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  • Fun with the Alphabet
  • Raffaella Cribiore (bio)

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Acc. 64.2.179. Burton photo M10C 18

Limestone piece written on both sides. It is almost complete, missing only a few letters on the right side of the front. The hand of both sides might be the same even though it looks more practiced on the front. The writer was probably a scribe practicing the alphabet. After writing a nonsensical verse that reproduces all the letters of the alphabet, in the back he used the same formal letters, which are provided with some decorative roundels, to write a religious phrase. The nonsensical verse appears in Anth.Pal. 9.538 and in some school exercises of the Roman and early Byzantine period; cf. Cribiore 1996, nos. 48, 56, 287, and 61 and 66 (from the Monastery of Phoebammon and Epiphanius, roughly contemporary). The original sequence was: αβροξιτων δ'ο ΦυλαξΘηρζυγω καμψιμετωπος. The variants that appear in this ostracon are due to phonetic spelling. Some dots or small apostrophes are sprinkled in the text and seem to divide the "words," thus confirming what Hesychius said about the fact that the ancients considered these real words that ended up in his lexicon with pseudo meanings. The writer, in any case, failed to reproduce a whole alphabet, because he missed the letter η by writing θυρο instead of ..... It is uncertain whether in the first line he wrote the three letters that we show in a lacuna or if he shortened the "word."


n.1. π may have been added later. "My Lord holy father"

Courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York

[End Page 165] [End Page 166]

In the Greek and Roman world people used different writing materials: papyrus, ostraca (that is, pieces of broken pottery and limestone flakes), wooden tablets, and parchment. Papyrus was the material most used in education, particularly at advanced levels, but in primary schooling ancient children often relied on "ostraca" (see Fig.). Several hundreds of school exercises from primary to rhetorical levels have resurfaced from the sands of Greco-Roman Egypt, that is, from Egypt in the period between the third century BCE and the seventh century CE, when Greek was the main language of administration and education. By comparing these exercises to the information extrapolated from the ancient literary sources, it is possible to obtain a realistic knowledge of ancient education.

Children could pick up ostraca anywhere; they were costless and convenient writing materials which could be thrown away without much regret. Limestone pieces (as in the Fig.) were used especially in the south of Egypt and offered an ideal, flat writing surface. Teachers used the largest pieces, which were heavy and difficult to handle, to write texts that children copied, and these stood in the classroom at everyone's disposal. Small ostraca, however, were ideal for short exercises, such as alphabets and lists of words. They could circulate in class without risk of being damaged. The limestone piece in the illustration contains the exercise of a student who penned a verse that was supposed to contain (but did not in this case) all the letters of the alphabet in scrambled order.

The condition of ancient learning made it mandatory for students to know the alphabet to perfection, and not simply by rote. Children had to acquire a real familiarity not only with the shapes of the letters, their names, and sounds but also with their place within the alphabetical sequence. Thus children were taught to write alphabets in every possible alphabetical order, from the first to the last letter and vice versa; skipping a fixed number of characters until they reached the end; or writing down sequences of letters in scrambled order that were difficult to pronounce and nonsensical verses that contained all the letters. [End Page 167] Exercises of this kind, which appear contrived to our modern eyes, required concentration so that children often made mistakes by skipping some letters.

The student who penned this ostracon shows a moderate ability in writing the letter shapes but forgot one letter so that the nonsensical verse that he was practicing does not contain all the alphabetical sequence. The original sequence was: αβροξιτωγ δ'ο ɸυλαξθηροζυγω καμψιμετωπος, which this pupil...


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