Frank Moore Cross

Carved into the mountainside, this inscription from the Aegean island of Thera (also known as Santorini) is one of the earliest known inscriptions in Greek. The first line (read left-to-right) reads QARHS, Thareµs, while the second (read right-to-left) reads ANASIKLHS (Anasikleµs). Scholars continue to debate the heated question of when the Greeks borrowed the Semitic alphabet. Frank Moore Cross describes himself as belonging steadfastly to the school that believes the transmission occurred earlier rather than later—in the 11th century B.C.E., as opposed to the ninth century as claimed by some scholars (a seventh century date, the old view held by many classicists, is now insupportable).

Cross cites several reasons to back up his view. First, the earliest Greek writing was multidirectional, that is, one could write from right-to-left, left-to-right, both right-to-left, and left-to-right (known as boustrephedon, “as the ox ploughs”), or vertically. The same was true in Phoenician writing until the middle of the 11th century B.C.E. (the Phoenician alphabet was the successor to Old Canaanite writing). By the second half of the 11th century, the Greek and Phoenician scripts parted ways—literally: Greek became fixed in the left-to-right direction and Phoenician stabilized into the right-to-left direction. If the Greeks had absorbed the alphabet from the Phoenicians after the 11th century, reasons Cross, they would also have adopted the Phoenicians’ direction of writing. Cross points out further that the earliest Greek writings stand in elegant continuity with the 11th-century inscribed arrowheads (see the last sidebar to this article).