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.

And yet the book itself remains, well into the Middle Ages, an oddly approximate item: a string of letters, without word-divisions, with minimal punctuation, it leaves the reader to pick out the words and organise them into sentences. Many readers moved their lips; reading was an effort, not of reception, but of inner recitation. Even quotations from the classics are rarely verbatim; informal and informative literature (textbooks, popular biography, even the New Testament) shows a fluidity of wording, and a liability to expand and contract, that continue the oral tradition of continuous mutation. Even in the high Roman period, all libraries and publishers and professional littérateurs, the tradition continues: style aims at rhetorical euphony, public recital is the normal form of hype. The poet may dictate (as the Muse dictates to him), but ‘Arms and the man I write’ remains unthinkable. Behind all this, and beyond the literary, is a general question of social function. What did a man who could read, read? How many could write more than their name, and why? Greek art shows many scenes of reading, none (outside the schoolroom) of writing: contrast Egyptian art, where writing, the art of the bureaucrat, shows status and wealth. In Greece and Rome, it seems, reading was for gentlemen, writing for secretaries.

There were also non-literary forms of written material: public documents (mostly inscribed on stone), private documents (on wax or papyrus). Thomas charts an increasing ‘document-mindedness’ in the Athens of the fourth century BC: a public record office is established (in a temple, as usual, where stone and sanctity gave some protection from fire and riot); in legal affairs, the verbal declaration (validated by witnesses) begins to give way to written pleas, affidavits and contracts. The second may reflect practical necessity, as well as Zeitgeist: the merchant with business in Ionia, the younger son making his fortune in distant mercenary wars, cannot summon witnesses across the sea if they need to sue on the spot. The earliest Greek contract that actually survives, drawn up in 311 BC at the remote garrison town of Elephantine in Egypt, illustrates the practicalities: there are still witnesses, and to that extent oral and written co-exist, but the document is so constructed (two copies on a single sheet, one of them folded, tied and sealed) that it can prove its own authenticity, and so drafted as to be evidence in any jurisdiction, not just in its state of origin.

Of the public record, we know at least something from surviving stones. We know, for example, that in 425 BC Athens greatly increased the tribute payable by her subject-states (‘allies’ was the official name). We see this as an important sign of the strains of war, and a cause of later disaffection; and wonder why Thucydides, a local and a general, deeply interested in money and power, knows (or at least says) nothing about it. But it is not so simple, as Thomas emphasises: even the few who treated inscriptions as a source of information – as material, not just as memorial – might have difficulty in finding what they wanted in the cemetery of stones. Making a document, preserving it, and indexing it for reference, are different things. Written laws and published decrees characterised the democracy, so the Athenians thought; as a next stage we might expect a civil service, in accordance with Weber’s analysis – bureaucracies develop from total war (as in the later Roman Empire), from positive despotism (as in Pharaonic Egypt), and from the negative despotism which is full democracy. But ancient administrators, even at their height, do not match the self-motivating efficiency of the grand Berlin bureausaurs Weber observed: what moved the ancients, he notes, was the boot, not esprit de corps. Not much could be hoped from the single public slave who presided over the Athenian archives.

Down in the marketplace, oral communication continued at full volume: games and folk-tale, myth and the mysteries, and the whole babble of rumour, gossip and anecdote cycled and recycled in the alfresco bitchery of Athenian society. Here Thomas concentrates on two aspects – family tradition, and patriotic tradition – and a test case: the complex of traditions surrounding one family in the public eye, the Alcmaeonids, the Kennedys of their time, rich, glamorous and fated. Family was the oldest institution, and such private traditions have played a large part in Greek historiography. It’s not surprising that when they come above ground in the law court they appear so limited and foreshortened: mythical ancestors (Athenian juries had a soft spot for blood), battles patriotically fought, money patriotically spent, service to democracy in opposing (or at least in not supporting) two bogey regimes, the tyranny of the late sixth century, and the oligarchies of 411 and 404-3. Thus the Alcmaeonids claimed to have lived in exile throughout the tyranny: an inscription nearby could have proved, as it proves to us, that the head of the family actually held high office in this period. Origins, crises, and the last two or three generations: everything else is a void. That emerges more starkly in genealogies. Plato mocks those who trace their family through 25 generations to Heracles, but, so far as our sources go, few did, and those not necessarily accurately. (It remains a question, how complex a stemma could be remembered without writing.)

