CJ Online Review: Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire

Posted with permission:

William A. Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. x + 227. Hardcover, $65.00/£40.00. ISBN 978-0-19-517640-7.

Reviewed by James Ker, University of Pennsylvania

William Johnson begins this outstanding study of ancient reading practices by taking issue with scholars’ typically narrow focus on the question of whether the Greeks and Romans were technologically and/or cognitively inhibited from reading silently. Thus, as he reviews the scholarly debate about Augustine’s famous description of Ambrose reading silently (Conf. 6.3.3), Johnson’s purpose is less to prove that silent reading is known much earlier (though he lucidly presents the evidence for this) than to draw attention to Augustine’s expectations and the reasons for his surprise at Ambrose’s habit. Ambrose’s silent reading is just one “reading event” in what Johnson calls “ancient reading culture,” which he proposes to examine as a “sociocultural system” (11): “reading is not simply the cognitive processing by the individual of the technology of writing, but rather the negotiated construction of meaning within a particular sociocultural context” (12, emphasis original). In Ambrose’s case, the sociocultural context is one in which the attending students would normally have been able to listen to the magister reading and commenting on the text—a norm that Johnson’s book will go on to illustrate and analyze in its various shapes and forms.

In the opening chapter Johnson introduces his theory of reading culture, laying out some basic parameters for assessing each event: the type of text being read; the context in which it is read; the community (real or imagined) by whom it is read; the inherited traditions that shape the reading event; and the role played by the reading in defining the readers’ sense of identity. Chapter 2 introduces the physical book and situates it within this cultural system, showing for example how certain general characteristics of ancient reading and ancient bookrolls, such as the absence of spaces between words (scriptio continua), are not signs of a technological lack, but are consistent with an elite culture in which reading from a bookroll with full articulation and comprehension is a marker of education and status, and often an act of connoisseurship.

In the nine chapters that follow—packed with detail, but written with a light touch—Johnson presents case studies in Pliny’s letters, Tacitus’ Dialogus de oratoribus, the writings of Galen, Aulus Gellius, Fronto, and Lucian, and the papyri from Oxyrhynchus (drawing on Johnson’s earlier and more specialized work, and supplemented with a catalogue of instances in which ancient readers have annotated papyri with variant readings explicitly drawn from other copies or versions). Taken together, the case studies demonstrate an emphatically social reading culture in which an elite group engages in a “culture of sharing” (listening together, discussing texts, borrowing books, etc.) at the same time as it excludes others. But each case study is attentive to the particulars, and Johnson’s observations on each author are likely to be of interest to experts on each. For example, Johnson shows, through a meticulous analysis of the directives that Galen gives to readers within his texts, as well as to his descriptions of scenes of reading (often also scenes of debate or medical demonstrations, attended by friends and rivals), how Galen “seeks to influence the philosophical and educational priorities of the elite-at-large as a part of establishing his own importance” (101). Gellius, by contrast, “insists upon his own little world, a comfortable, exclusionary space that smacks of the ‘scholarly’” (101)—though Johnson goes on to dissect the social machinery of Gellius’ reading scenes, too. Similar comparisons emerge in the cases of Pliny, Fronto, and Lucian, where Johnson teases out the social valence of the reading practices imagined by each author, and its tight connections to the author’s literary program. These literary programs can provide essential context for a piece of information about ancient reading that would otherwise have seemed like a factoid, such as how reciters of poetry were expected to read in such a way that a listener could (and indeed would be expected to) memorize sequences that could be shared with friends—here anchored in a detailed survey of the literary contubernium dominated by Fronto (149). The result is a nuanced history of reading practices in one well-defined era with a clear social and political backdrop.

Johnson’s theoretical model, although it is persuasive and is helpfully correlated with modern sociologies of reading, will no doubt need to be expanded and/or refined when new evidence or new aspects of ancient reading are studied more closely (as the author himself concedes, 206). But he has helped us, through an exemplary synthesis of theory and evidence, to recognize how social considerations are indispensable for thinking about how people read in the ancient world, and in determining what their reading practices, real or imagined, could be made to mean.

