M.I. Finley on Ancient Slavery and Literacy

Literacy of Slaves and Owners Rare

5/15/20231 min read

"The uniqueness of slavery . . . lay in the fact that the laborer himself was a commodity, not merely his labor or labor power."

Nowhere, under the Roman Empire, was there any elaborate network of schools for anyone, let alone slaves. Literacy for all classes is held by most scholars to have been around ten percent, heavily weighted towards the upper classes. It was in fact a repugnant thought to upper-class Greeks and Romans that a man of their own class might be illiterate. They educated their sons. Girls may have had a little private tutoring, but were often married off at the ages of twelve, thirteen and fourteen. An intelligent woman of the upper class was often able to acquire a good conventional education, and was expected to do so.

Many members of the higher ranks of the teaching profession were, especially in Rome itself, freedmen or slaves. There was need everywhere for a number of slaves who were literate in varying degrees, and every man of wealth would require some such. Some may have been sent to school. There were always some people who were enslaved when they were already literate adults or adolescents. Slaveowners never had more than a very small proportion of their slaves taught to read and write, and few slaves managed to learn independently. Even the higher-ranking slaves on Roman farms were commonly unable to read or write.

M.I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology.