Means of Communication

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Means of Communication




Linear B . There are two main ways in which verbal messages are communicated: in oral form and in written form. Of these two methods, the latter was unavailable to Greek speakers until the late Bronze Age (3000-1100 b.c.e.), when the rulers of the Mycenaean palaces instituted the first writing system used to represent the Greek language known as Linear B. In comparison with their neighbors, the Greeks were relative latecomers to the art of writing. Egyptian hieroglyphics and the cuneiform writing system used by various peoples in Mesopotamia and the Near East date to the fourth millennium, b.c.e. Linear B was adapted by the Mycenaeans from Linear A, the writing system used by the Minoan civilization on Crete (1800-1500 b.c.e.) to represent their non-Greek language. The earliest examples of Linear B are found on clay tablets baked hard by the fire that accompanied a destruction of the palace of Knossos in Crete in about 1375 b.c.e., a time at which Knossos and the other former Minoan centers were controlled by Mycenaean Greeks.

Three Types . In the history of writing, there are various types of writing systems. All of them can be broadly categorized into three types: logographic systems, in which each symbol represents an entire word or concept (for example, Chinese writing); alphabetic systems, in which each symbol represents a single vowel or consonant (like the writing system you are now reading); and syllabic systems, in which each sign represents a syllable or a combination of vowels and consonants. Linear B (like Linear A) falls into this last category: one series of symbols represent the simple vowels a, e, i, o, and u, and the other symbols represent open syllables consisting of a consonant followed by a vowel, such as pa, do, ze, mi, and su.

Syllabic Writing . Some languages can be represented efficiently and accurately by a syllabic writing system. Modern Japanese, for instance, uses a syllabic script without any difficulty, since the Japanese language consists mainly of open syllables, such as ka-ra-te and 0-sa-ka. In fact, when the Japanese borrow foreign words into their language, they customarily insert extra vowels to make all the syllables into open ones; for instance the word football becomes, in Japanese, fu-to-bo-ru. In the absence of any real knowledge about the ancient Minoan language, linguists can only assume that it was similar to Japanese in this respect and that the Linear A writing system was therefore well suited to it. Greek, however, is a language with many consonant clusters and other phonological complications, and for this reason Linear B, which retained the syllabic

character of Linear A, was an extraordinarily clumsy way of writing Greek. When two or more consonants come together in a Greek word, Linear B omits one or more of the consonants or expands the word with dummy vowels (as Japanese does with the word football). For instance, the Greek word stathmos, meaning “station” or “stable,” is written as ta-to-mo in Linear B. In the initial consonant cluster st the s is simply omitted, and in the medial cluster -thm- is expanded to two syllables: to-mo. Note also that in Linear B there is no way to distinguish between t and th and no way to represent a final consonant like the final s in stathmos.

Literacy . For these reasons, Linear B seems never to have caught on amongst the general population of Mycenaean Greece. As far as scholars can determine Linear B was used exclusively by the scribes and bureaucrats who administered the Mycenaean economy, in which authorities collected commodities and products and redistributed them to manufacturers and consumers. Amongst these records keepers, who needed the script to record a finite number of facts about a finite variety of goods and materials, Linear B was a perfectly adequate and efficient writing system, but as a script for whatever a Greek speaker might want to express, it had severe limitations. So, while the palace scribes were writing Linear B, the rest of the Mycenaean population, including probably those members of the upper classes who had no direct involvement in the economic affairs of the palaces, remained illiterate, and after the fall of the Mycenaean palaces even that limited literacy was lost. Without any palaces to keep records for, there was no need for a records keeping script, which was largely the only role that Linear B played.

