4406 entries. 94 themes. Last updated December 26, 2016.

Survival of Information / Philology Timeline

Theme

2,800,000 BCE – 8,000 BCE

The Earliest Preserved Footprints of Our Ancestors Circa 1,530,000 BCE – 1,510,000 BCE

Ancient footprints at Koobi Fora. Photograph by Brian Richmond. (View Larger)

Footprints discovered by Jack Harris, Brian Richmond, and David Braun in 2007 at the Homo erectus site of Ileret  are "the oldest undisputed evidence of hominins (probably Homo erectus) walking in an efficient style like we do."  

The footprints were found in Koobi Fora, located on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, in the territory of the nomadic Gabbra people in Kenya.

"A key question about human origins concerns when our style of upright walking became fully modern. Today, we walk with a long stride and a spring-like mechanism in the arch of our foot that makes our walking very energetically efficient. In 2007, Drs. Harris, Richmond, Braun, and colleagues discovered the first of many footprints made by our early hominin relatives 1.51-1.53 million years ago at the site of FwJj14E at Ileret, Kenya. The prints show evidence of a well-developed arch in the foot, that contributes to efficient walking, and evidence of a long stride ending in a propulsive 'toe-off' like the characteristic toe-off of modern people. More footprints were found in 2008-2009, so Smithsonian researchers Drs. Richmond and Behrensmeyer, and their colleagues, are optimistic that this site will yield more footprints and shed more light on the origin of human walking and running" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/footprints-koobi-fora-kenya, accessed 05-10-2010).

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Early Attempt to Record Information or Early Art? Circa 75,000 BCE – 73,000 BCE

Pieces of ochre rock decorated with geometric patterns found at Blombos Cave in South Africa, nearly 200 miles from Cape Town, in 2002, have been dated to the Middle Stone Age, equivalent to the European Middle Paleolithic.

"This ocher plaque has marks that may have been used to count or store information. A close-up look at the object shows that the markings are clearly organized. This systematic pattern suggests to some researchers that the markings represent information rather than decoration" (http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/behavior/blombos-ocher-plaque, accessed 05-10-2010).
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The Earliest Portrait 24,000 BCE

The oldest known portrait of a woman, sculpted from mammoth ivory during the last ice age around 26,000 years ago.  Photograph: Graeme Robertson for The Guardian. (Click on image to view larger.)

Smaller than a human thumb, an image of a woman's head delicately carved in mammoth ivory about 24,000 BCE is considered the earliest portrait of an individual. The portrait, found found in the Czech Republic at Dolní Věstonice, Moravia, shows a woman with her hair drawn up on the top of her head, with a fringe across her brow. Or possibly the woman is wearing a fur hat. Though earlier images of people survive, this is viewed as the first actual portrait of an individual because of the distinctiveness of the features depicted. When the portrait was exhibited at the British Museum in 2013 the curator Jill Cook said,

"The reason we say it is a portrait is because she has absolutely individual characteristics. She has one beautifully engraved eye; on the other, the lid comes over and there's just a slit. Perhaps she had a stroke, or a palsy, or was injured in some way. In any case, she had a dodgy eye. And she has a little dimple in her chin: this is an image of a real, living woman" (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jan/24/ice-age-art-british-museum, accessed 09-02-2013).

The portrait is preserved in the Anthropos Institute at the Moravian Museum.

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Perhaps the Oldest Map in the World 10,000 BCE

Map-making appears to predate written language. What may be the oldest map in the world, discovered in Ukraine in 1966, may date from about 10,000 BCE. Inscribed on a mammoth tusk, the map was found in Mezhirich, Ukraine. It has been interpreted to show dwellings along a river.

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The Earliest Surviving Human-Made Place of Worship Circa 9,500 BCE

The Göbekli Tepe, Turkist for 'Potbelly Hill,' is the oldest discovered structure for religious worship. (View Larger)

Göbekli Tepe (Turkish for "Potbelly Hill"), a hilltop sanctuary erected on the highest point of an elongated mountain ridge some 15 km northeast of the town of Şanlıurfa (formerly Urfa / Edessa) in southeastern Turkey, is the earliest surviving human-made place of worship, and the earliest surviving religious site in general. It was discovered in 1964; excavations began in 1994.

The site was erected by hunter-gatherers in the 10th millennium BCE, before the advent of the transition from nomadic to permanent year-round settlement. Together with Nevalı Çori, a site dating from the ninth or tenth millenium BCE, but which was inundated by the dammed waters of the Euphrates, Göbekli Tepe has revolutionized understanding of the Eurasian Neolithic.

"Göbekli Tepe is regarded as an archaeological discovery of the greatest importance since it profoundly changes our understanding of a crucial stage in the development of human societies. It seems that the erection of monumental complexes was within the capacities of hunter-gatherers and not only of sedentary farming communities as had been previously assumed. In other words, as excavator Klaus Schmidt puts it: 'First came the temple, then the city.' This revolutionary hypothesis will have to be supported or modified by future research" (Wikipedia article on Göbekli Tepe, accessed 05-18-2011).

Spectacular renderings and photographs of the site are in Mann, "Göbekli Tepe," National Geographic 219, no. 6, 39-59.

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8,000 BCE – 1,000 BCE

The Earliest Known Fermented Beverage Circa 7,000 BCE

Chemical analyses of ancient organic compounds absorbed into pottery jars from the early Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan province in China show that a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey, and fruit (hawthorn fruit and/or grape) was being produced about 7000 BCE. The rice was probably prepared for fermentation by mastication or malting,

"This prehistoric drink paved the way for unique cereal beverages of the proto-historic second millennium B.C., remarkably preserved as liquids inside sealed bronze vessels of the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties. These findings provide direct evidence for fermented beverages in ancient Chinese culture, which were of considerable social, religious, and medical significance, and help elucidate their earliest descriptions in the Shang Dynasty oracle inscriptions.

"Throughout history and around the world, human societies at every level of complexity discovered how to make fermented beverages from sugar sources available in their local habitats. This nearly universal phenomenon of fermented beverage production is explained by ethanol's combined analgesic, disinfectant, and profound mind-altering effects. Moreover, fermentation helps to preserve and enhance the nutritional value of foods and beverages. Because of their perceived pharmacological, nutritional, and sensory benefits, fermented beverages thus have played key roles in the development of human culture and technology, contributing to the advance and intensification of agriculture, horticulture, and food-processing techniques. Among all strata of society, they have marked major life events, from birth to death, as well as victories, auspicious events, and harvests, etc. Rulers and “upper class” individuals with leisure and resources particularly were drawn to feasting on a grand scale, which often featured special fermented beverages served in and drunk from special vessels. In their most developed form, such celebrations were formalized into secular or religious ceremonies for the society at large.

"How does ancient China, one of the primal centers for the rise of human civilization, fit into this picture of fermented beverage production, conspicuous consumption, and celebratory and ritual activities that are so well documented archaeologically, historically, and ethnographically elsewhere? Based on the oracle inscriptions from the late Shang Dynasty [circa (ca.) 1200–1046 before Christ (B.C.)], the earliest texts from China, at least three beverages were distinguished: chang (an herbal wine), li (probably a sweet, low-alcoholic rice or millet beverage), and jiu (a fully fermented and filtered rice or millet beverage or “wine,” with an alcoholic content of probably 10–15% by weight). According to inscriptions, the Shang palace administration included officials who made the beverages, which sometimes were inspected by the king. Fermented beverages and other foods were offered as sacrifices to royal ancestors in various forms of bronze vessels, likely accompanied by elite feasting. Later documents, incorporating traditions from the Zhou period (ca. 1046–221 B.C.), describe another two beverages: luo (likely made from a fruit) and lao (an unfiltered, fermented rice or millet beverage or the unfermented wort).  

"A much earlier history for fermented beverages in China has long been hypothesized based on the similar shapes and styles of Neolithic pottery vessels to the magnificent Shang Dynasty bronze vessels, which were used to present, store, serve, drink, and ritually present fermented beverages during that period. By using a combined chemical, archaeobotanical, and archaeological approach, we present evidence here that ancient Chinese fermented beverage production does indeed extend back nearly nine millennia. Moreover, our analyses of unique liquid samples from tightly lidded bronze vessels, dated to the Shang/Western Zhou Dynasties (ca. 1250–1000 B.C.), reveal that refinements in beverage production took place over the ensuing 5,000 years, including the development of a special saccharification (amylolysis) fermentation system in which fungi break down the polysaccharides in rice and millet" (Patrick E. McGovern, Juzhong Zhang, et al, "Fermented beverages of pre-and proto-historic China," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Published online before print December 8, 2004, 101, no. 51, December 21, 2004, 17593-17598.)

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A Wallpainting that Could be a Landscape or a Map Circa 6,200 BCE

A  wallpainting, located in Catal Hoyuk, that might be the earliest landscape painting yet discovered, or a map. (View Larger)

In 1961 Catal Huyuk, or Çatalhöyük, a very large Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement in southern Anatolia (now Turkey) of which the lowest layers date from around 7500 BCE, was discovered.  It is the largest and best preserved Neolithic site found to date.

A wall painting radio carbon dated to approximately 6200 BCE, found in 1963 at this site by archaeologist James Mellaart, may be the earliest landscape painting known, or it may be a map.

"It appears to represent the town itself with eighty rectangular buildings of varying sizes clustered in a terraced town landscape. Mellaart noted the similarity of the representation of the houses to the actual excavated structures found at the site, that is, rows of houses built one beside the other with no space between them. The wall painting shows an active double-peaked volcano rising over the town, likely to be the 3,200 m stratovolcano Mount Hasan, which is visible from Catal Huyuk. Lava is depicted flowing down its slopes and exploding in the air above the town. A cloud of ash and smoke completes the scene" (Rochberg, "The Expression of Terrestrial and Celestial Order in Ancient Mesopotamia," IN: Talbert (ed) Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece & Rome [2012] 10-11).

However, some archaeologists have suggested that the wall painting is more likely a painting of a leopard skin instead of a landscape including a volcano, or a decorative geometric design instead of a map. The painting is preserved in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, Turkey.

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The Earliest Evidence of Cheese-Making in Europe Circa 5,500 BCE – 5,000 BCE

Fragment of clay sieve from central Europe.  Credit: Mélanie Salque. (Click on image to view larger.)

A sketch of a sieve reconstructed from ancient potsherds that may have been used in early cheese-making. Credit: Mélanie Salque. (Click on image to view larger).

Traces of dairy fat in unglazed ceramic strainer fragments about 7000 years old found in Kuyavia, Poland provided the first unequivocal evidence that neolithic humans made cheese. 

"The introduction of dairying was a critical step in early agriculture, with milk products being rapidly adopted as a major component of the diets of prehistoric farmers and pottery-using late hunter-gatherers. The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers. The finding of abundant milk residues in pottery vessels from seventh millennium sites from north-western Anatolia provided the earliest evidence of milk processing, although the exact practice could not be explicitly defined. Notably, the discovery of potsherds pierced with small holes appear at early Neolithic sites in temperate Europe in the sixth millennium BC and have been interpreted typologically as ‘cheese-strainers’, although a direct association with milk processing has not yet been demonstrated. Organic residues preserved in pottery vessels have provided direct evidence for early milk use in the Neolithic period in the Near East and south-eastern Europe, north Africa, Denmark and the British Isles, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major fatty acids in milk. Here we apply the same approach to investigate the function of sieves/strainer vessels, providing direct chemical evidence for their use in milk processing. The presence of abundant milk fat in these specialized vessels, comparable in form to modern cheese strainers, provides compelling evidence for the vessels having being used to separate fat-rich milk curds from the lactose-containing whey. This new evidence emphasizes the importance of pottery vessels in processing dairy products, particularly in the manufacture of reduced-lactose milk products among lactose-intolerant prehistoric farming communities" (Mélanie Salque, Peter Bogucki, et al, "Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millenium bc in northern Europe," (Nature [2012] doi:10.1038/nature11698, accessed 12-12-2012).

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The Earliest Prehistoric Town in Europe Circa 4,700 BCE – 4,200 BCE

The remains of the settlement made of two-story houses near the town of Provadia. (Click on image to view larger.)

Solnitsata, a prehistoric town unearthed in eastern Bulgaria near the town of Provadia, has been estimated to date between 4,700 and 4,200 B.C. The town walls, 3 meters (6 feet) high and 2 meters (4 ½ feet) thick, are believed to be the earliest and most massive fortifications surviving from prehistoric Europe.

The inhabitants of the town boiled brine from salt springs in kilns, then baked it into bricks and used it for trading. The high value of salt may explain why ancient caches of gold jewellery and ritual objects have been unearthed in the region.

"A collection of 3,000 gold objects found 40 years ago at a necropolis near Varna represented the oldest trove of ancient gold treasure in the world.

" 'At a time when people did not know the wheel and cart, these people hauled huge rocks and built massive walls. Why? What did they hide behind them? The answer was salt,' Vasil Nikolov, a researcher with Bulgaria's National Institute of Archeology, told AFP. 'Salt was an extremely valued commodity in ancient times, as it was both necessary for people's lives and was used as a method of trade and currency starting from the sixth millennium BC up to 600 BC,' he said.

"The 'town', known as Provadia-Solnitsata, was small by modern standards and would have had around 350 inhabitants" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/bulgaria/9646541/Bulgaria-archaeologists-find-Europes-most-prehistoric-town-Provadia-Solnitsata.html, accessed 11-2-2012).

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The Earliest Images of a Wheeled Vehicle Circa 3,500 BCE – 3,350 BCE

Bronocice clay pot showing wheeled cart. (Click on image to view larger.)

Drawing showing detail of bronocice clay pot images including wheeled cart. (Click on image to view larger).

Drawing of wheeled cart. (Click on image to view larger.)

Evidence of wheeled vehicles appears from the mid 4th millennium BCE in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucasus (Maykop culture) and Central Europe, so the question of which culture originally invented the wheeled vehicle remains unresolved.

The earliest well-dated image of a wheeled vehicle, radiocabon dated to 3500-3350 BCE, is on the Bronocice pot, a Funnelbeaker culture ceramic vase discovered in 1976 during the archaeological excavation of a large Neolithic settlement in Bronocice by the Nidzica River, circa 50 km north-east of Kraków.  The vase is preserved in the Archaeological Museum in Kraków.

Images on the Bronice pot include five rudimentary representations of what seems to be a wagon. They represent a vehicle with a shaft for a draught animal, and four wheels. The lines connecting them probably represent axles. The circle in the middle possibly symbolizes a container for harvest. These images suggest the existence of wagons in Central Europe as early as in the 4th millennium BCE. The wagons were presumably drawn by aurochs, ancestors of domestic cattle, whose remains were found with the pot. Their horns were worn out as if tied with a rope, possibly a result of using a kind of yoke,

Other images on the pot include a tree, a river and what may be fields intersected by roads or ditches or the layout of a village.

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The Earliest Known Egyptian Writing Circa 3,320 BCE – 3,150 BCE

Ivory tags from tomb U-j.

Tomb U-j at Abydos. The Burial chamber is the broad room at the rear (southwest end) of the tomb.

Plan of tomb U-J.

Bone and ivory tags, pottery vessels, and clay seal impressions bearing hieroglyphs unearthed at Abydos, one of the most ancient cities of Upper Egypt, 300 miles south of Cairo, have been dated between 3320 and 3150 BCE, making them the oldest known examples of Egyptian writing.

The tags, each measuring 2 by 1 1/2 centimeters and containing between one and four glyphs, were discovered in the late 20th century in Tomb U-j of Umm el Qu'ab, the necropolis of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic kings by excavators from the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo led by Günter Dreyer. Tomb U-j may hold the remains of predynastic ruler Scorpion I (Serket I). The discoveries in Tomb U-j were first published by Dreyer, Ulrich Hartung, and Frauke Pupenmeier in Umm el-Qaab. Volume 1: Das prädynastische Königsgrab U-j und seine frühen Schriftzeugnisse (1998).

"Tomb U-j is best known for three distinctive forms of administrative record keeping in the form of ink-inscribed vessels, sealings, and tags. The size of the tomb, its contents, and the amount of labor its construction and assemblage would have required has led many scholars to propose that this tomb belonged to a proto-ruler who reigned over a sizable territory by the Naqada III period. . . .

"The written evidence from Tomb U-j, in particular the tags, probably denotes quantities of good, and localities in Egypt and beyond. The Egyptian writing system had already undergone a number of important developments by the time of Tomb U-j, which have not yet been recovered, or have not survived to modern times. Linguistic terminology makes it psosible to identify the various units of language that helped to transform communication in early Egypt from merely pictorial expression to speech writing, which is important in identifying the nature of early graphic material:

"1) Logograms: symbols representing specific words

"2) Phonograms: symbols representing specific sounds

"3) Determinatives: symbols used for classifying words

"Moreover, writing on the tags shows that the Egyptian writing system had adopted the rebus principle, which broadened the meaning of symbols to include their homophones—words with the same sound but different definitions. . . ." (Elise V. Macarthur, "The Concept and Development of the Egyptian Writing System" IN: Woods (ed), Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Middle East and Beyond [2010] 120; the book illustrates many of the objects from Tomb U-j; see also 138-143).

"Prior to the proper scientific excavation of Tomb U-j and its publication in 1998, the earliest clear instances of Egyptian writing dated back to the late Dynasty o (ca. 3200-3100 BC), a few centuries later than in southern Mesopotamia. It had long been known that later fourth-millenium Egypt witnessed sustained cultural contract with southern Mesopotamia and Susiana, tokens of which are found in elements of foeign iconography on Egyptian prestige objects, the adoption of the cylinder seal, and niched brick architecture. This led to the —always controversial— hypothesis that Egyptian writing may have originated as a result of cultural infleunce from Mesopotamia, whether through general awareness that writing was present elsewhere, or possibly through some actual knowledge of the workings of the Mesopotamian system. The distinctively indigenous nature of the Egyptian repertoire of signs was interpreted as a case of cultural adaptation of a foreign technology to local purposes. The hypothesis of a Mesopotamian influence on the emergence of Egyptian writing was at times embedded into a broader frame arguing that the original invention of writing, conceived of as a dramatic cultural achievement, would have occurred only once in human history, subsequently to spread elsewhere.

"As to the latter issue, the decipherment of Mayan glyphs and other New World scripts, and the realization that these represent actual writing rather than pictography, now proves otherwise. Simultaneously, a more refined understanding of the working of early writing in general demonstrates that writing may develop gradually, rather than dramatically, a good case in point being, pr-ecisely, the stage witnessed by Tomb U-j" (Andréas Stauder, "The Earliest Egyptian Writing" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 142).

http://archive.archaeology.org/9903/newsbriefs/egypt.html, accessed 01-13-2013).

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The First Prehistoric Human Ever Found with his Everyday Clothing and Equipment Circa 3,300 BCE

Model of Ötzi the Iceman in exhibit at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.

Mummified corpse of Ötzi the Iceman.

The most important item of the Iceman’s equipment is his copper-bladed axe.

The two separate leggings, which the Iceman was still wearing when he was discovered, are made of several pieces of domestic goat hide carefully cross-stitched together with animal sinew.

In September 1991 Ötzi, also called Ötzi the Iceman, the Similaun Man, the Man from Hauslabjoch, Homo tyrolensis, and the Hauslabjoch mummy, was discovered  in the Ötztal Alps near the Mt. Similaun and Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. Radiocarbon tests consistently dated the body and associated objects within a range of 3365-2940 BCE. Because the body was preserved in ice for over 5000 years it had only partially deteriorated when it was discovered. 

"Anthropologists are particularly interested in the items found with him, which constitute a unique time-capsule of the stuff of everyday life, may of them made of organic materials that were preserved by the cold and ice. An astonishing variety of woods, and a range of very sophsticated tecyniques of work with leather and grasses can be seen in the collection of seventy objects that have added a new dimension to our knowledge of the period.

The axe, 60 cm (24 in) in length, has a head of copper that was bound to the yew-wood handle with leather thongs. The bow, of yew wood, was almost 180 cm. (6 ft) long. One side is flat, the other rounded. Its odour at room temperature suggests it was smeared with blood or fat to keep it pliable. A quiver of deerskin contained fourteen arrows, only two of which were ready for use. Their 75 cm (30 in) shafts, made of two pieces, were of dogwood and viburnum wood, and had points of stone or bone fixed to them by pitch. The two finished arrows had double-side points of flint and triple feathering whose placement meant the missiles would spin in flight and indicates an advanced ballistic design. The quiver also contained an untreated sinew (possibly for use as a bowstring), a ball of fibrous cord ,bone or antler spines tied togehter with grass, and various objects of flint and bone, together with pitch - it may ahve constituted some kind of repair kit.

"The dagger or knife has a sharp flint blade, only about 4 cm (1.5 in) long set into an 8 cm (3 in) ash-wood handle. Polish on the blade indicates that it was used to cut grass. A woven grass sheath was also found. What was orignally assumed to be a stone-pointed fire-striker was found to be a thick 'pencil' of linden wood with a central spine of bone, probably used for retouching and sharpening flint objects. A U-shaped stick of hazel and two cross-boards of larch are thought to be the frame of a backpack that may have contained some animal bones and residues of the skin of chamois and other small animals, found nearby: blood residues from chamois, ibex and deer have been found on some of the implements" (Paul G. Hahn (ed) 100 Great Archaeological Discoveries [1995] 85).

Ötzi's body and belongings are preserved in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, South Tyrol, Italy.

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The Oldest-Known List of Titles and Occupations Circa 3,200 BCE

A proto-cuneiform clay tablet (VAT 15003) from the Eana (Eanna) district, Uruk IV period, preserved in The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, records the oldest-known version of a list of titles and occupations, known as the Standard Occupations List. 

"Such lists, known as 'lexical lists,' were used to train scribes and also served to organize knowledge. This scribal exercise from the early Uruk IV writing stage represents what was apparently a favorite version of such compilations. it content was copied many times in the subsequent Uruk III period (about 180 frams of it are preserved), and it was the model for numerous mofied and exapned forms of such lists. The popularity of such standardized lists is indicated by  the fact that they were repeatedly copied and recopied down through the Akkadian dynasty (twenty-third century BC) nearly a millennium after their creation" (Woods, Teeter, Emberling (eds) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] No. 46, with color images of obverse, reverse and a composite drawing of the archaic lexical list).

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The Earliest Inscription Written in Hieratic 3,200 BCE

Seal impression with the name of Narmer from Tarkhan.

The earliest known hieratic inscription, dating from about 3200 BCE, is the royal name Scorpion found on jars excavated at Tarkhan, just south of Cairo.

"The appearance of hieratic so early suggests that it was not a later adaptation of hieroglyphs but was developed alongside it. These early inscriptions were very brief and are found on vessels from burials. Typically they list only royal names and information about the contents of the vessels, frequently the place of origin" (Katheryn E. Bandy, "Hieratic" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 159).

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Education in the Bronze Age in the Middle East Circa 3,000 BCE – 1,200 BCE

Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE), the most famous of the early Babylonian kings. (View Larger)

"In the Bronze Age (c. 3000-1200 BC in the Middle East) the production and transmission of literate knowledge was cited in scribal schools. No doubt temples, courts and other places were also centers of intellectual and cultural exchange at this time, but they have not yet been identified and analyzed as such through the archaeological record. Second-millennium schools, on the other hand, have been carefully studied in recent years, enabling us to look at them in the light of book history. For instance, in the early 1950s over a thousand tablets, mostly in fragments, were excavated from 'House F," a small urban house in Nippur near modern Najaf. According to the datable household documents found in it, House F was used as a scribal school in the 1750s BC, immediately after the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) the most famous of the early Babylonian kings.

"About half of the tablets in House F are the by-products of an elementary scribal education. They take the trainee from learning how to use a stylus to make horizontal, vertical, and diagonal wedges on the tablet to writing whole sentences in literary Sumerian. The students doubless learned to make their own tablets too, because in the corner of the tiny courtyard was a bitumen-lined basin filled with a mixture of fresh tablet clay and crumpled up tablets waiting to be recycled. Both the elementary exercises and the tablets themselves were standardized, with format and content closely related to pedagogical function" (Robson, "The Clay Tablet Book in Sumer, Assyria, and Babylonia," Eliot & Rose [eds.], A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 71).

It is thought that the tablets from House F survived because they were reused as building material.

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Pavlopetri: the Oldest Submerged Town Site 2,800 BCE

Discovered in 1967 by Nicolas Flemming and first mapped in 1968, the city of Pavlopetri, underwater off the coast of southern Laconia in Peloponnesos, Greece, is the oldest submerged archeological town site, and though the buildings were eroded over the millenia, the city is unique in having an almost complete town plan, including streets, buildings, and tombs. It is now believed that the town was submerged around 1000 BCE, and because the area never reemerged from the sea, it was neither built-over nor disrupted by agriculture. It has at least 15 buildings submerged in 3 to 4 metres (9.8–13 ft) of water. The ancient name of the city is unknown; the name Pavlopetri ("Paul's and Peter's", or "Paul's stone") is the modern name for the islet and beach, presumably named for the two Christian saints that are celebrated together.

Earlier, the ruins of Pavlopetri were dated to the Mycenaean period, 1600-1100 BC. Later studies showed an older occupation date starting no later than 2800 BCE, so it also includes early Bronze Age middle Minoan and transitional material.

The site is under threat of damage by boats dragging anchors, as well as by tourists and souvenir hunters. In 2009 John C. Henderson from the University of Nottingham and team began archeological work on Pavlopetri, to map the site in great detail using the latest technology. As a result, Pavlopetri became the first submerged town to be digitally surveyed in three dimensions using sonar mapping techniques developed by military and oil prospecting organizations.  Because the archeologists collected 3D digital information in the survey process their data allowed a 3D digital reconstruction of the site by computer graphics professionals.

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The First Securely Datable Mathematical Table in World History Circa 2,600 BCE

The world’s oldest datable mathematical table, from Shuruppag, c. 2600 BCE.  The first two columns contain identical lengths in descending order from 600 to 60 rods (c. 3600–360 m) and the final column contains the square area of their product.

The sequence continues on the reverse, and probably finished at 1 rod (6m).

Tablet from Shuruppag, now in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.

"The first securely datable mathematical table in world history comes from the Sumerian city of Shuruppag, c. 2600 BCE. The table is ruled into three columns on each side with ten rows on the front or obverse side. The first columns of the obverse list length measures from c. 3.6km to 360 m in descending units of 360 m, followed by the Sumerian word sa ('equal' and/ or 'opposite') while the final column gives their products in area measure. Only six rows are extant or partially preserved on the reverse. They continue the table in smaller units, from 300 to 60 m in 60 m steps, and then perhaps (in the damaged and missing lower half) from 56 to 6 m in 6 m steps. While the table is organized along two axes, there is just one axis of calculation, namely, the horizontal multiplications. Around a thousand tablets were excavated from Shuruppaq, almost all of them from houses and buildings which burned down in a city-wide fire in about 2600 BCE, but sadly we have no detailed context for this table because its excavation number was lost or never recorded." (Eleanor Robson, "Tables and tabular formatting in Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria, 2500 BCE-50," Campbell-Kelly et al [eds]. The History of Mathematical Tables from Sumer to Spreadsheets [2003] 27-29).

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The Abu Salbikh Tablet Lost in the Iraq War Circa 2,500 BCE

The Instructions of Shuruppak, one of the earliest surviving literary works, is a Sumerian "wisdom" text. This was a genre of literature common in the Ancient Near East intended to teach proper piety, inculcate virtue and preserve community standing.

The text was set in great antiquity by its incipit: "In those days, in those far remote times, in those nights, in those faraway nights, in those years, in those far remote years." The precepts were placed in the mouth of a king "Shuruppak, son of Ubara-Tutu." Ubara-Tutu was the last king of Sumer before the universal deluge.

The oldest known copy of the Instructions of Shuruppak is the Abu Salabikh Tablet found at Abu Salabikh, near near the site of ancient Nippur in Central Babylonia (now southern Iraq). Abu Salabikh marks the site of a small Sumerian city of the mid third millennium BCE. It was excavated by an American expedition from the Oriental Institute of Chicago in 1963 and 1965, and was a British concern for the British School of Archaeology in Iraq (1975–89), after which excavations were suspended with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

"The city, built on a rectilinear plan in Early Uruk times, revealed a small but important repertory of cuneiform texts on some 500 tablets, of which the originals were stored in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and were largely lost when the museum was looted in the early stages of the Second Iraq War; fortunately they had been carefully published."

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The Palace Archive of Ebla, Syria 2,500 BCE – 2,250 BCE

Ebla Tablet

Ebla tablets in situ.

Ebla tablets in situ.

Distribution of tablets on room shelves.

Between 1974 and 1975 Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae from the University of Rome La Sapienza and his team discovered up to 1800 cuneiform tablets and 4700 fragments, and many thousand minor chips, representing the palace archives of the ancient city of Ebla, Syria. The city of Ebla, long known from Egyptian and Akkadian inscriptions, had been discovered by Matthiae in 1968.

Collectively, the tablets discovered at Ebla have come to be known as the Ebla tablets. Found in situ on collapsed shelves, the tablets retained many of their contemporary clay tags, by which they could be referenced by original users. 

