Johnson, William A. « Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity »

Johnson, William A. "Toward a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity"
American Journal of Philology – Volume 121, Number 4 (Whole Number 484), Winter 2000, pp. 593-627
The Johns Hopkins University Press

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 an-
cient readers wished to read silently to themselves, and that the cogni-
tive act of silent reading was neither extraordinary nor noticeably un-
usual in antiquity. This conclusion has been known to careful readers
since at least 1968, when Bernard Knox demonstrated beyond reason-
able doubt that the silent reading of ancient documentary texts, in-
cluding 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 ne-
glected but important evidence (Burnyeat on Ptolemy), and by add-
ing observations from cognitive psychology.3 The resulting clarity is
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 unfortu-
nate 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…

1Gavrilov 1997; Burnyeat 1997.
2Knox 1968; "at least" since Knox's conclusions are (as he acknowledges) in part
anticipated by the more cautious reading of the evidence in Hendrickson 1929, by Clark
1931, who argues…

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