The book also facilitates a mutually instructive encounter between ancient reading practices and a close modern correlate: the reading of texts in the context of a college humanities class, where students struggle together over a difficult text such as the Aeneid, yet in a mood of excitement and endeavor. “As I see it,” Johnson writes, “[the
classroom reading] has far less to do with cognition than with the construction of a particular reading community, one that validates itself through texts deemed important to a shared sense of culture and cultural attainment” (12). If, however, we take seriously the larger argument of the book, with its emphasis on Roman elites, the purpose of our own reading emerges as a somewhat disquieting question that we will always need to address.

CJ Online Review: Bloomer, School of Rome

posted with permission:

W. Martin Bloomer, The School of Rome: Latin Studies and the Origins of Liberal Education. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. vii + 199. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-520-23376-0.

Reviewed by Peter Cohee, Mystic Valley Regional Charter High School

To Marrou and Bonner on Roman education now add Bloomer.[[1]] This is a fine book: erudite, concise, well organized. It will appeal to students and scholars interested in ancient Roman education, social culture, rhetoric and oratory, Quintilian, Pseudo-Plutarch’s de liberis educandis, and Western liberal education. Bonner adroitly exploits source material to outline what we (though perhaps not the Romans themselves) would call a curriculum. It concerns the realia of teaching and learning: schools as physical places, materials and methods used, yes; but it also explores the ethical onus of ancient Roman education: the hard work of learning, necessary to earn respect and dignity as a free adult Roman man, able—no, obligated—to speak for others who often lacked the power to speak for themselves. Bloomer applies gender theory, judiciously. For we are examining ways by which a Roman boy became a Roman man: education set him apart from women, slaves, and lower social orders. Classical education’s power to establish and confirm one’s rightfully-deserved superior social status is therefore the core of this story.

Bloomer distinguishes Roman education from Hellenistic paideia in its reverence for ancestral traditions. Modern educators will be struck by certain features: near-total fixation on literary texts; imitation; and memorization. This may be a rejoinder to our own “critical thinking” enthusiasts. Present pedagogues will also be interested to find that the Romans took what we now call a “goals backward” approach: they knew the kind of man a Roman orator should be and from that ideal, step by step, built his educational progress to that end.

Bloomer outlines for us, I think more clearly than Marrou, the ordinary (if never uniform) sequence of elementary education or progymnasmata: maxim (or sententia), chreia, fable.

These conditioned the young man, degree by degree, to an ethical culture, one in which some strife must be mediated and resolved, not by violence but by wit and words. For it is just this mediation of conflict that the adult man will be called upon as advocate or patron to engage in on behalf of others. The stakes are high: schooling was, as Bloomer repeatedly illustrates, fiercely competitive but in the interest of common social goods. This is especially apparent in the content and practice of Cato’s Distichs. Grammar, literature, and finally declamation, controversia, and rhetoric become the “authoritative discourse of the cultured.” Bloomer demonstrates that such a culture rested squarely on the school-developed character of the young man, through his ponophilia, his postponed gratification, his endurance of powerlessness now for the sake of real power to come in his manhood.

There is fascinating treatment here of known teachers and their methods, choices of texts, the physical locale of the school, and other daily realia which any practicing teacher will appreciate. His treatment of the teacher’s manuals, so to speak, of Quintilian and Pseudo-Plutarch make valuable comparisons to the highly bureaucratic and detailed expectations of today’s classroom teacher.

Finally, a quibble. The presentation of Greek text seems to this reviewer inconsistent. Within the text proper, Greek passages are at times translated outright with original (sometimes) given in a footnote; at other times translated with transliteration in brackets. Those who can read Greek will not need the transliteration and would prefer to see the original; those who can’t read Greek will get nothing more from a transliteration.

The index is full and detailed, followed by a thorough bibliography. Editing is very good, with only a handful of slight misprints.


[[1]] H. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, transl. G. Lamb (London: Sheed and Ward, 1956); orig. Histoire de l’Education dans l’Antiquité (Paris, 1948), and S. F. Bonner, Education in Ancient Rome (London: Methuen, and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

CJ Online Review: O’Sullivan, Walking in Roman Culture

posted with permission:

Timothy M. O’Sullivan, Walking in Roman Culture. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xii + 188. Hardback, £55.00/$95.00. ISBN 978-1-107-00096-4.

Reviewed by Alana Lukes, Paul VI Catholic High School (Retired)

What is your first thought upon reading the title Walking in Roman Culture? Is it a look at Roman culture within an historical time frame? Is it a presentation of archaeological cultural evidence? Or is it a compilation of citations from ancient sources which mention the physical activity of walking by the ancient Romans? If you said the last, you would be correct. O’Sullivan thematically gathers together a plethora of literary references to the when, how, why, and wherefore of walking as an ancient Roman art form. This perspective and focus serves to provide a unique insight into an underreported aspect of Roman culture.

O’Sullivan speaks of the “rule of the gait: how you walk defines who you are” (13). Whether you are a god, a goddess, a politician, a man, a woman, or even a slave, the pace of your gait is predetermined by your place in society. The lowly slave is not a walker. He is instead a servus currens (18). Regarding the others, O’Sullivan, using Martial’s critique of an individual (51), speaks to the “how” of the walk (“slowly and aimlessly”), the “where” (“in a popular portico”), and the “with whom” (“a retinue of dependants, free and slave”) (52)—all of which play a part in determining an individual’s social status.

Horace, Seneca, Ovid, Cicero, Vitruvius, Celsus, Pliny, Varro, and Juvenal are among the Roman writers quoted as to their opinions of the whys and wherefores of proper walking styles. When O’Sullivan uses the same criteria to determine a man’s status while discussing the deductio in forum (54–9), he adds in the time of day. Deductiones involving Augustus, Scipio Africanus, and a boy assuming the toga virilis are also described. O’Sullivan even applies the term deductio to appearances by the powerful Messalina and Agrippina (65) as they walk through the forum. Pitiful Verginia’s deductio is not one of marriage, but of death (58). Comments on gait by the Christian writers Tertullian and Jerome are likewise included (25–6).

O’Sullivan distinguishes the deductio from the ambulatio: “the contemplative walk that became a central practice of Roman leisure” (78). He notes that the verb perambulare is used distinctly from peragrare (101) to describe types of walks. Letter exchanges between Cicero and Caelius Rufus (84), Cicero and Pollio (85), Ovid and Macer (85), Seneca and Lucilius (86), as well as Pliny and Spurinna (88–9) lament or reminisce about walks shared or planned.

Metaphorically, even philosophers “walk through time.” and place (104). The Greeks especially appear to walk as a prelude to seated/standing serious discussions (92–3). O’Sullivan makes a case for the replicas of Greek artwork and statues found in collections “of [Roman] villa owners” for “their metaphorical travels” (115).

Chapter 6 (116-149), entitled “Walking with Odysseus,” is such a case. At first glance, one questions the lengthy chapter on a Greek subject in a book discussing a Roman activity. But the pictured story panels, the “Odyssey Landscapes” currently in the Vatican Museum, represent a Roman activity. The panels, separated by a portico-like setting of intervening columns, depict a wealthy Roman’s domestic ambulatio. They bring “together associations of movement of the body, acquisition of knowledge, philosophical contemplation, mythology as exemplum and travel” (148): themes and topics found throughout the book.

References and excerpts abound in support of O’Sullivan’s statements. This slender volume, based on his original dissertation, is crammed with not only ancient Roman (and some Greek) literary citations and quotations in the text, but also recent scholarship in extensive footnotes. All translations are O’Sullivan’s. The bibliography (158–75) is extensive and scholarly. The detailed subject index (176–82) and Index locorum of Roman and Greek authors (183–8) are helpful to both collegiate and high school instructors.

AP Vergil high-school teachers will find the discussions of “walking” in the Aeneid of particular interest. Aeneas’ recognition of his mother by her godly gait (Aen. 1.402–5) and his walk with King Evander through Rome’s future landscape (8.306–12) are here. These same teachers will recall other “walks” not mentioned by O’Sullivan: Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld or Euryalus and Nisus in the forest, for starters. After reading this book, general readers and instructors alike will be affected forevermore by the word “walk” found in any context.