"About 80% of the tablets are written using the usual Sumerian combination of logograms and phonetic signs, while the others exhibited an innovative, purely phonetic representation using Sumerian cuneiform of a previously unknown Semitic language, which was called Eblaite. Bilingual Sumerian/Eblaite vocabulary lists were found among the tablets, allowing them to be translated. Giovanni Pettinato and Mitchell Dahood believed the Eblaite language was West Semitic, however I. J. Gelb and others believed it was an East Semitic dialect, closer to the Akkadian language. Now it is commonly accepted that Eblaite is part of the East Semitic branch of Semitic, and very close to the Akkadian language."

"It now appears that the building housing the tablets was not the palace library, which may yet be uncovered, but an archive of provisions and tribute, law cases and diplomatic and trade contacts, and a scriptorium where apprentices copied texts. The larger tablets had originally been stored on shelves, but had fallen onto the floor when the palace was destroyed. The location where tablets were discovered where they had fallen allowed the excavators to reconstruct their original position on the shelves: it soon appeared that they were originally shelved according to subject" (Wikipedia article on Ebla, accessed 01-12-2013).

The Ebla tablets are preserved in Syrian museums in Aleppo, Damascus, and Idlib.

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The World's Oldest Harbor Circa 2,500 BCE

Photo of wharf at low tide, Wadi al-Jarf

Diagram of Harbour at Wadi al-Jarf.

Location of Wad al-Jarf.

Old Kingdom anchor at Wadi al-Jarf.

Between 2011 and 2013 a French-Egyptian archaeological mission from the French Institute of Archaeological Studies (IFAO) headed by Pierre Tallet, an Egyptologist at the University of Paris, discovered the most ancient harbor ever found on the shore of the Red Sea at Wadi al-Jarf 119 km (74 mi.) south of Suez. The harbor dates to the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt. Also discovered at the site were more than 100 anchors— the first Old Kingdom anchors found in their original context— and numerous storage jars. The jars have been linked with those of another site across the Red Sea, indicating trade between the two sites. Among products traded were copper and other minerals from Sinai. 

"The harbor complex consists of a 280 m (920 ft) long mole or jetty of stone that is still visible at low tide (28.8888°N 32.6815°E), an alamat or navigational landmark made of heaped stones, a strange 60 m × 30 m (200 ft × 98 ft) building of unknown function that is divided into 13 long rooms, and a series of 25 to 30 storage galleries carved into limestone outcrops. The building of unknown function is the largest pharaonic building discovered along the Red Sea coast to date. The storage galleries are between 16 and 34 m (52 and 112 ft) long, and are usually 3 m (9.8 ft) wide and 2.5 m (8.2 ft) tall.

"Inside the galleries, the archeological team discovered several boat and sail fragments, some oars, and numerous pieces of ancient rope. Twenty-five stone anchors were found under water, and 99 anchors were found in an apparent storage building. The discovery of anchors in their original context is a first in Old Kingdom archeology. Many of the anchors bear hieroglyphs, likely representing the boat's names from which they came.

"The port is to have been the starting point for voyages from mainland Egypt to South Sinai mining operations. Tallet speculates that the harbor may have also been used to launch voyages to "the mysterious Land of Punt", a known trading partner of Egypt. The archeologists who excavated the site believe that the harbor dates to the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (2589–2566 B.C.), whose name is inscribed on some of the heavy limestone blocks at the site. That means the harbor predates the second-oldest known port structure by more than 1,000 years. There is some trace evidence of use during the early part of Fifth Dynasty, after which the harbor was likely abandoned" (Wikipedia article on Wadi-al-Jarf, accessed 04-25-2013).

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The Earliest Known Egyptian Papyri 2,500 BCE

One of many papyrii found at Wadi al Jarf.  Thought to be the oldest known papyrii from Egypt.

Map showing location of Wadi al-Jarf.  Please click on image to view and resize larger image.

 

Between 2011 and 2013 a French-Egyptian archaeological mission from the French Institute of Archaeological Studies (IFAO) headed by Pierre Tallet, an Egyptologist at the University of Paris, discovered the earliest known Egyptian papyri at the site of the most ancient harbor ever found, on the shore of the Red Sea at Wadi al-Jarf 119 km (74 mi.) south of Suez. Along with numerous stone food and water storage jars, textile and wood fragments, hundreds of papyrus fragments were also found at the site, of which ten papyri are especially very well preserved.

The majority of these documents date to the 27th year of the reign of Khufu, and describe how the central administration sent food and supplies to Egyptian travelers. One document is of special interest: the diary of Merer (Merrer, Mererer), an official involved in the building of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, often called the Great Pyramid of Giza. Using the diary, researchers were able to reconstruct three months of Merer's life, providing new insight into everyday lives of people of the Fourth Dynasty.

(This entry was last revised on 09-26-2015.)

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Wael Sherbiny Rediscovers the Oldest & Longest Egyptian Leather Roll Circa 2,300 BCE – 2,000 BCE

In September 2015 Egyptologist Wael Sherbiny of Brussels announced his rediscovery of the oldest and longest Egyptian leather roll in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Dating from the late Old Kingdom to the early Midddle Kingdom (2300-2000 BCE), the roll measures about 8.2 feet (2.5 meters). The manuscript, which had been lost in the museum for about 70 years, was purchased by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo from a local antiquities dealer sometime after the WWI. It was later donated to the Egyptian Museum, where it was unrolled shortly before the outbreak of the WWII. After it was stored in the museum it seems to have been completely forgotten until it was rediscovered by Sherbiny.

Though a relatively large number of Egyptian papyrus rolls or fragments survived in Egypt because of the dry desert climate, very few ancient Egyptian leather rolls survived. According to Sherbiny, leather was considered a very precious writing material in ancient Egypt, and it was the principal medium for recording religious texts and great historic events, as it was more practical than papyrus due to its flexibility and durability. Leather rolls, kept in the libraries and archives of temples, were also used as master copies from which cheaper copies were reproduced on papyrus. However, leather had a low rate of survival in the deseart. The Cairo roll was no exception: part of it was fragmented into very tiny pieces. Like in a jigsaw puzzle, Sherbiny pieced them together.

"The pieces formed a large pictorial-textual segment from the so-called Book of Two Ways, which is an illustrated composition containing temple rituals later adapted for the funerary use.

"This composition is known to Egyptologists as it occurs on the floorboard of Middle Kingdom coffins (2055-1650 B.C.) from the necropolis of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt.

“ 'Amazingly, the roll offers an even more detailed iconography than the Hermopolitan coffins in terms of texts and drawings,' Sherbiny said" (http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/oldest-and-longest-ancient-egyptian-leather-manuscript-found-150914.htm, accessed 10-01-2015).

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The Earliest Known Dictionaries Circa 2,300 BCE

The Urra=hubullu, currently preserved at the Louvre Museum in Paris. (View Larger)

The oldest known dictionaries are cuneiform tablets from the Akkadian empire with biliingual wordlists in Sumerian and Akkadian discovered in Ebla in modern Syria.

The Urra=hubullu glossary, a major Babylonian glossary or encyclopedia from the second millenium BCE, preserved in the Louvre, is an outstanding example of this early form of wordlist. 

"The canonical version extends to 24 tablets. The conventional title is the first gloss, ur5-ra and ḫubullu meaning "interest-bearing debt" in Sumerian and Akkadian, respectively. One bilingual version from Ugarit [RS2.(23)+] is Sumerian/Hurrian rather than Sumerian/Akkadian.

"Tablets 4 and 5 list naval and terrestrial vehicles, respectively. Tablets 13 to 15 contain a systematic enumeration of animal names, tablet 16 lists stones and tablet 17 plants. Tablet 22 lists star names.

"The bulk of the collection was compiled in the Old Babylonian period (early 2nd millennium BC), with pre-canonical forerunner documents extending into the later 3rd millennium" (Wikipedia article on Urra=hubullu, accessed 05-08-2009).

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The Earliest Printing was Stamped into Soft Clay in Mesopotamia Circa 2,291 BCE – 2,254 BCE

MS 5106 of the Schoyen Collection, a brick printing block with a large loop handle from the period of Naram-Sîn. (View larger)

The earliest printing was the stamping of inscriptions into the soft clay of bricks before firing, done under the rule of the Sumerian king Naram-Sîn of Akkad  (Narām-Sîn, Naram-Suen), ruler of the Akkadian Empire, who built the Temple of Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare. Prior to Naram-Sîn the inscriptions on the bricks were written by hand.

MS 5106 in the Schøyen Collection is a brick printing block, 13x13x10 cm, 3 lines in a large formal cuneiform script with large loop handle from the period of Naram-Sîn.

Only two other brick printing blocks of Naram-Sîn are known: one intact with a cylindrical handle in Istanbul, and a tiny fragment in British Museum.

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One of the Oldest Known Ancient Mesopotamian Medical Texts 2,112 BCE – 2,004 BCE

A reproduction of one of the oldest known Mesopotamian medical texts, dating from the Ur III period. (View Larger)

One of the oldest known ancient Mesopotamian medical texts is a collection of 15 prescriptions, written in Sumerian, on a clay tablet, which dates from the Ur III period, or Sumerian Renaissance. It was excavated at the site of the ancient city of Nippur in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), and is preserved in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum).

On May 29, 2009 a reproduction of this tablet, illustrated at this link, was available from the museum shop. The description of that reproduction dated the tablet to 2400 BCE.   

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The Oldest Known Tablet Containing a Legal Code 2,100 BCE – 2,050 BCE

The Code of Ur-Nammu.

"The Code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest known tablet containing a law code surviving today. It was written in the Sumerian language ca. 2100-2050 BC. Although the preface directly credits the laws to king Ur-Nammu of Ur (2112-2095 BC), some historians think they should rather be ascribed to his son Shulgi.

"The first copy of the code, in two fragments found at Nippur, was translated by Samuel Kramer in 1952; owing to its partial preservation, only the prologue and 5 of the laws were discernible. Further tablets were found in Ur and translated in 1965, allowing some 40 of the 57 laws to be reconstructed. Another copy found in Sippar contains slight variants.

"Although it is known that earlier law-codes existed, such as the Code of Urukagina, this represents the earliest legal text that is extant. It predated the Code of Hammurabi by some three centuries.

"The laws are arranged in casuistic form of if-(crime), then-(punishment) — a pattern to be followed in nearly all subsequent codes. For the oldest extant law-code known to history, it is considered remarkably advanced, because it institutes fines of monetary compensation for bodily damage, as opposed to the later lex talionis (‘eye for an eye’) principle of Babylonian law; however, the capital crimes of murder, robbery, adultery and rape are punished with death.

"The code reveals a glimpse at societal structure during the 'Sumerian Renaissance'. Beneath the lu-gal ('great man' or king), all members of society belonged to one of two basic strata: The 'lu' or free person, and the slave (male, arad; female geme). The son of a lu was called a dumu-nita until he married, becoming a 'young man' (gurus). A woman (munus) went from being a daughter (dumu-mi), to a wife (dam), then if she outlived her husband, a widow (nu-ma-su) who could remarry" (Wikipedia article on Code of Ur-Nammu, accessed 02-04-2009).

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The Garsana Archive of Cuneiform Tablets is Returned to Iraq 2,031 BCE – 2,024 BCE

On November 2, 2013 it was announced that Cornell University planned to forfeit and return to Iraq the archive of about 1400 cuneiform tablets known as the Garšana archive (Garsana), which was donated to Cornell beginning in the year 2000. The archive was returned under the assumption that the tablets were looted in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War

The Garšana archive represents the records of a rural estate at or near the town of Garšana located somewhere in the territory of the Sumerian city of Umma, probably in the vicinity of ancient Zabalam (Zabala) and Karkar. The tablets date from an eight year period, 2031-2024 BCE, during the Third Dynasty of Ur.  

"The estate was owned by Šu-Kabta, a physician and general, and his wife, the princess Simat-Ištaran. These documents record many of the daily functions of the estate and provide for the first time a comprehensive picture of life on such an estate. Detailed information on the construction and maintenance of the many buildings on the estate that included a brewery, textile and flour mills, leather working shop, and kitchen; the hiring and supervision of builders and laborers coming from various towns near and far; management of orchards; canal travel and trade between the estate and the cities of Sumer; and numerous other details of daily life. Particularly noteworthy are the funerary records of the family and the role of the princess Simat-Ištaran who assumed the control of the estate upon the death of her husband" (http://cuneiform.library.cornell.edu/collections/garsana, accessed 11-03-2013).

"Among the tablets is the private archive of a 21st century BC Sumerian princess in the city of Garsana that has made scholars rethink the role of women in the ancient kingdom of Ur. The administrative records show Simat-Ishtaran ruled the estate after her husband died.

"During her reign, women attained remarkably high status. They supervised men, received salaries equal to their male counterparts' and worked in construction, the clay tablets reveal.

" 'It's our first real archival discovery of an institution run by a woman,' said David Owen, the Cornell researcher who has led the study of the tablets. Because scholars do not know precisely where the tablets were found, however, the site of ancient Garsana cannot be excavated for further information.

"Other tablets provide detailed administrative records of ancient life, including the procedures for temple rituals, the resettlement of refugees and the output of agricultural lands.

"The source of the Garsana tablets was the subject of a 2001 investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, according to records obtained by Harvard researcher Benjamin Studevent-Hickman under the Freedom of Information Act. Buying and possessing antiquities illegally removed from countries such as Iraq, which claim them as government property, can be a violation of U.S. law" (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-iraq-tablets-cornell-university-20131103,0,7036026.story#axzz2jav6tYSE, accessed 11-03-2013).

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One of the Earliest Surviving Documents Written on Papyrus Circa 2,000 BCE

A section of the Prisse Papyrus, which is believed to be the earliest known document written on papyrus. (View Larger)

The Prisse Papyrus, dating from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, was often considered the earliest known document written on papyrus until the discovery of papyri from the 27th year of Khufu's reign at Wadi al-Jarf. It contains the last two pages of the Instruction addressed to Kagemni, who purportedly served under the 4th Dynasty king Sneferu, and is a compilation of moral maxims and admonitions on the practice of virtue. The conclusion of the Instruction addressed to Kagemni is followed by the only complete surviving copy of the Instruction of Ptahhotep.

The papyrus was obtained by the French orientalist Achille Constant Théodore Émile Prisse d'Avennes at Thebes in 1856. It is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft (1947) 464.

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The Older of the Two Best-Known Mathematical Papyri Circa 2,000 BCE

Several problems from the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus. (View Larger)

The Moscow Mathematical Papyrus, the older of the two best-known mathematical papyri along with the larger Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (noticed in this database), is also called the Golenischev Mathematical Papyrus after its first owner, Egyptologist Vladimir Goleniščev, who in 1909 sold his huge collection of Egyptian artifacts to  Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, where the papyrus is preserved today.

"Based on the palaeography of the hieratic text, it probably dates to the Eleventh dynasty of Egypt. Approximately 18 feet long and varying between 1 1/2 and 3 inches wide, its format was divided into 25 problems with solutions by the Soviet Orientalist Vasily Vasilievich Struve in 1930" (Wikipedia article on Moscow Mathematical Papyrus, accessed 09-11-2009).

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One of the Earliest Medical and Mathematical Documents Circa 2,000 BCE

The Berlin Papyrus 6619, commonly known as the Berlin Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian papyrus document from the Middle Kingdom, was found at the ancient burial ground of Saqqara in the early 19th century CE.

"The papyrus is one of the primary sources of ancient Egyptian mathematical and medical knowledge, including the first known documentation concerning pregnancy test procedures, and is thus part of the medical papyri.

"The Berlin Papyrus contains a problem stated as "the area of a square of 100 is equal to that of two smaller squares. The side of one is ½ + ¼ the side of the other."[4] The interest in the question may suggest some knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem, though the papyrus only shows a straightforward solution to a single second degree equations in one unknown. In modern terms, the simultaneous equations x2 + y2 = 100 and x = (3/4)y reduce to the single equation in y: ((3/4)y)2 + y2 = 100, giving the solution y = 8 and x = 6" (Wikipedia article on Berlin Papyrus, accessed 12-29-2010).

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The Earliest Surviving Literary or Library Catalogues Circa 2,000 BCE

Two cuneiform tablets found at Nippur, (Mesopotamia; now Iraq) are inscribed with a list of Sumerian works of literature in no apparent order.  One has 68 titles, the other 48 works.  These represent the earliest surviving literary or library catalogues. 

Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World (2001) 4. 

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Execration Texts: Ceremonial Writing and Sympathetic Magic in Ancient Egypt Circa 2,000 BCE – 1,800 BCE

Most often written upon statuettes of bound foreigners, bowls, or blocks of clay or stone, which were subsequently destroyed, Execration Texts, also referred to as proscription lists, were ancient Egyptian hieratic  texts, listing enemies of the Pharaoh, enemies of the Egyptian state or troublesome foreign neighbors. The ceremonial process of breaking the written names and burying them was believed to be sympathetic magic that would affect the persons or entities named in the texts. This magical practice, in which Execration Text framents were usually placed near tombs or ritual sites, was most common during times of conflict with Egypt's Asiatic neighbors. 

"The Execration texts are an important resource for researchers in the field of ancient Near Eastern history of the 20th-18th centuries BCE and Bible studies. The first group of Execration Texts were published by Kurt Sethe in 1926, known as the Berlin texts. Georges Posener published a second group of texts in 1957, known as the Brussels texts.

"The first collection are inscribed on pottery sherds, and contain the names of approximately 20 places in Canaan and Phoenicia, and over 30 rulers of the period. These texts contain what is possibly the first known mention of Jerusalem, from the beginning of the second millennium BCE, the end of the Eleventh dynasty to the Twelfth dynasty.

"The second group of texts are inscribed on figurines of bound prisoners discovered in Saqqara. This group contains the names of 64 places, usually listing one or two rulers. Seven known Asian countries are listed. This group has been dated to the end of the Twelfth dynasty.

"An additional group of texts, the Mirgissa texts, was published by Yvan Koenig in 1990" (Wikipedia article on Execration texts, accessed 07-12-2014).

 

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The Oldest Surviving Illustrated Papyrus Roll Circa 1,980 BCE

Fragments of the Ramesseum Papyrus.

The Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus (also called the Ramesseum Papyrus) is the oldest known surviving illustrated papyrus roll. It measures about 7 feet by about 10 inches, and was found in 1895-96 by the English Egyptologist James E. Quibell, excavating on behalf of the Egyptian Research Account in the Ramesseum, the memorial temple (or mortuary temple) of Pharaoh Ramesses II ("Ramesses the Great" (Ramses, Rameses). The Ramesseum is located in the Theban necropolis in Upper Egypt, across the Nile from the modern city of Luxor.

"It contains a ceremonial play written to celebrate the accession to the throne of Senusret I of the Twelfth Dynasty . . . . The text of the roll is in linear hieroglyphs written in narrow, vertical columns. The text occupies the top four-fifths of the scroll and the illustrations the bottom. the scenes are arranged in a manner similar to a modern comic strip with the Pharaoh, in the role of Horus, appearing multiple times. Scenes are divided from each other by vertical lines. The drawing style is so simple that the figures are little more than enlarged hieroglyphs" (Wikipedia article on Dramatic Ramesseum Papyrus, accessed 01-20-2009).

"This hieroglyphic figure style, as one might call it, suggests that we are not too far away in time from the beginning of papyrus roll illustration as a new branch of art, although it must be remembered that this roll is unique both as to its text and as to the period in which it was made" (Weitzmann, Illustrations in Roll and Codex. A Study of the Origin and Method of Text Illustration [1970] 58).

Diringer, The Illuminated Book: Its History & Production (1967) 27.

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The Most Famous Document of Babylonian Mathematics Circa 1,900 BCE – 1,700 BCE

Plimpton 322 (View Larger)

The most famous original document of Babylonian mathematics is Plimpton 322, a partly broken clay tablet, approximately 13cm wide, 9cm tall, and 2cm thick. New York publisher George A. Plimpton purchased the tablet from archaeological dealer, Edgar J. Banks in 1922 or 1923, and bequeathed it with the rest of his collection to Columbia University in 1936. According to Banks, the tablet came from Senkereh, a site in sourthern Iraq, corresponding to the ancient city of Larsa

This tablet has a table of four columns and 15 rows of numbers in cuneiform script, and has been called the only true mathematical table surviving from the period.

"The most renowned of all mathematical cuneiform tablets since it was published in 1945, Plimpton 322 reveals that the Babylonians discovered a method of finding Pythagorean triples, that is, sets of three whole numbers such that the square of one of them is the sum of the squares of the other two. By Pythagoras' Theorem, a triangle whose three sides are proportional to a Pythagorean triple is a right-angled triangle. Right-angled triangles with sides proportional to the simplest Pythagorean triples turn up frequently in Babylonian problem texts; but if this tablet had not come to light, we would have had no reason to suspect that a general method capable of generating an unlimited number of distinct Pythagorean triples was known a millennium and a half before Euclid.  

"Plimpton 322 has excited much debate centering on two questions. First, what was the method by which the numbers in the table were calculated? And secondly, what were the purpose and the intellectual context of the tablet? At present there is no agreement among scholars about whether this was a document connected with scribal education, like the majority of Old Babylonian mathematical tablets, or part of a research project" (http://www.nyu.edu/isaw/exhibitions/before-pythagoras/items/plimpton-322/, accessed 11-23-2010).

Though the consensus may be that the tablet contains a listing of Pythagorean triples, Eleanor Robson pointed out that historical, cultural and linguistic evidence reveal that the tablet is more likely "a list of regular reciprocal pairs": Robson, "Words and Pictures. New Light on Plimpton 322," American Mathematical Monthly 109 (2001) 105-121.

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Illustrating the Pythagorean Theorem and the Square Root of Two Circa 1,900 BCE – 1,700 BCE

The obverse and reverse sides of YBC 7289. Images by Image by West Semitic Research.(View Larger)

Yale YBC 7289, one of the few cuneiform tables to consist entirely of a geometrical diagram, shows that Babylonian scribes knew the Pythagorean Theorem and possessed a method of calculating accurate estimates of square roots. 

On the obverse, the scribe drew a square and its diagonals.

"According to Pythagoras' Theorem the length of the diagonal is the length of the side multiplied by the square root of 2. An accurate approximation of this quantity in sexagesimal notation is written along one diagonal. One side is labelled with its length, and the product of this number by the square root of 2 is also written along the diagonal" (http://www.nyu.edu/isaw/exhibitions/before-pythagoras/items/ybc-7289/, accessed 11-23-2010).

The tablet was acquired by 1944  by the Yale Babylonian Collection.

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Probably the Most Ancient Surviving Fermented Beverages Circa 1,900 BCE – 700 BCE

In 2004 tightly lidded bronze vessels from the city of Anyang and elite burials excavated at major urban centers along the Yellow River or its tributaries in Hebei, Henan, and Shanxi provinces of northern China, including Erlitou, Zhengzhou, Taixi, and Tianhu, dating to the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, were shown from archaeochemical analysis by University of Pennsylvania archaeochemist Patrick E. McGovern to contain samples of fermented beverages in their liquid state. 

"Most often, they [the fermented liquids] have been recovered from the elite burials of high-ranking individuals. The shapes of many of the bronze vessels [ornate tripod vessels (jue and jia), stemmed goblets (gu), vats (zun), and jars (hu, lei, and you)] imply that they were used to prepare, store, serve, drink, and ceremonially present fermented beverages, which is supported by textual evidence. Besides serving as burial goods to sustain the dead in the afterlife, the vessels and their contents also can be related to funerary ceremonies in which intermediaries communicated with the deceased ancestor and gods in an altered state of consciousness after imbibing a fermented beverage

"The fragrant aroma of the liquids inside the tightly lidded jars and vats, when their lids were first removed after some 3,000 years, suggests that they indeed represent Shang/Western Zhou fermented beverages. The Changzikou Tomb vessels, one of which is reported on here, exemplify this phenomenon: of more than 90 bronze vessels in the tomb, 52 lidded examples were still a quarter- to half-full of liquid (15). Most recently (early 2003), an excavation of an upper-class tomb in Xi'an yielded a lidded vessel holding 26 liters of what was described as a liquid with a “delicious aroma and light flavor” (G.C., unpublished data). What accounts for such amazing preservation of liquids, which would be anticipated to have evaporated and disappeared? Chinese bronze-making technology assured that the lids were tightly fitted to the mouths of vessels. Then, over time, the lids corroded and cut off further exchange with the outside atmosphere, hermetically sealing off any liquid remaining inside the vessels.  

"Previous attempts to identify the compounds responsible for the aromas of the liquids contained in the Shang/Western Zhou lidded bronze vessels, as well as other basic ingredients, have been largely inconclusive or are unpublished. Positive evidence for yeast cells was obtained from an 8.5-kg solid white residue inside a weng jar at Taixi, probably the lees of a fermented beverage. Habitation contexts at Taixi also yielded specific pottery forms, including a funnel and a deep vat with a pointed and recessed bottom (“general's helmet”), which were likely used in beverage-making (3, 5). Several jars at this site also contained peach, plum, and Chinese date (jujube) pits, as well as seeds of sweet clover, jasmine, and hemp, suggesting that an herbal fruit drink was prepared.  

"Our analyses of the liquids inside lidded jars from Anyang and the Changzikou Tomb can be summarized briefly. Beeswax and epicuticular wax compounds were absent, implying the absence of honey or a plant additive. Tartaric acid and its salts were present at a very low level only in the Changzikou Tomb, consistent with mold saccharification of rice. Although the Changzikou Tomb sample gave a δ13C value of –25.3‰ in accord with a C3 plant such as rice (Table 1), the stable isotope determination for the Anyang liquid (–15.9‰) indicated that a C4 plant was used as a principal ingredient. Millet, which is well represented in the Anyang archaeobotanical corpus, is the most likely candidate" (Patrick E. McGovern, Juzhong Zhang, et al, "Fermented beverages of pre-and proto-historic China," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Published online before print December 8, 2004, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0407921102 PNAS December 21, 2004 vol. 101 no. 51 17593-17598, accessed 01-11-2013)

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Discovery of the "Ark Tablet": Decoding the Story of the Flood Circa 1,900 BCE – 1,700 BCE

In 2009 British Museum curator Irving Finkel, an expert on cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, received for examination and translation what came to be known as the "Ark Tablet" from its owner Douglas Simmonds. This is the only cuneiform tablet with precise instructions as to how to build the Ark described in the early accounts of the flood, best known through later accounts in literature, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Ark Tablet provided instructions for building the Ark in the form of a very large round boat called a coracle.

According to Finkel, the tablet dates from 1900-1700 BCE, though the tablet was not dated by the scribe. However, comparatively precise dating can be done from the character and composition of the cuneiform signs and from grammatical forms and usages. The tablet measures 11.5 x 6.0 cm and contains exactly 60 lines of cuneiform script written out ably and without error. In The Ark Before Noah. Decoding the Story of the Flood (2014) Finkel illustrated the tablet and translated its contents on pp. 107-110. Incidentally Finkel's well-illustrated book is a masterpiece of writing about relatively abstruse subjects for the general public. So geared to a non-scholarly audience is this book that footnotes are not even mentioned in the text. One has to search for them at the back of the book.

In the British Museum blog announcing his book on January 23, 2014 Finkel summarized his conclusions in this way:

"When the gods decided to wipe out mankind with a flood, the god Enki, who had a sense of humour, leaked the news to a man called Atra-hasis, the ‘Babylonian Noah,’ who was to build the Ark. Atra-hasis’s Ark, however was round. To my knowledge, no one has ever thought of that possibility. The new tablet also describes the materials and the measurements to build it: quantities of palm-fibre rope, wooden ribs and bathfuls of hot bitumen to waterproof the finished vessel. The result was a traditional coracle, but the largest the world had ever dreamed of, with an area of 3,600 sq. metres (equivalent to two-thirds the area of a football pitch), and six-metre high walls. The amount of rope prescribed, stretched out in a line, would reach from London to Edinburgh!

"To anyone who has the typical image learnt from children’s toys and book illustrations in mind, a round Ark is bizarre at first, but, on reflection, the idea makes sense. A waterproofed coracle would never sink and being round isn’t a problem – it never had to go anywhere: all it had to do was float and keep the contents safe: a cosmic lifeboat. Palm-and-pitch coracles had been seen on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers since time immemorial: they were still a common sight on Iraq’s great waterways in the 1950s."

In an article in The Guardian published on January 24, 2014 Finkel was quoted as saying, "I am 107% convinced the ark never existed."

"Finkel describes the clay tablet as 'one of the most important human documents ever discovered', and his conclusions will send ripples into the world of creationism and among ark hunters, where many believe in the literal truth of the Bible account, and innumerable expeditions have been mounted to try to find the remains of the ark.

"The clay tablet is going on display at the British Museum, loaned by Simmons, beside a tablet from the museum's collection with the earliest map of the world, as seen from ancient Babylon. The flood tablet helped explain details of the map, which shows islands beyond the river marking the edge of the known world, with the text on the back explaining that on one are the remains of the ark.

"Finkel said that not only did the ark never exist, but ark hunters were looking in the wrong place – the map shows the ark in the direction of, but far beyond the mountain range later known as Ararat."

