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Coined as the opposite of literacy, to denote the phenomenon of extensive reliance on oral communication rather than the written word, it is a useful concept for the ancient world, where writing was often used less than modern readers would assume. Various forms of orality are not incompatible with some use of writing, and it can be helpfully sub-divided into (1) oral composition, (2) oral communication, (3) oral transmission.

Oral composition, entirely without the help of writing, is best known in relation to the Homeric poems (see homer) and the long tradition of oral poetry through the Greek Dark Ages. The influential work of Parry and Lord sought to show how an oral poet could compose in performance. Spontaneous oral composition can also be found, however, in later symposiastic poetry, and oratory. The importance of oral communication can be seen e.g. in the political activity of democratic Athens (see democracy, athenian); in the use of contracts or wills relying on witnesses, not writing, in Athens and Rome (see evidence, ancient attitudes to); in the habit of hearing literature (see anagnōstēs). Oral transmission is the transmission without writing of any information, literature, traditions about the past etc. This usually involves some distortion, especially over generations of oral tradition, unless there is a deliberate effort to maintain the accuracy of the tradition (e.g. through poetry). Until the development of 5th-cent. Greek historiography, most Greeks knew about their past from oral tradition; and it was crucial in preserving traditions about early Rome. Its character and reliability depends heavily on who is transmitting the traditions and why (e.g. notions of honour, patriotism). Thus Archaic Greece was almost entirely an oral society: even poetry that was written down (e.g. Sappho) was primarily meant to be heard and performed.

As written documents and the centrality of written literature increase in the 5th. and 4th. cents., elements of orality still remain fundamental, notably the performance of poetry and prose (e.g. Herodotus(1)), and oratory and extempore performance; the value of the written word was not uniformly accepted (cf. Plato(1)'s criticisms in Phaedrus). Roman society was more book- and library-oriented, but even at the level of high culture one finds literary readings, the accomplishments of oratory, memory, and improvisation (see Quint.Inst. 10. 7. 30–2; 11; the skill and advantages of shorthand were despised, Sen. Ep. 90. 25). The balance between oral communication and writing varied immensely over the period and in different areas. Some see a fundamental mentality engendered by orality (e.g. lack of individualism and/or analytical skills), but both Greece and Rome have their own particular manifestations of oral culture, and the theory may be exaggerated.


R. Thomas, Literacy and Orality in the Ancient World (1992).Find this resource:

    R. Thomas, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens (1989).Find this resource:

      B. Gentili, Poetry and its Public in Ancient Greece (1988).Find this resource:

        A. Lord, The Singer of Tales (1960).Find this resource:

          C. J. Herington, Poetry into Drama (1985).Find this resource:

            E. Havelock, Preface to Plato (1963).Find this resource:

              L. Edmunds and R. Wallace (eds.), Poet, Public and Performance in Ancient Greece (1997).Find this resource:

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