Wednesday, June 19, 2019


Shane Butler, Sarah Nooter (ed.), Sound and the Ancient Senses. The senses in antiquity. London; New York: Routledge, 2018. Pp. x, 290. ISBN 9781138481664. $32.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Kim Haines-Eitzen, Cornell University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The sixth and final volume in The Senses in Antiquity series, this book is organized in three sections: ancient soundscapes; theories of sound; and philology and sound. The editors begin by introducing the spectrum of the lexicon of ancient sound from the pleasurable to the cacophonous. With just one exception, the essays in the volume are literary, philosophical, and/or philological in their approach.

The first section seeks to amplify ancient soundscapes in a variety of contexts. Timothy Power's essay on the sounds of religion considers literary comments about the sounds of festivals and processions; his detailed analysis of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo and sounds associated with Poseidon allows him to posit the "rattle of driverless chariots" as a "signature soundmark" of Poseidon's grove at Onchestus (p. 22). D'Angour treats ancient Greek music—rhythm, melody, voice and instrument—noting especially the effect of music on ancient listeners. Valerie Hope plumbs mostly Latin sources to recover the sounds of Roman mourning rituals—sounds such as silence, speech, lament, groaning, shouting, and music—arguing that "Roman mourning was noisy" (p. 74). The one exception to the literary focus of the volume appears in this section: the essay by Erika Holter, Susanne Muth, and Sebastian Schwesinger emerges from their interdisciplinary collaborative project, "Analog Storage Media – Auralizations of Archaeological Spaces." Their case study is the Digital Forum Romanum, which uses 3D modelling of the Roman Forum to recover the "auditory experience of participants in public assemblies in the Forum in the Late Republican period" (p. 47). Accompanying the detailed discussion of their acoustic reconstruction is a sample auralization of a selection of Cicero's third oration against Catiline, read in Latin as "heard from the perspective of an audience member standing in the Comitium at a distance of 20 m" (p. 53, n. 29). It is available for download through Routledge's website for the book; I highly recommend that readers take the time to listen to this evocative recording.

The next four essays are organized around the topic of ancient theories of sound. In this section, Stephen Kidd considers whether Aristotle conceived of sound apart from its experience, arguing in the end that "Sound, as Aristotle defines it, includes the act of hearing as an irreducible component" (p. 90). Andrew Barker treats Greek acoustic theories, including simple sounds and complex sounds. In an intriguing essay about the role of sound in ancient Greek healing practices, Colin Webster examines "the acoustic signatures of ancient therapies" (p. 109), finding that "all ancient healing groups subjected sick people to specific sonic regimens" (p. 129). Pamela Zinn investigates the relationship between sonus and vox in Lucretius, for whom, she argues, "sound is the perception arising from the process of hearing" (p. 149).

The third and longest section of the volume—on philology and sound—includes six essays. Joshua Katz explores the relationship between "gods and vowels"; he ranges widely through Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Sanskrit to attend to "the literal sound structure of the divine universe" (p. 153). Silvia Montiglio treats the interpretations of the Homeric Sirens in Apollonius of Rhodes and Jean Dorat, noting how ancient readers wrestled with the tension "between the beauty of sound and profundity of meaning" (p. 179). Sean Gurd's insightful essay finds "auditory philology" by entwining the experimental composer Alvin Lucier's 1960 I Am Sitting in a Room with Sappho's poetry; the essay here is in part derived from his book Dissonance: Auditory Aesthetics in Ancient Greek (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016). Sarah Nooter studies compellingly "the emanation of sounds from the ancient Greek stage," especially "those that came from the actors and chorus, most often when language broke down into nonsense" (p. 198), in the plays of Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Aeschylus; she aims to recover "the elements of the sonic experience of being in an ancient audience" (p. 211). Pauline LeVen "considers the sounds of language as experience and in experience" (p. 212) by focusing on three literary episodes of listening taken from Plato, Longus, and Ovid. The final chapter for this section and the volume, is the essay by Shane Butler, who offers a rich and dynamic reading of especially sonorous passages from Vergil's Aeneid and who invites us "to read as Vergil did: not just soundly, but resoundingly" (p. 255).

The volume will be important to scholars and students of the ancient senses, especially those that have been following this series and those with special interests in the acoustical past. Although one might wish for more attention to the material and archaeological evidence for ancient soundscapes, the cumulative effect of the volume is quite dazzling as it amplifies the sonorous registers of our textual remains and recovers the acoustical residues of ancient experiences of sound.

Authors and Titles

Introduction: Sounding Hearing, Shane Butler and Sarah Nooter
1. The Sound of the Sacred, Timothy Power
2. Hearing Ancient Sounds through Modern Ears, Armand D'Angour
3. Sounding Out Public Space in Late Republican Rome, Erika Holter, Susanne Muth, and Sebastian Schwesinger
4. Vocal Expression in Roman Mourning, Valerie Hope
5. Sound: An Aristotelian Perspective, Stephen Kidd
6. Greek Acoustic Theory: Simple and Complex Sounds, Andrew Barker
7. The Soundscape of Ancient Greek Healing, Colin Webster
8. Lucretius on Sound, Pamela Zinn
9. Gods and Vowels, Joshua T. Katz
10. The Song of the Sirens between Sound and Sense, Silvia Montiglio
11. Auditory Philology, Sean Gurd
12. Sounds of the Stage, Sarah Nooter
13. The Erogenous Ear, Pauline Leven
14. Principles of Sound Reading, Shane Butler

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