Greek Alphabet . In the aftermath of the Mycenaean period (1600-1200 b.c.e.), the Greeks remained illiterate for several centuries. Not until the period of the Geometric Renaissance (800-700 b.c.e.) did they recover the art of writing, but when they did so they created a new means of communication that was much more versatile and well-suited to the Greek language than Linear B. It was this new system of writing, the familiar Greek alphabet, that became the medium through which Greek history and literature was recorded, and this same alphabet became the basis for both the Roman alphabet (which is used by speakers of most European languages, including English) and the Cyrillic alphabet, in which Russian and other Slavic languages are written. It is certainly one of the Greeks’ most important legacies to Western civilization.

Vowels . The alphabet was based on a West Semitic writing system that was also employed by the Greeks’ trading partners, the Phoenicians. One crucial change that the Greeks instituted was the invention of vowels (the letters in the Semitic alphabets only represented consonants). This adaptation was necessary: the structure of words in Semitic languages allows them to be represented recognizably without vowels. Hebrew, for example, a Semitic language that uses a writing system based on the same ancient model as Greek, is written with no vowels. Greek, however, has many words with several vowels in sequence, and these would be difficult or impossible to recognize if written without vowels. For instance, the word aaa-tos, meaning “unharmed,” would be represented merely as ts in a script without vowels. There are also various pairs of words in Greek that would be indistinguishable in the absence of vowels. For instance, the words pais (child) and pous (foot) would both be represented indistinguishably as ps. The Greeks took letters from the Semitic script that represented sounds that the Greek language did not have and reassigned their values to vowels. This change made the writing system more adaptable for other languages and enabled the Greek alphabet to spawn several other writing systems worldwide.

Ostraka . The earliest examples of Greek writing are found scratched on the surface of pottery shards dating to the eighth century b.c.e. The reason for this occurrence is probably that pottery lasts longer than other materials that were used as writing surfaces, not that pottery was the earliest or most popular writing medium. Nevertheless, pottery shards, or ostraka in Greek, were inexpensive and readily available, and they continued to be used for writing throughout antiquity. This practice has even given birth to a familiar word in English vocabulary: every year the Athenian people were allowed to vote in order to send a powerful politician into exile for a period of ten years. Each citizen would scratch the name of his least favorite politician onto an ostrakon and deposit it along with all the other ostraka in a specified place. If any one statesman received a set number of votes, he was exiled. This process, by which the Athenians hoped to prevent any one leader from amassing too much power, was called ostrakismos, from which the English word ostracism is derived.

Deltos . Another inexpensive medium for writing was the deltos or deltion. The deltos consisted of a pair of small wooden tablets connected together at one edge so that they hinged open like the covers of a book. The interior faces of the tablets were coated with beeswax, and messages or accounts could be inscribed in the soft wax and erased when a new message needed to be recorded. The deltos was commonly used throughout the Mediterranean region; one was even found on the Bronze Age Ulu Burun shipwreck. The advantage of the deltos was that it was reusable, but since it could only hold a limited amount of text, it was not wellsuited for recording and transmitting the great literary works of ancient Greece. For that reason, papyrus scrolls were the main medium.

Papyrus and Parchment . Papyrus was the most common medium for recording all sorts of writing. Papyrus is a paper-like fabric made from the internal pulp of reeds that grow in the Nile Delta region of Egypt. Sheets of papyrus were attached to one another edge-to-edge to form a continuous writing surface that could be rolled up into scrolls. Another material that was similarly used for extended texts was animal tissue. The laborious method of preparing hides and membranes for use in writing was known in the Archaic (700-490 b.c.e.) and Classical (490-323 b.c.e.) periods, but did not begin to rival papyrus in popularity until the third century b.c.e., when it became a major product of the city of Pergamum in Anatolia. From the name Pergamum the English -word parchment is derived.

Need . Since papyrus came only from Egypt, it was a relatively expensive commodity, and as the literary arts flourished in Greece, it became one of the major imports. Athens in particular became for all intents and purposes an intermediary site for the processing of papyrus, importing the raw material from Egypt and exporting the finished product in the form of books to the rest of the Mediterranean world.

