In my novel, Casting Lots, I assume a fair degree of literacy in the Ancient Roman Empire. Am I right in making this assumption? For example, at one point in my book, when Cornelius takes Lucinius to the Baths in Rome, Cornelius “… then told me of Minerva Sulis, the Goddess of the Waters. People would seek justice from her by throwing into the fountain little slips of lead upon which they had written their request. ‘Someone stole my wife. Let him pay! May he be unable to perform!’ ‘Someone has stolen my cloak! May he freeze!’ ‘To the Goddess Sulis Minerva, most beautiful Goddess, those who have wronged me have wronged you. May your wrath befall them!”’ Although the visit of Lucinius and Cornelius to the baths is fictional, the petitions to Minerva Sulis are not; they are actual petitions on slips of lead which have been found by archaeologists. In my research, I found that literally hundreds of people would do this daily in Rome.
However, making written petitions to gods or to goddesses was a common practice throughout the ancient world.
Cato at one point had the following prayer written on placards that were carried around his farm:
“Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou be gracious and merciful to me, my house, and my household; to which intent I have bidden this suovetaurilia to be led around my land, my ground, my farm; that thou keep away, ward off and removed sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness and destruction, ruin and unseasonable influence; and that thou permit my harvests, my grain, my vine-yards and my plantations to flourish and to come to good issue, preserve in health my shepherds and my flocks, and give good health and strength to me, my house and my household To this intent, to the intent of purifying my farm, my land and my ground, and of making an expiation, as I have said, deign to accept the offering of these suckling victims; Father Mars, to the same intent deign to accept the offering of these suckling offering.” Marcus Porcius Cato, On Agriculture, trans. William Davis Hooper (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 123 (CXLI).
At Hadrian’s Wall, albeit in the era of the second century AD, Romans soldiers wrote hundreds of letters to their family members who were not with them. At the fortress of Vindolanda, hundreds of wooden tablets with handwritten Latin writing have been unearthed, which provide a window into the everyday lives of the soldiers.
The texts reveal that military commanders at Vindolanda had wives, and the tablets reveal a correspondence between two women, Sulpicia Lepidina and Claudia Severa. ‘The letters between them deal with little things such as invitations to come and visit: Claudia, for example, invites Sulpicia to visit her on her birthday,’ writes researcher Geraint Osborn in his book, Hadrian’s Wall and its People (Bristol Phoenix Press, 2006). ‘I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival…’ reads part of the invitation from Claudia (translation from “Vindolanda Tablets Online, Oxford University).” http://www.livescience.com/24460-hadrians-wall.html
“Among the texts found in Dura, most are in Greek, but there are also examples in Latin, Aramaic (from Palmyra, Edessa, and Hatra), Hebrew, Middle Persian, and Arabic (Safaitic).” P.195 The Middle East Under Rome, by Maurice Sartre, Published by Belknap Harvard
“It is well known that during the first and second centuries A.D. a comparatively large quantity of literature circulated widely throughout the Roman Empire, even though there were no printing machines to mass produce multiple copies of an author’s work, or paper-making machines to create a plentiful supply of cheap paper. Educated slaves, on the other hand, seem to have been available in sufficient numbers and adequately performed the task of producing books. …Pliny the Younger expresses satisfaction on hearing that his books are on sale at bookshops at Lyons; Letters 9, 11; Martial boasts that his epigrams are read by soldiers in remote parts of the empire such as Rumania and Britain; Epig., II, 3, 3-5.) but also that the inhabitants of the Roman empire enjoyed a comparatively high degree of literacy, as one would expect if the book trade was to flourish… Of more interest and of greater validity are the thousands of wall-scrawls recovered from Pompeii and other less known and remote sites of the empire such as the garrison-town Dura-Europos on the Eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. Graffiti from establishments such as inns, restaurants, barracks and brothels, suggest that slaves, legionaries, shopkeepers, mule-drivers and other members of the Roman working classes, enjoyed a reasonably high level of literacy.” – STORYTELLERS, STORYTELLING, AND THE NOVEL IN GRAECO-ROMAN ANTIQUITY, by Alex Scobie
Public libraries were plentiful in Rome. During the period of 39 BC to 19 BC, at least the following public four libraries were opened and one library was enlarged in Rome:
- Asinius Pollo triumphed in 39 BC and to the Hall of Liberty added a public library
- In 28 BC, at the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, Augustus built a public library
- In 23 BC, Octavia built a public library as a memorial of her son
- In 19 BC, Agrippa built a second and enlarged the public library at the Temple of Palatine Apollo and added a public art gallery-Augustus First Emperor of Rome by Adrian Goldsworthy, Published by Yale
Emperors sponsored libraries that were to some extent public. Wealthy aristocrats endowed libraries for a community. Many amassed impressive private collections used by their resident scholars. Having a large number of public libraries supports the assumption that literacy was fairly widespread.
There are estimates of the literacy rate which from 5 to 30 percent or higher. Full literacy was uncommon, but written documents were ubiquitous, and they were used by a wider range of people in the Roman Imperial world than was typical of most ancient societies. Women were educated women. Certainly, upper-class girls would at least attend primary school, most likely in the same classes as boys. As to secondary education, our records are poor, but maybe only a few, regardless of gender, went on to receive a secondary education.
Bookstores were already well-established in Rome by the beginning of the Imperial period, and are found also in urban centers of the provinces. Books were expensive, but by the later period, popular genres of literature indicate reading for pleasure among non-elites.
In conclusion, if you have book stores, public libraries, texts circulating in many languages and in geographically broad areas, it would appear that there existed a fair degree of literacy in Ancient Rome. Of course much of the evidence set forth above is anecdotal, and while suggestive, is not dispositive of the issue. Further research into the subject needs to be done.