Archive for April, 2009

Agapius progresses

I’ve translated three-quarters of Agapius.  Today I completed the first fifty pages of the remaining portion.  Each portion is around 150 pages, so still some way to go here.  I will prepare the next chunk of 50 pages at the weekend and carry on.

Mind you, I got to the end of this chunk with relief!  Agapius is unbelievably verbose.  He talked about one event of biblical history — the reign of Athaliah — FOUR TIMES, saying the same thing in different words again and again.  By the fourth time, I was ready to scream.

I now understand why so many historical works from Byzantine times onwards are published only in a truncated form, omitting the earlier legendary or biblical material that appears endlessly in them all.  Who could face wading through this tripe?

Manuscript news at Evangelical Textual Criticism

The CSNTM team have discovered twenty-three (23!) previously unknown New Testament manuscripts in their trip to Athens.

There’s a post on how obtaining a reader’s pass for the Vatican library can allow you back-door access to the Vatican in general.

There is also a post on what search terms bring readers to the blog; which turns out to be stuff like “devil’s bible”!

Literary references to the taurobolium

There are only four literary texts that mention the Taurobolium.  I’ve already posted translations of the relevant passage from the Peristephanon of Prudentius, and the anonymous carmen adversus paganos.  The other mentions are in Firmicus Maternus and the the Augustan History, under Heliogabalus.  A look in Clauss-Slaby’s database of inscriptions reveals a lot of people and altars that have undergone the rite too.

The Vita Heliogabali 7 online at Lacus Curtius gives this mention.

7. He also adopted the worship of the Great Mother and celebrated the rite of the taurobolium; and he carried off her image and the sacred objects which are kept hidden in a secret place. 2. He would toss his head to and fro among the castrated devotees of the goddess, and he infibulated himself, and did all that the eunuch-priests are wont to do;35 and the image of the goddess which he carried off he placed in the sanctuary of his god.

Another text about the taurobolium

There seem to be a lot of little poems, all very late, often of great interest for sidelights on ancient paganism.  Here’s an extract from another.

The anonymous Carmen adversus paganos (394 AD), vv.57-62.

Quis tibi taurobolus vestem mutare suasit,
Inflatus dives, subito mendicus ut esses?
Obsitus et pannis, modica stipe factus epacta
Sub terram missus, pollutus sangine tauri,
Sordidus, infestus, vestes servare cruentas,
Vivere num speras viginti mundus in annos?


Who got you to put on the Taurbolium garment,
A puffed-up rich man, so that you might become suddenly a beggar?
And covered with rags, a short epact (?) having been made with a small offering,
Placed under the earth, polluted with the blood of a bull,
Dirty, stained, preserving the stained garments,
Do you really hope to live pure for 20 years?

I don’t understand modica epacta, tho.

Waiting for Menander in the Vatican: 400 verses of Greek comedy discovered in a Syriac palimpsest manuscript

Here is a translation of Prof. Harlfinger’s article in German, since very many people cannot read that language:

The Greek comedy writer Menander (342 – 292 BC) is rightly seen as a classic of the world literature. Recently 400 verses of the poet were discovered in the library of the Vatican in a Syrian Palimpsest manuscript.

Six weeks ago in the reading room of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, the undersigned – who was busying himself there in the context of a widespread European project for the investigation of palimpsest Greek – ordered up a Syriac codex for inspection. In the 1965 printed catalogue it is stated that the Syriac had been written in 886, and that it was made by reuse of numerous parchment leaves with lower texts in Palestinian Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, and Armenian. Instead of the accustomed wait of about a half hour, the entire day passed, without the requested manuscript appearing. The following morning it was announced politely that the desired palimpsest volume would not be accessible, because another colleague was concerned with the analysis of the lower Greek text.

A good two weeks later, the Vatican let us know the secret. In a carefully phrased article by Giovanni Ricciardi in the “Osservatore Romano” of the 6th of December, the public learns that four hundred Greek verses of the comedy poet Menander (about 342–292 BC) have come to light in a Syrian Palimpsest code of the end of the 9th century; they belonged to a codex of Menander of the 4th century AD, and that there were further parchment leaves originally written in other languages used, after washing off of the original writing to replace it with Christian sermons in the Syriac language.

Half of the verses come from Menanders play “Dyskolos” (the misanthropist), which was published for the first time in 1958 by Victor Martin from the famous collection of the Bibliophile Martin Bodmer in Geneva, and was probably one of the most important papyrus finds of the 20th century. The other half – that is the exciting surprise – is from an unknown comedy, that is also by Menander, with a girl, a baby – perhaps the fruit of an act of violence – and an old woman as figures. The indicated characters can be recognized for example in the only fragmentary pieces of Menander, “the Heroes”, “the farmer”, “the Perinthian”.

