The difficulties of consulting Libanius

A kind correspondent sent me a link to a 1960 article by A. F. Norman on the book trade in ancient Antioch, in the latter part of the 4th century AD.[1]  This was based mainly on statements in the orations of Libanius, then almost untranslated.

In the half-century after that, Dr. Norman made a considerable number of English translations, although much remains to be done.  However all of these are offline and inaccessible.

We all know that one great merit of the Patrologia Graeca series of the Fathers is the parallel Latin translation, which allows us to find our way around the cramped and crabby Greek text.  But nearly all ancient texts in Greek were published first in a modern Latin translation.  So I wondered where this might be met with.

I’m still looking; but a great number of the works of Libanius were printed in Greek, with parallel Latin translation, by Morellus in 1606, in two volumes, which are online: volume 1, and volume 2.

1606 is a very long time ago, of course.  The fonts are crabbed and hard to read, and the long-s makes a profuse appearance.  I also learn from Fabricius’ Life of Libanius, which I found in an ancient elderly translation here, that Morel’s translation is obscure and mistaken in “numberless” places.

Nevertheless, it makes scanning the text of Libanius easier.

  1. [1] A. F. Norman, “The Book Trade in Fourth-Century Antioch”, Journal of Hellenic Studies 80 (1960), 122-126, online at JSTOR here.

Just one Italian: the pyramids of Meroe and Giuseppe Ferlini, their destroyer

Few people are aware of the amazing pyramids of Meroe in the Sudan, about a hundred miles north of Khartoum, and easily accessible by a day-trip from the city.  I have not been there myself, sadly.


Sadly they are all badly damaged these days.  They look as if the tops were blown off with gunpowder; which is, in fact, exactly what happened to them, in 1830, at the hands of a rascally Italian treasure hunter named Giuseppe Ferlini.

The Sudan was conquered by a massive Egyptian army, sent up the Nile in 1820.  Ferlini accompanied this army as a physician, but soon struck out on his own behalf.

In 1838 Ferlini published an account of his adventures in Rome, and thanks to the marvels of the internet, it is online.[1]

I embarked at Cairo on 6 August 1830.  At that time I held the rank of Doctor-Surgeon Major, attached to the first regiment stationed in the valley of Sinnaar, and its dependencies.  I was stationed there for four and a half years, but I only spent ten months in this capital of upper Nubia, i.e. Sinnaar, where the first battalion of my regiment was garrisoned.  On the arrival of Dr Botta, son of the celebrated historian, on 13 May 1832 I went to Kordofan, capital of the western part of Nubia, twelve days from Sinnaar, after crossing the White River, and passing nine days in the deserts.  In 1833 a new corps of doctors and pharmacists was formed under the direction of the Tuscan Dr Landrini.  He sent me to the Fifth Battalion, resident at Khartoum, a city at the extremity of the peninsula of Sinnaar, built by the Turks after the conquest of the country.  It is here that the White River and the Blue River merge to form the Nile, and where resides Crusut Pasha, governor of all the colonies conquered by the Viceroy in the countries that take the name of the Military Sudan.

Since my stays in Greece and Egypt, I had constantly the fixed idea of making some discovery useful to history.  To this effect, I sought to get into the good graces of the governor.  After some months the opportunity arose to ask him for permission to make some excavations in the places where there were ancient monuments.  The pasha was surprised at my request, and did not leave me ignorant of all the perils to which my enterprise would be exposed; he told me that, although he gave me his permission, he would not allow me to work until I promised to pay the workers, and that I ran the risk of losing the fruits of my four years of saving. …

He got slaves together, and joined with an Albanian adventurer calling himself Antoine Stefani.  After some adventures he reaches Meroe.

