The manuscripts of Polybius

The Greek writer Polybius wrote a history in 40 books which recorded events from 264 BC down to the fall of Carthage in 146 BC.[1]  The work must still have existed in a complete form in the Byzantine era, when extracts were made from it, but has not come down to us intact.  However a great deal of it survives.

The remains can be classed as follows:

  • Books 1-5 survive complete.
  • Long extracts of books 6-18 are preserved in a collection known as the Excerpta Antiqua.  The oldest manuscript of this, F, in fact also contains excerpts of books 1-5, but later manuscripts omit these.
  • Shorter extracts from all the books are included in some of the massive historical compilations made at the command of the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (d. 959 AD).

A monograph with a detailed study of the manuscript tradition was published by J.M. Moore.[2]

Manuscripts of the full text

The following are the manuscripts:

  • A = Vaticanus graecus 124 (once 126). 10th c., probably AD 947.
  • B = London, British Library, Add. 11728. AD 1616.
  • B2 = Marcianus gr. VII, 4. 15th c.  Copy of B.
  • B3 = Florence, Mediceo-Laurentianus Plutei 69, 9. AD 1435, made for Filefo.
  • B4 = Marcianus gr. 371. Mid 15th c.  Once belonged to Bessarion.
  • B5 = Marcianus gr. 369. AD 1470. Copied for Bessarion.
  • C = Munich gr. 157. 14th c.  Polybius is on f.1-91v, the remainder containing Herodian and Heliodorus.  It came from Constantinople after 1453, as a note on f.169r states; then to the library of Matthias Corvinus , King of Hungary (d. 1490), then to Joachim Camerarius who presented it to Albrecht V of Bavaria (d. 1579), whose library forms the nucleus of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek today.
  • C2 = Vaticanus Urbinas gr. 101.  Written between 1455-1474.
  • Z = Vaticanus gr. 1005. 15th c.
  • Z2 = Constantinople, Top Kapu Serai, fonds Ahmet III, 25. 15th c.
  • D = Munich gr. 388 (also contains Excerpta Antiqua). 14th c.
  • E = Paris, BNF, graecus 1648. Once Medici Reg. 1859.  Late 14-early 15th c.
  • J = Vienna phil. gr. 59. 15th c.  A damaged and disarranged ms.
  • F = Vaticanus Urbinas gr. 102 (contains Excerpta Antiqua for books 1-18). 10-11th c.
  • C3 = Paris, BNF, gr. 1796 + Oxford Bodleian Laud. gr. 4. Mid. 16th c.
  • C4 = Paris, BNF, gr. 1649. AD 1547.
  • C5 = Paris, BNF, Coislin. 318. 16th c.

The following mss. contain only a single short excerpt from book 2.  They are all 15th c. except Z4 which is 16th c.

  • Z3 = Paris, BNF, gr. 1739.
  • Z4 = Paris, BNF, gr. 462.
  • Z5 = Paris, BNF, gr. 2376.
  • Z6 = Milan, Ambrosianus, gr. F88 sup.
  • Z7 = Leiden Scal. gr. 51.

All the mss. above derive from a copy in which there are certain common errors.  In book 4, 20:7 some words preserved by Athenaeus are lost, for instance.

A is the best ms.  From it derive B and its children and C4.

An independent manuscript which contained at least books 1-18 is the origin of the remaining mss.  From this ms. was made the Excerpta Antiqua, preserved in Ms. F.  and also another ms, from which the other mss descend; C, Z, D, E and J.

C3, C4 and C5 are copies of the editio princeps, which was printed from C.

The Excerpta Antiqua

There are two pages of mss. containing portions of these.  The principal mss. are:

  • F = Vaticanus Urb. gr. 102, as above.
  • F2 = Vaticanus gr. 1647. 15th c.
  • F3 = Florence, Mediceo-Laurentianus plutei 69, 21. 16th c.
  • D = Munich gr. 388, as above.
  • D2 = Vaticanus gr. 125. 16th c.
  • D3 = Oxford, Bodleian, Archbishop Selden B 18. 16th c.  Once belonged to Casaubon.
  • G = Florence, Mediceo-Laurentianus Plut. 69, 9. Ms. B3 above is also in the same physical volume. 16th c.
  • K = Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale Francais, gr. 2967. 15th c.

F is unique in two ways.  Firstly it contains excerpts from books 1-5.  Since the full text of these was available elsewhere, these did not get copied.  Secondly it not only contains the lengthy extracts, but in the margin it contains a large number of short passages from the sections not included in the main excerpts.  Most of these are also in F2, but not in the other mss (with 3 exceptions).

F, K, G and D are independent of each other.

The Constantinian Excerpts

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus ordered the creation of a number of compilations of excerpts from earlier texts.  Most are now lost.

The extracts from books 1-5 in these compilations derive from a manuscript which is independent of the tradition we have.  The lacunae in all the mss. of the full text are not found in these excerpts.

  • P = Turonensis 980 (once 955) (Tours, Bibliotheque Municipale). 10th c. Contains the Excerpta de virtutibus et vitiis.  Two folios at the beginning praising Constantine VII were printed, but are now lost.
  • M = Vatican gr. 73 (once 91).  10-11th c.  Contains the Excerpta de sententiis.  A palimpsest, discovered by Angelo Mai with the use of chemicals, but now many pages are entirely black and unreadable.  Only ms. for this compilation.
  • Q = Scorialensis Ω 1 11 (once 1K3, 1Z2). 16th c. Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo el Real, El Escorial.  Contains the Excerpta de insidiis.
  • T = Paris, BNF, Suppl. gr. 607. 10th c. Contains the Excerpta de strategematis.

There are also extracts from Polybius in the Excerpta de legationibus, extant in a number of 16th c. manuscripts, all derived from a manuscript lost in the fire at the Escorial in 1671.

  1. [1]This from the introduction to the 1922 Loeb edition.
  2. [2]J.M. Moore, The manuscript tradition of Polybius, Cambridge (1965).  This post is derived mainly from this source.

2 thoughts on “The manuscripts of Polybius

  1. The story of the “Lost Library of Ivan III” is new to me. But it sounds terribly bogus. Lucien X. Palastron, “Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries Throughout History”, Vermont, 2007 (a translation of “Livres en feu”), p.320, here, describes the story, and rightly compares it to the grail.

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