Stone Inscriptions . Stone was another important, though less mobile, medium upon which communication occurred. Stone inscriptions written in the Greek alphabet occurred early in the Archaic Period and increased in frequency throughout the Classical Period. Private citizens used inscribed stones to mark the boundaries of their property, to memorialize their dead, and to take credit for their offerings to the gods. Governments used them to record laws, decrees, treaties, accounts, and anything else they thought needed recording in a permanent, publicly accessible format. Inscribed stones, thousands of which have survived, provide historians with much important information about the functioning of ancient politics and economies, particularly in Athens where a relatively literate population and an open, democratic form of government produced many inscriptions.

Movement of Information . There are basically two ways to disseminate information: one is to send the information out to people by various means; the other is to post it in a central place and let the people come to it. The latter sort of dissemination occurred in many, if not most, Greek city-states on a regular basis. The typical Greek city had at its center a large open space, called an agora, which functioned as a central marketplace, a social gathering spot, and, quite often, a place for people to meet for political purposes. In such places the government could post laws, results of elections, levy lists for the military and other information, and rely on a significant percentage of the populace to see it and relay the information to the rest of the people. In Athens, for instance, the law code of Solon (circa 590 b.c.e.) was published on triangular wooden pillars called kurbeis in the agora. The kurbeis provided access to the law for the common people and served as a check on the power of the upper-class magistrates who otherwise might have been tempted to remember and interpret the law in self-serving ways.

Aggareion . For the communication of information farther afield, there were no regularly established institutions analogous to a modern postal service or news service, either within or between any of the Greek cities. Dissemination of news and transmission of messages was conducted on a largely informal and ad hoc basis. In this area the Greeks lagged behind their neighbors in the Near East, especially the Persians, who had a system of relay messengers, called the aggareion, manned by riders on horseback. This ancient version of the Pony Express allowed the Persian king to send and receive messages from far-flung parts of his enormous empire with a quickness that astounded the Greeks. The aggareion depended to a great extent upon the Persians’ more sophisticated road system, the lack of which, together with the political fragmentation that hindered cooperation on any intercity institutions (including roads), precluded the Greeks from copying this Persian institution.

Heralds and Envoys . For the exchange of official messages, either between governments or between opposing armies on the battlefield, the Greeks employed heralds (kêrukes) or, at a higher level, ambassadors or envoys (presbeutes). While there is no firm distinction between heralds and envoys, the latter generally seem to have been empowered to negotiate with people, while heralds simply delivered messages. By a convention observed in most parts of the Mediterranean world, heralds and envoys were considered sacrosanct. Heralds carried a special staff, called a kêrukeion, which entitled them to hospitality and freedom from harassment. If a herald was mistreated or killed as he passed through enemy territory, it was considered a crime of the greatest religious consequence.

Skutalê . Hermes, who acted as the messenger of the gods in myth, was held to be the god of heralds and was usually portrayed carrying a divine, winged version of the kérukeion. An interesting variation on the kêrukeion was the skutalê, a staff or a standard diameter carried by officials of the Spartan government. When the Spartans wished to send a message to their representatives abroad, they wound a strip of leather around a skutalê and wrote the message upon it. The leather strip was then delivered to the Spartan representative in the field who wound it around his own skutalê to read the message. It is thought that the use of the skutalê was more of a symbolic gesture than an attempt to keep the message secret. If the leather strip fell into the wrong hands, its message could be easily pieced together even by someone who did not have a proper skutalê. Yet, the Spartan official who received such a message was at least assured that it had been written by someone possessing a skutalê of the requisite diameter, which made it less likely that an enemy could pass on to him forged instructions from his government.



