Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-cf9d5c678-p4zth Total loading time: 0.233 Render date: 2021-08-05T05:07:14.788Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

Techniques of reading in classical antiquity

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

A. K. Gavrilov
The Academy of Sciences of Russia, Institute of History, St Petersburg Branch


It has gradually become accepted among historians of ancient culture that the Greeks and Romans always, or nearly always, read aloud. They did not read to themselves, silently, save in rare and special cases. Either they were not able to read silently, or they felt no need to do so, or they did not enjoy doing it even when they were alone.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1997

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Kenney, E. J., Cambridge History of Classical Literature. Vol. ii. Latin Literature (Cambridge, 1982), p. 12. Kenney also insists on these claims in a review published in American Journal of Philology 106 (1985), 126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Thomas, Rosalind, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1992), p. 91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Lamer, Hans (ed.), Worterbuch der Antike mit Beriicksichtigung ihres Fortwirkens (Leipzig, 1933), p. 377f.: 'Wer selbst las, tat es laut, so wie man auch laut schrieb. Leises lesen und Schreiben wird erwahnt, blieb aber Ausnahme'. The identical words appear in the eighth 'verbesserte und erganzte Auflage', ed. Paul Kroh (Stuttgart, 1976), p. 420.Google Scholar

4 Eisenhut, W., Einfiihrung in die antike Rhetorik und ihre Geschichte (Darmstadt, 1976), p. 93.Google Scholar

5 'Uber das Lesen im Altertum', in G. Rohde, Studien und Interpretationen zur antiken Literatur, Religion und Geschichte (Berlin, 1963), p. 294: 'Der antike Mensch hat bis in die spatesten Zeiten des Altertums laut gelesen, auch wenn er allein las'.Google Scholar

6 Kazhdan, A. R., Kniga ipisatel v Vizantii (Book and Writer in Byzantium) (Moscow, 1973), p. 136; S. S. Averintsev, Poetika rannevizantiskoi literatury (The Poetics of Early Byzantine Literature) (Moscow, 1977), p. 183f. The idea is frequently used in the translators' annotations to the Russian versions (various dates) of Heliodorus, Augustine, Ovid, etc.Google Scholar

7 'Voces paginarum': Beitrage zur Geschichte des Lauten Lesens und Schreibens', Philologus 82 (1927), 84–109,202–40.Google Scholar

8 Die antike Kunstprosa (Leipzig/Berlin, 1923 [1st edn 1898]), Bd. 1, p. 6 ('Eine vielleicht * wenigen bekannte Tatsache ist es, daB man im Altertum laut zu lesen pflegte'), referring to Augustine, Conf. VI3 (to be discussed below); Nachtrage (Bd. 1), pp. 1–3; cf. Bd. 2 p. 956

9 The view of Fr. Nietzsche (Jenseits von Gut und Bose [1886] section 247) could subsequently have influenced many people.

10 Lucian von Samosata, Sammtliche fVerke, aus dem Griechischen ubersetzt und mit Anmerkungen und Erlauterungen versehen von Christoph Martin Wieland (Leipzig, 1788–9; photoreprod. Darmstadt, 1971), Sechster Teil, p. 35 n. 3; italics mine. I consider the factual meaning of the Lucian passage he is commenting on at p. 60 below.

11 Havelock, E. A., The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences (Princeton, 1982). Cp. the review (negative) by A. Lami in Rivista di Filologiae d′Istruzione classica 112 (1984), 438–440. Note that for Havelock the oral period finished with the beginning of Hellenism.Google Scholar

12 Knox, B. M. W., ‘Silent Reading in Antiquity’, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 9 (1968), 421–135.Google Scholar

13 E.g. Nagy, Gregory, Pindar's Homer The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore, 1990), pp. 171–74, 217 n. 16. As to the ideas of Jesper Svenbro, Phrasikleia: Anthropologie de la lecture en Grece ancienne (Paris, 1988), see the review by W Rosier, Gnomon 64 (1992), 1–3. In my view our thinking is so different that any similarities in our results are coincidental and of no significance either way.Google Scholar

14 Rosier, W., ‘Die Entdeckung der Fiktionalitat’, Poetica 12 (1980), 316 n. 92. The author finds (sensibly, in my view) that 'Die Vorstellung eines stundenlangen, sich gar fiber den ganzen Tag erstreckenden lauten Lesens mutet nahezu absurd an'.Google Scholar

15 Gray, W. S., The Teaching of Reading: An International View (Cambridge, MA, 1957).Google Scholar

16 Ibid., p. 13.

17 For consultation on the psychophysiological aspects of reading I am grateful to several specialists and especially to the late Prof. Nathalie N. Traugott, who introduced me to her workshop on the pathology of reading. While she is not responsible for my conclusions, I gladly acknowledge that they ripened in discussion with her.

