BMCR 2009.07.65

Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome

, , Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. xv, 430. ISBN 9780195340150. $74.00.

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Table of Contents


This volume collects revised versions of papers given in 2006 at a University of Cincinnati symposium entitled “Constructing ‘Literacy’ among the Greeks and Romans.” The collection’s title is clearly meant to evoke William Harris’ Ancient Literacy, now twenty years old; the plural “literacies” may be felt to indicate an attempt to move beyond that book’s conclusions. But there is little continuity between the two books; Harris himself admitted that a colleague “gently explained that he was not even asking the truly interesting questions”1 and it is to those questions that the contributors to this volume turn, often without any reference to Harris’ work at all. Thus we find essays that “ponder the cultural and social significances of literacy and literate behavior” (334). This line of inquiry will be familiar to those who have read editor William Johnson’s earlier article “Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity,”2 and in its examination of the status of written texts within ancient culture and the connections between “reading events” and broader sociological concerns, this collection places itself much more in the tradition of Eric Havelock than that of Harris. But in keeping with contemporary scholarly tendencies, generalizing theories such as Havelock’s are for the most part eschewed, and instead we find “an intense interest in particulars” (9). The result is a series of essays of disparate subject-matter and scope, but this is not a bad thing: the collection is successful in its promise to offer “food for thought of many types,” considering questions such as “how reading communities fashion themselves” and “what ‘book’ and ‘reading’ signify in antiquity” (4).

A few readers, expecting new discussion of rates of literacy or new insight into the dawn of literacy in Greece, will be disappointed, but a more serious fear is that other readers, expecting the same and perhaps feeling that they have heard as much as they want to about a sometimes technical subject, will decide not to explore this wide-ranging collection, which contains many fascinating contributions. I should note that the volume’s subtitle, “The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome,” somewhat distorts the focus of the volume: only one paper (Thomas) treats Classical Greece; all the others are concerned with Roman culture or, in a few cases, Greek culture under the Roman empire. Shirley Werner’s extensive bibliographical essay and David Olson’s epilogue, which I will discuss first, will be of interest to all readers, and I would recommend the contributions of Parker and Habinek to all Latinists. Parker argues against widely held orthodoxies and Habinek poses fundamental questions about the status of texts in Roman culture. I discuss these two papers in some detail after Olson’s and then turn more briefly to the other essays, many of which are excellent but are, in my estimation, of more specialized interest than those I highlight first.

David Olson’s epilogue is the only paper that, to my mind, fulfills the editors’ hope that the contributions will introduce classicists to “important advances in the way that literacy is viewed in other disciplines” (3). Olson, of the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, was the Cincinnati conference’s keynote speaker, and is the author of a study of “how the very structure of knowledge was altered” by the proliferation and interpretation of printed documents in the early modern period.3 His essay for the present volume examines the relationship of speech to writing and along the way provides a very useful survey of contemporary debates about the relationship between literacy and cultural progress. The contributions of classicists such as Havelock and Powell are described and assessed but much of Olson’s discussion draws on work in philosophy, cognitive science, and linguistics that will be less familiar to professional classicists. Olson’s central claim is that the relationship between writing and speech is analogous to the relationship of quotation to direct speech, in that a quotation divorces a speaker’s meaning from textual meaning. Quotations, and by extension texts, are, he memorably says, “more a corpse than a corpus,” in need of “reanimation” by a reader. This is a much more subtle claim than that writing either is or is not an extension of speech; writing is a “subclass of speech, specifically that of quotation” that nevertheless “calls for a distinctive mode of interpretation” (401). Olson’s own research is concerned with the cognitive processes required by this mode of interpretation, and his reports of empirical research on the cognitive side of literacy provide some of the most stimulating material in the collection. For example, preliterate children and illiterate adults, when asked to say /fish/ without the /f/, are unable to produce /ish/, presumably because being able to analyze words into constituent sounds is a result of learning how to write. The essay provides a fascinating glimpse of just how significant the development of literacy may be for a society and his ample references and bibliography will entice many to reading outside our chosen field.

