Writing and Reading in Ancient Greece
Two central factors that affect the significance of any text is how it was written and how it is read. In a world where word processing, animation, and moving images are not only possible, but in fact quotidian, the process of writing is often forgotten. Similarly, the act of reading is done so automatically in a society with high levels of literacy that we are rarely conscious of the fact we’re doing it: just think how quickly and without thought we read road-signs, billboards, and the time on our digital watches or phones. However, for the Greek people of the early Archaic period, the technology of writing and the ability to read were not accessible to many and would have entailed a far higher level of self-consciousness to utilise than either does today. In each section below I will outline and discuss just one brief reason why, as modern scholars, we need to think more about both writing and reading in ancient Greece.
The act of writing is the graphic representation of language, it is not purely the visualisation of language, as that would then include sign language, and body language. It may have been noted that my use of the term “graphic” is rather clumsy, given the fact that it is derived from the Greek word for writing, grapho. But, much like the ancient word grapho, the modern English word ‘graphic’ refers to both image-making and writing (Elsner, 2004). Students of the literary trope ekphrasis will immediately recognise this play on words used by such authors as Philostratus, as in his Imagines, 1.24.1-2:
Ἀνάγνωθι τὴν ὑάκινθον, γέγραπται γὰρ καί φησιν ἀναφῦναι τῆς γῆς ἐπὶ μειρακίῳ καλῷ
“Read the hyacinth, for there is writing on it which says it sprang from the earth in honour of a beautiful youth;” (trans. Fairbanks)
Just as authors of ekphrases were playing off of this dual meaning of grapho to mean both write and draw, the Archaic Greeks were similarly blurring the lines (or perhaps simply expressing that their own conceptual lines were blurred) through the deployment of writing on painted pottery. Many Geometric vases have writing in bands running horizontally, occupying the space that would otherwise be filled with a key pattern. Similarly, black and red-figure vases have their mythological characters and their names echoing one another or dancers interacting with the inscription, as on the Pyrwias aryballos, as discussed by Osborne and Pappas (2007). Thus it seems that the visual aspect of writing has been central to its deployment throughout antiquity, from the decorative writing of Archaic and Classical pottery, the calligrammatic poems of Simmias (such as the ‘Wings of Eros’), all the way through to the ekphrastic texts of Imperial Rome.
One of the most important aspects of reading in ancient Greece is that it was read aloud (Svenbro, 1993). This may seem a rather mundane and insignificant point to make, but it actually reveals a great deal about the Greek language. At the most basic level, this collection of Greek letters was the first ever alphabet. That is, it was the first writing system from which you could entirely reconstruct the spoken language for which it was designed (Powell, 1991). Furthermore, the fact that Archaic Greeks read aloud has great significance for Archaic Greek reading, as written words cannot exist simply in a verbal context. As Ong (1982) points out, when read aloud, writing is lifted from its page and included within a spatial context as well as affecting, or being affected by, the position of the reader’s body. Movement around a statue base, the turning of an inscribed object in the hands, or craning one’s neck to see a monumental inscription of a treasury’s contents all have an effect on the way the text is perceived. Similarly, by reading aloud, the reader has no option but to perform for the people around them, announcing the name of the deceased or donor, declaring the ownership of an object to a man or a god, and causing them to publicly assert these statements for themselves. It is also possible that the act of reading aloud would cause the reader to adopt the voice of the writing’s person, ventriloquizing the reader or perhaps allowing them to play the role of the deceased or some other absent person.
We can see then, that that with only just two simple facts: writing is ‘graphic’ and reading was done aloud, that the acts of reading and writing in Archaic Greece were far more complicated than we might first think, sparking a greater degree of self-consciousness in their enactors than those quotidian acts do for us today.
Elsner, Jas (2004) ‘Seeing and Saying: A Psychoanalytical Account of Ekphrasis’, Helios 31.1: 157-86.
Ong, Walter J. (1982) Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word, London and New York, Methuen.
Osborne, Robin and Pappas, Alexandre (2007) ‘Writing on archaic Greek pottery’ Zahra Newby and Ruth Leader-Newby, Art and Inscriptions in the Ancient World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 131-155.
Philostratus (2014) Imagines, trans. Arthur Fairbanks, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press.
Powell, Barry (1991) Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Svenbro, Jesper (1993 ) Phrasikleia: An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece trans. Janet Lloyd, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press.
Nick Brown is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. His research looks into the ways in which early Greek sculptures and their inscriptions interact with one another. In particular, he is investigating the significance of the body of the sculpture being the site of inscription. More broadly, his interests within Classics focus on the theme of art and text from Greek pottery to ekphrastic literature.