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Reviewed by:
  • Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds
  • George A. Kennedy
Teresa Morgan . Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xviii + 364 pp. Cloth, $64.95. (Cambridge Classical Studies)

This book is a study of the evidence for elementary education found in papyri in comparison with what is found in literary sources, especially in descriptions of teaching reading and writing by Quintilian, Plutarch, and his alter ego, Pseudo-Plutarch. Although H.I. Marrou (A History of Education in Antiquity [New York 1956]) and others have cited exercises on papyri, much of the information is scattered and difficult for the nonspecialist, and Morgan performs a valuable service in reviewing it systematically. About four hundred exercises have been found on papyri, dating from the third century before Christ to the Byzantine period. They provide a record of practice in writing and evidence for what was read at an elementary stage in Greco-Roman Egypt. Morgan classifies them into copies of single letters, alphabets, syllabaries, word lists, gnomic sayings (the largest single group), short nongnomic quotations, scholia, grammatical exercises, rhetorical exercises, and other. The nongnomic quotations come chiefly from the Homeric poems (total 58), Euripides (20), and Menander (7). Rhetorical exercises are limited to rather simple narratives of myths, fables, chrias, and incidents from epic, with a very few historical subjects; there is no example of declamation or exercise in argumentation in the papyri.

Morgan argues (pp. 71-72) for a "core" curriculum, consisting of methods of learning to read and write, with reading of gnomic sayings and of parts of the Homeric epics, and a "peripheral" curriculum, in which individual teachers experimented with other texts and other types of exercise. Students in Egyptian towns and villages were on the margins of Greek culture, and in many instances Greek was not their native language. Greco-Roman literate education gave them access, at varying social levels, to a world of culture and a route to power. "We can now begin to see how that culture is imparted," she says (103). "It [the education] begins by reducing the pupil to a reciter of nonsense, before feeding him, bit by bit, fragments of cultural information out of context." This is highly [End Page 331] authoritative: the pupil must accept what the teacher says before thinking or articulating anything originally, and this is repeated at every stage of education short of the schools of rhetoric and philosophy. The reference to "him" is necessary, for the papyri provide no evidence for the education of girls, and references to women in the exercises are almost entirely negative in tone.

In a chapter entitled "Grammar and the Power of Language" (152-89) Morgan argues persuasively that formal grammar was not used in antiquity as a way to teach Greek to nonnative speakers; it was, instead, an initiation into a slightly higher level of education and taught the student how to recognize, and to a limited extent how to use, "correct" language. She speculates that it also provided a model of the relationship between the grammar of a sentence and what it represents in the world, "such that the grammatical accuracy of a sentence helps to guarantee the truth of the utterance" (188). However that may be, classicists need to understand how pervasive, all over the world, is the use of separate registers of formal language; to be taken seriously, speakers and writers everywhere have needed to employ the appropriate linguistic register as well as a number of other formal conventions (see my recent discussion in Comparative Rhetoric: An Historical and Cross-Cultural Introduction [Oxford 1997] esp. 64-68, 101-5, 125-27, 228).

The following chapter, "Rhetoric: Art and Articulation" (190-239), attempts, as Morgan puts it, "to widen a little what we understand as the aims and effects of learning rhetoric" (197). Elementary rhetorical exercises as found in the papyri would not have produced a civic orator: "They teach pupils, most of whom are likely to use their literacy as bureaucratic middleman in a variety of posts, to read and analyse complicated texts, to articulate and pass on information in clear and concise form. The pupils who had learnt this much...


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