Lost Roman legal text found

There’s still stuff out there.  This report from University College London tells us that someone (unspecified) has found 17 fragments of parchment in a binding in a manuscript or book (unspecified).  They contain parts of a lost text! 

It’s not at all uncommon to find bits of medieval books used as extra leaves at the ends of early printed books.  They’re parchment, which is tough, while the boards of the binding were added later.  At the end of the middle ages there was a surfeit of handwritten books, often of little value, which went to all sorts of purposes.  Lots of medieval service books, student copies of medieval school texts, and so on.  Ask to see volumes in any collection of early printed books, and you will as often as not find yourself looking at one of these in the end papers.

Many a rare manuscript was sent to the printers to be printed, and afterwards was used for parchment in this way.  Clearly this was one of them; although when it was dismembered is not stated.

The letters on the fragments are a mixture of uncial and semi-uncial, say 400-500 AD.  So the bits are from an ancient codex.  If they were in a binding, how did they get there?  Is it possible — God forbid — that an ancient book made it all the way to the renaissance and was then chopped up for bindings, unrecognised?  Or did it come from some manuscript, itself bound that way during the middle ages?

Here’s a striking fragment.  The title is in red, and starts with an R with a line across it.  Then the word PRESCR…, the start of a Praescriptio of some sort.  The next line contains the end of the heading: AUG. IUL. PRAESENTI — Augustus, to Julius Praesens.  This is clearly the intro to an imperial rescript (=decree).


The text is indeed a legal one.  Simon Corcoran writes:

One complete and five partial headings to imperial constitutions have so far been identified, supplying, in addition to Julius Praesens, the names of three other addressees, and explicitly attesting four emperors: Antoninus (i.e. Caracalla, AD198-217), Gordian III (AD238-244), Philip (AD244-249), and his son Philip junior, who was associated in power with his father.

So the volume contains 3rd century rescripts.  Their conclusion, therefore, is that these are parts of the lost legal code of Gregorianus!  (Bill Thayer has some notes on what was previously known about that, here).

Who would have thought that January 2010 would be marked by the recovery of an ancient text!?

2 thoughts on “Lost Roman legal text found

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *