Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East. By ROGER S. BAGNALL. Sather Classical Lectures, vol. 69. Berkeley and Los Angeles: UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 2011. Pp. xiv + 179, illus. $49.95.
It is a commonplace in the study of premodern societies--and especially their literatures--to remind the modern reader of the lower rates of literacy and the relatively restricted milieux in which writing and reading were practiced. In the study of Graeco-Roman antiquity, this is especially the case since the appearance of W. V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989). Studies of literacy in the classical Greek world have also emphasized the continuing orality of the culture, for example, R. Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992).
This book is not about that. It is about the pervasiveness and ubiquity of writing from the eastern Mediterranean basin to Afghanistan over the centuries from Alexander to the Arab conquest. In a series of case studies, Roger Bagnall examines material evidence for informal and ephemeral kinds of writing--the writing of everyday life: from contracts, official documents, and letters to graffiti and disposable texts on potsherds. His work thus complements studies such as those of R. Cribiore (Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 19961; Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 20011) that have provided a ground-level view of how people learned to read and write in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. But Bagnall's concern is also to outline an "archaeology of epigraphy and papyrology." Gaps and silences in the material record of writing are scrutinized to understand how they were created by the human choices that shaped deposition, the environmental conditions that affected survival, and the choices made in the processes of recovery and publication. These are thoughtful methodological essays by an eminent papyrologist and historian of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt. They expand his earlier work on these problems (Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient History [London: Routledge, 19951) and extend it to new regions and languages.
The first chapter begins with a ubiquitous kind of writing familiar to the modern world. Excavations in the basement level of a public basilica at Izmir (Smyrna) have revealed a time capsule of Greek graffiti dating from the...