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Guardians of Language: The Grammarian and Society in Late Antiquity

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What did it mean to be a professional teacher in the prestigious "liberal schools"—the schools of grammar and rhetoric—in late antiquity? How can we account for the abiding prestige of these schools, which remained substantially unchanged in their methods and standing despite the political and religious changes that had taken place around them? The grammarian was a pivotal What did it mean to be a professional teacher in the prestigious "liberal schools"—the schools of grammar and rhetoric—in late antiquity? How can we account for the abiding prestige of these schools, which remained substantially unchanged in their methods and standing despite the political and religious changes that had taken place around them? The grammarian was a pivotal figure in the lives of the educated upper classes of late antiquity. Introducing his students to correct language and to the literature esteemed by long tradition, he began the education that confirmed his students' standing in a narrowly defined elite. His profession thus contributed to the social as well as cultural continuity of the Empire. The grammarian received honor—and criticism; the profession gave the grammarian a firm sense of cultural authority but also placed him in a position of genteel subordination within the elite. Robert A. Kaster provides the first thorough study of the place and function of these important but ambiguous figures. He also gives a detailed prosopography of the grammarians, and of the other "teachers of letters" below the level of rhetoric, from the middle of the third through the middle of the sixth century, which will provide a valuable research tool for other students of late-antique education.


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What did it mean to be a professional teacher in the prestigious "liberal schools"—the schools of grammar and rhetoric—in late antiquity? How can we account for the abiding prestige of these schools, which remained substantially unchanged in their methods and standing despite the political and religious changes that had taken place around them? The grammarian was a pivotal What did it mean to be a professional teacher in the prestigious "liberal schools"—the schools of grammar and rhetoric—in late antiquity? How can we account for the abiding prestige of these schools, which remained substantially unchanged in their methods and standing despite the political and religious changes that had taken place around them? The grammarian was a pivotal figure in the lives of the educated upper classes of late antiquity. Introducing his students to correct language and to the literature esteemed by long tradition, he began the education that confirmed his students' standing in a narrowly defined elite. His profession thus contributed to the social as well as cultural continuity of the Empire. The grammarian received honor—and criticism; the profession gave the grammarian a firm sense of cultural authority but also placed him in a position of genteel subordination within the elite. Robert A. Kaster provides the first thorough study of the place and function of these important but ambiguous figures. He also gives a detailed prosopography of the grammarians, and of the other "teachers of letters" below the level of rhetoric, from the middle of the third through the middle of the sixth century, which will provide a valuable research tool for other students of late-antique education.

30 review for Guardians of Language: The Grammarian and Society in Late Antiquity

