Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.37

William A. Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: a Study of Elite Communities. Classical culture and society.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012.  Pp. x, 227.  ISBN 9780199926718.  $35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jonathan Mannering, Loyola University Chicago (

Table of Contents

Johnson’s monograph is an illuminating series of case studies which form a sociological account of the structure and dynamics of literary and scholarly culture in the Roman empire from the late first through second centuries CE. Johnson’s command of the primary texts as well as the scholarship on the prolific authors under analysis is enviable, but he also furnishes an engaging and stimulating read in itself, not least for the way in which it makes each vast literary corpus accessible to readers who may be familiar with certain authors only in passing; at the beginning of each chapter, a biographical sketch informs of the political and social backgrounds of the particular author.

Chapter 1 (Reading as a Sociocultural System) tells a concise history of scholarly enquiry into the practice of reading in antiquity to frame the monograph’s approach: moving beyond speculation on the neurophysiology of reading, the cognitive act having been settled by scholarly consensus as essentially the same for the ancients as for us today, Johnson takes cues from anthropology, ethnography and sociolinguistics to define and investigate his locus of interest, the “sociocultural system” (p. 11) in which acts of reading, whether practiced silently or aloud, would have taken place. This system encompasses “reading”, the experience broadly conceived, “reading events”, in which a particular reading is contextualized, and “reading culture”, the communal construct that shapes group and individual behavior in a reading event (p. 11, n. 20). Cast in these terms Johnson’s enquiry thus targets such questions as how the meaning and merit of texts are negotiated and constructed, dynamically and continually, within a particular sociocultural context (p. 12), and what motivates individuals to invest themselves in this community. The preliminary conclusion is that personal identity, as well as social and even political standing, is interlocked in and defined by involvement in the reading system that obtained during the period under study, a system moreover which requires the public engagement of its participants quite unlike our modern cultural construction of the act of reading as, primarily, silent and individuated. Johnson takes care to study this system as it is depicted within the narratives of his chosen authors so as to chart the ways in which literary culture, specifically, could map the social ambitions and cultural traditions of its wider community.

Chapter 2 (Pragmatics of Reading) provides an illuminating account of the hands-on experience of the ancient book, starting with a description of the papyrus bookroll as material object (illustration included, Figure 2.1, p. 19), how it was supposed to be handled and read, and the years of training required for its proper use. The considerable effort in apprehending scriptio continua with only minimal punctuation is interpreted by Johnson as a hallmark of the exclusivity of literary culture as social institution. Key passages from Quintilian are adduced to detail the mechanics of reading (pp. 26-31), which expects mastery of all phonetic qualities of vowels and even memorization of syllables; the difficulty (to us) of the layout of the bookroll instantiates what it means to be educated in the high Roman empire. This chapter exemplifies Johnson’s ability to craft a lucid, fluid account from a broad range of literary and papyrological evidence informed by his many years of study of the matter (cf. his numerous entries in the Bibliography); it also delivers technological information which underpins the subsequent chapters and reveals an outline of the educational traditions and social institutions governing reading culture, one in which erudition and exclusivity intertwine.

