A papyrus of the lost Autobiography of Hadrian; and a papyrus of the lost History of Seneca the Elder

The excellent Carole Raddato posted on her blog this image of a papyrus fragment.  It turns out to be a portion from the lost autobiography of Hadrian, which, it seems, was written in letter form.  The papyrus is from Oxyrhynchus (of course).  Here is a part of what she tells us:

This papyrus (OIM E8349), which Is not on display, was found at the site of Backhias (Umm el ‘Atl) in Egypt by the scholars Grenfell, Hunt, and Hogarth who excavated in the Fayum in end of the 19th century. The document is written on the back of a 2nd century AD tax list. It claims to be a letter from the emperor Hadrian to someone named Antoninus, who can be identified as Hadrian’s successor Antoninus Pius. The papyrus is not large, consisting of only 20 lines, written in two different hands. The first fifteen lines are written clearly, while the last five (which repeat the first five lines on the papyrus) are written far more irregularly, which shows this was a school text.

A translation of the papyrus, from J. Bollansée’s article: “P. Fay.” 19, Hadrian’s Memoirs, and Imperial Epistolography, published in the journal Ancient Society 1994, is as follows:

Imperator Caesare Hadrianus Augustus to his highly-esteemed Antoninus, greeting. Above all I would like you to know that I am being released from life neither untimely nor unreasonably, pitably, unexpectedly or with faculties impaire, though – as I have perceived – I thus may appear to do you wrong, you who sites at my bedside, never ceases to comfort me and urges me to hold on. Consequently I feel compelled to write you the following, not, by Zeus, to cunningly paint some vulgar picture stretching the truth, but to give a straightforward and accurate account of the facts themselves (…)
My natural father was taken ill and died as a private citizen at forty, hence I have survived him by more than half his age; I have approximately reached the same age as my mother, who lived to be sixty. I am presently in my [sixty-third] year…

This text is thought to form part of Hadrian’s autobiography which was probably written in epistolary form to his successor Antoninus Pius. Other Romans had written their political autobiography in this form such as Sulla who wrote his autobiography to his lieutenant L. Lucullus and Augustus who wrote his autobiography to Agrippa and Maecenas. Several literary sources explicitly note that Hadrian wrote his autobiography.

Very nice!

Another recent papyrus find is reported by La Republica.  The papyrus is from Herculaneum and is P.1067, although the article (in Italian) does not give the text.  But there are some fascinating slides of  the whole roll!

The Roman sponge-on-a-stick

The Romans didn’t use toilet paper.  Instead they used a sponge on a stick.  Or at least, that is my understanding.

I’m not sure what our sources are for this, but one came my way this week.  It’s from Seneca’s Letters 70, ch. 20:

20.  Nuper in ludo bestiariorum unus e Germanis, cum ad matutina spectacula pararetur, secessit ad exonerandum corpus – nullum aliud illi dabatur sine custode secretum; ibi lignum id quod ad emundanda obscena adhaerente spongia positum est totum in gulam farsit et interclusis faucibus spiritum elisit. Hoc fuit morti contumeliam facere. Ita prorsus, parum munde et parum decenter: quid est stultius quam fastidiose mori?

20.  For example, there was lately in a training-school for wild-beast gladiators a German, who was making ready for the morning exhibition; he withdrew in order to relieve himself, – the only thing which he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body. That was truly to insult death![1]

I wonder if they had to share a stick?

  1. [1]Latin from the Latin Library here; English taken from the Loeb translation, found here on Wikimedia Commons.

How the works of the elder Seneca get to us

Seneca the elder has left us two works, the Controversiae in 10 books and the Suasoriae in 2 books.  Both are textbooks on how to address a Roman court.  A supposed case is proposed: e.g. a priest is burned rescuing the image of Minerva from a burning temple.  Now because a priest must be whole in body, some say he cannot be a priest.   Seneca states the case, and then gives arguments that an orator might make, first for one side, then for the other.  He isn’t concerned with the “right” answer, so much as showing how to argue the case.  Each book of cases is given a preface, in which Seneca talks about orators of the past.

The works do not reach us intact, although they travelled down the centuries together.  In fact we have two kinds of manuscript.

Firstly there are manuscripts which contain the complete text of the Controversiae, plus the two books of the Suasoriae.  Unfortunately none of these manuscripts gives all ten books of the Controversiae.  They give books 1, 2, 7, 9 and 10, complete.  And they only include the prefaces to books 7, 9 and 10.

Three manuscripts are important for this form of the text.  First there is Antwerp 411 (=A), from the end of the 9th or start of the 10th century, and written in eastern France.  Brussels 9594 (=B) is slightly earlier, from the third quarter of the 9th century and north-eastern France.  Both manuscripts have suffered damage, and contain superficial corruptions but a basically sound text.  Then there is Vatican latin. 3872 (=V), of the same date as B and from Corbie, which is independent of A and B.  The text seems to be the result of ‘correction’, either in late antiquity or the middle ages.

Fortunately we have another line of transmission.  At some point down the years, probably in the 5th century, someone made extracts from all ten books of the Controversiae, and included the prefaces.  We have manuscripts of this edited version, although once again prefaces have been lost.  But this gives us prefaces for books 1-4, 7 and 10, filling the gap for prefaces in the first family. 

The most important manuscript of this family is Montpellier 126 (=M), again written in the third quarter of the 9th century, partly in hands with the distinctive letter-forms of the abbey of Reims.  There are numerous later manuscripts, all derived from M.  But there are also four leaves of a manuscript written around 800 AD, Bamberg Msc. Class. 45m, which is close in type to M.

The end result is that we get the prefaces for books 1 and 2, which we have in the full text form, plus prefaces for books 3 and 4, where the text is extracts; books 5 and 6 and 8 just the extracts; and books 7, 9 and 10 complete.

When  thinking about how manuscripts reach us, it is  always useful to see what is normal.   Most of the general public are not familiar with this, and consequently invent their own imaginary standards of “reliable transmission of texts”.  It is unfortunate that a professional text critic, Bart Ehrman, has published several books which encourage this tendency to suppose that books do not reach us from antiquity.  Only this weekend I had to respond to a post by one of his idiot disciples, who had decided that the bible could not possibly reach us because … there are different textual families!  It is difficult not to feel that Ehrman deserves such an audience, the natural consequence of publishing books that lead the public to suppose that textual criticism is pointless.