by Stanley Frederick Bonner, p. 135)

Martial says, "Abominable schoolmaster, bogyman of little girls and boys, We can do without you and your noise." [Quid tibi nobiscum est, ludi scelerate magister, invisum pueris virginibusque caput?]" (Martial, Epigrams, Book Nine, Epigram 68, p. 129). If there were no girls in school, then why would this schoolmaster have so much contact with girls outside his family circle as to be "hated" by them? How could he be the "bogeyman" of little girls, unless they were enrolled?

Death of Virginia, detail of a mural by Filippino Lippi
Death of Virginia

A noisy public place like the forum does not seem like a suitable place for a school, especially one set up in ramshackle temporary structure, but other ancient authors mention students learning their letters in a similar road-side setting: "And we often see how even in the midst of a very great turmoil and throng the individual is not hampered in carrying on his own occupation; but, on the contrary, the man who is playing the flute or teaching a pupil to play it devotes himself to that, often holding school in the very street, and the crowd does not distract him at all, nor the din made by the passers-by; and the dancer likewise, or dancing master, is engrossed in his work, being utterly heedless of those who are fighting and selling and doing other things; and so also with the harper and the painter. But here is the most extreme case of all: The elementary teachers sit in the streets with their pupils, nothing hinders them in this great throng from teaching and learning." (Dio Chrysostom, Discourses, The Twentieth Discourse, On Retirement, Chapter 9).

If any still want to quarrel, Dionysius of Halicarnassus makes clear that this doomed young girl of plebeian family was a reader: "Appius Claudius, the chief of the decemvirs, having seen this girl, who was now marriageable, as she was reading at the schoolmaster's [αναγινωσκουσαν εν γραμματιστου] (the schools for the children stood at that time near the Forum), was immediately captivated by her beauty and became still more frenzied because, already mastered by his passion, he could not help passing by the school frequently." (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Book XI, Chapter 28, Loeb edition Volume 7, p. 95).

Juvenal speaks in passing about what "every" little girl learns before she learns her ABC's,

"‘hoc monstrant vetulae pueris repentibus assae,
hoc discunt omnes ante alpha et beta puellae.
’" (Juvenal, Satires, Book V, Chapter XIV, line 209).

This would be somewhat out of place if no little girls actually ever learned their ABC's:

"'Nobody asks where
You get it, but money you have to
have.' This is what spare,
Old, shriveled nurses teach little
boys still crawling; these
Are the things that every girl learns
before her ABC's
." (Juvenal, Satires, Book V, Chapter XIV, line 209).

Girls' education came along as part of Rome's heritage from Hellenistic civilization:

"In regions that were completely Greek it seems to have been the normal thing for all freemen's children to go to school; this is clearly implied by the school laws in Miletus and Teos. In Teos it was laid down that the girls should be taught in exactly the same way as the boys—a remarkable advance on the previous age, and one which appears to have been fairly widespread: some of the terra-cottas found in Myrina and Alexandria portray little schoolgirls at work. In a considerable number of the cities in Aegeus and Asia Minor we even find a flourishing system of secondary education for girls. This was all well before the Roman era, when in Egypt the 'strategus' Appollonius was told when to buy a 'reading book' for his little daughter Heraidous because she needed it for school." (H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, p. 144).

Though there are many little girls named 'Virginia' today, to us her story sounds shocking. Why would her father think he was doing his beloved daughter a service in murdering her? He sincerely thought he was saving her from a fate worse than death; as he plunged the knife into her breast, he said, 'There is no way but this to keep thee free.' The pagan Romans have left us with stories of honor murders, and honor suicides. Lucretia accused the king's son Sextus Tarquinius of rape, then stabbed herself to death. Since the Romans always felt a dying declaration to be nearly unimpeachable testimony— what motive had a dying person to lie,— they cast off their morally contemptible kings and proclaimed a republic. This way of thinking was so entrenched that many years later, at the end of their story not the beginning, when the barbarian Goths had rampaged through the doomed city pillaging and raping, Augustine had to explain patiently to the citizens that it was not really fair to lionize those women who had avoided rape by throwing themselves into the river, leaving the implication that the survivors had failed to live up to the slogan, death before dishonor. As he explained, in the 'City of God,' a raped woman is no different from any other crime victim, she has done nothing wrong, and committing suicide will not make it right. And so we think today. It may be we also think with the song, 'Oh Freedom,' "And before I'd be a slave I'll be buried in my grave," because both themes are intertwined in the tale of Virginia.


This young lady, whatever her virtues or lack thereof, had a literary man assigned to her as "tutor":

"Quintus Caecilius, an Epirot by descent, but born at Tusculum, was a freedman of Atticus Satrius, a Roman knight, to whom Cicero addressed his Epistles. He became the tutor of his patron's daughter, who was contracted to Marcus Agrippa, but being suspected of an illicit intercourse with her, and sent away on that account, he betook himself to Cornelius Gallus, and lived with him on terms of the greatest intimacy, which, indeed, was imputed to Gallus as one of his heaviest offences, by Augustus. Then, after the condemnation and death of Gallus, he opened a school, but had few pupils, and those very young, nor any belonging to the higher orders, excepting the children of those he could not refuse to admit." (Suetonius, Lives of the Grammarians, XVI.)

Death of Virginia
Death of Virginia

Lady with ScrollCaecilius' Girlfriend

Catullus wanted his friend the poet Caecilius to come and visit him in Verona, I wouldn't care to inquire for what purpose. Catullus perceives an obstacle, Caecilius' girlfriend: "...though his fair lady should call him back a thousand times..." What sparked this lady's possessiveness? She had read a poem about Cybele which Caecilius had begun:

"She now, if a true tale is brought to me, dotes on him with passionate love. For since she read the beginning of his 'Lady of Dindymus,' ever since then, poor girl, the fires have been wasting her inmost marrow. I can feel for you, maiden more scholarly than the Sapphic Muse; for Caecilius has indeed made a lovely beginning to his 'Magna Mater.'" (The Poems of Catullus, XXXV, pp. 41-43, Catullus, Tibullus, and Pervigilium Veneris, J. W. Mackail, revised by G. P. Goold).

If this lady couldn't read, as the Jesus Seminar informs us, then why did the beginning of this poem light a fire?


And why did Lygdamus bother sending his poems to his beloved, as the Muses recommended?:

"'Poetry is the lure for the beautiful, gold for the greedy: so let there be verses from you to gladden her as she deserves. But first let yellow parchment wrap the snow-white roll and pumice shear its hoary locks, and letters traced to show thy name border the high top of the fine papyrus, and let the horned knobs mid both its fronts be painted. For in such trim guise must thy work be sent.'

"Inspirers of this my song, I entreat ye by the shade of Castaly and the Pieran springs go to the house, and give her the dainty book just as it is; let none of its bloom be lost. She will send me answer if her love is still as mine, or if it is less, or if I have fallen wholly out of her heart." (The Third Book, Elegies of Lygdamus, I, p. 287, Catullus, Tibullus, and Pervigilium Veneris, translated by J. W. Mackail, revised by G. P. Goold.)

Why bother sending the book over to her house if she couldn't read?

Moses Twelve Tables
Untangling the Threads Fact-Checking
Seth Speaks Quintilian
Self-Incrimination Pythagoras
Who's Zooming Who? Historiography
False Musaeus Jerome's Vulgate
Publishing Contract

Lady with ScrollCornelia Scipionis Africana

The mother of the Gracchi achieved a reputation in her day as a letter-writer. Her famous son Tiberius was assassinated in consequence of his proposal for land reform. In truth he rode rough-shod over the constitution in order to achieve this worthy aim and thus was not entirely guiltless, as she herself realized. Writing to her surviving younger son, she said:

"Shall then our house have no end of madness? Where shall be the limit? Have we not yet enough to be ashamed of, in having confused and disorganized the state?" (Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, quoted in Theodor Mommsen, The History of Rome, Book IV, Chapter II, Kindle location 18880).

Noel Halle, Cornelia Mother of the Gracchi 

Rome rose to greatness defended by a citizen-army of soldier-farmers. But, aping the institutions of her now-defeated rival Carthage, Roman proprietors in Sicily bounded together huge estates worked by slave labor. Realizing economies of scale, these enterprises pushed down the price of grain to a level where the Italian family farmer could not compete. Slavery, like a metastasizing cancer, spread its poison to all it touched; men and women who had never heard the slave-auctioneer's gavel crack over their heads were nonetheless ruined by this toxic institution, because a free farmer cannot undersell the slave plantation. The Gracchi's land reform, although somewhat defective as to form,— a heritable, non-alienable lease is not quite the same thing as ownership; you don't need to be a Roman jurist to realize that, if you can't sell it, you don't own it,— nevertheless pushed back against the prevailing economic tendency to pauperize the rural population. In any case, she had a reputation for writing well:

"In parents I should wish that there should be as much learning as possible. Nor do I speak, indeed, merely of fathers; for we have heard that Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi (whose very learned writing in her letters has come down to posterity), contributed greatly to their eloquence; the daughter of Laelius is said to have exhibited her father's elegance in her conversation; and the oration of the daughter of Quintus Hortensius, delivered before the Triumviri, is read not merely as an honor to her sex." (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 6).


