It is difficult to know how widespread the ability to read or write was in the ancient world. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans kept statistics on literacy rates as modern countries do. Scholars have estimated that at the high point of Greek civilization, fewer than one-third of the adult population could read or write. Even so, literacy was more widespread in the Greco-Roman world than it was in many other ancient civilizations, where the ability to read or write was limited to a small number of priests or scribes*.

The level of literacy in any society is related to the need for reading and writing skills. During their early development, both Greece and Rome were largely agricultural societies in which such skills were of little importance. As the two cultures became more urban and complex, literacy spread to meet the changing needs of each.

* scribe person who copies manuscripts by hand

* oratory art of public speaking

* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing

Literacy in Greece. The Greeks had a long tradition of oral poetry and oratory*. In both speaking and writing, the Greeks placed great value on the skill of rhetoric*. Most public functions, including politics, law, and education, were conducted orally. Although speeches, poetry, and scholarly works were composed in written form, they were generally communicated aloud. As they wrote, Greek writers usually quoted the works of others from memory, sometimes inaccurately.

While Greeks were attuned to hearing and not reading, literacy became more important with the development of democracy. For example, the Athenians inscribed lists of honors, new laws, and dedications to the gods on tablets for public display. Their existence does not mean that everyone could read them—and the majority of people could not—but it suggests that access to the written word was valuable in a society in which the citizens actively participated in government. Athenian citizens did not need literacy in order to participate in their democracy, except to vote for an ostracism—the expulsion of a citizen from the city. Ostracism required citizens to be able to write the name of the person they wished to expel. This may have been possible even for illiterate citizens, since it involved writing only a name, and the Greek alphabet is relatively simple. Literate bystanders might also have written names at the request of citizen voters who could not read or write.

Literacy in Rome. Little writing has survived from the earliest period of Roman culture except for some laws and religious inscriptions. During the early republic, the Romans inscribed documents on tablets for public view, as the Greeks had done. These include the famous Twelve Tables, the first Roman law code, which was displayed in the Roman Forum. However, the Romans during this period wrote no literature that has survived to the present.

Although the early Romans had songs, hymns, prayers, and other spoken verse, the Roman oral tradition was nowhere near as rich as that of the Greek. When Roman literature finally emerged, it developed not from native roots but out of the Greek literary tradition. Greek literature spread to Rome during the Hellenistic* period. The first appearance of literature in the Latin language is a translation from the 200s B.C. of Homer’s Greek epic the Odyssey. The first Roman writers translated, adapted, and imitated the works of Homer and other Greek masters. Having absorbed Greek literary forms, Roman literature suddenly flourished, and writing became a fundamental part of Roman culture.

Literacy was probably more common in Rome than it was in Greece, especially among artisans* in the cities. However, it was not so deeply rooted that it could survive the collapse of the Roman Empire. Latin as a written language continued among educated persons, including priests and monks in the Christian church. However, spoken Latin gradually evolved into various modern languages, such as Italian, French, Spanish, and Romanian. Exactly when this occurred for each language is not known for certain. (See also Alphabets and Writing; Books and Manuscripts; Education and Rhetoric, Greek; Education and Rhetoric, Roman; Inscriptions, Monumental; Languages and Dialects; Oratory.)

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

* artisan skilled craftsperson


The level of literacy in most developed nations today is such that one an expea to find books in most homes. In the Greek world, by contrast, private ownership of manuscripts was rare, even among citizens in a cultural center such as Athens. The fact that the poet Euripides had a private library was unusual enough that it is noted by Greek historians. Written texts were costly to reproduce, so very few people had access to complete books.

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