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The Oldest Known Medical Papyrus Circa 1,800 BCE

The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (also Kahun Papyrus, Kahun Medical Papyrus, or UC 32057) is the oldest known medical text on papyrus. It was found at El-Lahun, Egypt (Faiyum, Kahun, كاهون‎) by Flinders Petrie in 1889  and first translated by F. Ll. Griffith in 1893 and published in The Petrie Papyri: Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob.

The papyrus concerns women's complaints—gynaecological diseases, fertility, pregnancy, and contraception. "The text is divided into thirty-four sections, each section dealing with a specific problem and containing diagnosis and treatment, no prognosis is suggested. Treatments are non surgical, comprising applying medicines to the affected body part or swallowing them. The womb is at times seen as the source of complaints manifesting themselves in other body parts."

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Thousands of Cuneiform Tablets Document Babylonian Mathematics 1,800 BCE – 1,600 BCE

YBC 7287, a Babylonian mathematical tablet preserved at Yale, circa 1800-1600 B.C.E. (View Larger)

In contrast to the scarcity of original sources for Egyptian mathematics, preserved on the relatively fragile medium of papyrus, our knowledge of Babylonian mathematics is derived from several thousand extremely durable clay tablets written in Cuneiform script excavated since the beginning of the nineteenth century.  "The majority of recovered clay tablets date from 1800 to 1600 BC, and cover topics which include fractions, algebra, quadratic and cubic equations, the Pythagorean theorem, the calculation of Pythagorean triples and possibly trigonometric functions."

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Probably the Earliest Surviving Recipe for Making Beer Circa 1,800 BCE

Evidence for brewing beer in Mesopotamia dates back to 3500-3100 BCE at the Sumerian settlement of Godin Tepe, an archaeological site in western Iran In 1992, archaeologists discovered chemical traces of beer in a fragmented jar dating to the mid-fourth century BCE. The same site also yielded evidence for early wine-making.

The Hymn to Ninkasi, the ancient Sumerian matron goddess of beer and alcohol, is probably the earliest surviving recipe for making beer. It's date is estimated at 1800 BCE. It is believed that recording the recipe in song or poetry may have served as a mnemonic for a people that was primarily illiterate. An English translation of the Hymn from the University of Oxford Electronic Text Corpus (ETCSLtranslation: t.4.23.1) reads as follows: 

"A hymn to Ninkasi (Ninkasi A)

"1-4. Given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninḫursaĝa! Ninkasi, given birth by the flowing water ……, tenderly cared for by Ninḫursaĝa!

"5-8. Having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you. Ninkasi, having founded your town upon wax, she completed its great walls for you.

"9-12. Your father is Enki, Lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu. Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nudimmud, and your mother is Ninti, the queen of the abzu.

"13-16. It is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics. Ninkasi, it is you who handle the …… and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread with sweet aromatics.

"17-20. It is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain. Ninkasi, it is you who bake the beerbread in the big oven, and put in order the piles of hulled grain.

"21-24. It is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?). Ninkasi, it is you who water the earth-covered malt; the noble dogs guard it even from the potentates (?).

"25-28. It is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall. Ninkasi, it is you who soak the malt in a jar; the waves rise, the waves fall.

"29-32. It is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes ……. Ninkasi, it is you who spread the cooked mash on large reed mats; coolness overcomes …….

"33-36. It is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine. Ninkasi, it is you who hold with both hands the great sweetwort, brewing it with honey and wine.

"37-40.  

"1 line fragmentary You …… the sweetwort to the vessel. Ninkasi, ……. You …… the sweetwort to the vessel.

"41-44. You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat. Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat.

"45-48. It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Ninkasi, it is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates" (accessed 01-12-2013).

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The Earliest Surviving Recipes Circa 1,700 BCE

YBC 4644, one of three tablets in Yale's collection inscribed with ancient recipes.

We have a general knowledge of the foodstuffs that comprised the diets of the Egyptians, Hittites, Phoenicians, and Hebrews, but lack recipes from those ancient cultures.

Among Yale University’s collection of cuneiform tablets are three tablets, each containing a recipe collection—a total of 35 recipes. Composed in the middle of the Old Babylonian period, fhey are the world’s oldest cookbooks. The tablets were deciphered and translated by Jean Bottéro and Teresa Lavender Fagan in The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia (2004). The recipes are difficult to understand for several reasons:

"broken and damaged passages, obscure colloquial Akkadian, unknown vocabulary and technical language. In fact, some of the cooking ingredients are still completely unknown to us; and others, which have been identified, have passed from modern use, so we cannot appreciate what they really are. Add to this the fact that the cooking procedures are not precise, and neither cooking times nor quantities of ingredients are given, then one can appreciate the obstacle of reproducing the recipes accurately and faithfully. Nevertheless, the lack of specificity provides some leeway and leaves room for interpretation, without, hopefully, sacrificing authenticity.

"All of the recipes have one thing in common: every one of the finished dishes relies on combinations of meat, fowl, vegetables, or grain cooked in water. Cooking in water was an enormous innovation. From other kinds of evidence, we know that before this time entirely different cooking methods were used, like the use of radiant heat in an oven; indirect heat in hot ashes; and direct exposure to flame, as in broiling, grilling, or spit roasting. Cooking in liquid represented a giant step forward in terms of taste and sophistication. It created a richness and diversity of flavor that could not be achieved in the more ancient roasted, grilled, and broiled food" (http://homepage.mac.com/toke_knudsen/cuneiform_cuisine/Personal84.html, accessed 06-15-2009).

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The Rigveda Circa 1,700 BCE – 1,100 BCE

One of the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language, the Rigveda (Rig Veda) (Sanskrit: ऋग्वेद ṛgveda, a compound of ṛc "praise, verse" and veda "knowledge"), an ancient Indian sacred collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, was composed in the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent. 

"It is counted among the four canonical sacred texts (śruti) of Hinduism known as the Vedas. Some of its verses are still recited as Hindu prayers, at religious functions and other occasions, putting these among the world's oldest religious texts in continued use. The Rigveda contains several mythological and poetical accounts of the origin of the world, hymns praising the gods, and ancient prayers for life, prosperity, etc." (Wikipedia article on Rigveda, accessed 07-10-2011).

The date of composition of the Vedas is controversial. Some argue that the Rigveda was composed circa 3000 BCE, which would make it the oldest surviving literary work.

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“Accurate Reckoning for Inquiring into Things, and the Knowledge of All Things, Mysteries . . .All Secrets” Circa 1,650 BCE

The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. (View Larger)

Dating from the Second Intermediate Period of Egypt, the Rhind Mathematial Papyrus is the most significant document of Egyptian mathematics. It was copied by the scribe Ahmes from a now-lost text from the reign of Amenemhat III (12th dynasty). The manuscript  is 33 cm tall and over 5 meters long, and is written in hieratic script. It is dated  Year 33 of the Hyksos king Apophis and also contains a separate later Year 11 on its verso likely from his successor, Khamudi.

"In the opening paragraphs of the papyrus, Ahmes presents the papyrus as giving 'Accurate reckoning for inquiring into things, and the knowledge of all things, mysteries...all secrets'."

Alexander Henry Rhind, a Scottish antiquarian, purchased the papyrus in 1858 in Luxor, Egypt.  It was apparently found during illegal excavations in or near the Ramesseum. The British Museum acquired it in 1864 along with the Egyptian Mathematical Leather Roll, also owned by Rhind.

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The Oldest Surgical Treatise Circa 1,600 BCE

The Edwin Smith Papyrus, the most detailed and sophisticated of the extant medical papyri, is the only surviving copy of part of an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma surgery, and the world's oldest surgical treatise. Written in the hieratic script of the ancient Egyptian language,  it is based on material from a thousand years earlier. It consists of a list of 48 traumatic injury cases, with a description of the physical examination, treatment and prognosis of each. When the papyrus was discovered it was about 15 feet long in roll or scroll form.  In 1862 it was purchased in Luxor, Egypt by Edwin Smith, an American Egyptologist and collector and dealer in antiquities. Sometime in the 19th century it was cut into 17 columns. Coincidentally, Smith was born in Connecticut in 1822 – the same year Egyptian hieroglyphic was decoded by Champollion. After Smith's death in 1906 his daughter donated the papyrus to New York Historical Society. From 1938 through 1948, the papyrus was at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1948, the New York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum presented the papyrus to the New York Academy of Medicine, where it is preserved today. 

"The text begins by addressing injuries to the head, and continues with treatments for injuries to neck, arms and torso, where the text breaks off. Among the treatments are closing wounds with sutures (for wounds of the lip, throat, and shoulder), preventing and curing infection with honey and mouldy bread, and stopping bleeding with raw meat. Immobilisation was often advised for head and spinal cord injuries, which is still in practice today in the short-term treatment of some injuries. The use of magic for treatment is resorted to in only one case (Case 9).

"The papyrus also describes anatomical observations in exquisite detail. It contains the first known descriptions of the cranial sutures, the meninges, the external surface of the brain, the cerebrospinal fluid, and the intracranial pulsations. The papyrus shows that the heart, vessels, liver, spleen, kidneys, ureters and bladder were recognized, and that the blood vessels were known to be connected to the heart. Other vessels are described, some carrying air, some mucus, while two to the right ear are said to carry the breath of life, and two to the left ear the breath of death. The physiological functions of organs and vessels remained a complete mystery to the ancient Egyptians."

♦ You can scroll through a virtual scroll of the Edwin Smith papyrus on the website of the National Library of Medicine at http://archive.nlm.nih.gov/proj/ttp/flash/smith/smith.html. When you click on the text button on the site you see the new translation of that portion of the papyrus made by James P. Allen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

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The Largest Surviving Medical Treatise from Ancient Mesopotamia Circa 1,600 BCE

Sumerian medical tablet (2400 BC), ancient city of Nippur.  Lists 15 prescriptions used by a pharmacist.  Library of Ashurbanipal.

Because clay tablets, especially those baked in fires, were more durable than papyrus rolls, more original source material regarding medicine survived from Mesoptomia than from ancient Greece or Rome. Even though the amount of surviving medical textual information from Mesopotamia may be greater than what survived from Egypt, comparing the quantities of the two sources of ancient medical information is complicated since, in addition to the medical papyri which survived in the hospitable climate of Egypt, Egyptian mummies represent a unique source of paleopathological information that is not textual.

The surviving Mesopotamian medical records consist of roughly 1000 cuneiform tablets, of which 660 medical tablets from the library of Ashurbanipal are preserved in the British Museum. About 420 tablets from other sites also survived, including the library excavated from the private house of a medical practitioner (an asipu) from Neo-Assyrian Assur, and some Middle Assyrian and Middle Babylonia texts.

Most of these Mesopotamian medical tablets were not discovered until the nineteenth century, and because of difficulties with translation of cuneiform script, many of these tablets were not understood by scholars until recently. Another factor that must be taken into consideration is that since these tablets survived by unintended burial rather than by manuscript copying, and they were not preserved until comparatively recently in conventional libraries or museums, the medicine they record did not necessarily play a conventional role in the Western medical tradition. What influence their contents might have had on the practice of later physicians remains unclear.

The medical texts from Ashurbanipal's library were first published in facsimile by Reginald Campbell Thompson as Assyrian Medical Texts. From the Originals in the British Museum (1923). Franz Kocher later published six volumes called Die babylonisch-assyrische Medizin in Texten und Untersuchungen (1963-1980), the first four volumes of which contain the tablets found from sites other than Assurbanipal's library.

"The remaining two volumes of Kocher's work augment Campbell Thompson, providing new joins of broken fragments and much material uncovered in the British Museum. At least one more volume of Nineveh texts has been announced. In addition, the series Spaet Babylonische Texte aus Uruk contains some 30 medical texts not included in Kocher's work. The vast majority of these tablets are prescriptions, but there are a few series of tablets that contained entries that were directly related to one another, and these have been labeled 'treatises' " (Nancy Demand, The Asclepion, accessed 05-30-2009).

More recently the texts of many of the Mesopotamian medical tablets were translated and analyzed from the medical point of view by  Assyriologist/cuneiformist, JoAnn Scurlock and physician/medical historian Burton R. Anderson as Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine (2005).


•The largest surviving medical treatise from ancient Mesopotamia is known as the Treatise of Medical Diagnosis and Prognoses.

"The text of this treatise consists of 40 tablets collected and studied by the French scholar R. Labat. Although the oldest surviving copy of this treatise dates to around 1600 BCE, the information contained in the text is an amalgamation of several centuries of Mesopotamian medical knowledge. The diagnostic treatise is organized in head to toe order with separate subsections covering convulsive disorders, gynecology and pediatrics. It is unfortunate that the antiquated translations available at present to the non-specialist make ancient Mesopotamian medical texts sound like excerpts from a sorceror's handbook. In fact, as recent research is showing, the descriptions of diseases contained in the diagnostic treatise demonstrate a keen ability to observe and are usually astute. Virtually all expected diseases can be found described in parts of the diagnostic treatise, when those parts are fully preserved, as they are for neurology, fevers, worms and flukes, VD and skin lesions. The medical texts are, moreover, essentially rational, and some of the treatments, as for example those designed for excessive bleeding (where all the plants mentioned can be easily identified), are essentially the same as modern treatments for the same conditions" (Nancy Demand, The Aesclepion, accessed 05-30-2009).

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The Nebra Sky Disk 1,600 BCE

The Nebra Sky Disk. (View Larger)

The Nebra Sky Disk, attributed to a site near Nebra, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, is a bronze disk about 30 cm in diameter, with a blue-green patina inlaid with gold symbols which have generally been interpreted as a sun or full moon, a lunar crescent, and stars, including a cluster interpreted as the Pleiades. The disk is associated with Bronze Age Unetice Culture.

"Two golden arcs along the sides, making the angle between the solstices, were added later. A final addition was another arc at the bottom surrounded with multiple strokes (of uncertain meaning, variously interpreted as a Solar Barge with numerous oars, as the Milky Way or as a rainbow)" (Wikipedia article on Nebra sky disk, accessed 11-04-2010).

When it appeared on the antiquities market in 2001 the disk was widely suspected to be a forgery. Scientific research summarized in the Wikipedia article provided evidence for its authenticity that was widely accepted in 2010.

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The Most Extensive Record of Ancient Egyptian Medicine Circa 1,550 BCE

Papyrus Ebers (View Larger)

Written in Hieratic, the 110 page Papyrus Ebers is the most extensive surviving record of ancient Egyptian medicine.  "It contains many incantations meant to turn away disease-causing demons and there is also evidence of a long tradition of empirical practice and observation.

"The papyrus contains a treatise on the heart. It notes that the heart is the center of the blood supply, with vessels attached for every member of the body. The Egyptians seem to have known little about the kidneys and made the heart the meeting point of a number of vessels which carried all the fluids of the body — blood, tears, urine and sperm.

"Mental disorders are detailed in a chapter of the papyrus called the Book of Hearts. Disorders such as depression and dementia are covered. The descriptions of these disorders suggest that Egyptians conceived of mental and physical diseases in much the same way.

"The papyrus contains chapters on contraception, diagnosis of pregnancy and other gynaecological matters, intestinal disease and parasites, eye and skin problems, dentistry and the surgical treatment of abscesses and tumors, bone-setting and burns."

Edwin Smith, who also owned the Edwin Smith Papyrus, bought the Ebers Papyrus in 1862. It was said to have been found between the legs of a mummy in the Assassif district of the Theban necropolis. It remained in Smith's collection until at least 1869 when it was offered for sale in the catalog of an antiquities dealer, described as "a large medical papyrus in the possession of Edwin Smith, an American farmer of Luxor." It was purchased in 1872 by the German Egyptologist and novelist Georg Ebers, and is preserved in the University of Leipzig Library.

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A Wooden Writing Board Containing Text of the Words of Khakheperresoneb Circa 1,500 BCE

EA 5645 of the British Museum: the Words of Khakheperresoneb written on a wooden writing board. (View Larger)

In addition to papyrus, wood was used as a writing medium in the ancient world, though far fewer examples have survived than writing on papyrus, clay, or stone. An example of an ancient Egyptian wooden writing board is that containing text of the words of Khakheperresoneb preserved in the British Museum (EA 5645).

"The main uses of writing boards in ancient Egypt included writing practice. This board is made from wood overlaid with gesso to provide a surface for writing, which could then be easily erased when required. Fortunately, this board was not erased, since it is the major source for one of the literary texts of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1750 BC): the Words of Khakheperresoneb.

"The name of the author, Khakheperresoneb, is based on one of the royal names of King Senwosret II of the Twelfth Dynasty (about 1844-1837 BC). This suggests that the original text was composed in the late Twelfth Dynasty some two hundred years earlier than this copy. It was common for works of literature that were considered to be classics to be repeatedly copied in their entirety or in sections in the New Kingdom (about 1550-1-70 BC). The small red dots in the text are termed 'verse points' and mark the ends of lines of verse" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/w/wooden_writing_board_and_text.aspx, accessed 07-11-2009).

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The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions, the Earliest Evidence for Alphabetic Writing Circa 1,500 BCE

The Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, first discovered at Serabit el-Khadem (Serabit el-Khadim), an ancient Egyptian turquoise mining site in the Sinai Peninsula, by W. M. Flinders Petrie in 1905, and supplemented by additional finds in subsequent decades, represent the earliest evidence for alphabetic writing. They consist of linear pictographic symbols inscribed on statuettes, stone panels, and rock faces. In the 1994-95 John Coleman Darnell and Deborah Darnell, who started searching along caravan trails in the Western Desert west of Luxor in the Theban Desert Road Survey, discovered two single-line rock inscriptions at Wadi el-Hol, near Thebes in Upper Egypt. Those inscriptions are written in a script that closely resembles the Proto-Sinaitic texts from Serabit el-Khadem. 

Joseph Lam, "The Invention and Development of the Alphabet," IN: Wood (ed) Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond (2010) 189-95, illustrating one of the inscriptions as No. 89 on p. 196.

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One of the Earliest Known Examples of Writing in Europe Circa 1,490 BCE – 1,390 BCE

On April 2, 2011 Michael Cosmopoulos of the University of Missouri-St. Louis reported the discovery at Ilaina, Greece of a clay tablet written in Linear B script. This tablet, 2 x 3 inches in size, was preserved when someone discarded it in a trash pit, burned the trash, and inadvertently fired the clay. 

When the tablet was discovered it was the one of the earliest examples of writing found on the mainland of Europe.

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The Oldest Surviving Water Clock or Clepsydra 1,417 BCE – 1,379 BCE

Water clocks, along with sundials, are, with the exception of the vertical gnomon and the day-counting tally stick, the oldest time-measuring instruments. Where and when water clocks were first invented is not known. Until the development of the pendulum clock (1656), water clocks were the most accurate timekeeping devices.

"The oldest water clock of which there is physical evidence dates to c. 1417-1379 BC, during the reign of Amenhotep III where it was used in the Temple of Amen-Re at Karnak. The oldest documentation of the water clock is the tomb inscription of the 16th century BC Egyptian court official Amenemhet, which identifies him as its inventor. These simple water clocks, which were of the outflow type, were stone vessels with sloping sides that allowed water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a small hole near the bottom. There were twelve separate columns with consistently spaced markings on the inside to measure the passage of "hours" as the water level reached them. The columns were for each of the twelve months to allow for the variations of the seasonal hours. These clocks were used by priests to determine the time at night so that the temple rites and sacrifices could be performed at the correct hour. These clocks may have been used in daylight as well" (Wikipedia article on water clock, accessed 12-25-2011).

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The Earliest Surviving Detailed Bibliographical Entries Circa 1,400 BCE

Collection catalogue tablet from the Hattusas Palace Archives. Hattusa, Turkey

 

Cuneiform tablets discovered at Hattusas (Hattusa), capital of the Hittite Empire in the Bronze Age, near modern Boğazkale, Turkey, contain detailed bibliographical entries.

"Each entry begins by giving the number of tablets that made up the work being recorded, just as modern catalogues give the number of volumes in a mult-volume publication. The entry identifies the work itself by giving the title, which may take the form of citing its first line, or by giving a capsule description of the contents. Then it tells whether the table marked the end of the work or not. At times the entry includes the name of the author or authors, or adds other useful information. . . . 

"In addition to noting missing tablets, the entries now and then provide information about shelving. There is an entry, for example, which in listing a work that happens to be in two tablets notes that 'they do not stand upright'; presumably, in the part of the palace holdings represented by this catalogue, most tablets were stored on edge while these two, exceptionally, lay flat. . . . The catalogue, it would seem, was of one particular collection that, to judge from the contents, was for use by the palace clergy. It would have been an invaluable tool: any priest who needed a ritual for a given problem, instead of picking up tablet after tablet to read the colophon if there was one, or some lines of text if there was not, had only to run an eye over the entries in the catalogue. It was a limited tool; the order of the entries is more or less haphazard (alphabetization, for example, lay over a millennium and a half in the future) and they give no indication of location. But it was, no question about it, a significant step beyond the simple listing of titles of the Nippur tablets. 

"The finds at Hattusas, in short, reveal the development of procedures for organizing a collection of writings. The palace holdings were certainly extensive enough to require them; the catalogue alone, representing as we have seen, just the clergy's working library, lists well over one hundred titles. . . ." (Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World [2001] 5-8).

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The Uluburun Shipwreck 1,375 BCE

The Uluburun shipwreck, a Late Bronze Age shipwreck discovered off Uluburun (Grand Cape) about 6 miles southeast of Kas in south-western Turkey, contained one of the most extensive surviving cargos excavated from the Mediterranean sea. As a result of 22,413 dives from 1984 to 1994 a multitude of items of raw material used in trade were excavated. Prior to the discovery of this shipwreck most of these items had been known primarily from ancient texts or Egyptian tomb paintings. The cargo matches many of the royal gifts listed in the Amarna letters.

The cargo, preserved in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum Castle, Bodrum, Turkey, included the following:

"♦ Copper and tin ingots

Raw copper cargo totaling ten tons, consisting of a total of 354 ingots of the oxhide (rectangular with handholds extending from each corner) type. Out of the total amount of ingots at least 31 unique two-handled ingots were identified that were most likely shaped this way to assist the process of loading ingots onto specially designed saddles or harnesses for ease of transport over long distances by pack animals. 121 copper bun and oval ingots. The oxhide ingots were originally stowed in 4 distinct rows across the ship’s hold, which either slipped down the slope after the ship sank or shifted as the hull settled under the weight of the cargo. Approximately one ton of tin (when alloyed with the copper would make about 11 tons of bronze). Tin ingots were oxhide and bun shaped.

"♦ Canaanite jars and Pistacia resin

At least 149 Canaanite jars (widely found in Greece, Cyprus, Syria-Palestine, and Egypt). Jars are categorized as the northern type and were most likely made somewhere in the northern part of modern-day Israel. One jar filled with glass beads, many filled with olives, but the majority contained a substance known as Pistacia (terebinth) resin. Recent clay fabric analyses of Canaanite jar sherds from the 18th-Dynasty site of Tell el-Amarna have produced a specific clay fabric designation, and it is seemingly the same as that from the Uluburun shipwreck, of a type that is exclusively associated in Amarna with transporting Pistacia resin.

"♦ Glass ingots

Approximately 175 glass ingots of cobalt blue turquoise and lavender were found (earliest intact glass ingots known). Chemical composition of cobalt blue glass ingots matches those of contemporary Egyptian core-formed vessels and Mycenaean pendant beads, which suggests a common source.

"♦ Miscellaneous cargo

Logs of blackwood from Africa (referred to as ebony by the Egyptians), Ivory in the form of whole and partial elephant tusks, More than a dozen hippopotamus teeth Tortoise carapaces (upper shells), Murex opercula (possible ingredient for incense),Ostrich eggshells, Cypriot pottery, Cypriot oil lamps. Bronze and copper vessels (four faience drinking cups shaped as rams’ heads and one shaped as a woman’s head), Two duck-shaped ivory cosmetics boxes, Ivory cosmetics or unguent spoon, Trumpet, More than two dozen sea-shell rings, Beads of amber (Baltic origin), Agate, Carnelian, Quartz, Gold, Faience, Glass

"♦ Jewelry, gold, and silver

Collection of usable and scrap gold and silver Canaanite jewelry. Among the 37 gold pieces are: pectorals, medallions, pendants, beads, a small ring ingot, and an assortment of fragments. Biconical chalice (largest gold object from wreck). Egyptian objects of gold, electrum, silver, and steatite (soap stone). Gold scarab inscribed with the name of Nefertiti. Bronze female figurine (head, neck, hands, and feet covered in sheet gold).

"♦ Weapons and tools

Arrowheads, Spearheads, Maces, Daggers, Lugged shaft-hole axe, A single armor scale of Near Eastern type, Four swords (Canaanite, Mycenaean, and Italian(?) types), Large number of tools: sickles, awls, drill bits, a saw, a pair of tongs, chisels, axes, a ploughshare, whetstones, and adzes.

"♦ Pan-balance weights

19 zoomorphic weights (Uluburun weight assemblage is one of the largest and most complete groups of contemporaneous Late Bronze Age weights) 120 geometric-shaped weights

"♦ Foodstuffs

Almonds, Pine nuts, Figs, Olives, Grapes, Safflower, Black cumin,  Sumac, Corianderm Whole pomegranates, A few grains of charred wheat and barley" (Wikipedia article on Uluburn shipwreck, accessed 01-12-2012).

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Archive of Egyptian Diplomatic Correspondence Written in the Diplomatic Language, Akkadian Cuneiform Circa 1,360 BCE – 1,330 BCE

ME E29785 of the British Museum: A letter from Burnaburiash, a king of the Kassite dynasty of Babylonia, to Amenhotep IV. The tablet is one of the Amarna Letters. (View Larger)

The Amarna Letters, or Correspondence, an archive of mostly diplomatic correspondence between the Egyptian administration and its representatives in Canaan and Amurru during the New Kingdom, written on clay tablets, was found around 1887 in Upper Egypt at Amarna, the modern name for the Egyptian capital of Akhetaten (Akhetaton), founded by pharaoh Akhenaten (Akhnaton), during the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt.  

"The Amarna letters are unusual in Egyptological research, being mostly written in Akkadian cuneiform, the writing system of ancient Mesopotamia rather than ancient Egypt. The known tablets currently total 382 in number, 24 further tablets having been recovered since the Norwegian Assyriologist Jørgen Alexander Knudtzon's landmark edition of the Amarna correspondence, Die El-Amarna-Tafeln in two volumes (1907 and 1915).

"These letters, consisting of cuneiform tablets mostly written in Akkadian – the regional language of diplomacy for this period – were first discovered by local Egyptians around 1887, who secretly dug most of them from the ruined city (they were originally stored in an ancient building archaeologists have since called the Bureau of Correspondence of Pharaoh) and then sold them on the antiquities market. Once the location where they were found was determined, the ruins were explored for more. The first archaeologist who successfully recovered more tablets was William Flinders Petrie in 1891–92, who found 21 fragments. Émile Chassinat, then director of the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo, acquired two more tablets in 1903. Since Knudtzon's edition, some 24 more tablets, or fragments of tablets, have been found, either in Egypt, or identified in the collections of various museums.

"The tablets originally recovered by local Egyptians have been scattered among museums in Cairo, Europe and the United States: 202 or 203 are at the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin; 80 in the British Museum; 49 or 50 at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; seven at the Louvre; 3 at the Pushkin Museum; and 1 is currently in the collection of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

"The full archive, which includes correspondence from the preceding reign of Amenhotep III as well, contained over three hundred diplomatic letters; the remainder are a miscellany of literary or educational materials. These tablets shed much light on Egyptian relations with Babylonia, Assyria, the Mitanni, the Hittites, Syria, Canaan, and Alashiya (Cyprus). They are important for establishing both the history and chronology of the period. Letters from the Babylonian king Kadashman-Enlil I anchor the timeframe of Akhenaten's reign to the mid-14th century BC. Here was also found the first mention of a Near Eastern group known as the Habiru, whose possible connection with the Hebrews remains debated. Other rulers include Tushratta of Mittani, Lib'ayu of Shehchem, Abdi-Heba of Jerusalem and the quarrelsome king Rib-Hadda of Byblos, who in over 58 letters continuously pleads for Egyptian military help" (Wikipedia article on Amarna letters, accessed 09-01-2009).

In July 2014 digital facsimiles and transliterations of the Amarna tablets in the Vorderasiatisches Museum were available from CDLI (Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative) at this link.

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The Epic of Gilgamesh, Probable Source of Aspects of Biblical and Homeric Literature Circa 1,300 BCE – 1,000 BCE

One of the twelve tablets--of the 1200 discovered by Austen Henry Layard in Ninveh--upon which the Epic of Gilgamesh was recorded. (View larger)

The most complete and "standard" Akkadian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of literary fiction, was written in standard Babylonian, a dialect of Akkadian that was only used for literary purposes, and compiled out of older legends by the Mesopotamian incantation/exorcist priest Sîn-lēqi-unninni, sometime between 1300 and 1000 BCE. Various themes, plot elements, and characters in the Epic of Gilgamesh have counterparts in the book of Genesis, notably the accounts of the Garden of Eden and Noah's Flood.

"Gilgamesh, we can be sure, was a real man. he was an early king of Uruk who founded a short-lived dynasty at the beginning of the historical period. All the surviving literary traditions about Gilgamesh point to a figure of power and charisma that long-outlasted his own lifetime. The cycle of stories that came to circulate about his name testify to this, and the impression that he was a man out of the same box as Alexander the Great, the impact of whose death led to narratives far beyond the sober scope of the historians who first tackled his life and times" (Irving Finkel, The Ark Before Noah. Decoding the Story of the Flood [2014] 82).

