A little-known museum in Rome – the Case Romane del Celio.

There is a museum in Rome of which I had never heard until today.  It’s called the “Case Romane del Celio”, whch means the “Roman houses on the Caelian” hill.

The museum is underneath the basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo – St John and St Paul – on the Caelian hill.  This was built in 398 over a Roman house that the two saints had lived in.  In 1887 there were excavations, and a series of Roman houses were discovered, dating from the 1st-4th centuries AD.  There are remarkable frescoes to be seen, such as these.  I found the pictures on the Wanted in Rome website:

Access is not from inside the basilica, but from the Clivo di Scauro.  This is itself a Roman arched street, not far from the Colosseum. The museum is open every day, I believe, “except Tuesday and Wednesday and can be visited from 10.00-13.00 and 15.00-18.00.”  The museum website is here.  There’s also a lot of useful information for visitors at this commercial site.  Here’s the entrance.

It’s actually really close to the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus, as we can see from Google Maps:

I’ve just used Street View to walk down it, and, as a pedestrian, you can clearly walk straight across into it from the Palatine area, without bothering about that long dog-leg down to the Circus Maximus.  So you could start at the Arch of Constantine, walk down the street, and look out for the Clivo di Scauri on the left.

I’ve never been up on the Caelian hill.  But I can see that there is quite a bit of interesting stuff up there.  The next time that I am in Rome, I shall go and have a look!

Notae in the margins of Cassiodorus, “Expositio Psalmorum”

An  interesting volume has appeared this year, which unfortunately I have not seen, but that I learned about from Jesse Keskiaho on twitter.  The book is by Evina Steinová, based on her 2016 dissertation (online here, I now find), and now in a revised book form from Brepols here as Notam superponere studui : The Use of Annotation Symbols in the Early Middle Ages (2019).  I understand that it contains an interesting piece on a work by the 6th century statesman-turned-monk Cassiodorus.

Cassiodorus’ commentary on the Psalms, the Expositio Psalmorum (= Clavis Patrum Latinorum no. 900) is a long allegorical commentary based largely on Augustine.  So long a work was set forth in three manuscript volumes each containing the commentary on 50 psalms.  It was completed at the start of 548 and dedicated to Pope Vigilius; and then reworked between 560-70 with marginal “notae” or symbols, which indicate the type of content.[1]  He provided the key to these signs at the beginning of the work.

The Latin text is printed in the Patrologia Latina vol. 70.  A more modern edition by Adriaen was printed in the Corpus Christianorum 97-8 (1958), but Walsh states that it is merely a revision of the PL text, and full of mistakes.  There is an English translation by P.G. Walsh in the Ancient Christian Writers series (in three volumes 50, 51 and 52).  A new edition was intended by James W. Halporn, who published a list of the manuscripts in “The manuscripts of Cassiodorus’ ‘Expositio Psalmorum'” in Traditio 37 (1981), p.388-396.  I’m unclear that any edition ever appeared, and Halporn died in 2011.  Discussion of the tradition of the text is in Richard N. Bailey, “Bede’s text of Cassiodorus’ Commentary on the Psalms”, JTS 34 (1983), 189-193.

The Patrologia Latina text, infuriatingly, omits the notae, and the introductory list.  Here is the page on which the praefatio ends, and the commentary text begins:

Inevitably the translation by Walsh from this text also omits the notae.

The marginal notae may be seen, however, in a 9th century manuscript now in the Bibliothèque Nationale Français in Paris, shelfmark BNF lat. 14491, originally in the abbey of Saint-Victor in Paris.  This is online here in an exceedingly clear microfilm copy (the download, sadly, is low resolution).  On folio 10, following the “praefatio”, there is a list of the symbols used and their meaning:

Isn’t this gorgeous?  RA = ‘rithmetic.  Mc = music… and a little star, an asterisk = astronomy.  This section appears between the “veniamus” at the end of the praefatio and the heading of the first section of the commentary.  Transcribing as best I can:

Diversas notas more maiorum certis locis aestimabimus effigiendas.  Has cum explanationibus suis subter adiuncximus.  Ut quicquid lector voluerit inquirere per similitudines earum, sine aliqua difficultate debeat invenire.  (We will find that various symbols need to be marked in certain places, according to the custom of the ancients.  We’ve added these with their explanations below.  If any reader wishes to search by using their appearance, they ought to find them without difficulty.)

Hoc in idiomatis. Id est propriis locutionibus legis divinae.   (idioms. i.e. the correct way of speaking of the divine law)
Hoc in dogmatibus. valde necessariis.  (doctrines.  Very necessary)
Hoc in diffinitionibus.  (definitions)
Hoc in schematibus.  (figures)
Hoc in ethimologiis.  (etymologies)
Hoc in interpraetatione nominum.  (the interpretation of names)
Hoc in arte rethorica. (the art of rhetoric)
Hoc in topicis.  (topics)
Hoc in syllogismis.  (syllogisms)
Hoc in arithmetica.  (arithmetic)
Hoc in geometrica. (geometry)
Hoc in musica. (music)
Hoc in astronomia. (astronomy)

Examples of the use of these notae/symbols appear in the same manuscript, starting on the page facing the list of symbols.

In the 10th century Bamburg manuscript, Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Bibl.56 (online here) we have the first page with this:

I would have made this larger, but I could see no way to download the image; only warnings about the (non-existent) copyright claimed by the German state on the image.

The 9th century Karlsruhe manuscript, Aug. perg. 155, sadly has suffered damage:

Also online is British Library Additional 16962, also 9th century, which is indeed a volume of the work, but of the third volumes: psalms 101-150.