Holt Parker (“Books and Reading Latin Poetry”) attacks—the only word for his rhetorical technique—some widely-held views about the ancient reception of Latin poetry, and as such is worthy of the attention, if not necessarily the agreement, of all Latinists. His primary target is the idea, enshrined for Anglophone classicists by E.J. Kenney4 and Kenneth Quinn5 and propagated by many successors, that Latin poetic texts were intended only for a poet’s circle of friends and that this audience’s primary experience of these texts was at recitations and convivia. He argues even more strenuously against the often repeated idea that Roman poetry was intended to be heard and read out loud, often by specially trained lectores. Parker’s view is that any performance of poetry, including that by a lector, was “preparatory, ancillary, or supplementary to private reading,” which was, he argues, widespread among those who could read, though he never addresses the issue of whether hyper-literate men like Cicero, Atticus, Pliny, and Gellius can be taken as representative of Roman practices. Parker takes special pains to show just how many times the poets indicate that they intend their works to be read as opposed to heard, and nowhere is it more clear that Parker is probably right that, in our recent zeal to show all the ways that Roman reading is different from modern reading, we are in danger of obscuring the ways in which it is similar. Along the way Parker amasses and discusses many references to reading events in Rome, whether at recitationes, at convivia, or (his primary interest) in private, and a reader unfamiliar with the kinds of evidence we have for Roman encounters with poetry will find much of interest. In his attempts to refute other scholars Parker is often polemical and occasionally nasty. Not everyone will find this rhetorical mode appealing, and while he has gathered so many statements of views he rejects that he cannot be accused of setting up a straw man, he sometimes seems to me to take the arguments of others further than those scholars themselves might have done. The essay’s occasional repetitiveness is balanced by the corresponding virtues of straightforwardness and clarity.

Thomas Habinek’s “Situating Literacy at Rome,” is the second essay that I believe is worth special consideration for its suggestive analysis of fundamental questions, and the author’s exemplary (and characteristic) awareness of relevant theoretical approaches to the study of culture. The essay begins with an examination of the changing use of writing in Rome over time, illustrated with a chart listing the evidence for non-literary writing at different periods: gravestones, dedications, boundary stones, and the like. The data is suggestive but its persuasiveness is weakened by Habinek’s own comparison with a similar chart for Greek materials:6 whereas the Greek chart gives absolute numbers of objects, Habinek’s Roman chart lists each type as a percentage of total objects which, one suspects, may be meant to conceal the very small and hence potentially insignificant amount of evidence available.7 Habinek’s argument that the changing ideological concerns of writers—sometimes about property lines, sometimes about class—can be detected in the changing numbers of written objects shows how apparently mundane objects such as boundary stones can provide real insight into Roman society, but in this particular case the argument is hard to follow because Habinek does not say explicitly enough which objects indicate which ideological concerns.

The essay’s second section describes how writing confers status on its user. The argument is explicitly based on Habinek’s conclusions in The World of Roman Song 8 and these few pages (121-24) may serve as an introduction to some of the key ideas of that complex book, in which he argued that, in Roman culture, the elite male derived his authority from a mastery of specialized forms of oral expression. This article attempts to describe the role of writing in that culture, and he asserts that writing confers status as an extension of the privileged mastery of oral expression. To claim, as Habinek does, that writing derives its status-conferring power from the fact that Rome was primarily an oral culture is a very subtle argument and not all will be persuaded, but this section certainly lives up to the highest aspirations of the volume to force a reconsideration of our attitudes toward the cultural significance of texts.

Habinek’s third and most challenging section examines various forms of specialized writing—acrostics, palindromes, and figure writing—in an attempt to understand Roman attitudes toward writing itself. For Habinek, such texts raise a set of challenging questions about how writing can be self-conscious of the processes of perception that communication depends on and the degree to which these highly constrained compositions can complicate those processes. He approaches these questions through the categories of symbolic and embodied practices, and his discussion of this dichotomy, worth reading even for its own sake, is suggestive but I am not sure I am convinced that an analysis of literary documents, however “bizarre” (135) by traditional standards, can give us access to anything other than symbolic practices. His strongest example for an embodied practice is a set of gaming boards, also discussed by Woolf in this volume but with somewhat different conclusions. Here the inscribed texts must be understood as part of the embodied practice of gaming, but throughout the essay the relationship between the two is not made explicit enough. Nevertheless Habinek is to be praised for, and emulated in, his efforts to explore something as fundamental as the Roman concept of the nature of writing itself.

I turn now to briefer descriptions of the remaining papers in the volume.

