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How literate was the ancient world? I'm particularly interested in the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians in, say, the first few centuries BC. It's hard to find authors willing to give an explicit number, though sometimes ranges are given:

[It is] unlikely that the overall literacy of the western [Roman] provinces even rose into the range of 5-10%. [1]

and

In ancient Egypt levels of literacy were very low, less than one per cent. [2]

Most stick to descriptive terms:

a very small percentage [of Roman Britains were literate] [3]

But there is evidence that it was not too low, e.g. Vindolanda. So what is known for different cultures? I've read a (semi-)famous book on the subject---some kind of Classics prizewinner, focusing on pre-Roman and Roman Egypt, published maybe 8 years ago---but even that didn't often, if ever, give numbers. This is somewhat frustrating because I don't know what "a very small percentage" is. 10%? 1%? 0.1%? 0.01%?

Any reasonable information would be welcome. I'd be happy to split this further if there's enough information (4th century BC Romans, Athens in its Classical Period, etc.) but so far the information I have seen deals with all of these together (thousand-year periods across the entire Mediterranean).

  1. William Harris, Ancient Literacy, 1989, p. 272.
  2. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/themes/writing/literacy.aspx
  3. Ellis Evans, Language Contact in Pre-Roman and Roman Britain, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II.29.2 (1983), pp. 949-987.
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Any culture? I think that is too broad. Could you possibly narrow it down? –  American Luke Jul 21 '12 at 16:30
    
@Luke: If what you're saying is that there's so much information out there that I should split this into several questions, I'd be happy to do that! –  Charles Jul 22 '12 at 4:09
    
The Vindolanda tablets doesn't contradict the 5-10% figure in any way. They are mostly official, and written by scribes or the military class. –  Lennart Regebro Jul 23 '12 at 8:33
    
@LennartRegebro: I'm certainly not saying that it contradicts 5-10%, just that it seems to put a reasonable lower bound on the number. You couldn't easily argue 0.5%, for example. –  Charles Jul 23 '12 at 14:07
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@astabada Your edit invalidates the answer though. –  Yannis Rizos Jan 10 '13 at 9:17

1 Answer 1

A reference to check out is Carlo Cipolla: Literacy and Development in the West. I don't have it right here, and can't find an online version (it's a book from 1969) but found a review here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3786234 which quotes:

By 1750 at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, almost 5000 years had elapsed since the first rudimentary appearance of the art of writing. Yet more than 90 percent of the world's population had no access to this art.

There are many more numbers for specific societies in the book. Of course, the methods used will be open to challenge. Another approach would be to look at todays' worst-off countries and posit that it was even lower in all countries a long time ago; for example, the CIA World Factbook gives a literacy rate for Afghanistan in 2000 at 28.1%.

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