It’s very interesting to see such a scholarly help, I must say.

  1. [1]Halporn, “Mss”, p.388.

“Let the flamen dialis shave only with a razor of bronze!”

An interesting query on Twitter read:

Apparently, Roman priests were not allowed to use iron razors or scissors…  Anyone know why?

Roman razor with bronze handle and iron blade, sold at auction here.

A little searching turned up some sources.  I had hoped to find more in the old Realencyclopädie, but Bd. VI.2, col. 2489 gave only the same few.  All are very late indeed.

My earliest source is from the 4th c. AD.  It is Servius, Scholia on Vergil’s Aeneid, i, 448.

First the passage being commented on: Vergil, Aeneid, book 1, line.446-49:

446. Hīc templum Iūnōnī ingēns Sīdōnia Dīdō
condēbat, dōnīs opulentum et nūmine dīvae,
aerea cui gradibus surgēbant līmina nexaeque
aere trabēs, foribus cardō strīdēbat aēnīs.

Here Sidonian Dido was founding to Juno a mighty temple, rich in gifts and the presence of the goddess. Brazen was its threshold uprising on steps; bronze plates were its lintel beams, on doors of bronze creaked the hinges.  (Loeb)

Servius comments:

48. AEREA vel quod aes magis veteres in usu habebant, vel quod religioni apta est haec materies, denique flamen Dialis aereis cultris tondebatur: [aut quia vocalius ceteris metallis, aut quia medici aere quaedam vulnera curant, aut dicit quia veteres magis aere usi sunt] aut certe aerea saecula significantur: nam ut Hesiodus dicit, tempore quo haec gesta sunt aereum saeculum fuit.      NEXAEQVE AERE TRABES multi ‘nixae’ legunt, non ‘nexae’, iuxta Varronem qui ait, Trisulcae fores, pessulis libratae, dehiscunt, graves atque in nixae in cardinum tardos turbines. Quidam trabes aeneas putant ipsum templum χαλκίοικον significari. Versus sane ipse hypermetros est.[1]

BRONZE, or rather what was used as money by the ancients, or what was appropriate for religion, and then the Flamen Dialias was trimmed with a bronze knife: [or because more tuneful than other metals, or because doctors cured some wounds with bronze, or he says (this) because the ancients were more used to bronze] or at least the ages of bronze are signified: for, as Hesiod says, the time that this happened was the age of bronze.       AND ITS ROOF-BEAMS WERE LINKED WITH BRONZE. Many read “heavy”, not “linked”, according to Varro who said, “The three-fold doors, from bolts released, they open, and in pushing on the hinge the slow heavy rotation.”[2] Which beam Aeneas thought meant the temple itself was that “made of bronze” (i.e. of Athena).  The verse obviously is in hypermeter.

Update (13/09/19): A kind commenter points out that I made rather a mess of this.  His much better translation from here is:

AEREA, either because the ancients used bronze more widely, or because this material is appropriate for religious purposes; thus the hair of the Flamen Dialis was cut with bronze knives [or because it was more sonorous than other metals, or because doctors tended certain wounds with bronze, or he says that the ancients made more use of bronze] or at any rate the Bronze Ages are denoted: for, as Hesiod says, the time at which these events occurred was the Age of Bronze. NEXAEQVE AERE TRABES: Many read “resting upon” [nixae], not “plated with” [nexae], with Varro, who said, “The triple doors, released by bolts, open wide, heavy and resting upon slowly revolving pivots”. Some think that the “bronze lintel” means that the temple itself was a “shrine of bronze”. The line is obviously hypermetric.

In the 5th c. we have Macrobius, Saturnalia book 5, chapter 19, section 13:

Certainly there is much to show that it was commonly the custom to use instruments of bronze for sacred ceremonies, and especially in connection with rites whose purpose it was to entice or curse a person or, indeed, to drive out diseases. [12] I shall not comment on that line of Plautus:

“My chinking disease has its remedy-the chink of bronze,”

nor on Vergil’s reference elsewhere to:

“The ringing noise and sounding bronze of the Curetes” [Georgics 4. 15 I]

[ 13] but I shall quote the words of Carminius, a learned man and a most careful scholar, who says in the second Book of his work on Italy: “And so I find both that the Etruscans, in their sacred rites of Tages, were wont formerly to use a plowshare of bronze when they were founding a city, and that among the Sabines the priests used to cut their beards with rawrs of bronze.” [14] It would be tedious to seek to follow up these words of Carminius with a review of the many passages in which the most ancient of the Greeks habitually made use of the sound of bronze as being particularly efficacious. Let it be enough for the matter in hand to have shown that in introducing a reference to bronze sickles Vergil was following the example of a Greek author.

A note in the translation suggests that “Carminius” might in be a corruption for “Granius”.  Macrobius is interesting, because, immediately before this passage, he discusses Sophocles and a similar Greek prohibition.

Finally in the 6th century we have John the Lydian, De Mensibus, i, 31, (tr. Mischa Hooker):

35. Under Numa, and before him, the priests of old times would have their hair cut with bronze scissors, but not with iron [scissors].[90] For iron, according to the Pythagoreans, is dedicated to matter: It too is dark and therefore nearly without form, wrought with much toil and useful for much, but not impassive.[91]

The translator, Mischa Hooker, adds some valuable information in the footnotes:

90. Cf. Servius on Aeneid 1.448, with reference to the flamen Dialis; Macrobius, Saturnalia 5.19.11 (citing Carminius) mentions that Sabine priests had their hair cut with bronze. Iron has been the subject of taboos in various societies including Greek and Roman—see J. G. Frazer, Golden Bough, 3rd ed., 3: 225-36 (“Iron Tabooed”); for Greek religion more specifically, see the evidence collected by T. Wächter, Reinheitsvorschriften im griechischen Kult (Gießen, 1910), pp. 115-18; for Roman religion, note also Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People (London, 1922), pp. 32-35, 191, 214.