"At last the love I've waited for has come.
(No shame to say so: more to cover up).
My Camenae called on her in prayer,
and Cytherea brought him to my heart.

"Venus kept her promise: now she can tell
my tale of joy to those who don't believe.
I hardly want to give this letter up
so no one else sees it before he does.

I'm glad I did it -- why wear a prudish mask,
as if he wasn't good enough for me!" (Sulpicia, Six Poems).

Notice please that Sulpicia the poet does not want to give her love poem up to any but its gentleman recipient. None of the machinery postulated by the promoters of ancient illiteracy: the transcriptionist et al,-- is present.

Martial speaks well of her: "Let all young wives read Sulpicia, who wish to please their lords alone; let all husbands read Sulpicia, who wish to please their brides alone." (Martial, Epigrams, Book X, XXXV.)



The Latin author Ovid wrote a book called 'Heroides' imagining the letters various historic and/or mythic ladies might have written to the men who wronged them. Admittedly this work of fiction has no direct evidentiary value, as the named ladies did not write these letters, Ovid did. However it is clear that Ovid was unfamiliar with the concept of modern 'Jesus' scholarship that women who authored letters dictated their words to a professional scribe:

"From stolen Briseis is the writing you read, scarce charactered in Greek by her barbarian hand. Whatever blots you shall see, her tears have made; but tears, too, have none the less the weight of words." (Ovid, Heroides, III).

How could the authoress' tears have blotted the pages, when it was the scribe, not she, hovering over the work? Why does Penelope specify that the missives she hands to visiting strangers in hopes they will encounter her wandering husband were written by her own fingers?: "...and into his hand is given the sheet writ by these fingers of mine..." (Ovid, Heroides, I). What difference does it make that Ariadne's hand 'trembles' if she is dictating: "My body is a-quiver like standing corn struck by the northern blast, and the letters I am tracing falter beneath my trembling hand." (Ovid, Heroides, X), or indeed how is she writing a letter on an island she is not sure is inhabited: "The words you now are reading, Thesues, I send you from that shore from which the sails bore off your ship without me, the shore on which my slumber, and you, so wretchedly betrayed me..." (Ovid, Heroides, X); compare with, "What am I to do? Whither shall I take myself – I am alone, and the isle untilled. Of human traces I see none; of cattle, none." (Ovid, Heroides, X). Surely the scribe to whom she was dictating was human!

How is it that Canace is dripping blood on the letter she is writing, if someone else is writing it?:

"If aught of what I write is yet blotted deep and escapes your eye, ‘twill be because the little roll has been stained by its mistress’ blood. My right hand holds the pen, a drawn blade the other holds, and the paper lies unrolled in my lap." (Ovid, Heroides, XI).

Ovid depicts Medea as wondering why her right hand was strong enough to commit wicked crimes, but not to write: "In this one place my pen fails. Of the deed my right hand was bold enough to do, it is not bold enough to write." (Ovid,  Heroides, XII)...though if she were illiterate, her hand's inability is self-explanatory. Hypermnestra finds the chains that bind her a hindrance to writing: "I would write more; but my hand falls with the weight of my chains, and very fear takes away my strength." (Ovid, Heroides, XIV). Why is this a problem, if she is dictating the letter? Sappho this male author imagines as writing to Phaon, "Tell me, when you looked upon the characters from my eager right hand, did your eye know forthwith whose they were..." (Ovid, Heroides, XV), without explaining how such recognition would be meaningful in a dictated letter. Again we have an authoress blotting the writing with her falling tears: "I write, and my eyes let fall the springing tears like drops of dew; look, how many a blot obscures this place!" (Ovid, Heroides, XV), though this must be projectile crying if another is handling the pen.

This male author imagined these women as writing their letters with their own right hand. Why did people who knew the culture first-hand not understand that women dictated their missives, leaving it to the genius of the moderns to discover? Though Ovid did not watch these women, some of them non-existent, write their letters, he had seen the women he knew writing letters and knew how it was done.


Not thirty years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth in a neighboring country, Cleopatra, her power to maneuver at an end, committed suicide by asp. This mighty Queen of the Nile was thought by her subjects to be Isis incarnate, or at least they said they thought so. It should hardly come as a surprise that she was literate:

"A man from the country came bringing a basket, and when the guards asked what was in it, he opened it and taking off the leaves showed them a dish full of figs...After eating, Cleopatra took a tablet which she had already inscribed and sealed and sent it to Caesar." (Plutarch, Life of Antony, 85, Plutarch's Lives)

Cleopatra, bitten by the asp, made use of no intermediaries to communicate her final wishes to Caesar; those around her were under orders to prevent her suicide. Her impressive language skills were not a family tradition:

"With few barbarians did she [Cleopatra] ever converse through an interpreter, and to most of them she made her replies without help, as, for instance, to Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabs, Syrians, Medes, and Parthians. She is said to have known the speech of many other peoples besides, though the kings, her predecessors, had not troubled to learn even the Egyptian tongue, while some of them had given up the Macedonian." (Plutarch, Life of Antony, 27, Plutarch's Lives).

As it happens, Cleopatra was well-educated:

"Following her European tour, elder sister Cleopatra likewise resumed her education back in Alexandria, and of all the Ptolemies made by far the greatest use of it. Her Greek title 'Thea' meant 'sage' as well as 'goddess,' and indeed Cleopatra's intellect was her most important quality for later Egyptian historians, for whom she was 'the most illustrious and wise among women. . . .great in herself and in her achievements in courage and strength.' As 'the last of the wise ones of Greece' she was 'the virtuous scholar,' the polymath monarch 'who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.'" (Cleopatra the Great, Dr. Joann Fletcher, p. 81).

Upon her interview with Augustus Caesar, she read aloud his adoptive father's letters to her:

"She accordingly prepared a luxurious apartment and costly couch, and adorned herself further in a kind of careless fashion,— for her mourning garb mightily became her,— and seated herself upon the couch; beside her she had placed many images of his father, of all sorts, and in her bosom she had put all the letters that his father had sent her. . .'That you may learn what were his own words about me, take and read the missives which he sent me with his own hand.' As she spoke thus, she read aloud many endearing expressions of his." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 51, Chapter 12).

It is difficult to reconcile Bishop Spong's stated viewpoint with reality, in this case as so many others. You have to wonder how he reconciles his opinion that women have played no role in history with the queens like Boudicca of the Iceni, who started a war that would not otherwise have occurred, or Cleopatra. If she had not skedaddled at the battle of Actium, the outcome might have been different. Roman women could not play a political role directly, but the will to power was by no means extinguished among them; Agrippina made her son Nero emperor. When he subsequently became a matricide, it was an act to evoke horror, but not a case of bad things happening to good people. Why these people think you do history better by erasing half the human race is a mystery to me. As a rule they do not know how much of documented history needs to be tossed out to achieve their goal, because it's a blank slate to them anyway.

Incidentally, Agrippina, while no saint, was an authoress. She is quoted in Pliny's Natural History: "Agrippina, too, the mother of Nero, who was lately Emperor, and who proved himself, throughout the whole of his reign, the enemy of the human race, has left it recorded in writing, that he was born with his feet first." (Pliny, Natural History, Book VII, Chapter 6 (8), Kindle location 5909 Delphi). He lists his sources after each book, and there she is: "Roman Authors Quoted. . .Agrippina, the wife of Claudius. . ." (Pliny, Natural History, Book VII, Chapter 60, Kindle location 6903). Pliny is far more responsible in the matter of citations than were most ancient writers: "You may judge of my taste from my having inserted, in the beginning of my book, the names of the authors that I have consulted. For I consider it to be courteous and to indicate an ingenuous modesty, to acknowledge the sources whence we have derived assistance, and not to act as most of those have done whom I have examined." (Pliny, Natural History, Book 1, Dedication, Kindle location 187). Evidently she wrote. . .pardon me, dictated at Kinko's,— a memoir.


Perilla was Ovid's step-daughter, the child of his third wife. He encouraged her poetic aspirations:

"Go, greet Perilla, quickly written letter, and be the trusty servant of my speech. You will find her sitting in the company of her sweet mother or amid books and the Pierian maidens she loves. Whatever she be doing she will leave it when she knows of your coming and ask at once why you come or how I fare. . .Say to her, 'Art thou too still devoted to our common pursuit of singing learned verse, though not in thy father’s fashion? For with thy life nature has bestowed upon thee modest ways and a rare dower of native wit.'. . . So if the same fire still abides in thy breast, only the Lesbian bard will surpass thy work." (Ovid, Tristia, Book III, Letter VII, Delphi Complete Works of Ovid (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Locations 27991-27997).).

