Literary in Ancient Rome: Part II


Library of Celsus

Last week, I began our examination of the question of how literate was the average Roman.  In this part, I will delve further into this question.  Albeit, I think that some of what is set forth below is speculation, and is speculation based upon anecdotal evidence.  However, in some case in dealing with Ancient Roma we are left with making educated guesses when there is not definitive evidence.

In Dura-Europos, numerous texts were unearthed.  “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.  Dura-Europos was by no means a major city of the Empire.  In fact, the re-discovery of the city’s location was through literary texts.  The fact that there are so many texts in so many languages is some indicator of the extent of literacy throughout the Empire.

“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:

  1. Asinius Pollo triumphed in 39 BC and to the Hall of Liberty added a public library
  2. In 28 BC, at the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill, Augustus built a public library
  3. In 23 BC, Octavia built a public library as a memorial of her son
  4. 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.


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