91. For iron as “dark” (melas), cf. Hesiod, Works and Days 151; “wrought with much toil” (polykmêtos) is a Homeric epithet for iron (e.g., Iliad 6.48). Proclus, while commenting on Hesiod’s “iron race,” explores the symbolism of iron as indicating earthliness, intractability, lack of rationality, and subjection to passions (Commentary on Plato’s Republic, 2: 77 Kroll). … further useful discussion of Greek religious restrictions on metals and rings appears in C. Le Roy, “Un règlement religieux au Létôon de Xanthos,” Revue Archéologique n.s. 2 (1986), pp. 286-9.

None of our three sources seem actually to know why there is a prohibition on the use of anything but bronze to cut hair.  It is a defensible hypothesis that this was copied from the Greeks; or, equally possibly, that it arises spontaneously in these early prehistoric mediterranean populations, in reaction to the advent of iron.  It would be possible to speculate endlessly.

  1. [1]p.146, lines 12-21.
  2. [2]I really couldn’t construe this correctly.

From my diary

I’m busy earning a living at the moment, so there is little to report.  However I happened to see a post on twitter recently about St Cuthman, an anglo-saxon saint, which sparked my interest.  All that is known about him is contained in the Acta Sanctorum volume for February (vol. 2), under February 8th, published in 1656, by coincidence during the only period of history when England was not a monarchy.  There’s a single Life in there (with the reference code BHL 2305), quite short, which I have begun to translate into English in my scanty spare moments.

Googling about St Cuthman revealed a lot of low-grade material.  There seems to be only a single article.  This is present in JSTOR, but for some reason inaccessible to me.  I’m starting to get the feeling that my JSTOR alumni access through my old university is being downgraded.  Increasingly articles are not accessible.  Luckily a friend had a copy.  This referred to endless “summaries” of the contents of the Acta Sanctorum text, but no translation.  I could wish that these busy gentlemen had translated rather than skimming and summarising.  For instance the article author seemed to think that the Acta Sanctorum contained two Lives, rather than one.  The one text was derived from two manuscripts; that was the source of his misreading.

The text in the Acta Sanctorum was signed “I.B.”.  This can only be Jean Bolland himself, the originator of the whole 350-year-long (so far!) Acta Sanctorum project.  He had access to these two manuscripts.  Looking at the modern Bollandist site, I find that they have knowledge of only two manuscripts today.  Probably these are the same two manuscripts.  One is still in the region of Rouen, as it was in Bolland’s day.  The other has migrated to Germany, to Gotha.  Neither is online unfortunately.

Now I find that translating anything is easier if I have an electronic text to hand.  It allows me to use electronic tools and lexica.  The complete Acta Sanctorum is online in electronic form at the Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon site.  Nothing on the home page suggests this, but a Google search reveals it here.  Even so it is not indexed properly – you have to click on each month, and volume, and page through it.  But it is a blessing to have!  I wish I knew more about how this text was created.  There are a tiny number of typos in it, as well as the abbreviations and ligatures present in the original printing.  But it is invaluable.  Indeed I have purchased their keystick with a copy of the site on it, in case it should ever vanish.

Websites do vanish, as does material on it.  This week somebody asked me about a passage in Photius’ Bibliotheca.  I recalled that  the translation by Rene Henry was online at remacle.org, so off I trotted.  But I found that it was no longer there!  Instead the material was subdivided much, but only part of it was still there.  This is quite a loss, and I wish that I had archived it.  I found, annoyingly, that Archive.org had NOT archived the site.

Another article that I read this week observed that Google is no longer a good search engine.  This chimes with my own experience.  I have long noted that, of the vast quantities of material that I have shovelled onto the web over the last 20 years, very little is returned any more.  This week I had occasion to look for a passage from the “Arabic canons of Nicaea”.  I googled the text, and found it in the end, after a bit of searching, in … the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers!  Which I have  on my site, but did not appear in the results.  Which is on the CCEL.org site, that digitised it, and which did not appear in the results.  In fact not a single copy of the various digital copies appeared.  It looks very much as if the Google search engine prioritises heavily on creation date, and marginalises or ignores material from longer ago.  This is terrible for us all.  Google returns a picture of the web as it is now, like a news service.  It is much less good at finding material that is there but older.

This also leaves aside the increasing evidence that Google is operating a political censorship.  Today I saw an article claiming that their algorithm is basically much like the evil new Chinese system of “social credit”, and simply omits results from different political viewpoints.  I find it quite easy to believe this.  I myself was subjected to a 12-hour twitter ban this week.  Twitter shoves an endless stream of absurd political posturing into your face, which it is very hard to avoid.  Much of it is extreme, even by the standards of modern California, the fons et origo of so much that is wrong and nearly all that is absurd.  The platform is engineered to cause people to respond.  Your behaviour is manipulated to make you do so.   Thus I was unwise enough to respond to one of these, politely but dismissively, and to my astonishment was instantly banned by twitter for expressing a view that they did not like.  Likewise this week I have observed that a couple of “military humour” pages on Facebook are being routinely subjected to harassment by the Facebook “moderators”.  One had to abandon its efforts and restart a new page.  Another discovered that it was “shadow-banned” – that Facebook had decided not to relay posts to those who had asked to see them.  Neither page has ever posted anything really objectionable, or even a fraction as salty as a military barracks would ordinarily be.  Yet they face constant interference.

