Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Silent Reading

Virgil reading the Aeneid aloud

Twice this morning I have stumbled upon references to a fact I never knew: that the Romans generally did not – and usually could not – read silently.

This information came to me first at a very early hour while riding MUNI and simultaneously reading Ingrid D. Rowland's biography of Giordano Bruno. On page 214 she wrote:

In ancient Rome, especially among the ambitious patricians of the late Roman Republic and early empire, poetry was particularly popular if it had an educational slant. Most people could only read aloud, and they especially enjoyed reading in company, taking turns with reading and listening.

Well and good, I thought. An interesting fact to follow up on. But then as soon as I got off the bus I forgot all about it.

A little later in my office at the library (after the sun had come up, but not long after) I came across the same fact in a book of poems by Deborah Warren called Zero Meridian. It fell open under my eyes to the beginning of a poem (on page 9) called Silent Reading:

Ambrose read silently, astonishing
those who watched and pressed around him spellbound,
never having heard of such a thing:
Romans didn't read except aloud.

So now I will remember about the Romans and their reading, as God clearly intends me to do. But how hard it always has seemed to imagine the mental life of a literate Roman.

I mean, I already knew that Roman writers did not put spaces between words or use punctuation or capital letters to indicate where sentences started and ended – it was just one endless river of letters (as shown above, an example of Roman "book hand" from the Encyclopedia Britannica). And ordinary educated Romans could read such texts easily. But not inside their heads.