Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2008
FROM THE BEGINNINGS TO ALEXANDRIA
The Greeks, who gave us the names, forms and classic models of tragedy, comedy, epic, lyric and pastoral poetry, and, in fact, of almost every literary genre known to the West, did not develop a system of writing adequate for the recording of literature until late in their history. When, towards the end of the eighth century B.C., they finally did so, Egyptian literature, religious and secular, had been transmitted on papyrus scrolls for over two millennia; the literature of the Mesopotamian civilizations, inscribed on clay tablets, went back to a similarly remote antiquity. There had, of course, been a period of literacy, of a very restricted nature, in the great centres of Mycenaean civilization; inscribed clay tablets, dating from the last half of the second millennium, have been found at Pylos, Thebes and Mycenae on the mainland and at Cnossus in Crete. The script — known as Linear B — seems to have been a rough and ready adaptation for Mycenaean Greek of the Cretan Linear A script (still undeciphered but almost certainly non-Greek); the new writing system was used, as far as our evidence goes, mainly for lists of property and simple bureaucratic and legal records — ‘long lists of names, records of livestock, grain and other produce, the account books of anonymous clerks’. No text of an even faintly literary quality survives. In any case the script's inefficiency as an instrument for literary purposes is clear at first glance: it lacks both economy and clarity.