The written word has changed and shaped the history of the Ancient Mediterranean as history has changed and shaped it. Language first began in distant human evolution. The first words to be written down were simple, arising from cave art. These pictures became more advanced and capable of conveying more complex meanings. With trade and conquest, these alphabets spread and merged to form the recognisable systems of the ancient Mediterranean. Originally, they were used predominantly for recording commerce and deals that would otherwise risk being forgotten or manipulated. As empires grew larger and communication more difficult, writing was used to convey messages to large numbers of people or to give information to a distant party. Gradually, writing became more than just communication, but an art form, as literature developed. Writing has been a major influential force from the live of the common man to the success of empires.
It is impossible to know when and where spoken language began, not least because of ambiguity as to what defines it. Speculation about the larynx and the tongue shape give some indication of which of our ancestors may have been able to produce the range of sounds necessary for speech. A tentative estimate places the advent of spoken language with the Neanderthal at around 300 000BC. This advanced ability to communicate would have greatly improved the structure and tasks of primitive society.
The first known pictures were discovered in caves at Lascaux from c. 14 000BC. These were probably the ancient scribbles of a culture seeking to express what they saw in a way clearer and more lasting than spoken words. Tablets from Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC engraved with images of livestock are thought to have been used as records of trade promises and deals. It is thought that writing grew from pictures, which became simplified and stylistic cuneiform with time and use. The letter A was originally symbolic of an ox or aleph in Phoenician. It was the first letter of the alphabet because to the ancients the ox symbolised strength and energy. Thus the symbol came to represent these abstract ideas as well as a physical animal. Originally, the letter was a picture of a whole ox but through metonymy it came to be represented by only the head of an ox. This simplified into the Greek Alpha and the Latin A. This process of picture, symbol, letter formed all of the Greek and Latin alphabets.
A major step from these pictographs was the Egyptian initiative to make them represent sounds, often in the form of syllables, rather than ideas. This developed from acrophony: symbols for ideas or objects coming to represent the initial sound of that word. This change eliminated much of the ambiguity of symbols and gave writing the full complexity of speech. In the Cratylus, Plato speaks about writing as a form of imitation, as a representation of the spoken alphabet rather than visual elements. The first alphabetical scripts were developed from hieroglyphs in Egypt and Cuneiform in Uruk. From these systems, close to all of the modern alphabets evolved.
The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the 5th century BC that the Greek alphabet arrived with the Phoenician settlement in BC. Plato traced the Phoenician letters back to the Egyptians, who legend states received it as a divine gift. Plato discusses the origins and development in his works Cratylus and Phaedrus. The changes in the shapes of the letters came from a variety of sources. One that can clearly be seen is the medium available. Cuneiform was mainly written with reed styli on clay tablets, and by necessity are made of wedge-shaped indents (cuneiform literally means “wedge letters”). Roman stone inscriptions used straight lines as well resulting in the blocky capitals that we use today. Another influence was ease of use. With time and employment, the letters became more stylised and removed from their original pictures and symbols. With trade and conquest, different writing systems were united and separated, merging two old alphabets into one, or changing with time isolated from a parent system. This can be seen in the unification of Greek and Etruscan to produce the Latin alphabet. Thus sprung the different alphabets of the Ancient Mediterranean as varied as spoken language.
Writing has served many different cultural functions. It is thought to have sprung from mundane necessities such as commerce and debt but when its power was realised, it quickly became the duty of scribes and those who had the time and wealth to afford education. In such cultures as ancient Rome, It became a social divider; those who could read could get a job high paying enough to afford to teach their children to read. Literacy was widespread in free males in 5th century Athens. In some cultures, such as Egypt, writing took on a mystical role, perhaps due to its perceived divine origins. Herodotus coined the term “hieroglyphs” from “hieros” meaning sacred. The Greek word for alphabet, stoicheia, also means “elements” and as such, the letters were considered the building blocks of the cosmic order. It also became a symbol of cultural unity; the entire area of what we now call “Ancient Greece” was a collection of separate city states united only by language.
As medium became more available and education more widespread, writing became a successful way of communication across long distances of space and time. In the Near East, writing came to be used for public monuments, declarations of military success, and legal codes. In Greece and Rome (famously Pompeii) many instances of graffiti have been found advertising services, declaring love, and even complaining about noise levels in the area. Writing also became vital for running a military campaign so that generals could report to each other about their location, resources, and plans. Letters from all over the Roman Empire detail both political and personal matters. This use of language as long-distance communication enabled great conquests and widespread control in the Ancient Mediterranean.
Another great development in the place of writing in society was its use in literature, an art form rather than a purely practical method. It is hard to define where exactly the difference lies in matters such as Biblical texts and Homer’s epics, which are both religious and historical accounts as well as literary stories. One important aspect of literature is poetry. The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem recorded in the 7th century BC in Babylonia about a hero-king who is thought to have lived in the 3rd millennium. More recent and famous are the works of Homer, the Odyssey and the Iliad. The ancient writers of Greece and Rome studied arts of rhythm, metre, and language techniques in great depth and covered topics of love, religion, and mythology among others. The literature of the ancient world served in education, entertainment, and determining social class.
The written word was shaped by the people of the ancient Mediterranean and in return has shaped their world. From its origins in pictures to the Golden ages of classical literature, it has been a part of daily life and decisive politics. Its development and influences can be traced throughout the Mediterranean.
- Ouaknin, M 1999 Mysteries of the Alphabet Abbeville Press, New York
- Drucker, J 1995 The Alphabetic Labyrinth Thames and Hudson Ltd., London
- Man, J 2000 Alpha Beta Headline Book Publishing, London
- Jean, G 1987 Writing: The story of Alphabets and Scripts Thames and Hudson Ltd., London
- Wikipedia Retrieved July 24, 25, 30, 2007 from http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_page