chapter  3
29 Pages

THE UNIVERSE AS A BOOK: HELLENISTIC LITERACY AND THE POEMS OF ARATUS AND NICANDER

Let us look first at literacy. 'Ptolemaic bureaucracy', it seems to be true to say, 'presided over a dramatic increase in the functions of the written word' (Harris 1989: 128). It has been argued that 'the Hellenistic Greeks, in particular those who ruled and administered the Ptolemaic empire, developed the bureaucratic uses of writing far beyond what had been known in the classical era' (Harris 1989: 325, cf. Thomas 1992: 151-5). Harris has argued (1989: 329) that there was a lift in literacy from 10-15 per cent during the fifth and fourth centuries to an 'early modern' scale in some Hellenistic cities of 3040 per cent. (This literacy was, of course, confined to the elite, Harris 1989: 116--46.) Literacy and writing in Alexandria, for example, came to dominate the expressive culture of the elite and to displace oral traditions in an unparalleled manner. The Alexandrian Museum offers a stark testimony. Harris (1989: 125) points towards its real cultural significance:

In Homer's day individual memory was the Museum. Memory

measured the universe. In this Alexandrian era the universe was measured as a book.