Archive Page 2

An imperial civil servant of the time of Justinian, in John the Lydian

While looking at John the Lydian, De magistratibus romanis, for quotations from Suetonius, I happened upon a story.  The manner of its telling is rather like Suetonius also![1]  It also refers to a lost work by Suetonius on famous courtesans.  But let’s have a look at the excerpt.

The earthquake in Syria in the time of Justinian demolished Antioch; and the Persian wars devastated the country, so that no taxes were coming in from these areas.  Now read on!

57. … One John who came from Mazaca … while he was enrolled among the scriniarii of the military magistracy, he craftily, Cappadocian that he was, gained access to the emperor and won his friendship; and, because he had promised to do things beyond belief on behalf of the government, he was promoted into the ranks of the intendants of finance. Then from there, as if on a stepping-stone, he was elevated to the ranks of the so-called illustres; and, though not yet known as to what sort of a man he was by nature, he was suddenly hoisted into the prefectural dignity.

Thereafter the emperor, since he was good and benign, could not by any means bear to entrust the magistracy to wicked magistrates because by this time he had learned and discovered by their deeds that

“Cappadocians are always foul; when, however, they have gotten the belt, they are fouler and for the sake of profit they are foulest.
“But if, then, they lay hold of the grand chariot twice or thrice, clearly then straightway hour by hour they are foulest-on-foulermost.”

Now, after the wicked Cappadocian had assumed public power in such manner as I have just stated, he produced calamities; first of all because he had set up fetters, shackles, stocks, and irons, having set aside within the praetorian court a private, darksome prison for the punishments of those who were under his authority, just like Phalaris, cowardly and to his slaves alone most powerful, both imprisoning there those who were being constrained, exempting no one of whatever station in life from his tortures, and suspending absolutely without investigation those who were merely being calumniated as possessing gold and besides releasing them either destitute or dead.

And, whereas the populace is an attestor of these things, I know because I had been a spectator and was present at the things that were being done; and how, I shall explain.

A certain Antiochus, already an old man by age, was reported to him as being a possessor of a certain amount of gold. For that reason he arrested him and suspended him from both hands with stout ropes until the old man, having denied it, was freed from his bonds as a corpse. I was a spectator of that vile murder, for I knew Antiochus.

62.  Immense wealth, therefore, was amassed by the “most just” prefect, so that it even encouraged him to the point of usurpation, the more vulgar segment of the populace favoring him and assisting his attempts.

Therefore, since he was paying court to it and drawing it to himself, he did not think that he was convincing it that he was a devotee of that faction unless, whenever crossing over to the East, he personally put on also a bright-colored green raiment and became distinctly seen by all.

The sort of things, then, that he did in the case of the Cilicians and all the burdens with which he weighed down the taxes contrary to the emperor’s benignity, is known well by absolutely everyone.

When he had returned to us, however, as he saw oceans of money flowing around him, he hoisted into the first ranks of the state all who had become his friends, even his cooks, in fact, so that none of them, even of his purchased slaves, was left naked without vast wealth and honor desirable by municipal councillors.

As for himself, however, he lived riotously, bathing together with adolescents who were bloomless and not yet masculine-looking because of the smoothness of their body and with licentious harlots, and gratifying his lust both by doing and by submitting, “becoming pallid as a result of both vices,” and quaffing unmixed wine over burnt-offerings so unsparingly that, exhausted to prostration, he would be lifted up in a litter by his naked companions, because he used to pile on the wine to match the victuals.

Since neither the strait which lies below the city, nor the Hellespont in its entirety, was quite enough for his fancy palate, since no scallop, no sturgeon, no variety of fish worth their weight in gold had been left any longer to the open sea, the servants of his luxurious palate turned to the Euxine, no fish being conceded to the sea, no fowl to the mountains or to the woodlands, the Phasis in its entirety not sufficing for his banquets, so that the scallops seemed not to entrust themselves to their natural flight from place to place but to retire into the air, using their shells as if they were wings, in order to dodge the gluttony of the Cappadocians.