Lucius Cicero, a cousin of the famous Cicero, is cited in De finibus as saying … wherever we walk, we place our footprint in some history” (104). O’Sullivan connects the “footprints” of the ancient and modern worlds when, near the book’s end, he includes a haunting picture from Fellini’s 1972 Roma. The documentary crew “walks” downward beneath the city of modern Rome to a domus. The crew briefly gazes upon “a wall painting depicting a procession of Romans making their way up a staircase, some of whom stare directly out at the viewers” (153) before the inrush of outside air “destroys the murals, which fade away in seconds” (154) thereby ending the ancient walk.

Lucky for us, O’Sullivan leaves us a longer lasting portrait of the Roman art of “walking” with his book, Walking in Roman Culture.

CFP: Olympic Athletes: Ancient and Modern

Seen on the Classicists list:

A Conference on Olympic Athletes: Ancient and Modern

Date: (Friday-Sunday) 6-8 July 2012
Place: University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Brisbane, Australia.

Call for Papers

Papers are invited for a conference on ‘Olympic Athletes: Ancient and Modern’, which will be held at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Brisbane, Australia, from 6-8 July 2012.

The theme can be interpreted fairly broadly, but there is a particular desire to assemble papers which analyse the Olympic experience of athletes from the ancient and the modern games. What was / is special about Olympic competition and Olympic athletes? Who were / are the great Olympic athletes? Why?

All speaking slots will be 30 minutes in duration (20 for paper, 10 for questions). Please send offers of papers, plus a 100-word abstract, to the organizers by Friday 1 June 2012.

Further details will be available soon at http://www.uq.edu.au/hprc.
In the meantime, anyone who would like to offer a paper or attend the conference should contact Tom Stevenson (t.stevenson AT uq.edu.au) for the organizers.

CONF: Classical Beauty: a conference on ancient aesthetics at Durham University, 22-23 March

Seen on Rome-Arch

Classical Beauty: reflections on ancient aesthetics, at Durham University on Thursday 22nd and Friday 23rd March 2012, generously sponsored by the British Society of Aesthetics, Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study, and the Department of Classics & Ancient History at Durham University

Thursday 22nd March 2012

The College of St Hild and St Bede, Durham

12.45-1.00 p.m. Registration

1.00-2.15 p.m. Lunch

2.15-2.20 p.m. Introduction and welcome

Session 1: Beauty and the Greeks
2.20-3.20 Professor David Konstan (New York University): The Greek Idea of Beauty

3.20-3.45 Tea and coffee

Session 2: Aesthetics in Literature
3.45-4.45 Professor Pierre Destree (University of Louvain-la-Neuve): Beauty and Aesthetic Pleasures
4.45-5.45 Professor Malcolm Heath (University of Leeds): Unity

6.00-7.00 Drinks reception

7.30-10.00 Conference dinner

10.00 Bus shuttle to Van Mildert College

Friday 23rd March 2012

The Lindisfarne Centre

Session 3: Beauty in Painting
9.30-10.30 Professor Agnès Rouveret (University of Paris X-Nanterre): Painting and private art collections in Rome

10.30-11.00 Coffee

Session 4: Aesthetics in Architecture
11.00-12.00 Professor Catherine Saliou (University of Paris VIII): Architectural Beauty and Society, 4th century B.C. to 4th century A.D.
12.00-1.00 Dr Edmund Thomas (Durham University): Reflections on Architectural Beauty and Aesthetics

1.00-2.30 Lunch

2.30-3.30 Table Ronde. Respondent: Professor Glenn Most (Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa)

3.30-4.00 Tea and coffee

4.00-7.00 Excursions (Durham Cathedral, Palace Green Library)

There is no conference fee, but a small charge is made for lunch (£5.50, students or unwaged £4.50) and dinner (£25 + wine, students £20 + wine).

Anyone interested in attending the conference should please email me at e.v.thomas by Wednesday 7th March.

A small number of rooms are available at Van Mildert College for those requiring overnight accommodation at the following rates:
Single ensuite: £42
Single, shared bathroom: £31
Twin, ensuite: £76
Enquiries regarding accommodation should be sent to Mrs Janet Dawson, Van Mildert College at jan.dawson AT durham.ac.uk.