"I would define a 'literate society' as one in which reading and writing have become essential to its functioning, either throughout the society (as in the modern West) or in certain vital aspects, such as the bureaucracy, economic and commercial activities, or religious life. Thus, in this sense, a society can be literate, because it uses the written word in some of its vital functions, even when the vast majority of its members cannot read or write, as was the case, for instance, in early mediaeval Europe or Mycenaean Greece, where literacy was more or less confined to a clerical or scribal class."
The first chapter deals with the graffiti found on the walls of the basement level of the basilica in the agora of Smyrna. There are several bays in the basilica which contain plaster, onto which several thousands of graffiti were drawn. Bagnall observes that, since many of the graffiti are written in ink and not merely carved into the stone like most graffiti, there was some thought and preparation put into some of these public writings. Many of the graffiti are sexual in content, and there is also "a widespread presence of drawings of ships" (11). The most interesting discussion is that of the use of isopsephisms (playing with numbers), which, as we know, was a popular Christian practice. There is also apparently a letter square that someone created, whose presence in such a public sphere suggests that even the everyday person had enough knowledge of letters to experiment with puzzles. Bagnall mentions that William Harris "has consistently denied that graffiti have anything to teach us about levels of literacy in ancient society, adopting a position of pure agnosticism..." (25). He criticizes Harris for putting so much stock into categories such as "semi-literate" and "illiterate" when it comes to the graffiti, claiming that "[t]erms like illiterate and semi-literate are used too readily to refer to people who spelled phonetically and let the syntax of oral express enter their writing. They were literate" (26).
The last chapter on ostraca was equally fascinating because while papyrologists and historians have generally deemed these forms of writing inferior to those of papyri and parchments, Bagnall claims that "ostraca will come to play a larger and larger role in new discoveries of texts in the coming years" (136). This chapter does a good job in demonstrating the importances of these written artifacts. One thing is for certain: ostraca are found everywhere. They are found in many different languages from all over the ancient Near East. We have so many of them today because "ostraca survive more humidity than papyri do" (122). Bagnall discusses some important ostraca, some of which are not discussed elsewhere in modern literature. One of the ostraca mentioned is from the agora of Smyrna, which is written in a beautiful hand in detached letters. The fact that this ostracon contains some rare Greek words should remind us that ancient writing is important no matter what material it is written on! There are also some interesting minuscule ostraca found at Amheida that measure 2 x 3 cm containing the name of a well, the name of a person, and a regnal year. These were "embedded in the top of a mud sealing on a jar of wine or oil, perhaps sent to the owner of the well as payment for use of it during the year in question" (133).
There are fifty plates, nine tables, and two graphs, which help to illustrate nicely the discussions. The only issue with some of the data in the tables is that they have changed. I made several spot checks using the Heidelberger Gesamtverzeichnis der griechischen Papyrusurkunden Agyptens (HGV) and the numbers have increased due to new discoveries since 2008-2009, when the data for most of the tables were collected. The bibliography contains works that are up-to-date, most of them stemming from the last decade or earlier. There are other wonderful topics of discussion in this book (such as the Bactrian language, code switching between Coptic and Greek, slavery, archives, etc.) but I thought I would highlight only a few things here to whet the appetite. A superb little book, written by one of the finest papyrologists, deserving a spot on every historian's and papyrologist's book shelf.