I left Mr Stefani and went with a hundred men to visit the great pyramids.  A few days later, my friend discovered another habitation as big as the first but there was no luck, just a small terracotta idol.  With this in mind I had demolished the remains of a small pyramid at the foot of the hill.  Coming to the foot of the mountain, I found black stones which seemed to have been carved by man. I sought, with the aid of the pick, to penetrate below the foundations, and found the first step of a stair… I continued to uncover the stair, and reached the ninth and last step.  This led into a small cave, where I only found some bones of camels, horses and some other small skeletons which I took for dogs.  Then I found two types of harness …

During this time, Mr Stefani, who had begun the demolition of another pyramid, in eight hours had only reached the height of the portico; he tried everywhere, this day and for several days after, to find the stair and the caves.  Among the bodies he found one covered by a stone.  We were digging at the side of the head to remove this stone, when a worker, giving a blow with his spade to a round stone, like an ostrich egg, caused a mass of glass objects to come out, of a solid, white and transparent nature. …

And so it goes on, page after page of vandalism and search for saleable items.  He must have been slightly ashamed of his own coarse methods; for he fails to mention gunpowder, at least in any section of the text that I saw.

Of course it is anachronistic to complain, in a way.  Ferlini and his men had no notion of archaeology.  We cannot sensibly complain that they didn’t act as we would have done.  It was, indeed, this useless digging that caused men to devise the science of archaeology.  He had no yardstick for comparison, beyond the volumes of the Description de l’Egypte, which he lacked the resource to duplicate.  The list of objects found, and a few drawings at the end of objects, is no substitute for any kind of proper report.

All the same, one can only curse the man.

  1. [1] G. Ferlini, Relation historique des fouilles opérées dans la Nubie par le Docteur Ferlini : suivie d’un catalogue des objets qu’il a trouvés dans l’une des 47 pyramides aux environs de l’ancienne ville de Méroé , Rome (1838).  Online at the Bavarian State Library here.

Collecting all ancient texts referring to the gift of tongues

Charles A. Sullivan writes to say that his Gift of Tongues Project is up and running:

 It has been a while, but I have the majority of ancient church writings located, digitized, organized, and analyzed for the Gift of Tongues Project. Of course, there is always more to do, but a sound framework is in place. Here is the actual source texts along with some other apparatus.

This is a new website, and a useful resource.  While the Charismatic movement of the 1980s has faded rather, the basic idea – just what do the early Christians say about the gift of tongues – is a subject that will appeal to many.

Well done.

A previously unknown governor of Judaea

Via Haaretz (beware incredible amounts of popups, popunders and other junk), an excellent article gives us the following information:

Divers find unexpected Roman inscription from the eve of Bar-Kochba Revolt – A statue base from 1,900 years ago found at Dor survived shellfish and seawater, and to the archaeologists’ shock, revealed a previously unknown governor of Judea.

An underwater survey conducted by divers off Tel Dor, on the Mediterranean Sea, yielded an astonishing find: a rare Roman inscription mentioning the province of Judea – and the name of a previously unknown Roman governor, who ruled the province shortly before the Bar-Kochba Revolt.

Historians had thought that based on Roman records, the leaders Rome imposed on its provinces were all known.

The rock with the 1,900-year-old inscription was exposed by a storm on the seabed at a depth of just 1.5 meters in the bay of Dor. The town had been a thriving port in Roman times that even minted its own coins, which proudly proclaimed the city to be “Ruler of the Seas”.


Found by Haifa University archaeologists surveying the remains of the ancient Roman harbor at Dor in January 2016, the rock, 70 by 65 centimeters in size, was partly covered in sea creatures when it was found.

The statue base found on the seabed at Dor is only the second known mention of the province of Judea in Roman inscription. The other is the “Pontius Pilate stone” dating to around 100 years earlier. Discovered by archaeologists in 1961 at the ancient theater in Caesarea, it is a rare piece of solid evidence mentioning Pilate, prefect of Judea, by name.

The newly found inscription, carved on the stone in Greek, is missing a part, but is thought to have originally read: “The City of Dor honors Marcus Paccius, son of Publius, Silvanus Quintus Coredius Gallus Gargilius Antiquus, governor of the province of Judea, as well as […] of the province of Syria, and patron of the city of Dor.”

The name Gargilius Antiquus had been known from another inscription previously found in Dor – as the governor of a province whose name was missing from that inscription. So far, reconstructions have suggested either Syria or Syria-Palaestina as the province he was governing. Dr. Gil Gambash, head of the Recanati Institute for Maritime Studies, and Yasur-Landau were excited to read on the new inscription that Gargilius Antiquus was in fact the governor of Judea, shortly before the Bar Kochba Revolt.

