Waiting for Menander in the Vatican: 400 verses of Greek comedy discovered in a Syriac palimpsest manuscript

Here is a translation of Prof. Harlfinger’s article in German, since very many people cannot read that language:

The Greek comedy writer Menander (342 – 292 BC) is rightly seen as a classic of the world literature. Recently 400 verses of the poet were discovered in the library of the Vatican in a Syriac palimpsest manuscript. The MS is Vat. sir. 623.

Six weeks ago in the reading room of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, the undersigned – who was busying himself there in the context of a widespread European project for the investigation of palimpsest Greek – ordered up a Syriac codex for inspection. In the 1965 printed catalogue it is stated that the Syriac had been written in 886, and that it was made by reuse of numerous parchment leaves with lower texts in Palestinian Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, and Armenian. Instead of the accustomed wait of about a half hour, the entire day passed, without the requested manuscript appearing. The following morning it was announced politely that the desired palimpsest volume would not be accessible, because another colleague was concerned with the analysis of the lower Greek text.

A good two weeks later, the Vatican let us know the secret. In a carefully phrased article by Giovanni Ricciardi in the “Osservatore Romano” of the 6th of December, the public learns that four hundred Greek verses of the comedy poet Menander (about 342–292 BC) have come to light in a Syrian Palimpsest code of the end of the 9th century; they belonged to a codex of Menander of the 4th century AD, and that there were further parchment leaves originally written in other languages used, after washing off of the original writing to replace it with Christian sermons in the Syriac language.

Half of the verses come from Menanders play “Dyskolos” (the misanthropist), which was published for the first time in 1958 by Victor Martin from the famous collection of the Bibliophile Martin Bodmer in Geneva, and was probably one of the most important papyrus finds of the 20th century. The other half – that is the exciting surprise – is from an unknown comedy, that is also by Menander, with a girl, a baby – perhaps the fruit of an act of violence – and an old woman as figures. The indicated characters can be recognized for example in the only fragmentary pieces of Menander, “the Heroes”, “the farmer”, “the Perinthian”.

This wonderful discovery is the find of Francesco D’Aiuto, a young professor of Byzantine Studies at the second University of Rome, “Tor Vergata” who was active until recently as a specialist in Greek manuscripts at the Vatican library. Now it is not just the profession who is waiting in hope that he will publish his findings in detail as soon as possible. It needs no gift as a prophet to predict that immediately afterwards a lively debate will take place among philologists, historians of literature and theatre specialists around the textual criticism and the interpretation of the new verses. For Menander is a classic of the world literature. He was “the favorite of a millennium” from the theatre into the school. The Roman stage – a Plautus, a Terence – adapted him, and he was significant for the Christians also. The generally valid and true-to-life subject matter of his pieces, the fine psychological character drawing, that he contributed to the art of linguistic expression, his dramaturgical skill – everything in addition, meant that he could be named in the same breath with Homer. Obviously he did not pass through the historical writing bottleneck into the Middle Ages. So studies in the philology of Menander have concentrated on papyrus finds since the end of the 19th century, above all from the preserving sand of Egypt – and we must not forget a hundred verses in elegant 4th century Majuscule on two parchment leaves (today in St. Petersburg), which the well known Bible researcher Constantine von Tischendorff found in 1844 in the monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai; this location, and the fact that our find was partially also overwritten with Syriac, must be considered in regard of the new Menander in the Vatican.

Syriac over Greek, Christian texts over Attic comedies – this does not represent a clash of cultures, nor monastic intolerance, but rather is primarily a sign of poverty. The parchment material obtained from animal skin (especially goat, sheep) was costly; for a larger volume a small animal herd had to be sacrificed. Thus the palimpsests that by a more or less thorough deletion of the original writing (scriptio inferior) with a sponge or scraper, so that the leaves could be used again (scriptio superior).

Since the sensational palimpsest discoveries at the beginning of the 19th century, such as Cicero’s “De re publica” in the Vatican by Angelo Mai, people have striven to make the lower writing visible through technical means. The chemical tinctures that caused persistent damage were followed by damage-free special photography and ultraviolet lamps in the 20th century. In the very last years, the first good results were obtained with multi-spectral digitalization, and in Europe, a network of cooperation emerged for digital palimpsest research. The signs therefore look good for the reading of the Menander in the Vatican, on whose discovery we congratulate Francesco D’Aiuto and we wait in anticipation for its publication.

F. D’Aiuto has since announced further details on the manuscript discovery: Graeca in codici orientali della Biblioteca Vaticana (con i resti di un manoscritto tardoantico delle commedie di Menandro), in: Tra Oriente e Occidente. Scritture e libri greci fra le regioni orientali di Bisanzio e l’Italia a cura di Lidia Perria, Rom 2003 (= Testi e studi bizantino-neoellenici XIV), S. 227-296 (hier 266-283 mit Tafeln 13-14).


1) This article first appeared in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Internationale Ausgabe, Nr. 301, am Montag, dem 29. Dezember 2003, Feuilleton S. 16. For this publication, the original heading by the author was restored and the concluding sentence added. The author is professor for classic philology at the University of Hamburg. He leads an EU project on palimpsest research (cf. http://www.rrz.uni-hamburg.de/RV).

UPDATE (21/6/2016): I learn from this link that other parts of the Dyscolus were found in P.Bodmer 4 in  1958; and that portions of the Misoumenos were found in 1981 in P.Oxy. XLVIII 3368.


10 thoughts on “Waiting for Menander in the Vatican: 400 verses of Greek comedy discovered in a Syriac palimpsest manuscript

  1. At what’s new in papyrology there are a few postings dated a few years ago on this find. Menander was replaced by Aristophanes on the Byzantine school curriculum probably because his language was not classical Attic, it is Hellenistic. The Church fathers talk positively about him, his loss probably can be dated to the distruction of the Imperial Library of Constantinople by the 4th Crusaders, the world’s worst cultural crime…

  2. Thanks for the info.

    I agree about the sack of Constantinople in 1204. So much was lost, as we can tell from Photius’ “Bibliotheca”. But I tend to say that those responsible were “a renegade army originally assembled for the Fourth crusade”. Those responsible were the Venetians, not the church, and the latter excommunicated the troops for it.

  3. What I seem to find is the Libraries of constantinople were not so much destroyed as raided. Surviving materials keep popping up that indicated much survived to be reused in Jursalem, Syria and the surrounding areas.

    This indicates many books survived the original raid on Constantinople. How and where else might the surviving books been used or stashed? As valuable as the vellum was at the time, not much would have been destroyed outright (outside of by fires),

  4. The euchologion that makes up the Archimedes palimpest was supposed to have been written in Jerusalem by April 1229. The Fourth crusade sacked Constantinople in April 1204. Anything written on vellum from that period, in that area, has some degree of probability of classic underwriting. This Syriac codex, despite the presumed dating of 886, probably also came from a Constantinople library, maybe even from the 1204 sack.

    An inventory of all vellums from that era and area would yield some great classical finds. The Arab texts from that time also have a high chance of survival if we can covince them to allow the penetrating analysis needed.

    Have the texts of this Vatican Syriac Codex been released?

  5. I’d have to search to find out the shelfmark of the Vatican Syriac codex, then look around for what was in it, and so on. Since I’m rather busy I won’t do that.

    But Syriac codices in Constantinople in 1204? It seems a little unlikely.

  6. Not good news I hear- this still could take years before it sees the light of day.

  7. Still no news………….this is one of the the most frustrating waits. Thirteen years since announcement and still no text. I wonder what is happening.

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