Rosalind Thomas (“Writing, Reading, Public and Private “Literacies”) examines non-elite literacy such as that required for banking, commerce, and, in particular, participation in democratic institutions. Much of her chapter is a useful survey of the types of documents that are attested for or survive from these spheres, with attention paid to the degrees of literacy they imply. She is especially interested in “Name Literacy” (the ability only to write one’s name) and “List Literacy” (the ability to recognize a name or other data in a list). Thomas reminds us that levels and uses of literacy can change, even over short periods of time, and argues that as time went by more and more literacy was required of those who wanted to participate in civic institutions, though she does not make a judgment on whether the requirements of civic engagement drive or respond to levels of literacy among the citizenry.

Greg Woolf (“Literacy or Literacies in Rome?”) argues that in Rome the requirements of literacy in private life, especially those for the management of aristocratic households, indicate that Roman literacy was, as he puts it, “joined up,” that is, that there was “no fragmentation of writing practices, no specialized literacies” (61). This conclusion is appealing but the role of literate slaves in Roman households merits further analysis: Woolf makes the excellent observation that “slavery provides the key institutional and cultural context” to literacy since it was slaves who educated children and kept accounts (52), but literacy being the province of slaves seems to me to indicate a fragmentation of literacies, if not along the lines of function, then along those of status. A second claim is that the administrative use of documents was responsive to, not ahead of, the domestic use of writing. Woolf makes these points through an examination of the broad range of non-literary texts discovered in Britain, a region which he argues, because of its poverty and political irrelevance, represents a baseline level of literacy for the rest of the empire.

Barbara Burrell (“Reading, Hearing, and Looking at Ephesos”) intends to describe the “reading experiences” of viewers of monuments and their texts, many of them bilingual, in Ephesus. She focuses on the plaza where the famous Library of Celsus eventually stood, and provides a thorough discussion of the relevant buildings along with excellent three-dimensional diagrams of the different building phases. But the essay does not live up to the expectations it sets: Burrell gets bogged down in the problems of identifying and dating the buildings, a promise to employ “reception theory” goes unfulfilled, and bilingualism’s complex relationship to literacy is treated only superficially (“code switching” is invoked without discussion of its relevance to her argument). Her ultimate conclusion, that this plaza shows how Greek and Roman influences worked together to present a “burgeoning Helleno-Roman cultural ideal” is unsurprising and does not really speak to the subject of this collection.

Simon Goldhill (“The Anecdote: Exploring the Boundaries between Oral and Literate Performance in the Second Sophistic”) argues that much of imperial literature, for example, Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists, served as handbooks of anecdotes that were read in order to be retold—that is, circulated orally—at symposia and in other less formal exchanges where cultural attainments were performed. Thus these works straddle the boundary between the oral and the literate. This essay is, I sense, just the sort of contribution the editors hoped for, in that it takes two traditionally opposed categories and demonstrates their interdependence, even in a highly literate and book-centered age.

Florence Dupont (“The Corrupted Boy and the Crowned Poet”) argues that Roman poets regarded preservation in libraries, rather than a wide readership, as the key to their immortality, since the fragility of papyrus meant that reading would lead to the destruction of texts. This argument has a certain perversity to it—she all but says that Roman poets would have preferred that no one read their works, and she explicitly says, more than once, that a book is valuable only as an object, not for what it contains. (“The value of the text plays no role.” (144); “[Books] owe nothing to the value of the writings that they contain” (162)). Not surprisingly her discussion is marred by contempt for Latin literature (“No Roman poet composes while possessed by the Muses,” as if the opposite is true of Greek poets just because they say they do (153)9), and her case is built out of what strike me as old-fashioned ways of thinking: that Roman poetry is nothing more than Greek poetry in a different language (” litterae latinae are, so to speak, litterae graecae in Latin” (144)), that Roman literary culture is transplanted more or less intact from Alexandria (and, incidentally, that Hellenistic poetry existed “only for the scientists at the museum, and no one else” (146)), and that a meaningful distinction can be drawn between “true” poems—those that are a transcript of what was said at a real event—and “fictive” poems (of which all Latin poetry serves as her example).10 Most objectionable, at least in the context of this collection, is her assumption that all writing is nothing more than imitation of speech, and that a sharp distinction can be drawn between the oral and the written, because these are two of the very assumptions that the other contributors of this volume, for example Habinek and Goldhill, are working so hard to question and revise.

Joseph Farrell (“The Impermanent Text in Catullus and Other Roman Poets”), in his discussion of the materiality of texts as a theme in Catullus, provides a much more satisfying discussion of much of the same material that Dupont addresses. One of the strengths of the article is its illumination of further dimensions of familiar aspects of canonical texts: for example, Farrell reads Catullus’ description of his libellus not just as a statement of his stylistic ideals but as an acknowledgement of his reliance on written texts. Catullus’ ambivalence toward textual materiality is explored: Farrell invokes, like Dupont, the fragility of papyrus, as well as the loss of authorial control that committing poems to books implies, and claims that this ambivalence differentiates Roman from Callimachean poetics. The last section of the essay, in which Farrell examines some examples of Roman poets describing themselves as singers, is, as his own rhetoric shows, more speculative but lays out foundations for interesting further work.

George Houston (“Papyrological Evidence for Book Collections and Libraries in the Roman Empire”) compares the standard account of book collections, derived from anecdotes about libraries in literary sources and from the extensive study of the collection of Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, to what we find in two other types of papyrological evidence: lists of books that appear to represent collections and groups of fragments that, because they were found together, are taken to have been discarded together, and as such to represent collections. He uses these data, conveniently summarized in charts, to explore the organizing principles and sizes of collections, how long manuscripts were kept, and how different collections show different “personalities.” The result of this careful collation is indeed a more diverse picture of particular collections, even if his conclusions are a little underwhelming; again and again he notes that his discoveries mostly conform to what we already thought we knew about ancient libraries. Nevertheless, since extrapolation from literary evidence is necessary in all areas of Classical scholarship, such confirmation is always welcome and reassuring.11

Peter White’s “Bookshops in the Literary Culture of Rome” surveys the evidence for bookshops in Rome, and the chapter provides an accessible introduction to the subject, but in his discussion White does not always make it clear when he is presenting a new interpretation or repeating orthodoxy. White then argues that bookshops supported a unique “mode of engagement with texts,” by which he means a kind of hyperliteracy, whereby expert customers make judgments about the authenticity and quality of texts. Because these judgments depend on specialized knowledge, there is often a competitive element to such conversations. White collects a few examples of grammatici engaging in these exchanges and suggests that it was in bookshops that these men, otherwise limited to teaching children, built their reputations with adult Roman readers.

Kristina Milnor (“Literary Literacy in Roman Pompeii: The Case of Vergil’s Aeneid“) considers quotations from the Aeneid in Pompeian wall inscriptions. She argues that writers of graffiti were not always, if ever, primarily interested in textual meaning; graffiti should be seen as “acts” rather than as “texts.” So for example the frequently inscribed words arma virumque“are literally meaningless except as a reminder of Vergil’s text.” Much of her paper is dedicated to showing the interesting tendency of such graffiti to call attention to their written-ness (through use of the verb scribere, for instance). She also points out that many of these graffiti, which often feature imperatives, vocatives, and second-person verbs, emphasize moments of communication. This is a very acute and suggestive observation but Milnor, citing the need to avoid totalizing theories, shies away from drawing conclusions from this tendency, even though her discussion of the theme of communication in graffiti seems like the foundation for just such a theory. A handy appendix that lists and describes the sixty-seven quotations from Vergil on Pompeian walls follows the essay.

William Johnson (“Constructing Elite Reading Communities in the High Empire”) examines a few episodes from Gellius’ Noctes Atticae in order to observe some characteristic features of the “reading culture” of that time, in particular the presence of groups of people at the reading events Gellius describes, the ease with which participants move between conversation and reading, the intense interest in abstruse topics, and the competitive nature of the exchanges. It is this last aspect that particularly interests Johnson, for it is through this competition that the group constructs (a key word for Johnson) itself. He ends his piece with a list of several ways that literature functions in this process of construction: for example, as an “exclusionary device,” as a “social mechanism” that establishes a hierarchy, and as an “ideological statement” by which a particular version of Romanness is approved and displayed. The paper, the shortest in the collection, reads at times more like a prospectus of Johnson’s research interests than a self-contained argument, but it nevertheless provides many fascinating suggestions and whets our appetite for his forthcoming monograph on these and related subjects.12

The last paper before Olson’s epilogue is an extensive and polyglot bibliography, compiled by Shirley Werner, covering work on literacy that has appeared since 1989, the year that Harris’ Ancient Literacy was published. A topical index augments this bibliography, grouping references under headings such as “Alphabet,” “Books,” “Bilingualism,” and “Libraries,” as well as more specialized topics such as “Ostraka” and “Linear B.” The accompanying bibliographical essay identifies the most significant points of debate and important work in various areas of inquiry. Many works cited come from outside the field of Classics, and her inclusion of a section on studies of literacy in non-Classical societies is particularly welcome. Anyone wishing to address questions in these areas will find Werner’s discussion and bibliography a useful starting point.