18 Yegorov, T. G., Ocherki psichologii obucheniya detyei chteniyu (Outlines of the Psychology of Teaching Children to Read) (Moscow, 1953), p. 2. (An ancient parallel to this observation may perhaps be found in the pathetic story told by Aulus Gellius XIII 31 about a boaster who, under challenge, could not read aloud properly a text whose meaning he was unable to grasp.) I have also taken into account a work devoted to the specifics of reading to oneself: G. L. Anderson, La lecture silencieuse (These, University of Geneva, Neuchatel, 1929), esp. pp. 12 and 35.Google Scholar

19 Gibson, Eleanor J. and Levin, Harry, The Psychology of Reading (Cambridge, MA, 1975), ch. 10.Google Scholar

20 Jorgenson, A. N., Iowa Silent Reading Examinations (University of Iowa Studies in Education, 1927), vol. IV, n. 3.Google Scholar

21 Travis, Lee Edward (ed.), Handbook of Speech Pathology (New York, 1957).Google Scholar

22 Levina, R. E., Nedostatki chteniya i pis'ma u detyey (Defects in Reading and Writing among Children) (Moscow, 1940), p. 57ff.Google Scholar

23 Information from N. N. Traugott.

24 Schwartz, L. M., Psichologia navika chteniya (The Psychology of Reading Habits) (Moscow, 1941), pp. 8490.Google Scholar

25 Ibid., pp. 65–79.

26 Balogh is aware of this (op. cit., p. 108) when he claims that it was in monastic scriptoria that the discovery was first made that reading aloud hinders rather than helps understanding.

27 For a specialist monograph, see Harry Levin with Ann Buckler Addis, The Eye–Voice Span (Cambridge, MA, 1979).

28 This would apply even when the written text was being used as a mnemonic device to assist learning by heart; cf. the remarks about scriptio continua in Thomas, op. cit., pp. 92–3. W. Raible has written an interesting work on the different grades of readability (Lesbarkeit) of different ancient texts: 'Zur Entwicklung von Alphabetschrift–Systemen. Is fecit cui prodest', Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Phil.–Hist. Klasse 1991, pp. 5–42. In my opinion, scriptio continua would be bound to affect the speed and accuracy of ancient reading to some degree, but (pace Raible) that quantitative effect should not impair anyone's ability to practise both of the two kinds of reading discussed in this paper; the correlation between them must have been much the same as it is today. (Lemuel Gulliver read Brobdingnag books with the aid of a ladder: this affected the commodity and speed of his reading, but not, apparently, his previous reading techniques.)

29 Sokolov, A. N., Inner Speech and Thought (New York, 1972 [original Russian edn 1968]), pp. 211, 263; Gibson & Levin, op. cit., pp. 340ff, 389f.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

30 In his brief discussion Rosier, op. cit. (n. 14 above), p. 316, looked at this vital evaluative element.

31 The key role played by this text can be illustrated by the following chain of references. At line 53 of Aristophanes' Frogs Dionysus speaks of reading Euripides' Andromeda to himself (jrpos eyMtirov). Commenting on this, L. Radermacher, Aristophanes 'Frosche, Einleitung, Text und Kommentar, Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Phil.–Hist. Klasse, Bd. 198, Abhandlung 4 (Vienna, 1921), p. 150, says that this reading to himself was nevertheless done aloud–and refers to a footnote about reading in Siegfried Sudhaus, 'Lautes und leises Beten', Archiv fiir Religionswissenschaft 9 (1906), 190–1. That note in turn begins with a reference to Norden's reference (n. 6 above) to Augustine Conf. VI 3

32 It is perhaps worth remarking on the absence of any textual difficulties relevant to our concerns; the text is sound.

33 Here I reproduce the traditional considerations, clearly formulated in a letter to the author from S. I. Muravyev (1983).

34 Augustine himself eventually pronounced pride the cardinal sin of mankind. Cf. Green, William M., ‘Initium omnis peccati superbia. Augustine on pride as the first sin’, University of California Publications in Classical Philology 13 (1949), 406431.Google Scholar

35 Rom. 13, 13–14.Google Scholar

36 Rom. 14,1.Google Scholar

37 The forward–looking sic which precedes the second occurrence of indicare makes it especially clear that few words were involved in the communication.

38 Recherches sur les Confessions de Saint Augustin (Paris, 19682), p. 197.Google Scholar

39 Balogh, op. cit., pp. 88–9, seeing the necessity of linking the two passages VI 3 and VIII 12 (if the first of them describes something exceptional), finds a way out: what happens in the garden is a break with tradition, in the sense that there is an interiorization both of religion and of reading!

40 Sancti Augustini Confessionum libri tredecim, hrsg. und erlautert von Karl von Raumer (Giitersloh, 1876), p. 126

41 Traduction nouvelle sur Vedition latine des Peres Benedictins de la Congregation de S. Maur. Avec des Notes. (Paris, 16964).

42 Augustini Confessiones. Bekenntnisse. Lateinisch und deutsch. Eingeleitet, iibersetzt und erlautert von J. Bernhart (Munich, 1980 [1st edn 1955]), p. 870. Cf., more recently,Donnell, James J., Augustine Confessions, Introduction, Text and Commentary (Oxford, 1992), vol. 11, p. 345.Google Scholar

43 Cf. Courcelle, Les Confessions de Saint Augustin dans la tradition litteraire: Antecedents et Posterite (Paris, 1963), p. 572, n. 2: 'On s'explique mal qu'apres avoir attribue une influence decisive a la rencontre d′Ambrose dans les deux derniers chapitres du livre V, Augustin reconnaisse, Conf. VI 3. 3, qu'il n'a pu obtenir de lui un seul entretien intime'.

