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

Aug 2014
951
United States of America
#21
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?
One thing to start thinking about is what kind of evidence would demonstrate who read, what they read, and how much they could read and/or write.
 
Jan 2014
190
Germany
#22
The percentage was very, very small indeed.
So if one walked through the grafitti'd walls of a Roman city, barely one in twenty would actually know who had been fellating whom? I'm not arguing against your viewpoint because I have no evidence for the contrary, but it's hard to believe. Why bother to write it on the wall of people couldn't read it?

Or was it more a way of showing off: Look, mate, I can write!
 
Mar 2013
898
Breakdancing on the Moon.
#23
So if one walked through the grafitti'd walls of a Roman city, barely one in twenty would actually know who had been fellating whom? I'm not arguing against your viewpoint because I have no evidence for the contrary, but it's hard to believe. Why bother to write it on the wall of people couldn't read it?

Or was it more a way of showing off: Look, mate, I can write!
Yes and no (to both). Bear in mind that literacy, even the lowest rungs, is going to be higher in urban populations whereas when we give overall estimates we mean the whole sway of the Imperium. That means comparing young men of senatorial class sitting lectures in rhetoric somewhere in Rhodes to a peasant farmer in Arpinium.

The graffiti is usually on the lower end of the spectrum, often accompanied by pictures. The amount of people who could read that would be much larger than those able to read literature but still a minority in the overall population.

Like I said picking up the alphabet wouldn't be too difficult and we've examples of such training occurring using papyri and a students book hand on side, and cheap ostraka on the other.

BTW GoldSeven, from what I recall you're a Latin teacher which presumably means you can read Greek as well. If you have time pick up Theresa Morgan's "Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman World". It is one hell of a book and well put together, one of the few good ones on that period of Roman education.
 
Mar 2013
898
Breakdancing on the Moon.
#24
What social group range would you assign to people in this time period who read Greek novels or the Gospels and further who wrote them?
You'll have to ask an NT scholar for the NT, but it's hardly high art. For the novels all I'll say is we might dismiss them as being sort of lower in class. In a way they were, they weren't respectable and the level of language used was often lower than one might expect. That said there are quite a lot of literary references in there which suggest the authors themselves to be well educated and, at least in part, expected their audience to get these references.

So maybe we should think of a spectrum between "somewhat educated but intellectually challenged" to "very educated, indulging in a guilty pleasure".
 

starman

Ad Honorem
Jan 2014
3,901
Connecticut
#26
Some regions might have been highly literate, but the literacy of the entire empire is more difficult to assess.

Ehrman cited a study on literacy in the ancient world, which concluded that, in the best of times at most 10% of people could read. Literacy in Palestine was about 3%. Fewer could write and fewer still could write compositions. Only the upper wealthy classes had the time and leisure to get an education.
 
Feb 2013
4,263
Coastal Florida
#27
I'm not sure how one could possibly produce an accurate measurement. However, considering that the vast majority of ancient populations were agrarian in character and abstract literature served no practical purpose for agricultural production, it's difficult to imagine there was ever a huge percentage of people who were free to spend time learning to read at anything more than a superficial level.
 

Scaeva

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
5,445
#28
The prevalence of graffiti, even by gladiators, would suggest to me that literacy rates were fairly respectable.
Indeed.

The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum are covered in ancient graffiti and political and commercial advertisements, most of it scratched into areas frequented by (or intended for) the common man. There also is at least one alphabet scratched into a wall at a child's height, suggesting that it might have been a child's teaching tool. Excavations at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in Britain, have also turned up a treasure trove of old writing tablets that functioned as both official military documents or private letters to and from the people stationed or living there.

The ancient Romans may not have had a literacy rate near that of modern first world nations, but the notion that literacy was limited to the wealthy or patricians is also incorrect. (A statement I've seen made on these forums)
 
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Jax

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
6,208
Seattle
#29
Indeed.

The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum are covered in ancient graffiti and political and commercial advertisements, most of it scratched into areas frequented by (or intended for) the common man. There also is at least one alphabet scratched into a wall at a child's height, suggesting that it might have been a child's teaching tool. Excavations at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in Britain, have also turned up a treasure trove of old writing tablets that functioned as both official military documents or private letters to and from the people stationed or living there.

The ancient Romans may not have had a literacy rate near that of modern first world nations, but the notion that literacy was limited to the wealthy or patricians is also incorrect. (A statement I've seen made on these forums)
Again what level of ability are we talking about?
 
Feb 2013
4,263
Coastal Florida
#30
Indeed.

The ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum are covered in ancient graffiti and political and commercial advertisements, most of it scratched into areas frequented by (or intended for) the common man. There also is at least one alphabet scratched into a wall at a child's height, suggesting that it might have been a child's teaching tool. Excavations at Vindolanda, a Roman fort in Britain, have also turned up a treasure trove of old writing tablets that functioned as both official military documents or private letters to and from the people stationed or living there.

The ancient Romans may not have had a literacy rate near that of modern first world nations, but the notion that literacy was limited to the wealthy or patricians is also incorrect. (A statement I've seen made on these forums)
Ask yourselves where the proof of literacy is found. In agrarian societies (and all societies were principally agrarian and/or hunter-gathering until the industrial revolution), a large majority of the overall population will be spread out over the rural countryside and work in agricultural professions. A minority of people live in cities...and a minority of that minority will be literate. In the countryside where the majority of people live, one would expect a tiny fraction of people to be literate. So add a minority of the urban minority to a tiny fraction of the rural majority and I think you'll probably end up with a small minority overall. Some cities may have tens or even hundreds of thousands of residents but the truly urban portion of the overall population will still be relatively small. The urban population will also be relatively elite and much wealthier than the much more numerous peasants involved in agricultural production who live in the countryside. When you find large numbers of scrolls and tablets scattered throughout the countryside, then we can talk about there being a higher percentage of people who were literate. If you only find proof of widespread literacy in cities, you haven't found evidence of widespread literacy throughout the overall population...you've only found a small and relatively wealthy literate minority.
 
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