Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities

Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities

Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities

Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities


In Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire, William Johnson examines the system and culture of reading among the elite in second-century Rome. The investigation proceeds in case-study fashion using the principal surviving witnesses, beginning with the communities of Pliny and Tacitus (with a look at Pliny's teacher, Quintilian) from the time of the emperor Trajan. Johnson then moves on to explore elite reading during the era of the Antonines, including the medical community around Galen, the philological community around Gellius and Fronto (with a look at the curious reading habits of Fronto's pupil Marcus Aurelius), and the intellectual communities lampooned by the satirist Lucian. Along the way, evidence from the papyri is deployed to help to understand better and more concretely both the mechanics of reading, and the social interactions that surrounded the ancient book. The result is a rich cultural history of individual reading communities that differentiate themselves in interesting ways even while in aggregate showing a coherent reading culture with fascinating similarities and contrasts to the reading culture of today.


Despite some movement in recent years, it remains true that for most of the last century, scholarly debate on ancient reading has largely revolved around the question, “Did the ancient Greeks and Romans read aloud or silently?” Given the 1997 work of Gavrilov and Burnyeat, which has set the debate on new, seemingly firmer, footing, the question is at first glance easily answered. Without hesitation we can now assert that there was no cognitive difficulty when fully literate ancient readers wished to read silently to themselves, and that the cognitive act of silent reading was neither extraordinary nor noticeably unusual in antiquity. This conclusion has been known to careful readers since at least 1968, when Bernard Knox demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the silent reading of ancient documentary texts, including letters, is accepted by ancient witnesses as an ordinary event. Gavrilov and Burnyeat have improved the evidential base, by refining interpretation (especially Gavrilov on Augustine), by focusing on neglected but important evidence (Burnyeat on Ptolemy), and by adding observations from cognitive psychology. The resulting clarity is salutary.

Yet I suspect many will be dissatisfied with the terms in which the debate has been couched. I know that I am. Can we be content with a discussion framed in such a narrow—if not blinkered—fashion? In the fury of battle, the terms of the dispute have crystallized in an unfortunate way. That is, the polemics are such that we are now presumed fools if we suppose that the ancients were not able to read silently. But is it ignorant or foolish to insist

1. E.g., Cavallo and Chartier 1999, the essays in Johnson and Parker 2009; for an overview see the bibliographical essay in Werner 2009.

2. Gavrilov 1997, Burnyeat 1997.

3. Knox 1968; “at least” since Knox’s conclusions are (as he acknowledges) in part anti cipated by the more cautious reading of the evidence in Hendrickson 1929, by Clark 1931, who argues briefly but vigorously against the notion that silent reading was extraordinary in antiquity, and by Turner 1952 a, 14 n. 4, who adduced evidence for silent reading in classical Athens.

4. Gavrilov 1997, 61–66 (on Augustine), 58–61 (on cognitive psychology); Burnyeat 1997.

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