The inscription outing Gargilius Antiquus was apparently the base of a statue, going by the tell-tale marks of small feet incretions on its top.

The putative statue has not been found, but it could plausibly have been of Gargilius Antiquus himself, who was not only the province’s governor but also a patron of Dor, as the inscription states.

During Israel’s War of Independence, in 1948, another statue base fragment was found at the east gate of the ancient city of Dor, with writing that reads: “Honored Marcus Paccius, son of Publius…Silvanus Quintus Coredius Gallus Gargilius Antiquus, imperial governor with Praetorian rank of the province Syria Palaestina”.

Clearly the Roman emperor, in this case Hadrian, had appointed Gargilius Antiquus as governor of the province of Judea, somewhere between 120 – 130 C.E. (perhaps around 123 C.E., succeeding Cosonius Gallus). …

(I was going to look up the other inscription, and compile the data; but I see that David E. Graves has already done this, with photographs and references, in his fine article here.)

This sort of discovery should be a constant reminder to us of a basic principle of archaeology.  Absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence.  We must never use lack of archaeological evidence as a reason to ignore literary evidence.  Only positive archaeological evidence may be used to confute an ancient mistake.

Our knowledge of the sequence of ancient officials is not comprehensive, however impressive it may look in a nice printed modern edition.

Many of these lists are compiled by guesswork.  We know how long a normal appointment would be; we have a number of people which seems about the right number in the right order; and there is suddenly “no room” for another one.

But in reality people are people.  Governors are called home unexpectedly for personal or political reasons, and a stand-in holds their post for an irregular period of time until another can be sent out.

It is a terrible anachronism to imagine the Roman empire as being like a modern state.  It was not.  Communications and travel were slow and difficult, as it was in Europe until comparatively recently.  Administration was loose.  Law could be, and was, enforced capriciously.  We can never say with confidence that such-and-such could never happen; only that with our limited knowledge, we do not think it accords with what we already know.

At this Christmas season, many of us will think of Luke 2:1-2:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.  (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)

How much ink has been spilt, to show that Luke – and hence the bible! – is wrong at this point; or, alternatively, that it is not.  The choice made, in this as other political or religious matters, depends in both cases all too often on the prejudices of those writing.

This stone, hoisted out of the sea, is a reminder that we know much, much less than we think we do.  Only one stone records Pontius Pilate’s governorship.  Only one stone records Gargilius Antiquus’ tenure.

Nothing is gained by pretending knowledge that we do not have; or arguing from what we do not know.  Five minutes in a time machine would undoubtedly shatter our preconceptions of the ancient world in a million ways.

When the data is contradictory, we may decide to discard bits of it, especially when it fits our modern eyes.  But this we must avoid.  Contradictory data from antiquity always, always means that we have a little window into a situation which is more complex than the sources that have reached us reveal.  Let us hold lightly to our theories.

English translation of Coptic apocrypha, “The Investiture of the Archangel Michael” – by Anthony Alcock

Anthony Alcock has translated another Coptic apocryphon for us – the Investiture of Michael the Archangel.  It purports to be written by John the Evangelist, and narrates non-canonical discussion between Jesus and his disciples.    The complete text is preserved in a 9th century Sahidic codex, and fragments from a White Monastery parchment manuscript of the 9-12th century.[1]

The translation is here:

Thank you so much, Dr A.

  1. [1] These notes via here, H. Lundhaug &c, The monastic origins of the Nag Hammadi codices, 2015, p.156-7.

Publishing in the ancient world

A correspondent has written to me, asking an interesting question:

Let’s suppose I’m living down the street from Philo in Alexandria and I’ve just written my book.  How do I get published?  I.e., I’ve written for other people to read so I want other people to get hold of my book–by having a scribe copy it or whatever.

Do I go to the Library of Alexandria and give them a copy and then tell all my friends about it.  Does the library of Alexandria keep a catalogue of some kind?  Do I give a copy to a bookseller in Alexandria?  Are there booksellers in Alexandria at this time?

