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On Reading in the Roman World: A Key Book

December 9, 2013

In the course of working up a commissioned article on the reading of texts in early Christianity, I’ve come across a work that I confess I hadn’t known of before, but that deserves to be noted by anyone interested in the subject of reading and texts in the Roman period:  Emmanuelle Valette-Cagnac, La lecture à Rome: rites et pratiques (Paris: Belin, 1997).

Indeed, I’m embarrassed that it’s taken 16 years for me to have learned of the book.  But that must say more about me than about the book, for it’s a goldmine.  After a helpful discussion of the Latin vocabulary of reading (focused on legere, lectio, recitare), there are chapters on “lectio tacita” (essentially, silent reading), epitaphs (in which there is the conceit of the dead speaking to the readers), “recitatio” (the reading aloud of texts in/for gatherings), the political forms of recitatio (e.g., reading of laws, etc.), and the role/place of public reading in religious settings.

Describing her approach as an kind of anthropological one, she aimed to set out the social situations in which reading took place in the Roman world.  There have been numerous publications on such questions as whether the Romans could/did read silently (the answer is an emphatic “yes,” contrary to some ill-judged earlier claims, which continue to be echoed), and more recently William Johnson has published some very interesting work on the reading of texts in “elite” reading circles of the Roman era:  William A. Johnson, “Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity,” American Journal of Philology 121 (2000): 593-627;  William A. Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).  But, to my knowledge, Valette-Cagnac’s work remains unmatched in breadth of analysis, and so essential for further scholarly work.

The overall effect is to reinforce the important roles that reading of texts had in the Roman era (contrary to oft-echoed claims that the enjoyment of “orality” meant that texts were less important).  This has obvious relevance for our understanding of earliest Christianity, as I aim to show in the article under preparation.



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  1. Another important French title on this subject is Catherine Salles, Lire à Rome, Les Belles Lettres, 2008.

  2. I hope you can arrange to share the forthcoming article. I do not have the ability to read the recommended book in French, so your use of it in an article (in English, I hope) is as close as I can get. You do not mention the very hot topics of literacy and scribal practices so I assume the recommended author does not address those relevant topics(?).

    • Literacy and copyist/scribal practices will be mentioned in my article (which will be in English), and are dealt with in an interesting way in Johnson’s article.

  3. Geoff Hudson permalink

    Larry, I would have thought that scholars ought to be more interested to know if the Roman texts were telling the truth or not.

    • Geoff: Scholars in Classics, Ancient History, and NT/Christian Origins are interested in EVERYTHING about the Roman period, and always ask historical-critical questions about the texts. Please dis-abuse yourself of your curious hobby-horse about this.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry, the scholars may always ask historical-critical questions, but frequently they proceed as though they haven’t asked, or write something like ‘according to’, and thereby cover a multitude of sins.

      • Geoff: You’re again making sweeping claims and in a field where you haven’t established your own expertise. I’d be a bit less brash if I were you. You’ve (again!) made your assertions, but they don’t amount to much unless you demonstrate your own superior expertise. Let’s end this here.

      • jfjoyner3 permalink

        Thank you, Dr. Hurtado, for ending Geoff’s never ending nonsense. He has done this same thing on other blogs. It’s tiresome to see him inject himself when others are trying to pay attention to what you’re willing to share.

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