It is not known that this young lady picked up the challenge, or that she ever came to rival poetesses such as Nossis of Locri, much less Sappho.


Vespasian's girlfriend Caenis was not only literate, but gifted with a remarkable memory:

"This period saw also the demise of Vespasian's concubine, Caenis. I have mentioned her because she was exceedingly faithful and possessed naturally a most excellent memory. For instance, her mistress Antonia, the mother of Claudius, had had her write secretly to Tiberius about Sejanus and later had ordered the message erased, that no trace of the same might be left. Thereupon she replied: 'It is in vain, mistress, that you have issued this command. All of this and whatever else you dictate to me I always carry with me in my soul and it can never be erased.'" (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 66, Chapter 14).

If the message was intended to be secret, then she cannot have gone to Kinko's.


After the bandit chieftain Thyamis has slain the Greek-speaking woman, whom he thinks is his beloved captive Charikleia, but is really Thisbe, in the darkness of the cave, her intrepid Greek compatriots discover her still-warm body:

"It really was Thisbe! Beside her had fallen a sword, which he recognized by its hilt: Thyamis, in the haste of his passion, had left it in the body at the time of the murder. Protruding from her breast was a writing tablet that was tucked under her arm. Knemon picked it up and tried to make out what was written on it, but Theagenes was too pressing to let him read it. 'Let us rescue my beloved first,' he said, 'in case even now some malign power is making fun of us. There will be plenty of time to read that later.'" (An Ethiopian Story, by Heliodorus, p. 382, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon.)

Once the convoluted plot simmers down to a point of sufficient quietude that the brave little band are able to read Thisbe's last missive, they discover it to be a mix of evasions and half-truths: "'Deliver me from the clutches of these brigands! Do not abandon your servant! Help me, please; for the wrongs I appear to have done I was compelled to do, but the revenge I took on your enemy I took voluntarily.'" (Thisbe's swan song, An Ethiopian Story, by Heliodorus, p. 385, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon). Though not intended as her final communique,— death snuck up on Thisbe, the little harp-player, unawares— it certainly was her version of events: "Such was the information that Thisbe gave of herself on the tablet." (An Ethiopian Story, by Heliodorus, p. 385, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon). But how did Thisbe 'luck out,' finding a Kinko's willing and able to transcribe her Greek message, right there in the cave, held against her will by non-Greek speaking Egyptian brigands? Those Kinko's must have been all over!

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

Lady with ScrollPersinna

In the same novel, Heliodorus' 'Ethiopian Story,' a Queen of Ethiopia leaves a written inscription detailing her daughter's status, whom she exposed as an infant (this is the heroine), on a band left with the abandoned little girl:

"'I began to read the band— it was embroidered in the Ethiopian script, not the demotic variety but the royal kind, which closely resembles the so-called hieratic script of Egypt. As I perused the document I discovered that it contained the following narrative.
"'"I, Persinna, Queen of the Ethiopians, inscribe this record of woe as a final gift to my daughter, mine only in the pain of her birth, by whatever name she may be called."'" (Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story, p. 432, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon).

Later on, the heroine is recognized as Persinna's daughter with the holy man's plea to the king that the embroidery on the band is in Persinna's own hand: "'Furthermore, I recognize the band, which, as you can see is inscribed in the Ethiopian royal script, proving beyond any shadow of doubt that it originated here and nowhere else. That it is embroidered in Persinna's own hand, you yourself are best qualified to confirm.'" (Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story, p. 568, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon). Though this novel's plot-line is every bit as implausible as Greek novels generally are, and if our author had ever actually been in Ethiopia he would not likely have thought that griffins lived there, still it reflects his opinions and the presumed opinions of his readers as to the incidence and distribution of literacy. The heroine herself, incidentally, is also literate, because she and her boyfriend agree, if they should ever be separated, to communicate through messages scratched on pillars: "This suggestion met with Charikleia's approval, and they decided, if they were parted, to scratch the following message on shrines, conspicuous statues, sculpted pillars, or stones at crossroads: The Pythian (in the masculine form for Theagenes, the feminine for Charikleia) has gone to the right, or the left, in the direction of such and such a town or village or district, adding a precise indication of time and date." (Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon, p. 449). Earlier in the story Charikleia had quoted the Iliad: "As soon as they entered her room, they asked her what the matter was, but she turned her face to the wall and refused to say a single word in reply; only she kept repeating a verse of Homer out loud, 'Son of Peleus, far greatest of the Achaians, Achilles.'" (Heliodorus, An Ethiopian Story, p. 430, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon). Quoting a verse is not proof positive of literacy,— the unlettered Arabian prophet, Mohammed ibn Abdallah, cites numerous Old and New Testament stories in his dictated compilation, the Koran,— however he does not always quote verbatim or accurately. Certainly literacy is a help in memorization, and it can save the party quoting from embarrassing lapses, like confusing the 'Mariam' of the New Testament with Moses' sister Miriam.

At this perhaps the reader rebels. 'Of course an Ethiopian Queen could read and write, who has ever suggested otherwise?' Dear reader, kindly study the Bishop John Shelby Spong quote at the beginning of this page, then get back to me. Truth to tell, these Greek novels may well overstate the case for women's literacy, not that there aren't lots and lots of men capable of embroidering equally legible script as Queen Persinna. Just as the star-crossed lovers at the heart of the story are always twice as good-looking, and half a head taller, than everybody else, they also do not slurp their soup and enjoy a higher literacy rate. There is a bit of idealization going on here. The Greek novelist did not aspire to hold up a mirror to society. The sociologist on Mars who inferred, from the episodes of 'The Young and the Restless' beamed his way, that a random assortment, a true cross-section of the American public, would be every bit as attractive as the characters depicted in that show, would err. The Greeks did not want to read books about homely people, or about illiterates.

Still, the reader who does not follow the 'Jesus' publishing industry does not understand the magnitude of the problem; they do not want to say that fewer women than men were literate in antiquity, which would be true, they really want to say that none were. They have adopted from sociologists like Gerhard Lenski the paradigm of a 'peasant society,' which is a one-size-fits-all construct into which, as into the bed of Procrustes, very different societies must be fitted. Persia cannot really be any different from Greece, nor can Isaiah's eighth-century Israel really be any different from the first-century Roman colony: "To conclude this section, the perspective provided by understanding the dynamics of a peasant society suggests that, whatever else needs to be said about Jesus, he was a social prophet. Indeed, when we realize that the social dynamics that operated in the time of the classical prophets of ancient Israel also operated in the time of Jesus, it is clear that he, like them, indicted the elites and championed the cause of an exploited peasantry." (Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship, Marcus J. Borg, p. 105). When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if it's a 'peasant society,' then they have to be illiterate, and if they're sending letters anyway, why then they must have gone to Kinko's.


"Among their number was Sempronia, a woman who had committed many crimes that showed her to have the reckless daring of a man. Fortune had favored her abundantly, not only with birth and beauty, but with a good husband and children. Well educated in Greek and Latin literature, she had greater skill in lyre-playing and dancing than there is any need for a respectable woman to acquire, besides many other accomplishments such as minister to dissipation." (Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline, Chapter II.)

This 'pink lady' was involved in Cataline's conspiracy. She wrote verses: "Nevertheless, she was a woman of no mean endowments; she could write verses, bandy jests, and use language which was modest, or tender, or wanton; in fine, she possessed a high degree of wit and of charm." (Sallust, The War With Catiline, Section 25).

Catiline, a would-be revolutionary, intended but failed to seize power in a coup attempt that was thwarted by Cicero's vigilance. He was a Bolshevik before his time: "Pray, what man with the spirit of a man can endure that our tyrants should abound in riches, to squander in building upon the sea and in levelling mountains, while we lack the means to buy the bare necessities of life? That they should join their palaces by twos or even more, while we have nowhere a hearthstone?. . .But we have destitution at home, debt without, present misery and a still more hopeless future; in short, what have we left, save only the wretched breath of life? Awake then!" (Catiline, quoted in Sallust, The War With Catiline, Section 20). Their program, of forgiving all debts, never really took hold, even though their man, Julius Caesar, found himself named Dictator for Life, with all power in the state. But then he got assassinated.

