Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources

Greek alphabets

- 8th century BC - Current era

edited by: G. D'Alessandro, A. Magnetto, D. Erdas (translation revised by Melanie Rockenhaus)

  • Introduction
  • Index
  • Further information

Hecataeus, Genealogia. From an Oxyrhynchus papyrus.

The earliest evidence for Greek alphabetic writing can be found in 8th century BC epigraphs. It has been continually used from that time until the present, while undergoing numerous changes.

Although first developed in another culture, when introduced into Greece the writing system was modified in such a way that it became particularly flexible. For this reason, it served as both a direct and indirect model for other writing systems, including the Latin alphabet.

The Greek alphabet varied, depending on the time and the location of the users, but in every period and place, basic features in it always remained constant. In all ancient examples, the shapes of the letters resemble the modern capital letters we are familiar with; the first examples from which present lower-case letters derive can be attributed to the evolution of the Greek alphabet, considered complete around the 9th century AD.

The materials to be studied when considering the history of the Greek alphabet can be categorized as:

•    epigraphs: the letters are engraved, chiseled or otherwise traced on a hard surface;

•    paleographic materials: the letters are traced in various ways on a soft surface, or in any event in a way that the support material does not interfere with ease and speed in writing.


Go to the online resources.

Online resources


Origins, development, and first examples (8th century BC)

Most modern scholars agree in considering the Greek alphabet as the adaptation of a preexisting writing system to the Greek language. Originally fashioned by ethnic Phoenician groups in the second half of the second millennium BC, the source alphabet was connected to the Ugaritic group of writing systems which developed around the city of Ugarit (now Ras Shamra, Syria).

We can only make informed hypotheses about the time and the place in which this alphabetic system was imported. If the premise of the Phoenician origin is accepted, the importation would have taken place between the 9th and the 8th century BC in an area where Greek and Phoenician cultures came into contact.

Whatever the original system was, the principal innovation which the Greeks made to it was the introduction of vowels; in the writing systems which were models for the Greek alphabet, the vowel sounds – usually needed only to determine the declension of a word – were not recorded.

The change was obtained by switching some consonant signs, which were useless for the Greek language, to vowel signs. This was necessary because the variety of vowel sounds in Greek rendered pure consonantal writing incomprehensible, and at the same time, it made the Greek alphabet the most phonological writing system in the Mediterranean.

The oldest surviving examples of Greek writing (two of the most important: Nestor's cup and the Dipylon Oinochoe [wine jug]) already indicate epichoric (local) variants of the Greek alphabet. The process that led to this differentiation is debated, but it certainly depended in large part on the progressive development of a writing system first imported and then adapted to the Greek language in disparate Greek cultural centers, with innovations made separately and seldom universally accepted in all areas.

The writing was initially from right to left.


The hypothesized derivation from a Phoenician writing system, accepted by most scholars, explains certain features of Greek writing very well, and agrees with Greek history itself about the introduction of writing. The main evidence for this hypothesis is represented by: 1) similarities between the alphabets; 2) order of the letters, confirmed by some model Greek alphabets (the oldest are from the 7th century BC); 3) names of the letters in Greek, clearly borrowed from a Semitic language.

The debate about the time and place of the cultural transmission is, on the contrary, still ongoing.

The place: the best candidates are contact areas between Greek and Semitic cultures. Some scholars would therefore favor Greek emporia in Syria, while others would choose such locations as Crete and Cyprus. These latter not only had connections with Phoenician culture, but were also geographically and culturally central in the Greek world, which would have eased the spread of the alphabet to all of Greece. Recent studies would also emphasize the role played by the Euboean colonies in Italy. The hypothesis of more or less contemporaneous importation in different places, instead, cannot account for common features found in all the archaic alphabets.

The time: It’s important to keep in mind that objects from the second half of the 8th century BC exhibit an alphabetic writing system not only distinct from the Phoenician original, but also widespread – from continental Greece (Athens) to the islands (Rhode) to the western colonies (Pithikoussai), with a certain number of local (epichoric) variants. It is therefore a reasonable supposition that the importation happened quite early (10th or 9th century BC, with some scholars suggesting an even earlier date), to allow sufficient time for these developments between the introduction of the alphabet and the first documents.  Some scholars, however, do favor later dates (e.g. the first half of the 8th century BC, or even later).  