I do think that we need a better search engine.  We need that older material.  Searching the web has always been an art.  One person will find something; another nothing, just through luck of choosing the right terms.  That will probably always be so.  But the material should be there.

At the moment at night I am reading my way through the Diary of a Country Parson, in five volumes.  This is the diary of James Woodforde, who was rector of Weston Longville, nine miles west of Norwich, for thirty years, until he died in 1802 at the age of 62.  By then he was in health and attitude an extremely old man.  He often refers to going to Norwich and staying in the market place in an inn called the Kings Head.  The editor was unable to locate this, and I myself know the area well and don’t know it.  But it turns out that the east side of the market place in 1800 was very different from today, when it is entirely shops.  It contained four large commercial coaching inns, each with a gateway into a long yard behind.  Indeed the street behind this area, and parallel to the market, is still called “The Back of the Inns” today on Google maps.  The Kings Head was demolished in 1813 to create Davey’s Place, which is a narrow street running from the market towards the castle.  I was able to find an 1806 drawing of the area on Wikipedia, by James Cotman, looking south, here.

Sadly the resolution is too low to zoom in on the front of the properties on the left, but I can see two inn signs in it.  One must be the Angel Inn, which stood where the eerie and beautiful Royal Arcade now stands.

In many ways the frontage of the east side – the street there was known as Gentleman’s Walk – is rather more impressive than it is today.  The inns were big, bustling enterprises, and a coach went to London almost every day.  They travelled overnight, interestingly.  There were 4 or 6 places inside the coach, and 2 places “outside” in the basket, at half-price.  Parson Woodforde and his niece travelled inside at a £1 each, while their servant Briton travelled in the basket for 10 shillings.  It looks as if Parson Woodforde almost always stayed at the Kings Head precisely because it was busy and bustling and a complete change to his quiet isolated rectory at Weston.  He liked the excitement, it seems.

Pictures of the past are invaluable.  Too many are still held behind walls of copyright and greed, but perhaps this will change as time goes by.  Let us hope so!

Philo of Byzantium, On the Seven Wonders of the World: an English translation and some notes

Approximately 50,000 Greek manuscripts survive, containing a mass of literature from the ancient and medieval period.  Among these is a curious little work, On the Seven Wonders of the WorldDe septem orbis miraculis, or peri ton hepta theamaton (Τῶν ἑπτὰ θεαμάτων ἑκάστου φήμῃ μέν). This is the first literary account of the seven wonders of the world.  Unfortunately it is largely rhetorical, rather than descriptive.[1]

There is an English translation of this work, which I will give at the end.  However I wondered what the text was and how it reached us.[2]

The transmission of our text has been discussed by Aubrey Diller.[3]  It survives in a single 9th century manuscript, Heidelberg 398 (= A),  starting on folio 56v, where it is ascribed clearly to “Philo of Byzantium”.

Heidelberg 398, f.56v.

Philo of Byzantium, or Philo Mechanicus, was a writer of the second century BC, author of some works on technology. However a study by von Rohden in 1875 showed that the attribution must be wrong.[4]  The text carefully avoids any use of “hiatus”.  This is the technical term in rhetoric for the situation where a word or syllable ending in a vowel is followed by a word or syllable starting with a vowel.  The word “hiatus” itself contains a hi-atus, for instance.  Hiatus is a normal feature of Greek, but it was avoided by the rhetoricians, and most carefully so in late antiquity.  Von Rohden therefore concluded that the author was a late antique rhetorician, and felt able to date the work even as late as the 5-6th centuries AD.  The author is therefore sometimes referred to as pseudo-Philo of Byzantium.

The work is incomplete.  There is an introduction, and there should be seven chapters.  But the text breaks off in the 6th chapter at the bottom of a page without any colophon to mark the ending. Analysis of the binding has shown that the last page begins a new quire of leaves, but that the other leaves have all been removed.  It seems that A originally contained the full text.

Heidelberg 398 f.59v, bottom – the point where the text breaks off.

The marginalia mainly consist of chapter titles.  These are in small uncials, and are probably from the renaissance Paris circle of Platonists.

A has had an exciting history.[5]  It comes from Constantinople.  In the 1530s it was in the hands of the printer, Hieronymus Froben in Basle in Switzerland.  Froben printed a couple of works from it, but then presented various manuscripts – presumably including this one – to Ottheinrich, Elector of the Palatinate (d. 1558) who founded the Palatine Library in Heidelberg.  It remained there until the Thirty Years War.  At the conclusion of the war, the manuscripts of Heidelberg were transferred to the Vatican.  In 1623 the papal agent, Leo Allatius, removed all the covers from the Heidelberg manuscripts in order to do so.  Books are heavy, and in this period were often shipped in barrels, which could be rolled.  It was then rebound in the Vatican.  There it was studied by Allatius who wrote a Latin translation, a copy of which is also in the Vatican.  A remained in the Vatican until 1798, when it was looted by the revolutionary French and transferred to Paris.  After the Napoleonic wars were over, in 1816 it returned to Heidelberg where it is today, and has recently appeared online.