One of the numerous bits of misinformation which the 'Jesus' publishing industry seeks to plant in the minds of the gullible, is the idea that the Roman imperial system was the creation of extreme right-wing interests desirous to subjugate the 'peasants.' It was, rather, the creation of left-wing demagogues, who sympathized, sincerely, with dispossessed farmers: "Meanwhile Manlius in Etruria was working upon the populace, who were already ripe for revolution because of penury and resentment at their wrongs; for during Sulla's supremacy they had lost their lands and all their property." (Sallust, The War With Catiline, Section 28). After the democratic reforms of the Gracchi and Marius had failed, the dictator Sulla re-instituted oligarchy. He did not restore the prior mixed system, but went far beyond it, concentrating the power of the state in the senate. Although the dispossessed farmers had legitimate complaints, the wealthy senators turned a deaf ear. It was this power combine, desiring to protect the rights of private property at all costs, who lost the contest: they were the republicans. They lost! They didn't win! In truth we cannot with one voice weep over the demise of the republic, because they were a corrupt kleptocracy; but it wasn't long before the people's empire became a police state. Next time someone starts blathering about 'peasants,' remind them of this history, which many people learned in school. The 'Jesus' Seminar has found it necessary to turn the politics of the empire around backwards, so we can have a left-wing 'Jesus' standing against a right-wing regime. In real life, Julius Caesar was the left-winger; why isn't he their man?

Cornelia, wife of Pompey

Pompey's trophy wife, Cornelia, was "well versed in literature":

"Pompey now entered the city, and married Cornelia, a daughter of Metellus Scipio. She was not a virgin, but had lately been left a widow by Publius, the son of Crassus, whose virgin bride she had been before his death in Parthia. The young woman had many charms apart from her youthful beauty. She was well versed in literature, in playing the lyre, and in geometry, and had been accustomed to listen to philosophical discourses with profit. In addition to this, she had a nature which was free from that unpleasant officiousness which such accomplishments are apt to impart to young women; and her father's lineage and reputation were above reproach. Nevertheless, the marriage was displeasing to some on account of the disparity in years; for Cornelia's youth made her a fitter match for a son of Pompey." (Plutarch, Life of Pompey, 55:1-2).


Pompey the Great was evidently a magnet for literate females, big and little:

  • “Pompey the Great, for instance, had two sons, Gnaeus and Sextus, and also a daughter, Pompeia, by his third wife Mucia. The sons were taught (c. 65 B.C.) by a Greek scholar named Aristodemus of Nysa (in Caria), who subsequently returned to his native city to teach, and numbered the geographer Strabo among his pupils; but Pompeia also was taught by a tutor, for when Pompey returned from the East  in 61, it was he who selected a passage of Homer for her to read aloud to her father.”
  • (citation, Plutarch, Quaestiones Convivales IX, 1, 3; Education in Ancient Rome: From the Elder Cato to the Younger Pliny, Stanley F. Bonner, p. 27).).

Plutarch rather waspishly reports that the verses she recited on that occasion were ill-chosen:

"After this a great many sayings were mentioned as unseasonably spoken, it being fit that we should know such and avoid them;—as that to Pompey the Great, to whom, upon his return from a dangerous war, the schoolmaster brought his little daughter, and, to show him what a proficient she was, called for a book, and bade her begin at this line,
Returned from war; but hadst thou there been slain,
My wish had been complete; (Iliad, iii. 428.)
. . ." (Plutarch (2011-03-17). Complete Works of Plutarch — Volume 3: Essays and Miscellanies, Symposiacs, Book IX, Question 1, (Kindle Locations 5037-5042).)

Recitations and performances by little ones often have their fair share of missteps and miscues, but they are enjoyed nevertheless. There is a disconnect between the world of classical antiquity as surviving documents show it to have been, and the lost world reconstructed by the 'Jesus Seminar'-types. That world, as it actually was, was a world in which conquering heroes returned home to hear a little daughter declaim from the Iliad. The world they give us is some thread-bare, dilapidated little third-world island in which illiterates dance around the camp-fire and tell one another unlikely stories. This is the magic of the 'inter-disciplinary' approach: for the real ancient world, we can substitute any random 'pre-industrial' society, the more primitive the better, because Marxism says that these societies cannot have been much different, the mode of production being the significant variable. There is no point of contact here; the 'Jesus Seminar'-types are the ones making up stories.

One well-known member of the Pompeian party had a daughter, who tragically died, whom he described as the "most learned of all women." Lactantius quotes from Cicero's lost treatise of consolation on the death of his daughter, "'And this indeed I will do; and with the approbation of the gods, I will place you the best and most learned of all women in their assembly, and will consecrate you to the estimation of men.' Some one may perhaps say that Cicero raved through excessive grief." (quotation from Cicero, in Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book 1, Chapter 15).


Another lover of literate women was Pompey's nemesis, Marc Antony, who had an odd way of making amends with his wife Fulvia:

"Antonius also went; but as a report suddenly reached Italy that Caesar was dead and the enemy were advancing, he returned to Rome, and taking a slave's dress he came to the house by night, and saying that he brought a letter from Antonius to Fulvia, he was introduced to her wrapped up in his dress. Fulvia, who was in a state of anxiety, asked, before she took the letter, whether Antonius was alive; but without speaking a word he held out the letter to her, and when she was beginning to open and read it, he embraced and kissed her." (Plutarch's Lives, Life of Antonius, Chapter X, Volume IV, Kindle location 3595).

As Cicero's account, presumably of the same incident, in his vitriolic Philippics, makes clear, she read the letter and wept:

"And from thence getting into a gig and being driven rapidly to the city, he came to his own house with his head veiled. “Who are you?” says the porter. “An express from Marcus.” He is at once taken to the woman for whose sake he had come; and he delivered the letter to her. And when she had read it with tears (for it was written in a very amorous style, but the main subject of the letter was that he would have nothing to do with that actress for the future; that he had discarded all his love for her, and transferred it to his correspondent), when she, I say, wept plentifully, this soft-hearted man could bear it no longer; he uncovered his head and threw himself on her neck."
(Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Phillippics, The Second Philippic, 77. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero (Delphi Ancient Classics) (Kindle Locations 27609-27613).)

Now why would an illiterate woman read a letter and weep? Doesn't she have to run out to Kinko's?


Under the gloomy Tiberius, the empire took on some of the characteristics of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Some of the worst atrocities took place at the instigation of Sejanus, a favorite who rose to great heights but then fell to the depths, as his dead body was abused and tossed by the mob into the Tiber. His children were also executed. His wife committed suicide, but she did not go quietly, condemning her rival with her dying declaration:

"His wife Apicata was not condemned, to be sure, but on learning that her children were dead and after seeing their bodies on the stairs she withdrew and composed a statement [βιβλιον γραψασα] regarding the death of Drusus, directed against Livilla, the latter's wife, who had been the cause of a quarrel between herself and her husband, resulting in their separation. This document she forwarded to Tiberius and then committed suicide. Thus the statement came to the hands of Tiberius, and when he had obtained proof of the information he put to death Livlla and all others therein mentioned." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 58, Chapter 11).

Caligula's Sisters

Being related to Caesar reduced one's expected life span. Nero went so far as to kill his own mother, on grounds she was plotting against him. The proof Caligula offered against his sisters was letters in their handwriting:

"The rest of his sisters he did not love with so great affection, nor honor so highly, but often prostituted them to his favorites. He therefore the more readily condemned them in the case of Aemilius Lepidus as adulteresses and privy to that conspiracy against him. And he not only made public letters in the handwriting of all of them, procured by fraud and seduction. He also consecrated to Mars the Avenger three swords with which his life was to have been taken, with an accompanying inscription containing the cause of his so doing." (Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Gaius Caligula).


Not only were there advocates of women's literacy, there were also detractors, like the misogynist Juvenal, who ridiculed literary women:

"But worse is the woman who, no sooner than she sits
At dinner, praises Vergil, forgives dying Dido, pits
The poets against each other, and weighs Vergil on the scale
With Homer. Grammarians yield, rhetoricians are beaten, turn tail,
And the whole assemblage is silent.
No lawyer, no auctioneer,
Can get a word in, nor even another woman." (Juvenal, Satires, Book VI, 434).

In spite of themselves, the detractors testify that there were such women. Another target for Juvenal's ridicule is a woman who believes in astrology:

"Yet she may still be suffered; for, what woes
The louring aspect of old Saturn shows;
Or in what sign bright Venus ought to rise,
To shed her mildest influence from the skies;
Or what fore-fated month to gain is given,
And what to loss, (the mysteries of heaven,)
She knows not, nor pretends to know: but flee
The dame, whose Manual of Astrology
Still dangles at her side, smooth as chafed gum,
And fretted by her everlasting thumb!"
(Juvenal, The Women, The Modern Library, p. 568, The Latin Poets).

If she was ever worrying her Manual of Astrology with her thumb, she must have been able to read it. So while one must resent his misogyny, he is milder than our modern misogynists, who deny that women of the period could read at all.

