The text tradition of the Greek artillery manuals

Few of us know much about the technical treatises of antiquity.  My last post, on Hero of Alexandria, inevitably mentioned his two works of this kind.  When I went to look at the volume in which a translation exists,[1] I was drawn into the question of how these works reach us.

As long ago as 1867, Wescher addressed this question, and, since his work is online, we can inform ourselves what he thought.[2]  The following notes are taken from Marsden’s volume, however.

The collection of works in Greek consists of Biton’s Construction of War Machines and Artillery; Hero’s Belopoeica and Cheiroballistra, and Philon’s Belopoeica.

Our knowledge of this collection depends in the main on four manuscripts.  All contain Biton and Hero, but only P and V contain Philon.

  • M — Codex Parisinus inter supplementa Graeca 607.  This is a collection of several manuscripts, bound together in the 15-16th century.  At one time it was in the library of Matthias Corvinus (1457-1490), and later belonged to the library of the Abbey of Vatopedi on Mount Athos.  It was acquired by a French government agent, Minoidas Minas, who was paid to search for and acquire manuscripts in the East.  He brought it to Paris in 1843, and transcribed a few sections which he made available to scholars, but concealed the manuscript itself, which was only discovered among his papers at his death in 1863.  It was naturally claimed as government property.  The central portion of the ms — folios 16-104 — contains Biton, and then the two works of Hero, and was copied by dictation from a manuscript in uncials, and may be 9-10 or 10-11th century.
  • F — Fragmenta Vindobonensia 120.  A rather carelessly copied ms. of the 16th century, contains lengthy excerpts of Biton and Hero which derive, not from M, but from a sister manuscript of equal antiquity, and that ancestor was somewhat better written than M.
  • P — Codex Parisinus 2442 (part of the manuscript is also in Codex Barberinianus 276).  It was carefully copied in the 11th century, and contains Biton, Hero and, at the end, Philon.
  • V — Codex Vaticanus 1164.  A sister manuscript of P, copied at the same time from the same exemplar.

There is also information to be had in the following:

  • C — Fragmentum in Codice Coisliniano 101.  This contains in its front binding two pages from an 11th century ms. very like P and V, and the text is part of Biton, plus some of Athenaeus Mechanicus.
  • V1 — Codex Vaticanus 219.  This is early 15th century, from the same sources as C, P and V.  But several later mss derive from it.
  • P2 — Codex Parisinus 2435.  A late ms., which was the original of the 1693 edition of Mathematici Veteres by Thevenot.
  • E — Codex Escorialensis Υ-111-11.  E seems to be a copy of V, made not long after V was written.  Some missing leaves (from Philon) are in Codex Borbonico-Neapolitanus.

There are other and more recent manuscripts, but all of them are copies or descendants of these eight.

It seems that a single uncial manuscript of Biton and Hero survived into the 9th century, when two copies were made from it.  One of these, M, survives, and contains traces of the Ionian dialect in Biton and Athenaeus Mechanicus.   The other is lost, but was the ancestor of F.  However at some point the dialect in this family was normalised.

Some time later, someone in the Byzantine world decided to create a collection of seige and tactical works.  This collection used the second family as a source; added three works of Philon, the Belopoeica, Parasceuastica, and Poliorcetica; and also added tactical works from a third source, creating a compendium of works.  P and V are copies of this collection.

In the process of compilation, however, the compiler managed to lose some of the diagrams.  Spaces are left in the text for three diagrams in Biton, which do appear in M, and one of them in F (the portions of the text where the others would be is not preserved in F).  There are likewise spaces in the text of Philon, where illustrations should be, which the compilation did not preserve.

  1. [1]E. W. Marsden, Greek and Roman artillery: technical treatises, Oxford, 1971.
  2. [2]C. Wescher, La poliorcetique des Grecs, Paris, 1887:, plus other copies on etc.  It contains details of the manuscripts, and then the texts with diagrams.

Leave a Reply