The god of fire—rushing fire from Ida!
And beacon to beacon rushed it on to me,
my couriers riding home the torch.
From Troy
to the bare rock of Lemnos, Hermes’ Spur,
and the Escort winged the great light west
to the Saving Father’s face, Mount Athos hurled it
third in the chain and leaping Ocean’s back
the blaze went dancing on to ecstasy—pitch-pine
streaming gold like a newborn sun—and brought
the word in flame to Mount Makistos’ brow.
No time to waste, straining, fighting sleep,
that lookout heaved a torch glowing over
the murderous straits of Euripos to reach
Messapion’s watchmen craning for the signal.
Fire for word of fire! tense with the heather
withered gray, they stack it, set it ablaze—
the hot force of the beacon never flags,
it springs the Plain of Asopos, rears
like a harvest moon to hit Kithairon’s crest
and drives new men to drive the fire on.
That relay pants for the far-flung torch,
they swell its strength outstripping my commands
and the light inflames the marsh, the Gorgon’s Eye,
it strikes the peak where the wild goats range—
my law, my fire whips that camp!
They spare nothing, eager to build its heat,
and a huge beard of flame overcomes the headland
beetling down the Saronic Gulf, and flaring south
it brings the dawn to the Black Widow’s face—
the watch that looms above your heads—and now
the true son of the burning flanks of Ida
crashes on the roofs of Atreus’ sons!
And I ordained it all.
Torch to torch, running for their lives,
one long succession racing home my fire.
first in the laps and last, wins out in triumph.
There you have my proof, my burning sign, I tell you—
the power my lord passed on from Troy to me.

Source: Aeschylus, Agamemnon, translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentic-Hall, 1970).

Emergency Messages . Official communications traveled by the same means as people and trade goods. The chief overland method was on foot or, in the rare cases where conditions permitted, by horse. Emergency messages within the area of the Aegean were most often sent by sea. An illustrative example occurred in 427 b.c.e., during the Second Peloponnesian War, when the Athenians were engaged in punishing the people of the island of Lesbos for attempting to break away from Athenian control. The Athenian assembly first decided to put all the men of the chief city of Mytilene to death and to sell the women and children into slavery. A trireme was dispatched to Lesbos, situated on the opposite side of the Aegean, to deliver the verdict. The next day, however, the assembly repented and sent off a second trireme with orders to exact a more lenient punishment. The crew of the second trireme rowed as quickly as they could, ate their meals while seated at their oars, and slept only in shifts so that the vessel was under constant propulsion. They arrived at Mytilene just a few hours after the first ship, which had had a day-and-a-half head start, and just in time to prevent the horrific sentence from being carried out.

Day Runners . When emergency messages had to be carried over land, the Greeks employed long-distance runners, called hêmerodromoi (literally, “day runners”). The most famous of all hêmerodromoi was an Athenian named Pheidippides. In 490 b.c.e., when Persian invaders landed on the beach at Marathon in Athenian territory, the Athenians dispatched Pheidippides to Sparta to seek the assistance of the Spartans. He ran to Sparta, a distance of some 140 miles, much of it over bad roads and mountainous terrain (in crossing one mountain a vision of the god Pan appeared to him), and arrived with his message in less than two days. His Herculean effort turned out to be in vain: the Spartans were celebrating an important religious festival and could not send troops until it was over. Nevertheless, the Athenians succeeded in repulsing the Persian assault, and Pheidippides ran the 26 miles from the battlefield to the city of Athens to announce the victory. After completing his run, he delivered the joyous news and promptly dropped dead. (Although the run to Athens is probably a legendary addition to the original story, this event has bequeathed to modern English the term marathon to describe a 26-mile footrace.) The fact that the Greeks used hemerodromoi rather than horsemen for these sorts of missions attests to the poor quality of the interurban road system in Greece.