Where the satirists did draw blood perhaps was in the lack of depth of women's education. Lactantius contrasts elitist philosophers with Christian preachers in that the latter exhort all humankind to virtue, include women, slaves, and barbarians, while the former address themselves only to that small segment of the population which had completed the liberal arts curriculum which was philosophy's antechamber. This curriculum included, not only "common" literacy, but such arcane and time-consuming studies as geometry and astronomy. Lactantius makes clear women did not study these subjects, whether for the reason he suggests: because their study time was taken up by 'home ec,' or from a societal disinclination to invest in women:

"They [the philosophers] attempted, indeed, to do that which truth required; but they were unable to proceed beyond words. First, because instruction in many arts is necessary for an application to philosophy. Common learning must be acquired on account of practice in reading, because in so great a variety of subjects it is impossible that all things should be learned by hearing, or retained in the memory. No little attention also must be given to the grammarians, in order that you may know the right method of speaking. That must occupy many years. Nor must there be ignorance of rhetoric, that you may be able to utter and express the things which you have learned. Geometry also, and music, and astronomy, are necessary, because these arts have some connection with philosophy; and the whole of these subjects cannot be learned by women, who must learn within the years of their maturity the duties which are hereafter about to be of service to them for domestic uses; nor by servants, who must live in service during those years especially in which they are able to learn; nor by the poor, or laborers, or rustics, who have to gain their daily support by labor. And on this account Tully says that philosophy is averse from the multitude...Lastly, they never taught any women to study philosophy, except Themiste only, within the whole memory of man; nor slaves, except Phaedo only, who is said, when living in oppressive slavery, to have been ransomed and taught by Cebes." (Lactantius, Divine Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 25).

What Lactantius calls "common learning" he does not deny to women.


Callimachus told the tale of Cydippe and Acontius: while visiting the temple of Diana at Delos, Acontius tossed in front of Cydippe an apple inscribed with the words, 'I swear by the sanctuary of Diana that Cydippe will wed Acontius.' The innocent girl read aloud the fateful words, and as Acontius reminds her, vows made in the temple in the presence of the goddess cannot be broken: “...in some way came the rolling apple, with its treacherous words in clever character; and how, because they were read in holy Diana’s presence, you were bound by a pledge with deity to witness.” (Pseudo-Ovid, Pseudo-Heroides, XX). Further complications ensued, all because the ancients lacked the modern convenience of quotation marks: had Cydippe said, 'And I quote, "I swear, etc.",' she would have remained unsworn.

In any event, had Cydippe been an illiterate listening as a male companion read the writing on the apple for her, the problem of an unintended oath would not have arisen. Twice cautious, Cydippe took up the practice of reading Acontius' letters silently, according to the Alexandrian author of the appendix to the Heroides: "All fearful, I read what you wrote without so much as a murmur, lest my tongue unwittingly might swear by some divinity." (Pseudo-Ovid, Pseudo-Heroides, XXI). As Cydippe points out, there is no pledge if the intention is lacking:

"If I have willed to pledge my hand to you, exact the due rights of the promised marriage-bed; but if I have given you naught but my voice, without my heart, you possess in vain but words without a force of their own. I took no oath – I read words that formed an oath; that was no way for you to be chosen to husband by me." (Pseudo-Ovid, Pseudo-Heroides, XXI).

Still and all, the words were spoken; she was literate.


Pliny the Younger's third wife, the youthful Calpurnia, seems to have been a 'groupie' or fan of the great man's literary output:

"Her affection to me has given her a turn to books; and my compositions, which she takes a pleasure in reading, and even getting by heart, are continually in her hands. [Accedit his studium litterarum, quod ex mei caritate concepit. Meos libellos habet, lectitat, ediscit etiam.]. . .She sings my verses and sets them to her lyre, with no other master but Love, the best instructor." (Pliny the Younger, Letters, Book Four, Letter 19, To Calpurnia Hispulla).

Why make such a fuss over his compositions if she could not read them?

Fundanus' Daughter

This unfortunate young lady, who died of illness at the age of thirteen, was remembered fondly by Pliny:

"She would cling to her father's neck, and embrace us, his friends, with modest affection; she loved her nurses, her attendants and her teachers, each one for the service given her; she applied herself intelligently to her books and was moderate and restrained in her play." (Pliny the Younger, Letters, Book Five, Number 16).

How did she apply herself to her books if she was illiterate, did she juggle them?


Pliny the Younger mentions a bold legacy-hunter, Regulus, who had success with several gullible women:

"Verania, the wife of Piso, was lying very ill — I mean the Piso who was adopted by Galba. Regulus paid her a visit. . .he actually sat down beside her on the couch and asked her on what day and at what hour she had been born. . .He goes off a once; offers the sacrifice and swears that the appearance of the entrails corresponds with the warning of the stars. She, with all the credulity of an invalid, calls for her tablets and writes down a legacy for Regulus; subsequently she grows worse and exclaims as she dies, 'What a rascal, what a lying and worse than perjured wretch, thus to have sworn falsely on the head of his son!'" (Letter XX, To Calvisius, The Complete Works of Pliny the Younger, Kindle location 1273-1281).

Why call for her tablets if she cannot write?

Saturninus' Wife

Pliny seems skeptical of Pompeius Saturninus's claim that his wife had composed several well-written letters. However that may be, she certainly must have been literate:

"A little while ago he read me some letters which he declared had been written by his wife. I thought, on hearing them, that they were either Plautus or Terence in prose, and whether they were composed, as he said, by his wife or by himself, as he denies, his credit is the same. It belongs to him either as the actual author of the letters or as the teacher who has made such a polished and learned lady of his wife — whom he married when she was a girl." (Complete Works of Pliny the Younger, Delphi, Kindle location 500-514).


Marcia was another book-lover:

"Books, your love for which was a boon bequeathed by your father, now void of comfort and scarcely serving for brief distraction, make their appeal to unheeding ears." (Seneca, On Consolation, To Marcia).

Why would Marcia love books if she were illiterate?

The Accusation Apostolic Literacy
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


In the novel 'Chaereas and Callirhoe,' Callirhoe writes a letter:

"Callirhoe too thought it proper to show her gratitude to Dionysius by writing to him. This was the only thing she did independently of Chaereas; knowing his jealous nature, she was anxious to prevent him learning of it. She took a writing tablet and wrote the following.
"'From Callirhoe: greetings to Dionysius, my benefactor -- for it was you who freed me from pirates and slavery. [...] Plangon, my greetings to you; this letter is written in my own hand. Fare you well, good Dionysius, and remember your Callirhoe.'
"She sealed the letter and hid it in a fold of her dress...
"Dionysius went back to his quarters and shut himself in. When he recognized Callirhoe's handwriting, he first kissed the letter, then opened it and clasped it to his breast as if it were Callirhoe present in the flesh."
(Chariton, 'Chaereas and Callirhoe,' pp. 116-119, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon).


Another fictional character, and this one of bad character besides, but you've got to give her credit, she can write:

"While they were in this predicament, Manto could hold out no longer when Rhode kept her waiting, and wrote a note to Habrocomes. Its contents went like this.
"'From his mistress to the fair Habrocomes, greeting. Manto is in love with you and can no longer contain herself, improperly perhaps for a girl, but inevitably for a girl in love...For if you agree, I will persuade my father, Apsyrtus, to give me to you in marriage; we will get rid of your present wife, and you will be rich and prosperous.'...
"She took this letter and sealed it, then gave it to one of her own barbarian servants, telling her to give it to Habrocomes. He took it and read it and was upset at everything in it; he was particularly aggrieved at the part about Anthia. He kept the writing tablet, wrote the reply on another, and gave it to the servant. The letter went like this.
"'Mistress, do as you will and use my body as the body of a slave; and if you want to kill me, I am ready; if you want to torture me, torture me as you please. But I could not come to your bed nor would I obey such a request even if you ordered me.'
"When she received this letter, Manto could not control her anger. [...]
"Meanwhile Apsyrtus, searching the cramped quarters where Habrocomes had been living before his punishment, came across Manto's note to Habrocomes, recognized the writing, and realized that his punishment was unjust. So immediately he gave orders to set Habrocomes free and bring the young man before him." (Xenophon of Ephesus, 'An Ephesian Tale,' pp.141-143, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon).

It is odd that the contrived plots of so many ancient Greek novels, which admittedly are pot-boilers, revolve around the discovery of a letter in which a woman's hand-writing is recognized, given that they could not write.


Letters authored by women are found in papyrus caches, yet we are told these women could not write, but hired someone to write the letter for them. But, again, a novelist has someone recognize a woman's hand-writing:

"When I had gone to him, without a word he handed me a letter. Before I could read a single sentence, my jaw dropped in astonishment: I recognized the handwriting as Leucippe's. The letter read as follows.
"'From Leucippe to her master Clitophon:
"'It is 'Master' I must call you, for you are my mistress's husband. You know well all that I have suffered for you, yet now I am obliged to refresh your memory. For your sake I left my mother and undertook a life of wandering. For your sake I went through shipwreck and captivity at the hands of pirates." [...]
"Returning to the text, I scrutinized every word, as if seeing her through the letters."
(Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon, pp. 242-243, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon).