64.  Let some such points stand said as regards this fish. As, however, the Cappadocian used to make his way up to the capital, or rather used to be escorted back, girls were seen at his side in troops, their bodily frame draped with sandyces, clearly revealing such parts as they “ought to have concealed from the eyes of males.”

I shall leave the present subject for the moment and try to explain what the sandyx is and what sort of garment the Lydians had in days of old. The Lydians, being rich in gold in days of old because of the abundance of gold such as which the Pactolus, including the Hermus, supplied to them, had the expertise also to produce gold-woven tunics (and Peisander attests this when he said “Lydians gold-robed”), and not only these but also the so-called sandyces (they were tunics invented by them; though of the linen ones  they were the sheerest, yet they used to dye them with the juice of the sandalwood plant; the color of this plant is fleshlike), with which the women of the Lydians, casting a shade over their naked body, seemed to be wearing nothing but air alone and by beauty beyond morality and decency used to entice those who gazed at them.

When Omphale at one time had clothed Heracles with such a tunic when he was disgracefully in love with her, she made him womanish; for this reason, in fact, Heracles was referred to as Sandon, as Apuleius the Roman philosopher in his work titled Eroticus and before him Tranquillus, too, in his work On Famous Courtesans have mentioned. Hence it is, I suppose, that still even to this day sandones are spoken of disparagingly, which, from the construction of sheets, the common folk believe are called sandones, “sheets,” as it were.

65.  One had to say such things by way of digression, as it were, but I now return to the Cappadocian. Harlots were wont to entice him, as he was being embraced by other naked-appearing harlots, with lascivious kisses which forthwith impelled him to sexual intercourse; and, after he had been worn out, he used to taste of both the delicacies and drinks offered him by other catamites. So many and so frothy were they as to cause him to vomit when his mouth no longer could contain them but, in the manner of a torrent, belched out what he had eaten and imposed no small danger on his flatterers, who, because of the glaze of the tessellated pavements, used to slip away.

In this manner he continued to rot away, joining the days to the nights, so that, while the morning star marked the end of his dining, the evening star marked the beginning of his business. In order, however, that interference with his pleasures might not happen to occur, he renounced on each occasion the Temple of Justice (it is called Secretum in the courts of justice), undertaking to make his appearance in it only when, turning mad because of the immoderation of his food, he had picked out the most distinguished men of the civil order for punishments. He had judges appointed at “the Emperor’s Stoa,” so that, while they were listening to the lawsuits that pertained to money, he might remain awake at night in such manner as I have just recounted.

John then goes on to record how even the court recorders – himself among them – could not make a living as the system was disrupted in order to save money.  The final fate of “The Cappadocian” is not recorded before the text breaks off in the sole, damaged manuscript.

Was the Cappadocian really a pervert?  Or was this, by now, stock rhetoric?

  1. [1] Ioannes Lydus, On Powers; or; the magistracies of the Roman state, 1983, tr. Anastasius Bandy, book 3, esp. ch. 64.

Rome, Quirinal hill: access to the temple of Serapis / Sol Invictus?

Regular readers will be aware of my interest in monuments of ancient Rome which were visible, and drawn, during the renaissance, but have since vanished.  Among these was a colossal temple on the Quirinal hill, often thought to be Aurelian’s temple of Sol Invictus, but today mainly thought to be a temple of Serapis.  Much of this is now vanished; but some remains, I believe, are still to be seen.  In particular there are said to be blocks from the temple in the “Colonna gardens”.

Today I came across an interesting page at, here, which described how to visit the Colonna palace in Rome.

The historic Palazzo Colonna near the central piazza Venezia, a noble palace still belonging to one of the most important families in the history of Rome, shields a rare princely collection of invaluable art still in its original location.

