This thesis examines the spread of literacy and the written word in the late Roman Republic 63-43 BCE; given both the vibrancy of the political scene and the relative abundance of the contemporary sources, the late Republic is an ideal period for investigating the role the written word played for the average Roman citizen.
In his ground-breaking Ancient Literacy (London, 1989), William V. Harris argues that the Roman world largely lacked the societal infrastructure that has otherwise encouraged widespread literacy, leading him to estimate that at most 15% of the population could read or write in the late Republic. On this basis, I reviewed the foundations of Roman written culture (writing materials, the system of education, and the uses and proliferation of the written word), noted some objections to the 15% estimate, and concluded that assessing the general level of literacy is an inherently subjective task. Instead, I investigated how written and oral forms of communication might have spread the written word to a wider segment of the population. And the over-all conclusion is that we must differentiate between the reading and writing aspects of Roman literacy. With regard to writing, we may delineate a three-tiered stratification of Roman society: the thoroughly literate upper classes; a certain percentage of the common population (10%? 25%? 40%?) that to a much lesser degree used writing in their daily lives; and, finally, the illiterate commoners (perhaps the majority of the population), who did not actively use the written word. However, the inability to read would not have excluded illiterates from receiving the contents of the written word. Public oratory spread a basic knowledge of elements from upper class written culture (history and law in particular), to the extent that orators could rhetorically use such elements - in moderated form - when trying to persuade the citizens at a popular assembly. Public inscriptions, graffiti, and postings were commonly read out loud, so that random bystanders would have heard their contents, and even otherwise exclusive texts (such as official dispatches and records) were often revealed at public meetings or in the course of trials. Even literary works were at times disseminated to the general public through e.g. public posting and recitals, at least those works that could be exploited for political purposes (such as Caesar s De Bello Gallico). In addition, the evidence from the late Republic refutes the commonly held notion that Latin poetry would automatically have fallen on deaf ears in the general populace - and this in turn opens for the possibility that even some non-political literary works might have found a wider audience.
In sum, my overall hypothesis is that
1) the written culture of the upper classes set the tone for public life in Rome, and,
2)the interaction between written and oral forms of communication enabled a more widespread dissemination of this culture.