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Literacies in the Roman World

November 1, 2018

A few decades ago, it became fashionable in some scholarly circles, including NT/Christian Origins, to hold the view that in the Roman period there was an extremely low level of literacy, and that only elite levels of society had that skill.  One still sees this view touted today (typically by those echoing what they believe to be authoritative pronouncements on the matter by others).  But a number of studies show that such generalizations are simplistic, and that “literacy” was both more diverse and much more widely distributed than some earlier estimates.  The earlier claims of an extremely low level of literacy resurfaced in some comments, so I take the time to draw attention to some previous postings on the subject.

In a previous posting (here) I complained about the frequent failure to take account of relevant material evidence for reading and writing in the Roman world.  In other postings, I drew particular attention to the data provided in a study of graffiti from Pompeii (here), and also the really interesting study of graffiti by Roger Bagnall, in his book Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011) (here).

The particular importance of graffiti is that they don’t likely reflect the activities of “elites,” but more likely people of lower/various social levels.  One can’t imagine Cicero stopping to write graffiti!  But also graffiti seem to have been addressed to similarly diverse social levels, with the expectation that various/many passersby would be able to stop and read them.  As the cited studies observe, this all means that, at least in urban settings, some meaningful levels of literacy were much more common that some have previously asserted.

To bring this around to the focus of this blog site, the NT and origins of Christianity, these studies reinforce the view that early Christian circles were rather “bookish,” as I’ve described them in my book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor Univ Press, 2016), 105-41.  Right from the first decades onward, Christians read, composed, copied and circulated texts on an impressive scale, given the small number of Christians at the time.  So, with all due regard for “orality” and the ancient appreciation of the spoken word, in early Christian circles (as, actually, in the larger Roman-era world of the time), texts were central as well.  For an excellent introduction to the matter, I recommend (as I have frequently) Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

Likewise, the older (early 20th century) notion that early Christian circles were composed of slaves and unlearned nobodies has rightly been corrected by various studies.  The pioneering study by Edwin Judge, The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century (1960), was followed by a number of works focused on the social description of early Christian groups.  I’ve listed some of them here.

(I remind readers again that to search for earlier postings that may be of interest use the “word cloud” and the search box on this site.  You may well find that your query has been addressed already.)

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  1. Tom Hennell permalink

    With specific reference to Christian graffiti; might there be a significance in the preponderance of abecediaries in the graffiti found in the third century house-church at Dura? Other graffiti abecediaries have been found all over Dura, but nowhere in so great a concentration as in the courtyard of the house-church. The courtyard, I believe, was the area of the church specific for catechumens – those not yet admitted to baptism – and so perhaps it might be inferred that ‘learning your alphabet’ was something that new Christians expected to do in the early stages of instruction in the faith? At least in third century Syria.

  2. Ryan Wettlaufer permalink

    Helpful post, Larry, thanks. (And good to see you posting again, glad your health is doing well. ) I can’t recall if I’ve ever assumed a simplistic view of early literacy in print, but I know I’ve done so in my thinking.

    I do have two follow up questions though:

    First, you wrote “The particular importance of graffiti is that they don’t likely reflect the activities of “elites,” but more likely people of lower/various social levels. One can’t imagine Cicero stopping to write graffiti!”. That certainly fits with modern social assumptions, but do we have any evidence for that in this early period? That is, how do we know that graffiti was primarily characteristic of the lower classes during that time? Is it possible that it was a more socially acceptable activity for the elites? I mean, I can’t imagine Cicero stopping to tag a wall either, but as you said, imagination is not historical evidence.

    Second question, has there been much study specifically of the literary depth of surviving graffiti? What I’m interested in here is just what level of literacy can be demonstrated by this graffiti. I’m assuming, of course, that we shouldn’t be thinking of literacy in binary terms, but rather in degrees. I would guess that most grown adults – even those properly classified as ” illiterate” – would have picked up a few words here and there, and many would be capable of scrawling some choice epithets on a wall even though they had no hope of ever reading Cicero, no?


    • Ryan: I really must refer you to Bagnall’s book and other such studies, which are rich in giving examples of the graffiti. As I recall, some of them indicate rather clearly who wrote them. Some, e.g., seem to come from prostitutes! I think the general analysis is that the graffiti aren’t from elites but from people of other/lower social classes.
      Second, these same studies do offer some analysis of the literacy levels involved. They can make complete sentences, for example, and use expressions from literature. But of course in our time all sorts of people might say “all the world’s a stage” without ever having read Shakespeare.

  3. Don Wilkinson permalink


    In your blog above you refer to the view that a number of studies seem to suggest that literacy was very low among the general population, but higher among the elites. You state that this generalization is simplistic. I am not qualified to say that is true or not. However, I find the term ‘simplistic’ popping up in academic circles with frequent regularity. In some places it is well justified, My comments below apply to the term ‘simplicity’ in general, not the comments above.

    Over the years I have come to the conclusion that simplicity is or may be a good thing. I am not talking about ignorance, but a view that explains theoretical matters in a way that is understandable by the non-elites. In the area of science, this is highly praised. During my time as an undergraduate student I read Thomas Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn’s view that paradigms are best explained when simple, does not seem to me to have a large following in the humanities. I have also discovered that complex questions need not have complex answers. For example, Einstein’s e=mc(sq) is the most simple and elegant description regarding the problem of relatively. The problem was very complex, the answer was not. The same applies in the area of law. The best judgments are not only logical and rationale, but also simple.

