Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reading Elitism in Antiquity

In a recent book, William A. Johnson (Readers and Reading Culture in the High Empire: A Study of Elite Communities [Oxford: OUP, 2010]) makes an intriguing proposal that the typical format of high quality texts with no spaces between words or punctuation was intentionally demanding and deliberately elitest. I cannot adjudicate upon that observation/claim, but I did just last night come across an interesting parallel with Suetonius' account of Augustus's writing habits:

"I have likewise remarked this singularity in his hand-writing; he never divides his words, so as to carry the letters which cannot be inserted at the end of a line to the next, but puts them below the other, enclosed by a bracket. He did not adhere strictly to orthography as laid down by the grammarians, but seems to have been of the opinion of those who think, that we ought to write as we speak; for as to his changing and omitting not only letters but whole syllables, it is a vulgar mistake. Nor should I have taken notice of it, but that it appears strange to me, that any person should have told us, that he sent a successor to a consular lieutenant of a province, as an ignorant, illiterate fellow, upon his observing that he had written ixi for ipsi. When he had occasion to write in cypher, he put b for a, c for b, and so forth; and instead of z, aa." (Augustus, 88-89).

I am wondering if Suetonius' account of Augustus's writing style is an example of being "non-elitest" by not dividing words and writing as the same as speaking, or just as peculiar idiosyncrasy that differs from standard orthography of the day?

3 Comments:

Timo Flink said...

Interesting. This raises the question what did the biblical authors (and scribes) do, seeing that there are orthographical issues in the NT manuscript tradition.

I am partial to this, as part of my dissertation was dealing with this. I suggested two things. 1) a move towards Attic spelling, and 2) a counter-move to a later Koine spelling. Depends on the words and scribes.

Anonymous said...

re: "he never divides his words, so as to carry the letters which cannot be inserted at the end of a line to the next, but puts them below the other, enclosed by a bracket"--

Wow, that almost sounds like the completely counter-intuitive habit of the BHS typesetters: words that overflow in longer poetic lines are wrapped *above* and placed in brackets (pity the poor student who comes across Ps 135:6-11 for the first time!).

Clearly, BHS is an elitist text :)

michael

Daniel Buck said...

"Nor should I have taken notice of it, but that it appears strange to me, that any person should have told us, that he sent a successor to a consular lieutenant of a province, as an ignorant, illiterate fellow, upon his observing that he had written ixi for ipsi."

If I can rephrase this in modern English, Suetonius saw it as extremely hypocritical that Augustus reportedly fired one of his governors for displaying his ignorance in misspelling the word ipsi, when he himself typically spelled words according to rules of his own.

I agree that this shows that elitisim ruled the literary world. The Emperor may well have excused himself from following the rules, but could not extend that consideration to a lesser subject.