Writing it down

Peter Parsons

  • Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens by Rosalind Thomas
    Cambridge, 321 pp, £27.50, March 1989, ISBN 0 521 35025 5

‘Orality’ and ‘literacy’ loom large but fuzzy in analyses of Greek culture. The Homeric poems show stylistic features typical of oral composition: but would the large-scale design of the Iliad have been possible without writing? Plato’s arguments show the picturesque plausibilities of conversation: could Aristotle have invented logic without writing? Writing disseminates information and encourages argument: oral society is a society of rote-learning. The Athenians themselves agreed that written law is central to democracy: for unwritten law is the property of the oligarchs who know it. Chronology alone shows that this was no unitary revolution. But as a key to all locks it appeals as much to anthropologists as to liberal humanists, who cannot believe in high culture without high literacy. On the historical side, much scholarly energy has gone into determining the level of literacy – a futile business, since we have nothing but a sprinkling of casual facts, which prove nothing unless they are typical and their society static. Rosalind Thomas’s rich and invigorating book takes a more concrete and profitable stance. The real question is not how many were literate, but literate in what, and for what? The uses of literacy do not determine social attitudes, but depend on them.

She has two central concerns: the place of the oral (gossip, memory, tradition) and the written (books, documents) in Athenian society, and the consequences for Greek historians and their modern analysts. Herodotus, chronicling the great patriotic war of the last generation, and Thucydides, chronicling the great civil war of his own, in the new-fangled medium of prose and the new-fangled language of research, relied heavily on eye and ear, witnesses and hearsay; their histories combine the techniques of journalism with the scope and moral urgency of epic. To assess them, we need to assess those oral sources, and yet our only knowledge of the oral comes precisely through the written. There is a danger of circularity. Thomas tries to meet it in two ways: by juxtaposing the historical synthesis with the raw manifestations of oral tradition in Greek oratory, and by a discreet but determined application of examples and categories from social anthropology.

The written word has not always had a good press. The writing systems of the Near East begin, at least, as the instrument of business and administration. The first abortive attempt to write down Greek turns up among the bureaucrats of the Mycenean palace-centres. The alphabet, which arrived later, was simpler and more accessible: even so, written literature comes relatively late. Oral poetry, after all, takes less remembering than mental arithmetic; snobbery and restrictive practice (so long as the tradition of live performance continues) may play a part. Aristophanes makes jokes about books, Plato insists on the values of the ear (the book, he remarks in the Phaedrus, is not interactive) – the culture of reading can be seen, even in the fifth century, as a fad of the avant-garde. This did not stop the IT revolution consolidating itself; books, as well as beds, were soon being exported as far as the remote and isolated colonies of the Black Sea.

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