Medieval manuscripts blog

75 posts categorized "Greek"

20 August 2015

The Constitution of the Athenians and the History of Athenian Democracy

Add comment Comments (0)

Building the Ancient City: Athens and Rome begins tonight on BBC2. The first episode includes footage and discussion of the Constitution of the Athenians (Papyrus 131).

While a great many important texts have survived from antiquity, many others have been lost to us. These we know only from sporadic quotations and mentions in extant works, leaving us to wonder what they might have been able to teach us about the ancient world.

For many centuries, Aristotle’s Constitutions, and in particular the Constitution of the Athenians, was numbered amongst the most important of these. According to Diogenes Laertius, Aristotle and his school collected the constitutions of 158 Greek city-states and wrote commentaries on each of them. Of these 158 commentaries, 68 are mentioned by name in other sources, clearly marking the Constitutions as a significant work in antiquity. In addition, the Constitution of the Athenians itself was known from 90 separate quotations, setting it apart from the others in terms of its importance to philosophers, historians, and other scholars in antiquity. Aristotle himself gave us evidence for the existence of the Constitutions, stating at the end of his Nicomachean Ethics that his Politics would be based in part on the “collected constitutions”.

The beginning of the surviving portion of the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 1v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

In light of this, the discovery of nearly the whole text of the Constitution of the Athenians at the end of the nineteenth century was monumental. In 1879, two leaves of a papyrus codex, dating from the fourth century, were acquired by the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin. These contain fragments of the Constitution of the Athenians with marginalia. Then, in 1889, three papyrus rolls, dating from the late first century, were found in Egypt by E. A. Wallis Budge, an assistant at the British Museum. These were sent back to London and accessioned as Papyrus 131. A fourth roll followed in 1890, but unfortunately, this was far more damaged than the other three. Frederic Kenyon, later Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, but then a young assistant in the Department of Manuscripts, was able to identify the text of the papyrus as the Constitution of the Athenians. Unfortunately, the papyrus lacks the opening sections of the work, which are believed to have dealt with legendary figures such as Ion and Theseus. Kenyon’s first edition was published in 1891, along with an English translation.

The second surviving roll of the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 3v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

The importance of this text for our understanding of the development, nature, and challenges of Athenian democracy cannot be overstated, and it has remained an object of scholarly study since its discovery. It recounts the history of Athenian legal and political institutions down to 403 BC and analyses their form and quality in the 330’s and 320’s – it should be noted that it does not declare or create these institutions, as a modern reader may imagine given the title ‘Constitution.’ Instead, along with other Classical texts, particular those by Herodotus, Xenophon (who also has a Constitution of the Athenians credited to his name), and Thucydides, the work gives us a clearer picture of Athenian history and government.

The fragmentary fourth roll containing the Constitution of the Athenians. Papyrus 131, f 5v. Egypt (?near Hermopolis), c 100.

It should be noted that since the work’s publication, its attribution to Aristotle himself has been debated – not least because the style of the work is quite different from that found elsewhere in Aristotle. The fact that the work is in a different genre from the rest of Aristotle’s works may, however, be enough to explain the stylistic variance. Certainly, the ancient sources unanimously credit the work to him. Whether written by Aristotle himself or not, the text remains a significant primary source for Classical Athens, and a treasured piece of cultural history.

-          Andrew St. Thomas

19 August 2015

Handlist of Greek Manuscripts in the British Library

Add comment Comments (0)

The completion of the third phase of the Greek Manuscripts Digitisation Project is as good a time as any to release to this world a handy spreadsheet containing details of the Greek manuscripts held by the British Library. The spreadsheet includes a brief description of the content and links to Digitised Manuscripts and to the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts where the material has been digitised; it also notes which printed catalogue (Richard’s Inventaire or the 1999 Summary Catalogue) describes the item. Almost all the items listed are described in full on the main British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. Items in bold in the handlist are cared for by our colleagues in Asian and African Collections. Finally, links are included to the relevant entry on Pinakes, the important database for Greek manuscripts run by the IRHT in Paris.