There is also a 13th century copy of A, most of which is at Vatopedi on Mount Athos in Greece: Vatopedi 655.  The portion of the Vatopedi manuscript that concerns us is contained in 21 leaves which were stolen by none other than Constantine Simonides.  After attempting and failing to sell bogus manuscripts to the British Museum, he sold some genuine ones, including these leaves.  They are today in the British Library, where they are Additional Manuscript 19391.  (= B).[6]  This too is online here.  That it is no more than a copy of A may readily be seen, because it breaks off at exactly the same point as A.  There are also some renaissance copies, of no value.  One of these that is online is Vat. Barb. gr. 69.

British Library Additional 19391, fol. 12v. Start of Philo.

The text has been printed a number of times, usually as an appendage to other works.  The editio princeps was in Rome in 1640, by Leo Allatius, with parallel Latin translation.  The standard edition seems to be that of Hercher (1858),[7] from which, I find, the translation was in fact made.

Start of Hercher text.

The translation I found as an appendix in a popular paperback,[8] translated by a certain “Jean Blackwood” whom I hae been unable to identify.  I give it in full, with the introductory remarks.  There are no footnotes.

   *   *   *   *



by Philon of Byzantium

The following is a free translation by Jean Blackwood of the text of De Septem Orbis Spectaculis as it appears in Aelianus Praenestinus compiled by Rudolf Hercher and published in 1858.

Everyone knows of the renowned Seven Wonders of the World, but few have set eyes on them, for, in order to do so you have to arrange a long journey to the land of the Persians on the far side of the Euphrates; you have to visit Egypt; you must then change direction and go to Elis in Greece. Then you must see Halikarnassos, a city-state in Caria, and Ephesos in Ionia, and you have to sail to Rhodes, so that, being exhausted by lengthy wanderings over the Earth’s surface, and growing tired from the effort of these journeys, you finally fulfil your heart’s desire only when life is ebbing away, leaving you weak through the weight of years.

Thus, learning is a quality which is truly to be admired  and to be treasured as a great gift because, at the same time  as it gives their minds insight, it may show men, freed from the burden of travelling, the most remarkable of sights which are to be seen at home, and it designates the sight that is worthy of admiration. For the traveller who reaches these places sees them once, and as soon as he leaves, he forgets, be­cause he has not firmly grasped the delicate beauty of the works he has gazed upon, and the individual details escape his memory. Whereas he, who by selective reading has become  acquainted with a worthy sight knows the details of its form and has thus set eyes upon a complete work of art, and, be­cause these sights have been seen in his mind’s eye they remain, imprinted on his mind, each single image, never to be destroyed.

I must add something else that in no way departs from the truth. Where I have managed to describe the Seven Wonders of the World as accurately as possible, my words, surveying the scene, are associated by the listener in such a way that it may seem to him that he has looked upon them with his own eyes. For these wonders are the only things which diminish the worth and reputation of other distinguished sights, for, truly, ordinary men may see them in the same way as other sights, but they do not marvel at other sights in the same way. For beauty, like the sun, dazzles by its own brilliance and does not allow one to see the others.


The garden which is called the Hanging Garden suspends its plants in the air, having shoots which are supported away from the ground. The tree roots which hang above the ground, assuredly cover the earth and take the place of a floor. Here is a description of this work. First of all stone columns are supported on a general foundation and made firm. This is done in such a way that the engraved bases of the columns cover the whole area given over to the garden.

Then beams made from palm trees are set down in different places, separated from one another by only a small space. For palm is absolutely the only kind of wood which does not rot. It is moistened so that it will bend back after being pressed upwards by weights. Moreover it feeds the fibres and tendrils of the roots which mix with the matter in its own cells and sinews.

A vast and deep mass of earth is poured over the beams; trees are planted with their broad leaves nearly touching to help foster the Garden. There are all kinds of varieties of flowers, and, so that it will be enjoyed by all, whatever is the most delightful, agreeable and pleasant to the eyes is there. The whole of the place is ploughed like a normal field and it is no less fertile than other ground. Yet it is done in such a way that the land can be ploughed above the heads of those walking amongst the supporting columns.

Whilst the upper layer of soil is trodden on underfoot, in places the deep, lower layers remain untouched, and that which lies at the bottom remains virgin ground. The waters gush forth from lofty fountains and sink right down through the ground and are then forced up high in twists and spirals, rushing and swirling through the circuits of the pipes of cer­tain mechanical devices. And so the water having been col­lected on high in numerous ample containers irrigates the whole garden and, with its bountiful moisture, it bathes the roots of the trees which are pressed into the top layer of the ground and thus keeps the soil perpetually moist.

Here grow grasses which are perennially green, and trees whose leaves move in the breeze. The branches are made soft by constant moisture and so the leaves grow more densely. The roots, which are never removed, exude water continuously, and this circulates through the pores of the roots which are buried and pressed into the ground, keeping the trees natur­ally firm and thick. And so the cultivator, in his many ways, has created strength through nature; this certainly is a work of regal splendour giving much pleasure suspended above the heads of onlookers.


The construction of the Pyramids at Memphis is beyond the strength of men and their description is beyond belief, for they are mountains placed on top of mountains, and it is not easy for the mind to grasp how the huge masses of hewn stone could have been raised; and all have doubts concern­ing the huge force of the mechanical devices needed to bring the massive structures together.

