According to several fourth-century Athenian sources, the Spartans were a boorish and uneducated people, who were either hostile toward the written word or simply illiterate. Building upon such Athenian claims of Spartan illiteracy, modern scholars have repeatedly portrayed Sparta as a backward state whose supposedly secretive and reactionary oligarchic political system led to an extremely low level of literacy on the part of the common Spartiate. This article reassesses both ancient and modern constructions of Spartan illiteracy and examines the ideological underpinnings of Athenian attacks on the ostensibly unlettered Lacedaemonians. Beginning with a close analysis of the available archaeological and literary evidence on Spartan public applications of literacy, it argues that the written word played a central role in the operation of the Spartan state, which utilized a variety of documents and required routine acts of literacy on the part of Spartiate commanders and ocials. Both the broad eligibility for the ephorate and the Lacedaemonians' chronic oliganthropia demonstrate that not all of the important public functionaries whose duties customarily involved reading and writing were members of the Spartan elite. The fact that Spartan office-holders acquired their literacy skills from a compulsory and comprehensive system of public education, which promoted the creation of a collective identity, further argues in favor of a literacy that was more broadly based than previous scholars have concluded. The article then accounts for these representations of Spartan illiteracy by locating them in the context of the changing relationship between orality and literacy in fifth- and fourth-century Athens. It argues that as the written word played an increasingly important role in Athenian democratic practice and ideology, it began to performtwo interconnected functions: as a signicant component in Athenian self-denition and as a key indicator of cultural and political dierence between Athens and its Peloponnesian enemies.
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