Chapter 3 (Pliny and the Construction of Reading Communities) reads Pliny’s Epistles not simply as representative of elite Roman society but also as a program envisioned by Pliny for how Romans ought to interact with each other and determine what is meaningful in the rarefied circles of power and privilege (p. 35). Reading and literary activity are first examined with regard to their role in the life of the retired statesman; a “daily regimen” reconstructed from Pliny’s portrait of Vestricius Spurinna in Ep. 3.1 privileges reading among friends as a vital part of an ideally balanced rotation of physical, intellectual and social exercises to be cultivated in times of prolonged otium (pp. 36-42). This section, however, contains the only conclusion of the entire monograph which I would question: Johnson misconstrues Pliny’s recommendation that amici may read together in the morning provided the material is not found burdensome (p. 37); the entry “Group reading of a challenging text” in the daily regimen chart on p. 38 is misleading, and “challenging” should be deleted. But Johnson’s broader claims do obtain regarding the ideal balance between intellectual and social activities, and Pliny’s insistence that studia be rooted in social interactions of the community. Johnson also expands on the ongoing scholarly interest in the ways recitation fashions literary community (pp. 42-56); collectively his observations about the social composition of these occasions, the potential for active intervention by the audience for constructive criticism, and the close control applied to the circumstances of a recitation, are enlightening. The social negotiations that determine the common values in the rhetorical mastery of language provide a “gatekeeper function” which vets membership in the community. Even if Pliny may appoint himself, subtly and unsurprisingly, “tastemaker” (p. 62) in matters of literary production, literary value is implicated with the assertion of status and authority. A more skeptical, or deconstructive, view of the role of literary studia in elite life is suggestively derived by Johnson from Pliny’s contemporary Tacitus in Chapter 4 (Pliny, Tacitus, and the Dialogus de oratoribus). In the briefest chapter in the monograph, Johnson calls to witness from the Dialogus the tragedian Maternus as a cautionary countervoice to Pliny on the limits of oratory and literary production as a means to personal fame in a political environment controlled by an imperial family.

Attention shifts to the age of the Antonines in Chapter 5 (Doctors and Intellectuals: Galen’s Reading Community), which exemplifies Johnson’s ability to sift essential agendas from the voluminous writings of a hyper-prolific author, as well as the measures he takes to distinguish the textual portrait of an intellectual community from its notional reality. Galen, with all the bitter passion of a moral philosopher, is driven to promoting the importance of the art of medicine among, if not central to, intellectual pursuits generally, and even to redefining the consummate doctor as the ideal intellectual (p. 77; the sapiens medicus?). Exclusionist tendencies are revealed in his curmudgeonly attitude towards his readership, whose familiarity with his encyclopedic output and even a reverential attitude towards the works of Hippocrates he demands, though Galen is sly enough to blur the line between specialists and non-specialists when addressing his invited audience (p. 83). Two sections of particular interest (pp. 85-96) treat the publication and sharing of texts in Galen’s intellectual circles, and identify the vigorous engagement with the maintenance and dissemination of knowledge. Galen invites a careful, possibly novice reader, the sort who would not settle for the view that medicine, like all the liberal arts, need be known for merely practical or utilitarian purposes, a boorish outlook, as Galen portrays, altogether unsuited to his portrait of cultured society.

According to Chapter 6 (Aulus Gellius: The Life of the Litteratus), the lengthiest, Aulus Gellius portrays a literary community which makes no accommodation for novices or reorganization along new intellectual or moral priorities. The textual playing field here has been settled, and is not, like Pliny’s and Galen’s, subject to the sort of change that occurs when new literary texts are introduced and circulated; individual status and authority are negotiated through displays of deep knowledge in the form of expansive commentary on particular passages and intense focus on philological detail. Gellius inserts himself as spectator at these text-centered events, generically constructed (pp. 101-109), in which an unassuming magister asserts his mastery of material, often esoteric, over a pretentious poseur either by consulting a bookroll (conveniently) at hand or recalling a pertinent excerpt from memory (pp. 110-114). Solitary reading at night shapes intellectual character to a greater degree in Gellius (pp. 114-117), but reading in groups, even over dinner, for the purpose of parsing and interrogating canonical texts is foundational to his literary communities; recitations could be interrupted at any point by an audience member interested in querying the author’s meaning, and readers and listeners could be expected to memorize select passages (pp. 120-129). The precise comprehension of a particular passage’s meaning and the controlled access to texts themselves define these expert reader-listeners as cultural gatekeepers; concomitantly, negotiating what is philologically right and wrong becomes essential to defining Romanness (pp. 129-136). In a number of interesting ways Johnson’s conclusions about Gellius’ literary circles are used to shed light on the letters of Fronto in Chapter 7 (Fronto and Aurelius: Contubernium and Solitary Reader). Fronto’s contubernium, as Johnson redefines it, is not a school per se but an exclusive social circle centered on literature and oratorical development (pp. 138-148); younger and politically inexperienced invitees could forge lasting bonds of friendship with Fronto and the well-connected as they engaged in daily reading activities over extended periods of time. In the form of letters of recommendation and opportunity for political advancement, social and material consequences are revealed as grounded in shared literary study. The expectations for communal interaction in these literary circles make the solitary reading habits of Aurelius, Fronto’s most famous tutee, all the more striking and peculiar (pp. 148-153).