  1. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    Kaster’s book provides a thorough historical sketch of the grammaticus: a pivotal figure, about whom we know a good deal, but who has often been overshadowed in modern studies (as he was in antiquity) by his more conspicuous colleague, the rhetorician…. [T]he book … describes the role of the grammarian as a guarantor of social as well as cultural continuity and, more generally, to analyze the notion and practice of a profession in a traditional society. (ix)Throughout, Kaster is careful to diffe Kaster’s book provides a thorough historical sketch of the grammaticus: a pivotal figure, about whom we know a good deal, but who has often been overshadowed in modern studies (as he was in antiquity) by his more conspicuous colleague, the rhetorician…. [T]he book … describes the role of the grammarian as a guarantor of social as well as cultural continuity and, more generally, to analyze the notion and practice of a profession in a traditional society. (ix)Throughout, Kaster is careful to differentiate the context in which grammarians taught from the modern educational scene:that habit of speaking (anachronistically) of ancient universities ought to be avoided, not simply because it obscures the institutional differences and their consequences. Antiquity lacked the institutional buffer that is raised between the lay and professional worlds by the modern university, which serves as the seedbed of the learned professions; and as a result antiquity had not place where a profession could attempt to set its own course and determine its own values. (64) The late-antique grammaticus, or grammarian, was in charge of teaching students to use language in a way that accorded with both polite standards and the fluctuating demands of everyday use. They did so, interestingly, by using literary models (Virgil, for instance), which were taught not as works of art in need of interpretation or analysis, but as models of good grammar. Kaster’s account of grammarians’ pedagogical and social role draws on historical biographies of grammarians, their written correspondence, and marginalia and annotations in the texts from which they taught. The grammarian occupied a distinctly middle-of-the-road place in the social hierarchies of late Roman antiquity, and Kaster notes that “the profession’s authority was fostered from its early history by the grammarian’s development and control of a system of rules based on rational analysis of language,” and that “the profession was yet limited in its autonomy, domesticated, because it remained firmly embedded in a social milieu that valued personal relations and the qualities conventionally associated with good character as highly as the skills and intellectual abilities specific to the profession” (x). “The grammarian,” in short, “was one of antiquity’s great middlemen” (7). It was assumed, Kaster notes, that grammarians’ linguistic teaching would have ethical and moral payoffs—that the orderly language in which they instructed students would also make students good and orderly citizens. Like the soldier and the governor, the grammarian, “[a]s guardian of language and tradition, ... preserved the boundaries between order and chaos” (18). Such teachers offered their students “freedom through discipline,” or “a small spot of coherence in a sea of noise” (19). But while those students might go on to receive a rhetorical education and serve in positions beyond the reach of most grammarians, “As a guardian the grammarian was … a threshold figure, exposed and ambiguous; his position of strength was vulnerable, capable of being chipped away on several sides” (31). In other words, the grammarian’s position was often less stable than those for which he prepared students. One of the key virtues associated with the grammarian, then, was verecundia, which Kaster translates as “modesty” (60):the sense of propriety deriving from a regard for the opinion of other men and an awareness of one’s own position (especially one’s hierarchical position) relative to others in a given context. It is the quality found, for example, … in the sense of shame that restrains a superior from humbling himself before an inferior, or in the awareness of parity that, ideally, checks competition between equals. Verecundia is the virtue of knowing one’s place, the virtue par excellence of the status quo, an abundantly social virtue, regulating the behavior of men [and women] in groups. (61)For grammarians, this was paired with “diligentia, the scrupulousness that in social relations characterizes the dutiful behavior of friends and in intellectual life maintains and depends one’s contact with one’s culture and makes one truly learned” (61). “[T]he centripetal force” of such mores such as verecundia and diligentia, which “urg[ed] conformity to established values and behavior, counteracted “[t]he centrifugal force of learning,” which “tend[ed] toward personal distinction and autonomy” (65). The context summarized above is unpacked in the book’s first two chapters. From there, Kaster looks at how the grammarians’ authority operated in two arenas: first, that of the classroom (chapters 4 and 5); second, the broader social realm (chapter 6). In both arenas, Kaster notes, “the line between respectability and disaster could be thin” (113), both socially and financially. In chapter 3, Kaster adds mediocritas to verecundia and diligentia as one of the grammarian’s key attributes. He was “a social pauper in the world of the elite” (133), depicted by the antique writer Macrobius as “the least of the invited” (134). The section on grammarians’ classroom authority focuses on two case studies: Pompeius and Servius. Kaster writes, “If Pompeius’s free-flowing talk tells us anything, it tells us of values and aspirations, and their cost: the importance placed on the rational mastery of language that is condensed in the grammatical tradition, the desire to set one’s own stamp on the tradition even as one merges with it, and the edgy self-concern that those values and desires evoke” (168). For Pompeius, “the definition of linguistic correctness” constitutes “the heart of the grammarian’s authority.” In examining Servius, Kaster emphasizes the ways that the grammarian’s judgments about natura, or “natural” language, were used to trump both auctoritas—literary authority—and usus—ordinary, current usage (177). Canonical literary writers were authoritative models, but natura let grammarians write off such models’ figural language without labeling it as barbaric or incorrect. Similarly, natura provided an excuse to rail against the entropy of contemporary usus. “Hedged around by the wall of natura, Servius deals from a clearly defined position of strength with the other, unruly forces—auctoritas … and usus … —that have an impact on language” (177). In chapter 6, Kaster notes that the grammarian’s position in the broader social realm was less established, but argues that historians have overstated the control that the imperial government came to exert over grammarians’ professional work in late antiquity. Within the Roman Empire, grammarians were gentlemen charged with inculcating and forwarding elite values, but—as Kaster’s made plain—they were generally stuck as entry-level members of that elite. The book ends with a lengthy prosopography: an annotated list of all known grammarians working in late antiquity, as well as Kaster’s case for why some characters who’ve been labeled as grammarians should in fact not be. Immensely thorough work, though not where my reading was focused. My interest was less in the particulars of Kaster’s methodology as a historian—I don’t read Latin, so a lot of that was lost on me—but the way he contextualizes the work of grammarians. I found chapters 1-3 remarkably helpful for the broad sketch that they offer. The remaining chapters seemed thoroughly researched, but perhaps of more interest to classics scholars or historians. The argument about the degree to which imperial governors controlled grammarians’ curriculum, for instance, seems to be a contribution to a particular historical controversy in which I’m not especially well-versed. That said, the occasional summaries and glosses that Kaster provides throughout were almost always legible and helpful.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Anthony

  3. 5 out of 5

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  9. 5 out of 5

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  10. 5 out of 5

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  12. 4 out of 5

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  14. 4 out of 5

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  15. 5 out of 5

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  16. 5 out of 5

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