Academic journal article Antiquity

The Early History of the Greek Alphabet: New Evidence from Eretria and Methone

Academic journal article Antiquity

The Early History of the Greek Alphabet: New Evidence from Eretria and Methone

Article excerpt


The adoption of alphabetic writing from the Phoenicians, and its adaptation, by the Greeks sometime in the eighth century BC, was one of the most critical developments in world history. The ramifications were almost immediate and far-reaching. For the first time, writing was not limited to a scribal class serving a ruling or religious elite, whether in Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Levant or in the syllabic Linear B world of the Mycenaean palatial system. As I have stated elsewhere:

Henceforth, a bard could reach across centuries to relate a real or imagined world of heroes [Homer], a woman could write poetry [Sappho], a farmer could write of works and days, even on the birth of gods [Hesiod], a playwright could construct figures of high tragedy or slapstick comedy [Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes], a seasoned traveler could recount his journeys and the customs of the peoples he chanced across [Herodotus], a failed and frustrated general could write a history of a war [Thucydides], and any male citizen could scratch on a potsherd the name of whomever he wished to ostracise (Papadopoulos 2014: 192).

Writing was invented independently in three places: first in Sumer, southern Mesopotamia, the oldest example being from c. 3200 BC at Uruk (Michalowski 2004) and in Egypt soon after (Loprieno 2004); Chinese script appeared by the middle of the second millennium BC (Peyraube 2004); and in Mesoamerica, Maya glyphs first appeared c. 300 BC (Bricker 2004). Mesopotamian cuneiform was the most widely used system of writing before the alphabet, which was first developed in western Asia in the second millennium BC (Isserlin 1982; Naveh 1982) and, indeed, most alphabets can ultimately be traced back to the west Semitic alphabet (Sass 2005).

Of importance here is that the west Semitic alphabet was introduced, adopted and adapted to the specific cultural context of Early Iron Age Greece. Drawing on new archaeological finds, notably from Eretria and Methone, in the context of linguistic evidence, this paper reassesses the place(s) where the Greeks--and Phrygians--adopted and adapted the Phoenician/Aramaic alphabet to create their own. There are many locales where Greek and Semitic speakers co-existed in the Mediterranean. As Barry Powell (2002: 193) noted: "Greeks and Semitic Levantines mixed in the Orontes estuary, Euboia, Boiotia, Samos, Crete, Cyprus, and Italy". Other locales have also been suggested, not least the Nile Delta, although the evidence from Egypt largely post-dates the adoption and adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet by the Greeks. Often neglected in discussions of the Greek adoption of the Phoenician alphabet is the remarkable agreement among the Greek and Phrygian vowels, to such an extent that they could not have been adopted from the Semitic script independently (Table 1). The signs for the vowels are taken from Semitic script but represent Semitic sounds largely superfluous to Greek and Phrygian phonology that were at hand and available for use as signs for vowels, which Semitic ostensibly lacks (Young 1969: 255): alep ([alpha]. alpha), he' ([epsilon]: epsilon; cf. het [[eta]: eta]),yod(i: iota), 'ayin (o: omikron) and waw-upsilon (v: upsilon) (Jeffery 1989: 21-42). The similarity in the vowels is such that it demands a place of adoption and adaptation that includes Phrygians, not just Greeks and Phoenicians. Before enumerating the various locales where the adoption/adaptation occurred, it is important to review the new information from Eretria and Methone.

The new evidence from Eretria and Methone

Eretria, in central-western Euboia, is the traditional metropolis (mother-city) of Methone, in Pieria (Macedonia), strategically located near the delta of the Haliakmon River and at the south-eastern edge of the Thermaic Gulf (Bessios et al. 2012) (Figure 1). Early Euboian settlers found in Methone a thriving settlement that was continuously occupied from the Final Neolithic period, through the Bronze Age, Early Iron Age, Archaic and Classical periods. …

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