Entrance to Galleria Colonna, via della Pilotta 17, Rome. The present entrance to the gallery is located in via della Pilotta passing behind the basilica dei Santi Apostoli, which corresponded to part of the ancient via Biberatica. Via

Entrance to Galleria Colonna, via della Pilotta 17, Rome. The present entrance to the gallery is located in via della Pilotta passing behind the basilica dei Santi Apostoli, which corresponded to part of the ancient via Biberatica. Via

Since the Middle Ages and over the centuries, various buildings belonging to the Colonna family developed in the area on the slopes of the Quirinal Hill, until an ambitious architectural project in the 17th century brought to the building of an imposing palace composed of several structures, designed by renowned architects …

Circle of Maarten van Heemskerck, The Colonna "loggia" at the Quirinal, 1534 - 1536, drawing, Düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum, Kupferstich- Kabinett. The Colonna residence grew from previous remains, which included the ancient ruins identifiable with a Roman temple dedicated to the Sun or Serapis on the slopes of the Quirinal Hill.

Circle of Maarten van Heemskerck, The Colonna “loggia” at the Quirinal, 1534 – 1536, drawing, Düsseldorf, Kunstmuseum, Kupferstich- Kabinett. The Colonna residence grew from previous remains, which included the ancient ruins identifiable with a Roman temple dedicated to the Sun or Serapis on the slopes of the Quirinal Hill.

The last time that I was in Rome, on a very hot August day, I walked around the Quirinal Hill, looking for some way into the Colonna Palace, or the gardens.  I was out of luck.  But the page indicates that access is possible to the “Galleria Colonna” by request, or … much better …every Saturday from 9:00-13:15.  There is also a website here.

Whether you can get into the gardens I don’t know, but a tour would surely be worth taking.  There ought to be drawings and paintings of the palace itself, perhaps with pictures of the vanished temple remains?

The use of Coptic by modern Egyptians – Anthony Alcock translates

I’ve been sent the attached PDF, which is a curiosity of great interest.  It is translated from a modern book, written entirely in modern Coptic, which Dr Alcock found on the web.

I think many of us would like to know more about how the last version of the Ancient Egyptian language is enjoying a revival in Egypt today!

(I apologise for my silence here recently.  I have been suffering from a dose of food poisoning for nearly two weeks now.  Your prayers would be appreciated.)

The lost opening of Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars”, in John the Lydian

The biography and actions of the first twelve Caesars, from Julius to Domitian, were immortalised by a civil servant of the age of Hadrian.  Suetonius Tranquillus in his De vita Caesarum, On the lives of the Caesars, perhaps best known in English by the title of the Penguin edition, The Twelve Caesars, created a gossipy, colourful portrait that will prevail in the minds of men so long as his work is read.

But the work has not reached us in a complete form.  The preface is gone, and the opening sections of the life of Julius Caesar are likewise lost.  It seems that a single gathering of leaves, a quaternion, was lost from the ancestor of all known copies.  No manuscript known today, or known for centuries, contains this material.

In the sixth century, however, the Greek antiquarian John the Lydian was more fortunate.  Rummaging around the remains of Roman literature, and recording – in Greek – whatever he found worth remembering, he came across a copy of Suetonius’s classic work.

The copy that John the Lydian had included the prologue.  This included a dedication of the work to Septicius Clarus.

We know this, because of a few words in his work, De magistratibus populi Romani.  So I learn, from L.D.Reynolds marvellous work on the transmission of the Latin classics, Texts and Transmissions (p.399).

Unfortunately Reynolds leaves vague where John the Lydian says this, giving a reference to the old 1858 edition of Suetonius by Roth, p.x-xi.  Roth does not trouble to tell us in these words precisely where he found this information: but on p.286 we find this excerpt:


In accordance with the infuriating referencing practice of his age, Roth vaguely refers to the “Bonn” edition.  Fortunately this also is online – the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae 29, 1837, – and so it can be referenced, although – curiously – the Bonn edition actually reads somewhat differently at a critical point!  It gives “Septimio” instead of “Septicio”.  But the low quality of the CSHB text is notorious.

