What Do We Know About Literacy Rates in the Ancient World?

Jax

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
6,208
Seattle
#1
Wealth in the early principate from Augustus to Hadrian seems to have been at a all time high that would not be seen again for another fifteen hundred years. This would seem to indicate a rather high rate of educated people as a consequence, and is indeed known as the Golden and Silver age of literature.
I have seen quotes from 10% to as high as 40% literary rates for the wealthier populations in the Roman sphere. Is it just guessing or are there any facts to back up these assertions?

Also I note that while two Romans like Trajan and Pliny, when corresponding with each other wrote in koine not Latin. Other people, like Tacitus, wrote their works in Latin while someone like Josephus translated their works from Aramaic into koine only. Why? Why not just koine? Wasn't koine the language of the educated? Who else than the educated would have been reading these works?
 
Jan 2014
190
Germany
#2
There is a tendency to be observed (tentatively beginning around 200 BC) of Romans writing in Latin, not Greek. Plautus started writing his comedies (heavily drawing on Greek material), and some time later, the first historiographers started writing in Latin. Classical Philology names the phases of this development translatio, imitatio, and aemulatio of Greek literature into Latin (the first two are self-explanatory; aemulatio would be what Cicero did - not just translating and imitating Greek scholars, but building upon their material and taking it to a new level). It all has to do with a Roman feeling of "We're important now!"

Pliny and Trajan? Their letter exchange was Latin, quite definitely. Tacitus (around the same time as Pliny, both are considered the "Silver Age" of Latin) wrote at a time when writing in Latin was the norm and perfectly accepted. Josephus probably had not much of a reason to translate his work into Latin?
 
Apr 2012
615
Ἀντιόχει&
#3
Literacy rates were higher in the Antiquity when compared to the Middle Ages (excluding the Renaissance), however they were not particularly high.

Koine was the language of the educated people in the west, and all of the people in the east (in a supranational sense, most people were not native Koine speakers, it was their second language), however Latin was the language of the administration and the army and therefore exclusive use of Koine would have been insuficient.

Given the fact that the most of the people in the western half of the empire only spoke Latin as their first or second language, and almost no one spoke Koine, there was no reason to insist upon the use of Koine.
 

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
#4
The prevalence of graffiti, even by gladiators, would suggest to me that literacy rates were fairly respectable.
 
Apr 2012
615
Ἀντιόχει&
#5
Pliny and Trajan? Their letter exchange was Latin, quite definitely. Tacitus (around the same time as Pliny, both are considered the "Silver Age" of Latin) wrote at a time when writing in Latin was the norm and perfectly accepted. Josephus probably had not much of a reason to translate his work into Latin?
Josephus was a man from the eastern mediterranean (Judea), his native language was Aramaic and the "lingua franca" of the eastern mediterranean was Koine.
Many speakers of Koine, who did not pursue a political career didn't even bother to learn Latin.
In fact some of them, such as Libanios, considered Latin to be a language of lesser importance when compared to Koine, or more precisely the Attic dialect, the same goes for any works originally written in Latin.
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,623
Blachernai
#7
Literacy exists on various strata. Being able to write your name or a simple sentence does not mean you were necessarily able to read or compose literature.
 

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