“Whenever Hellenes take anything from
non-Hellenes, they eventually carry it to a higher
According to the ancient Greeks they adapted their alphabet from the Phoenicians. Both were great seafaring peoples and eager to trade not only goods but ideas. One of the most important ideas was the alphabet. It enabled a system of writing by which they could record their transactions- 100 jars of olive oil, 20 blocks of white marble, 30 packages of purple dye, etc. As with other ideas they borrowed the Greeks made improvements, increasing the number of letters by adding vowels. This happened sometime around the beginning of the eighth century BC.
This was not the first time that Greek speaking peoples had used a written language. The Mycenaeans, who were the subjects of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, had developed a system of writing that today's scholars call “Linear B”. Several thousand sun-dried clay tablets covered with the Linear B script have been found on the island of Crete. They represent the earliest form of written Greek known. Deciphered by a young English architect (Michael Ventris), the tablets recorded details about the storage and distribution of household goods. The information was probably written around 1400 BC. Then, during the Dark Age, the knowledge of writing died out. The Greeks became an illiterate society.
With the adoption and modification of the Phoenician alphabet the Greeks were on their way to becoming literate again. In fact the achievements for which they became renowned in fields as varied as philosophy, science, government, literature and medicine would not have happened if it weren't for writing. Socrates wrote nothing but we know so much about what he thought and said because of the writings of Plato. Access to a simple writing system meant that everyone willing to learn could, in theory, do so –women, slaves, peasants as well as members of the aristocracy. In fact, however, most didn't and illiteracy was widespread during the golden age of Greece- the Classical Era.
The Mycenaean Greeks used sharp instruments to engrave their language into wet clay tablets. (A major fire at an ancient palace baked thousands of these tablets and preserved them for scholars today.)
|An ostraka (pottery sherd) which served as a ballot in voting
to ostracize (banish) the statesman Aristides.
Copyright: Thomas Sakoulas, Ancient-Greece.org
Used by permission of Ancient-Greece.org © 2001-2006
Later Greeks used a variety of writing implements- papyrus (which they got from Phoenician traders), parchment (which was made from the scraped hides of cattle, ship or goats), wooden tablets whitened with gypsum, wooden tablets coated with wax and, of course, more durable materials such as stone monuments and bronze plaques. These more permanent materials were often used for official inscriptions- laws of the city, treaties with other states, temple dedications, war memorials and such.
Early Greek writing runs from right to left- for the first line. The second line then runs from left to right and the direction of the lines alternate for the complete text. This kind of writing is called boustrophedon (as the ox turns- when he plows a field.) Later the left to right system, which we use today, became the standard.