The standard version of the epic was recorded on twelve cuneiform tablets, of which the ark story appeared in tablet 11. These were discovered in 1853 by the Assyrian and Christian Assyriologist Hormuzd Rassam in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Rassam, the protegé of British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who had accompanied Layard in his second expedition to iraq from 1849 to 1851, discovered the tablets after Layard left archaeology and began a political career. The deciphering of the twelve tablets in 1872 by George Smith at the British Museum, where the tablets are preserved, caused this epic to be rediscovered by the world. Smith's first published account of the tablets appeared in Chaldean Account of the Deluge. Terra Cotta Tablets Found at Nineveh, and Now in the British Museum. Two Photographs. Translation and Text by Geo. Smith. . . , Photographed by Stephen Thompson, London: Mansell, 1872.

"The parallels between the stories of Enkidu/Shamhat and Adam/Eve have been long recognized by scholars. In both, a man is created from the soil by a god, and lives in a natural setting amongst the animals. He is introduced to a woman who tempts him. In both stories the man accepts food from the woman, covers his nakedness, and must leave his former realm, unable to return. The presence of a snake that steals a plant of immortality from the hero later in the epic is another point of similarity.

"Andrew R. George submits that the flood myth in Genesis 6–8 matches that in Gilgamesh so closely that 'few doubt' that it derives from a Mesopotamian account. What is particularly noticeable is the way the Genesis flood story follows the Gilgamesh flood tale "point by point and in the same order", even when the story permits other alternatives.

"In a 2001 Torah commentary released on behalf of the Conservative Movement of Judaism, rabbinic scholar Robert Wexler stated: 'The most likely assumption we can make is that both Genesis and Gilgamesh drew their material from a common tradition about the flood that existed in Mesopotamia. These stories then diverged in the retelling.'

"Matthias Henze suggests that Nebuchadnezzar's madness in the biblical Book of Daniel draws on the Epic of Gilgamesh. He claims that the author uses elements from the description of Enkidu to paint a sarcastic and mocking portrait of the king of Babylon.[22]

"Many scholars note an influence on the book of Ecclesiastes.The speech of Sidhuri in an old Babylonian version of the epic is so similar to Ecclesiastes 9:7–10 that direct influence is a possibility. A rare proverb about the strength of a triple-stranded rope is common to both books.

"Numerous scholars have drawn attention to various themes, episodes, and verses, that indicate a substantial influence of the Epic of Gilgamesh on both of the epic poems ascribed to Homer. These influences are detailed by Martin Litchfield West in The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. According to Tzvi Abusch of Brandeis University, the novel "combines the power and tragedy of the Iliad with the wanderings and marvels of the Odyssey. It is a work of adventure, but is no less a meditation on some fundamental issues of human existence" (Wikipedia article on Epic of Gilgamesh, accessed 03-09-2014).

(This entry was last revised on 12-27-2014.)

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Analysis of Pollen Grains Proves that Drought Caused the Collapse of Civilization in the Soutern Levant 1,250 BCE – 1,100 BCE

In the October 2013 issue of Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University palynologist (pollen researcher) Dafna Langgut and archaeologist Israel Finkelstein published "Climate and the Late Bronze Collapse: New Evidence from the Southern Levant." Using cores drilled from the Dead Sea, the researchers were able to study pollen counts an intervals of 40 years--the highest resolution yet in the region. From this evidence they were able to demonstate that a devastating drought from 1250 to 1100 BCE caused the collapse of civilization in the Southern Levant during the Late Bronze Age.

"A core drilled from the Sea of Galilee was subjected to high resolution pollen analysis for the Bronze and Iron Ages. The detailed pollen diagram (sample/~40 yrs) was used to reconstruct past climate changes and human impact on the vegetation of the Mediterranean zone of the southern Levant. The chronological framework is based on radiocarbon dating of short-lived terrestrial organic material. The results indicate that the driest event throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages occurred ~1250–1100 BCE—at the end of the Late Bronze Age. This arid phase was identified based on a significant decrease in Mediterranean tree values, denoting a reduction in precipitation and the shrinkage of the Mediterranean forest/maquis. The Late Bronze dry event was followed by dramatic recovery in the Iron I, evident in the increased percentages of both Mediterranean trees and cultivated olive trees.

"Archaeology indicates that the crisis in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age took place during the same period—from the mid-13th century to ca. 1100 BCE. In the Levant the crisis years are represented by destruction of a large number of urban centres, shrinkage of other major sites, hoarding activities and changes in settlement patterns. Textual evidence from several places in the Ancient Near East attests to drought and famine starting in the mid-13th and continuing until the second half of the 12th century. All this helps to better understand the 'Crisis Years' in the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the quick settlement recovery in the Iron I, especially in the highlands of the Levant" (http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/maney/tav/2013/00000040/00000002/art00002, accessed 10-22-2013). 

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The Only Ancient Egyptian Document that Mentions Israel 1,209 BCE – 1,208 BCE

The Merneptah Stele (View Larger)

In 1896 W. M. Flinders Petrie discovered the Merneptah Stele -- also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah -- in the first court of Merneptah's mortuary temple at Thebes. It is inscribed on the reverse of a large granite stele originally erected by the Ancient Egyptian king Amenhotep III, but later inscribed by Merneptah who ruled Egypt from 1213 to 1203 BC. The black granite stele primarily commemorates a victory in a campaign against the Libu and Meshwesh Libyans and their Sea People allies, but its final two lines refer to a prior military campaign in Canaan in which Merneptah states that he defeated Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel among others. It is preserved in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

"The stele has gained much fame and notoriety for being the only Ancient Egyptian document generally accepted as mentioning "Isrir" or "Israel". It is also, by far, the earliest known attestation of Israel. For this reason, many scholars refer to it as the "Israel stele". This title is somewhat misleading, however, because the stele was clearly not focused on Israel per se— in fact, it mentions Israel only in passing. There is only a single line about Israel: "Israel is wasted, bare of seed" or "Israel lies waste, its seed no longer exists" and very little about the region of Canaan. Israel was simply grouped together with three other defeated states in Canaan (Gezer, Yanoam and Ashkelon) in the stele. Merneptah inserts just a single stanza to the Canaanite campaigns but multiple stanzas to his defeat of the Libyans. The line referring to Merneptah's Canaanite campaign reads:

Canaan is captive with all woe. Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized, Yanoam made nonexistent; Israel is wasted, bare of seed
(Wikipedia article on the Merneptah Stele, accessed 11-29-2008).
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The Earliest Chinese Inscriptions that are Indisputably Writing Circa 1,200 BCE – 1,050 BCE

 

The oldest Chinese inscriptions that are indisputably writing are the Oracle bone script (Chinese: 甲骨文; pinyin: jiǎgǔwén; literally 'shell-bone-script') of the late thirteenth century BCE. It is not until the oracle-bone inscriptions that we find grammatically connected marks that certainly record language. Lack of archaeological evidence prevents addressing the related questions of how long before that time writing developed and in what contexts, or whether writing in China developed gradually or rapidly, and whether it developed exclusively in a religious context or, as in the ancient Middle East, it was tied to court adminstration.

Oracle bone script was

"first identified by scholars in 1899 on pieces of bone and turtle shell being sold as medicine, and by 1928, the source of the oracle bones had been traced back to modern Xiǎotún (小屯) village at Ānyáng in Hénán Province, where official archaeological excavations in 1928–1937 discovered 20,000 oracle bone pieces, about 1/5 of the total discovered. The inscriptions were records of the divinations performed for or by the royal Shāng household. The oracle bone script is a well-developed writing system, attested from the late Shang Dynasty (1200–1050 BC). Only about 1,400 of the 2,500 known oracle bone script logographs can be identified with later Chinese characters and thus deciphered by paleographers."

"The late Shāng oracle bone writings, along with a few contemporary characters in a different style cast in bronzes, constitute the earliest significant corpus of Chinese writing, which is essential for the study of Chinese etymology, as Shāng writing is directly ancestral to the modern Chinese script. It is also the oldest member and ancestor of the Chinese family of scripts.

"The oracle bone script of the late Shāng appears archaic and pictographic in flavor, as does its contemporary, the Shāng writing on bronzes. The earliest oracle bone script appears even more so than examples from late in the period (thus some evolution did occur over the roughly 200-year period). Comparing oracle bone script to both Shāng and early Western Zhōu period writing on bronzes, oracle bone script is clearly greatly simplified, and rounded forms are often converted to rectilinear ones; this is thought to be due to the difficulty of engraving the hard, bony surfaces, compared with the ease of writing them in the wet clay of the molds from which the bronzes were cast. The more detailed and more pictorial style of the bronze graphs is thus thought to be more representative of typical Shāng writing (as would have normally occurred on bamboo books) than the oracle bone script forms, and it is this typical style which continued to evolve into the Zhōu period writing and then into the seal script of the Qín state in the late Zhōu period.

"It is known that the Shāng people also wrote with brush and ink, as brush-written graphs have been found on a small number of pottery, shell and bone, and jade and other stone items, and there is evidence that they also wrote on bamboo (or wooden) books just like those which have been found from the late Zhōu to Hàn periods, because the graphs for a writing brush (聿 yù) and bamboo book (冊 cè, a book of thin vertical slats or slips with horizontal string binding, like a Venetian blind turned 90 degrees) are present in the oracle bone script. Since the ease of writing with a brush is even greater than that of writing with a stylus in wet clay, it is assumed that the style and structure of Shāng graphs on bamboo were similar to those on bronzes, and also that the majority of writing occurred with a brush on such books. Additional support for this notion includes the reorientation of some graphs, by turning them 90 degrees as if to better fit on tall, narrow slats; this style must have developed on bamboo or wood slat books and then carried over to the oracle bone script. Additionally, the writing of characters in vertical columns, from top to bottom, is for the most part carried over from the bamboo books to oracle bone inscriptions. In some instances lines are written horizontally so as to match the text to divinatory cracks, or columns of text rotate 90 degrees in mid stream, but these are exceptions to the normal pattern of writing, and inscriptions were never read bottom to top. The vertical columns of text in Chinese writing are traditionally ordered from right to left; this pattern is found on bronze inscriptions from the Shāng dynasty onward. Oracle bone inscriptions, however, are often arranged so that the columns begin near the centerline of the shell or bone, and move toward the edge, such that the two sides are ordered in mirror-image fashion" (Wikipedia article on Oracle bone script, accessed 07-11-2009).

Edward L. Shaughnessy, "The Beginnings of Writing in China" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Middle East and Beyond (2010) 215-24.

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Diseases of the Anus and Headaches 1,200 BCE

The Chester Beatty Medical Papyrus. (View Larger)

A fragment of a papyrus on diseases of the anus and magical incantations against headaches, The Chester Beatty Medical papyrus was written in the 13th-12th centuries BCE in hieratic script. It is preserved in the British Museum (Papyrus VI of the Chester Beatty Papyri 46; Papyrus no. 10686, British Museum.)

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The Longest Known Egyptian Papyrus Circa 1,186 BCE – 1,155 BCE

A papyrus of the 'Discourse of the Gods' section of the Great Harris Papyrus, showing Ramesses III before the Triad of Thebes. (View Larger)

Papyrus Harris I, also known as the Great Harris Papyrus, and officially designated as Papyrus British Museum 9999, extends to a length of 41 meters. It is the longest papyrus ever found in Egypt, and includes 1500 lines of text.

The Great Harris Papyrus was found in a tomb near Medinet Habu, across the Nile river from Luxor, Egypt. It was purchased by collector and merchant Anthony Charles Harris in 1855.  The hieratic text of the papyrus consists of a list of temple endowments and a brief summary of the entire reign of king Ramesses III, second Pharaoh of the Twentieth dynasty.

The papyrus entered the collection of the British Museum in 1872.

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1,000 BCE – 300 BCE

The Oldest Known Evidence of the Phoenician Alphabet Circa 1,000 BCE

The Ahiram Sarcophagus, discovered by the French archaeologist Pierre Montet in 1923 in Jbeil, Lebanon (the historic Byblos), is the oldest known evidence of the Phoenician alphabet. It is preserved in the National Museum of Beirut

"Phoenician became one of the most widely used writing systems, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it was assimilated by many other cultures and evolved. Many modern writing systems thought to have descended from Phoenician cover much of the world. The Aramaic alphabet, a modified form of Phoenician, was the ancestor of the modern Arabic and Hebrew scripts, as well as the Brāhmī script, the parent writing system of most modern abugidas in India, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. The Greek alphabet (and by extension its descendants such as the Latin, the Cyrillic and the Coptic), was a direct successor of Phoenician, though certain letter values were changed to represent vowels"(Wikipedia article on Phoenician alphabet, accessed 08-06-2009).

The low relief carved panels of the Ahiram Sarcophagus

"make it 'the major artistic document for the Early Iron Age' in Phoenicia. Associated items dating to the Late Bronze Age either support an early dating, in the thirteenth century BC or attest the reuse of an early shaft tomb in the eleventh century BC. The major scene represents a king seated on a throne carved with winged sphinxes. A priestess offers him a lotus flower. On the lid two male figures confront one another with addorsed [back to back] seated lions between them, read by Glenn Markoe as a reference to the father and son of the inscription. Egyptian influence that is a character of Late Bronze Age art in northwest Canaan is replaced here by Assyrian influences in the rendering of figures and the design of the throne and a table" (Wikipedia article on Ahiram, accessed 08-062009).

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Possibly the Earliest Hebrew Inscription Circa 1,000 BCE

A shard of ancient pottery found in the Elah Fortress, bearing Proto-Canaanite script which might compose the earliest known Hebrew inscription. (View Larger)

An ostracon shard found in October 2008 about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem at the Elah Fortress in Khirbet Qeiyafa, the earliest known fortified city of the biblical period of Israel, and written in ink in Proto-Canaanite script, could be the earliest known Hebrew inscription, according to biblical archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel. Other scholars urge caution in accepting that interpretation. The shard is one of only a dozen or so examples of Proto-Canaanite that have survived.

"The Israelites were not the only ones using proto-Canaanite characters, and other scholars suggest it is difficult - perhaps impossible - to conclude the text is Hebrew and not a related tongue spoken in the area at the time. Garfinkel bases his identification on a three-letter verb from the inscription meaning to do, a word he said existed only in Hebrew.

" 'That leads us to believe that this is Hebrew, and that this is the oldest Hebrew inscription that has been found,' he said.

"Other prominent Biblical archaeologists warned against jumping to conclusions.

"Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar said the inscription was very important, as it is the longest proto-Canaanite text ever found. But he suggested that calling the text Hebrew might be going too far" (http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1032929.html, accessed 08-30-2009).

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The Gezer Calendar Circa 950 BCE

A tablet of soft limestone inscribed in a paleo-Hebrew script, the Gezer Calendar is one of the oldest known examples of Hebrew writing, dating to the 10th century BCE. It was discovered in excavations of the Biblical city of Gezer, 30 miles northwest of Jerusalem, by R.A.S. Macalister in his excavations between 1902 and 1907, and it is preserved in the Museum of the Ancient Orient in Istanbul.

"The calendar describes monthly or bi-monthly periods and attributes to each a duty such as harvest, planting or tending specific crops.

"It reads:

"Two months of harvest

"Two months of planting

"Two months are late planting

"One month of hoeing

"One month of barley-harvest

"One month of harvest and festival

"Two months of grape harvesting

"One month of summer fruit

"Scholars have speculated that the calendar is either a schoolboy's memory exercise or perhaps the text of a popular folk song, or child's song. Another possibility is something designed for the collection of taxes from farmers."

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The Cascajal Block, the Earliest Precolumbian or Mesoamerican Writing Yet Discovered Circa 950 BCE – 600 BCE

On September 15, 2006 María del Carmen Rodríquez Martínez, Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos, and colleagues described the Cascajal Block, a serpentine slab about the size of a writing tablet dated to the early first millenium BCE. The block or slab is incised with characters previously unknown that may represent the earliest writing system in the New World. The block was named for its find spot in the village of Cascajal, municipality of Lomas de Tacamichapa, Jáltipan, Veracruz, Mexico.

"The Cascajal Block was discovered by road builders in the late 1990s in a pile of debris in the village of Lomas de Tacamichapa in the Veracruz lowlands in the ancient Olmec heartland. The block was found amidst ceramic shards and clay figurines and from these the block is dated to the Olmec archaeological culture's San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán phase, which ended c. 900 BCE, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BCE. Archaeologists Carmen Rodriguez and Ponciano Ortiz of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico examined and registered it with government historical authorities. It weighs about 11.5 kg (25 lb) and measures 36 cm × 21 cm × 13 cm."

"The Olmec flourished in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico, ca. 1250–400 BCE. The evidence for this writing system is based solely on the text on the Cascajal Block.

"The block holds a total of 62 glyphs, some of which resemble plants such as corn and ananas, or animals such as insects and fish. Many of the symbols are more abstract boxes or blobs. The symbols on the Cascajal block are unlike those of any other writing system in Mesoamerica, such as in Mayan languages or Isthmian, another extinct Mesoamerican script. The Cascajal block is also unusual because the symbols apparently run in horizontal rows and 'there is no strong evidence of overall organization. The sequences appear to be conceived as independent units of information'. All other known Mesoamerican scripts typically use vertical rows" (Wikipedia article on Cascajal Block, accessed 01-16-2013).

"Writing [in Mesoamerica] was more than likely invented in the Early or Middle Formative period (ca. 1200-600 BC) with the evolution of politically complex societies of the Olmec in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico, in addition to Guerrero, Oaxaca, central Mexico, and Central America. Olmec civilization had large settlements, herditary elites, interregional trade, and elite art, all of which provided important pre-conditions for the development of writing. Numerous greenstone plaques and celts owned by elites, such as the 'Humboldt Celt' and Tlaltenco Celt,' exhibit iconography and short inscriptions. Unfortunately all early writing in Mesoamerica remains undeciphered, but the signs probably include noble titles, god names, and calendar dates" 

"A few years ago, scholars reported an inscription on a serpentine block discovered during modern construction at Cascajal, Veracruz, near the Olmec site of San Lorenzo. Recent studies of the stone support its antiquity, and it may be associated with Middle Formative-period pottery and iconography. But the stone's exact provenance and date are unknown. The incised signs resemble other Olmec hieroglyphs, they repeat in obvious patterns, and the text possibly has a top-down, left to right reading order similar to other Mesoamerican scripts. Ceramic figurines found by archaeologists at the site of Canton Corralito, Chiapas, Mexico, dated to about 1300-1000 BC exhibit similar writing" (Joel W. Palka, "The Development of Maya Writing" IN: Woods (ed) Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond [2010] 226).

María del Carmen Rodríquez Martínez, Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos, et al "Oldest Writing in the New World," Science  313 no. 5793 (September 15, 2006), 1610-1614 

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Perhaps the Oldest Surviving Tablet with a European Alphabet Circa 800 BCE

A writing tablet in Greek/Phoenician dating from this time may be:

"the oldest European alphabet, the oldest writing tablet extant, and part of the world's oldest book in codex form. The other old writing tablets are 2 from Nimrod [Nimrud], one ivory, the other walnut wood, dated 707 - 705 BC., in addition to a 8th c. BC Neo-Hittite wood tablet. (Roberts/Skeat: The Birth of the Codex, pp. 11-12.) Apart from the present MS the oldest Greek inscription of any length is the Dipylon oinochoe from Athens, ca. 740 BC. The oldest short inscriptions are dated ca. mid 8th c. BC. A tablet originally bound with the present ones is: "The Würzburger Alphabettafel", published by A. Henbeck: Würzburger Jahrbücher für Altertumswissenschaft, 12, pp. 7-20, 1986. The codex originally consisted of at least 5 tablets. . . .The Alphabet is repeated over and over, and contains the North Semitic (Phoenician) number of letters (22), ayin/aleph to taw/tau in Phoenician and Greek order, written in continuous retrograde lines. It represents the earliest and most complete link between Greek letter forms and the North Semitic parent forms. . . ." (Schøyen Collection MS 108, accessed 02-19-2014).

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The First Olympic Games Take Place 776 BCE

According to ancient Greek records, which also represent the adoption in Greece of the Phoenician alphabet, from which all other Western alphabets are descended, the first Olympic games took place in 776 BCE. The date is based on inscriptions, found at Olympia, of the winners of a foot race held every four years, starting in 776 BCE.

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Standardization of the Homeric Texts Possibly Begins Circa 750 BCE

Homer

Many scholars believe that the Iliad is the oldest extant work of literature in the ancient Greek language, making it one of the first works of ancient Greek literature. It is believed that the Odyssey, sequel to the Iliad, was composed after the Iliad. Both epic poems, products of the oral tradition, may have undergone a process of standardization and refinement out of older material around 750 BCE. The standardization of the Homeric texts may have been caused by the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos (d. 527/8 BCE) who reformed the recitation of Homeric poetry at the Panathenaic festival, which he initiated. This reform may have involved the production of a canonical written text. A tradition concerning the role of Peisistratos in the standardization of Homer was current in the ancient world; however, T. W. Allen, in his classic work, Homer: The Origins and Transmission (1924) refuted this theory in his chapter "Pisistratus and Homer."  

When the Homeric poems would have taken on a fixed written form is debatable. According to the traditional 'transcription hypothesis', a non-literate 'Homer' dictated his poem to a literate scribe in the 6th century or earlier. However, in view of the way that texts were written on papyrus before the Hellenistic period, a canonical text would probably have been impossible at this time. Reynolds & Wilson wrote:

"Finally it should be emphasized that the text as arranged on the papyrus was much harder for the reader to interpret than in any modern book. Punctuation was usually rudimentary at best. Texts were written without word-division, and it was not until the middle ages that a real effort was made to alter this convention in Greek or Latin texts (in a few Latin texts of the classical period a point is placed after each word). The system of accentuation, which might have compensated for this difficulty in Greek, was not invented until the Hellenistic period, and for a long time after its invention it was not universally used; here again it is not until the early middle ages that the writing of accents becomes normal practice. In dramatic texts throughout antiquity changes of speaker were not indicated with the precision now thought necessary; it was enough to write a horizontal stroke at the beginning of a line, or two points one above the other, like the modern English colon, for changes elsewhere; the names of the characters were frequently omitted. . . . Another and perhaps even stranger feature of books in the pre-Hellenistic period is that lyric verse was written as if it were prose; the fourth-century papyrus of Timotheus (P. Berol. 9875) is an instance, and even without this valuable document the fact could have been inferred from the tradition that Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257-180 BCE) devised the colometry which makes clear the metrical units of the poetry (Dion. Hal. de comp.verb. 156, 221). It is to be noted that the difficulties facing the reader of an ancient book were equally troublesome to the man who wished to transcribe his own copy. The risk of misinterpretation and consequent corruption of the text in this period is not to be underestimated. It is certain that a high proportion of the most serious corruptions in classical texts go back to this period and were already widely current in the books that eventually entered the library of the Museum of Alexandria" (Reynolds and Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd ed. [1991] 4-5).

"Though evincing many features characteristic of oral poetry, the Iliad and Odyssey were at some point committed to writing. The Greek script, adapted from a Phoenician syllabary around 800 BCE, made possible the notation of the complex rhythms and vowel clusters that make up hexameter verse. Homer's poems appear to have been recorded shortly after the alphabet's invention: an inscription from Ischia in the Bay of Naples, ca. 740 BCE, appears to refer to a text of the Iliad; likewise, illustrations seemingly inspired by the Polyphemus episode in the Odyssey are found on Samos, Mykonos and in Italy in the first quarter of the seventh century BCE. We have little information about the early condition of the Homeric poems, but Alexandrian editors stabilized the text in the second century BCE, from which all modern texts descend" (Wikipedia article on Homer, accessed 11-27-2008).

(This entry was last revised on 05-03-2014.)

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The "Fatal Letter" in the Iliad: Introduction of Written Language to the Greeks Circa 750 BCE

Achilles

In the mid-eighth century BCE the Greeks are thought to have developed their own writing system based on the Phoenician alphabet, along with the use of wax tablets, and the leather roll for writing. The Phoenicians, whose culture was at its peak from circa 1200-800 BCE, were the first state-level society to make extensive use of the alphabet; the Phoenician phonetic alphabet is generally considered the ancestor of almost all modern alphabets. However, it did not contain any vowels; those were added by the Greeks. From a traditional linguistic perspective, the Phoenicians spoke Phoenician, a Canaanite dialect. However, due to the very slight differences in language, and the insufficient records of the time, whether Phoenician formed a separate and united dialect, or was merely a superficially defined part of a broader language continuum, is unclear. Through their maritime trade, the Phoenicians spread the use of the alphabet to North Africa and Europe, where it was adopted by the Greeks. The Greeks later passed it on to the Etruscans, who in turn transmitted it to the Romans. In addition to many stone inscriptions, the Phoenicians are believed to have left numerous other types of written sources, but most have not survived.

The earliest surviving examples of writing in Greek are on tablets made of metal. The first reference in written Greek literature to writing tablets appears in Homer, and in one place in the Iliad only: the narrated tale of Bellerophon (Iliad vi.155–203), which introduced the trope of the "fatal letter," with its message sealed within the folded tablets that read "Kill the bearer of this." As Homer was the product of the oral tradition, the reference to written tablets was an anachronism in a narrative of an event that had transpired generations before the Trojan War, and long before the Greeks had a written language. However, the "fatal letter" story helps date the earliest possible recension of the epic to the mid-eighth century, when writing was introduced to Greece. 

In his Histories Herodotus wrote:

"So these Phoenicians, including the Gephyraians, came with Kadmos and settled this land, and they transmitted much lore to the Hellenes, and in particular, taught them the alphabet which, I believe, the Hellenes did not have previously, but which was originally used by all Phoenicians. With the passage of time, both the sound and the shape of the letters changed. Because at this time it was mostly Ionians who lived around the Phoenicians, they were the ones who were first instructed in the use of the alphabet by them, and after making a few changes to the form of the letters, they put them to good use; but when they spoke of them, they called them 'Phoenician' letters, which was only right since these letters had been introduced to Hellas by Phoenicians. Furthermore, the Ionians have called papyrus scrolls 'skins,' since long ago, when papyrus was scarce, they used the skins of goats and sheep instead. In fact, even in my time many barbarians still write on such skins" (Strassler [ed] The Landmark Herodotus [2007] 5.58, 391).

(This entry was last revised on 03-19-2014.)

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One of the Two Oldest Records of the Greek Alphabet Circa 740 BCE

The ancient Greek wine jug bearing the Dipylon inscription.

The Dipylon inscription, a short text written on an ancient Greek pottery vessel, is, along with the  Cup of Nestor from Pithikoussai, one of the two oldest known examples of the use of the Greek alphabet.

"The text is scratched on a wine jug (oenochoe), which was found in 1871 and is named after the location where it was found, the ancient Dipylon Cemetery, near the Dipylon Gate on the area of Kerameikos in Athens. The jug is attributed to the Late Geometrical Period (750-700 BCE), and it has been dated to ca. 740 BCE. It is now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (inv. 192)" (Wikipedia article on Diplyon inscription, accessed 04-25-2009).

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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One of the Two Oldest Known Examples of Writing in Greek Circa 740 BCE – 720 BCE

The Cup of Nestor. (View Larger)

The so-called Cup of Nestor from Pithikoussai, a clay drinking cup (kotyle) was found in 1954 at excavations in a grave in the ancient Greek site of Pithikoussai on the island of Ischia in the Tyrrhenian Sea, at the northern end of the Gulf of Naples. It bears a three-line inscription that was scratched on its side at a later time. This inscription, and the so-called Dipylon inscription from Athens, are the oldest known examples of writing in the Greek alphabet.

The inscription is fragmented, as some shards of the cup are lost. It is written in the early Euboean form of the Western Greek alphabet, written from right to left in three separate lines. The text runs:

ΝΕΣΤΟΡΟΣ:...:ΕΥΠΟΤΟΝ:ΠΟΤΕΡΙΟΝ
ΗΟΣΔΑΤΟΔΕΠΙΕΣΙ:ΠΟΤΕΡΙ..:AΥΤΙΚΑΚΕΝΟΝ
ΗΙΜΕΡΟΣΗΑΙΡΕΣΕΙ:ΚΑΛΛΙΣΤΕΦΑΝΟ:ΑΦΡΟΔΙΤΕΣ

This is usually transcribed (in later classical orthography, with the missing parts in brackets) as:

Νέστορος [εἰμὶ] εὔποτ[ον] ποτήριο[ν]·
ὃς δ’ ἂν τοῦδε π[ίησι] ποτηρί[ου] αὐτίκα κῆνον
ἵμερ[ος αἱρ]ήσει καλλιστ[εφάν]ου Ἀφροδίτης.
Nestor’s cup I am, good to drink from.
Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway
the desire of beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize.

Pithikoussai was one of the earliest Greek colonies in the West. The cup is dated to the Geometric Period (c.750-700 BCE) and is believed to have been originally manufactured in Rhodes. It is preserved in the Villa Arbusto museum in the village of Lacco Ameno on the island of Ischia, Italy.