    It may be that simplicity is an over-looked virtue!

    • Don: “Simple” is one thing. “Simplistic” entirely another, referring to something as ignoring certain data and so constructing a view that is . . . “simplistic” and invalid.

      • Don Wilkinson permalink

        I can live with that distinction, although I think ignoring certain data is not only simplistic,
        but poor scholarship, plain and simple. In other words, it is willful ignorance.

  4. Larry, in your CSCO article (Ancient Literacy and Graffiti) you say that: Kristina

    “Milnor discusses the incidence of graffiti that make use of phrases from literary texts, often to make jokes. As she notes, there are thousands of graffiti from Pompeii alone, and of various types, “written in charcoal, scratched with a stick or stylus, painted with a brush,” giving us “a window onto the language of everyday life in the ancient Roman world,” and giving us direct artifacts of “words written by ordinary people performing an activity (writing graffiti) that we in the modern day do not associate with the cultural elite”. Milnor’s essay is a salutary indication that the full body of data to be considered in engaging the “literacy” vs. “orality” debate is more diverse and demanding that some have recognized.”

    So both you and Milnor seem to imply that the elite were fully aware and probably participated in writing graffiti, and that in the Roman world. This was done on public buildings for all to see, both in Pompeii and in Rome. One natural question arises: where are the early Roman Christian manuscripts?

    • No, Geoff. You mis-read things. The graffiti weren’t produced by “elites”. Instead, the graffiti show that other social levels as well (1) could read and write, and (2) had a certain acquaintance with some literary texts (likely through their schooling).

      • Larry, I imagine that it was quite common for most people after a night on the town would have indulged in writing graffiti, including elites who wanted to get their message across. If graffiti writing was so popular, how come there is little or no mention of early Christians?

      • Geoff: Your imagination isn’t historical evidence! Read the studies in question. Early Christians do appear to be mentioned in some graffiti too, as Bagnall argued.

      • Larry, what do you class as historical evidence? Nongbri also mentions some graffiti that appears to be referring to a third century Christian in the age before Constantine. (See: The message is hostile. The inscription was ridiculing someone for worshipping a God who had been crucified. Balaam’s ass comes to mind immediately from the drawing. The graffiti artist knew the biblical account. He was saying, in effect, that the proponents of Jesus being crucified were wrong. So what kind of low person with biblical understanding would say that?


      • No, Geoff. Balaam’s ass isn’t anywhere in sight! The notion that Jews worshipped an ass’s head was circulating in the Roman world. This seems to be an adaptation. Neither Balaam nor the Jewish god was crucified. That seems to require a reference to Jesus. The graffiti doesn’t deny Jesus’ crucifixion; it mocks Alexamenos for worshipping the crucified Jesus. (Gee, Geoff, how do you get your really strange ideas??)

    • Tom Hennell permalink

      Geoff; I think your final question is more commonly put the other way round; as, “Why are there so many early Christian manuscripts?”; given that Christians cannot have formed more than a very small proportion of the literate population of the empire; why are so many of the surviving papyri of proposed 2nd/3rd century date, identifiably Christian? One possible answer could be that Christians were predisposed to write in papyrus books (specifically codices); where literate Mithraists, by comparison, appear to have continually written on the walls of their Mithreums (which archeologists find to have been regularly whitewashed clean for fresh such writings). But the basic point is the same; both Christians and Mithraists had cultures of writing, as also presumably cultures of reading such writing.

      • Tom, the codex was invented approximately 250 years earlier by the Romans. So why hasn’t any Roman Christian codex manuscript survived if it was such a popular publishing medium used by Christians.?

      • Geoff: Yet again you’re confused. Nobody denies the codex was developed prior to Christian usage of it. The climate and conditions in Rome mean that there are scarcely any “Roman” codices (by which I presume that you mean codices found in Rome). The Herculanium papyri are an exception, buried beneath the volcanic mass. Oh, and they’re all rolls. No codex.

  5. john permalink

    I have two questions about 1 Peter and the notion that he had a secretary:

    1) Do you agree with the notion that 1 Peter was probably written in the late years of the first century by a follower of Peter who wished to address a new situation in Asia Minor in the spirit of the Peter he had followed? Or do you think this letter may actually be a dictation by the living Peter himself to his secretary Silvanus (5:12), whom he gave authority to write in his name?

    2) Also, what intrigues me so much about this letter is the reference to “my son Mark” (5:13). Whether Mark is literally Peter’s son, or “a new birth, son in Jesus” seems moot. It seems to me that the emphasis on suffering and resurrection in the letter is the exact same emphasis on suffering and resurrection in the gospel of Mark. This all ways makes me wonder if the 1 Peter we now have (albeit redacted), is in fact a predecessor and inspiration for Mark’s three passion-resurrection predictions. Do you think that is possible?

    • I assent to the dominant scholarly view that 1 Peter is written in Peter’s name by someone else, and likely late lst century. “My son Mark” likely reflects the early tradition that John Mark was a close associate of Peter, the tradition that got attached to the Gospel of Mark. I think, however, that GosMark came first, not 1 Peter.

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