Centre for the Study of Christian Origins

Ancient Literacy and Graffiti


(Larry Hurtado)  One of the big issues in debate in recent scholarship on the ancient Roman world is the extent, nature and uses of literacy.  Everyone agrees, it seems, that a majority of people of that time were illiterate, but the size of that majority remains under dispute.

This has implications for students of the NT and earliest Christianity, of course.  For example, some scholars have contended that texts played less of a role than most have assumed, and that “orality” was dominant.  There is much more involved than can be addressed properly here.  Suffice it to say that I’ve not been terribly impressed with the level of acquaintance with the relevant hard data by some of those downplaying the importance/use of texts and pushing for what I am bound to regard as a somewhat simplistic view of “orality”.

By way of illustration, take the incidence of graffiti.  These aren’t typically data reckoned with in some of these discussions, but probably should be.  For graffiti, by their nature, are likely to reflect “sub-literary” use of writing and reading.  Indeed, in graffiti we probably have our most direct access to a “popular” level of ancient Roman societies.

In a fine collection of studies, I point to an interesting essay by Kristina, Milnor, “Literary Literacy in Roman Pompeii:  The Case of Vergil’s Aeneid,” in Ancient Literacies:  The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, eds. William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009), 288-319.  Milnor discusses the incidence of graffiti that make use of phrases from literary texts, often to make jokes.  As she notes, there are thousands of graffiti from Pompeii alone, and of various types, “written in charcoal, scratched with a stick or stylus, painted with a brush,” giving us “a window onto the language of everyday life in the ancient Roman world,” and giving us direct artifacts of “words written by ordinary people performing an activity (writing graffiti) that we in the modern day do not associate with the cultural elite” (291).

Milnor’s essay is a salutary indication that the full body of data to be considered in engaging the “literacy” vs. “orality” debate is more diverse and demanding that some have recognized.