The production of this volume is in keeping with the high standards of OUP, and many of the chapters include attractive figures, drawings, photographs, and diagrams. The editors are to be commended for providing an extensive general index and index locorum. I noticed only one misprint (“Caecilius Epiropa” for “Epirota” at 203n59 and in the index). A further quibble is that the list of abbreviations at the beginning of the volume is incomplete.13 My only real desideratum, which I realize is perhaps too much to wish for, is that the contributions showed some evidence of the fruitful exchange that must have marked the symposium at which they were originally presented. Thomas describes different types of literacy in Greece; Woolf argues that in Rome these distinctions did not exist. Habinek asserts the primacy of the oral in Roman culture, Parker rejects the category. Dupont and Farrell treat substantially the same material from very different viewpoints. The medievalist Paul Saegner’s argument that silent reading requires word division, which conference organizer William Johnson has argued convincingly against, is cited by Thomas with something like approval.14 I would imagine that these points of divergence provoked discussion between speakers, but in only a few cases do the contributors refer to each other’s work, and they never address these points of potential disagreement that I have sketched out.15 Cross references between papers are rare.16 It is a shame that, while the scholars represented here have given us fascinating essays, whatever exchanges took place between them in Cincinnati seem fated, like so many reading events, to be known only to their participants.


1. W. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1989), ix.

2. W. Johnson, “Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity.” AJPh 121 (2000): 593-627.

3. D. Olson, The World on Paper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), xvii.

4. E. J. Kenney, “Books and Readers in the Roman World.” in E. J. Kenney, ed., The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, vol. two (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 3-50.

5. K. Quinn, “The Poet and his Audience in the Augustan Age,” ANRW II.30.1: 75-180.

6. Habinek reproduces the findings for Greece of S. Stoddart and J. Whitley, “The Social Context of Literacy in Archaic Greece and Etruria,” Antiquity 62 (1988): 761-72.

7. There may also be some error in tabulation, since the percentages of the fourth column do not add up to 100.

8. T. Habinek, The World of Roman Song (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins: 2005). Reviewed at BMCR 2006.04.34.

9. In any case many of the passages discussed by Farrell in this volume show Roman poets invoking muses.

10. Dupont rarely indicates her sources for her account of literary history (her bibliography contains only nine items). For a refreshing examination of some traditional scholarly biases against Roman literature and culture see D. Feeney, Literature and Religion at Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) esp.12-70. Many of the other contributors to this collection show much more care in addressing the complex relationship of Rome and Greece; see, for example,120n22 (Habinek) and 165n2 (Farrell, who also makes the case, as noted, that there is a difference between Roman and Callimachean poetics). Parker points out that “The lumping together of Greece and Rome is symptomatic of an unnuanced approach” (187n4).

11. I am reminded of Morgan’s discussion of how Quintilian’s description of educational practice conforms to what schooltext papyri show actually happened in class in T. Morgan, Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), reviewed at BMCR 1999.05.22.

12. In Johnson’s bibliography this forthcoming work is called Readers and Reading Culture among the Greeks and Romans: A Study of Elite Reading Communities in the High Empire.

13. Missing are two papyrological publications referred to by Houston: MP3 for Mertens-Pack Online and PSI for Pubblicazioni della Società italiana per la recerca dei papyri greci e latini in Egitto.

14. W. Johnson, op. cit (n2) 598.

15. Editor Holt Parker is the only contributor to make reference to a response to his paper (Farrell’s, 191n14). Farrell and Houston seem to have discussed their contributions but this may have been in the context of Houston’s visit to the University of Pennsylvania for which he thanks Farrell in his acknowledgments.

16. 192n20, 217n130, 260n76, 293n16.