If instead we consult the 1903 Teubner edition of Lydus, by R. Wunsch,[1] on p.61, we find the passage given as above.  Indeed Roth advises us that the Septimio/Septicio variant arises merely from an editor’s error in misreading a manuscript.[2]

The passage may be found in De Magistratibus, book II, chapter 6.  There is an English translation by Anastasius Bandy, which sadly I have no access to.  So let me just give the relevant words:

So Tranquillus dedicated the lives of the Caesars to Septicius, who then was prefect of the Praetorian cohort…

This “Septicius” can only be Septicius Clarus, whom Roth tells us held that post from 119-121 AD.  This dates the publication of The Twelve Caesars to ca. 120 AD.

From such slender threads do we gain just a little more information about one of the best-loved works of antiquity!

  1. [1] Online at
  2. [2] Ms. Paris Supp. gr. 257.

Shenoute, On the invasions of the “Ethiopians” – translated by Anthony Alcock

An item that Anthony Alcock translated some time ago, but did not reach me, is three texts by the 5th century Coptic abbot Shenoute, which are concerned with invasions by “Ethiopians” – presumably Nubians – at that period.

It will be remembered that the temples at Philae, on the southern Egyptian border, remained open for the use of pagans across the frontier, even after all the pagan temples had otherwise been closed.  Doubtless this was just a security matter; but it must have been a rather odd situation.  How, in an empire in which paganism was illegal, did the temples recruit priests?

But then again the Roman empire was not a modern state with the ability to impose totalitarian control on its people, and no doubt the answer was that matters continued for the most part as they had always done, and the temples were mainly staffed by locals.

Here is Shenoute’s short works on the aftermath of these invasions.

Shenoute – Adversus Graecos de usura / On usury, now online in English

The excellent Anthony Alcock has made a translation of a short but interesting text by the Coptic abbot Shenoute (or Shenouda).  The Latin title is Adversus Graecos de usura, but he titles it On labour relations and usury, and seems to question whether it can be really directed against the pagans.

Here is the translation:

I was unable to find the source text online, although it certainly used to be!  This is based on two manuscripts:

  • A = Codex Parisinus (BNF) Copt. 130.2, foll. 20-23.
  • B = British Museum 197, fol. 1.

All very welcome as usual – thank you!

Two photochromes of the Meta Sudans in Rome, from 1890

A kind correspondent has pointed me to a site on mashable containing photochromes from 1890.  It’s here.

But what is a photochrome?  The site says:

These postcards of the ancient landmarks of Rome were produced around 1890 using the Photochrom process, which add precise gradations of artificial color to black and white photos.

Invented in the 1880s by an employee of Swiss printing company Orell Gessner Füssli, the Photochrom process was complex and closely guarded. It involved the creation of a lithographic stone from the photo negative, followed by the successive creation of additional litho stones for each tint to be used in the final image.

Up to 15 different tinted stones could be involved in the production of a single picture, but the result was remarkably lifelike color at a time when true color photography was still in its infancy.

Here are two which feature the Meta Sudans, the now vanished Roman fountain which provided air conditioning just outside the Colosseum (which originally stood in a hollow in the hills, before Mussolini built the Via del foro imperiali.

Click on the pictures for full size – and enjoy!




A collection of 31 (?) rolls and codices found in a jar: the Bodmer / Chester Beatty “papyri”

Sometime in the 1940s, an Egyptian peasant found a large jar full of ancient gnostic books, at a place today known as Nag Hammadi.  The books passed into the art market, and caused a sensation, and various dealers made money on the find. The news made its way back to the region.  This stirred other peasants to go looking for more treasure of the same kind.

