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

Scaeva

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
5,516
#31
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.
Where did I claim that the majority of Romans were literate?

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.
 

Scaeva

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
5,516
#32
Again what level of ability are we talking about?
I think it would difficult to determine exactly what percentage of the population was literate. By modern Western standards it would be dismal, but by the standards of the era I think it is fair to say that the Romans had a respectable literacy rate. Certainly it was higher than in the countries of medieval Europe a few centuries later.
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,700
Blachernai
#33
Beyond just class we need to sort literacy across professions - the Vindolanda documents and a number of statements in Vegetius indicate that the army had a fair number of people with at least some basic literacy.
 
Feb 2013
4,282
Coastal Florida
#34
Where did I claim that the majority of Romans were literate?
I didn't say you claimed a majority of Romans were literate. I was simply pointing out that the evidence you've cited indicates the opposite of what you said here:

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)
In actuality, the evidence you've cited from cities does indeed support the idea that literacy was generally limited to those who were relatively wealthy...because urban populations were generally wealthier than rural populations. If you're going to assert that there was any significant degree of literacy among the poor, you need to cite evidence of literacy from the countryside where the vast majority of relatively poor people lived.
 
Last edited:

Scaeva

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
5,516
#35
I didn't say you claimed a majority of Romans were literate. I was simply pointing out that the evidence you've cited indicates the opposite of what you said here:



In actuality, the evidence you've cited from cities supports the idea that literacy was indeed generally limited to those who were relatively wealthy because urban populations were generally wealthier than rural populations. If you're going to assert that there was any significant degree of literacy among the poor, you need to cite evidence of literacy from the countryside where the vast majority of relatively poor people lived.
It does nothing of the sort. Most urban residents were poor as well. While the sprawling villas in Pompeii might get most of the limelight, the vast majority of homes in the city were much more modest and belonged to the lower classes. Graffiti and advertisements are no less common among the homes and shops of the lower classes than they are in and near those villas.

Literacy also appears to have not been uncommon in the army, and most of its manpower were from the lower classes as well.

Were the majority of Romans literate? Of course not, but there is plenty of evidence that it wasn't limited to the wealthy.
 
Feb 2013
4,282
Coastal Florida
#36
It does nothing of the sort. Most urban residents were poor as well. While the sprawling villas in Pompeii might get most of the limelight, the vast majority of homes in the city were much more modest and belonged to the lower classes. Graffiti and advertisements are no less common among the homes and shops of the lower classes than they are in and near those villas.
On the whole, urban populations are wealthier than rural populations. They always have been and they always will be. The presence of "graffiti and advertisements" doesn't necessarily say much about the literacy of the population. Being able to recognize some simple words isn't really analogous to being proficient enough to read Herodotus or Cicero. And if a person can't read literature like that, I'm not sure I would really deem them literate. Although, I suppose there's a range.

Literacy also appears to have not been uncommon in the army, and most of its manpower were from the lower classes as well.
country peasants doing back-breaking labor in the fields vs. soldiers plundering foreign nations...who made more money? I bet the soldiers generally did...

Were the majority of Romans literate? Of course not, but there is plenty of evidence that it wasn't limited to the wealthy.
I wouldn't say "exclusively limited"...but I would say no evidence cited in this thread supports a significant level of literacy among the relatively poor across the overall population.
 

Jax

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
6,208
Seattle
#37
wasn't a stint in the army mandatory for anyone wishing to climb the political ladder?

Wouldn't this tend to raise the education level of the army as a profession as a whole?
 
May 2012
302
Heaven
#38
As remain texts,literacy rate in ancient Roman could be 9 - 15 percent of total empire population while at ancient Egyptian and Babylonian,less than 1 percent inhabitants could read and write and no higher 2-3 percent in Han Dynasty.Even in farthest region like Vietnam,Korean or Guangdong,perharp only 0.05 - 0.1 percent individual could read and write by Han script(descendant of Oracle Bone script).
 
Mar 2015
840
Europe
#39
We have more statistics from Roman Egypt.
https://www.openstarts.units.it/bitstream/10077/14692/1/FaragunaGT3-23_YIFTACH.pdf
Who, and how many, could sign legal documents (more than just a name - 10-15 words in simple sentences confirming that the signatory understood what the document was about) and who could not.
Page 3: of the 214 men who signed documents, 74 could write their summary. Of the 104 women, 7 could.

Of course, the sums are biased for people who made contracts in the first place. But if you make breakdowns by group, you might correct it...
 
Likes: Le Hoang
May 2012
302
Heaven
#40
As document of chornedsnorkack,81 people of 318 could be literacy people,rate is 25 percent.However,there is a great different between men and women.While,third of men could read and write,only 7 percent women could do it.
 

Similar History Discussions