November 14, 2005
Literature and Literacy in Ancient Greece
Davison, J.A. “Literature and Literacy in Ancient Greece.” Phoenix 16.3 (Autumn 1962). 141-156.
Davison begins this two-part essay by clarifying his interests: “‘What makes authors tick?’ and ‘How do authors eat?’“ For these frank, simple questions, and for his conversational style, I’ve developed a special affection for his work.
His discussion of the importance of oral memory is much the same as Havelock’s much later work, although Havelock cites him only once in passing in The Muse Learns to Write. He discusses the use of storage language (without using precisely that term) as a ritualized, narrative practice, most often in the form of song (145) and in competitions (153). A fair amount of space is devoted to the fourth canon, particularly as a support for improvisation. Interestingly, he notes that the Muses often appear as “the guardians of factual tradition, the divine record office as it were to which the poet can appeal for information on matters outside his own knowledge” (145). The Muses are not always to depended on, though: “not all the Muses are as honest as she who visited Demodocus; Hesiod’s Muses put the telling of lies like to truth first among the things which they know, and only tell true tales when they feel like it” (146). Thus, Muses are not a reliable substitute for memory.
He also makes the point that writing a book or copying another’s work was not equivalent with preparing it for publication in the 8th century BC (149). Writing technologies were expensive (a papyrus cost 2 drachmas in the 5th century BC) and mass reproduction was nearly impossible. Copies were necessarily limited: the author himself, and his representatives might have copies. The fact that copies were offered as dowry points to a sense of absolute ownership in copies, if not in the content (151). “Such stories suggest that the author was confident that there was no other copy of the poem in existence, and that the exclusive right of recitation thus conferred might prove ... valuable” (151).
Unlike Havelock, he supposes that the transition from oral to literate culture took place in the course of a generation. In the process of tracing the rise of the alphabet and literacy in attic Greece, Davison makes an interesting observation: just because people are fully literate does not necessarily mean they spend much time reading, or that it is a preferred means of transmitting information or entertainment. He claims that most Athenians were not ‘great readers’s, preferring to get their content aurally much current audiences prefer radio or podcasts. While the alphabet was demonstrably in use by the end of the eighth century BC, reading as pasttime does not appear until the last quarter of the fifth century (143). He sees the first record of reading for leisure and respite in Euripides’ Erechtheus, which tells of a soldier coming home from war and sitting down to read a book. When such men are many, publication and the bookselling trade can begin to flourish.