Only a slight minority of scholars are of the opinion that the source of the Greek alphabet was not Phoenician, but rather was one of the writing systems used by Greeks in earlier ages. Scholars do, however, consider the possibility that the so-called Linear B, used as early as the 2nd millennium BC to record a Greek dialect, and the syllabic Cyprian writing system in some way influenced the development of the alphabet imported in Greece.

Finally, it is extremely relevant that the consciousness of the Phoenician origin for the alphabet was common among the Greeks for centuries after its introduction. Herodotus states that Ionians learnt the art of writing from Phoenicians: the word which he considers to be the most ancient designation of alphabetic signs, phoinikeia, appears to be used in such a way in a famous epigraph (Dirae Theae); a clear connection can also be observed between this word and the poinikastas, which, in a Cretan find, means ‘responsible for the letters’.  


Speaking of a Greek alphabet is possible only if we keep in mind that early Greek culture did not have a unified writing system; besides slight graphic differences in the shape of the letters and minor local peculiarities, local scripts each made use of a different number of signs, assigned different meanings to some of them, and combined them in different ways to express the same phonetic value.

The debate about local scripts of Greece is an old and lively one; however, the terminology and bases of this area of epigraphy is still largely conditioned by the pioneering research of A. Kirchhoff, which he published in Studien zur Geschichte des Griechischen Alphabets (Gütersloh 18874).  In particular, this text presented the general distinction between western and eastern alphabets, and the commonly accepted association of the alphabetic types to different colors, based on a number of distinctive features: Kirchhoff furnished his book with a map showing the location of each alphabetic type, in which each area sharing the same alphabetic characteristics is filled in with the same color.

Following Kirchhoff most scholars speak of:

a) Green alphabets. Present on the earliest inscriptions of Crete, Thera, Melos. The main feature of these alphabets is the lack of the so-called complementary signs; the corresponding phonemes are recorded through a combinations of signs.

b) Light-blue alphabets. Used in Athens until 403 BC and in Megara, Corinth, Sycion, Flius, Argos and most of their colonies until the classic age. The main difference between this type and green alphabets is the presence of the signs Φ and Χ, for the sounds ph and kh. A combination of signs is still used to record the phonetic values ks and ps.

c) Red alphabets. As in light-blue alphabets, the sign Φ is used for ph, but a different symbol (Ψ) corresponds to the phoneme kh; a combination of signs is still used to record the phonetic values ks and ps.

d) Blue alphabets. The blue alphabet area covers almost the entire Ionic world with the exception of Athens (until 403 BC). All basic features are the same as the light-blue alphabets (of which they can be regarded as a further development), the main difference consisting in the use of two specific signs to record the sounds ks and ps. In the first case they adapted the sign Ξ, in the second the sign Ψ from the red alphabets, with a different phonetic value. In blue alphabets the sign H is not used for the phoneme h, which is the case in all other alphabetic types; here it is reserved instead to the long vowel e; finally, a new sign (Ω) was created for the long vowel o.

The map of the Greek alphabets coincides only slightly with that of the Greek dialects: if all the peculiarities, even minor, of a local script are taken into account, one can say that each Greek polis had its own alphabet. 

Anyone interested in the study of ancient Greek documents should remember that in all alphabetical types E and O were used for a long time also for the diphthongs EI and OY.

The conversion to Ionic Alphabet

The great variety of local scripts in the archaic age underwent a gradual simplification in the direction of a conversion to the Ionic or blue alphabet, which seemed to best fit the needs of the Greek language. It replaced the green alphabets rather quickly (in Thera and Melos already in the 5th century BC) and in the course of time it succeeded in clearing the field of all other types, including the light-blue Athenian system.

The flexibility of the blue script in recording the phonemes typical for the Greek language was the main reason for this process, which some scholars would explain as well with the role played by the Ionic culture in the archaic age.

The conversion to the blue type went on in each city at a different pace, but it was completed by almost all the local communities by the 4th century BC. Athens deserves a special mention: here official documents were written in the Ionic alphabet from 403 BC, when with the restoration of democracy after the Thirty Tyrants a decree introduced the change in official writing; preserved inscriptions shows that the new system was accepted immediately.