Both the Cup of Nestor and the Dipylon inscription have been linked to early writing in the island of Euboea.

Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 1.

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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The Marsiliana Tablet Abecedarium 700 BCE

The earliest Estruscan abecedarium, the Marsiliana d'Albegna tablet, which dates to c. 700 VCE. (View Larger)

It is not clear whether the process of adaptation of the Old Italic or Etruscan alphabet from the Greek alphabet took place in Italy in the city of Cumae, the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, or in Greece/Asia Minor. The Etruscan alphabet was a precursor of the Old Latin alphabet, the basis of the Latin alphabet.

"It was in any case a Western Greek alphabet. In the alphabets of the West, X had the sound value [ks], Ψ stood for [kʰ]; in Etruscan: X = [s], Ψ = [kʰ] or [kχ] (Rix 202-209).

"The earliest Etruscan abecedarium, the Marsiliana d'Albegna (near Grosseto) tablet which dates to c. 700 BCE, lists 26 letters corresponding to contemporary forms of the Greek alphabet which retained san and qoppa but which had not yet developed omega.

 In transliteration: "A B G D E V Z H Θ I K L M N Ξ O P Ś Q R S T Y X Φ Ψ"


"21 of the 26 archaic Etruscan letters were adopted for Old Latin from the 7th century BCE, either directly from the Cumae alphabet, or via archaic Etruscan forms, compared to the classical Etruscan alphabet retaining B, D, K, O, Q, X but dropping Θ, Ś, Φ, Ψ, F (Etruscan U is Latin V, Etruscan V is Latin F).

In translieration: "A B C D E F Z H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X"

(Wikipedia article on Old Italic alphabet, accessed 08-02-2009).

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The Babylonian Map of the World, the Oldest Usable Map Circa 700 BCE – 500 BCE

The Babylonian Mappa mundi or world map (British Museum 92687), a diagrammatic labeled depiction of the world, was probably created between 700 and 500 BCE, in Sippar, southern iraq, where it was discovered. It was first published in 1899. The map was written in cuneiform script on a clay tablet, of which only the major portions survive, measuring 12.2 x 8.2 cm.

"Babylon is shown in the centre (the rectangle in the top half of the circle), and Assyria, Elam and other places are also named. The central area is ringed by a circular waterway labelled 'Salt-Sea'. The outer rim of the sea is surrounded by what were probably originally eight regions, each indicated by a triangle, labelled 'Region' or 'Island', and marked with the distance in between. The cuneiform text describes these regions, and it seems that strange and mythical beasts as well as great heroes lived there, although the text is far from complete.

"The regions are shown as triangles since that was how it was visualized that they first would look when approached by water.

"The map is sometimes taken as a serious example of ancient geography, but although the places are shown in their approximately correct positions, the real purpose of the map is to explain the Babylonian view of the mythological world"(http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/m/map_of_the_world.aspx, accessed 03-08-2014).

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The Taylor Prism and the Sennacherib Prism 689 BCE – 691 BCE

The Taylor Prism, ME 91032 of the British Library. (View Larger)

The Taylor Prism, a six-sided baked clay document (or prism) was discovered at the Assyrian capital Nineveh, in an area known today as Nebi Yunus, now Iraq. It was acquired by Colonel R. Taylor, British Consul General at Baghdad, in 1830, after whom it is named. The British Museum purchased it from Taylor's widow in 1855.

One of the first major Assyrian documents discovered, the Taylor Prism played an important part in the decipherment of cuneiform script.

"The prism is a foundation record, intended to preserve King Sennacherib's achievements for posterity and the gods. The record of his account of his third campaign (701 BC) is particularly interesting to scholars. It involved the destruction of forty-six cities of the state of Judah and the deportation of 200,150 people. Hezekiah, king of Judah, is said to have sent tribute to Sennacherib. This event is described from another point of view in the Old Testament books of 2 Kings and Isaiah. Interestingly, the text on the prism makes no mention of the siege of Lachish which took place during the same campaign and is illustrated in a series of panels from Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh" (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_taylor_prism.aspx, accessed 12-26-2009).

♦ Another version of the same text, produced in the same prism format, and known as the Sennacherib Prism, was purchased by James Henry Breasted from a Baghdad antiques dealer in 1919 for the Oriental Institute of Chicago, where it is preserved. The two known complete examples of Sennacherib's inscription are nearly identical, although the dates on the prisms show that they were written sixteen months apart, the Taylor Prism in 691 BCE and the Oriental Institute prism in 689 BCE. There are also at least eight other fragmentary prisms preserving parts of this text, all in the British Museum, and most of them containing just a few lines.

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Knowledge as Power: King Ashurbanipal Forms the Earliest Systematically Collected Library as Distinct from an Archive 668 BCE – 627 BCE

In an effort to collect all knowledge, Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria from 668 to 627 BCE, collected a library at his capital city Nineveh, containing, it has been estimated, 20,000–30,000 clay tablets written in cuneiform script

"Ashurbanipal was one of the few Assyrian kings to have been trained in the scribal arts—by one Balasî , a senior royal scholar " (Robson, "The Clay Tablet Book," Eliot & Rose (eds) A Companion to the History of the Book [2007] 75).

"Recent cataloguing in the British Museum has enumerated some 3,700 scholarly tablets from Ashurbanipal's Library written in Babylonian script and dialect—about 13 percent of the entire library. Ashurbanipal's obsession with Babylonian books did not, then, completely overwhelm indigenous production, but he did view them as highly valuable cultural capital; their forced removal to Nineveh undermined Babylonian claims to the intellectual heritage of the region and thus pretensions to political hegemony, while reinforcing Ashurbanipal's own self-image as guardian of Mesopotamian culture and power" (Robson, op. cit., 77).

The library was discovered at Nineveh by archaeologist/explorer Austen Henry Layard in 1849, and is considered the earliest systematically collected library, as distinct from a government archive. Clay tablets such as those in Ashburbanipal's library, or other cuneiform archives, were not typically fired in kilns for preservation. However, it is thought that a significant portion of Ashurbanipal's library survived to the present because the clay tablets were baked in fires set during the Median sack of Nineveh in 612 CE. Layard published an account of his discovery of the library in Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (2 vols., 1853) from which Clark, The Care of Books, page 2, reproduced the floor-plan of Ashurbanipal's record room:

"The tablets have been sorted under the following heads: History; Law; Science; Magic; Dogma; Legends: and it has been shewn (1) that there was a special functionary to take charge of them; (2) that they were arranged in series, with special precautions for keeping the tablets forming a particular series in their proper sequence; (3) that there was a general catalogue and probably a class-catalogue as well" (Clark, p. 4). 

To deter thieves, Ashurbanipal had the following curse written on many or all of his tablets. It is the earliest known book curse, and because it was also a means of identifying his property it might also be considered an early ex-libris, albeit a verbose one:

“I have transcribed upon tablets the noble products of the work of the scribe which none of the kings who have gone before me had learned, together with the wisdom of Nabu insofar as it existeth [in writing]. I have arranged them in classes, I have revised them and I have placed them in my palace, that I, even I, the ruler who knoweth the light of Ashur, the king of the gods, may read them. Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land" (Drogin, Anathema! [1983] 52-53).

In 1872 English Assyriologist George Smith of the British Museum edited the surviving records of Ashurbanipal's life on clay cylinders and tablets and issued cuneiform transcriptions with interlinear translations as History of Assurbanipal, Translated from the Cuneiform Inscriptions (1872).

The surviving portion of Ashurbanipal's library includes 660 cuneiform tablets that concern medicine. These were published in facsimile for the first time, but without translation, by Reginald C. Thompson as Assyrian Medical Texts. From the Originals in the British Museum (1923).

Menant, La bibliothèque du palais de Ninive (1880). 

(This entry was last revised on 12-27-2014.)

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The Constitutional Law of Dreros: The Earliest Surviving Greek Law on Stone Circa 650 BCE – 600 BCE

The Constitutional Law of Dreros was carved on a block of grey schist at the temple of Apollo Delphinios at Dreros (Δρῆρος, Driros), a post-Minoan site near Neapoli in the regional unit of Lasithi, Crete, around 650-600 BCE. Apollo Delphinios was a sea-god especially worshiped in Crete and in the Greek islands; his name indicates his connection with Delphi, and the holy serpent Delphyne ("womb"). The inscription may be the earliest surviving Greek law on stone, and, it is certainly the earliest which survived complete. The law is one of a group of eight, of which one was written in Eteocretan, excavated from the same temple. It may provide evidence of the existence within the ancient Greek world of non-Athenian experiments in government by assembly.

Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 2 (pp. 2-3 provide the following translation of the law:

"May God be kind (?). The city has  thus decided; when a man has been kosmos, the same man shall not be kosmos again for ten years. If he does act as kosmos, whatever, judgements he gives, he shall owe double, and he shall lose his rights to office, as long as he lives, and whatever he does as kosmos shall be nothing. The swearers shall be the kosmos (.e. the body of kosmoi) and the damioi, and twenty of the city."

Meiggs & Lewis p. 3 provide the following technical commentary on the law:

"The ratification formula with its use of πóλις against the normal Cretan ethnic may reasonably be claimed as an early piece of evidence for the concept of the polis. The word does not appear elsewhere epigraphically until the late sixth century Kyzikos, Thasos, Arkesine, Poseidonia. . . .We have no means of telling whether the word implies the participation of the assembly as Willetts claims, or merely the authority of the city's officials (Ehrenberg).

"The law forbids the repeated tenure of the office of kosmos, presumably, as elsewhere in Crete, the chief magistracy, before ten years have elapsed. The provision is paralleled at Gortyn. . . sixth century, and it has generally been explained there by the need to make a break in the financial and legal immunity of a magistrate. The length of time which has to elapse in Dreros, however, suggests strongly that the motive was rather to limit the possibilities of using the office as a stepping-stone to tyranny (the first editors) or to bolster the power of an individual family (Ehrenberg, Willets). How severe the penalty involved was depends on whether ακρηστος implies total deprivation of civic rights or deprivation merely of the right to hold certain magistracies. Dispute over the implications of the word involves the interpretation of the phrase χρηστους ποîεν in the archaic treaty between Sparta and Tegea (Plutarch, Greek Questions, 5. . . . ).

"The list of those who swear the oath, presumably every year, includes two unknown offices. The δαμιοι have been generally identified with the Gortynian τιται as financial supervisors. 'The twenty of the city' have been identified as a committee of the assembly (Willetts) a committtee of the council (the first editors), the council itself (Ehrenberg).The last seems the most probable."

 According to Maria Fout and John Keane of thelifeanddeathofdemocracy.org, the inscription, which was formerly preserved in the Dreros Museum, was, as of 2009, preserved in the  Archaeological Museum of Agios Nikolaos in Agios Nikolaos, Crete.

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The God of Writing. . . . Circa 646 BCE

ABout 646 BCE King Ashurbanipal recorded his rebuilding of Ezida, the temple of Nabû, the god of writing in Nineveh, on a limestone slab in Neo Assyrian cuneiform script:

"TO NABÛ, EXALTED LORD, WHO DWELLS IN EZIDA, WHICH IS IN NINEVEH, HIS LORD: I ASHURBANIPAL, KING OF ASSYRIA, THE ONE LONGED FOR AND DESTINED BY HIS GREAT DIVINITY, WHO, AT THE ISSUING OF HIS ORDER AND THE GIVING OF HIS SOLEMN DECREE, CUT OFF THE HEAD OF TE'UMMAN, KING OF ELAM, AFTER DEFEATING HIM IN BATTLE, AND WHOSE GREAT COMMAND MY HAND CONQUERED UMMAN-IGASH, TANMARIT, PA'E AND UMMAN-ALTASH, WHO RULED OF ELAM AFTER TE'UMMAN. I YOKED THEM TO MY SEDAN CHAIR, MY ROYAL CONVEYANCE. WITH HIS GREAT HELP I ESTABLISHED DECENT ORDER IN ALL THE LANDS WITHOUT EXCEPTION. AT THAT TIME I ENLARGED THE STRUCTURE OF THE COURT OF THE TEMPLE OF NABÛ, MY LORD, USING MASSIVE LIMESTONE. MAY NABÛ LOOK WITH JOY ON THIS, MAY HE FIND IT ACCEPTABLE. BY THE RELIABLE IMPRESS OF YOUR WEDGES MAY THE ORDER FOR A LIFE OF LONG DAYS COME FORTH FROM YOUR LIPS, MAY MY FEET GROW OLD BY WALKING IN EZIDA IN YOUR DIVINE PRESENCE"

(Schøyen Collection MS 2180, accessed 02-19-2014).

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Construction of the Etemenanki Ziggurat, Later Known as The Tower of Babel 604 BCE – 562 BCE

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The tower of Babel, ca. 1556

Under King Nebuchadnezzar II, the king who is named more than 90 times in the Old Testament, the restoration and enlargement of the Etemenanki ziggurat in Babylon was completed after 43 years of labor. The ziggurat was originally built around the time of Hammurabi. It has been calculated that for its construction at least 17 million bricks had to be made and fired.

Some of these bricks were stamped with inscriptions in cuneiform. Eventually the ziggurat became known as the Tower of Babel, and the few bricks from this that survive are known as "Tower of Babel bricks" or Nebuchadnezzar II bricks. In his Typographia: an historical sketch of the origin and progress of the Art of Printing (1825) 2-7 printer and historian of printing Thomas Curson Hansard called these bricks "the first step toward the art of printing." 

“Babylon with the ziggurat was captured by Kyros 538 BC, Dareios I 519 BC, Xerxes ca. 483 BC, and entirely destroyed by Alexander I the Great in 331 BC. It is this tall stepped temple tower which is referred to in Genesis 11:1-9, and became known as ’The Tower of Babel’. The bricks are specifically mentioned in Genesis 11:3: ’Come, let us make bricks and bake them in the fire. — For stone they used bricks and for mortar they used bitumen’. The black bitumen is still visible on the back of the present baked brick. These bricks are considered so important and interesting that British Museum had their copy on exhibit with special handout descriptions, from where parts of the present information is taken. For a stele illustrating The Tower of Babel, see MS 2063. Nebuchadnezzar II was the founder of the New Babylonian empire. He captured Jerusalem in 596 and 586 BC, burnt down the temple and all of Jerusalem, carried its treasures off to Babylon, and took the Jews into captivity (2 kings 24-25). Nebuchadnezzar II is the king who is named more than 90 times in the Old Testament. Daniel 1-4 is almost entirely devoted to the description of his greatness and reign, his rise and fall, and submission to God” (Schøyen Collection MS 1815/1).

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The Tower of Babel Stele 604 BCE – 562 BCE

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Nebuchadnezzar II completed the restoration of the Etemenanki ziggurat which was originally built around the time of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE). The Tower of Babel Stele, of which two of the original three parts are preserved in the Schøyen Collection (MS 2063), presents an image of the Etemenaki ziggurat contemporary with Nebachadnezzar's restoration, along with a simple building plan.

"The missing part of the stele's back, was in a religious institution in U.S.A., the present whereabouts unknown. The stele was found in a special hiding chamber, broken into 3 parts in antiquity, at Robert Koldewey's excavations of the site of the Tower of Babel in 1917. Its importance was immediately recognised. A photograph was taken with 3 archaeologists standing next to the stele. With the imminent danger of war breaking out in the area, they decided to rescue it, and each archaeologist carried one part out of the war zone. One part was taken to Germany, one part to Jordan and then London, the third part to U.S.A." (http://www.schoyencollection.com/babylonianhist.htm, accessed 02-19-2010).

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A Nebuchadnezzar II Babylonian Cylinder Sets an Auction Record Circa 604 BCE – 562 BCE

On April 9, 2014, Doyle New York auctioned a Nebuchadnezzar II (Nabu-kudurri-usur) Babylonian cuneiform cylinder that described the rebuilding of the temple of Shamash in Sippar (modern Tell Abu Habbah in Iraq) by Nebuchadnezzar II, and dated to the Neo-Babylonian Period, circa 604-562 BCE. Measuring 8 1/4 inches (20.8 cm) in length, it was the largest example to come to market in recent times. The cylinder was described as, "double-tapered barrel-shaped cylinder of baked clay, 8 1/4 inches (20.8 cm) in length, tapering from 3 1/4 inches (8 cm) at center to 2 1/4 inches (6 cm) at the ends. Text in two columns, approximately 35 lines. Very light wear to the surface but with no apparent loss of legibility; a short and minor fissure, apparently created at the time of forming or firing, visible on a blank area of the cylinder, overall in sound condition." 

It was customary for the kings of Babylon to cement their relationship with the gods by restoring their temples. These accomplishments were then recorded in cuneiform on clay cylinders prepared by a court scribe, which were buried in the foundations of the restored temples. The cylinders were enduring commemorations of the king's fealty to the gods. This very public act also helped to create the appearance of legitimacy for the ruler. For example, the Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum, extols Cyrus as a benefactor. He had attained the throne by deposing the Babylonian king Nabonidus, and he apparently believed that this and similar ritual acts would legitimize his standing with both the gods and his subjects.

The cuneiform cylinder sold by Doyle came from Sippar, a great complex of temples, the cult site of the Akkadian sun god Shamash, and the home of his temple E-babbara. The text was in two columns, and followed text number 16, published both in Babylonian and German, in Langdon, Die neubabylonischen Konigsinschriften (1912) 141 et seq. Berger, in Die neubabylonischen Konigsinchriften (1973) listed seven extant examples of this cylinder, of which five are in the British Museum, and two in the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin. The specimen auctioned by Doyle was slightly larger than any others recorded.

The auction house published this approximate translation of the text of the cylinder:

"Column I. 
"NEBUCHADNEZZAR, King of Babylon, the Wise, the Provider, Favorite of Marduk, Sakkanakku of the lands of Sumer and Akkad, who established the foundation of the lands; the Venerated Ruler whom Marduk, the Great Lord, has chosen to renew the Holy Sanctuaries and maintain the cities as his calling: into whose hands Nebo, the Victorious Son gave the scepter of prosperity to extend the lands for Man's guidance; the understanding and reverent, the maintainer of E-sagila and E-zida; the first-born Son of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon am I. 
When Marduk, the Great Lord, joyfully created me and called me into the Kingship with an eternal name, I thought reverently of Him and of His Divinity. But I continue humbly to worship Nebo, His legitimate Son, patron of my kingdom; I praise his glory. 
I endowed E-Sagila and E-zida, their favored palaces, with gold, silver, precious jewels and tall cedars, and made them shine forth like the innermost heavens. I beautified in splendor the holy sanctuaries of the great Gods, according to the wish of their hearts. E-barra, the radiant abode of the Gods, the dwelling-place of Samas, the Judge, which had long ago fallen into disrepair in Sippar; which no previous king had built, Samas the Lord ordered me, the Ruler, His favorite, to rebuild. I found its old cornerstone, and took notice of it. Over its old cornerstone I laid its foundation. I erected E-barra as it was of yore and completed it. I caused it to shine like the bright day, I caused Samas and Ai to return in gladness and rejoicing to their exalted dwelling. At that time, since time immemorable little had been left at E-ulla, the temple of Ninkarrak in Sippar. 

"Column II. 
"The temple building was in disrepair, the outer walls had crumbled, the foundation was no longer recognizable; it was buried in the dust; it was no longer numbered among the Holy Sanctuaries of the Gods; the tithes had ceased; they had vanished from the speech of the peoples; the offerings were no longer being made. 
Because I held the hem of the garment of Marduk, My Lord, and he was gracious unto me, He entrusted unto my hands the renewal of the Holy Sanctuaries, the restoring of the Edifices. 
During my legitimate reign, the merciful Marduk chose to look with favor upon that temple, and Samas, the exalted Judge, ordered its renewal. They ordered me, the shepherd who worships them, to build; I found its old cornerstone and took notice of it. The name of Nikarrak, whose throne is in E-ulla, was inscriped on the image of a dog and was there plainly to be seen. Over the old cornerstone I established the foundation for Ninkarrak, my beloved Mistress, Guardian of my soul, who brings prosperity to my kinsmen; for her I rebuilt E-ulla, her temple in Sippar. Its tithes I enriched and its offerings I restored. O Ninkarrak, Exalted Mistress, look graciously upon the work of my hands. May my acts of devotion be made known to Thy lips. Grant unto me long life, many descendants, good health, and a joyful heart. Present my deeds favorably unto Samas and Marduk; speak in my behalf." 

Provenance being essential for the authenticity and title of archaeological artifacts, this cylinder had belonged to Ellen Shaffer, Rare Book Librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia, and had been sold to Archie P. Johnston in 1953. The hammer price was $500,000, which with the buyer's premium, meant that the price realized was $605,000. This was the highest price realized for a Babylonian Cylinder to date.

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Ancient Shopping Lists on Ostracons Reveal Spread of Literacy at Fort in Arad, israel Circa 600 BCE

Computer analysis of shopping lists written on pottery, known as ostracons, found in the Judahite desert fortress of Arad, Israel, indicate a wider spread of literacy in Israel toward the end of the First Temple period around 600 BCE. Based on a statistical analysis of the results, and taking into account the content of the texts that were chosen for the sample, researchers concluded that at least six different hands wrote the 16 notes at around the same time. From this evidence it appears that even soldiers in the lower ranks of the Judahite army could read and write.

Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin, et al. "Algorithmic handwriting analysis of Judah’s military correspondence sheds light on composition of biblical texts," PNAS, 113, No. 17

"Significance

"Scholars debate whether the first major phase of compilation of biblical texts took place before or after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Proliferation of literacy is considered a precondition for the creation of such texts. Ancient inscriptions provide important evidence of the proliferation of literacy. This paper focuses on 16 ink inscriptions found in the desert fortress of Arad, written ca. 600 BCE. By using novel image processing and machine learning algorithms we deduce the presence of at least six authors in this corpus. This indicates a high degree of literacy in the Judahite administrative apparatus and provides a possible stage setting for compilation of biblical texts. After the kingdom’s demise, a similar literacy level reemerges only ca. 200 BCE.

"Abstract

"The relationship between the expansion of literacy in Judah and composition of biblical texts has attracted scholarly attention for over a century. Information on this issue can be deduced from Hebrew inscriptions from the final phase of the first Temple period. We report our investigation of 16 inscriptions from the Judahite desert fortress of Arad, dated ca. 600 BCE—the eve of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem. The inquiry is based on new methods for image processing and document analysis, as well as machine learning algorithms. These techniques enable identification of the minimal number of authors in a given group of inscriptions. Our algorithmic analysis, complemented by the textual information, reveals a minimum of six authors within the examined inscriptions. The results indicate that in this remote fort literacy had spread throughout the military hierarchy, down to the quartermaster and probably even below that rank. This implies that an educational infrastructure that could support the composition of literary texts in Judah already existed before the destruction of the first Temple. A similar level of literacy in this area is attested again only 400 y later, ca. 200 BCE."

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The Oldest Surviving Texts from the Hebrew Bible Circa 600 BCE

The larger of the two silver scrolls, discovered in 1979 at Ketef Hinnom, which have been deemed the oldest suriving texts from the Hebrew bible. (View Larger)

In 1979 two tiny silver scrolls, inscribed with portions of the well-known apotropaic Priestly Blessing of the Book of Numbers, and apparently once used as amulets, were found in one of a burial chambers at Ketef Hinnom,  an archaeological site near Jerusalem. The delicate process of unrolling the scrolls, while developing a method that would prevent them from disintegrating, took three years. Even though very brief, the two tiny silver scrolls are the oldest surviving texts from the Hebrew Bible.

"The scrolls were found in 1979 in Chamber 25 of Cave 24 at Ketef Hinnom, during excavations conducted by a team under the supervision of Gabriel Barkay, professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University. The site appeared to be archaeologically sterile (the tomb had last been used for storing rifles during the Ottoman period), but a chance discovery by a 13-year-old "assistant" revealed that a partial collapse of the ceiling long ago had preserved the contents of Chamber 25.

"The chamber contained approximately 60 cm. of material with over a thousand objects: many small pottery vessels, artifacts of iron and bronze (including arrowheads), needles and pins, bone and ivory objects, glass bottles, and jewelry including earrings of gold and silver. The tomb had evidently been in use for several generations towards the end of the First Temple period, and continued to be used after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587/6 BCE. KH1 was found in Square D, the middle of the repository, 7 cm above the floor, while KH2 was found while sifting dirt from the lower half of the deposits in Square A, the innermost portion of the repository. Both amulets were separated from Hellenistic artifacts by 3 meters of length and 25 cm of depth, and embedded in pottery and other material from the 7th/6th centuries BCE.

"Barkay initially dated the inscriptions to the late-7th/early-6th centuries BC (later revised downward slightly to the early 6th century) on palaeographic grounds (the forms of the delicately-incised paleo-Hebrew lettering) and on the evidence of the pottery found in the immediate vicinity. This dating was subsequently questioned by Johannes Renz and Wolfgang Rollig (Handbuch der Althebraischen Epigraphik, 1995), who argued that the script was in too poor a condition to be dated with certainty and that a 3rd/2nd century BCE provenance could not be excluded, especially as the repository, which had been used as a kind of "rubbish bin" for the burial chamber over many centuries, also contained material from the fourth century BCE.

"A major re-examination of the scrolls was therefore undertaken by the University of Southern California's West Semitic Research Project, using advanced photographic and computer enhancement techniques which enabled the script to be read more easily and the paleography to be dated more confidently. The results, published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) in 2004, confirmed a date immediately prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586/7 BCE.](An innovation in the report was the simultaneous publication of an accompanying "digital article," a CD version of the article and the images). Dr Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University, a specialist in ancient Semitic scripts, has said the study should "settle any controversy over [the date of] these inscriptions" (Wikipedia article on Ketef Hinnom, accessed 09-01-2009).

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More than 10,000 Stone Inscriptions Were Excavated from the Ancient Agora of Athens 600 BCE – 267 CE

During twentieth century excavations of the Ancient Agora of Athens more than 10,000 stone inscriptions were identified and inventoried. The texts included diplomatic agreements, commemorative plaques for athletic victories, records of court judgments, boundary stones identifying different buildings, and fragmentary inscriptions featuring names of over 30,000 individual Athenians. 

Thompson & Wycherley, The Agora of Athens: The History, Shape, and Uses of an Ancient City Center (1972).

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The Duenos Inscription Circa 550 BCE

The DUENOS inscription, found by Heinrich Dressel in 1880 on a vase on Quirnal Hill in Rome, is the second earliest known Old Latin text. It is inscribed on the sides of a kernos, in this case a trio of small globular vases adjoined by three clay struts. The kernos is preserved in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin (inventory no. 30894,3).

Old Latin, the precursor of classical Latin, is known from non-book writing, such as stone inscriptions.

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The Oldest Known Work on Military Strategy Circa 550 BCE

The Yinqueshan bamboo strips, the earliest manuscript of Sun Tzu's 'Art of War,' on exhibition in a Chinese museum. (View Larger)

About 550 BCE it is believed that the Chinese general and military strategist Sun Wu ( 孙武, 孫武, Sūn Wǔ), style name Changqing (長卿), better known as Sun Tzu (孙子, 孫子, Sūn Zǐ]) wrote The Art of War (孫子兵法; Sūn Zǐ Bīng Fǎ). Later called one of the Seven Military Classics of ancient China, The Art of War is the oldest and most influential work on military strategy.

"Sun Tzu suggested the importance of positioning in strategy and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. He thought that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through an established list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a changing environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations" (Wikipedia article on The Art of War, accessed 01-30-2010).

Sun Tzu's work was first published in a European language in the French translation of French Jesuit in China Jean Joseph Marie Amiot as Art militaire des Chinois, ou recueil d'ancients traités sur la guerre ... on y a joint dix préceptes addressés aux troupes parl'Empereur Young-Techeng (Paris, 1772). That edition was illustrated with 33 plates. The text was first translated into English by British officer Everard Ferguson Calthrop in 1905, and by Andrew Giles in 1910. Since then there have been many different English translations. In French translation the work probably influenced Napoleon. Since then it has continued to influence military and political leaders of many nationalities, and its precepts have also been applied to business and managerial strategies.

Because of the destruction of information that took place in 213 BCE at the instigation of the Qin Emperor, the earliest known manuscript of Sun Tzu's text consists of 13 fragments of chapters among the 4942 bamboo strips known as the Yinqueshan Han Slips, which were discovered in April 1972 in Yinqueshan Tombs no. 1 and 2 at the foot of Yinqueshan (Sliver Sparrow Mountain) southeast of the city of Linyi in the province of Shandong, China. Each bamboo strip is about 28 centimeters long, 0.7 centimeter wide and 0.2 centimeter thick. The characters on the bamboo slips were written in lishu, a clerical script from the Han Dynasty.

"The time of burial for both tombs had been dated to about 140 BC/134 BC and 118 BC, the texts having been written on the bamboo slips before then. After restoration and arrangement, the slips were organised into a sequential order of nine groups and 154 sections. The first group included 13 fragment chapters from Sunzi's The Art of War, and 5 undetermined chapters; the second group were the 16 chapters of Sun Bin's Art of War, which had been missing for at least 1,400 years; the third included the 7 original and lost chapters from the Six Strategies (before this significant find only the titles of the lost chapters were known); the fourth and fifth included 5 chapters from the Wei Liaozi and 16 chapters from the Yanzi; the rest of the groups included anonymous writings" (Wikipedia article on Yinqueshan Han Slips, accessed 01-30-2010).