The question of course has to do with this:  We know that the Alexandrian Christians were the ones who esteemed and preserved Philo’s works.  How would they have found out about them?  We know that there was the Museon that functioned like a university.  Would the normal thing be for me to give lectures from my work at the Museon?  We surmise that Philo gave talks on the Sabbath concerning the Law at the Jewish religious schools.  Would word have gone out from there after he said, ‘O by the way, I’ve just finished my work on the Therapeutae?’

We have quite a bit of information about the Roman book trade in this period, thanks to statements in Cicero in the 1st century BC, in his letters; and also to Martial in his Epigrams.  But first a few ways in which books differed from today.

The first point to make is that an author did not make money from copies of his works.  There was no copyright.  An author made money by becoming famous, and attracting a patron who would give him money.  Consequently authors gave public readings of their works, with this in mind.  The readings could sometimes be grim affairs, if the accounts in the letters of Pliny the Younger are to be believed.  One bore, droning away, “You bid me, Priscus, …” had the misfortune to have a man named Priscus in the audience, who, bored, promptly remarked “Indeed I don’t!”  But if you had a patron, he might hire men to come along; and the number of people at your reading, and their status, tended to boost your reputation.  A poet with a high reputation could expect gifts.  The poet Martial flatters the emperor Domitian to an incredible extent; but how else could he live?  Martial, accosted by a stranger in the forum, and asked “Why do you have a bad cloak?”, replied, “Because I am a bad poet.”  He meant, of course, that he wasn’t a good enough poet to have the money to buy a better one.

Once you had a reputation, people might want your works.  They might want to read them – or rather, have them read – during dinner parties.  Martial is careful to direct his readers to the location of the shop in Rome where his books may be purchased; for then the bookseller might tell other customers about Martial, thereby increasing his value; customers who might be men of influence.  Galen tells us of scholarly customers sitting in the bookshop, examining books – a copy of Vergil from the poet’s own family… a copy of Fabius Pictor which was brown with age.  No doubt refreshments were served to the literary gentlemen after novelties or rarities.

In this period, a book was a scroll of papyrus; or, indeed, it might be more than one, if it was a long work.  The modern book form, or codex, does not take off until the 4th century AD.  But notebooks in codex form which consisted of a few sheets of papyrus or parchment folded over, start to appear in the 1st century AD, replacing wax tablets.  These are the ancestor of the modern book format.

Books were not read silently – Augustine records his astonishment at seeing Ambrose of Milan reading silently – but were read aloud, often by a trained slave.  Pliny the Younger, in his account in his Letters of his learned uncle, Pliny the Elder, recounts how the latter had a slave reading to him constantly, and made notes of what he heard.

Cicero’s works were “published” by his friend Atticus, who had teams of slaves who could make copies.  But Cicero was a public man.  He published by allowing copies to be made.  But he complains about the poor quality of the text  in many copies offered for sale in his time.  This seems to have improved into the first century AD.  No doubt the booksellers were sensitive to customer complaints.

In principle any literate man – and many slaves were literate – could produce a copy.  But the professional scriptorium, staffed again by slaves, or by monks in later periods, differed in that there was scope for correction and review.  At Oxyrhynchus, the papyri in the waste dump show that the copies were mostly amateur, and the text quality is low.  But the ancestors of our modern copies belong to the book trade, and feature corrections and commentary sometimes.  Libraries and museums no doubt featured in this process of correction.

We have spoken so far mainly about literary works; speeches, histories, collections of letters and so forth.  For publication of these, the steps are as follows:

  • Acquire reputation, such that people wish to hear what you have said
  • Conduct public readings
  • Get copies made by someone, such as a bookdealer
  • Get a patron, and so get a farm – as Martial did in the end
  • Repeat as necessary

If you belonged to literary circles, you could tell your aristocratic friends that you were going to write a history of the last war, of Sulla, or whatever – always avoiding contemporary events where payback might be rather vicious – and then conduct readings – depending on your friends! – and so on.

A poor man probably had limited hope of getting onto the escalator for literary fame.  Many obscure poets and authors were starving.  Martial mentions many friends who advised him not to bother with poetry, however good he might be, and instead to practice in the lawcourts as a way to earn a living and gain reputation.  Patronage was all.