The Ionic alphabet had probably had a wide diffusion in Athens before its introduction as official script: this can be inferred by example from ostraka written in the Ionic alphabet, found within the area of the city. Some official inscriptions also make use of Ionic alphabet before 403 BC, clearly showing that Athenian citizens were already acquainted with it. On the other hand, with the alphabetic reform Athens itself gave an important contribution to the success of the Ionic alphabet in Greece.

From this time on, the Ionic alphabet would remain the Greek alphabet par excellence; it is already the only type of alphabet present in the earliest documents on papyrus or parchment. Ages to follow will associate the features of the Ionic alphabet with Greek writing in general.  


The Ionic alphabet

b c d e ds e th i k l m n ks o p r s t ü f ch ps o

This is the Ionic alphabet as it is familiar to us. For simplicity, the pronunciation indicated is the so-called Erasmian one: pronunciation obviously varied according to place and time. 

Early paleographic evidence

Among the extant documents of Greek writing, the ones on perishable supports – mainly papyrus – in the best of cases date from the 4th century BC. There were almost certainly documents of this type in earlier ages as well, but they were lost over time.

Writing on papyrus was generally performed with a cane pen (calamus), and the ease of writing brought about a different evolution in the shapes of the letters than had happened with epigraphs, with a greater variety of styles and a faster development of some characteristics over time.

Among paleographic documents, we can draw a distinction between uncial script, with the letters traced separately, and cursive script, where there is the tendency to link the letters, in order to facilitate the act of writing.

In most cases, uncial script was reserved to literary texts, while cursive script was typical of private correspondence, commercial receipts, private contracts or bureaucratic documents. However, the distinction was not rigid, and uncial and cursive scripts influenced each other through the ages.

Greek Epigraphs

“Giving a clear and univocal definition of the science commonly called epigraphy is an almost impossible task... According to the meaning of the word ἐπιγράφειν (= to write), epigraphy should focus on all the written material directly (i.e. not through medieval manuscripts) transmitted from antiquity, whether on papyri, parchment, wood, wax, stone, metal, pottery, etc., and whether the writing is carried out by tracing, chiseling, graffiti, engraving or in raised letters” (G. Klaffenbach, Griechische Epigraphik, Göttingen 1957).

The definition of epigraphy is problematic especially due to the relationship with sciences concerned with similar issues, such as papyrology, and whether theoretical premises include certain classes of objects in the field of epigraphy.

Briefly put, epigraphy is interested in all texts written on hard surfaces by means such as scratching, engraving or carving; stone inscriptions fit this definition, and generally speaking all documents in which writing was a material job, carried out by a craftsman rather than by a scribe.

Although representing a separate field of study, numismatics, inscriptions on coins are of great relevance to the study of epigraphy.

There is by now a great number of websites related to Greek epigraphy; some are aimed at scholars and professional epigraphists, while other offer the layman short introductions to the science and beginners’ literature.

On this site, epigraphic resources are marked with an initial [e] before the name of the resource

Greek paleography

Paleography is the science concerned with the study of documents produced without prejudicing the writer’s ease in tracing the signs. Such objects are realized mainly using tools similar to brushes, cane pens or styli upon a soft surface.

Until the 6th century AD the main field of study for Greek paleography are papyri, with a smaller number of documents from other categories (such as parchment and ostraka). The field of study concerned specifically with these objects, from the points of view of their production and paleographic characteristics as well as their contents and diffusion, is called papyrology.

Papyri and other perishable supports can be preserved only under particular conditions (dry climate) and if protected by the sand. In other cases fire, which has partially burned the support without spoiling the writing, sometimes enabled the documents to be preserved even in a less favorable environment (e. g. with the Herculaneum papyri). The earliest preserved Greek papyrus was found in Derveni and dates back to the 4th century BC.

On this site, paleographic or papyrological resources are marked with an initial [p] before the name of the resource.