This wonderful discovery is the find of Francesco D’Aiuto, a young professor of Byzantine Studies at the second University of Rome, “Tor Vergata” who was active until recently as a specialist in Greek manuscripts at the Vatican library. Now it is not just the profession who is waiting in hope that he will publish his findings in detail as soon as possible. It needs no gift as a prophet to predict that immediately afterwards a lively debate will take place among philologists, historians of literature and theatre specialists around the textual criticism and the interpretation of the new verses. For Menander is a classic of the world literature. He was “the favorite of a millennium” from the theatre into the school. The Roman stage – a Plautus, a Terence – adapted him, and he was significant for the Christians also. The generally valid and true-to-life subject matter of his pieces, the fine psychological character drawing, that he contributed to the art of linguistic expression, his dramaturgical skill – everything in addition, meant that he could be named in the same breath with Homer. Obviously he did not pass through the historical writing bottleneck into the Middle Ages. So studies in the philology of Menander have concentrated on papyrus finds since the end of the 19th century, above all from the preserving sand of Egypt – and we must not forget a hundred verses in elegant 4th century Majuscule on two parchment leaves (today in St. Petersburg), which the well known Bible researcher Constantine von Tischendorff found in 1844 in the monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai; this location, and the fact that our find was partially also overwritten with Syriac, must be considered in regard of the new Menander in the Vatican.

Syriac over Greek, Christian texts over Attic comedies – this does not represent a clash of cultures, nor monastic intolerance, but rather is primarily a sign of poverty. The parchment material obtained from animal skin (especially goat, sheep) was costly; for a larger volume a small animal herd had to be sacrificed. Thus the palimpsests that by a more or less thorough deletion of the original writing (scriptio inferior) with a sponge or scraper, so that the leaves could be used again (scriptio superior).

Since the sensational palimpsest discoveries at the beginning of the 19th century, such as Cicero’s “De re publica” in the Vatican by Angelo Mai, people have striven to make the lower writing visible through technical means. The chemical tinctures that caused persistent damage were followed by damage-free special photography and ultraviolet lamps in the 20th century. In the very last years, the first good results were obtained with multi-spectral digitalization, and in Europe, a network of cooperation emerged for digital palimpsest research. The signs therefore look good for the reading of the Menander in the Vatican, on whose discovery we congratulate Francesco D’Aiuto and we wait in anticipation for its publication.

F. D’Aiuto has since announced further details on the manuscript discovery: Graeca in codici orientali della Biblioteca Vaticana (con i resti di un manoscritto tardoantico delle commedie di Menandro), in: Tra Oriente e Occidente. Scritture e libri greci fra le regioni orientali di Bisanzio e l’Italia a cura di Lidia Perria, Rom 2003 (= Testi e studi bizantino-neoellenici XIV), S. 227-296 (hier 266-283 mit Tafeln 13-14).


1) This article first appeared in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Internationale Ausgabe, Nr. 301, am Montag, dem 29. Dezember 2003, Feuilleton S. 16. For this publication, the original heading by the author was restored and the concluding sentence added. The author is professor for classic philology at the University of Hamburg. He leads an EU project on palimpsest research (cf.

A palimpsest of Menander in the Vatican

Menander did not reach us.  The New Comedy dramatists works were not part of the Byzantine school curriculum, and, at some time in the Dark Ages, the last manuscript was reused for other purposes.

A post in the CLASSICS-L list tells me that a manuscript was found in the Vatican in 2003, manufactured from reused parchment from a late-antique codex containing works by Menander.  Apparently hundreds of verses of this author can be recovered from the pages. 

A reference is given, with a mention of Wikipedia, which has a link to an article in German about this by D. Harlfinger (which says the Vatican ms. is a *Syriac* manuscript!):

F. D’Aiuto: Graeca in codici orientali della Biblioteca Vaticana (con i resti di un manoscritto tardoantico delle commedie di Menandro), in: Tra Oriente e Occidente. Scritture e libri greci fra le regioni orientali di Bisanzio e l’Italia, a cura di Lidia Perria, Rom 2003 (= Testi e studi bizantino-neoellenici XIV), S. 227-296 (esp. 266-283 and plates 13-14).

But the posters says that this “did not publish entire Greek text, and that in 2006 we were “still waiting” for an edition. ”

Jesus is Horus, yes really

Most of us will recall the vivid scenes in the gospels where Jesus’ father is killed by his brother, chopped up, and Mary has to reassemble the body.  We’ve all cried over the scene where she couldn’t find his willy, so had to fabricate an artificial substitute, in order to conceive Jesus by means of her undead husband.  Haven’t we?