Ancient Greek novels are not for everyone, in part because of their contrived plots in which every manner of calamity is piled atop the hero and heroine, who nevertheless prevail. Before true love conquers all, the catalog of troubles the characters must undergo includes shipwreck, pirate attack, kidnap and sale into slavery, disease, disaster and hard times, and even amnesia, that staple of daytime TV:

"'I beg you, mistress, be at peace with me now; I have had enough misfortune! I have died and come to life again. I have been taken by pirates and made an exile; I have been sold and been a slave; and I reckon my second marriage a greater burden yet than all this. I beg one favor of you, and of the other gods through you, to requite all: preserve my fatherless child!'" (Cariton, Chaereas and Callirhoe, p. 62, 'Collected Ancient Greek Novels,' edited by B. P. Reardon)
"At the mention of Chaereas she burst into a flood of tears and spoke bitter words about this trial. 'Oh,' she cried, 'that was all I needed, in my misfortunes -- to be taken to court! I have died and been buried; I have been stolen from my tomb; I have been sold into slavery -- and now, Fortune, on top of that I find myself on trial!'" (Chariton, Chaereas and Callirhoe, p. 81, 'Collected Ancient Greek Novels,' edited by B. P. Reardon).
"...Anthia put her arms around Habrocomes and wept. 'Husband and master,' she said, 'I have found you again, after all my wanderings over land and sea, escaping robbers' threats and pirates' plots and pimps' insults, chains, trenches, fetters, poisons, and tombs. But I have reached you, Habrocomes, lord of my heart, the same as when I first left you in Tyre for Syria.'" (Xenophon of Ephesus, An Ephesian Tale, p. 169, 'Collected Ancient Greek Novels,' edited by B. P. Reardon).
"'Did Fortune rescue us from robbers for you to become dementia's pawn? Our good fortune in each case has proved bad luck: we have escaped domestic danger only to suffer shipwreck; we have survived the sea and eluded the outlaws, yes -- because we were being groomed for delirium. And if you ever do recover your wits, my dearest, I can only fear that god must have some other calamity in store. Who could be more disaster-prone than we, who are even frightened of good fortune?'" (Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon, p. 226, 'Collected Ancient Greek Novels,' edited by B. P. Reardon).

For all the world these accident-prone people sound just like the cast of the day-time soap operas on TV. Since these latter shows are presented for a female audience, how likely is it that the very similar Greek novels were written for any but a female readership? Ovid is another author who aims his works at a female readership as well as male: "My labour'd lines, some readers may approve, Since I've instructed either sex in love." (Ovid, Art of Love, Book III). If women really could not read, this is an odd marketing ploy.

Martial, suspecting his female readership to be more squeamish than the male, gives fair warning: "Don't read part of my wanton volume, chaste madam,' I told you before and warned you; and yet, behold! you read it." (Martial, Epigrams, Book III, Chapter LXXXVI, Complete Works of Martial, Kindle location 2045). If all women are illiterate, who is he chastising? According to him, the female inhabitants of Vienna read his work: "Fair Vienna is said, if report speak true, to hold my little books among her darling possessions. Every old sire and youth and boy reads me there, and the chaste bride in the presence of her strait-laced husband." (Martial, Epigrams, Book VII, LXXXVIII). No doubt there's an element of hyperbole in this boastful self-advertisement, but whatever he is trying to say about Vienna is not even meaningful if no women there were literate. "Lucretia blushed and laid down my volume; but Brutus was present. Brutus, go away: she will read it." (Martial Epigrams, Book XI, XVI). How can she read it if he goes away? Supposedly, he must be reading it aloud to her.



Tarsia, the young heroine of 'The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre,' received training in the liberal arts, along with the daughter of her foster-father and evil foster-mother:

"At the age of five Tarsia was assigned to a program of education in the liberal arts and was taught along with the couple's daughter. They were instructed in the development of their natural qualities as well as in the arts of listening and speaking and in moral conduct." (The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre, p. 754, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon).

After the evil foster-mother attempts to have her murdered, Tarsia is kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery, to a brothel-keeper, but she retains her virtue by reciting her tale of woe to prospective customers, who invariably burst into tears and throw money at her without receiving any services in exchange. In acquiring an education, she was following in her mother's foot-steps; her literate mother had communicated her desire to marry Apollonius to her father in writing: "She wrote on the tablets and after sealing them with her signet ring handed them over to the young man. . .'If, Father, you are surprised that a modest young woman should have written so immodestly, I have entrusted my feelings to wax, which has no sense of shame.'" (The Story of Apollonius King of Tyre, p. 749, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, edited by B. P. Reardon).

Sadly, young Tarsia did not have the comfort of knowing her mother in infancy, the mother having slipped into a coma while enduring child-birth on ship-board, then floated to land after being placed in a coffin. Upon being resuscitated she went on to second career as priestess of Diana. Her coma is not explained as the result of suffering anaphylactic shock at a bee sting, a modern idea lacking plausibility. They are all happily reunited thereafter.


Achilles Tatius tells the story of a trial by ordeal in which the accused woman must write out an oath on a tablet:

"The water of the Styx worked as follows...when someone is accused in affairs of Aphrodite, she enters the spring to bathe. The fountain is a small one, reaching only to the mid-calf. The ordeal is this: she writes the oath on a tablet and ties it around her neck with a string. If she has not been false to her oath, the spring remains in place. If she is lying, the water seethes and rises to her neck and covers the tablet. [...] The populace reassembled for this spectacle, and the procedure was followed to the letter there too. Melite was wearing the tablet; the spring lay clear and low. She walked into the waters and stood there with a beaming face. The water did nothing at all! It stayed in its place without the slighted surge from its usual level. When the allotted time for her stay in the spring had passed, the magistrate held out his hand and helped her out of the water." (Achilles Tatius, Leucippe and Clitophon, pp.279-281, 'Collected Ancient Greek Novels,' edited by B. P. Reardon).

Evidently this trial by ordeal found oaths that were technically true satisfactory.


The correspondent who alerted Pliny the Elder to the desperate plight of the survivors at Pompeii was a woman named Recina:

"As he was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascus whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat. She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate.  He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero. He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated." (Pliny the Younger, letter to Cornelius Tacitus explaining how his famous uncle met his end, Letters VI. 16.)

Of course (as the 'Jesus Seminar' types will be quick to point out), Rectina might have visited her local 'Kinko's' to dictate this missive, which drew Pliny the Elder in to his death on the beach. That is to say, assuming 'Kinko's' remains open during catastrophic volcanic eruptions. . .

Baker's Wife

At the head of this page is an illustration of a Roman baker's wife, holding a stylus and a folded tablet. Lucius Apuleius introduces a character into his novel 'The Golden Ass' who is evidently intended for a Christian. This other baker's wife is "a despiser of all the gods whom others did honor, one that affirmed that she had instead of our sure religion an only god by herself, whereby, inventing empty rites and ceremonies she deceived all men, but especially her poor husband, delighting in drinking wine, yea, early in the morning..." (Lucius Apuleius, 'The Golden Ass,' Book Nine, pp. 144-145). Lucius, a devotee of Isis, loads this woman, a monotheist who practiced an 'empty rite' involving drinking wine in the morning (communion?), with every imaginable sin, from adultery to cruelty to animals to murder.

More to the point for present purposes, the baker's wife attended school. Prompted by a reference to an acquaintance, she recalls her as a school-mate:

"Then the baker's wife said: 'I know her very well, for her name is Arete, and we two dwelled together at one school.'" (Lucius Apuleius, 'The Golden Ass,' Book Nine, p. 146).

It was normal for Roman businesses to keep written accounts, according to Cicero: "All Gaul is filled with traders,— is full of Roman citizens. No Gaul does any business without the aid of a Roman citizen; not a single sesterce in Gaul ever changes hands without being entered in the account-books of Roman citizens." (The Fragments which Remain of the Speech of M. T. Cicero on Behalf of Marcus Fonteius, Section 11). While there is undoubtedly an element of hyperbole in this sweeping claim, keeping written account-books was evidently normal Roman business practice. This is what the lady in the illustration at the head of the page is doing.

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

On the Wall

Scrawling graffitti on the wall does not prove anything about ancient literacy, some folks think, because after all you can always hire someone to do that. A woman concerned about her sea-faring man left a message on the wall for the pagan goddess Venus in Pompeii, which was preserved by the volcanic eruption in that place.

"For the crew of any ship foolhardy enough to chance a February crossing of the Mediterranean, it was Venus' role as protector of mariners and shaper of fate that demanded their gratitude. 'Venus is the weaver of webs,' one landlocked lover scratched onto a wall. 'From the moment that she sets out to attack my dearest, she will lay temptations along his path. He must hope for a good voyage, which is also the wish of his Ario.'" ('Pompeii, The Living City,' by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence, p. 36).

