The manuscript tradition of the works of John the Lydian

John the Lydian was an antiquarian writer of the 6th century AD, whose career flourished under Justinian.  His three works, De magistratibus Romanis, De Ostentis, and De Mensibus, all are full of information about Roman origins.  John wrote in Greek but knew Latin, and sought to transmit to the future information that was already fading in his own day.

The work of John the Lydian, like most other texts from antiquity, has reached us through the medium of a single copy.  This is referred to in the editions as the Codex Caseolinus, and is today in the French National library under the shelfmark Ms. Paris supplementi graeci 257.  It dates around 900 AD.  It has currently 100 folia, but various leaves have been lost, and the whole codex was disarranged before Hase sorted out the order of the leaves for the first time, in order to use it.  It was written on thin, good quality parchment.

The manuscript has suffered considerably from damp, which has given it purplish wine-coloured stains, sometimes to the point of illegibility.  The most recent editor, Anastasius Bandy, made use of infra-red light to read more of the text than his predecessors; but it seems likely that the use of multi-spectral imagining would recover more.

The “Caseolinus” name is thus not from a library, as one might suppose.  Instead it refers to M. Choiseul-Gouffier, French Ambassador to Constantinople in the late 18th century, whose ancestors bore the title “Comites de Caseolo”.

When Choiseul-Gouffier was sent on his embassy in 1784, he was accompanied by Jean-Baptiste-Gaspard d’Ansse de Villoison, a noted scholar whose instructions were to seek out manuscripts.   He had been sent by the French government to Venice in 1779, where he had discovered the Marcianus codex of Homer, and printed an Anecdota Graeca in Venice in 1781 based on other finds.  It was Villoison who located the manuscript in the house of a Greek named Konstantinos Slouziares, who possessed the remnants of the library of Nicholas Mavrokordatos.  The latter ruled Bucharest for the Sultan in 1722 and amassed a collection of codices from Greek monasteries in the East, especially Thessaly and Athos.  After much negotiating, Choiseul-Gouffier  was able to purchase the manuscript of John the Lydian.

The manuscript thus came into the hands of Choiseul-Gouffier in 1785, and he brought it back with him to Paris when he returned in 1791.  But in 1793 he was obliged to flee from the Revolution, and took the manuscript with him to Russia.  But it returned, and he still owned it in 1817, when his collection passed into the Bibliothèque Nationale, by agreement with his heirs. [1]

As well as the codex Caseolinus, another manuscript existed of De magistratibus.  This is the lost Codex Atheniensis, written at Trebizond at the start of July 1765.  In 1879 von Lingenthal went to stay with the owner, Georgios A. Rhalles, a Greek professor in Athens, and wrote that it contained book II of De Caeremoniis aulae Byzantinae and an incomplete copy of John the Lydian’s De magistratibus.  Unfortunately its present whereabouts are unknown.  It seems to have been last seen in 1909, and may have been destroyed in a fire in Thessalonika in 1917.  The text seems to have been inferior to that in the Caseolinus, and it is not clear whether it was a copy, or merely an inferior relation.  No proper collation seems to have been made.

  1. [1] I owe all of these details to the much more detailed introduction in the most recent text and translation, A. Bandy, Ioannes Lydus: On Powers, 1983, p.xxxix f.

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.

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.

John the Lydian – corrigenda

Regular readers will remember that a translation of John the Lydian, On the Roman Months – a month by month explanation of the festivals of the Roman year – appeared in chunks in this blog (click here for the posts).  The translator, Mischa Hooker, has now sent in a couple of pages of corrections.  They are here:

He’s continuing to work on this, so no doubt there will be more!

John the Lydian, “On the Roman months”, books 1-3: now online in English

Mischa Hooker has very kindly translated books 1, 2 and 3 of John the Lydian, De Mensibus (On the Roman Months) for us all.  The results are now in the public domain: do as you like with them, and use them for personal, educational or commercial purposes.

Book 1 did not make it to us as a continuous text; instead there are a series of quotations from later writers, assembled and numbered by Wuensch, the editor.  The other two books are more or less complete.

The description of the Roman circus and the objects on the spina, in book 1, should be of general interest!

Here they are:

It’s great to know that this valuable resource is now accessible to everyone!

John the Lydian, On the Roman Months IV: January now online

Mischa Hooker has come up trumps and sent me a translation of the section of John the Lydian, On the Roman Months, book 4, which covers January!  As with previous sections of John, this details the various Roman festivals in the month, together with other calendrical information, often from lost sources.  Dr Hooker has also added copious footnotes.  Here it is:

As usual, this material is public domain – use it in any way you like, personal, educational or commercial!

John the Lydian on August

Another chunk of John the Lydian, De mensibus, book 4, has arrived from Mischa Hooker.  Indeed it arrived at the weekend, but was delayed by my own illness.  As might be expected, this covers the month of August.

There is material on Augustus, as might be expected, and calendrical material.  No great surprises, but useful all the same!

The notes are copious, which is very necessary to understand the text and a great blessing.  Thank you, Mischa.

As ever, use it in whatever way you like, personal, educational or commercial.

John the Lydian on “July” – now online in English

For the last few months, each month we’ve had a chapter from a 6th century antiquarian on the festivals and days of the month.  Our translation of John the Lydian, De Mensibus book 4, has now reached July.

As ever Mischa Hooker has done a super job on it, with copious footnotes.  This month contains a bunch of stuff about Julius Caesar; and a collection of accounts of the origins of the Nile.  I learn from the footnotes that part of this is based on the remains of Seneca’s account, but continues where our manuscripts break off, probably from a more complete text.

Here it is:

As usual, this is public domain.  Do whatever you like with it, personal, educational or commercial.

John the Lydian’s thoughts on the Roman months: June is now online in English

Another chunk of John the Lydian, De Mensibus – on the Roman Months – book 4 is now available!  Find it here:

As ever, full of abtruse Roman customs, and copiously and learnedly annotated.

Have fun!

John the Lydian on the month of May – now online in English!

The 6th century Greek writer, John the Lydian, composed a work in 4 books on the Roman months (De mensibus).  The work is full of antiquarian information, which makes it a fascinating source for Roman time.  Book 4 consists of 12 chapters, one for each month.

In a very timely way,  Mischa Hooker has now translated the chapter on May for us all.  Here it is:

As ever, this is public domain: do whatever you like with it, personal, educational or commercial.

I’m hoping that there will be more of the months to come!