Did the plays of Menander survive to the renaissance

I was very tired last night, and in need of something gentle to read.  So I took Andrew Lang’s Books and Bookmen to bed with me.  The name of Andrew Lang is one that I knew when I was a lad, for Tolkien refers to him often in his essay on fantasy, as the author of the Blue Fairy Book and other collections of literary. 

The essay was published in Tree and Leaf, which, like many another Tolkien fan I bought and found somewhat uncomfortable.  The ‘leaf’ story, Leaf by Niggle, was charming, although I was oblivious to the deeper meaning that only time could bring.  But as for ‘tree’, the essay, it was a puzzle. I had never heard of literary criticism, when I read it; nor, indeed, of Andrew Lang, who is perhaps a forgotten author these days.

The copy of Books and Bookmen itself was a century old, on good paper, and a delight to read and handle.  Stamps at various places indicated that it had once belonged to Norwich public library, which had foolishly disposed of it.  So I read of the Elzevir editions, of the bibliophilia of France, of the famous Derome blue binding which fades so badly, and of other things of no real importance to a poor man like myself, but curiously soothing.

In the middle of the book was an essay on literary forgeries, itself of considerable interest and relevance today, when the so-called Jordan Lead Codices are being touted.  But one passage caught my eye:

After the Turks took Constantinople, when the learned Greeks were scattered all over Southern Europe, when many genuine classical manuscripts were recovered by the zeal of scholars, when the plays of Menander were seen once, and then lost for ever, it was natural that literary forgery should thrive.

Is it so?  Were the plays of Menander then extant?

I don’t know what Lang’s source is for this remark, and I can’t find any leads.  If any reader does know, perhaps he would share his knowledge with us?

In the mean time, tonight, I shall continue to read Books and Bookmen.

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.

A palimpsest of Menander in the Vatican

Menander did not reach us.  The New Comedy dramatists works were not part of the Byzantine school curriculum, and, at some time in the Dark Ages, the last manuscript was reused for other purposes.

A post in the CLASSICS-L list tells me that a manuscript was found in the Vatican in 2003, manufactured from reused parchment from a late-antique codex containing works by Menander.  Apparently hundreds of verses of this author can be recovered from the pages. 

A reference is given, with a mention of Wikipedia, which has a link to an article in German about this by D. Harlfinger (which says the Vatican ms. is a *Syriac* manuscript!):

F. D’Aiuto: 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 (esp. 266-283 and plates 13-14).

But the posters says that this “did not publish entire Greek text, and that in 2006 we were “still waiting” for an edition. “