The obvious exception to this was technical works, books of medicine, surveying, farm management, and so forth.  Even here the aristocrat had the advantage.  The physician Galen was concerned with the circulation of his works, and which were authentic, precisely because his income depended on his reputation, and fake works or bad copies might damage this.  He therefore gives a list On my own works.

But such works had a practical use, and also were often rather lower status than the high literary oration or history.  The transmission of these texts reflects both of these points.  The text is frequently amended in transmission, to add extra detail or omit misleading or outdated information.  Astrological texts undergo enormous modification.

Some works were important in a community.  The Christians formed their own society, and works that were of interest to them naturally circulated among them.  Whether a work could be read in church was therefore important.  We read in Eusebius about a 2nd century bishop, Serapion, who was asked to intervene in the congregation at Rhossus, where some wanted to read a forged “Gospel of Peter”.  His first reaction was to allow it to be read; but on further investigation, he found that it was in fact heretical.  The author in this case sought to promote his views to Christians, rather than make money.  Similarly gnostic and manichaean groups had their own books.  No doubt these were recommended by their clergy.  Obscure men might gain reputation via the congregation.

Once a man had a reputation, once there was a market for his works, then forgeries and fakes might be composed and sold by the booksellers.  This is still true today.  The “Archko Volume”, a fake collection of letters concerning the events of the time of Jesus, composed by a presbyterian pastor in the 19th century, is still sold by unscrupulous bookdealers and aimed at rural Christians, even today.  The pastor was defrocked; but the fake is still with us.  Galen complains of forged works in his name.  Martial complains of people inserting their own work in the middle of copies of his epigrams; and indeed, worse, seditious material put out under his name.  The latter was very dangerous to Martial himself, living as he did under the paranoid Domitian.  Tertullian complains that the second draft of his Adversus Marcionem was stolen by his scribe, who apostasised and circulated copies before Tertullian had had the chance to revise it.  This suggests that there was money in selling copies of Tertullian’s works in Carthage in the early 3rd century.

Stalls selling books in the market in Athens are recorded in the 5th century BC.  I have already mentioned the Roman booksellers, in the Sandalarius behind the forum.  Augustine tells us of bookstalls at the docks in Hippo, in his own times, where sometimes apocryphal gospels might be found offered for sale.  In the 5th century AD, the Apollinarists found that they could circulate their own banned works under the name of Cyprian and other approved authors.

I don’t know whether we have literary testimony about the book trade in Alexandria, but surely the seat of the famed Museon must have had sellers of scrolls?  The library certainly had its pinax, or catalogue of authors and works.  Whether it continued to collect omnivorously in Roman times, as it had when funded by the Ptolemies, I do not know.

Of course any author who has been rejected by a modern publisher will be familiar with the idea that the obscure man has limited chances of publication.  In some ways, this is still true!

Anyone interested in how the ancient book trade worked is advised first to consult Reynolds and Wilson’s Scribes and Scholars, now in its 4th edition (although I have only seen the third; Clarendon Press having declined to send me a review copy).  It is very readable, and everyone with any interest in how books got from their authors to ourselves should read it.

From my diary

My contract has finished, so I am notionally a gentleman of leisure.  In actual fact I am at home, trying to put things back together after the work of the painters and the carpet-layers.  Most of my stuff is still in the garage, including all my books.

As I gradually bring things back in, I am taking the opportunity to have a purge of unnecessary clutter.  I also want to redesign my study room somewhat.  Quite how I lugged 12 bookcases down the stairs I don’t know, mind you; but they all ought to come back.

Something that I have had in my living room for nearly 20 years is a grey four-drawer filing cabinet.  Back in 1997 this was a necessary evil.  The government require me to keep records of my business for six years; and these had to remain somewhere.  I also used it to hold the photocopies of journal articles from my Tertullian days.

But the articles all went to PDF some years ago.  This week my accountant informed me that I don’t have to keep the papers in paper format.  So today 5 years papers hit the bin, and an empty cabinet now stands, awaiting disposal.  It feels good; but it’s just part of what I have to do.

The technical books that I have for my business may also hit the skip.  Do I need a load of computer books?  Really need?  Or could I order them off the web if I needed them in a hurry?  They do take a lot of shelf-space.

