restricted access Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity
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Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity

In 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 recent work of Gavrilov and Burn-yeat, which has set the debate on new, seemingly firmer, footing, the question is at first glance easily answered.1 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.2 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.3 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 [End Page 593] ignorant or foolish to insist that in certain contexts reading aloud was central? In any case, and much more important, are these in fact the right questions to be asking? The moment has arrived, I think, when we need to reconsider whether the scholarly discourse is furthering what, I take it, is the goal: namely, understanding ancient reading. As a preliminary, and so that we can call to mind clearly the curious juncture to which we have now arrived, it will be useful first to review briefly how we have come to such a pass—in which sociological consideration of ancient reading is typically conceived within the terms of a debate over silent reading.

Did the Ancients Read Silently or Aloud? The Strange History of a Controversy

The roots of the debate are set in Eduard Norden's Die antike Kunstprosa, an influential work whose first edition in 1898 brought to scholarly attention a famous passage in Augustine (6.3.3)—wherein, it appears, Augustine finds it "unbegreiflich" that his bishop and teacher Ambrose reads silently to himself.4 At issue for Norden is not the idea that the ancients were unable to read silently, but rather that reading aloud of literary texts was the norm throughout antiquity.5 [End Page 594]

The controversy fully engages in 1927,6 when Josef Balogh ("Voces Paginarum") makes now a much broader case: that for all texts (not simply literary texts) silent reading was rare, that silent reading when it did happen occasioned surprise, and that silent reading was possible only under extraordinary circumstances and by extraordinary people (such as Julius Caesar or Saint Ambrose). To support his conclusion, Balogh marshals a large array of evidence: a dozen or so passages to support his claim that silent reading was viewed by the ancients as an aberration (84-95); another dozen passages claimed as direct evidence for the reading aloud of texts (97-109); passages where reading is equated with hearing, or where the acoustic effect of a text is assumed (95-97, 202-14); and others. Anyone who has read Balogh's article with attention will readily discern the tendentious way in which he often presents highly ambiguous evidence; as well as his heavy reliance on late sources. But the very weight of the material—sixty-four pages!—wins the day. With the striking Augustine passage as prime witness (86), Balogh succeeds in convincing a couple of generations of scholars. Along the way Balogh introduces, almost as an aside, a point that will become central. For he links the phenomenon of reading aloud with scriptio continua, that peculiar ancient...