After a quadrangular base had been laid down, those very stones needed to support the construction and keep it off the ground were interred, and, as the pyramid rises, the superstructure decreases proportionately in size and the whole work turns visibly into a pyramid, assuming a tapering shape. The whole of the work of joining the stones together has been so cleverly and elegantly accomplished that the whole monument seems to have sprung from one hewn stone. Differ­ent kinds of stone are joined together in turns, for here is pure marble whilst there is a black Ethiopian stone. The stone which they call blood-like is not present. The one that is brought from Arabia is there, changing colour, translucently fresh and green. Some take on a radiant glossy blue colour, and there are others which, like the apple tree, turn golden. Some are a purple colour, not dissimilar to those stained with the marine purple dye of sea-shells. For the rest, delight is enhanced by astonishment, excellence of artistic inspiration by admiration, and distinction by extravagance. Climbing to the top tires one as much as a real journey, and if anyone stands at the highest point and looks down, dizziness veils his sight. Regal wealth adds splendour to the very pleasing variety of the range of colours. Let fortune smile while she believes that she can touch the very stars by spending extra­vagantly. For by works of this kind, either men rise to the level of gods, or the gods come down to man.


As Kronos is Zeus’s father in heaven, so Phidias is his father in Elis. Immortal nature gave birth to the former, but the hands of Phidias, which alone have satisfied the gods, begat the latter. Blessed is Phidias who, alone, has seen the king of the world and has re-created his awesome presence for all to see. If it belittles Zeus to call him the son of Phidias, might we still not consider his mother to be Art, by which means Phidias created (Zeus’s) likeness. With this in mind Nature provided the elephant, and filled Africa with abundant herds so that Phidias might fashion their curved teeth. We honour the other Wonders of the World with our admiration, but this is the only one that we venerate. For however much a work of art is to be admired, the image of Zeus is sacro­sanct. If labour is worthy of praise, then an immortal being must truly be worthy of reverence.

O to the Grecian Age which will abound in works dedicated to the honouring of gods for many centuries to come and which has had as the creator of immortality the artist whose like has not been seen again. You have been able to show mortals the features of the gods, and whoever has looked upon them will look more soberly at the works of others. For no other has been superior to Phidias in the way he laid Olympus at his feet. For as we know that evidence is preferable to opinion, and fact to fiction, so sight is superior to hearsay.


Out to sea lies the island of Rhodes which, long ago, was submerged in the deep and which the Sun raised up to the light and demanded it as his own from the gods. Here stands the Colossus, seventy cubits high, executed in the likeness of the Sun, for it is recognized to be an effigy of the god as it bears his own special features. The artist used so much bronze for the work that there was almost a shortage of metals, for all the earth’s mines were exploited in carrying out the project.

You will remember that Zeus deluged the Rhodians with great wealth so that they might devote it to honouring the Sun as they had undertaken to produce a statue of the god that would stretch right from the earth to the sky.

The workmen fortified the statue of the Colossus from the inside by hewn stones joined together by iron bolts, and the bars which are used on the stones to bring the joins together seem to have been fashioned by the hammers of the Cyclops. Whatever part of the work remains hidden is greater than that which can be seen; for the onlooker, transfixed in admiration, can only doubt that such vast masses of bronze could have been melted down and cast, wonder by what clamps they have been held, to what kind of blows they have been subjected and what strenuous exertions have brought them into being.

A pedestal of pure marble was laid down and on this, calculating the proportion, the artist first fixed the feet of the Colossus as far as the ankle, on to which the god was to be erected, seventy cubits high. At this (foot) level the base was already greater than other statues and it was not possible to lift the rest of the statue into place above; yet there were so many people helping that the whole rose up, in one continuous movement, like the temples of the gods, as if of its own accord.

So, in order to achieve this, the artist cast the rest of the statue beforehand, and it was reassembled piece by piece, One piece was fixed to the part already cast, and a third piece was added when this was finished, and then each further part, just as it had been fashioned, was completed with the same skill. For whole parts of bronze could not be moved from the place where they were cast.

Seeing that the pieces were joined correctly, the artist en­sured that the joins and connecting rods were secured after the statue had been made even more firm by the stone laid in place to hold the work steady.

But the artist had to preserve the shape of the work in his mind for, as parts of the Colossus were finished he poured a huge quantity of earth about the base hiding that part already completed, so that he might finish the next parts from ground level. He gradually ascended to the very topmost point of his desire making a god-like image from 500 talents of bronze and 300 talents of iron, so freeing a great work of art from the bold mind of its creator; for in the world a second Sun stood face to face with the first.


Queen Semiramis created majesty and regal splendour with her immense wealth, for she paid no heed to jewels and treasure and so left behind a Wonder of the World. For she surrounded Babylon with walls, the foundations of which were 360 stadia in diameter so that running around the city ex­hausted the daily courier. But they are to be admired not only because of their size but also truly on account of the solidity of their construction and the width achieved with the materials, for the walls have been built out of baked brick and bitumen.

The height of the wall certainly exceeds fifty cubits, and truly the width of the course is such that four quadrigas can drive along them at the same time. There are numerous multi-storeyed towers stretching in an unbroken link of sufficient size to house within them a large army. For this reason the city-state is a fortress for the Persians and, gener­ally speaking, the city seems more or less self-sufficient, so many people live within its walls. Truly other states scarcely till as much land as Babylon covers with dwellings alone, and only at that place can the inhabitants walk about inside the walls.


The unique Temple of Artemis at Ephesos is the abode of gods. Whoever has gazed upon it will believe that the heavenly world of the immortals has changed places with the earth. The Giants, or Aloidae, who undertook to conquer Olympus with mountains, have now built not a temple but a dwelling fit for gods. Just as work in progress surpasses its foundation, so art, by its boldness, surpasses the work in progress.