At least, I’m sure it’s in the gospel somewhere.  There are so many people going around telling us about the virgin birth of Horus, and how Jesus was copied from it, that they must know of such a passage.

PhilVaz has compiled an article on some of these ignorant ideas, in which he lists the primary sources for Horus and discusses them, with references.  It’s here. It may come in useful when dealing with people who know nothing about the subject except that they are certain they are right.

Fun with PhD thesis access

Seventy-two years ago a nun submitted a PhD thesis to Boston College in the USA which contains an English translation of the Peristephanon of Prudentius.  The work was never published and is rare.  So I wrote to the college and asked for a copy.

My request was declined.  Apparently it might be in copyright.  Shock! Call the lawyers!  “Do you have permission to see this item, sir?” The librarian demands that I write to this now-deceased nun’s order and ask for permission, before she will make me a copy.  I’ve been chuckling about this all evening.

I mean… I have to ask the Pope (or his representative), before they will send a copy of a 72 year old thesis to a scholar to use for research purposes?  It’s pretty daft, isn’t it.  And if I can find someone with “authority” to allow me to look at this, I shall have to be careful how I ask, in case they wonder if I’m taking the mick. 

Ah, libraries…

Of course it may be that the environment in which the library has to work is more risky than I think.  UK television depicts Americans as people who go around either sueing each other or blowing each other’s heads off on a daily basis.  Obviously it must be true — the TV programmes are mostly made in the USA.    If so, no wonder the library is a bit gun-shy.  No wonder they want to waste my time, and that of the recipient, just in case. 

But I had not realised that gangs of nuns might be so much of a threat to them as that.  Rampaging gangs, equipped with semi-automatics and a hot-line to a law-firm; man, it’s dangerous out there in Boston.

I’ve written back and shifted the onus on them, by asking to whom I should write.  That will cost them something to find out, although not much.  Once this nonsense makes work for them, rather than just me, they may see sense.

Documentary papyri and inscriptions online

Did you know that images of the papyrus of the Gospel of Peter are online?  Well, they are, here.  Monochrome, of course (O ye uncircumcised!), but far better than nothing.  A photographic archive of other documentary papyri in the Cairo museum are here (courtesy of the Andrew Mellon foundation which is funding all sorts of wonderful things).

All this is at the Oxford Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents.  The links section, under “Online Corpora of Papyri and Inscriptions” has a  bunch of links to online access to things.  The list alone is worth looking at, if, like me, you had no idea these existed.

Somewhere there is a link to a database of Latin inscriptions called Clauss Slaby. It is just a fantastic resource and includes most of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum [CIL] and many  others.  Try entering ‘Mithra’ or ‘Mithrae’ in “Search text 1″ and get a mass of dedicatory material. 

I also tried “Attin”, for Attis, and got more material still, at more length.  It’s not just inscriptions, but documentary material as well – letters, for instance.

The inscriptions are expanded, which makes it more useful yet.  Of course you do need to know a bit of Latin to get the most out of this!

Carefully hidden in a mass of irrelevant and annoying pages in German is a site which has a search tool for the big list of people from the Roman empire — the prosopography of the Roman empire — here.   Follow the Stichwortliste: Eingangsseite link.

Of course a lot of the links are to people who haven’t realised that websites are for putting stuff online; pompous institutes that just list their Dead-Tree Press publications, as if in some kind of dull brochure.  But a very encouraging number of the sites have content!

The CSAD site is for more than just inscription-sniffers.  It is of wide use to those of us wandering around trying to find out about Attis, or Mithras, or whoever.  These people are doing some really valuable work.  Recommended.

Poem to a senator who has converted from Christianity to the servitude of idols

There are quite a lot of scattered late Latin poems around, often attached to the works of Cyprian or Tertullian in manuscripts or early editions.  Some are interesting. This article discusses them, and I have a bunch on my Tertullian site under “spurious”. 

One of these is a poem of 85 lines here, which talks about a certain senator who has apostasised and become a devotee of the Magna Mater, Cybele.

I’ve just discovered that an English translation exists, unpublished:

THE “CARMEN AD QUENDAM SENATOREM”: DATE, MILIEU, AND TRADITION by BEGLEY, RONALD BRUCE Ph.D., The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1984, 303 pages; AAT 8415790

I hope someone will get hold of it from the UMI database so I can take a look at it.  It contains interesting details about Cybele, I believe.