Likewise, while I have a bunch of translations of obscure texts, do I really need these?  When did I last consult them?  I wish there was some easy way to convert these to PDF; but if I throw them out, at least I’d get my home back.

I am enjoying the uncluttered feel of a mostly empty house!

An order for a CDROM of the Fathers and Additional Fathers came in at the weekend – inevitably when I was at maximum disruption.  Yesterday I discovered that the Windows 10 upgrade made the CD files take up rather more space on a CDR than they ever used to; which meant that burning the CD was quite a challenge.

It also caused me to look at the CD, and its contents.  I never wanted to sell the CD, so I priced it high to reduce demand.  It is just a copy of the website, plus some image files of pages from books that I scanned, as they were in 2004 before PDF really got going.   But I rather feel that I should produce a “version 2” CD.  The old one is looking a little tired, and out of date.

Rejuvenating my home is hard work, especially if you do it alone, as I do.  When I decided to replace the carpets, I just wanted pretty much the same as I had fitted 20 years ago.  But I soon discovered that this was impossible, by wearily traipsing around carpet showrooms for a couple of weeks.  I found, in fact, that I had to abandon my ideas, and go back to first principles: what sort of general colour tone – warm, cool, etc – did I want, what sort of materials, what type of carpet, and so forth; and then see what was available that matched these requirements.  Things got simpler once I stopped trying to match the old carpet.  The new one is much lighter than the old, which is less than ideal, but it is the best available and ticks the other boxes.

I shall have to do the same for other things, like carpets, lampshades and so forth.  I can’t just dream up what I want, and then go and find it.  Instead I need to draw up a non-specific list of requirements that the new lampshade (etc) must fit, and then see what is available that fits that specification.  To do otherwise is to wear oneself out.

So … busy.  But it had to be done.  The old paintwork was acceptable, but would not be so in another ten or twenty years.  And I certainly hope to live that long!

Bear with me, then, while I labour!

The Obelisk of Antinous in the renaissance

I have been reading about the obelisk of Antinous, which today stands on the Pincian Hill in Rome.  But it was not erected there in antiquity, but in some other location.

In the 16th century, the obelisk was discovered in the ruins of the Circus Varianus.  This monument may be unfamiliar to most people – indeed it was to me!  It stands in North East Rome, next to the ruins of the Sessorian Palace, and the Amphitheatrum Castrense.

Claudia Paterna’s article on the Circus Varianus tells us:[1]

The remains of the circus outside the walls, and the obelisk, knocked down and broken by Totila’s Goths in 547 AD, remained visible until at least the mid-sixteenth century, as evidenced by studies and reconstructive maps, and place names such as “Circus” (and Cierchio and Cerchio) “Vetere” and “the Girolo”, attested in this century and in the next[10]. In 1570, the Saccoccia brothers, owners of the vineyard where the obelisk lay, conceived a project to restore the monument, and set up a plaque that, since the project was never realized, was placed in 1589 on a pylon of the Aqueduct Felice, where it still is.

In the seventeenth century,[11] the remains of the circus and the fragments of the obelisk had been obliterated even in the area outside the walls, but the obelisk was recovered and purchased in 1633 by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who had it transported to the courtyard of the Palazzo Barberini at Quattro Fontane, with the intention to erect it in the palace garden, originally designed by Bernini, then Carlo Fontana. The project was never realized, and the obelisk was donated in 1773 by Cornelia Barberini to Pope Clement XIV, who had it transferred in the courtyard of the Pine Cone in the Vatican, with the intention to have it erected on the base of the column of Antoninus Pius, also moved into the courtyard. …


I’d like to see the source that says that how the obelisk was discovered.  Sadly the referencing is not very useful for this.  But it does refer to 17th century writer F. Nardini, Roma antica, a cura di A. Nibby, Roma, 1818 (1st ed. Roma, 1666), tomo II, p. 18.  This is the Nibby re-edition, online here; for those looking at the 1st edition, it is book IV, chapter 2.

Here is what he says.  I had trouble with the Italian, but the key bits are clear enough.