In late 1952, another peasant made a similar discovery not that far away.  A jar was found, which contained something like 31 (?) volumes in various formats, roll and codex, papyrus and parchment, Greek and Coptic, although scholars disagree on the list of what the find originally contained.  They passed into the hands of a village strongman named Riyad Jirgis Fam, who lived at Dishna.  The collection is therefore known in Egypt as the Dishna “papyri”.  Riyad sold material piece by piece to a Cairo dealer, a Cypriot Greek named Phocion John Tano, or locally as “Phoqué”.  Tano then smuggled the material out of Egypt using either the diplomatic bag of the Tunisian embassy, or by bribing customs officials.

A large part of the collection was bought by a wealthy Swiss collector named Martin Bodmer.  What Bodmer chose not to buy, as of inferior interest, was in the main purchased by another collector, Sir Chester Beatty and is today in Dublin.  But the story is far more complex than that, and parts of the collection were also sold to American buyers, and then sold on.  Also, on the death of Martin Bodmer his executors began to sell his collection, until a foundation was created and the sales stopped.

But what was in the collection?  In the main it was biblical materials, but also rolls of Homer, lost plays by Menander, lost patristic material such as Melito’s De pascha, and much else.  It includes a codex of John’s gospel, P66, dated to 200 AD, in Greek.  But the older Greek material was rebound in the 4th century in a way that made it impossible to read – the books had become relics.  Newer material was in Coptic.  And, in addition, there were Greek and Coptic versions of some of the letters of Pachomius, the founder of Egyptian monasticism, previous known only in Jerome’s Latin translation.  The collection, plainly, had come from a Pachomian monastery.  The latest material was 6th century, and the burial of it in a jar perhaps relates to Justinian’s “tidying up” exercise on heresies of all sorts.

I suspect that many of us have heard of the “Bodmer papyri” and the “Chester Beatty papyri”, without ever being clear that this is a single find, like that at Nag Hammadi, dispersed around the world.

All this I take from reading James M. Robinson’s fascinating account, The Story of the Bodmer Papyri: from the First Monastery’s library in Upper Egypt to Geneva and Dublin.  It is very cheap, so very worthwhile for anyone interested in the finds of books in the sands of Egypt.

Robinson also gives a list of what, as far as can be told, the collection contained!  This is worth giving here, simpy because the dispersion of the collection means that few today have any context on what it was.

The contents of the discovery, including the quite fragmentary items and those listed only with hesitation, are as follows (they are Greek papyrus codices, unless otherwise indicated):20

1. Homer, Iliad, Book 5 = P. Bodmer I, a roll on the verso of a roll of documentary papyri, = P. Bodmer L.

2. Homer, Iliad, Book 6 = P. Bodmer I, a roll on the verso of the same roll of documentary papyri, = P. Bodmer L.

3. Gospel of John = P. Bodmer II + a fragment from the Chester Beatty Library, ac. 2555, + P. Koln 214, = P66.

4. Gospel of John and Genesis 1:1—4:2 in Bohairic = P. Bodmer III.

5. Menander, Samia, Dyskolos, Aspis = P. Bodmer XXV, IV, XXVI + P. Bare. 45 + Cologne inv. 904 = P. Koln 3 + P. Rob. 38.

6. Nativity of Mary = Apocalypse of James (Protevangelium of James) -, Apocryphal Correspondence of Paul with the Corinthians; Odes of Solomon 11; the Epistle of Jude; Melito of Sardis On the Passover, a fragment of a liturgical hymn; the Apology of Phileas; Psalms 33-34; 1 and 2 Peter = P. Bodmer V; X; XI; VII; XIII; XII; XX (+ a fragment from the Chester Beatty Library, ac. 2555); IX; VIII.

7. Proverbs in Proto-Sahidic on parchment = P. Bodmer VI.

8. Gospels of Luke and John = P. Bodmer XIV-XV = P75.

9. Exodus 1:1—15:21 in Sahidic on parchment = P. Bodmer XVI. (P. Bodmer XVII is generally agreed not to come from the same discovery.)