- Cillian O'Hogan

The most recent manuscript to be acquired by the British Library, Add MS 82957, f 1r. Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), 2nd half of the 11th century

06 August 2015

Greek and Latin papyri acquired since 1956

Add comment Comments (0)

Papyrus 3053. Drawing of a bear in the arena. Found at Oxyrhynchus among documents dating from the third century.

Details of newly-acquired papyri were historically recorded in the Catalogue of Additions published at periodic intervals over the years. The existing Catalogue of Additions series only includes papyri acquired before 1956. It had been intended to detail the later acquisitions in a future volume of the Catalogue of Additions, but as these are no longer published, the papyri (Papyrus 2923-3136, and Egerton Papyrus 37) have not been as widely known as they perhaps might be. In an effort to bring them to greater attention, we have compiled a short Register of Papyri Acquired since 1956, which can be downloaded here as an Excel file. This gives details of British Library inventory number, details of publication where that is known, a Trismegistos number if extant, notes of any other papyri that originally formed part of the same document or book, source and date of acqusition, and a brief description of contents. All items are in Greek unless noted otherwise: this list does not include any papyri in other languages that may have been acquired by Asian and African Collections. Demotic and hieroglyphic papyri are cared for by the Department of Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum.

Only one item has been digitised, Papyrus 3053 (P. Oxy. 2470, pictured above), but all these papyri would be included in any future digitisation project.

The bulk of the acquisitions are known to scholars, forming a large portion of the Hibeh Papyri (Papyrus 2943-3035), Volume 27 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (Papyrus 3036-3063), and many of the Michaelides papyri (Papyrus 3100-3132), though not all of the latter have been edited. In addition, other acquisitions, or items incorporated from “limbo” or transferred from other departments in the British Museum or British Library, are mostly fragmentary, but would certainly benefit from further study.

We are not aware of any current research being carried out on the items in this list, but always welcome details of editions, and offprints, where possible, which can be sent in the first instance to the Manuscripts and Maps Reference Team.

- Cillian O’Hogan

21 July 2015

Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript

Add comment Comments (0)

We are delighted to announce the publication of a new book, Codex Sinaiticus: New Perspectives on the Ancient Biblical Manuscript, edited by Scot McKendrick (Head of Western Heritage at the British Library), David Parker (Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham), Amy Myshrall (Research Fellow at the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham) and Cillian O’Hogan (Curator of Classical and Byzantine Studies at the British Library).


Codex Sinaiticus was produced in the middle of the fourth century, and is one of the two oldest Christian Bibles to survive largely intact from antiquity (the other being Codex Vaticanus in Rome). It is also the oldest complete copy of the New Testament in existence. Preserved for many centuries at St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, it is now dispersed between four institutions: St Catherine’s Monastery, the British Library, Leipzig University Library, and the National Library of Russia.

The book consists of the proceedings of a conference held in 2009 to mark the launch of the Codex Sinaiticus website, and its publication marks the culmination of the Codex Sinaiticus Project. It contains twenty-two articles, dealing with all aspects of the manuscript and its history, divided into five sections: Historical Setting, the Septuagint, Early Christian Writings, Modern Histories of Codex Sinaiticus, and Codex Sinaiticus Today. Together with the extensive research to be found on the Codex Sinaiticus website, the book provides the most up-to-date information available about the manuscript. It includes a general index, an index of Biblical passages, a list of papyri and manuscripts, and numerous high-resolution images of Codex Sinaiticus.

Formally launched at an event at the British Library last night, the book is published by British Library Publishing in association with Hendrickson Publishers. It is available for purchase in the UK now from the British Library Shop, and will be available in the United States from Hendrickson this September.

John 21:1-21:25. Codex Sinaiticus (Add MS 43725, f 260r), Eastern Mediterranean (?Palestine), mid-4th century.

- Cillian O’Hogan

27 June 2015

Art in the margins: the Theodore Psalter

Add comment Comments (1)

The psalter, a copy of the Psalms designed for personal or liturgical uses, was an important text in Byzantinum, particularly in monastic life. Among the many copies of this text surviving down to the present day are marginal psalters, which contain illuminations in the margins of the folios. Several important marginal psalters survive, such as the Barberini, Paris, and Bristol Psalters, all of which can be appreciated for their impressive decoration.

Add MS 19532, f 1v. Chrysography (writing in gold).

Add MS 19352, the Theodore Psalter, is perhaps the most richly decorated psalter to survive, with 440 marginal illustrations, and we have just updated the catalogue to include a description of every miniature in the manuscript. Nearly every folio contains illustration, and the title and first initial of every verse are in gold.

Add MS 19352, f 96r. An elaborate orchard scene takes up nearly a third of the page.

These illustrations range widely in their content, as each tries to imagine the most important elements of the Psalm. Specific lines referred to are often linked to the images by means of red or blue lines. The manuscript includes some graphic depictions of God’s wrath:

Add_ms_19352_f011v detail
Add MS 19532, f 11v. Angel pulling out the boastful tongue (Ps 11(12):4).
Add MS 19352, f 21v. Burning of Sodom and the five cities.

It also contains scenes of some of the Bible’s most exciting stories:

Add MS 19532, f 182r. David and Goliath.
Add MS 19352, f 141v. Plagues visited upon Egypt.
Add MS 19352, f 201r. Jonah cast into the sea.

Particularly prominent is King David, reputedly the author of a number of the Psalms, who can be seen praying in various ways. Many of these images underscore the prophetic qualities of the Psalms, and include New Testament figures, particularly Jesus and Mary, along with a passage in which they are prophesied.

Add MS 19352, f 84r. Daniel prophesies on the mount (pink) with the Mother of God at the top and David at the foot.

Other images are used in a liturgical context, and what they depict is not necessarily connected with the Psalm, but connected to a feast or Saint to which that Psalm is significant:

Add MS 19352, f 81v. The Martyrdom of the Forty Martyrs. Psalm 65 (66) is read on their feast day.

In addition to the Psalms, the Theodore Psalter contains the Odes, and a twelve-syllable poem on David’s early life. Also among the additional material are a colophon and a prayer for the Psalter's recipient. These make it clear that the manuscript was copied in 1066 by Theodoros of Caesarea, presbyter of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople, for the Abbot Michael.

Add MS 19352, f 208r. Colophon, written in gold.

On Digitised Manuscripts you can see full coverage of this richly decorated manuscript and many others like it.

-          Andrew St. Thomas

16 June 2015

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Add comment Comments (0)

Papyrus 3053, scene from the arena. Found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, among documents dating from the third century.

A recent addition to Digitised Manuscripts is one of our true hidden treasures: possibly the oldest illuminated manuscript in the British Library’s collections. Papyrus 3053, also known as P. Oxy. 2470, was found along with a range of third-century documents at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. Blank on the verso, the recto contains a vivid fragment of a scene from the arena. The papyrus depicts a bear, caught just on the moment of rising up, or perhaps about to leap, to try to catch the figure whose legs are visible in the top left. The hoop in the top right is perhaps a ring through which the figure is aiming to jump. The red swoosh to the right of the fragment is harder to make any sense of, but it seems to serve the purpose of marking off the acrobatic scene from something else. Perhaps it is supposed to designate the curve of the seating at the amphitheatre? Just above the legs of the acrobat are the feet of some letters, reconstructed as ερσωις, though what exactly that might mean (a name, perhaps?) is unclear.

Detail of text
Papyrus 3053, detail of feet of letters, possibly ερσωις

Such feats of acrobatic dexterity, with the goal of escaping wild beasts, were hugely popular in antiquity, and the papyrus calls to mind the words of the late Latin poet Prudentius (348-c. 405), who notes in his poem the Hamartigenia that “rash figures spring with flying leap over wild beasts and sport amid the risks of death” (inde feras uolucri temeraria corpora saltu | transiliunt mortisque inter discrimina ludunt, Ham. 369-70, trans. Thomson). The prevalence of scenes drawn from the world of Roman spectacle in mosaics and in the few illuminated papyri now extant give further attestation of the popularity of these shows (see, for instance, the famous Antinoopolis Charioteers papyrus , or this fine hunting-scene (perhaps a uenatio?) in a Berlin papyrus. Bears were particularly prized: see, for instance, the many references to the difficulties involved in getting good bears for the games in the letters of the fourth-century senator Symmachus, or the splendid scene depicted by Apuleius in the fourth book of his novel the Metamorphoses.

Papyrus 3053, sewing repairs

What was the original context of this fragment? Clearly visible are the remains of some sewing along two vertical folds, similar to the sort of sewing we often find in papyrus codices. However, the fact that these two folds are so close to each other makes it clear that the image was not spread across two facing pages of a codex. It has been suggested that the sewing was intended to repair tears that resulted from the folds. Did this image form part of a bookroll, then, or was it perhaps inserted into a codex? In the absence of further information, it’s impossible to say.

Royal_ms_1_d_viii_f041r detail
Royal MS 1 D VIII (Codex Alexandrinus) f 41r, detail. Decorated tailpiece at the end of the Gospel of Luke, containing a pomegranate plant and two vines. 5th century.

I mentioned at the beginning that this is possibly the oldest illuminated manuscript in the British Library. We can perhaps exclude papyri that have simple decorative ink coronides on the grounds that these are not illuminations as we would commonly think of them today. But there remains the fact that establishing a clear date for Papyrus 3053 is tricky: while it was found among documents from the third century, there is no hard evidence for dating it exclusively to that century, and we should allow for the possibility that it is from a later period, possibly even the sixth century. Such a dating would make it a near-contemporary of the Cotton Genesis, generally dated to the fifth or sixth century, and later than Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century), which contains tiny miniatures in the tailpiece (such as the one above). Whatever its date, however, Papyrus 3053 is a rare example of a coloured illustration on papyrus, and a precious glimpse into the world of book decoration in the ancient world.

-          Cillian O’Hogan

04 June 2015

Charles Burney and his Manuscript Collection

Add comment Comments (0)

In the first of an occasional series, we take a look at an important named collection of manuscripts at the British Library. One of the most significant gatherings of classical material in the British Library is to be found in the Burney collection of manuscripts. This collection, comprising 525 volumes, was assembled by Charles Burney (b. 1757, d. 1817), classicist and bibliophile. Son of the famous historian of music Charles Burney and brother of the novelist Fanny Burney, he was also an avid collector of printed books, newspapers, and playbills, all of which were purchased by the British Museum after his death.


Contents of the Burney collection of manuscripts

While the Burney manuscripts are best known for the fine classical manuscripts to be contained therein, this is only a small part of the collection. Burney also collected important manuscripts of the Bible and of the Greek and Latin Church Fathers, as well as a wide range of papers and letters belonging to classical scholars.


Highlights of the collection

The Townley Homer

The Townley Homer, Burney MS 86, f 119r. Eastern Mediterranean (Constantinople), ?1059

The Townley Homer is one of the most important manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad. Written in Constantinople, probably in 1059, it contains extensive annotations and marginalia (known as scholia) explaining and interpreting Homer’s poem. Burney purchased this manuscript for £620 at an auction in 1814.


Greek treatises on warfare

Siege engine, described in Biton’s De constructione bellicarum machinarum, in Burney MS 69, f 12v. Italy, N. E. (Venice), 1545

Hellenistic and Byzantine treatises on warfare saw a resurgence in popularity in the Renaissance, when they were copied, along with detailed diagrams, in Western Europe. This manuscript is one of the finest examples of the genre, with many coloured drawings throughout.


Statius, Thebaid and Achilleid

Miniature of Statius presenting his work, in a manuscript containing the Thebaid and the Achilleid, Burney MS 257, f 4v. France, Central (Paris), 1st quarter of the 15th century (possibly c. 1405)

This richly-illuminated manuscript of Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid is the work of several illuminators active in France at the beginning of the 15th century. It is testimony to the ongoing popularity of an author who has been (until very recently) somewhat neglected by modern critics and readers.


A French translation of Curtius Rufus’ History of Alexander the Great

Miniature of Alexander the Great and his army making a sacrifice on the night before the Battle of Issus, Burney MS 169, f 42v. Netherlands, S. (Bruges), between c. 1468 and 1475


Tales of Alexander the Great have had enduring appeal since antiquity. The History written by the Latin author Curtius Rufus proved particularly popular in the Renaissance, and was translated into French by Vasco da Lucena as Les faize d'Alexandre. This manuscript is to be attributed to the illuminator known as the Master of the Vienna Chroniques d'Angleterre, and an assistant, perhaps the Master of the Harley Froissart.


Catalogues and access to the Burney manuscripts

A printed catalogue (in Latin) of the Burney manuscripts was published in 1840:

  • Catalogue of Manuscripts in the British Museum, New Series, vol. I, part 2. The Burney Manuscripts (London, 1840). Bound and indexed jointly with the Arundel MSS.

The Greek manuscripts were catalogued more recently in

  • The British Library Summary Catalogue of Greek Manuscripts, vol. I (London, 1999).

The majority of Burney’s Greek manuscripts have been digitised in full, and can be viewed on Digitised Manuscripts. Selected images for many of the Greek and Latin manuscripts can be viewed on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. An ongoing project is updating the catalogue entries for the remaining items in the main British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue.


Further information about Burney and his manuscripts

A more detailed guide to Burney, his life, and his manuscripts, can be found in a virtual exhibition on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts website.

- Cillian O'Hogan

16 May 2015

The Harley Trilingual Psalter

Add comment Comments (0)

Harley MS 5786, f 106v. Coloured initials at the beginning of Psalm 80, and marginal annotation in Arabic noting that this is the reading for Fridays.

Sicily in the twelfth century was an island of many languages. The Harley Trilingual Psalter (Harley MS 5786) bears eloquent witness to this multilingual culture. Written in three parallel columns, it presents the text of the Psalms in the Greek of the Septuagint, the Latin of the Vulgate, and the the 11th-century Arabic translation of Abu'l-Fath 'Abdallāh ibn al-Fadl ibn 'Abdallāh al-Mutrān al-Antaki. On the basis of the script and a faded inscription on the verso of the last folio, the manuscript can be dated to between 1130 and 1153, and was almost certainly written in Palermo, at the court of Roger II of Sicily.

Harley 5786 f174v_PSC
Harley MS 5786, f 173v: faded inscription dated 8 January 1153.

The inscription which helps to date the manuscript marks the date 8 January 1153. This is now very faded, as can be seen from the image above, though it was transcribed in the mid-18th century by Thomas Birch and William Watson. Multi-spectral imaging can make the inscription more legible and confirms the reading of Birch and Watson.

Harley5786 f174v_Composite-14pca
Harley MS 5786, f 173v, multi-spectral image of the inscription.

The inscription is written in Latin, but the hand does not match any of the scribal hands that contributed to writing the Latin text of the Psalms, so 1153 is best taken as a date before which the manuscript was written. As for the localisation of the manuscript in Palermo, the script of all three columns helps us here: The Greek script is that known as "Reggio-style", which is characteristic not merely of Reggio but of the Sicilian and Calabrian region more generally. Similarly, the Latin script (written by at least six hands) is typical Italian protogothic. The Arabic script is very similar to that of the diwani script introduced into Sicily in c. 1130.

Harley_ms-5786_f087r detail
Beginning of Psalm 68, Harley MS 5786 f 87r.

The Psalms are all numbered in each column, according to the numbering system of each language. Thus Greek numerals (not visible in this image) are used in the Greek column, Roman numerals in the Latin, and Arabic numerals in the Arabic column. The only marginalia to be found in the manuscript (aside from occasional later corrections) are notes in Arabic written in the margins, all of which refer to the Latin liturgy. In the image above, for instance, the Arabic marginal note says “Reading for Thursday night”. These marginal notes have led some to believe that this manuscript was used by Arabic-speaking Christians to follow along with Latin services in Palermo. Yet its status as a trilingual psalter surely also helps to serve the political purposes of Roger II himself, who took pains to present himself as a king of all the people of Sicily: speakers of Greek, of Latin, and of Arabic. In this regard, the Trilingual Psalter is a parallel to architectural works such as the Cappella Palatina, which fused Byzantine, Arab, and Norman forms. Whatever its purpose, the Harley Trilingual Psalter reminds us of the multilingual nature of twelfth-century Sicily, and of the different social groups living in Palermo at that time.

- Cillian O'Hogan