- Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities
Ten years before the publication of this new monograph, William A. Johnson set out an elaborate paradigm for the understanding of ancient reading in a Gildersleeve Prize-winning article in this very journal (AJP 121 :593-627). Moving beyond the traditional contrast between silent and loud reading, he argued that ancient reading is best understood neither as an act, nor as a cognitive process or technology, but rather as "the negotiated construction of meaning within a particular socio-cultural context" (603). In this monograph he undertakes an investigation into the notion of imperial Rome as a "reading culture" under just such a definition; in particular, he analyzes select communities of literary exchange in the second-century empire in detail to assess the social and cultural values constructed through the reading experience.
How the physical characteristics of writing fit into this experience is the opening question of chapter 2, entitled "Pragmatics of Reading." Johnson has a close familiarity with ancient papyri and his argument, namely, that aesthetic interests seem to have outweighed pragmatic ones, especially ease of use, in the production of the book roll, is convincing—especially when considered from our modern perspective. But Johnson's interest is not in the ancient realities of limited access to literacy à la William Harris. Rather, he suggests a model of reading that is purposefully made difficult and requires long training, probably best exemplified by Quintilian's idealized image of the elaborate education necessary for the young to become independent readers. But even as Johnson's contrast between our modern interest in easy access and the ancient relative disregard for ease of use appears valid, we may wonder if his emphasis on the difficulty and on the extended time needed to learn to read is too exclusively focused on one particular segment of the elite and on one particular, literary application of literacy among them. It would have been especially intriguing to see Johnson locate his selected material against other contemporary developments, such as [End Page 336] the increased use of the codex form for recording some pragmatic matters or certain Christian writings.
Nonetheless, particular elite literary circles remain Johnson's focus in the following chapters, and the individual vignettes turn out to be highly insightful portraits worthy of engaging with on their own right. His reading of Pliny's letters emphasizes both the capacity of writing to "construct a picture of the world" (35, emphasis in the original) and the actual circle of readers understood as a primary audience. So with Pliny, we picture an idealized Vestricius Spurinna (Ep. 3.1), whose daily regimen is a carefully composed alteration among physical, intellectual, and social pursuits, which conveniently matches Pliny's own description of his own routine in the otium of his Tuscan estate and suitably opposes the boorish concerns of the rustic tenants there (Ep. 9.36). Part of Pliny's idealized image includes his own habit of reciting his writing: limited to the exclusive circle of his amici, such events could serve as a first step earning a critical response from this focus group before a wider public would be able to judge the work and its author (similar to the model of concentric circles in publication as offered by Starr in CQ 37 :213-23). On Johnson's reading, this core circle also functions as an alternative outlet for senators interested both in excelling as writers and in judging literary endeavors in contrast to the limited opportunities available to senators at the imperial court. This restricted view of elite opportunities also shapes Johnson's reading of Tacitus' Dialogus de oratoribus. There is logic to the argument that traditional oratory's vanishing may have opened up a space for reading as an elite pursuit, yet the emphasis on recitals, for example, that Johnson observes suggests that these changes need not be in complete...