10. Deuteronomy 1:1—10:7 in Sahidic = P. Bodmer XVIII.

11. Matthew 14:28—28:20 + Romans 1:1—2:3, both in Sahidic on parchment, = P. Bodmer XIX.

12. Joshua in Sahidic = P. Bodmer XXI + Chester Beatty ac. 1389.

13. Jeremiah 40:3—52:34; Lamentations; Epistle of Jeremy; Baruch 1:1— 5:5, all in Sahidic on parchment, = P. Bodmer XXII + Mississippi Coptic Codex II.

14. Isaiah 47:1—66:24 in Sahidic = P. Bodmer XXIII.

15. Psalms 17—118 = P. Bodmer XXIV.

16. Thucydides; Suzanna; Daniel; Moral Exhortations = P. Bodmer XXVII, XLV, XLVI, XLVII.

17. A satyr play on the confrontation of Heracles and Atlas, a papyrus roll, = P. Bodmer XXVIII.

18. Codex Visionum = P. Bodmer XXIX — XXXVIII. (For P. Bodmer XXXIX see the inventory of specifically Pachomian material below.)

19. Song of Songs in Sahidic on parchment = P. Bodmer XL.

20. The Acts of Paul, Ephesus Episode, in Subachmimic, = P. Bodmer XLI.

21. Fragments of the Iliad from a papyrus roll = P. Bodmer XLVIII.

22. Fragments of the Odyssey from a papyrus roll = P. Bodmer XLIX.

23. Mathematical exercises in Greek; John 10:7 —13:38 in Subachmimic = Chester Beatty ac. 1390.

24. The Apocalypse of Elijah in Sahidic = Chester Beatty ac. 1493 = P. Chester Beatty 2018.

25. A Greek grammar; a Graeco-Latin lexicon on Romans, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians = Chester Beatty ac. 1499.

26. Psalms 72:6—23, 25—76:1; 77:1—18, 20—81:7; 82:2—84:14; 85:2—88:20 = Chester Beatty ac. 1501 = P. Chester Beatty XIII = Rahlfs 2149.

27. Psalms 31:8-11; 26:1-6, 8-14; 2:1-8 = Chester Beatty ac. 1501 = P. Chester Beatty XIV = Rahlfs 2150.

28. Tax receipts of 339-47 A.D. from Panopolis (Achmim) in a largely uninscribed and unbound quire constructed from two papyrus rolls with correspondence of the Strategus of the Panopolitan nome of 298-300 A.D. = P. Beatty Panopolitanus = Chester Beatty ac. 2554.

29. Melito of Sardis On the Passover, 2 Maccabees 5:27—7:41; 1 Peter; Jonah; a homily or hymn, = The Crosby-Schoyen Codex = ms. 193 of The Schoyen Collection of Western Manuscripts.

30. Scholia to the Odyssey 1 from a papyrus roll = P. Rob. inv. 32 + P. Colon, inv. 906.

31. Achilles Tatius from a papyrus roll = P. Rob. inv. 35 + P. Colon, inv. 901.

32. Odyssey 3-4 from a papyrus roll = P. Rob. inv. 43 + P. Colon, inv. 902.

33. A piece of ethnography or a philosophical treatise from a papyrus roll = P. Rob. inv. 37 + P. Colon, inv. 903.

34. Cicero, In Catilinam; Psalmus Responsorius; Greek liturgical text; Alcestis, all in Latin except the Greek liturgical text, = Codex Miscellani = P. Barcinonenses inv. 149-61 + P. Duke in L 1 [ex P. Rob. inv. 201].