44 Here and below, passages from the dramatic poets are quoted in a prose translation which sticks closely to the text.

45 A corresponding stage direction is to be found in the Russian translation by I. F. Annensky under the editorship of the St Petersburg scholar Th. Zielinsky, Teatr Evripida (Moscow, 1917), vol. 11, p. 413; variants of it in other translations. Ulrich von Wilamowitz–Moellendorff, Euripides: Hippolytos, Griechish und Deutsch (Berlin, 1891), had the same idea when he prefixed to line 874 the stage direction 'herunterkommend', it being evident from his stage direction after line 851 that Phaedra's bier is elevated on high.Google Scholar

46 Ernst Bodensteiner, 'Szenische Fragen uber den Ort des Auftretens und Abgehens von Schauspielern und Chor im griechischen Drama', Jahrbucher fur classische Philologie ^upplementband 19 (Leipzig, 1893), p. 637ff. The appendix to this dissertation (pp. 725–808) gives a convenient overview of all the entrances and exits in the extant Attic plays of the fifth oentury B.C.

47 Doubts about the genuineness of this remark by the Chorus, which are based on the Scholium ev naiv oi, i.e. 'in some copies these lines are missing', are not convincing. Ancient critics could have been led to think of athetizing precisely by the idea that the lines are feeble. Not every line in a tragedy is fated to be unforgettable, especially in the mouth of the Chorus (cp. in the Hippolytus itself 364ff. and 568). It is not surprising, then, that some editors remove the remark (Wilamowitz, Barrett) whereas others keep it in (Nauck, Murray, Zielinsky). Finally, even if the lines do not belong to Euripides, they must in any case go back to a man of the theatre in times not far removed from Euripides.

48 This line too is removed by Wilamowitz, followed by Barrett, who asserts that it is a mere doublet of 846 and refuses to believe that oi38e XSKTOV could be followed by Ae'fcu. Yet what is so odd if the Chorus contrive an excuse ('provided it is for me to hear') for asking Theseus to recount something which, filled though it is with unspeakable suffering, both can and must be said? Zielinsky, op. cit., p. 511, is right to defend the line.

49 Cf. KepxlSos vp, vovs in Soph. frag. 890 Radt.Google Scholar

50 Assuming, of course, that we agree not to understand 30a and fieXosas meaning that, when Theseus read the letter, he himself shrieked and sang.

51 The link was made by Henri Weil, Sept Tragedies d′Ewipide (Paris, 18792), in a note on 77763.

52 The author is grateful to A. J. Zaitsev for his interest in this study, which is indebted to some features of his interdisciplinary methodology. The paper has benefited from discussions with audiences in Moscow, Budapest, Heidelberg, and Konstanz, as well as from suggestions and criticism by the translator and the scrupulous refereeing of Rosalind Thomas. An earlier version was published in Vspomogatelniye istoricheskiye distsiplini (Auxiliary Historical Disciplines) XX (Leningrad, 1989), pp. 239–251. For this journal it has been considerably revised by the author and translated from the Russian by M. F. Burnyeat. The translator is indebted to Irina Levinskaya and Ruth Padel for assistance and advice.Google Scholar

53 A Russian version of the same lists, with rather more extensive exegetical remarks, can be found in the new St Petersburg classical journal Hyperboreus 2 (1995).

54 This passage was brought into the discussion by R. Beaton, Times Literary Supplement (24 May 1991), 15

55 Cited recently by Slusser, M., ‘Reading Silently in Antiquity’, Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992),499.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

56 De ratione libros cum profectu legendi libellus deque vitanda noxia lectione. Oratio Francisci Sacchini e societate Jesu. Ed. nova, s. 1., 1615. Chapter 14, pp. 106–112: Silentione an voce legendum. The merit of noticing this interesting source belongs to Erich Schon, Der Verlust der Sinnlichkeit oder die Verwandlungen des Lesers (Stuttgart, 1987), pp. 99ff., who introduced to scholarship the genre of Lesepropedeutiken. This acknowledgement does not imply, however, that I am convinced by Schon's thinking about the sense of the passage cited or by his way of handling the facts and conceptions we are both interested in.

57 I offer a more extensive treatment of these passages in the first volume of the St Petersburg classical almanac Drevniy Mir i My (The Ancient World and Us).Google Scholar

58 See Das Evangelium nach Marcus, Lukas und Johannes und die Apostelgeschichte. Erlautert aus Talmud und Midrasch von H. L. Strack und P. Billerbeck (Munich, 19562), p. 687. So already G. D. Kypke, Observationes sacrae in Novi Foederis libros (Wratislaviae, 1755), vol. II, p. 427.Google Scholar

Cited by

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Techniques of reading in classical antiquity
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Techniques of reading in classical antiquity
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Techniques of reading in classical antiquity
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *