The Bankes 2nd c. Homer papyrus roll now online at the British Library

I wonder how many of us have ever heard of the “Bankes papyrus”?  Certainly not I, before today.  Yet it is a fascinating item.

A tweet from Sarah Biggs alerted me that:

The Bankes Homer is now online & blog post to come! (Papyrus 114, Greek, 2nd century).

P.Lond.lit.28, British Library papyrus 114, is a 2nd century Greek roll, containing the last 16 columns of Iliad 24.

The website browser is a bit “wobbly”, but displays a single image of the whole unrolled item (which is probably the right thing to do).  I’m not sure whether a PDF of such an image is even technically possible, which is what one would otherwise want to have.

There are two images; one in a frame and one without.  The framed image is clearly just for reference, as it isn’t very zoomable.  It isn’t clear whether the verso is blank.

At the end is the colophon which consists only of “Ἰλίαδος Ω”, as is common in the papyri.[1]  If you zoom and pan, you eventually see something like this:


But of course you must look for yourself.  The digitisation is really remarkable, and the quality of the result is extraordinary.  You can probably see more, than you could if you were holding the item itself.

I learn from the page on the BL website – which is really very good, with very nice references for us to look up on Google books! – that William Bankes purchased the roll at Elephantine in 1821.  The discovery was made by a certain Giovanni Finati, acting for him, and is told as follows:[2]

… we all took our departure together for Assouan. And it was during our stay there of a few days that, on the opposite island of Elephantine, (which I have always remarked to be, after Thebes, the place where the greatest harvest of curious antiquities is brought for sale by the natives,) a roll of papyrus in the Greek character + was put into my hands, for which I bargained and fixed the price in the first place, and then took it to Monsieur Linant[3] for the money, stipulating at the time that it was to be bought on Mr. Bankes’s account.

This roll proved to be that manuscript of Homer * which is considered so precious, but which it grieved me afterwards, and ever will, to have seen sold for more than its weight in gold + to that gentleman whom I considered the owner of it, and who would certainly have had it at my hands, without any further demand.

+ In my own journey, I bought a scrap of Greek upon papyrus in a very fine clear character, which seems to be the fragment of a letter or edict. I have a great number of tiles also written in a cursive Greek character, and highly curious upon that account, which purport to be receipts of pay by the Roman soldiery at Assouan during several reigns, from Tiberius to Commodius—one of these I found myself at Elephantine; and I have an amphora, also, that has served the same purposes as a modern slate to some tradesman’s family in Roman times, with his house or shop accounts registered upon it in ink from day to day.

* It contains the last book of the Iliad, most beautifully written, in uncial letters, and the lines numbered in the margin: what is very surprising, it has had accents added to it afterwards.

+ The author, though the first who had the handling of this papyrus, seems here to have formed a very undue estimate of its weight, for the sum which I paid for it amounted to no less than 25,000 piastres (about 500l.), that being stated as the offer that had been made for it from another quarter.

It is wonderful to have this item online!  How many of us would ever have been able to see it otherwise?  I doubt many of us could have managed to induce the keeper to let us see it, as recently as 10 years ago.

For this is what an ancient book looked like.  This is a real roll, complete with the end of the book.  Not a fragment of one; but 16 columns of it.

Look, and admire, and wonder!

  1. [1]As discussed in F. Schironi, Τὸ Μέγα Βιβλίον: Book-ends, End-titles, and Coronides in Papyri with Hexametric Poetry, American Studies in Papyrology 48), Durham (NC) 2010, no. 25 (pp. 134-35).
  2. [2]W. J. Bankes, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Giovanni Finati, Native of Ferrara, 2 vols, London 1830, vol. 2, pp. 357-58. Online here.
  3. [3]Retained to search for antiquities by Bankes.

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