35. Gospels of Luke; John; Mark, all in Sahidic = P. Palau Ribes 181-83.

The total quantity of material would involve what remains of some 37 books. They consist of 9 Greek classical papyrus rolls (numbers 1, 2, 17, 23, 24, 32-35) and 28 codices (numbers 3-16,18-22, 25-31, 36, 37). The codices maybe subdivided as follows: 21 are on papyrus (numbers 3-6, 8, 10, 12, 14-16, 18, 20, 22, 25-31, 36, 37), 5 on parchment  (numbers 7, 9, 11, 13, 19), and of 1 the Bibliotheque Bodmer has not divulged the material (number 22). 10 are in Greek (numbers 3, 5, 6, 8, 15, 16, 18, 28-30), 2 in Greek and Latin (numbers 27, 36), and 1 in Greek and Subachmimic (number 25). 15 are in Coptic (numbers 4, 7, 9-14,19-22, 26, 31, 37), of which 10 are in Sahidic (numbers 9-14,19, 26, 31, 37), 1 in Bohairic (number 4), 1 in Proto-Sahidic (number 7), 1 in Subachmimic (number 20), and of 1 the Bibliotheque Bodmer has not divulged the dialect (number 22). 2 are non-Christian (numbers 5, 30), 21 Christian (numbers 3, 4, 6-15, 18-21, 26, 28, 29, 31, 37) and 4 partly each (numbers 16,25, 27, 36). 11 contain something from the Old Testament (numbers 7, 9, 10, 12-16, 19, 28, 29) and 6 something from the New Testament (numbers 3, 8,11, 21, 25, 37) and 3 something from each (numbers 4, 6, 31).

A distinctive part of this discovery consists of archival copies of official letters of Abbots of the Pachomian Monastic Order:

  1. Pachomius’ Letter 11b in Sahidic, a small parchment roll, = P. Bodmer XXXIX.
  2. Pachomius’ Letters 9a, 9b, 10,11 b, from a papyrus codex, in Sahidic = Chester Beatty Glass Container No. 54 = ac. 2556.
  3. Pachomius’ Letters 1-3, 7,10,11a in Greek, a small parchment roll in rotuli format, = Chester Beatty Ms. W. 145 + Cologne inv. 3288 = P. Koln 174 = three fragments from Letter 7.
  4. Theodore’s Letter 2 in Sahidic, a small parchment roll in rotuli format, = Chester Beatty Library ac. i486.
  5. A second copy of Theodore’s Letter 2, a small parchment roll in rotuli format in an unidentified private German collection, published by Martin Krause.
  6. Horsiesios’ Letter 3 in Sahidic, a small papyrus roll, = Chester Beatty Library ac. 1494.
  7. Horsiesios’ Letter 4 in Sahidic, a small papyrus roll, = Chester Beatty Library ac. 1495.
  8. Pachomius’ Letter 8 in Sahidic, a small parchment roll, = Cologne inv. 3286 = P. Colon. Copt. 2 = P. Koln agypt. 8.
  9. Pachomius’ Letters 10-11a in Sahidic, a small parchment roll, = Cologne inv. 3287 = P. Colon. Copt. 1 = P. Koln agypt. 9.

Dr R. also went to the trouble of going to the site and doing fieldwork among the villagers to find out what was found, when, by whom, and what happened to it.  This incredibly necessary task tends to be shirked, when a find has gone underground, and his statements will inevitably be primary source material ever afterwards.

UPDATE: A correspondent has asked me to clarify that both the Bodmer collection and the Chester Beatty collection include many other papyri, not part of this collection found near Dishna.  There is an article by Brent Nongbri here which discusses the classification problems in the second half.

19th century treatments of palimpsests with chemicals

The British Library assigns its Syriac manuscripts to the “Asian and African Studies” department.  The people there are far easier to deal with than the people in Western Manuscripts.  They also run a blog which from time to time contains frankly wonderful material.

One such post was made back in September 2013, and I have written about it before.  It’s titled Some Syriac Manichean Treasures in the British Library, by Ursula Sims-Williams, and includes a picture of a page from BL Additional 12150:

Final page of Titus of Bostra, Against the Manichaeans. BL Add.12150, f.156r. Ms made in 411 AD!

Final page of Titus of Bostra, Against the Manichaeans. BL Add.12150, f.156r. Ms made in 411 AD!

What caught my eye today was a postscript by Christina Duffy, which must have been added subsequently.  It concerns palimpsests, those manuscripts where, in ancient times, the text was washed off the parchment, and a new text written on top.  Sometimes the lower text was dimly visible, even so.