We know from the Jesus Seminar that, "In that world, as mentioned earlier, literacy was the prerogative of elite aristocrats, trained retainers, and scribal experts." (John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus, Kindle location1406). This sailor's wife was which of the three, an aristocrat, a retainer, or a scribe?

A Roman lady travelling in Egypt scratched a memorial to her brother in the stone:

The Romans, like ourselves, were great travellers and sightseers, and the marvels of Egypt in particular appealed to them, as they do to us, with irresistible force. Above all, the great statue of Memnon, which gave forth a strange sound when it was struck by the first rays of the rising sun, drew travellers from far and near. Those of us who know the Mammoth Cave, Niagara Falls, the Garden of the Gods, or some other of our natural wonders, will recall how fond a certain class of visitors are of immortalizing themselves by scratching their names or a sentiment on the walls or the rocks which form these marvels. Such inscriptions we find on the temple walls in Egypt— three of them appear on the statue of Memnon, recording in verse the fact that the writers had visited the statue and heard the voice of the god at sunrise. One of these Egyptian travellers, a certain Roman lady journeying up the Nile, has scratched these verses on a wall of the temple at Memphis:

"The pyramids without thee have I seen. My brother sweet, and yet, as tribute sad. The bitter tears have poured adown my cheek. And sadly mindful of thy absence now I chisel here this melancholy note.' Then follow the name and titles of the absent brother, who is better known to posterity from these scribbled lines of a Cook's tourist than from any official records which have come down to us." (The Common People of Ancient Rome: Studies of Roman Life and Literature, Frank Frost Abbott, p. 113).


Pliny the Younger recounts that a legacy-hunter watched a wealthy lady insert a clause into her will with her own hand, though her good fortune and long life subsequently left him disappointed:

"You must know then, that Aurelia, a lady of property, designing to execute her will, had dressed herself for that purpose in a very splendid manner. Regulus, who was present as a witness, turned about to the lady, and, "Pray," says he, "leave me these fine clothes." Aurelia at first thought him in jest; but he insisted upon it very seriously, and, to make a long story short, obliged her to open her will, and insert this legacy; and though he saw her write it, yet he would not be satisfied till he read the clause himself. However Aurelia is still alive; though Regulus forced her to make this bequest, as though her death were imminent. And yet legacies and estates are conferred upon this abandoned man as if he really deserved them!" (Pliny the Younger, Letters, Book Two, Letter 20, To Calvisius).

Seeing is believing.


The physician Soranus (second century A.D.) wanted midwives, who were generally female, to be literate:

"Soranus' Gynaecology covered everything from pregnancy and labor to childhood illnesses, even listing the qualities required in a good midwife who must be 'literate with her wits about her. . .sound of limb, robust and according to some endowed of long slim fingers and short nails. . .'" (Cleopatra the Great, Dr. Joann Fletcher, p. 156).

Josephus, in his autobiography, mentions in passing a female physician: "Now there was one Joseph, the son of a female physician, who excited a great many young men to join with him." (Josephus, Life, Chapter 37).

Domitia Lucilla

Marcus Aurelius' mother Domitia Lucilla would seem to have been literate. Marcus Aurelius was Roman emperor during the second century A.D.; an extensive correspondence with his one-time tutor M. Cornelius Fronto survives. They speculate about her reaction, should she have intercepted and read theirs letters, with their effusive expressions of affection:

"My Lady, your mother, is wont at times to say in fun that she envies me for being loved so much by you. What if she read this letter of yours, in which you even beseech the gods and invoke them with vows for my health?" (Fronto to his own Caesar, 143 A.D., Section 2, Loeb edition, M. Cornelius Fronto, Correspondence, Volume I, p. 84).

They seem unaware that, according to Bishop Spong, no woman was literate, ever, up until modern times. Fronto  asks Marcus Aurelius to correct letter he has written in Greek to Marcus' mother before handing it to her:

"I have written your mother a letter, such is my assurance, in Greek, and enclose it in my letter to you. Please read it first, and if you detect any barbarism in it, for you are fresher from your Greek than I am, correct it and so hand it over to your mother. [Tu prior lege et, si quis inerit barbarismus, tu qui a Graecis litteris recentior es corrige, atque ita matri redde.] I should not like her to look down on me as a Goth. Farewell, my Lord, kiss your mother when you give her my letter, that she may read it the more gladly" (M. Cornelius Fronto, Correspondence, Volume I, Loeb edition, 'To my Lord Aurelius Caesar your consul Fronto,' 143 A.D., Section 7, p. 125.)

The verb 'reddo' means to restore, gvive back, deliver.

Even though he is al professional educator, in addition to being a lawyer and a politician, Fronto, who says he is a Libyan, does not trust his Greek as well as Marcus', or perhaps he is just flattering him. He does not say, 'Make any needed corrections on the fly as you read it aloud to your illiterate mother,' rather he tells him to make the corrections and then "hand it over" to her. Why, so she could use it to dust the living room?

Comomdus' Marcia

When Roman emperor Commodus' mistress Marcia saw her name at the top of a death list, she knew just what to do:

  • “Commodus, enraged, dismissed them and retired to his bedroom for a nap (for this was his custom in the middle of the day). First he took a wax tablet — one made from a thin strip of basswood, which grows under the bark of the linden tree — and wrote down the names of those who were to be put to death that night. Marcia's name was at the top of the list, followed by Laetus and Eclectus and a large number of the foremost senators. . .Philocommodus was playing idly about the palace. After Commodus had gone out to his usual baths and drinking bouts, the lad wandered into the emperor's bedroom, as he usually did; picking up the tablet for a plaything, he left the bedroom. By a stroke of fate, he met Marcia. After hugging and kissing him (for she too was fond of the child), she took the tablet from him, afraid that in his heedless play he might accidentally erase something important. When she recognized the emperor's handwriting, she was eager to read the tablet. Discovering that it was a death list and that she was scheduled to die first, followed by Laetus and Eclectus and many others marked for murder, she cried out in grief and then said to herself: 'So, Commodus, this is my reward for my love and devotion, after I have put up with your arrogance and your madness for so many years.'”
  • (Herodian, History of the Roman Empire, Book I, Chapter XVII, Section 1-5).

She administered poison, but when his vomiting made the conspirators worry his system was expelling it, she and her confederates had him strangled.


Zenobia, the warrior queen of Palmyra, employed the noted philosopher Longinus as her Greek tutor:

"Aurelian, however, deeming it improper that a woman should be put to death, killed many who had advised her to begin and prepare and wage the war, but the woman he saved for his triumph, wishing to show her to the eyes of the Roman people. It was regarded as a cruel thing that Longinus the philosopher should have been among those who were killed. He, it is said, was employed by Zenobia as her teacher in Greek letters, and Aurelian is said to have slain him because he was told that that over-proud letter of hers had been dictated in accord with his counsel, although, in fact, it was composed in the Syrian tongue." (Augustan History, Life of Aurelian, Chapter 30).

Unfortunately, the 'Augustan History' lies under a cloud, the motives and character of its author falling under much deserved suspicion. Nevertheless, Zenobia was a historical person, a warrior queen who maintained a literary salon, and she was almost certainly literate.

Zenobia in Chains, by Harriet Hosmer

Vivia Perpetua

Many Christian women were demonstrably literate, such as the North African martyr Vivia Perpetua. For her story and that of her sisters,

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


Domitia, the estranged wife of the Roman emperor Domitian, happened upon a list:

"Domitia was ever an object of the imperial hatred and consequently stood in terror of her life. . .For my part, I have heard also the following account— that Domitian, having become suspicious of all these persons, conceived a desire to kill them, and wrote their names on a two-leaved tablet of linden wood, and put it under his pillow on the couch where he was wont to repose; and one of the naked prattling boys, while the emperor was asleep in the daytime, filched it away and kept it without knowing what it contained. Domitia then chanced upon it and reading what was written gave information of the matter to those involved. As a result, they changed their plans somewhat and hastened the plot; yet they did not proceed to action until they had determined who was to succeed to the office." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 67, Chapter 15).

It wouldn't be a good idea to take such a tablet to Kinko's, nor to ask someone on the imperial staff to read it aloud to you. What if your name is on the list and his is not? That would be awkward.


Eunapius, in his Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, tells of Sosipatra, a celebrated philosopher:

"After the passing of Eustathius, Sosipatra returned to her own estate, and dwelt in Asia in the ancient city of Pergamon, and the famous Aedesius loved and cared for her and educated her sons. In her own home Sosipatra held a chair of philosophy that rivalled his, and after attending the lectures of Aedesius, the students would go to hear hers; and though there was none that did not greatly appreciate and admire the accurate learning of Aedesius, they positively adored and revered the woman's inspired teaching." (Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, 411).

