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Literacy and the State in the Ancient Mediterranean

Literacy and the State in the Ancient Mediterranean

Edited by Kathryn Lomas. Pp. 240, figs. 60, tables 8. Accordia Research Institute, University of London, London 2007. £36. ISBN 978-1873415-34-4 (paper).

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Literacy and the state are two broad themes, and each has a large (and growing) theoretical literature. Each has the potential to make the ancient world relevant to the modern, and each requires research that is, strictly speaking, interdisciplinary—historians, epigraphers, literacy theorists, philologists, archaeologists, and others must converse sensibly and devise robust methodologies that can survive the scrutiny of specialists in different disciplines. This volume brings together 13 or so papers, some of which were given in a conference, most in a series of research seminars; all were under the aegis of a broader research project, entitled “Developmental Literacy and the Establishment of Regional and State Identities in Early Italy: Research Beyond Etruria, Greece and Rome.” The highly ambitious title of the book and the more modest (and perhaps realistic) aims of the research project are therefore somewhat at odds, and this is reflected both in the individual papers and in the structure of the book.

How do we compare either degrees of literacy or epigraphic habits across the Mediterranean? In the introductory chapter, Lomas lays down some ground rules. She recommends a broadly archaeological approach that is contextual, quantitative, and comparative, one likely to be especially productive when applied to the more historically marginal areas of the Mediterranean. She also (implicitly) requires that contributors have followed, to some degree, wider debates concerning literacy and the state. She may then have been disappointed by two of the three papers in the first section, “Antecedents,” which focuses on the Bronze Age and on Egypt. Martin’s paper on Saite “demoticization” illustrates the difficulties that Egyptologists in particular seem to have in writing to a scholarly audience beyond Egypt. Schoep, on Linear A in Crete, does not say much she has not already said and impales herself on the false dilemma of the practical vs. symbolic uses of writing. Only Robson rises to the challenge, presenting a powerful argument to the effect that early literacy is intimately connected with early numeracy in fifth- to third-millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamia.

In the next section, “Literacy in the Early Mediterranean,” Phoenicia is not considered at all, and the Aegean is covered in one paper by Carraro, on the “oggetti parlanti” (speaking objects) of early Greece. If proof were needed that postmodern literary theory and the study of material objects, even when inscribed, cannot be fruitfully combined, then here it is. Things improve substantially when we reach Italy and the core regions of the research project. Langslow has convinced this archaeologist that the study of punctuation and spelling really does matter; in a brief but brilliant paper, Whitehouse achieves much more than a contextual comparison between Messapia and Venetia (valuable though that is). She outlines two principal ways in which literacy can be related to the state, either as an instrument of administration or as a form of elite expression. The latter point raises the subsidiary question of identity, also taken up in the next three papers. Hodos provides a useful overview of the picture from Iron Age Sicily, and especially the question of Sikel/Sikan literacy; Herring explores the limits of a contextual, archaeological approach to the study of Messapian tabara inscriptions; and Lomas undertakes a detailed contextual study of sites within the ancient Veneto, bringing out important differences in epigraphic habits within the various political communities of the region. Zaghetto’s paper, however—a study not of literacy but of the iconography of situla art—will be of interest only to those for whom structuralism remains a novelty.

The last three papers, on the Graeco-Roman world, widen the debate. Milnes Smith’s largely literary paper reminds us forcefully why the literacy debate matters, in the modern as in the ancient world, and extends comparison forward in time by concentrating on Roman Venetia. Cooley’s useful paper, on the publication of Roman documents in the East, is the first to deal with truly monumental inscriptions. But, though she successfully contextualizes both the Res Gestae and Diocletian’s price edict historically, by looking at their audiences in the Greek East and in Galatia in particular, she does not explore their archaeological context in any detail. The final paper, by Häussler and Pearce, is grandly titled “Towards an Archaeology of Literacy.” It is a useful exploration of what can be done with the database provided by the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum when applied to both Republican Gaul and the northwest provinces more generally in the Imperial period; but the implicit claim to be breaking new ground is belied by the earlier papers and ignores 20 years of research into this subject by Greek as well as Roman specialists.

The papers are at their strongest when they live up to the principles and adhere to the methodology of the overall research project—that is, when they are alive to both the possibilities and pitfalls of study that must be both comparative and contextual, and fully aware of the ramifications of the debates on literacy, identity, and the state. It is no surprise then that the best papers are, generally speaking, those on archaic Italy and represent the fruits of a long conversation among a core group of scholars. It would be a remarkable collection indeed that managed to make a substantive contribution to the study of both literacy and the state across the whole of the ancient Mediterranean, and this collection does not quite succeed. Such a project would, I think, have to look more closely at the issue of monumentality in inscriptions, especially in cases where such monumentality has a direct bearing on either identity or the state (as in the Iguvine tables and the Gortyn Law Code, respectively). Moreover, such a project would entail further (chronological as well as geographical) dimensions of comparison, between, for example, the Bronze Age and Iron Age literacies, syllabic or ideographic on the one hand and (largely) alphabetic on the other. And, however much we may wish to get away from traditional obsessions, any more general analysis of ancient literacy and the state has to look at evidence from classical Athens and republican and imperial Rome in some detail. But this collection has made a promising start and shown how much can be achieved by looking closely at the neglected byways of the ancient world.

James Whitley
Cardiff School of History and Archaeology
Cardiff University
Colum Road
Cardiff CF10 3EU
United Kingdom

Book Review of Literacy and the State in the Ancient Mediterranean, edited by Kathryn Lomas

Reviewed by James Whitley

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 2 (April 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1132.Whitley

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