Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Lucian on Education: Illiteracy in the Roman World

A boy recites a lession to a tutor, 2nd cen. AD
A previous post brought attention to the low literacy levels of the Roman world and the effect this had on the reading practices of the early Christians. William Harris argued that literacy levels in the Roman world were somewhere around 15 to as high as 20% in some regions like Pompeii (p. 264). Overall, the literacy level in Rome likely would have never been above 15% (p. 267) and for any region to reach the levels of 20 to 30% literacy among males would have been remarkable (p. 141). When discussing precise percentages of literacy, it is important to remember William Harris's own caution,
"We shall obviously never know in a clear-cut numerical way how many people were literate, semi-literate, or illiterate in the Graeco-Roman world in general, or even in any particular milieu within it." (p. 7)
I thought about the levels of literacy in the Roman world and the education that may or may not have been available to the early Christians. A dialogue of Lucian of Samosata (125-180 CE) came to mind that illustrates well the path to education available in his day. In his satire Hermotimus, one character, Hermotimus, a philosopher steeped in study for the past 20 years, is engaged in dialogue (in the Socratic method) by Lycinus, an interlocutor who values the simple and average life. At one point Hermotimus described the path of education as climbing a steep mountain slope;
"Many would climb it, if it could. As it is, a fair number make a very strong beginning and travel part of the way, some very little, some more; but when they get half-way and meet plenty of difficulties and snags, they lose heart and turn back, gasping for breath and dripping with sweat; the hardships are too much for them. But all who endure to the end arrive at the top, from then on are happy having wonderful time for the rest of their life, from their heights seeing the rest of mankind as ants." (Hermot. 5)
Hermotimus described that there were many who began the path of education in philosophy, that is, education, but few completed the journey. This gives and excellent picture of education during the Roman empire. There was probably a large number of the population who began the journey of education and literacy, many who could scrawl their names on a document, scratch some crude graffiti onto an alley wall, or read signs and laundry lists. The reality was that few attained any reasonable level of education. Listen to Lycinus as he responded to Hermotimus's description of his path to educated enlightenment,
"Goodness, Hermotimus! How small you shall make us, not as big as pygmies! Utter groundlings crawling over the earth's surface. It's not surprising--your mind is already away up above; and we, the whole trashy lot of us ground-crawlers, will pray to you along with the gods, when you get above the clouds and reach the heights to which you have been hastening for so long." (Hermot. 5)
 Lycinus identified himself with the "whole trashy lot of us ground-crawlers," namely, the uneducated masses. When a person reached a high level of education, it was as if that person reached divine status.


Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Lucian,  Translated by K. Kilburn et al. 7 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913-1961.


  1. The "uneducated masses" today are not very interested in philosophy, the Greek classics and higher education. Yet they are quite literate.

    Once again you are tinging your articles to give an impression of mass illiteracy, even in the Christian scripture-based populace, and that simply ignores the basic distinction between a type of advanced education and fundamental literacy, the ability to read and understand what you are reading.

    Steven Avery

    1. Thank you for your comments Steven Avery. My purpose is not to argue with anyone. I am simply posting modest observations of quotes in primary sources and the like. I do not disagree with you in your assessment necessarily, that there is a difference between advanced and basic education and I am not trying to "spin evidence" in any way, there is no conspiracy here. Thank you for reading and engaging with the article.