This woman, educated by Chaldeans, prophesied to her future husband Eustathius that he was destined for orbit: "For your station will be in the orbit of the moon..." She seems to be the one in orbit; nevertheless she must have been literate:

"And as she grew to the full measure of her youthful vigor, she had no other teachers, but ever on her lips were the works of the poets, philosophers, and orators; and those works that others comprehend but incompletely and dimly, and then only by hard work and painful drudgery, she could expound with careless ease, serenely and painlessly, and with her light swift touch would make their meaning clear." (Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, 409)

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

Julia Augusta

Julia was the wife of the Roman emperor Severus and the mother of another, Caracalla (Antoninus), who appointed her to manage his books and letters:

"Neither in these matters nor in any others did he heed his mother, who gave him much excellent advice. This in spite of the fact that he entrusted to her the management of the books and letters both, save the very important ones, and that he inscribed her name with many praises in his letters to the senate, mentioning it in the same connection as his own and that of his armies, i.e., with a statement that she was safe. Need it be mentioned that she greeted publicly all the foremost men, just as her son did? But she continued more and more her study of philosophy with these persons." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 78, Chapter 18, Kindle location 22928 Delphi).

It does not seem likely that an illiterate person would have been qualified to supervise the record books and correspondence. The way historian Cassius Dio sees it, Julia took up the study of philosophy as consolation when her husband's chief advisor set himself against her influence: "So greatly did Plautianus have the mastery in every way over the emperor that he [frequently treated] Julia Augusta [in an outrageous way]. . . and conducted investigations against her as well as tortures of noble women. For this reason she began to study philosophy and passed her days in the company of learned men." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 76, Chapter 15). One hopes she found consolation in this pursuit, because her life would hold other miseries, including watching one of her sons, Caracalla, murder the other. They used to do that in order to simplify the succession.

Apparently her duties included giving a first view to incoming correspondence, to see if it warranted the emperor's attention: "It happened that this letter was diverted to Antioch and came to Julia, since she had been given orders to read over everything that arrived and thus prevent a mass of unimportant letters being sent to him while in a hostile country." (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book 79, Chapter 4). She was at the center of her own literary circle in Rome. Philostratus, who wrote the Life of Apollonius, reports that that work was essentially commissioned by Julia Domna, recommending to his study a work by a native of her part of the world (she was a Syrian):

"There was a man, Damis, by no means stupid, who formerly dwelt in the ancient city of Nineveh. He resorted to Apollonius in order to study wisdom, and having shared, by his own account, his wanderings abroad, wrote an account of them. And he records his opinions and discourses and all his prophecies. And a certain kinsmen of Damis drew the attention of the empress Julia to the documents containing these documents hitherto unknown.

"Now I belonged to the circle of the empress, for she was a devoted admirer of all rhetorical exercises; and she commanded me to recast and edit these essays, at the same time paying more attention to the style and diction of them; for the man of Nineveh had told his story clearly enough, yet somewhat awkwardly." (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, Book 1.3).


As this world draws to its close, we encounter the tragic figure of Hypatia:

"There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Caesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort." (Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, Book 7, Chapter 15).

Hypatia, a pagan, led an unexpected second, posthumous career as a Catholic 'saint,' St. Catherine of Alexandria.

Chrysanthius' Melite

We already have one 'Melite,' but Eunapius, a late pagan writer, offers another, his cousin. The emperor Julian, though raised a Christian, reverted to paganism and, during his mercifully brief reign, sought to bring pagan sophists and theurgists into government. In the case of Chrysanthius, he wrote a personal letter to his wife as well as to the candidate himself: why, if women were invariably illiterate?:

"But in the case of Chrysanthius, on hearing that he had a wife named Melite to whom he was devotedly attached (she was a cousin of the present author), Julian retired in private and, unknown to all, he wrote with his own hand to this woman and expended every possible argument to induce her to persuade her husband not to refuse to make the journey. Then he asked for the letter that had been written to Chrysanthius, enclosed his own, set his seal on both, and dispatched messengers to take what seemed to be only one letter." (Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers, Loeb edition p. 445)

The intended purpose of this hand-written, personal note was to enlist Melite on his side: "Accordingly, he wrote and summoned him a second time, and his invitations were not addressed to Chrysanthius only. For in a special letter he urged his wife to help him to persuade her husband." (Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers, Loeb edition pp. 545-547). If Melite is expected to ask her husband to read the letter for her, the point in writing two letters rather than one is somewhat blunted.


Sulpitius Severus humorously accuses Bassula of pilfering his work,

"If it were lawful that parents should be summoned to court by their children, clearly I might drag you with a righteous thong before the tribunal of the praetor, on a charge of robbery and plunder. For why should I not complain of the injury which I have suffered at your hands? You have left me no little bit of writing at home, no book, not even a letter — to such a degree do you play the thief with all such things and publish them to the world. If I write anything in familiar style to a friend; if, as I amuse myself I dictate anything with the wish at the same time that it should be kept private, all such things seem to reach you almost before they have been written or spoken. Surely you have my secretaries in your debt, since through them any trifles I compose are made known to you. . .I for my part have resolved to write nothing to you lest you publish me everywhere. Nevertheless if you pledge your word that you will read to no one what I send you, I shall satisfy your desire in a few words." (Sulpitius Severus, Letters, Letter 3 to Bassula his Mother-in-Law, pp. 47-48 ECF 2.11).

If Bassula were herself an illiterate person, imposing upon her this vow of confidentiality would be futile, because some other party would be obliged to read it to her. It was futile in any case, given that this missive has come down to us. The genre of literature in which her son-in-law specialized, monk tales, was wildly popular at the time:

"But I will relate to you to what places that book has penetrated, and how there is almost no spot upon earth in which the subject of so happy a history is not possessed as a well-known narrative. Paulinus, a man who has the strongest regard for you, was the first to bring it to the city of Rome; and then, as it was greedily laid hold of by the whole city, I saw the booksellers rejoicing over it, inasmuch as nothing was a source of greater gain to them, for nothing commanded a readier sale, or fetched a higher price." (Sulpicius Severus, Dialogues, Dialogue 1, Chapter 23, p. 76 ECF 2.11)


The pagan poet of late antiquity Claudian devoted his literary energies to singing the praises of the barbarian general Stilicho, for triumphantly repulsing Alaric the Goth from Rome a few years before. . .the persistent Alaric came back to sack Rome. This misstep, not so much backing the wrong horse as raising the 'Mission Accomplished' banner prematurely, may be one reason Claudian is not much read nowadays, his obsequiousness another. In any event, in his flattery of General Stilicho's wife, the blue-blooded Serena, he mentions that she is literate:

"The study of the Muses and the songs of olden time were thy delight. [Pierius labor et veterum tibi carmina vatum ludus erat. . .] Turning the pages of Homer, bard of Smyrna, or those of  Virgil, poet of Mantua, thou findest fault with Helen nor canst approve of Dido. Thy chaste mind fastens upon examples more noble: Laodamia following Protesilaus as he returned to the shades; Euadne who cast herself on the flaming pyre whereon her husband Capaneus perished, wishing to mingle her ashes with his; grave Lucrece who fell upon a chaste sword, she who self-slain bore witness to the tyrant's crime, aroused to war her country's righteous wrath, drove Tarquin into exile and died gloriously, having avenged by her one sacrifice both chastity and freedom. Of such deeds thou dost read with joy, thyself not less in virtue though more blessed of fortune. (Claudian, Claudius Claudianus, Volume II Shorter Poems XXX, In Praise of Serena, pp. 249-251 Loeb edition)

The poet's own marriage was facilitated by a letter from Serena. He regrets that she could not be present for the ceremony: "The royal purple would have been a good omen for our union, the august assembly of the court would have graced the ceremony and the hand which, by writing that letter, promised me my bride would have kindled the torch to light her to the altar." (Claudian, Claudius Claudianus, Volume II, Shorter Poems XXXI, Letter to Serena, p. 261 Loeb edition). Whether the letter was in fact hand-written cannot now be determined inasmuch as this author exaggerates everything.

Claudian's Marriage of Honorius and Mary (II 229-235) gives us a portrait of a woman on the verge of her marriage reading, among other authors, the famed Sappho, for inspiration:

"But Maria, with no thoughts of wedlock nor knowing that the torches were being got ready, was listening with rapt attention to the discourse of her saintly mother, drinking in that mother's nature and learning to follow the example of old-world chastity; nor does she cease under that mother's guidance to unroll the writers of Rome and Greece, all that old  Homer sang, or Thracian Orpheus, or that Sappho set to music with Lesbian quill; (even so Latona taught Diana; so gentle Mnemosyne in her cave gave instruction to meek Thalia)..." (Claudian, Marriage of Honorius and Mary, II, 229-235).

Thus we close out the era of classical antiquity. Given that there's no support in the literature for Bishop Spong's theory of universal female illiteracy, I can only conclude this twisted individual finds comfort in transforming his own mother's acknowledged illiteracy from a family shame into a general black mark against half the human race.

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