(This entry was last revised on 06-13-2015.)

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The Greek Origin of Monumental Roman Stone Inscriptions Circa 550 BCE

In his classic series of lectures, Politics and Script, delivered in 1957, typographer and historian of typography and calligraphy Stanley Morison traced the monumental stone inscriptions of the Romans, from which many of the classic Roman typefaces descend, to a gravestone from Melos (Milos), Greece.  He wrote concerning an inscription carved in marble on a gravestone from Melos preserved in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin (I.G. xii. 3. 1130) that

"the shapes of its letters are those upon which all others depend. It will be seen that they are 'square'. That is not to say that the letters are all perfectly square, but they may be said to be generally 'square' in comparison with handwriting. This is the only sense in which it can be said that Greek, and for that matter Latin, letters are 'quadrate'. It must be noted that, although in the still earlier inscriptions this could not be said, from the sixth century and throughout the classical period it became the rule.

"There are four primary characteristics of early Greek letter design in the classical period. First, the apparent squareness of the shapes; secondly, the unformity of the stroke; thirdly, the consistence of the complete structure; lastly, the rationality of the shapes in having no unnecessary parts and nothing supurfluous. Thus the script is square, unform, rational, and perfectly functional. . . .

"In describing the scripts and letterings of later periods, different places and other languages, reference will be made to relative plainness of design and equality of width of stroke. If the stroke in the Melos inscriptions appears to us as 'thin' it must be considered that it looks so to us because we are accustomed to a thicker stroke. Among Greeks of the sixth or fifth century B.C. the stroke that we may consider thin was normal. The Latins, as will be seen, used a different method of stroking. This does not yet concern us except to remember constantly that is the Latin stroke that is normal to us in the West. The main element in the design, however, is not the stroke's width but its uniformity. The Greek stroke is not merely thin (for it can be thickened) but it is invariably uniform. This is the first great distinction of fundamental importance to the criticism and classification of Graeco-Roman scripts" (Morison, Politics and Script. Aspects of authority and freedom in the development of Graeco-Latin script from the sixth century B.C. to the twentieth century A.D. The Lyell Lectures 1957. Edited and Completed by Nicolas Barker [1972] 5-7, plate 1 ).

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A Block Printed Gold Magic Amulet from Ancient Greece or Asia Minor Circa 550 BCE

MS 5236 in the Schøyen Collection in Oslo, Norway, is the only known ancient Greek magic amulet printed with a text that was stamped rather than incised. It is also the only extant specimen of Ephesia grammata made of gold. It contains a partially comprehensible invocation of the god Phoebus Apollo, and may have been composed in central Greece or Asia Minor.

"The special significance of MS 5236 lies in the way the inscription was created. A close examination shows that a blind-stamping process was used to reproduce the Greek text on the lamella, with a single matrix carrying the whole text. In this, MS 5236 differs fundamentally from other amulets of the time, where the magic formulas were incised by hand, such as with a stylus, into the metal foil.

"The entire process is reconstructed by [Herbert] Brekle as follows: First, the inscription's text was engraved with an iron stylus into an even copper or bronze block, with its letters facing the opposite direction and running from right to left. The displaced material rose up on both sides of the letter grooves forming two sharp, parallel ridges. In the second step, the inscribed side of the stamp block was placed on the plane gold sheet and sufficient pressure, either manually or by hammering onto a plate laid on top, was exerted from above to transmit the text. What produced the print image were the ridges caused by the material displacement; these left shallow double lines in the foil, thus creating the text. The actual, sunken letter lines were not transferred during the imprinting procedure, since they did not enter the surface of the foil.

"It is the existence of these fine double grooves on the gold lamella which provides the key for identifying MS 5236 as being stamped and not written. Because it is a matter of mechanical necessity that the engraved letters appear with their raised double edges on the substrate as parallel, sunken lines when being printed, as can be observed on the amulet. Thus, the inscription is a bas-relief, which was produced by a bas-relief stamp.

If the text had been carved directly into the foil as with other amulets, the stylus could have left only simple lines. According to Brekle, the applied printing technique has much in common with the later method of drypoint etching, by which an image is incised into a copper plate; however, unlike drypoint, MS 5236 is a colourless blind print.

"A further indication for the use of a printing technique is the varying strength of the letters, which suggests that the surface of the lamella was not completely flat during printing. Thus, the outline of the letters, as to be expected with a print, appear in the slightly more elevated regions of the sheet (darker areas in the photo), more distinct than in the slightly deeper regions (lighter areas) that were not affected by the full force of the stamp. This can be observed particularly along the folds and in the last line where the edge of the foil was apparently slightly bent downwards while being printed. Consequently, the impressions of the letters appear less marked here. If the text had been directly inscribed with a stylus into the foil, these variations would not have occurred.

"Regarding the stroke order of the letters on the stamp, it can be said that the Hasta, the mostly vertical main line, was normally executed before the Coda figures. MS 5236 is an overall rare and possibly unique print from the early Greek era. Despite this, the widespread use of magical amulets indicates that such block prints were, at least from the present prototype, mass-produced at that time" (Wikipedia article on MS 5236, accessed 01-19-2013)

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The Cyrus Cylinder, the Earliest Known Document in the History of Religious Toleration 539 BCE

The front side of the Cyrus Cylinder. (View Larger)

 

In 539 BEC, after conquering Babylonia, Cyrus II of Persia (Cyrus the Great) permitted various religious groups, including perhaps 40,000 Jews, to return to their native land. Cyrus also issued a declaration inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform on a clay cylinder. The cylinder, which has become known as the Cyrus Cylinder, was discovered in March, 1879 in the foundation of the Ésagila temple in Babylon by the Assyrian Christian Assyriologist and archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam

"The Assyro-British archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered the Cyrus Cylinder in March 1879 during a lengthy programme of excavations in Mesopotamia carried out for the British Museum. It had been placed as a foundation deposit in the foundations of the Ésagila, the city's main temple. Rassam's expedition followed on from an earlier dig carried out in 1850 by the British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who excavated three mounds in the same area but found little of importance. In 1877, Layard became Britain's ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Mesopotamia at the time. He helped Rassam, who had been his assistant in the 1850 dig, to obtain a firman (decree) from the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to continue the earlier excavations. The firman was only valid for a year but a second firman, with much more liberal terms, was issued in 1878. It was granted for two years (through to 15 October 1880) with the promise of an extension to 1882 if required. The Sultan's decree authorised Rassam to "pack and dispatch to England any antiquities [he] found ... provided, however, there were no duplicates." A representative of the Sultan was instructed to be present at the dig to examine the objects as they were uncovered. 

With permission secured, Rassam initiated a large-scale excavation at Babylon and other sites on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum. He undertook the excavations in four distinct phases. In between each phase, he returned to England to bring back his finds and raise more funds for further work. The Cyrus Cylinder was found on the second of his four expeditions to Mesopotamia, which began with his departure from London on 8 October 1878. He arrived in his home town of Mosul on 16 November and travelled down the Tigris to Baghdad, which he reached on 30 January 1879. During February and March, he supervised excavations on a number of Babylonian sites, including Babylon itself" (Wikipedia article on Cyrus Cylinder, accessed 03-08-2014).

On the cylinder Cyrus announced a number of reforms that he made after conquering the country. These include arranging for the restoration of temples and organizing the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. For these reasons the Cyrus Cylinder has been called the earliest known document in the history of religious toleration. It is preserved in the British Museum. (BM 90920).

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The Earliest Surviving Athenian Decree: The Cleruchy on Salamis, Written on Stone 510 BCE – 500 BCE

The earliest surviving Athenian decree concerns the status and obligations of men living on Salamis, an ancient Greek city-state on the east coast of Cyprus. The "Salaminian Decree" may be the earliest example of the stoichedon style of epigraphy. This style, named from στοιχηδόν, a Greek adverb meaning "in a row", was the practice of engraving ancient Greek inscriptions in capitals with the letters aligned vertically as well as horizontally. Texts in this form were composed as if in a grid with the same number of letters in each line and each space in the grid filled with a single letter. There were no spaces between words, and no spaces or punctuation between sentences. This was the dominant style of inscription in Athens during the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, and was the preferred style for official state proclamations. 

In translation the Greek text reads:

"Decided by the demos. Th[ose in S]alam[is who are cleruch]s
shall be allowed to reside on Salamis [-15- to the Athe]ni-
ans to pay taxes and provide milit[ary service]. [But] what is theirs [on Salamis] shall not
be leased, unless a kinsmen(?) is the lessor. [I]-
f someone should lease it, [the lessee and the] l-
essor shall pay a penalty, each [of them -19-]
to the public treasury. [And the transaction shall be handled by the a]-
rchon, if [not, he shall be held accountable at his euth]y[na. The]-
ir weapons they shall f[urnish themselves]; the cost is th]-
irty dr[achmas. Having been armed]
the archon [shall review their weapons.]
The B[ou]le, [in] the year [- c.11 -]"

"In the aftermath of the reforms of Cleisthenes of 508/7 BCE, the new Athenian democracy sought to establish a presence in the Saronic Gulf against its Peloponnesian (led by Sparta) and Isthmian (led by Corinth) opponents. The nearby island of Aegina and the city-state of Corinth adjacent to the Isthmus, the narrow land that connects mainland Greece to the Peloponnese was controlled by Corinth, both had spheres of interest in the Saronic Gulf. These and other poleis or city-states were active members of the Peloponnesian League, which was led by Sparta and included Athens. The island of Salamis, which Athens had seized from Corinth's neighboring polis Megara in the age of Pisistratus the tyrant ca. 560 BCE (Paus1.3.39.6.2), provided the ideal base for such a presence. This, the earliest extant decree of the Cleisthenic demos, addresses the rights and responsibilities of kleruchoi or cleruchs (Athenian citizens dwelling outside of Athens who retain their citizenship) settled by Athens on the island: cleruchs must pay taxes and provide military services to Athens, they may lease the land only to kinsmen (the text here is fragmentary and may refer instead to a dweller) on penalty of a fine, and they must provide their own weapons. Athenian citizens transplanted to Salamis ensured a visible, physical manifestation of Athenian control of the western entrance to the northern Saronic Gulf" (http://www.skidmore.edu/academics/classics/stoa/salamisdecree.html, accessed 04-15-2014.)

"The main evidence for the date of this important decree lies in the letter forms and the arrangement of the text. The stoichedon character ll. 1-6 shows an early stage in the development of the style, which by 485-4 was mature in Athens. . . . The letter forms might be found at any time between c. 520 and c. 480. They are probably cut by the same craftsman as a dedication on the Acropolis of a statue by Hegias . . ., who is presumably the teacher of Pheidas. This does not, however, compel a date after 490, and, if Salamis is the first Athenian cleruchy, the decree should be dated before the cleruchy sent to Chalkis after the Athenian victory of 506. . . . The period immediately following the reforms of Cleisthenes offers a good context. Athens had broken with Sparta; it would have been a sound precaution to establish a permanent garrison on the island which Megara, with Spartan support, might attempt to recover" (Meiggs & Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century B.C. (1969) No. 14, p. 27).

Excavated from the Acropolis, the stone fragments are preserved in the Epigraphic Museum in Athens.

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The Persepolis Administrative Archives 509 BCE – 457 BCE

Between 1933 and 1934 excavations directed by Ernest Herzfeld for the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago discovered the administrative archives of the Persian city of Persepolis, consisting of the Persepolis Fortification Archive and the Persepolis Treasury Archive. Persepolis (Old Persian: Pārśa, New Persian: پرسپولیس) literary meaning "city of Persians", was the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. The modern name of the location is Takht-e Jamshid in Fars near Shiraz in southwestern Iran. 

The thousands of clay tablets, fragments and seal impressions in the Persepolis archives are a part of a single administrative system, representing continuity of activity and flow of data over more than fifty years from 509 to 457 BCE. These records contain information on the geography, economy, administration, religion and social conditions of the Persepolis region, the heartland of the Persian Great Kings from Darius I the Great to Artaxerxes I.

The Persepolis Fortification Archive was found at the northeastern corner of the terrace of Persepolis, in two rooms in the fortification wall in March 1933. The entrance to the rooms were bricked up in antiquity. The tablets had been stored in a small space near the staircase in the tower in the fortification wall, arranged in order, as if in a library. The upper floor of the fortification wall may have collapsed at the time of the Macedonian invasion, in the process partially destroying the order of the tablets while protecting them until 1933. Paradoxically, the burning of Persepolis by Alexander the Great in 330/329 BCE contributed to the preservation of the Achaemenid administrative archives that might have been lost due to passage of time by natural and manmade causes. Herzfeld estimated that the find included about 30,000 or more inscribed and sealed clay tablets and fragments.

"Persepolis Fortification Archive (PFA), also known as Persepolis Fortification Tablets (PFT, PF), is a fragment of Achaemenid  administrative records of receipt, taxation, transfer, storage of food crops (cereals, fruit), livestock (sheep and goats, cattle, poultry), food products (flour, breads and other cereal products, beer, wine, processed fruit, oil, meat), and byproducts (animal hides) in the region around Persepolis (larger part of modern Fars), and their redistribution to gods, royal family, courtiers, priests, religious officiants, administrators, travelers, workers, artisans, and livestock.

"But before Persepolis archives could have offered any clues to the better understanding of the Achaemenid history, the clay tablets, mostly written in a late dialect of Elamite, an extremely difficult language still imperfectly understood, had to be deciphered. So, in 1935, Iranian authorities loaned the Persepolis Fortification Archive to the Oriental Institute for research and publication. The archive arrived in Chicago in 1936 and has been under studies since 1937. It was not until 1969 when Richard Hallock published his magisterial edition of 2087 Elamite tablets [in] Persepolis Fortification Tablets leading to the renaissance of Achaemenid studies in 1970s. The long term project spanning over seven (7) decades is far from completion.

"153 tablets, approximately 30,000 fragments and an unknown number of uninscribed tablets were returned to Iran in the 1950s. So far about 450 tablets and tens of thousands of fragments have already been returned to Iran in total" (Wikipedia article on Perepolis Administative Archives, accessed 04-26-2014.)

The Persepolis Treasury Archive was found on the southeastern part of Persepolis terrace in the block of buildings identified as the "Royal Treasury" where small pieces of gold leaves were found. The find consisted of 746 clay tablets and fragments, covering 35 years from 492 to 457 BCE, from regnal year 30th of Darius I the Great, to regnal year 7th of Artaxerxes I, with the largest concentration from regnal years 19th and 20th of Xerxes

In April 2014 a history of the excavations and study of the Persian Achaemenid Administative Archives entitled Persian.ology. Gate-keepers of (clay) dinosaur bones by A. J. Cave was available from academia.edu at this link. The book was presented in an imaginative illustrated and typographic format.

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The Pyrgi Tablets: Bilingual Etruscan and Phoenician Text Inscribed in Gold Circa 500 BCE

In 1964 during an excavation of ancient Pyrgi, the port of the southern Etruscan town of Caere on the Tyrrhenian coast of Italy (now Santa Severa), archaeologist Massimo Pallottino discovered three golden leaves bearing writing in Etruscan and Phoenician. Known as the Pyrgi Tablets, the leaves record a dedication made around 500 BCE by Thefarie Velianas, king of Caere, to the Phoenician goddess ʻAshtaret. Two of the tablets are inscribed in the Etruscan language, the third in Phoenician.

"These writings are important in providing both a bilingual text that allows researchers to use knowledge of Phoenician to interpret Etruscan, and evidence of Phoenician or Punici nfluence in the Western Mediterranean. They may relate to Polybius's report (Hist. 3,22) of an ancient and almost unintelligible treaty between the Romans and the Carthaginians, which he dated to the consulships of L. Iunius Brutus and L. Tarquinius Collatinus (509 BCE)" (Wikipedia article on Pyrgi Tablets, accessed 10-17-2014).

The tablets are preserved in the Museo Nazionale Etrusco in Rome. 

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How Herodotus Used Writing and Messages in his Histories Circa 450 BCE – 420 BCE

As Herodotus (Ἡρόδοτος) was the founder of historical writing, references to written or archival records in his Histories (The History) are of particular interest. By the mid-fifth century BCE writing in Greece had existed for only about 300 years. Because writing was relatively new, and only a small portion of society was literate, it may not be surprising that Herodotus appears to have consulted few written sources in compiling his Histories. From Herodotus's own account it seems that most often he did not find it necessary, or perhaps practical, to verify information that he compiled from personal observation through the consultation of written records. Herodotus also expected his Histories to be read aloud, in which case citing written sources within the Histories might have been a kind of distraction.

Herodotus begins his Histories with a sentence that has been translated in various ways: "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here presents his research so that human events do not fade with time."  Another translation of the same sentence reads, "What follows is a performance of the enquiries of Herodotus from Halicarnassus." According to Robert Strassler, editor of The Landmark Herodotus (2007) 3, Proem.b, "This almost certainly implies that Herodotus performed (read aloud) his text, in whole or in part, to an audience gathered to hear him."

Herodotus usually refers to records in the context of government, law, or communication. He often refers to dispatches sent by leaders as part of political or military negotiations, such as dispatches sent in the context of war. He describes attempts to send secret messages. He also refers to records used for the enforcement of laws, which were, of course, in written form. He is aware of both the advantages and disadvantages of writing over oral communication.

"Herodotus recognized the usefulness of writing for interpersonal communication, but he also knew that it could be problematic. Because writing fixed a message in time and space, a written document that seemed objective and straightforward could also be full of paradoxes. In the generation after Herodotus, Socrates would complain (in the dialogue Phaedrus, set down by Plato) that writing represented 'no true wisdom, . . . but only its semblance.' Written words 'seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent,' the philosopher said, 'but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.' Even worse, once something is put in writing it 'drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn't know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. '  

"Like Socrates, Herodotus knew that writing was full of ambiguities. Since a written document could not be cross-examined as a speaking person could, it might be used not to inform but to deceive. Themistocles, the Athenian general who led the resistance to the invasion of Xerxes. knew this too. Both sides in the war were vying for the help of the Ionians, descendants of Greek settlers who had colonized the Aegean islands and the adjacent mainland coastal areas of present-day Turkey. Most Ionians sided with the Persians, their powerful near-neighbours, but the Greeks sought their aid on the grounds of common ancestry. Themistocles used the ambiguity of writing to enlist their help, or at least to minimize the potential harm they might do to the Greek cause. He sent men to the "drinkable-water places" where Ionian ships put in for resupply, and he had them cut written messages into the rocks there, urging the Ionians to abandon Xerxes and join the Greek side. His plan was clever: either the Ionians who read the messages would be persuaded to rebel against the Persians, he reasoned, or Xerxes himself would see the messages and distrust his allies, withholding them from the order of battle (8.22). As it happened, only a few Ionians defected to the Greeks (see 8.85), but a more important point had been made: writing could send a deliberately confusing message as well as a direct one. Writing was not always so straightforward as it appeared to be.

"Writing could also be useful for sending messages in secret, and Herodotus provided several examples of how written records promoted secrecy. There was a danger in committing anything to writing since, if the document were intercepted, secrecy would be lost. Histiaeus, who had been made Despot of Miletus by Darius, learned this lesson when he sought through secret messages to stir up a revolt against his benefactor. The King's brother intercepted these letters, read them, and then sent them on to their original destination, having meanwhile profited from knowing what plans were afoot. When the revolt came, the loyal forces 'killed a great number ... when they were thus revealed' (6.4). Still, writing out a message and smuggling it to a confederate could be safer than entrusting it orally to a messenger, who could be bribed or tortured into talking if apprehended. Because of the possibility of such discovery, special care was needed over secret communications, and Herodotus found several instances of such security precautions.

"These stories present the historian at his anecdotal best, and we may well doubt whether any of them actually happened. Their very dramatic content, however, highlights the problem Socrates complained of; namely, writing drifting 'all over the place' and getting into the wrong hands. In one case, a Mede named Harpagus plotted with Cyrus to overthrow the King and install the young man in his place. 'Because the roads were guarded,' a secret message had to be smuggled through by some 'contrivance.' Harpagus took a hare and split open its belly, leaving the fur intact. Next, he inserted "a paper on which he wrote what he wanted," stitched the animal back together, and entrusted it to a servant, disguised as an innocuous huntsman. The servant made it past the guards along the road and delivered the message to its intended recipient (1.123; the text of the message itself is at 1.124)" (O'Toole, "Herodotus and the Written Record," Archivaria 33 [1991-92] 153-54).

Whatever Herodotus's ideas regarding the written record, his Histories survived because he wrote them down, and because they were re-copied. According to Roger Pearse, tertullian.org, 18 papyrus fragments of Herdotus survived, all fragments of a page, with little overlap. Most of these fragments date from the first or second centuries CE. Pearse cites nine medieval manuscript exemplars. The earliest, Laurentian 70, 3, known as Codex A, dates from the 10th century C.E. This was carefully written by two scribes in succession. The text contains marginal summaries and the remains of scholia, copied from its exemplar, as well as much later marginal notes, especially in book 1.

Pearse provides the following general comments on the surviving sources for Herodotus: "The manuscripts and papyri do not give us information on all the forms of the text of Herodotus that were known in antiquity. This we can see from the quotations of the text in other ancient authors. . . . Both the manuscripts and papyri appear to derive from a common ancient edition which was widely circulated in the early centuries AD. Who made this is unknown. . . ."

(This entry was last revised on 04-24-2014.)

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The Elephantine Papyri: One of the Most Ancient Collections of Jewish Manuscripts Circa 450 BCE

One of the oldest collections of Jewish manuscripts, dating from the fifth century BCE, the Elephantine papyri were written by the Jewish community at Elephantine (Arabic: جزيرة الفنتين‎, Greek: Ελεφαντίνη) , then called Yeb, an island in the Nile at the border of Nubia. The Jewish settlement of Elephantine was probably founded as a military installation about 650 BCE, during the reign of Manasseh of Judah, to assist Pharoah Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign. The dry soil of Upper Egypt preserved documents from the Egyptian border fortresses of Elephantine and Syene (Aswan). Hundreds of these Elephantine papyri survived, written in hieratic and Demotic Egyptian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Coptic, and consisting of legal documents and letters, spanning a period of 1000 years. 

"Though some fragments on papyrus are much older, the largest number of papyri are written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and document the Jewish community among soldiers stationed at Elephantine under Persian rule, 495-399 BCE. The Elephantine documents include letters and legal contracts from family and other archives: divorce documents, the manumission of slaves, and other business, and are a valuable source of knowledge about law, society, religion, language and onomastics, the sometimes surprisingly revealing study of names...." (Wikipedia article on Elephantine papyri, accessed 12-09-2013).

Porten, Bezalel et al, The Elephantine Papyri in English. Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change (1996). 

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One of the Earliest Images of Someone Reading a Papyrus Roll 440 BCE – 435 BCE

One of the earliest surviving images of anyone reading a papyrus roll, preserved in the Louvre. (View Larger)

A tondo, or circular work of art, from the inside base of an Attic red figure cup depicts the teacher Linos (named on the right) reading from a papyrus roll while his pupil Mousaios (named on the left) reads from writing tablets.

Preserved in the Louvre (G457), this school scene is one of the earliest surviving images of anyone reading a papyrus roll. The tondo shows Linos reading the roll vertically, perhaps because of the demands of the artistic composition; the usual method of reading a papyrus roll appears to have been in the horizontal position with the roll rolling to the right and left. To the left of Linos the boy, Mousaios, stands reading from the wood tablets he holds in his left hand. Behind Mousaios the chest depicted is thought to be a storage container for papyrus rolls.  The cup, attributed to the "Eretria Painter," is 9.9 cm high x 25.4 cm in diameter and 33.9 cm wide.  

Lewis, Papyrus in Classical Antiquity (1974) Plate 8 and caption 8 (p. 152).

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The Law Code of Gortyn, Crete: The Longest Extant Ancient Greek Stone Inscription in Greece Circa 440 BCE

Written in the Dorian dialect, the Law Code of Gortyn was the codification of the civil law of the ancient Greek city-state of Gortyn in southern Crete. It is a type of stone nscription called boustrophedron, in which alternate lines must be read in opposite directions rather than from left to right, or right to left as in Arabic. It derives from βους, "ox" + στρεφειν, "to turn" (cf. the etymology of strophe), because the hand of the writer goes back and forth, so that the resulting inscription resembles the path of an ox that draws a plow across a field and turns at the end of each row to return in the opposite direction.

Though only a major portion of the code survived, the twelve columns that remain are 30 feet in length and 5 feet in height and contain some 600 lines of text. The writing is uniform and is thought to have been carved by a single writer or sculptor. From the surviving code much concerning the civil law of Gortyn is known. Except for the inscription of Digoenes of Oenoanda in Lycia (now southwest Turkey) the Law Code of Gortyn is the longest extant Greek stone inscription.

Vasilakis, The Great Inscription of the Law Code of Gortyn (2007).

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The Derveni Papyrus, The Earliest Surviving European Manuscript Circa 420 BCE

On January 15, 1962 during the widening of the national road leading from Thessaloniki to Kavala in Greece workers discovered several large cist graves at Derveni, roughly 10 km to the north of Thessaloniki. Among the remains of the funeral pyre on top of the covering slabs of what was designated tomb A a charred papyrus roll was discovered. This ancient Greek papyrus roll, dating from around 420 BCE, is the earliest surviving European manuscript, as distinct from papyri found in Egypt or the Middle East. Designated the Derveni papyrus, it is "a philosophical treatise that is an allegorical commentary on an Orphic poem, a theogony concerning the birth of the gods, produced in the circle of the philosopher Anaxagoras in the second half of the 5th century BC." It has also been called "the most important new piece of evidence about Greek philosophy and religion to come to light since the Renaissance."  

Betegh, The Derveni Papyrus. Cosmology, Theology and Interpretation (2004).

In April 2014 the Greek text and English translation of the Derveni papyrus were available from the IMOUSEION Project at the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard at this link.

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Possible Libraries in Ancient Greece Circa 410 BCE

"The increase of the book trade made it possible for private individuals to form libraries. Even if the tradition that sixth-century tyrants such as Pisistratus of Athens and Polycrates of Samos possessed large collections of books is discounted (Anthenaeus I.3A), it is clear that by the end of the fifth century private libraries existed. Aristophanes pokes fun at Euripides for drawing heavily on literary sources in composing his tragedies (Frogs 943), and his own work, being full of parody and allusion, must have depended to some extent on a personal book collection.

"There is no trace of any general library maintained at the public expense at Athens, but it is likely that official copies of plays performed at the leading festivals such as the Dionysia were kept at the theatre or in the public record office. Pseudo-Plurarch (Lives of the ten orators 841F) ascribes to the orator Lycurgus (c. 390-324 BCE) a proposal to keep official copies in this way, but the need would probably have arisen earlier. We know that after the original performance plays were revived from time to time. New copies of the text must have been needed for the actors, and if they had been obliged to obtain these by a process of transcription from private copies it would be surprising that an almost complete range of plays survived into the Hellenistic age" (Reynolds & Wilson, Texts and Transmission, 3rd ed. [1991] 5).

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The Pronomos Vase: Pictorial Evidence for Theatre in Ancient Greece Circa 400 BCE

The Pronomos Vase from Naples shows the performers of a Greek satyr play. (View Larger)

The Pronomos vase, a red-figure volute-krater was created circa 400 BCE. Depicting an entire theatrical chorus and cast along with the celebrated musician Pronomos, in the presence of their patron god, Dionysos, it is considered the single most important surviving piece of pictorial evidence for theatre from ancient Greece. It was discovered in Ruvo di Puglia, Italy in 1836, and is preserved in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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The Library of Aristotle: Basis for the Royal Library of Alexandria? 384 BCE – 321 BCE

The library of Aristotle is the first private library concerning which there is considerable discussion among early commentators. Writing more than 300 years after Aristotle's death, in the first decades of the first century CE, the geographer Strabo provided one of the most detailed early accounts in his Geographia XIII, 1, 54-55, stating, among other things that Aristotle was "the first man, so far as I know, to have collected books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library." Strabo's account in English translation is below. The Egyptian kings were referred to were probably the Ptolemies in Alexandria. The translation is by H. L. Jones (London, 1929); the links are, of course, mine:

"From Scepsis came the Socratic philosophers Rastus and Coriscus and Neleus the son of Coriscus, this last a man who not only was a pupil of Aristotle and Theophrastus, but also inherited the library of Theophrastus, which included that of Aristotle. At any rate, Aristotle bequeathed his own library to Theophrastus, to whom he also left his school; and he is the first man, so far as I know, to have collected books and to have taught the kings in Egypt how to arrange a library. Theophrastus bequeathed it to Neleus; and Neleus took it to Scepsis [at the present site of the village of Kurşuntepe, near the town of Bayramiç in Turkey] and bequeathed it to his heirs, ordinary people, who kept the books locked up and not even carefully stored. But when they heard how zealously the Attalid kings to whom the city was subject were searching for books to build up the library in Pergamum, they hid the books underground in a kind of trench. But much later, when the books had been damaged by moisture and moths, their descendants sold them to Apellicon of Teos for a large sum of money, both the books of Aristotle and those of Theophrastus. But Apellicon was a bibliophile rather than a philosopher; and therefore, seeking a restoration of the parts that had been eaten through, he made new copies of the text, filling up the gaps incorectly, and published the books full of errors. The result was that the earlier school of Peripatetics who came after Theophrastus had no books at all, with the exception of only a few, mostly exoteric works, and were therefore able to philosophise about nothing in a practical way, but only to talk bombast about commonplace propositions, whereas the later school, from the time the books in question appeared, though better able to philosophise and Aristotelise, were forced to call most of their statements probabilities, because of the large number of errors. Rome also contributed much to it; for immediately after the death of Apellicon, Sulla, who had captured Athens carried off Apelicon's library to Rome, where Tyrannion the grammarion, who was fond of Aristotle, got it in his hands by paying court to the librarian, as did also certain booksellers who used bad copyists and would not collate the texts— a thing that also takes place in the case of the other books that are copied for selling both here [Rome] and at Alexandria.".