So also says Donati and adds another authority, that of Lampridius ch. 14 “Inde itum est in hortos, ubi Varius invenitur certamen aurigandi parans”; and he argues that this demonstrates that the circus must be ?, not the gardens elsewhere, near the Porta Maggiore, where a circus has remained almost to our own times. Fulvio agrees, who gives notice of the same circus, and the obelisk, which, broken into two parts lying in the middle, he relates from Ligorio in his Book of Circuses, Amphitheatres and Theatres, showing the remains of much magnificence, and representing the obelisk as very nice and decorated with hieroglyphs. Today, only the site may be seen at the amphitheater Castrense in the narrow part of a little valley outside the city walls, … The obelisk lies broken in the couurtyard of the Palazzo Barberini at Quattro Fontane. Many say that this is the Circus of Aurelian; but this is merely guessing, or maybe, as Donati says, what Elagabalus made was taken over or adorned by Aurelian.

So this seems to clearly identify the find spot of the obelisk with what today is called the Circus Varianus.   I don’t think that Hadrian can have erected it there originally, though.  For a large lump of masonry, these obelisks don’t half move around.

Fulvio is presumably Fulvio Orsini, the illegitimate member of the great Orsini family who, becoming a scholar, is today perhaps better remembered by scholars than his legitimate kinsmen.

But I don’t know where to look for this in whatever works Orsini wrote.

  1. [1] Paterna, Claudia. “Il circo Variano a Roma”. In: Mélanges de l’Ecole française de Rome. Antiquité, tome 108, no. 2. 1996. pp. 817-853.  p.820-1: I resti del circo esterni alle mura e l’obelisco, abbattuto e spezzato dai Goti di Totila nel 547 d.C, rimasero visibili almeno fino alla metà del XVI secolo, come testimoniato da studi e piante ricostruttive e da toponimi quali ‘Circo (ed anche Cierchio e Cerchio) Vetere’ e ‘Lo Girolo’, attestati in questo secolo ed in quello successivo 10. Nel 1570, i fratelli Saccoccia, proprietari della vigna dove giaceva l’obelisco, concepirono il progetto di reinnalzare il monumento e per la memoria di questa impresa fecero iscrivere una lapide che, poiché il progetto non fu realizzato, fu collocata nel 1589 su di un pilone dell’acquedotto Felice, dove è tuttora. Nel XVII secolo 11, i resti del circo ed i frammenti dell’obelisco erano stati obliterati anche nella parte fuori dalle mura, ma l’obelisco fu recuperato ed acquistato nel 1633 dal cardinale Francesco Barberini, che lo fece trasportare nel cortile del Palazzo Barberini alle Quattro Fontane, con l’intenzione di farlo erigere nel giardino del palazzo, inizialmente su progetto del Bernini, poi di Carlo Fontana. Il progetto non fu mai realizzato e l’obelisco fu donato nel 1773 da Cornelia Barberini al pontefice Clemente XIV, che lo fece trasferire nel cortile della Pigna in Vaticano, con l’intenzione di farlo erigere sul basamento della colonna di Antonino Pio, trasferito anche esso nel cortile. Nel 1783, il progetto cambiò a favore dell’erezione sulla torre di Porta Pia, ma neanche questo ebbe seguito.

Hugh Houghton on New Testament catenas

The late antique and medieval commentaries on scripture took the form of chains of quotations from ancient writers, including much lost early Christian commentary.  These are known today as the catena (=chain) commentaries, and their study is a rather specialised one.

Thankfully it is receiving some real attention today.  Hugh Houghton writes to say that a volume of papers edited by himself on the subject is now online. This contains a great number of papers that will interest most of us.

It begins with “An Introduction to Greek New Testament Commentaries with a Preliminary Checklist of New Testament Catena Manuscripts”!  Of course we’re discussing ancient Greek New Testament commentaries here.  This paper alone will be of use to many.

The volume is H.A. Houghton, Commentaries, Catenae and Biblical Tradition: Papers from the Ninth Birmingham Colloquium on the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, in association with the COMPAUL project. Gorgias Press (2016)

Those who remember my volume of Eusebius, Gospel Problems and Solutions, may know that it included Coptic fragments of the work.  Dr H’s volume includes an interesting paper, “An Overview of Research on Bohairic Catena Manuscripts on the Gospels” by Matthias Schulz – something that I would have killed to read back in 2011.

