Sunday, April 7, 2013

"[...] lend me your ears."

Images found in Pompeii (source)

Did literary readings contribute to the fall of the Roman Empire? Absolutely, according to the illustrious French historian Jerome Carcopino. The recitatio, or public recitation, was 'the curse of literature,' Carcopino rails in his revered opus, Daily Life in Ancient Rome, published in 1939 and still a standard work; literary readings were 'a disastrous practice'… a 'monster'… an 'evil influence'… 'a cancer' that ate away at the moral and intellectual fabric of the Empire. This may sound an extreme reaction, at least from someone who never had to sit through a Nuyorican Poetry Slam. But Carcopino is only summarizing the sentiments of Roman authors themselves, who under the early Empire, in the first and second centuries AD, felt crushed by the sheer volume of spoken words. […]
     Public readings were the plague of the Empire. They occurred in every genre, but poetry was the most insidious. Poets regaled crowds in the forums, during the Games, at dinner parties. Noblemen would corner house guests for all-night verse sessions (an invitation to the holiday villa of Pliny the Younger was a mixed blessing; he liked to read his work in sessions that could last for three days). Romans could hear the amateur outpourings in Athens, Ephesus and Alexandria. Traveling on ships, passengers amused themselves by sharing their literary labors, as did guests around the fire after dark at highway inns. […]
     The classic recitatio was an organized event, usually held in an aristocrat’s marble-floored villa, surrounded by fine works of art, Egyptian vases, and gilded ornaments. The poet Persius satirizes the typical Roman reader—a rich, precious dilettante, who would sweep into the auditorium in his finest snow-white toga, with freshly-curled hair and a huge diamond ring on his finger. The artiste would perch himself on a tall stool at the center of the stage, and proceed to recite from his scroll 'in melting tones.' Some prima donnas wore lamb’s-wool neck-scarves to protect their throats. Consumed with false modesty, they delayed the start of their readings until audiences were forced to shout .Read! Read!' (lamented Seneca), when they would really like to see him struck dead on the spot.'"
— Tony Perrottet, Believer
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