Galen on a 300-year old papyrus roll

Another interesting statement from Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars (3rd ed) appears on p.34:

Although papyrus is tougher than most people think, and a roll might last as long as 300 years (Galen 18(2),630), the average life would be shorter, and parchment was a much more durable material; in time its toughness was to prove a vital factor in the survival of classical literature.

The reference, to the Roman medical writer Galen, would be inscrutable to most of us.  Fortunately on this blog we wear our underpants over our trousers, metaphorically, and so readers may know that this is a reference to the 20-volume edition of the works of Galen by Kuhn, published in the series Medicorum Graecorum between 1821-6.  Such brief references are an unnecessary pain to the beginner, however.

Several volumes of this series are online.  Vol. 18, part 2 is on Google books here, and page 630 is here.   On p.629 we find that this is Hippocratis de medici officina liber et Galeni in eum commentarius I1 book by Hippocrates on the workshop of a doctor and Galen’s commentary on it.  The work begins with a preface from Galen, of which this is a part. I might see if I can get the preface as a whole translated.

Meanwhile, here’s the sentence.  Galen is talking about the work of Hippocrates which he is reproducing:

τινὲς μὲν γὰρ καὶ πάνυ παλαιῶν βιβλίων ἀνευρεῖν ἐσπούδασαν πρὸ τριακοσίων ἐτῶν γεγγραμμένα, τὰ μὲν ἔχονιες ἐν τοῖς βιβλίοις, τὰ δὲ ἐν τοῖς χάρτοις, τὰ δὲ ἐν διαφόροις φιλύραις, ὥσπερ τὰ παρ̕ ἡμῖν ἐν Περγάμῳ.

Quidam enim etiam vetustissima volumina ante trecentos annos scripta invenire studuerant, quae partim quidem in libris, partim vero in chartis, partim demum in tiliaceis membranis, quemadmodum apud nos Pergami conservabant.

For some also had desired to find very old volumes, written three hundred years ago, which I had at Pergamum, of which part were preserved in rolls, part on papyrus (χάρτοις), and part on excellent lime-tree bark (διαφόροις φιλύραις).

The διαφόροις φιλύραις I thought was parchment — that’s what membranis usually means in the sort of books I read! — but LSJ suggests that  φιλύραις is the “the bass underneath [the lime-tree’s] bark, used for writing on, Gal. 18(2).630,” — this very passage! — “Hdn. 1.17.1, D.C. 72.8 ; for garlands, φιλύρας . . ἄφυλλος στέφανος Xenarch. 13 .”

Galen at least did indeed believe a roll could be 300 years old.  The fact that some of the material wasn’t even on papyrus, but on bark, suggests that this is real testimony.

UPDATE: A translation of the whole preface from the Greek is here.


12 thoughts on “Galen on a 300-year old papyrus roll

  1. One wonders how old the biblical manuscripts were that were used by the translators of the New Testament in antiquity. For example if Wulfila (4th century) used manuscripts that were just 50 or 100 years old, these would easily predate our oldest Bibles. If he used manuscripts that were as old as Galen’s then his sources would predate even our earliest fragments. The same can be said for other translations (Coptic, Syriac, Latin)

  2. Roger, it’s gems like this post that keep me coming back to your blog. When I read that bit about the underpants, I almost fell out of my chair.

    Antiquity would be far more alive to us today if our scholars wrote like you do.

  3. I remember reading an article on GRBS on the topos of invented historical past for works of fiction, most significantly Dictys Cretensis. It had a note that in Imperial Times most papyri would last about a century and that while 1st century historians noted as very common to see orders written personally by Augustus, 2nd century historians would note it as something very rare to find in their time

  4. @Tom, I think most rolls did not last all that long. Copying of manuscripts tends to prefer recent copies to older ones, because they are easier to read (no old-fashioned book hand, abbreviations, etc). The Italian transmission of the works of Tertullian illustrates this, where all the copies are derived from a single copy. That single copy was in a gothic hand, and as soon as it reached Italy ca. 1430, Niccolo Niccoli copied it into humanistic script. This was kept with the gothic copy, and still is today. But all the copies were made from Niccoli’s copy, directly or indirectly, and none from the gothic ms stood next to it.

    @Ted, it just came to me — that you’d have to be superman to understand that reference in S&S!

    @ikokki — it must have been an interesting article. Do you recall the details? In particular, was any reference given for the claims about papyri lasting a century, or the prevalence of autographs of Augustus? S&S says something similar, but no references.

  5. It was an article on Dictys Cretensis. I was browsing the website and decided to read it. It did have references

  6. A lot probably depended on local conditions. If you were treating papyrus lovingly, and it was neither too wet nor too dry and there wasn’t much light or temperature variation, of course they’d last. After a while, if people were generally copying from more user-friendly secondary copies, the papyrus wouldn’t get much wear and tear. If books were personal copies of someone famous, they do seem to have been valued better and treated with more care by collectors and readers, even as today.

    Did the Roman world get into affixing/glueing scrolls to backers, like the Chinese did? I wonder, would that would keep papyrus from going to bits for a bit longer? (Assuming the glue didn’t itself degrade the papyrus.)

  7. @Maureen: I don’t know about backings, I have to say. Your logic is good. I sometimes think this is why Vaticanus and Bezae of the bible exist — they were too different to be used, so survive.

    @Ikokki: what is GRBS?

  8. Well, it’s a nice-looking site and the indexes of the works in the volumes of Kuhn are useful. But I’ve been quite unable to download many of the volumes — attempts to do so give errors when I save the PDF. Something amiss, I fear.

Leave a Reply