The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2017-2018, 22-40

Statehood and Writing in Ancient Greek World: Some Aspects of Correlation of the two Spheres

I. E. Surikov

The author demonstrates the existence in Ancient Greece of a system
of correlations between the political formation of states and the evolution
of writing systems. It is possible to speak of a virtually parallel character of
relevant developments in the two spheres. In the most general aspect, the
emergence of the Greek polis and the birth of the Greek alphabet took place at
the same time, and that was by no means an accidental coincidence. As to the
question of concrete time and purposes of the invention of alphabetic writing, the
author mostly follows points made by B. Powell, a consistent supporter of the
monogenetic theory (alphabet appeared not as a result of long work of generations
but was invented at some moment by a single person). According to Powell, the
Greek alphabet was really the first one in the world, as he considers preceding
West Semitic scripts to be not of alphabetic but of syllabic type. Powell believes
that the place of the invention of the alphabet was the island of Euboea, or, to be
more strict, it happened somewhere in the very wide area of the early Euboeans’
naval, commercial and colonizing activities. There is an alternative view (by R.
Woodard), that the Greek alphabet was invented in Cyprus, but it seems much
less probable.
In the second part of the article, the author turns to a comparative analysis of
situations in three Greek regions (Attica, Crete, Cyprus), which were principally
different as regards both to political evolution and to the functioning of writing.
Athens, beginning with Solon’s reforms, went the way of “modernization”,
which led eventually to the creation of classical democracy. In its conditions, the
collective body of Athenian citizens proved to be a community of mass literacy
(as can be seen particularly from inscriptions, such as assembly decrees, ostraka,
etc.). To be a citizen of Athens meant, as a matter of fact, to be literate. In Crete,
Greek states were, by contrast, of oligarchic character, being republics ruled by
aristocrats. Correspondingly, in Cretan cities we find another king of literacy that
can be called “scribal literacy”, limited to a small group of specialists. Another
characteristic feature of Crete is the manifest prevalence of public inscriptions
(mostly laws) over private ones, while in Attica the opposite was true even for
the Archaic period. As for Cyprus, a unique phenomenon of the island was the
conservation of monarchies, which had disappeared early in all other parts of the
Greek world. Conservatism in general was very characteristic of the Cypriots,
and it manifested itself also in the sphere of writing. When Aegean Greeks had
already for a long time been using alphabet, Cyprian Greeks did not follow them
and continued to use a syllabic script of the Bronze Age origins. Elimination of
both, this script and Cyprian monarchies took place at the same time, during the
Early Hellenistic period, and that, again, could not be a simple coincidence. To
conclude with, on various levels, in Greek world as a whole as well as in its
particular regions, there was a correlation between the political sphere and the
sphere of writing and literacy.

writing, alphabet, syllabary, Greeks, Phoenicians, Attica, Crete, Cyprus, democracy, oligarchy, monarchy

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