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Three Crowned Asses
By Rider, 13 August 2007; Revised
Category: General History Articles
As it has been said in the quote above, an illiterate king is a crowned ass. Nevertheless, I’d like to bring out three people who did extremely well without having been literate. And though one might say that their times didn’t need literacy, it wouldn’t have hurt them.
Ateas was the king of the Scythians. Ateas lived to a very old age and it was he who united the Scythian tribes under a single leadership. During his life, the Scythians flourished, having good relations with the Macedonians and being successful in conquests around their own lands. Most of the Greek and Roman sources consider him the most powerful king of Scythia, despite him not being of royal lineage (it is thought he was an usurper).
The Khan of the Mongols, one of the most well known lords of the steppe. He conquered most of his neighbouring states after unifying the Mongol tribes. He almost never faced defeat and his conquests created an empire that stood for almost 150 years. Despite this, he never needed writing though he didn’t discard those who could – he often hired Chinese engineers for great effect and they were very well educated.
Creator of a large empire, Charlemagne never discarded education. As a young man, he never learned reading or writing – usual for the Frankish kingdom. After he became the king, he thought highly of those arts however. It is told that he wanted to learn writing and he managed to spell his own name but almost nothing else. However, his skill of reading was still impressive compared to other lords of his times. During his reign and after it, the arts became more widely spread then before – mostly due to his reforms in education.
There was no need for kings to learn written language at this period in history. The states that they controlled were so small, they didn't require an extensive bureaucracy to run and were mainly based on agriculture. Much of the literature of the period was compiled by scribes or for diplomatic purposes which would have been read out in a court.
There is considerably less evidence for this, but Commodus was also known to have been a man of an extremely low intelligence who barely read at all. It's probable that he had a basic grasp of the language of Latin, but his obsession with the world of sport, his stupidity and below average IQ would probably indicate that he would be, by modern standards, illiterate. He rejected his stoic (and probably most of his other) tutors when his father died and didn't perform well with them when he was alive. He didn't do personal reading because he was too interested in the games and gladiatorial combat, and thus he probably didn't learn the language of the Roman elite - Greek - so he was definitely illiterate in that.
Justinian I of the Eastern Empire.
The Khans and Lords of the Steppes.
Most kings before the 1200’s except in the most prominent ones (Roman Empire, Eastern Empire, China).
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