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Silent Reading in Roman Antiquity

November 28, 2018

Since a few comments have referred to the matter, I post some references on the question of whether in the ancient Roman period individuals practiced silent reading.  To cut to the conclusion, it is now accepted among Classicists and ancient historians (for over 20 years now) that silent reading was known and practiced.  Of course, especially in group settings people read texts aloud.  But the ancient readers were perfectly capable of reading silently, especially in private reading, and recognized the advantages of doing so, enabling faster reading of texts, for example.

It appears that the notion that silent reading was unusual in the Roman era arose through a mis-interpretation of a passage in Augustine (Confessions 6.3.3), where he comments about Ambrose reading to himself.  One still sees reference to this notion today (e.g., here and here).  It’s now accepted, however, that Augustine wasn’t expressing surprise that Ambrose could read silently to himself, but instead Augustine remarked that by doing so Ambrose effectively shut out those around him, and could have some privacy even though people were coming and going about him.  See, for example, this note on the matter from the Guardian here.

Another erroneous claim was that the (re)introduction of word-separation in Latin manuscripts in the early medieval period enabled silent reading for the first time:  Paul Henry Saenger, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).  Actually, word-separation was known and practiced much earlier.  For example, inscriptions frequently had word-separation.  And the practice of “scriptio continua” (words written without separation) was adopted in Latin from Greek practice, because it was regarded as a more elegant format.  It had nothing to do with whether reading was done silently or aloud to oneself.

So, for those who need to get up to date on the topic, here are some bibliographical references:

A. K. Gavrilov, “Techniques of Reading in Classical Antiquity,” Classical Quarterly 47 (1997): 56-73.

M. F. Burnyeat, “Postscript on Silent Reading,” Classical Quarterly 47 (1997): 74-76.

Emmanuelle Valette-Cagnac, La lecture à Rome: rites et pratiques (Paris: Belin, 1997).

Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, eds., A History of Reading in the West (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), especially pp. 1-36.

For an online discussion, see here.


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  1. You note that word-separation existed before it was developed as a standard in the early medieval period — presumably, the Carolingian minuscule being referred to here. However, I was under the impression that the Carolingian minuscule was the first script that had word-separation.

    Is it the case that Latin, though the actual script does not contain word-separation, would occasionally have word-separation out of convenience? And how common was this?

    Thanks Dr. Hurtado.

    • Latin moved to scriptio continua in imitation of Greek practice, and then in the 9th century returned to word separation. See, e.g., William A. Johnson, “Towards a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity,” American Journal of Philology 121 (2000): 593-627, who comments on this.

  2. erich v permalink

    Thanks so much to Larry Hurtado for responding in such detail!

  3. Sean du Toit permalink

    Hi Larry
    See also
    –Bernard M. W. Knox, “Silent Reading in Antiquity,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 9 (1968): 421-35.

    –Michael Slusser, “Reading Silently in Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992): 499.
–A. K. Gavrilov, “Techniques of Reading in Classical Antiquity,” Classical Quarterly 47 (1997): 56-73.

    –Frank D. Gilliard, “More Silent Reading in Antiquity: Non omne verbum sonat,” Journal of Biblical Literature 112 (1993): 689-96.

    Regards, Sean

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