Historic documents

Phoenician Letters (Herodotus 5.58)
After speaking about the Phoenicians who have settled in Boeotia, at the time of the mythical Cadmus, Herodotus continues:

Οἱ δὲ Φοίνικες οὗτοι οἱ σὺν Κάδμῳ ἀπικόμενοι, τῶν ἦσαν οἱ Γεϕυραῖοι, ἄλλα τε πολλὰ οἰκήσαντες ταύτην τὴν χώρην ἐσήγαγον διδασκάλια ἐς τοὺς ῞Ελληνας καὶ δὴ καὶ γράμματα, οὐκ ἐόντα πρὶν ῞Ελλησι ὡς ἐμοὶ δοκέειν, πρῶτα μὲν τοῖσι καὶ ἅπαντες χρέωνται Φοίνικες· μετὰ δὲ χρόνου προβαίνοντος ἅμα τῇ ϕωνῇ μετέβαλον καὶ τὸν ῥυθμὸν τῶν γραμμάτων. Περιοίκεον δέ σϕεας τὰ πολλὰ τῶν χώρων τοῦτον τὸν χρόνον ‘Ελλήνων ῎Ιωνες· οἳ παραλαβόντες διδαχῇ παρὰ τῶν Φοινίκων τὰ γράμματα, μεταρρυθμίσαντές σϕεων ὀλίγα ἐχρέωντο, χρεώμενοι δὲ ἐϕάτισαν, ὥσπερ καὶ τὸ δίκαιον ἔϕερε ἐσαγαγόντων Φοινίκων ἐς τὴν ‘Ελλάδα, ϕοινικήια κεκλῆσθαι.

"Once they had settled in that region [Boeotia], among other innovations they introduced the Greeks to letters – I believe that the Greeks before that had none – initially letters used by the Phoenicians, but over time the structure of the letters changed along with the change in the language. In that period, the Ionians were all around them, in most of the territory: these having learned the letters from the Phoenicians, changed them a little and then used them. As they used them they called them “Phoenicians” [phoinikeia], as was natural, since it was the Phoenicians who introduced these letters in Greece.”

The phoinikeia of the Dirae Teae (Syll.3 38 = SEG XIX 686)
The so-called Dirae Teae are epigraphs found on the island of Teo, which consist of a series of anathema hurled against whomever damaged the local community of the single citizen. It ends with a threat against anyone who damaged the stele itself:

ὃς ἂν ταστήλας : ἐν ἧισιν ἡπαρὴ : γέγραπται : ἢ κατάξει : ἢ ϕοινικήια : ἐκκόψε[ι :] ἢ ἀϕανέας ποιήσει : κε̃νον ἀπόλλυσθαι : καὶ αὐτὸν : καὶ γένος [τὸ κένο.]

"May whoever destroys the stelae on which the curse is written, or eliminates letters [phoinikeia] from them, or renders the view of them impossible perish together with his progeny.”

The letter of Proteus (Iliad VI 168-171)

The Homeric epic poems, which were definitively written probably around the 8th century BC, has only traces of a use of the script. In the passage below, King Proteus, angry with Bellerophontes for a calumny, sends him to his brother in law with a fatal letter of introduction. The terms in which the script is described are fairly indefinite, but this is part of the epic style.

κτεῖναι μέν ῥ' ἀλέεινε, σεβάσσατο γὰρ τό γε θυμῷ,
πέμπε δέ μιν Λυκίην δέ, πόρεν δ' ὅ γε σήματα λυγρὰ,
γράψας ἐν πίνακι πτυκτῷ θυμοϕθόρα πολλά,
δεῖξαι δ' ἠνώγειν ᾧ πενθερῷ ὄϕρ' ἀπόλοιτο.

"Kill him, no, not that: he felt shame in his heart.
Instead he sent him to Lycia, giving him deadly signs,
written on a folded tablet, bearing much evil.
He bade Bellerophontes to show them to his relatives,
so he would perish."


Types of alphabets

The Greek alphabet and its Semitic predecessor

Following is a table comparing the alphabet types found in the oldest Greek alphabetic scripts, and those of its hypothesized Semitic predecessor.

Phoenician alphabet

Greek alphabet

The map of alphabetic scripts included by A. Kirchhoff in the fourth edition of his Studien zur Geschichte des griechischen Alphabets (1887) endeavored to show the distinction of different scripts using different colors; the distinction was founded on the use of complementary signs and on the diffusion of the script in a certain area.

The main distinction is between 'blue' alphabets, using Ξ for the sound ks, Χ for kh and Ψ for ps, and 'red' alphabets, using Χ for ks, Ψ for kh and a combination of signs for ps ; Attica and some related areas, colored in blue, used alphabets similar to the blue, but representing ks and ps through a combination of signs. Lastly, the green-colored areas had alphabets without any complementary signs.


[Wikimedia: Greek epichoric alphabets]