- Oct 2012
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.
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.