Over a month ago, I wrote two blogs concerning the level of literacy in Ancient Rome. While thinking recently about Cicero, I also began thinking about his letters. Hundreds of them were published at some point and circulated throughout the Roman Empire. This alone seems to say that there was some level of desire to read well written works and that there existed administration for such well written works. So, ion thinking about Cicero and his writing, I again encountered the issue of the level of literacy in Ancient Rome.
In the taverns in Pompeii, which I recently visited, there were murals upon the walls, which depict, in one case, a fight over a dice throw in a game of chance. The mural is like a comic book in that there are, in essence, bubbles above the heads of the characters portrayed with their spoken words set forth detailing the argument and how ultimately the bar owner escorts the two men arguing out of the tavern. Given the fact that taverns were where the common man, the working man, congregated after a day’s work done, these murals were intended to be read and understood by the common man.
Likewise in Ostia Antica, which again I recently had the chance to visit, there is a tavern called the Bar of the Seven Sages. On the walls, the Seven Great Sages of the ancient world are presented. Each one is labeled in Greek and each one is presented with a ‘philosophical’ quote on bodily functions. Thus, Solon of Athens apparently advises that “To shit well …” one should “…stroke[d] his belly.” This could be viewed on one level as a typical joke by commoners against elites. But as Mary Beard put is so concisely in her brilliant work, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, “But it is more complicated than that. These slogans do not only assume a literate audience, or at least enough literates among the customers to be able to read the slogans to the non-literates. In order to devise the joke here you had to know something about the Seven Sages; if Thales of Miletus meant absolutely nothing to you, then his advice on defecation was hardly funny. In order to take a swipe against the pretentions of intellectual life, you had to know something about it.”
The life of a common person in Rome seems to have more literacy in it that maybe has been imagined before. Many people had epitaphs. These often told a fair amount about the person. I previously have commented upon the tombstone of a Roman centurion. Yet these epitaphs were also written about non-soldiers. Some were written in poetry. Poetry was a difficult form of writing because poems written in Latin had to follow a set of complex rules.
In daily life, one game which was played involved moving pieces around a board. On the board to mark the spots of the course of the game, were six words of six letters. Invida puncta iubent felice ludere doctum (The nasty dots on the dice compel even the skilled player to play by luck) read one board. Another reads: Parthi occisi britto victus ludite Romani, or “The Parthians slaughtered, the Britons conquered, play on Romans!” A third game board: Circus plenum clamor populi gaudia civium or “The circus is packed, the people shouts, the citizens are having fun”. These games boards and their slogans could only be enjoyed fully by someone who could read and appreciate them.
On the walls of Pompeii are not only electioneering graffiti, but also at least fifty quotes from Virgil’s Aeneid. In one case there is graffiti parodying Virgil’s Aeneid’s first line. The first line of the Aeneid in Latin reads ‘Arma virumque cano’ (the arms and the man I sing) which was parodied by one graffiti writer as ‘Fullones uluamque cano, non arma virumque’ (The fuller and their owl I sing, not the arms and the man). Fullers were the cloth makers and the symbol of their guild or trade was the owl. Again for one to get the joke, one had to have some knowledge of Virgil’s poem.
Admittedly, what I have presented here is all anecdotal evidence, but given the prevalence of this evidence, I think one can draw the conclusion that there had to be a fair level of literacy that was not just confined to the City of Rome itself. A fairly high level must have existed in the smaller communities such as Ostia, which might have had 60,000 inhabitants, and in Pompeii, which had something like 20,000 inhabitants. This does not resolve the issue, but I think this raises some more questions.