Most of Chapter 8 (Lucian’s Insufficient Intellectual) is comprised of an exegesis of Lucian’s Ignorant Bookcollector (pp. 158-170), which makes a satirical riposte, albeit from a point of view situated in the Greek east, to the earnest commitment to literature and the agonistic pursuit of scholarly excellence seen in the writings of Lucian’s contemporaries. The unnamed Syrian of the title suffers withering abuse for his outrageously misguided displays of paideia, primarily as these pertain to his bookrolls and reading habits, but the voice of cultural authority in the text is itself a satirical construct, and in ultimately linking the Syrian’s intellectual deformities to moral failing betrays his literary connoisseurship as being shot through with smugness and pomposity. Lucian wryly suggests that not every educated individual of his time subscribes to the sort of scholarly self-aggrandizement practiced by the likes of, possibly, Galen. The inherent value of the public intellectual is even called into question by Lucian, as when a scholarly Greek becomes attached to an aristocratic Roman household only to be slavishly marginalized as an ornament and, to boot, monetarily stiffed (“On salaried posts in great houses,” pp. 170-175). And Lucian’s Symposium is stocked with ill-behaved scholars who flex their vast knowledge on a battleground of petty disputes (pp. 175-178). Lucian’s take on intellectualism exhibits little of the spirit of cooperation, decency or potential for social advancement as portrayed in the bookish cultures of other authors.

For each author he analyzes, Johnson evenly balances historical context with an awareness of the authorial agenda which conditions the composition: these literary communities are portraits by particular authors. In Chapter 9 (The Papyri: Scholars and Reading Communities in Graeco-Roman Egypt), Johnson mines papyrus documents from second-century provincial Egypt to outline a community of scholars defined not by one author’s historical fiction but by a plurality of scribes and textual annotators. Johnson’s focus on P.Oxy. 18.2192 (pp. 180-192) reveals a close-knit community of literary enthusiasts who shared and copied with each other, and also with other literary circles, books on specialty topics, including reference guides to classical drama and even treatises on technical matters like tense and meter; other scrappy letters reveal wide-ranging and vigorous interest in abstruse materials like commentaries and philosophical works. Johnson also reads these letters in light of the numerous marginal annotations to 16 Oxyrhinchite texts (Appendix included, pp. 193-199) in an effort to identify the scholarly habitudes and sociocultural behavior that underpin and constitute this community of readers as a group; the sheer multiplicity of annotators’ hands and their careful efforts to attribute textual variants to copies, and not only to commentaries, owned by particular, sometimes renowned grammarians, shows active interest in authoritative, usually antique sources to determine correctness, all as part of group.

Chapter 10 (Conclusion) consolidates the myriad insightful observations made throughout this monograph, which has thoroughly reimagined the scholar of antiquity as someone altogether different from the modern intellectual mining the printed word in silent, solitary, uninterrupted pursuit: reading and literary study, the scrupulous analysis of style, convention and meaning, and even textual collation were all practiced as part of a collective, at times performative endeavor, one also by definition elitist and exclusive, in which intellectualism could be seen to intersect with aspirations to status. There are times the central claims of Johnson’s arguments can lose their position of priority amid the elaborateness of his writing style; the numbered lists of observations (pp. 11-12, 55-57, 168, 186-189) can overload the given point at issue, and the more succinct claims about various authors’ agendas tend not to crystallize until the conclusions of chapters or even until subsequent chapters. Such minor drawbacks to Johnson’s prolix style are at once the result of and, besides, more than compensated by its fulsomeness and manifest enthusiasm. This is a book about books, bookishness and bookish types that brims with nuanced analysis, and one I will keep returning to for much time to come.

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