The artist, isolated from everyone because his work was known only to him, dug trenches to an immense depth and exhausted the mountain quarries in laying his extensive foundations. A supporting structure, solid and firm, was placed down with immense sculptured columns (Atlantes) to support the heavy superstructure; initially he constructed a base raised by ten steps placed outside to serve as a platform …

(Here the manuscript ends, and the remainder of this sec­tion, as well as that covering the Mausoleum, are missing.)

   *   *   *   *

It is useful to have this translation, and very interesting to see the history of this little work.

  1. [1]G. Sarton, Hellenistic Science and Culture in the Last Three Centuries B.C., 1993, p.26.
  2. [2]I happened to see on Twitter a splendid depiction of the Colossus of Rhodes.  This led me to seek out the literary sources, and the Wikipedia article advised me of the existence of the translation.  I purchased a copy of the paperback, which arrived this week.
  3. [3]A. Diller, The Tradition of the Minor Greek Geographers, 1952.
  4. [4]Hermann von Rohden, De mundi miraculis quaestiones selectae, Bonn 1875.  Online here. Pp. 32-43 dates Philo in the fifth or sixth century because of his rigorous avoidance of hiatus.
  5. [5]These details all from Aubrey Diller’s fascinating monograph.
  6. [6]Seven leaves were stolen by a Greek adventurer, Minoides Mynas in September 1841 and ended up in Paris, as BNF supp. gr. 443A.
  7. [7]Rudolf Hercher (ed.), Aeliani De natura animalium, Varia historia, Epistolae et Fragmenta. Porphyrii Philosophi De abstinentia et De antro Nympharum. Philonis Byzantii De septem orbis spectaculis, 1858.  Online here.  Critical notes on p.lxx (p.80 of the PDF); the text is numbered strangely; Philo is labelled p.101-5.  (p.728 of the PDF)
  8. [8]Michael Ashley, The Seven Wonders of the World, Glasgow: Fontana Paperbacks, 1980.

Isidore of Seville – on the Tironian notae

From Isidore of Seville, Etmologiae, book 1, chapter 22:


[1] Vulgares notas Ennius primus mille et centum invenit. Notarum usus erat ut, quidquid pro con[ten]tione aut [in] iudiciis diceretur, librarii scriberent conplures simul astantes, divisis inter se partibus, quot quisque verba et quo ordine exciperet. Romae primus Tullius Tiro Ciceronis libertus commentus est notas, sed tantum praepositionum.

[2] Post eum Vipsanius, Philargius, et Aquila libertus Maecenatis alius alias addiderunt. Deinde Seneca, contractu omnium digestoque et aucto numero, opus efficit in quinque milia. Notae autem dictae eo, quod verba vel syllabas praefixis characteribus notent et ad notitiam legentium revocent; quas qui didicerunt proprie iam notarii appellantur. [1]

xxii. Common shorthand signs (De notis vulgaribus)

1. Ennius first invented eleven hundred common signs. These signs were used in this way: several scribes standing by together would write down whatever was said in a trial or judgment, with the sections distributed among them so that each scribe would take down a certain number ofwords in turn. In Rome,TulliusTiro, a freedman of Cicero’s, first devised such signs, but only for prepositions.

2. After him, Vipsanius, Philargius, and Aquila, another freedman of Maecenas, added others. Then, after the total number of signs had been collected, set in order, and increased in number, Seneca produced a work with five thousand signs. They are called ‘signs’ (nota) because they would designate (notare) words and syllables by predetermined characters and recall them to the knowledge (notitia) of readers. Those who have learned these signs are properly called stenographers (notarius) today.[2]

Isidore in fact lists various sorts of notae, and some of the manuscripts of the Commentarii Notarium Tironianarum quote him on some or all of them, so it’s worth a quick list:

XXI. DE NOTIS SENTENTIARVM – Critical signs.  These are things like asterisks, the obolus, the cryphia, the diple, etc.  Things that ancient scribes put in the margins of manuscripts!

XXIII. DE NOTIS IVRIDICIS – Signs used in law.  Abbreviations used in ancient law books, like “SC” for senatus consultum, i.e. a decree of the senate.

XXIV. DE NOTIS MILITARIBVS – Military signs.  These were symbols placed on the lists or rosters of soldiers, like a T “tau” meaning “alive” or a Θ (theta, for thanatos), indicating that the soldier was killed.

XXV. DE NOTIS LITTERARVM – Epistolary signs.  Secret codes used by letter writers to indicate to each other information, while looking innocuous.

XXVI. DE NOTIS DIGITORVM – Finger signals.  Gestures of particular meaning.

This work of Isidore seems full of interesting snippets of antiquity.  It really needs to be read in paper form – trying to do so from a PDF is frustrating!

  1. [1]Via The Latin Library.  An old source, online, but still valuable.
  2. [2]S. Barney &c, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, Cambridge, 2006, p.51.

An ancient handbook of short-hand: Tironian notes and the “Commentarii notarum Tironianarum”

A new article at the British Library Manuscripts blog, Emilia Henderson, “Note-worthy connections: antique shorthand in Carolingian books“,[1], discusses an obscure ancient text, the Commentarii notarum Tironianarum, or Lexicon Tironianum.  This is a handbook of short-hand, giving the symbols with the Latin word or phrase that they represent.

Bernard Bischoff wrote:

The name covers the many layers of material that we have in the Commentarii notarum tironianarum (CNT), a list of roughly 13,000 signs with their explanations, and in examples of their practical use as shorthand in many early medieval manuscripts and charters.

