Classical Studies 135S  (Special Studies in Greek History)

The Origins of Literate Culture in the West


Classical Studies 135S/History 119A: Special Studies in Greek History

William A. Johnson

Office: Allen 229B    •    MW 4-5, or by appt.   •    684-2082   •

Origins of Literate Culture in the West

Greece lays claim to an impressive number of “originals” in the western literary tradition, including the alphabet itself but also formal logic and philosophy, science, staged drama, and the western idea of history (historiography), among much else. In many respects, we remain locked into ideas of literateness and intellectualism and “culture” that derive from early Greece, and yet, interestingly, it is seldom asked how inevitable these developments were, nor to what degree they depend upon contexts particular to early Greece. Behind much of the work of this course will be a big question: namely, to what degree our notions of literacy, literateness, and intellectualism are historical rather than natural or inevitable.  In the seminar, we will explore, then, the fascinating early story of literacy and literary texts in ancient Greece and the literate revolution that fashioned many western notions of what is essentially literary or intellectual. Our focus will be on the intersection of texts and ideas with the specifics of early Greek culture and society.

The principal goals of our course will be: (1) a foundational introduction to primary evidence for the literary  and literate culture in early Greece; and (2) a critical and systematic exploration of strategies for
interpreting that evidence. We will alternate between detailed work on the content and contextualization of this early literature, and consideration of the broad implications of these “origins” for the ways we construct literacy, literateness, culture, and intellectualism in the West. The materials of the course will be organized roughly under these rubrics: 1. Systems of writing and the development of the alphabet. 2. Origins and contexts for the ideas of the literary. 3. Oralities and literacies in ancient Greece. 4. Early ideas of intellectualism, philosophy, science. 5. Origins of Academy and Library. 6. The Roman inheritance.

The course will use both primary readings in translation (Iliad etc.) and readings in the scholarship (provided through the class e-reserves) to explore these topics. We will work together on strategies to master these at times somewhat difficult (but also extraordinarily interesting) materials. You will not want to finish this course without knowing about the early history of orality and literacy, about Homer, about Plato and the Athenian context that gave rise to the Academy. But there are a large number of possible directions to our learning, and we will often make strategic choices as a group as to what we wish to explore in more or less depth. There are no prerequisites for the class, aside from your own willingness to read carefully and think hard.

Course requirements: There will be routine, brief written and/or oral assignments by way of summing up or exploring further, roughly every week or two. Classroom discussion will be thoughtful, respectful, vigorous, exciting. There will be two one-hour examinations, and a final exam that includes as a take-home component a substantial essay. Examinations will test your command of factual information, your knowledge of the primary texts we read in translation, and your ability to put these materials together into an informed narrative or analytic essay. You are expected to come to every class; this is a seminar in which your daily contribution is an essential component of our learning and your grade.

Graded material will be weighted as follows:

Class work, short papers, presentations30%

One-hour examinations (2)40%

Final examination + essay30%


Much of our reading will be book chapters or articles made available through the class e-reserve.  (Find these by looking under the Schedule of Assignments.) Primary materials will need to reflect the previous experience of the participants in the seminar, and we will thus select those during the first week of classes.

Illustrations: 1. Boy reading: Fresco from Pompeii. 2. Nestor's cup inscription. 3. Timotheus, our oldest surviving literary papyrus. 4. School scene, Attic Red Figure vase. 5. Fresco decoration, Akrotiri.


Class Syllabus