Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome. Edited by
WILLIAM A. JOHNSON and HOLT N. PARKER. Oxford and New York: Oxford
University Press, 2009. Pp. xv + 430. Cloth, $74.00. ISBN
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This volume was “constructed as a forum in which selected leading
scholars were challenged to rethink from the ground up how students of
classical antiquity might best approach the question of literacy” (p. 4).
Spurred by a belief that work in the field of ancient literacy has
stagnated, William A. Johnson writes in the introduction that the
“deterministic accounts” of ancient literacy presented by Goody,
Havelock and Ong have been generally discredited, while Harris’ Ancient
Literacy is narrowly focused on defining what percentage of people in
antiquity could read and write. He thus offers this collection “to
formulate more interesting, productive ways of talking about …
text-oriented events embedded in particular sociocultural contexts” (p.
3). The essays analyze examples of literacy within social and cultural
contexts. In addition to the introduction, there are five chapters under
the theme “Situating Literacies,” three under “Books and Texts,”
and four under “Institutions and Communities.” A bibliographical essay
and epilogue follow. Each chapter contains its own bibliography, and an
Index Locorum and General Index are appended to the whole work.
The collection takes its name from the essay contributed by Rosalind
Thomas, and though not positioning itself as a counterpart to her
influential Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece, should help revive
debate and inspire investigation into Roman, and perhaps Hellenistic,
literacy. [] All of them focus on the particular—that is, on the
variations that affect the nature of literacy—and on the social and
cultural context of literacy, and should inspire further study of the
Rosalind Thomas’ arguments for the existence of “multi-literacies”
(p. 13) in the Greek world attempt to define sets of literary skills
necessary to succeed in particular social, cultural or political settings.
She describes five types of literacy: banking literacy, name literacy,
commercial literacy, list literacy and the literacy of the official. In
each case, she discusses the minimum skills necessary to take out a loan,
for instance, or to serve as a juror, and shows how the skills needed for
success in each arena changed over time.
In the next chapter, Greg Woolf argues that we should not envisage such a
range of literacies in Rome. He points out two possible specialized
literacies (understanding legal formulae and deciphering amphorae labels),
but concludes that Roman literacy was generalized, primarily because the
literary practices of the state depended upon those of its private
Barbara Burrell focuses on the bilingual inscriptions and structures in the
plaza south of the Hellenistic agora of Ephesus. By following the process
by which each structure was “read” by the elite viewers who erected
later structures in the plaza, she shows how the plaza became an
intersection of Hellenistic and Roman culture.
Simon Goldhill focuses on the anecdote, which he distinguishes from
quotation, chreia, paradoxography, admirabilia and exempla. He identifies
Philostratus’ Lives of the Sophists, Xenophon’s Memorabilia and
Plutarch’s Sympotic Questions as anecdotal works, and concludes that the
anecdote, which can be written or recited with ease, is where literacy and
orality meet, and therefore reveals the interdependence of the two spheres.
Thomas Habinek’s “Situating Literacy at Rome” begins with the
assertion that literacy and orality are not mutually exclusive. Roman
literacy must be “situated” in specific contexts at Rome, and Habinek
explores how it changes through time and differs from literacy elsewhere,
as well as how literary practices at Rome reveal the Roman understanding of
literacy. He concludes that the spread of writing mirrored the growing need
to assert one’s status as a Roman, that writing derives its ability to
assert status from the fact that literacy reveals a mastery of special
speech, and that Romans’ propensity “to intensify the constraints upon
writing” in graphic word games reflects an understanding that the written
word need not signify spoken language (p. 136).
In “The Corrupted Boy and the Crowned Poet,” Florence Dupont examines
why people read and wrote literary books at Rome. Although books preserve a
“fictive utterance,” the material reality of the volumen itself cannot
be ignored. Dupont enlists Catullus, Horace and Ovid to define the book’s
“double destiny” (p. 153): it can live as a puer delicatus, given, sold
and resold, growing ever more tarnished and sullied, or it can be preserved
in a library and consecrate the status of the poet.
Joseph Farrell’s “The Impermanent Text in Catullus and Other Roman
Poets” is also concerned with the dual nature of the bookroll. Like
Dupont, Farrell is interested in the paradoxical nature of this fragile
material object, which is also the instrument through which the authors’
works might be preserved. He concludes that for an ancient poet, the
material text was “a locus of anxiety,” as revealed in the tendency to
juxtapose the material text with immaterial song (p. 181).
In “Books and Reading in Latin Poetry,” Holt Parker argues against the
view that Romans experienced poetry primarily at recitations or other
literary performances. Instead, books were often read silently, even in the
presence of others, and performance played little role in the circulation
of Roman poetry.
In “Papyrological Evidence for Book Collections and Libraries in the
Roman Empire,” George Houston analyzes papyri that have preserved the
titles of books and identifies eight lists which he concludes are likely to
be library inventories.
Peter White’s “Bookshops in the Literary Culture of Rome” examines
the evidence for bookshops within the larger literary culture of Rome.
White discusses how bookshops, concentrated in the city center, represented
the locus of bibliographic knowledge in Rome before the advent of the
library and used the appearance of libraries to expand their stock.
Competition between the bookstores and the presence of poor quality texts
led to the need for specialists who could convince the customers of the
reliability of the texts for sale. He argues that this role was filled by
grammatici and concludes that a sort of social performance arose in
bookstores, in which they could use their knowledge to enhance their public
or social authority.
Kristina Milnor argues in “Literary Literacy in Roman Pompeii: The Case
of Vergil’s Aeneid” that the selection and placement of graffiti was
often inspired in part by the context of other writing and painting on the
wall, as well as by the quotation’s status as part of the literary
William A. Johnson concentrates on how the reading community constructed in
Gellius’ Attic Nights uses texts, and on the encumbrances the community
attaches to this use. The ways Gellius presents reading, Johnson argues,
seek to create a reading community as ideal as the one portrayed in his
Part IV consists of Shirley Werner’s thorough bibliographical essay
“Literacy Studies in Classics: The Last Twenty Years.” She also
provides an index.
The epilogue is David R. Olson’s “Why Literacy Matters, Then and
Now.” He advances the theory that writing is instrumental in
distinguishing thought from belief, and conjectures that written texts
exhibit the qualities of quoted expressions. Olson concludes that writing
is instrumental in the development of modern thought and a literate
The strength of this collection is in the learning on display in the
articles and the attention it pays to situating itself in the scholarly
tradition. Readers without a solid background in literacy studies may have
to review other major works on the topic to reap the full benefit of this
volume. But specialists will find a great deal of food for thought there.
[] R. Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1992).
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