Beacons . One method of communication that did not depend on standard avenues of transport was telegraphy by means of fire and smoke signals. In this area too, the Greeks were not as advanced as their neighbors to the East. There is evidence that the Persians and other large Near Eastern empires controlled systems of beacon relays whereby signals could be sent from one end of the empire to another almost instantaneously. A description of such a system is preserved in the writings of the Athenian playwright Aeschylus. In the play Agamemnon (458 b.c.e.), the mythical queen of Argos, Clytemnestra, describes the fire signal sent to her by her husband, Agamemnon, to announce the capture of the city of Troy. The original beacon fire was lit in the vicinity of Troy, from where it was seen by lookouts on the neighboring island of Lemnos, who lit their own fire in turn and passed the signal on. In this manner the fireborne message traverses the entire periphery of the Aegean before arriving at Argos in southern Greece. Some scholars have thought that this mythical beacon system might reflect actual systems put in place by the Greeks during the period of the Persian wars, but it is more likely a simple reflection of a practice that the Greeks saw the Persians employing during those conflicts. In fact, it forms part of the playwright’s ominous characterization of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra as overweening oriental-style dynasts.


According to Herodotus, when the Athenians and the Spartans killed some Persian messengers who had come demanding the submission of Greece to the will of the Persian king, divine punishment was the result.

To Athens and Sparta Xerxes [the Persian king] sent no demand for submission because of what happened to the messengers whom Darius had sent on a previous occasion: at Athens they were thrown into the pit like criminals, at Sparta they were pushed into a well—and told that if they wanted earth and water for the king, to get them from there. This time, therefore, Xerxes refrained from sending a request. Just what disagreeable consequences were suffered by the Athenians for this treatment of the king’s messengers, I am unable to say; perhaps it was the destruction of their city and the countryside around it— though I do not myself believe that this happened as a direct result of their crime. The case is clear, however, with respect to the Spartans: upon them fell the anger of Agamemnon’s herald Talthybius. . . Now there was a long period after the incident I have mentioned above, during which the Spartans were unable to obtain favorable signs from their sacrifices; this caused them deep concern, and they held frequent assemblies at which the question “Is there any Spartan who is willing to die for his country?” was put by the public crier. Thereupon two Spartans, Sperchias, the son of Aneristus, and Bulis, the son of Nicoles, both men of good family and great wealth, volunteered to offer their lives to Xerxes in atonement for Darius’ messengers who had been killed in Sparta. They were dispatched accordingly to Persia to meet their doom.

Source: Herodotus: The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt (Harmondsworth, U.K., & Baltimore: Penguin, 1954) .

Codes . Historical references show the Greeks’ use of fire signals to be decidedly more modest. In most cases, no relay of signals was involved, and it was simply a matter of hilltop lookouts sending a fire signal (or a smoke signal during daylight hours) to a nearby city or army camp, usually to signal the approach of hostile forces. The amount of information that could be sent by such beacons was extremely limited: the sender and receiver decided beforehand what a lit beacon would mean, but in the Classical Period there is no evidence for a flame code or flame array being used to communicate a message more complex than “here comes the enemy.” There is some evidence of a simple flame code being used on occasion: a lit torch waved back and forth indicated the approach of enemies, while a torch held steady signaled the approach of friends. More sophisticated uses of flame signals—involving relays and arrays of flames and the use of different burning times to send more complex information—were attested to during the later Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Private Messages . While official communications among the Greeks were not terribly advanced, private communications were even more rudimentary. Private citizens who wanted to send messages abroad had to do so by informal means. They could write their messages on papyrus, ostraka, and wax tablets, or even emboss them on strips of soft metal such as lead. To deliver the messages, however, in the absence of a regular postal service, they simply had to find someone, a merchant or a traveler, who was bound for the location of their addressee. Finding someone was usually possible in busy trading ports like Piraeus, the port of Athens, but the ultimate delivery of the message depended on the reliability and honesty of the person who was engaged to carry it. Prompt delivery of such messages could certainly not be counted upon.


Sian Lewis, News and Society in the Greek Polis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

Roger D. Woodard, Greek Writing from Knossos to Homer: A Linguistic Interpretation of the Origin of the Greek Alphabet and the Continuity of Ancient Greek Literacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

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Means of Communication

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