Readings on the Roman Empire I: Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire

13 Aug

I’m just back from a week in KC and completely exhausted (when I restore myself I’ll respond to some of the comments that have been posted over the past few days). It’s not because I over-partied or anything (did party a little but not much) but because of ice. Yup – ice in August. My hotel room was situated near the elevators, which was great, I thought. Between myself and the elevators were only a utility room for housekeeping and the vending alcove. And then there was the bane of my existence, the ice machine.

I’m a light sleeper. I’ve mentioned before how, when I drive, I bring a small fan with me for white noise (I flew this time). When someone filled their ice bucket, the resulting sound reaching my room (at least when my head was on the pillow) resembled the primordial roar of a beast intent on destroying whatever had dared to approach its lair. There had to be an echo factor. And when it recharged, it produced more of a warning growl as if it was within its burrow. Tuesday and Thursday nights must have been the party evenings (Thurs. was the last night). I think I woke up six times Tues. and four or five times on Thurs. Fortunately, I managed to restrain myself before I ran into the hallway to confront whoever was agitating the ice machine beast (the thought entered my mind more than once as I woke in a soporific haze). At least, based on the evals & questions, my presentation was well-received and my booth received a lot of traffic. But next time I’m housed next to an angry vending machine, I’m asking to change rooms.

As is my usual custom, I took something to read which I wouldn’t feel compelled to take copious notes on. This was William A. Johnson’s Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-0-19-517640-7.

This is a good book. What Johnson set out to do was explore and discuss elite literary culture during the Roman Empire from the late 1st century BC into the early 3rd century AD. He used detailed examinations of sources in a case-study format to illustrate the characteristics of literary elites and their peers which formed a restricted, (relatively) closed social circle in the Empire.

Issues discussed include; what were the characteristics of this culture; who were considered members; how might one gain admittance; what type of hierarchy existed within this circle; what were acceptable and unacceptable behaviors of members and; how did members of this circle view themselves and the circle?

I found this to be an interesting and informative book. I knew this literary group existed and that membership in it was fairly restricted, however I was less familiar with specifics such as how a student who was not considered “experienced” might be viewed if he chose to comment on a reading (rather than raising a question), or how a literary elite might respond to a perceived threat or challenge to the group.

I have always known that I must become fairly familiar with and knowledgeable about the Roman Empire to learn about the 4th century and beyond, including the transition to the Medieval Period in Western Europe. This book is very beneficial to me for this purpose. As I finished it, I find myself with a few issues I would like to explore. The continuation of classical literary culture beyond the ending of the Empire is one of the characteristics of Late Antiquity. Ralph Mathisen has argued that the end of this culture can be viewed as an endpoint for Antiquity. I’m familiar with most of the Late Antique “players” and have many of their writings, in translation. I’d like to look into how they continued to view themselves. My sense is that, as their numbers dwindled, they became more open to new admissions to their group, but were unable to find individuals capable of joining.

Another interesting comparison is the contrast between this and Carolingian Literary Culture. I don’t think there’s much of an argument that this existed in the late 8th and 9th centuries. How does this compare with the Roman culture? Was it as restrictive? Were the hierarchies and patterns of acceptable behavior as strict? Most importantly, I think, is; How did members of the Carolingian literary culture view themselves and it? I don’t believe there’s much (any?) evidence for direct continuity between them and the Romans. Did the Carolingians believe there was? Did they view themselves as recreating the Roman culture or did they recognize that this was something new? Did they recognize it as something at all or was this simply an aspect of their environment? Right now I have 22 books on the Carolingians on my “to-read” shelf. I have a sheet of paper with issues I want to be sure to explore tucked in there. The above questions have been added to it.

I don’t have the knowledge to provide a detailed review of this book however I found it useful and an enjoyable read. It’s fairly pricey but if you can find a copy in a library, it’s definitely worth a look.

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Posted by on August 13, 2011 in Books, Education and Literacy


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