According to a credible statement by Isidore of Seville, M. Tullius Tiro, a freedman of Cicero’s, was the inventor of a basic corpus of signs that made writing from dictation easier for him. Other personalities of the first century BC and of the first century ad developed and expanded the system, amongst them Seneca (probably the philosopher). To the Commentarii that have been transmitted to us special lists of signs for names and concepts were added subsequently (among them Christian ones, which must belong to the latest additions, perhaps from the fourth century).[2]

There are something like 20 manuscripts of the Commentarii notarum Tironianarum, and a good number are online.  Here are some that I was able to locate.

  • British Library Additional 21164 – Here fol. 2v begins “De notis Militaribus”, and ends with “Incipiunt Notae Senecae”, before we get the title page on fol. 3r.:
BL. Add. 21164, folio 3r.
Fol. 1r.
Fol. 1v
Geneva Latin 85, fol. 1v.
BNF lat. 7493, folio 106r.
BNF latin 8777, fol. 1v
BNF latin 8779, fol. 15r.
Vatican latin 3799, fol. 1r
Wolfenbuttel 9-8-aug-4f

All these manuscripts are from the 9th century, I believe.  They show a common motif at the beginning, the dagger.  Some give a whole page, others abbreviate it; but perhaps it suggests that they derive from a common ancestor which was laid out like this.  I read somewhere that the tironian notae are used extensively in the post-Roman Merovingian period, becoming increasingly corrupt, but are then restored at the start of the Carolingian period by the discovery of a late-antique exemplar, from which these copies derive.  Unfortunately I do not have the reference for this claim.

There is an edition of the Commentarii notarum Tironianarum available, by W. Schmitz (1893),[4] and it may found downloaded from Archive.org here.  P. Legendre, Etudes tironiennes, Paris. (IV. Les manuscrits tironiens), 1907, contains a list of 21 manuscripts of the work, and is also online at Archive.org here.  R.M. Sheldon, Espionage in the Ancient World, 2015, p.90 (preview here) gives a bibliography and advises the reader to look at this work:

Herbert Boge, Griechische Tachygraphie und Tironische Noten: Ein Handbuch der antiken und mittelalterlichen Schnellschrift.  Boge begins with definitions of Tachygraphy (stenography) then goes on to discuss the examples found in the Greek world from the fourth century be including the Acropolis system, the consonant tables from Delphi, and examples from the second and first century BC. He then goes on to discuss Tironian notes and Roman shorthand writing. He includes an excellent bibliography.

It is, sadly, offline; and in German, so perhaps no loss.

The tironian notae may seem an old and obscure subject.  Yet they remain in use even today, in Southern Ireland.  The nota for “et”, , looking like a small numeral seven, is in unicode.  An Irish blogger, Stan Carey, posted this use on a street sign, as well as other examples in his post, “The Tironian et (⁊) in Galway, Ireland”.

How fascinating to see such a survival!

  1. [1]12th August, 2019.
  2. [2]Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages. p.80.  Preview here.
  3. [3]I did attempt to transcribe the prologue, probably not well: “Incipit de vulgaribus notis quomodo prius inventae sunt. Vulgares notas ennius primus mille & centum invenit notarum.  Usus erat repertus utquicquid procontentione aut iniudicus divisis incerse oartibus quod quisq: verba et quo ordine exciperet.  Romae primus Tullius tyro ciceronis libertus commentator est notas.  Sed tantum praepositio num; postcum tertius vipersammius philargius et aquila lib.tus mecenatis alius alias addiderunt.   Deine Seneca contractoque et aucto numero opus efficit in quique milia.  Notae autem dictae eo quod verba vel syllabas praefixis caracteribus notent, ut ad notitiam legentium revocent; quas qui didicerint. Propriae iam notarii appellantur.  Explicit prologus de vulgaribus notis.”
  4. [4]Commentarii notarum tironianarum cum prolegomenis adnotationibus criticis et exegeticis notarumque indice alphabetico : edidit Guilelmus Schmitz.

Drawings of Old St Peter’s in Arch.Cap.S.Pietro.A.64.ter

Another Vatican manuscript has come online, as I learn from @gundormr on Twitter here, and this one contains 16-17th century drawings of Old St Peter’s church in Rome. It has the rather awkward shelfmark of Arch.Cap.S.Pietro.A.64.ter, and may usually be found here, although I see tonight that the site is not working.

Here’s a small image in folio 10r, showing the courtyard outside the entrance, with annotations for the features.  A detailed list of contents is here.

On the right is the papal palace, in the middle is the fountain of the pine-cone, and ahead is the mosaic facade of the old church, behind a portico.

This is all well and good.  But the really spectacular part is if you download the image from folio 10r yourself.  The resulting .jpg file is huge – and this has an interesting effect, when you open it on your screen. You find yourself zooming in, effectively, on different parts of the courtyard.  Suddenly, we can see it!  It’s like being there:

We can see the entrance in the middle into the basilica.  That is not maximum resolution, by the way, either.

I can’t make out that much of the annotations, but it is simply wonderful to be able to do this.

Folio 12r is the inside of the basilica, and you can do exactly the same thing, and zoom in.

Well worth a look!

An unusual view of the Meta Sudans across the Piazza del Colosseo in 1930

The excellent Rome Ieri Oggi site has started posting again on Twitter, and today posted the following fascinating image from 1930:

Note the Meta Sudans in the middle.  By this date the brick stub of this ancient fountain had only a handful of years more in the world, before Mussolini demolished it.

Marvellous to see it!