Saturday 24 March 2012

Ancient Literacy

For reasons unconnected with wargaming, I have just been reading a book on the archaeology of first century Palestine (OK, I was sent it to review). One of the issues raised there was about literacy in the ancient world, and how widespread it was. It struck me that this was actually quite an interesting question for wargame reasons, and so I thought I’d explore it.

The initial question is, of course, why it should be interesting?

If we consider giving orders to units, then there are two transmission routes, of course. Firstly, there is the oral route, the general giving an aide some orders and that person galloping off to transmit them to the unit commander.

Clearly, there are some problems here. Firstly, the aide might not make it to the unit or the commander; battlefields are dangerous places, after all. Secondly, it is possible that the aide could get their transmission of the orders wrong, and finally the unit commander may misinterpret them, or, possibly worse, try to implement them against a changed context. Add to this, of course, the possibility that the aide could interpret the rules to suit their own views. From a later age one is put in mind of Captain Nolan at the Battle of Balaclava, waving his sword and shouting ‘There, My Lord, enemy, there are your guns’, contributing in no small way to the debacle of the charge of the Light Brigade.

Written orders do not remove all of these problems, of course. Nolan, after all, had delivered written orders, but they were ambiguous. In general, though written orders would reduce the ability to be creative with the general’s instructions. On the down side, they would also be useful to the enemy if intercepted and read, and they can still get lost.

More broadly, an operation like the Roman army relied on written orders and accounts. The Vindolanda texts are, in general, muster, accounts and instructions, with a few extra bits thrown in like invitations to birthday parties. It is also suggested that the Roman army was responsible for the spread of Latin literacy, at least in the early empire. A soldier might enter the army as a raw barbarian, twenty years later he would leave a Roman citizen. During that time he would have needed to speak and to read Latin. He would also have been numerate, and have a wide variety of trade skills.

Estimates of overall literacy in the ancient world vary. A common number bandied around is 5 – 10 %, the majority of which would have been men. It is true, however, that it is very unclear what the number would have been, and it varied between different areas, social groups and ethnicities.

For example, the Celts, before conquest by the Romans, had little in terms of written culture. The priestly Druids did use Greek script, but most knowledge was passed on orally, which is partly why there is such a rich cultural inheritance of Celtic poetry. Poetry, with repetition and vivid imagery, in relatively easy to recall, and, also, the knowledge transmitted can be anticipated, to some extent, by the hearer.

Alternatively, within the Jewish community, literacy was probably relatively high. The Hebrew scriptures were already written sources and so, probably, a considerable fraction of the male population of Palestine was in some form literate. Given that the Hebrew texts were translated into Greek, presumably for the benefit of Jews living outside Palestine, we can assume a reasonably high level of literacy amongst this section of the community.

More generally, there was probably some degree of literacy amongst the middle class sorts of people. For example, it must have been very hard to run a shop or other sort of business without at least a modicum of literacy and numeracy. Even at the simple level of a market trader, literacy, at least at a low level, must have been the norm, as amphora contents were described by labels on the neck. There is no point in selling an amphora of olive oil thinking it is wine, after all.

With the spread of the Roman bureaucracy, of course, literacy and numeracy must have spread also. The Oxyrhynchus documents are a vast dump of mainly papyrus papers, estimated at half a million documents at the very least. This is just one part of the archive of just one city in Roman Egypt. Other cities, particularly at Alexandria had, of course, whole libraries which, presumably, were not just there for show. Literacy, at least among the non-labouring classes, may have been more widespread than we might think.

Earlier than the Roman Empire, of course, we have the world of the Greeks. Here, again, there is some evidence of literacy. It is hard to imagine the democracies of some of the Greek cities thriving without some sort of literacy amongst the citizens, and one or two made provision for elementary education. We shouldn’t get carried away by the idea of mass literacy in the modern, industrial, sense, however. Most people who could read were probably what we might call ‘craft literate’, that is they could manage to read what they needed, but were not engaged in reading beyond that.

So what effect does this have on us as wargamers?

In a campaign game, you might want to add ‘literacy’ to the characteristics of officers. I’ve mentioned before the friction that is needed to be modelled to represent the time delay between receiving and executing orders, and this could be one of them. The office sending the orders, and the one receiving them, could both be forced to roll against their literacy skill and failure would mean either the orders are ambiguous or contradictory or are not properly understood. Chaos and confusion could then ensue.

It might be a little more difficult to implement literacy rolls during an actual battle when, presumably, more orders will be given orally, but even so, some sort of roll for clear transmission could be made, and, of course, this applies to later eras as well, as Captain Nolan found to his cost.

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