This has wider implications. Greek states dated events by reigning monarchs or yearly magistrates: that made it difficult to establish relative or absolute chronology (or indeed to know exactly how old one was). Genealogies might, especially in archaic history, provide a substitute: a synchronic scheme of generations could serve as a historical foundation. But if most families recalled nothing between myth and grandpa, we have to assume that the genealogical historians who began writing in the late sixth century could only produce their orderly schemes by invention and duplication. Perhaps so: Thomas cites good anthropological parallels for the ‘hour-glass effect’. But it’s certainly striking that, on a chance surviving tombstone, Heropythos of Chios could list 14 ancestors in direct ascent, without a god or hero to be seen: five hundred years of local nobodies. Was family memory as such so limited in its recall of persons and events? Or did it just display an opportunist imprecision when it came to public relations?

Families remember individuals; city tradition – crystallised in the yearly Funeral Speech which, in wartime, a public orator made at the state funeral of the casualties – looks to the community. Here, too, the materials show a certain sameness: encomium of the Athenians as indigenous, unaggressive, democratic, courageous in battle, defenders of the persecuted, sole champions of Greece against the Persians – nothing remarkable, except that the sovereign People is praised for the oligarchic virtues of ancient lineage and martial art. In this sense, the public memory is long; in every other, it is short, fluid, casual and selective. It is also unchecked: no official recorders, no priestly custodians (Greek origins survive in poetry, not in scripture). No one taught history in schools.

Modern historians draw a primitive distinction between ‘true’ and ‘fraudulent’, ‘document’ and ‘inference’. Ancient historians worked with wayward evidence and compromising categories (and the worse the evidence, the more need to compromise). To most Greeks, as to the people of Montaillou, the past will have been timeless. The Greek tense-system itself is better-suited to express the speaker’s attitude to past events than their relative chronology; the difficulty addressed by the ancient Art of Memory (carried back in anecdote to the sixth century BC) lies not in remembering things, but in remembering them in a certain order. Even the official lists of war dead carried no dates. Small wonder that events before living memory get faded and muddled. Genealogy looks a factual business: but its traditions – cosmic history expressed as generations of gods, archaic conquests legitimised in heroic marriages – leave scope for tendenz and rationalisation. Personal memories improve in the telling; public memories indulge envy or chauvinism. We need more work on the typology of rumour and anecdote. Alcmaeon was offered all the gold he could carry from the treasury of Croesus: so he filled his pockets, and his boots, and his mouth, and came out bursting, with gold dust in his hair. The king thought it funny, but so began the family fortune of the Alcmaeonids. Where did Herodotus get this story? Thomas thinks it too undignified for a family source, and it has the air of a folkloric construct. But who can say? Some Greeks, at least, will have admired enterprise more than decorum.

Not that written authority was despised. Thucydides examined an inscription – in order to refute a rival view; oligarchs in pursuit of the ‘ancestral constitution’ (the Victorian Values of their time) went looking for the tablets of the archaic law. A second stage was to create the authority which must certainly have existed: such were the decrees from the great patriotic war set up on stone a century after the event, not so much forged as realised. At a third stage there is authority symbolic rather than actual. When the genealogist Akousilaos claimed to have based his book on two bronze tablets that his father had dug up in the house, did anyone believe him? Or is that the wrong question? Certainly he began a long run of pseudo-documents, which still flourish in Borges and Eco. The same ambiguity extends to oral sources. When the Hellenistic biographer Satyrus, in his Life of Euripides, claimed the authority of ‘the oldest and most reliable’ of the Macedonians for his melodramatic version of the poet’s death, did he expect his audience to picture him touring pensioners and assessing their veracity? Even Herodotus, in more innocent days, quotes oral sources for information so suspect that we debate whether to blame their stupidity or his; Detlev Fehling has even suggested that the ‘sources’ never existed – they are (and were meant to be understood as) a dramatisation of Herodotus’s own thought-processes.

The Athenians loved novelty, but were suspicious of the new (even the revolutionary democracy was traced back to mythical King Theseus). The continued importance of the oral alongside the written comes as no surprise: in fact, we understand it better than our predecessors, familiar as we are with the face-to-screen politics of the global polis. But most treatments of the subject founder in sterile anecdote and watery generalisations. Rosalind Thomas has given us a landmark book: sinewy, provocative, closely argued, widely ranging, selectively learned and discreetly imaginative. The basic concepts are thought through with exemplary rigour and practicality, the evidence, ancient and anthropological, handled with a professional’s awareness of its limits, to consolidate a realistically complex view of Athenian society and what it could offer the contemporary chronicler. In positivist times, scholarly analysis of the Greek historians concentrated on brute confirmations of fact, simple patterns of sources; in the structuralist years attention has turned to literary artifice – the moral and dramatic patterns, the creative pressures of style and thought. Readers of this book see creation at an earlier stage: the self-creating jumble of oral tradition. All the more reason to admire the achievements of historical synthesis – and to suspect them.