The Greek miracle

Semitic languages were spoken along the coasts of Palestine. Pupils learning to read had to learn to vocalise the consonants. Further north, in Greece, the language was very different – it had more vowels but no alphabet to transcribe it.

The Greeks had the brilliant idea of using the Aramaic alphabet. They borrowed a number of consonants that the Greek language did not have, such as A, E, O, Y and the new I, and converted them into vowels. The end result was a Greek alphabet of 24 letters (17 consonants and 7 vowels) that can be traced back to the 5th century BC.

The document on display is a Greek writing exercise. It was written in Egypt on a wooden tablet in the 4th or 5th century. Many documents of the epoch confirm that Egyptian schoolchildren did writing exercises during the Hellenistic period. The most common one was to trace erasable letters with a chisel or stylus on a wax-coated tablet. Most sentences were copied first by the teacher and then once, twice or several times by the student. They were aphorisms relating to schoolwork, such as “Work hard my child if you do not wish to be beaten”. The Bodmer tablet reads: “To learn to read is the greatest of virtues”.

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From Rome to the Middle Ages

Chant V de l’Iliade d’Homère, fin du IIIe – début du IVe siècle ap. J.-C.

Canto V of Homer’s Iliad, late 3rd century – early 4th century AD