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The chronology and extent of the diffusion of literacy in Greece remains a matter of debate. With the Mycenean collapse in the 12th century, writing disappeared; the earliest Greek inscriptions in the modified Semitic alphabet occur in the last two decades of the 8th century.44 Recent authorities suggest 39 “If the alphabet is defined as a system of signs expressing single sounds of speech, then the first alphabet which can justifiably be so called is the Greek alphabet”. Gelb, Study of Writing, p. 166. 39a I. Kings 17, iv-vi; see A Dictionary of the Bible… ed. James Hastings (New York, 1898-1904), s.v. “Elijah”. 40 810 a. From the ages 10 to 13. 41 L’Adoption universelle des caracteres latins (Paris, 1934); for more recent develop- ments and documentation, see William S. Gray, The Teaching of Reading and Writing: An International Survey, Unesco Monographs on Fundamental Education X (Paris, 1956), especially pp. 31-60. 42 Chester G. Starr, The Origins of Greek Civilization (New York, 1961), pp. 189-190, 349 ff. 43 Starr, The Origins of Greek Civilization, pp. 87-88, 357. 44 Starr, The Origins of Greek Civilization, p. 169,


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the new script was adopted and transformed about the middle of the 8th century in Northern Syria.45 The extensive use of writing probably came only slowly in the 7th century, but when it eventually came it seems to have been used in a very wide range of activities, intellectual as well as economic, and by a wide range of people.46

It must be remembered, of course, that Greek writing throughout the classical period was still relatively difficult to decipher, as words were not regularly separated;47 that the copying of manuscripts was a long and laborious process; and that silent reading as we know it was very rare until the advent of printing – in the ancient world books were used mainly for reading aloud, often by a slave. Nevertheless, from the sixth century onwards literacy seems to be increasingly presumed in the public life of Greece and Ionia. In Athens, for example, the first laws for the general public to read were set up by Solon in 593-4 B.C.; the institution of ostracism early in the fifth century assumes a literate citizen body – 6,000 citizens had to write the name of the person on their potsherds before he could be banished;48 there is abundant evidence in the fifth century of a system of schools teaching reading and writing49 and of a book-reading public – satirized already by Aristo- phanes in The Frogs; 50 while the final form of the Greek alphabet, which was established fairly late in the fifth century, was finally adopted for use in the official records of Athens by decree of the Archon Eucleides in 403 B.C.



The rise of Greek civilization, then, is the prime historical example of the transition to a really literate society. In all subsequent cases where a wide- spread introduction of an alphabetic script occurred, as in Rome, for example, other cultural features were inevitably imported from the loan country along with the writing system; Greece thus offers not only the first

45 L. H. Jeffery, The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece (Oxford, 1961), p. 21; R. M. Cook and A. G. Woodhead, “The Diffusion of the Greek Alphabet”, American Journal of Archaeology, 63 (1959), pp. 175-78. For North Syria, see Sir Leonard Woolley, A Forgotten Kingdom (London, 1953). 46 Chester Starr speaks of its use by “a relatively large aristocratic class” (p. 171) and Miss Jeffery notes that “writing was never regarded as an esoteric craft in early Greece. Ordinary people could and did learn to write, for many of the earliest inscriptions which we possess are casual graffiti” (p. 63). 47 Frederic G. Kenyton, Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome (2nd ed., Oxford, 1951), p. 67. 48 Jerome Carcopino, L’Ostracisme athenien (Paris, 1935), pp. 72-110. 49 Protagoras, 325 d. 50 1. 1114; in 414 B.C. See also Plato, Apology, 26 d, and the general survey of Kenyon, Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome.





example of this change, but also the essential one for any attempt to isolate the cultural consequences of alphabetic literacy.

The fragmentary and ambiguous nature of our direct evidence about this historical transformation in Greek civilization means that any generalizations must be extremely tentative and hypothetical; but the fact that the essential basis both of the writing systems and of many characteristic cultural institu- tions of the Western tradition as a whole are derived from Greece, and that they both arose there simultaneously, would seem to justify the present at- tempt to outline the possible relationships between the writing system and those cultural innovations of early Greece which are common to all alphabetic- ally-literate societies.

The early development of the distinctive features of Western thought is usually traced back to the radical innovations of the pre-Socratic philosophers of the sixth century B.C. The essence of their intellectual revolution is seen as a change from mythical to logico-empirical modes of thought. Such, broadly speaking, is Werner Jaeger’s view; and Ernst Cassirer writes that “the history of philosophy as a scientific discipline may be regarded as a single continuous struggle to effect a separation and liberation from myth”.51

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