"Another account relates that Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.) acquired Aristotle’s library directly from Neleus and brought it to Egypt to become a part of the great Alexandrian library. It is possible that both stories are partially correct, and it is quite probable that copies at least of Aristotle’s library reached Alexandria eventually” (Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World 4th ed. [1999] 41).

Blum, Kallimachos: The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography, tr. by H. Wellisch (1991) 2.6."The Library of Aristotle," 53-64.

(This entry was last revised on 08-05-2014).

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The Earliest Example of Shorthand Writing Circa 350 BCE

The Acropolis stone.

The earliest known example of a shorthand writing system is the Acropolis stone (Akropolisstein) discovered in the Athenian Acropolis in 1884, and preserved in the British Museum (Brit. Mus. Add. Ms. 33270).  The marble slab shows a writing system using primarily based on vowels, using certain modifications to indicate consonants.

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The Lead Tablet Archives of the Athenian Cavalry Circa 350 BCE – 250 BCE

While information has survived concerning ancient Greek library and archive buildings from excavations of ruins, most information concerning library and archive holdings, and library and archive operation, is based on third party accounts, or is fragmentary or speculative. Dramatic exceptions to this overall lack of surviving archives from ancient Greece are the Archives of the Athenian Cavalry from the fourth and and third centuries BCE preserved on lead tablets. An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry was excavated in 1965 from a water well within the courtyard of the Dipylon, the double-gate leading into the city of Athens from the north. It included 574 lead tablets from the third century BCE. Six years later, in 1971, another hundred or so lead tablets from the fourth and third centuries BCE were excavated from a well at the edge of the excavated section of the Agora in Athens.

Historian of ancient archives Ernest Posner characterized these finds as

"by far the largest name file of ancient times. Tightly rolled or folded up, they contain the following information: the name in the genitive of the owner of a horse; the horse's color and brand, if any; and its value stated in drachmas, with 1,200 drachmas as the highest valuation given. Normally, only the name of the owner appears on the outside; the other data is relegated to the interior of the tablet and could not be read unless the tablet was unrolled or unfolded. A number of tablets are palimpsests; that is, the original entries were erased and replaced by new data"  (Posner, "The Athenian Cavalry Archives of the Fourth and Third Centures B.C.", The American Archivist (1974) 579-82).

The wide range of pottery as well as lead tablets excavated from the Dipylon were described by Karin Braun in "Der Dipylon-Brunne B¹ Die Funde," Mitteilungen des Deutschen archäologischen Instituts Athenische Abteilung, Band 85 (1970) 129-269, plates 53-93. Plates 83-93 illustrate lead tablets unfolded to show the writing and tablets rolled up.

From the extensive information available, John H. Kroll, author of the primary paper on the 1971 excavation, developed a theory of the purposes and operation of the Athenian Cavalry Archives, of which I quote a portion:

"The continual turnover of the horses explains, I think, why the records of the horses' values were kept as they were-individually on lead tablets. Official annual records at Athens were normally kept in list form on papyrus or whitened boards. But since a cavalryman was likely to have changed his horse at any time in the course of a year, a more flexible system of records was called for-the equivalent of the modern card-file system-whereby the record of a given horse could be pulled out and replaced if the horse itself was replaced. For such individual records, lead had obvious advantages over paper or wood, and, becatuse it was cheap and could be erased and re-used repeatedly, it would have been less costly in the long run. The re-use of the tablets, incidently, must surely be a factor in the low survival rate of tablets in most series and the loss of other entire series. There is one other respect in which the tablets stand apart from most annual records. I assume that they were rolled or folded simply to facilitate storage and not because the evaluations they contain were to be kept secret. But the fact that they were folded or rolled up, many of them as tightly as they could be, indicates that no one expected them to be referred to on a regular basis. Indeed, since all of the unbroken tablets were recovered from the Kerameikos and Agora wells in their original folded or rolled state, it appears doubtful that any of the extant tablets had ever been consulted. This of course does not mean that the evaluations were never consulted, merely that the records were made up annually and filed away to be consulted only in rare, though anticipated, cases. If the occasion did not arise in the course of the year, they expired, were replaced with the next year's evaluations, and were put aside, eventually to be erased and re-used" (Kroll, "An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry," Hesperia XLVI [1977] No. 2, 94-95). Kroll's extensive article occupies pp. 83-140 of the journal issue and includes numerous drawings and photographs.

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Writing on Lead Tablets in Antiquity Circa 350 BCE – 250 BCE

"Lead seems to have been employed for writing in antiquity more commonly than is usually recognized. Because of its baseness and assumed affinities with the underworld, it was the standard medium for curse tablets (A. Audollent, Defixionum Tabellae, Paris 1904, pp. xlviii-xlix). Otherwise its cheapness, permanence, and ease of inscribing made it suitable for private papers (e. g., Plutarch, De mul. virt. 254 D; Frontinus, Strategemata III, 3. 7= Dio, XLVI. 36. 4; SIG3, 1259, 1260; G. R. Davidson and D. B. Thompson, Hesperia, Suppl. VII, Small Objects from the Pnyx: I, Cambridge, Mass. 1943, pp. 10-11, no. 17; Zeitschrift fir Papyrologie und Epigraphik 17, 1975, pp. 157-162), for the writing out of queries to the oracle at Dodona (H. W. Parke, The Oracles of Zeus, Oxford 1967, pp. 100-102, 126, note 18, 259-273), and for public documents, such as the 6th century B.C. records of loans from a temple archive at Corcyra (BSA 66, 1971, pp. 79-93). Pausanias (IX. 31. 4) saw a text of Hesiod on lead on Mt. Helikon. Unspecified public lead documents are mentioned by Pliny, Nat. Hist. XIII. 68-69, and " lead paper " (plumbea charta) by Suetonius, Nero. 20. H. A. Thompson has called my attention to a series of lead strips of the 8th century B.C. from central Anatolia inscribed with various official records and published by T. Ozgiic in Kultepe and its Vicinity in the Iron Age, Ankara 1971, pp. 111-116; reference is there made to similar lead plaques found at Assur (Bibliotheca Orientalis 8, 1951, pp. 126-133). An exhaustive account of Greek inscriptions on lead has been compiled by Anne P. Miller in her University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Ph. D. dissertation, "Studies in Early Sicilian Epigraphy: An Opisthographic Lead Tablet," 1973 (Xerox University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, no. 73-26, 213), to which I owe several of the above references. A new private letter on lead, of the early 4th century B.C., was found in the same well as the present cavalry tablets. . . ." (Kroll, "An Archive of the Athenian Cavalry," Hesperia XLVI (1977) No. 2, 83-140, footnote 29).

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Probably the Earliest Surviving Papyrus of a Greek Text Circa 350 BCE

A papyrus fragment of The Persae by the Greek musician and dithyrambic poet, Timotheus (Timotheos) of Miletus, discovered in Abusir, Egypt, is probably the earliest surviving papyrus of a Greek text found in Egypt. It is preserved in the Staatliches Museum, Berlin (P. Berol. 9875).

The text was first edited and published by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Möllendorff as Timotheos, Die Perser, aus einem Papyrus von Abusir im Aufrage der deutschen Orientgesellschaft (1903).

Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. (1972) 11, pl. 8 describes the Greek writing on the papyrus as "Formal book-script; square; monoline; unserifed."

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The Oldest Map Clearly Marked with Distances 343 BCE – 313 BCE

A quarter-inch thick copper plate in the Hebei Provincial Museum at Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China, bears the world’s oldest map clearly marked with distances.

"The 2,300-year-old map marks the locations of buildings in the five mausoleums of Wang Cuo (344-313 BC), his queen, and his concubines. It is called the Zhao Yu Tu (“map of the area of the mausoleum”). “It is not only the oldest map ever found in China but the oldest numeral-bearing map in the world,” says Du Naisong, a researcher with the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Thirty-seven inches long and 19 inches wide, the map marks more than 70 locations, and symbols, numerals, and epigraphs are inlaid with gold and silver. Unlike modern maps, the Zhao Yu Tu has south on top and north on the bottom. One-half inch equals 16.5 feet on the map’s scale" (http://www.archaeology.org/9803/newsbriefs/map.html, accessed 12-27-2009).

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The Beginnings of Musicology 335 BCE

Ἁρμονικῶν στοιχείων (Elementa harmonica; Elements of Harmony, or Harmonics),an incomplete treatise by the Greek Peripatetic philosopher Ἀριστόξενος (Aristoxenos, Aristoxenus of Tarentum), a pupil of Aristotle, represents the earliest surviving treatise on musicology. According to the Suda, Aristoxenos wrote 453 works on philosophy, ethics and music. However, Harmonics remains his only surviving work. 

"Antiquity knew Aristoxenus [fl. 4th c. BCE] as  Μουσικός, THE authority on music. While he was not the first person to write whole books dedicated specifically to music, he is the earliest musical writer whose work has survived in bulk.

"I must clarify. Aristoxenus's surviving work, and this is especially true of his Harmonics, does not deal with actual music, but with the material of music -- not with the nature of sound but with the nature of musical intervals and scales. In our days, the investigation of such things comes under the rubric of musicology. Sophie Gibson in her excellent study makes a convincing case that Aristoxenus was the inventor of this discipline.

"For sheer abstruseness, Aristoxenus's writings must lie near the top in ancient Greek. Aristoxenus's subjects, the nature of the musical material and of rhythm, are of themselves difficult. Scientific investigation of them at the time he wrote was at its very beginning, speculative, and confused.1 Though Gibson demonstrates that Aristoxenus followed Aristotle in method, she makes it clear that in the musical sphere he was determined not to owe anything to anybody. He lashed his predecessors, and elsewhere even Aristotle, says the Suda, when the former passed him over as successor for leadership of the Lyceum. Intellectual perplexity and odium scholasticum give his books a double edge; irritation is added to difficulty, rather like the Clarke-Leibniz correspondence.

"Furthermore, the most substantial piece of Aristoxenus's work we have, the Harmonics, survives in three incomplete books, of which Book I appears written at hazard, and Book II is a recasting of the same material, though exhibiting contradictions with Book I. Book III breaks off just when we might have been getting to something to do with real melody. From Books I and II of his Rhythmics there survive chunks, and only much smaller fragments from the rest of Aristoxenus's work.

"Notwithstanding these problems of fragmentation and opaqueness, Aristoxenus is an extremely important source for the study of ancient Greek music, where the evidence is so scarce that we need to squeeze out all we can anywhere we find it. I was delighted to read Sophie Gibson's excellent discussion of Aristoxenus's work, and I am most grateful for her heroic labor in elucidating it. Lucid indeed her exposition is, though necessarily requiring constant and diligent attention. A secondary work such as Gibson's is vital to the study of Aristoxenus, for in many places in his text it is not in the least obvious what he is trying to do, and in such a technical subject we need plenty of context. . . ." (Otto Steinmayer, review of Sophie Gibson, "Aristoxenus of Tarentum and the Birth of Musicology," Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.10.20).

Aristoxenos was first published in print in Venice, 1562, in the Latin translation of Antonius Hermannius Gogava as Aristoxeni musici antiquiss. harmonicorum elementorum [with other works]. The standard edition and English translation appears to remain The Harmonics of Aristoxenus, Edited with Translation, Notes, Introduction and Index of Words by Henry S. Macran (1902). Macran p. 92 characterized Gogava's translation as "a worthless work crowded with errors." Macran p. 90 stated that the earliest surviving manuscript of Aristoxenos's text is a Codex Venetus in the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice written by "Zosimus" in Constantinople in the twelfth century.

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The Earliest Datable Appearance of the Serif in Stone Inscriptions 334 BCE – 330 BCE

The earliest datable stone inscription incorporating consistent thickening towards the ends of perpendiculars and horizontals in the lettering— later called serifs— is the Dedication of the Temple of Athena Polias in Priene, Asia Minor, by Alexander the Great (British Museum GR 1870.3-20.88 (Inscription 399 and 400).

"The distinctive feature of this consists of consistent thickening towards the ends of perpendiculars and horizontals. This thickening is often very slight in dimension but obviously always deliberate—despite the evidence in this example that the sculptor, though a first-class workman, was hurried in his execution. His deliberation is more clearly visible in a rubbing of certain characters which display this distinction (it may be rash to describe it as an innovation) to as clear a degree as possible. His speed is suggested in the lack of precision. In many respects the lettering has the appearance of a free hand rather than a geometrically regulated inscription" (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Nicolas Barker ed. [1972] 7-8, pls. 2-3).

"In 336 BC Alexander the Great embarked on a programme of territorial expansion, which would eventually extend the boundaries of the Greek world to Egypt in the south and to India in the East. In 334 BC Alexander crossed the Hellespont, the narrow strait separating Europe and Asia, and went first to Troy. There he dedicated his armour to Athena and laid a wreath at the tomb of Achilles, the legendary hero and champion of the Greeks in the Trojan War. This act prefigured Alexander's role as a new Achilles liberating the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Asiatic rule.  

"That same summer of 334 BC, a successful engagement with the Persian army at the river Granicus, east of Troy, opened the gates of Asia Minor, and Alexander proceeded to tour the Greek cities of the west coast, expelling their Persian garrisons.  

"On reaching Priene, he made a further dedication to Athena. There the townspeople were laying out their new city and building a temple to its patron goddess. Alexander offered funds to complete the temple, and the inscription on this wall block, cut into a block of marble, records his gift. The inscription was found in the nineteenth century by the architect-archaeologist Richard Pullan leading an expedition on behalf of the Society of Dilettanti. It reads: 'King Alexander dedicated the Temple to Athena Polias' (http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/d/dedication_by_alexander.aspx, accessed 08-18-2014).

Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) A1 b (p. 14).

(This entry was last revised on 08-18-2014.)

 

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The Earliest Surviving Letter Written in Greek Circa 325 BCE

The Greek historian Philochorus of Athens (Φιλόχορος) is credited with the invention of the "typically scientific letter and the polemical pamphlet." A letter by Philochorus written on lead plates, μολυβδινη επιστολη, survived from the early fourth century CE and was preserved in the Kgl. Museen, Berlin. 

Adolf Wilhelm, "Der älteste grieschische Brief," Jahreshefte des oesterreichen Archäologischen Institutes in Wien, 7 (1904) 94-105 (with illustrations of the original letter written on lead).

Jenö Platthy, Sources on the Earliest Greek Libraries with the Testimonia (1968) 29. 

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300 BCE – 30 CE

The Royal Library of Alexandria: The Largest Collection of Recorded Information in the Ancient World Circa 300 BCE

The Royal Library of Alexandria, associated with the Museum or Mouseion at Alexandria (Μουσεῖον τῆς Ἀλεξανδρείας), was probably founded around 300 BCE under the reign of Ptolemy I Soter or Ptolemy II. Though it was the largest library in the ancient world, and the repository of so much Greek literature that was eventually passed down to us, and also so much that was eventually lost, the number of papyrus rolls preserved at Alexandria at its peak, or any other time, is unknown. At its peak, the number of rolls that it might have held has been estimated by numerous scholars, without any reliable evidence, from as many as 400,000 to 700,000 to as few as 40,000, or even less. A typical papyrus roll probably contained a text about the length of one book of Homer.

Writing in 2002, American classical scholar Roger Bagnall argued that very high numbers of rolls traditionally estimated by scholars to have been held by the Royal Library of Alexandria, such as 400,000 to 700,000 rolls, may reflect modern expectations rather than the extent of written literature that may have been produced by ancient Greek writers: 

"The computer databank of ancient Greek literature, the Thesurus Linguae Graecae, contains about 450 authors of whom at least a few words survive in quotation and whose lives are thought to have begun by the late fourth century. No doubt there were authors extant in the early Hellenistic period of whom not a line survives today, but we cannot estimate their numbers. Of most of these 450, we have literally a few sentences. There are another 175 known whose lives are placed, or whose births are placed in the third century B. C. Most of these authors probably wrote what by modern standards was a modest amount—a few book-rolls full, perhaps. Even the most voluminous authors of the group, like the Athenian dramatists, probably filled nor more than a hundred rolls or so. If the average writer filled 50 rolls, our known authors to the end of the third century would have produced 31,250 rolls. . . .

"To look at matters another way, just, 2,871,000 words of Greek are preserved for all authors known to have lived at least in part in the fourth century or earlier. Adding the third and second centuries brings the total to 3,773,000 words (or about 12,600 pages of 300 words each). At an average of 15,000 words per roll, this corpus would require a mere 251 rolls. Even at an average of 10,000 words per roll the figure would be only 377 rolls. It was estimated by one eminent ancient historian that the original bulk of historical writings in ancient Greece amounted to something like forty times what has survived. If so, our estimate would run to an original body of 10,000 to 15,000 rolls. This may be too low, but is it likely that it is too low by a factor of thirty or forty, and that only one word in 1,500 or 2,000 has survived? . . . (Roger S. Bagnall, "Alexandria: Library of Dreams," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 146 (2002) 348-62, quoting from 352-53).

Traditionally the Alexandrian Library is thought to have been based upon the library of Aristotle. By tradition it is also believed, without concrete evidence, that the much of the collection of rolls was acquired by order of Ptolemy III, who supposedly required all visitors to Alexandria to surrender rolls in their possession. These writings were then copied by official scribes, the originals were put into the Library, and the copies were delivered to the previous owners.

The Alexandrian Library was associated with a school and a museum. Scholars at Alexandria were responsible for the editing and standardization for many earlier Greek texts. One of the best-known of these editors was Aristophanes of Byzantium, a director of the library, whose work on the text of the Iliad may be preserved in the Venetus A manuscript, but who was also known for editing authors such as Pindar and Hesiod.

Though it is known that portions of the Alexandrian Library survived for several centuries, the various accounts of the library's eventual destruction are contradictory. The Wikipedia article on the Library of Alexandria outlined four possible scenarios for its destruction:

  1. Julius Caesar's fire in The Alexandrian War, in 48 BCE
  2. The attack of Aurelian in the Third century CE
  3. The decree of Theophilus in 391 CE. (Destruction of pagan literature by early Christians.)
  4. The Muslim conquest in 642 CE, or thereafter.

♦ Other factors in the eventual destruction of the contents of the Alexandrian Library might have included the decay of the papyrus rolls as a result of the climate. Most of the papyrus rolls and fragments that survived after the Alexandrian Library did so in the dry sands of the Egyptian desert. Papyrus rolls do not keep well either in dampness or in salty sea air, to which they were likely exposed in the library located in the port of Alexandria. Thus, independently of the selected library destruction scenario, because of decay of the storage medium, or as a result of fires, rodent damage, natural catastrophes, or neglect, it is probable that significant portions of the information in the Alexandrian library were lost before the library was physically destroyed.

Whatever the circumstances and timing of the physical destruction of the Library, it is evident that by the eighth century the Alexandrian Library was no longer a significant institution. 

(This entry was last revised on March 22, 2014.)

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The Dead Sea Scrolls 300 BCE – 68 CE

A column of the Copper Scroll found in Cave Three.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in eleven caves near Khirbet Qumran, on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea have been dated between 300 BCE and 68 CE, on the basis of historical, paleographic, and linguistic evidence, as well as carbon-14 dating. Because they date from the late Second Temple Period, when Jesus of Nazareth lived, the Dead Sea Scrolls are older than any other surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Scriptures, except for the Nash Papyrus, by almost one thousand years. They are preserved in The Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, with a smaller number in Aramaic or Greek. Most of them were written on parchment, with the exception of a few written on papyrus. The vast majority of the scrolls survived as fragments—only a handful were found intact. Nevertheless, scholars have managed to reconstruct from these fragments approximately 850 different manuscripts of various lengths.

"The manuscripts fall into three major categories: biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian. The biblical manuscripts comprise some two hundred copies of books of the Hebrew Bible, representing the earliest evidence for the biblical text in the world. Among the apocryphal manuscripts (works that were not included in the Jewish biblical canon) are works that had previously been known only in translation, or that had not been known at all. The sectarian manuscripts reflect a wide variety of literary genres: biblical commentary, religious-legal writings, liturgical texts, and apocalyptic compositions. Most scholars believe that the scrolls formed the library of the sect (the Essenes?) that lived at Qumran. However it appears that the members of this sect wrote only part of the scrolls themselves, the remainder having been composed or copied elsewhere” (Shrine of the Book. Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls, accessed 12-24-2009).

In September 2011 The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls website, a partnership between the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and Google, made five of the scrolls searchable online as part of a project to provide searchable online facsimiles of all the scrolls.

In December 2012 the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library was launched by the Israel Antiquities Authority in partnership with Google Israel, making high resolution images of the scrolls freely available. The site was launched 11 years after the completion of the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls, initiated and sponsored by the IAA, and 65 years after the first scrolls were unearthed in the Caves of Qumran.

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The Guodian Chu Slips: "Like the Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls" Circa 300 BCE

Several of the Guodian Chu Slips. (View Larger)

The Guodian Chu Slips (Chinese: 郭店楚簡; pinyin: Guōdiàn Chǔjiǎn), comprising about 804 bamboos slips, or strips, containing "12072" Chinese characters, were discovered in 1993 in Tomb no. 1 of the Guodian tombs in Jingmen, Hubei, China. The tomb was dated to the latter half of the Warring States period, and it is thought that the texts were written on the bamboo strips before or close to the time of burial.

"The tomb is located in the Jishan District's tomb complex, near the Jingmen City in the village of Guodian, and only 9 kilometers north of Ying, which was the ancient Chu capital from about 676 BC until 278 BC, before the State of Chu was over-run by the Qin. The tomb and its contents were studied to determine the identity of the occupant; an elderly noble scholar, and teacher to a royal prince. The prince had been identified as Crown Prince Heng, who later became King Qingxiang of Chu. Since King Qingxiang was the Chu king when Qin sacked their old capital Ying in 278 BC, the Chu slips are dated to around 300 BC.

There are in total about 804 bamboo slips in this cache, including 702 strips and 27 broken strips with 12072 characters. The bamboo slip texts consist of three major categories, which include the earliest manuscripts of the received text of the Tao Te Ching, one chapter from the Classic of Rites, and anonymous writings. After restoration, these texts were divided into eighteen sections, and have been transcribed into standard Chinese and published under the title Chu Bamboo Slips from Guodian on May 1998. The slip-texts include both Daoist and Confucian works, many previously unknown, and the discovery of these texts in the same tomb has contributed fresh information for scholars studying the history of philosophical thought in ancient China. According to Gao Zheng from the Institute of Philosophy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the main part could be teaching material used by the Confucianist Si Meng scholars in Jixia Academy. Qu Yuan, who was sent as an envoy in State of Qi, might have taken them back to Chu (Wikipedia article on Guodian Chu Slips, accessed 01-31-2010).

" 'This is like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls,' says Tu Weiming, director of the Harvard Yenching Institute (HYI), who has played a key role in the preservation of, accessibility to, and research on the Guodian materials since 1996.  

"The 800 bamboo strips bear roughly 10,000 Chinese characters; approximately one-tenth of those characters comprise part of the oldest extant version of the Tao Te Ching (also known as Daodejing), a foundational text by the Taoist philosopher Laozi, who lived in the sixth century B.C. and is generally considered the teacher of Confucius. The remaining nine-tenths of the writings appear to be written by Confucian disciples, including Confucius' grandson Zisi, in the first generation after Confucius' death. (Confucius lived from 551 to 479 B.C.) These texts amplify scholars' understanding of how the Confucian philosophical tradition evolved between Confucius' time and that of Mencius, a key Confucian thinker who lived in the third century B.C.  

" 'With the discovery of these texts, I think you can say that the history of Confucianism itself will have to be rewritten,' says Tu. 'And by implication, the history of ancient Chinese philosophy in general will have to be reconfigured.' " (http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/2001/02.22/07-ancientscript.html, accessed 01-31-2010).

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The Musawwarat Graffiti Archive Circa 300 BCE – 350 CE

Thousands of graffiti— informal pictorial and inscriptional incisions— adorn the extensive sandstone walls of the Great Enclosure at Musawwarat es-Sufra (المصورات الصفراء al-Musawwarāt as-sufrāMeroitic: Aborepi, Old Egyptian: jbrp, jpbr-ˁnḫ), also known as Al-Musawarat Al-Sufra. This large Meroitic temple complex in modern Sudan, dates back to the 3rd century BCE. The site is located 190 kilometers northeast of Khartoum. Many of the graffiti stem from the Meroitic period (c. 300 BCE to c. 400 CE), but also from the more recent post-Meroitic, Christian and Islamic periods. The graffiti, which name and depict gods, humans, animals — sometimes arranged in scenes, and showing symbols, objects and others — may offer a method for the interpretation of the use of this site over the many centuries of its operation. For example, the graffiti allow a rare view into the interplay between state and folk religion and practices.

In 2011 the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Humboldt University Berlin began development of the Musawwarat Graffiti Archive. In the "Graffiti in Place Database" a solution was developed for the integration of systematic graffiti-focussed information, and of data on the exact spatial contexts in which the pictorial and inscriptional graffiti were created and used. Such space-related data sets were difficult to publish in traditional paper format, and for this reason were often neglected in research and publication. In March 2014 database entries described 1542 graffiti on 1598 blocks of Temple 300 at the center of Complex 300, one of the most densely marked buildings at the site. The archive also contained more than 2,500 photographs, as well as 900 drawings of the graffiti of Temple 300. 

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The Earliest Surviving Example of a Greek Chronological Table Circa 298 BCE – 264 BCE

The Oxford fragment of the Parian Marble. (View Larger)

The earliest surviving example of a Greek chronological table, the Parian Marble (Marmor Parium) or Parian Chronicle, covers the years from 1581 BCE to 299/8 BCE, inscribed on a marble stele, of which two fragments are known. The first fragment was found on the island of Páros in two sections, and sold in Smyrna in the early 17th century to an agent for Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel. This inscription (ll. 1-45) was deciphered by the antiquarian John Selden and published among the Arundel Marbles, in Marmora Arundelliana (London, 1628-9) nos. 1-21, 59-119. The upper part of the first fragment (A) was later lost and is known only from the transcription published by Selden. The surviving portion of A (ll. 46-93) is preserved in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. A third fragment of Marmor Parium (B)comprising the base of the stele and containing the end of the text (ll. 101-133) with entries from 356-299/98 BCE, was found on Páros in 1897, and is preserved in a museum on that island.

The compiler of the chronology is unknown, but the date of composition can be fixed at 264/3 BCE because of the mention of the name of the Athenian archon Diognetus (l.3) who served during those years. The chronology  includes a list of events from the reign of the mythical king Cecrops to the archonship of Euctemon, with its main focus on Athenian history. Events are arranged in paragraphs which include a short description of the event, the name of the Athenian king or archon, and the number of years elapsing from 264/3 BC expressed in Attic or acrophonic numerals

"It combines dates for events we would consider mythic, such as the Flood of Deucalion (equivalent to 1528/27 BC) with dates we would categorize as historic. For the Greeks, the events of their distant past, such as the Trojan War (dated to 1218 in the Parian inscription) and the Voyage of the Argonauts were historic: their myths were understood as legends to the Greeks. In fact the Parian inscriptions spend more detail on the Heroic Age than on certifiably historic events closer to the date the stele was inscribed and erected, apparently in 264/263 BC. 'The Parian Marble uses chronological specificity as a guarantee of truth,' Peter Green observed in the introduction to his annotated translation of the Argonautica of Apollonios Rhodios: 'the mythic past was rooted in historical time, its legends treated as fact, its heroic protagonists seen as links between the 'age of origins' and the mortal, everyday world that succeeded it' "(Wikipedia article on Parian Chronicle, accessed 11-22-2010).

In December 2014 the Department of Digital Humanities at the University of Leipzig was in the process of producing a Digital Marmor Parium at this link.

(This entry was last revised on 12-21-2014.)

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Philology Probably Begins at the Royal Library of Alexandria Circa 280 BCE

Fragments of the Odyssey, most likely copied in Alexandria.

Commentaries on the Iliad and the Odyssey written during the Hellenistic period at Alexandria began exploring the textual inconsistencies of the poems which occurred as the result of different scribes writing down differing versions of poems passed down through the oral tradition. Examples of these variant readings have survived in Bodleian Library papyrus (MS. Gr. class. b.3 [P]). The process of comparing different manuscript texts— such as would have been preserved at the Alexandrian Library— to arrive at what might be the “canonical” text, was the beginning of philology

The first critical edition of Homer was made by Zenodotus of Ephesus, first superintendant of the Library of Alexandria, who lived during the reigns of the first two Ptolemies, and was at the height of his reputation about 280 BCE. His colleagues in librarianship were Alexander of Aetolia and Lycophron of Chalcis, to whom were allotted the tragic and comic writers respectively, Homer and other epic poets being assigned to Zenodotus.