Of deep interest to many will be C. M. Kreinecker’s paper on Rufinus’ translation of Origen’s commentary on Romans.  It’s always interesting to wonder how accurate Rufinus is, considering that he is the only version of much of Origen, and also remembering a load of accusations by Jerome.  The rediscovery of the original Greek of the Commentary on Romans means that this particular work can now be investigated; and this paper examines the Latin biblical text involved.

Fortunately the work is online.  Dr H. writes:

The new Gorgias online repository is now available at

 The book on catenae can be downloaded at:

This is excellent news.  Add it to your library now.

Dr H. also added a note to my post on the lost – and now found! – gospel commentary of Fortunantianus, to advise that he is producing an English translation which will be available with the text in 2017.  But, better yet, the translation will be available online.  Which means, of course, that we can all read it.

It is really a great pleasure to see useful scholarship being made available to the whole world like this.  Well done, everyone involved, and especially Dr Houghton.

Postscript: I also see that Dr H.’s own website has a bunch of his papers which, inevitably, are also of wide interest.  Recommended.

Returning to Antinoupolis by satellite photo

Today I found myself looking at the splendid map of Antinoupolis in the Description de l’Egypte, made by Napoleon’s engineers.  When it was made, in the 1790’s, the Roman city still stood on the high ground – above the level of the Nile flood – to the east of a wretched village named Sheikh Abade.

On a whim I went to Google Maps.  The site is between Minya and Mellawi in middle Egypt.  I rotated the aerial photo as best I could (with ctrl-click+drag), to line it up with Jomard’s plan.  Then I screen grabbed them both.

Looking at Jomard requires the high-resolution scan available at Heidelberg, and you can zoom and zoom.  So this is just a low-res overview:


And here is a screen grab of the site today – for the inhabitants are busily bulldozing the monuments, so it may not be so tomorrow.  Link is here, so you can zoom for yourself!


The surveyors did make some mistakes.  The massive brick wall that surrounded the late antique city is not a rectangle, but tapers toward the top.

But it is amazing to see that the main two streets can clearly be seen, even at this resolution.

In fact I started to mark up a few sites:


In the southern section of the city, to the right, the grid of the streets seems almost visible to me, running north of the street “with Doric columns” marked by Jomard.  The “amphitheatre” must be a theatre, I suppose.

I was looking for the site of the magnificent west gate, labelled a triumphal arch.  On the plan it is thus:


The gate is marked clearly, with two avenues of granite columns before it.  Notice the point B marked on it – this is the place from which the drawing below was made.

Zooming in on the modern image, nothing is to be seen.  The road from the north is plainly the Roman road, however.


It is amusing to note that Jomard marks palm trees in the area; and palm trees are still visible, their hard black shadows plain on the aerial photo.

Hadrian’s monumental stone arch is gone; but the palm trees that once stood nearby remain.

Jomard gives us this impression of what it looked like, looking from Antinoupolis west towards the village and the Nile.


I would surmise that the side facing the village had suffered more losses of stone.

Jomard also gives detailed measurements and drawings of elements of the arch.

In his “explication des planches” in the same volume, he gives the following description of the scene.

This monument is the best preserved in the whole city.  Nothing is missing from the edifice that would make its restoration at all doubtful.  In front of the little Corinthian pilasters, there were granite columns, which are all missing; only the pedestals remain, and these are very ruinous, as may be seen in the engraving.  In front of the triumphal arch, the village of Sheikh Abade may be seen; between the houses and the monument are the columns of granite that still exist (see the explanations of plate 58 and 53).  The date palms, which are very numerous around the building, contribute to render this view one of the most picturesques of the ruins of Antinoe.  here and there some villagers can be seen, attentively watching the French engineers and artists engaged in recording the triumphal arch.

Plate 58 consists of plans and elevations of the arch, and the “explication” of measurements.

The note for plate 53 mentions that the engraver has drawn too small the streets in the village of Sheikh Abade.

I do wish that it was possible to safely visit the site today.  Doubtless an archaeologist with local contacts could do so; a lone tourist might risk abduction.