In the 19th century, scholars discovered that the under text could be made very clear by painting the page with “reagents” – chemicals, usually acids of one sort or another.  This allowed the under-text to be transcribed, but also frequently damaged the manuscript.  However what was done precisely, and why it worked, has never been clear to me.

Christina Duffy’s statement is the clearest explanation of the subject that I have ever seen, and I’m going to give it here, word for word.

Sadly the result of chemicals used to make indecipherable script legible is seen in many of our manuscripts here at the BL. While the treatments initially enhanced the faded text greatly it was only a matter of time before the entire passage was left in a much worse state!

In 1969 Restaurator reprinted a report of the St Gallen Conference on the Conservation of Manuscripts from 1898 which listed gallic acid, thiocyanate, ammonium sulphide, sodium sulphide, potassium ferrocyanide and tannin solution as chemicals used to recover text. Essentially the reagents were attempting to balance the ink formulation. By “reagent” we mean a substance or compound used to bring about a chemical reaction.

There is mention of the use of chemical reinforcements as early as the 17th century but it wasn’t until the 19th century when chemistry was more understood that lots of reactions were tried out. For iron-gall ink, a good stable black ink is formed by a black iron-gall ink complex. If the ink production for whatever reason is imperfect, ink can become illegible overtime i.e. fade. Imperfect ink is generally missing one of the essential compounds in the ink ingredient list (such as iron sulphide or gallic acid) so it makes sense that applying these missing chemicals will allow the reaction to take place and the text to become clear again! Which is what they did, but alas the aftermath was less pleasing!

The oldest known recipe for text recovery uses gallic acid. One article suggests making an extract of gall-nuts in white wine and wetting the missing text with a sponge to recover the text. However it isn’t mentioned that the gall-nut extract goes brown itself after a few years and wherever the liquid was applied turns dark brown so nothing is legible!

Other treatments include hepar suplhuris, toning letters blue by reacting iron ions with potassium hexacyanoferrates or placing the text briefly in hydrochloric acid. Some manuscripts treated in this way are now covered in blue dye and completely illegible…which is why using imaging techniques is a much better idea!

There is a good article explaining all this including the chemical formulas by Robert Fuchs, “The history of chemical reinforcement of texts in manuscripts – What should we do now?” in Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 7 (2003): 159–170.

I wonder if multi-spectral imaging would give us something, even now?

Why should I ever buy another reference book? Give me a PDF!

Recently I needed to consult a translation of an ancient author.  I don’t own paper copies of very many translations, and I never knowingly buy books that I will not read and reread.  But unusually for me, I did own a copy of this volume in printed form.

However when I searched for it, it was nowhere to be found.  I had to make do with translating some French version of the original that I found online.

Where could it be?  After some searching, I discovered a faint memory of including it in a batch of academic books that I donated to someone, in order to free up some shelf-space.  I dispose of unwanted books all the time, as anyone with any sanity must; and in fairness this is only the second book whose loss I have subsequently regretted, so I shan’t change my habit.  All the same, it made me realise that I did need access to this particular volume.

Today I borrowed a library copy, and spent a couple of hours creating a PDF of the page images, with searchable text.  Abbyy Finereader 12 did its usual job of scanning the pages, and Adobe Acrobat Pro 9 created the PDF and made it searchable.

It’s expensive to borrow by interlibrary loan, mind you.  And I had to go into a library to collect them.  A recent foot injury made the walk from the car park, and then the wait in a queue for service, particularly uncomfortable.  Paper reference books are simply not what any of us need any more.

This sort of process – of conversion of books into PDF – must be repeated up and down the world. Students with no money, and academics with no shelf space, must convert the same reference volumes into PDFs again and again and again.  Surely there ought to be a mechanism whereby this could be avoided?  After all, nobody is at all likely to buy copies of this work personally, except by a fluke (as I did).