"Having collated the different manuscripts in the library, he expunged or obelized doubtful verses, transposed or altered lines, and introduced new readings. It is probable that he was responsible for the division of the Homeric poems into twenty-four books each (using capital Greek letters for the Iliad, and lower-case for the Odyssey), and possibly was the author of the calculation of the days of the Iliad in the Tabula Iliaca" (Wikipedia article on Zenodotus, accessed 11-26-2008).

The most famous Greek manuscript of the IliadVenetus A (Marcianus Graecus Z. 454 [=822]), a tenth century codex preserved at the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, contains several layers of annotations, glosses, and commentaries known as the "A scholia." These are thought to preserve editorial comments made by scholars at the Royal Library of Alexandria, as well as scholia accumulated by late antique annotators and philologists until the manuscript was written at Constantinople during the Macedonian Renaissance.

(This entry was last revised on 12-20-2014.)

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A "Wild" or "Eccentric" Papyrus of the Iliad Circa 275 BCE

Fragments of the Iliad, Books XXI-XXIII, dating from circa 275 BCE, and preserved at the Bodleian Library (MS. Gr. class. b.3 [P]) were recovered from cartonnage, the material made of waste papyrus used to make mummy cases in Egypt. Cartonnage of this type has proven to be a rich source of fragments of literary texts on papyrus.

"Literary papyri of this early date are by no means common, and this one has the added interest of being one of the best examples of what are sometimes called 'wild' or 'eccentric' papyri of Homer. The text deviates substantially, e.g. by the omission or addition of whole lines, from the standard version later established by the Alexandrian scholars." 

"Bibl.: P. Grenf. II. 4 (bought from B. P. Grenfell in 1896) + P. Hibeh 22 (given by the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1909). Other fragments are in Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek (P. Heidelberg 1262-6) Pack 2 no. 979. For a full discussion see S. R. West, The Ptolemaic papyri of Homer (Papyriologica coloniensia, 3), Cologne 1967, 136-191" (Hunt, R.W., The Survival of Ancient Literature, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1975, No. 1.)

(This entry was last revised on 04-29-2014.)

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The Septuagint Circa 250 BCE – 50 CE

The Septuagint (LXX), the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Koine Greek, may have been produced at Alexandria, Egypt in stages, starting about 250 BCE. The Alexandrian community then included the largest community of Jews, including a group of scholars who prepared the translation.   

“The Septuagint derives its name (derived from Latin septuaginta, 70, hence the abbreviation LXX) from a legendary account in the Letter of Aristeas of how seventy-two Jewish scholars (six scribes from each of the twelve tribes) were asked by the Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BC to translate the Torah for inclusion in the Library of Alexandria. In a later version of that legend narrated by Philo of Alexandria, although the translators were kept in separate chambers, they all produced identical versions of the text in seventy-two days. Although this story is widely viewed as implausible today, it underlines the fact that some ancient Jews wished to present the translation as authoritative. A version of this legend is found in the Talmud, which identifies 15 specific unusual translations made by the scholars. Only 2 of these translations are found in the extant LXX.”

“The oldest witnesses to the LXX include 2nd century BC fragments of Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Rahlfs nos. 801, 819, and 957), and 1st century BC fragments of Genesis, Exodus,Levitcus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the Minor Prophets (Rahlfs nos. 802, 803, 805, 848, 942, and 943). Relatively complete manuscripts of the LXX include the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus of the 4th century AD/CE and the Codex Alexandrinus of the 5th century. These are indeed the oldest surviving nearly-complete manuscripts of the Old Testament in any language; the oldest extant complete Hebrew texts date from around 1000” (Wikipedia article on Septuagint, accessed 11-29-2008).

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The Only Extant Ancient Linen Book and the Longest Etruscan Text Circa 250 BCE

Preserved when it was used for mummy wrappings in Ptolemaic Egypt, the Liber Lenteus Zagrabensis (Linen Book of Zagreb), remains the longest extant Etruscan text and the only extant early book written on linen. Though the complete text remains untranslated because of lack of understanding of the Etruscan language, it is thought to be a ritual calendar. Certain local gods mentioned within the text allow its place of production to be narrowed to a small area in southeast Tuscany near Lake Trasimeno where four major Etruscan cities were located: modern day ArezzoPerugiaChiusi and Cortona.

The manuscript was purchased in Alexandria, Egypt in 1848, and preserved in Zagreb, Croatia since 1867; however it was not recognized as an Etruscan text until 1891.

"The book is laid out in twelve columns from right to left, each one representing a "page". Much of the first three columns are missing, and it is not known where the book begins. Closer to the end of the book the text is almost complete (there is a strip missing that runs the entire length of the book). By the end of the last page the cloth is blank and the selvage is intact, showing the definite end of the book.

"There are 230 lines of text, with 1200 legible words. Black ink has been used for the main text, and red ink for lines and diacritics.

"In use it would have been folded so that one page sat atop another like a codex, rather than being wound along like a scroll. Julius Caesar is said to have folded scrolls in similar accordion fashion while on campaigns" (Wikipedia article on Liber Linteus, accessed 10-17-2014).

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The Conics of Apollonius of Perga Circa 225 BCE

Like the works of Archimedes, the writings of the Greek geometer and astronomer Apollonius of Perga were not widely studied in the ancient world, and almost nothing is known of his life. Apollonius is believed to have lived in the second half of the third century BCE. From references to Archimedes in Apollonius' writings it is believed that the two men might have known one another. Apollonius is also thought to have spent time in Alexandria.

Apollonius' Conics was originally written in eight books, probably on
eight separate papyrus rolls. The Conics are famous for recognizing
and naming the ellipse, parabola and hyberbola, among other things.
Only books I-IV survived in the original Greek, from copies made on
parchment at the Royal Library of Constantinople. They were organized
early in the sixth century, probably at Alexandria, by the mathematician Eutochius of Ascalon who also edited, and thus probably preserved, the writings of Archimedes. Books V-VII of the Conics survived separately in Arabic translation, and Book VIII was lost, though some idea of its contents can be inferred from lemmas to it in the writings of the Greek mathematician Pappus of Alexandria, whose works survived in more complete form.

Books I-IV of the Conics were first published in print in the Latin
translation by Giovanni Battista Memo, a professor of mathematics at
Venice. The edition was published in Venice by Bernardino Bindoni in
1537, one year after Memo's death. The Greek manuscript that Memo used is unknown; his edition is very rare on the market.

In the first half of the 17th century the Medici family acquired an Arabic manuscript containing Books V-VII of the Conics, which had been lost up to that time. In 1658, with the help of the Maronite scholar Abraham Ecchellensis (Ibrahim ibn Daud al-Haqili), Giovanni Borelli prepared an edited Latin translation of the manuscript, which was published in print in Rome in 1661.

Traditionally, Books I-IV of the Conics were collected in the Latin
translation of the mathematician and humanist Federico Commandino
published in 1566. It was Commandino who also translated from Greek
into Latin the writings of Archimedes (after the editio princeps),
Pappus, the Pneumatics of Heron of Alexandria, and Euclid. 

Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science & Medicine (1991) Nos 57 & 58.

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The Origins of Bibliography Circa 200 BCE

A digital recreation of the Library of Alexandria.

Around 200 BCE Kallimachos (Callimachus), a renowned poet and head of the Alexandrian Library, compiled a catalogue of its holdings which he called Pinakes (Tables or Lists). Supposedly extending to 120 papyrus rolls, this catalogue amounted to a systematic survey of Greek literature up to its time. It also represented the origins of bibliography. Only a few fragments survived the eventual destruction of the library, together with a scattering of references to it in other ancient works.

Callimachus’s bibliographical methods would not be out of place in a modern library; an analysis of the eight remaining fragments of the Pinakes shows that Callimachus

"1. divided the authors into classes and within these classes if necessary into subdivisions;

"2. arranged the authors in the classes or subdivisions alphabetically;

"3. added to the name of each author (if possible) biographical data;

"4. listed under an author’s name the titles of his works, combining works of the same kind to groups (no more than that can be deduced from the eight citations); and

"5. cited the opening words of each work as well as

"6. its extent, i.e., the number of lines" (Blum, p. 152).

"The Pinakes were neither an inventory nor an exhaustive catalog of the works in the library: they did not list all the copies of a work that the library owned and did not give an indication of how to locate a book in the library—actual access would have required consulting the librarian. The Pinakes built on preexisting practices of list making (including Aristotle's pinakes of poets), sorting (such as Theophrastus' doxographies sorted topically and chronologically), and alphabetizing, the principles of which were likely already understood although they had never been put to such extensive use before" (Blair, Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age [201] 17).

The surviving fragments of Kallimachos's Pinakes were first published in print in Hymni, epigrammata et fragmenta, edited by Theodor (Theodorus) J. G. F. Graevius et al. (2 vols, Utrecht, 1697). That edition included the first edition of the monumental 758-page commentary by Ezechiel Spanheim, and also incorporated the 420 fragments collected and elucidated by the English theologian, classical scholar and critic Richard Bentley, whose reading of these fragments represents “the earliest example of a really critical method applied to such a work" (Dictionary of National Biography). ". . . many even of his boldest conjectures have been completely confirmed by the papyri" (Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship 1300-1850, 154.) Among the other commentaries and notes assembled in Graevius's edition are those by Henri Estienne, Nichodemus Frischlin, Bonaventura Vulcanius, and Anne Dacier.

♦ Apart from his contributions to bibliography, Kallimachos is known in the history of books for his quip in Fragments (ed. Pfeiffer) 465 that a "big book is a big evil" (μεγα βιβλιον μεγα κακων), a statement that he made in defense of the short lyric and elegiac poems he wrote and favored over longer epic poems. This has also been translated as "A great book is a great evil."

Breslauer & Folter, Bibliography. Its History and Development (1984) no. 1.  Blum, Kallimachos. The Alexandrian Library and the Origins of Bibliography. Translated by Hans H. Wellisch (1991).

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The Very Long Process of Canonization of the Hebrew Bible Circa 200 BCE – 200 CE

Evidence suggests that the process of canonization of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) occurred over several centuries, probably between 200 BCE and 200 CE.

"Rabbinic Judaism recognizes the twenty-four books of the Masoretic Text, commonly called the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. Evidence suggests that the process of canonization occurred between 200 BC and AD 200. A popular position is that the Torah was canonized circa 400 BC, the Prophets circa 200 BC, and the Writings circa AD 100  perhaps at a hypothetical Council of Jamnia—this position, however, is increasingly criticised by modern scholars. The book of Deuteronomy includes a prohibition against adding or subtracting (4:2, 12:32) which might apply to the book itself (i.e. a "closed book," a prohibition against future scribal editing) or to the instruction received by Moses on Mt. Sinai. The book of 2 Maccabees, itself not a part of the Jewish canon, describes Nehemiah (around 400 BC) as having "founded a library and collected books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings" (2:13-15). The Book of Nehemiah suggests that the priest-scribe Ezra brought the Torah back from Babylon to Jerusalem and the Second Temple (8-9) around the same time period. Both I and II Maccabees suggest that Judas Maccabeus (around 167 BC) likewise collected sacred books (3:42-50, 2:13-15, 15:6-9), indeed some scholars argue that the Jewish canon was fixed by the Hasmonean dynasty. However, these primary sources do not suggest that the canon was at that time closed; moreover, it is not clear that these particular books were identical in content to those that later became part of the Masoretic text. Today, there is no scholarly consensus as to when the Jewish canon was set" (Wikipedia article on Development of the Jewish Bible Canon, accessed 12-24-2009).

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The Rosetta Stone: Key to the Decipherment of Egyptian Hieroglyphs 196 BCE – 1822

Only July 15, 1799 French Capitaine Pierre-François Bouchard, with Napoleon in Egypt, discovered a dark stone 112.3 cm tall, 75.7 wide and 28.4 thick in the ruins of Fort St. Julien near the coastal city of Rosetta (Arabic: رشيد‎ Rašīd, French: Rosette), 65 kilometers east of Alexandria. This stone, which had been used in the construction of a fortress by the fifteenth century Mamluk ruler of Egypt, Al-Ashraf Sayf ad-Din Qa'it Bay (Sultan Qaitbay), was later understood to be a fragment of an ancient stela (stele)— a stone on which one of a series of Ptolemaic decrees issued over the reign of the Hellenistic Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt from 305 BCE to 30 BCE, were inscribed and put up in major temple complexes in Egypt. The decree, known as the third Memphis decree, passed by a council of priests from the Ptolemaic period in 196 BCE, affirmed the royal cult of the 13-year-old Ptolemy V as a living god on the first anniversary of his coronation. The decree was written in Egyptian hieroglyphs (the language of the priests, suitable for a priestly decree), in Egyptian Demotic script (the native script used for daily purposes), and in classical Greek (the language of the Hellenistic administration).

The stele found at Rosetta could not have originally been placed there because the land on which it was found did not exist at the time of its carving, but was the result of later sedimentation. Another decree, also written in the same languages, known as the Canopus Decree, was later discovered at Tanis in 1866 by Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius. A second Canopus Decree was found in 1881. A third decree in the same languages, known as the Decree of Memphis (Ptolemy IV) is known in two versions: the Raphia Decree, found 1902 at the site of ancient Memphis, and the Pithom Stele, No. II, found 1923, which has hieroglyphs on the front, 42 lines in Demotic on the back, providing an almos complete translation, and Greek on the side.   

Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt had been established by the first Ptolemy, known as Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander's generals. Ignorant of the Egyptian language, the Ptolemies required their officials to speak Greek and made Greek the language of their administration, a requirement that remained in effect throughout their dynasty, which lasted for a thousand years. During their rule the Ptolemies made their capital city Alexandria the most advanced cultural center in the Greek-speaking world, for centuries second only to Rome. Among their most famous projects were the Royal Library of Alexandria and the Pharos Lighthouse, or Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

Because of the Ptolemaic dynasty's replacement of hieroglyphics by Greek among the educated non-priestly class educated Egyptians outside of the priesthood lost the ability to read their ancient pictographic language. Later, on February 27, 380, emperors Theodosius IGratian, and Valentinian II made Nicene Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire by the Edict of Thessalonica, also known as Cunctos populos, stating that all their subjects should profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. In 392 CE Theodosius issued a decisive edict closing Egyptian temples. As a result, the latest known inscription written in Egyptian hieroglyphs is dated August 23, 394 CE.

During the centuries of Muslim rule one scholar in Egypt during the ninth to tenth centuries, Ahmad bin Abu Bakr ibn Washshiyah, wrote a treatise on scripts in which he not only interpreted hieroglyphs as pictorial images, but, by relating them to the Coptic language used by Coptic priests during his time, also provided an alphabet in which hieroglyphs represented single letters, though only occasionally correctly. This text, which was read in manuscript by seventeenth-century polymath Athanasius Kircher, was later translated into English by Joseph Hammer, Secretary of the Imperial Legation at Constantinople, and published in print in 1806 as Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained, with an Account of the Egyptian Priests. Following Kircher's early but incorrect attempts to understand hieroglyphs, by the mid-18th century deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language became one of the most challenging problems for European archeologists and linguists. Probably in 1761 Abbé Jean-Jacques Barthélemy was the first to suggest that the cartouches or oval-shaped framed sections of hieroglyphic inscriptions contained the names of gods and kings.

The Rosetta Stone was forfeited to the English in 1801 under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria. Following its arrival in England in 1801, the Rosetta stone was placed in The Society of Antiquaries, where casts were made and sent to the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Dublin and to scholars in France for incorporation in the Description de l'Égypt that was eventually published between 1809 and 1828. In June, 1802 the stone was placed in the British Museum, where it remains. The Society of Antiquaries issued full-size reproductions of the stone between 1802 and 1803. Once the texts were available to scholars the three approximately parallel texts on the Rosetta Stone became key pieces of evidence in the research on hieroglyphics by Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, Johan David Åkerblad and Thomas Young, culminating in Jean-François Champollion's translation of the hieroglyphic text on the stone in 1822.

The first scholarly publication on the Rosetta Stone was de Sacy's, pamphlet: Lettre au Citoyen Chaptal . . . au sujet de l'inscription Égyptienne du monument trouvé à Rosette (Paris, 1802). In this brief work illustrated with one transcription of a portion of the stone, the orientalist and linguist Sacy, a teacher of Champollion, made some progress in identifying proper names in the demotic inscription. Within the same year another student of Sacy, the Swedish diplomat and orientalist Johan David Åkerblad published another "lettre" which described how he had managed to identify all proper names in the demotic text in just two months.  

"He could also read words like "Greek", "temple" and "Egyptian" and found out the correct sound value from 14 of the 29 signs, but he wrongly believed the demotic hieroglyphs to be entirely alphabetic. One of his strategies of comparing the demotic to Coptic later became a key in Champollion's eventual decipherment of the hieroglyphic script and the Ancient Egyptian language" (Wikipedia article on Johan David Akerblad, accessed 12-27-2012).

"At some period after its arrival in London, the inscriptions on the stone were coloured in white chalk to make them more legible, and the remaining surface was covered with a layer of carnauba wax designed to protect the Rosetta Stone from visitors' fingers. This gave a dark colour to the stone that led to its mistaken identification as black basalt. These additions were removed when the stone was cleaned in 1999, revealing the original dark grey tint of the rock, the sparkle of its crystalline structure, and a pink vein running across the top left corner. Comparisons with the Klemm collection of Egyptian rock samples showed a close resemblance to rock from a small granodiorite quarry at Gebel Tingar on the west bank of the Nile, west of Elephantine in the region of Aswan; the pink vein is typical of granodiorite from this region. . . . (Wikipedia article on Rosetta Stone, accessed 06-10-2011).

♦ When I revised this database entry in October 2012 the Rosetta Stone was the most widely viewed object in the British Museum. Reflective of this intense interest, the British Museum shop then offered a remarkably wide range of products with the Rosetta Stone motif, ranging from facsimiles of the stone in various sizes to umbrellas, coffee mugs, mousepads, neckties, and iPhone cases. In their British Museum Objects in Focus series of booklets they also issued a very useful 64-page compact reference: The Rosetta Stone by Richard Parkinson (2005). Parkinson was the author of the more definitive work entitled Cracking Codes. The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment, with Contributions by W[hitfield] Diffie, M. Fischer, and R.S. Simpson also published by the British Museum in 1999.

(This entry was last revised on August 12, 2014.)

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The Mawangui Silk Texts Circa 175 BCE

A Taoist text preserved on silk and discovered in Mawangui in 1973.

The Mawangdui Silk Texts (Chinese: 馬王堆帛書; pinyin: Mǎwángduī Bóshū), texts of Chinese philosophical and medical works written on silk, were found buried in Tomb no. 3 at Mawangdui, in the city of Changsha, Hunan, China in 1973. 

"They include the earliest attested manuscripts of existing texts such as the I Ching, two copies of the Tao Te Ching, one similar copy of Strategies of the Warring States and a similar school of works of Gan De and Shi Shen. Scholars arranged them into silk books of 28 kinds. Together they count to about 120,000 words covering military strategy, mathematics, cartography and the six classical arts of ritual, music, archery, horsemanship, writing and arithmetic" (Wikipedia article on Mawangdui Silk Texts, accessed 01-31-2010).

Most of the Mawangdui Silk Texts are preserved in the Hunan Provincial Museum.

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The Earliest Surviving Analog Computer: the Antikythera Mechanism Circa 150 BCE – 100 BCE

The Antikythera Mechanism discovered off the island of Antikythera, Greece in 1900 or 1901, includes the only specimen preserved from antiquity of a scientifically graduated instrument. It may also be considered the earliest extant mechanical calculator. The device is displayed at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, accompanied by a reconstruction made and donated to the museum by physicist and historian of science Derek de Solla Price.

"The Antikythera mechanism must therefore be an arithmetical counterpart of the much more familiar geometrical models of the solar system which were known to Plato and Archimedes and evolved into the orrery and the planetarium. The mechanism is like a great astronomical clock without an escapement, or like a modern analogue computer which uses mechanical parts to save tedious calculation . . . . It is certainly very similar to the great astronomical cathedral clocks that were built. . . ." in Europe beginning in the fourteenth century.

Applying high-resolution imaging systems and three-dimensional X-ray tomography, in 2008 experts deciphered inscriptions and reconstructed functions of the bronze gears on the mechanism. The results of this research, revealed details of dials on the instrument’s back side, including the names of all 12 months of an ancient calendar. Scientists found that the device not only predicted solar eclipses but also organized the calendar in the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games.

The new findings also suggested that the mechanism’s concept originated in the colonies of Corinth, possibly Syracuse, in Sicily. The scientists said this implied a likely connection with Archimedes, who lived in Syracuse and died in 212 BCE. It is known that Archimedes invented a planetarium which calculated motions of the moon and the known planets. It is also believed that Archimedes wrote a manuscript, which did not survive, on astronomical mechanisms. Some evidence had previously linked the complex device of gears and dials to the island of Rhodes and the astronomer Hipparchos, who had made a study of irregularities in the Moon’s orbital course.

In June 2106 an international team of archaeologists, astronomers and historians published the results of 10 years of researches on the mechanism in the first 2016 issue of the journal Almagest. Most significantly they were able to read texts preserved in the remains of the mechanisms by innovative imaging techniques.

"This special edition of the Almagest journal investigates the surviving text inscriptions on the Antikythera Mechanism. The structure of the mechanism and the history of the reading of the inscriptions are briefly reviewed. The methods used by the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project to image the inscriptions - computed tomography and polynomial textual mapping - are outlined. The layout of the inscriptions is described, and the dimensions of the mechanism deduced to allow the space available for inscriptions to be estimated. General conventions and notations are provided for the presentation of the inscriptions.

" Table of Contents

The Inscriptions of the Antikythera Mechanism

 1. General Preface to the Publication of the InscriptionsAuthors: : M. Allen , W. Ambrisco , M. Anastasiouc, D. Bate , Y. Bitsakis, A. Crawleyf, M.G.Edmunds, , D. Gelb, R. Hadland, , P. Hockley, A. Jones, T. Malzbender, X. Moussas, A. Ramsey, J.H. Seiradakis, J. M. Steele, A.Tselikas, and M. Zafeiropoulou.

 2. Historical Background and General Observations

Author: A. Jones

 3. The Front Dial and Parapegma Inscriptions

Authors: Y. Bitsakis and A. Jones

 4. The Back Dial and Back Plate Inscriptions

Authors: M. Anastasiou, Y. Bitsakis, A. Jones, J. M. Steele, and M. Zafeiropoulou

 5. The Back Cover Inscription

Authors: Y. Bitsakis and A. Jones

6. The Front Cover Inscription

Authors: M. Anastasiou, Y. Bitsakis, A. Jones, X. Moussas, A.Tselikas, and M. Zafeiropoulou."

 

 

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The Nash Fragment of the Ten Commandments: The Oldest Hebrew Manuscript Fragment before the Dead Sea Scrolls Circa 150 BCE – 100 BCE

The Nash Papyrus. (View Larger)

The Nash Papyrus, a collection of four papyrus fragments on a single sheet acquired in Egypt in 1898 by Walter Llewellyn Nash and subsequently presented to Cambridge University Library, was the oldest Hebrew manuscript fragment known before the discovery in 1947 of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The provenance of the papyrus is unknown; allegedly it is from Faiyum (Fayyum), Egypt.

The text was first described by Stanley A. Cook in "A Pre-Masoretic Biblical Papyrus,"  Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology 25 (1903): 34-56. Though Cook estimated the date of the papyrus as 2nd century CE, subsequent reappraisals have pushed the date of the fragments back to about 150-100 BCE.

"Twenty four lines long, with a few letters missing at each edge, the papyrus contains the Ten Commandments in Hebrew, followed by the start of the Shema Yisrael prayer. The text of the Ten Commandments combines parts of the version from Exodus 20:2-17 with parts from Deuteronomy 5:6-21. A curiosity is its omission of the phrase "house of bondage", used in both versions, about Egypt - perhaps a reflection of where the papyrus was composed.

"Some (but not all) of the papyrus' substitutions from Deuteronomy are also found in the version of Exodus in the ancient Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint also interpolates before Deuteronomy 6:4 the preamble to the Shema found in the papyrus, and additionally agrees with a couple of the other variant readings where the papyrus departs from the standard Hebrew Masoretic text. The ordering of the later commandments in the papyrus (Adultery-Murder-Steal, rather than Murder-Adultery-Steal) is also that found in most texts of the Septuagint, as well as in the New Testament (Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20, Romans 13:9, and James 2:11, but not Matthew 19:18).

"According to the Talmud it was once customary to read the Ten Commandments before saying the Shema. As Burkitt put it, 'it is therefore reasonable to conjecture that this Papyrus contains the daily worship of a pious Egyptian Jew, who lived before the custom came to an end'.

"It is thus believed that the papyrus was probably drawn from a liturgical document, which may have purposely synthesised the two versions of the Commandments, rather than directly from Scripture. However, the similarities with the Septuagint text give strong evidence for the likely closeness of the Septuagint as a translation of a Hebrew text of the Pentateuch extant in Egypt in the second century BC that differed significantly from the texts later collated and preserved by the Masoretes (Wikipedia article on Nash Papyrus, accessed 12-24-2009).

Burkitt, F.C., "The Hebrew Papyrus of the Ten Commandments," The Jewish Quarterly Review, 15 (1903) 392-408.

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The Great Isaiah Scroll, the Only Nearly Complete Biblical Book Surviving Among the Dead Sea Scrolls Circa 100 BCE

The Isaiah Scroll. (View Larger)

The Great Isaiah Scroll is the best-preserved and the only nearly complete biblical book in the cache of 220 biblical scrolls discovered in Qumran on the northwestern coast of the Dead Sea. It is one of the original seven scrolls discovered in Cave One at Qumran in 1947. Isaiah was the most popular prophet of the Second Temple period: 21 copies of the scroll were found in Qumran. The text includes the familiar unfulfilled prophecy:

“and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

In September 2011 the entire Great Isaiah Scroll was published online as part of the The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls project sponsored by the Israel Museum's Shrine of the Book and Google.

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The Earliest Bibliographical Classification System Circa 53 BCE – 23 CE

The Seven Epitomes is thought to have been compiled by the Chinese astronomer, historian and editor Liu Xin (Liu Hsin) during the Xin Dynasty, circa 53 BCE to 23 CE. A by-product of a collation project commissioned by the Emperor Ch'eng Ti of the Han Dynasty, it was the catalogue of all collated books housed in the libraries of the Inner Court at the time, initiated under the supervision of Liu Xiang (Liu Hsiang). These had been recovered after the burning of the books under the rule of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 213-206 BCE.

Although the original classification system no longer survives, Chinese bibliographers believe that the majority of its entries, in a much abridged form, and its original classification structure, have been preserved in the “Bibliographic Treatise” of the History of the [Former] Han Dynasty (Han shu “yi wen zhi”, compiled about a hundred years later. Scholars estimate that there were more than six hundred annotated entries in the Seven Epitomes arranged according to a carefully designed classification system. The title of the catalogue seems to suggest that the system consisted of seven epitomes (classes). However, the “Treatise” included only six classes (without “Ji lüe” or the Collective Epitome). Since the Seven Epitomes is no longer extant, scholars have not been able to reach a consensus regarding the nature and content of Ji lüe. One speculation that has been widely accepted is that Ji lüe was the collection of brief summaries now seen at the end of each of the six main classes and their divisions. Nevertheless, no one disputes that the classification in the Seven Epitomes was a six-fold scheme.

"There are six classes and divisions in the Seven Epitomes:

"1. Liu yi lüe (Epitome of the Six Arts) consisted of nine divisions, including one for each of the Six Classics (Odes, Documents, Rites, Music, Changes, and Spring and Autumn Annals), Analects of Confucius, Book of Filial Piety, and philology.

"2. Zhu zi lüe (Epitome of the Masters) consisted of ten divisions, including nine major affi liations of thought commonly known during the Warring States and an added affi liation of Novelists. "

3. Shi fu lüe (Epitome of Lyrics and Rhapsodies) consisted of fi ve divisions, including three styles of poetry and two other genres. "

4. Bing shu lüe (Epitome of Military Texts) consisted of four divisions (tactics, terrain, yin/yang, and military skills).

"5. Shu shu lüe (Epitome of Numbers and Divination) consisted of six divisions, including astronomy, chronology, fi ve phases correlative elements, divination, miscellaneous fortune-telling, and geomancy).

"6. Fang ji lüe (Epitome of Formulae and Techniques) consisted of four divisions, including medical classics, pharmacology, sexology, and longevity"  (Hurl-Li Lee, "Origins of the Main Classes in the First Chinese Bibliographic Classification" https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/hurli/www/Chinese/Lee_ISKO2008.pdf, accessed 01-11-2011).

Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien, "A History of Bibliographic Classification in China," The Library Quarterly XXII (1952)  307-324.

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The Oldest Surviving Manuscript of Latin Poetry Circa 50 BCE – 25 CE

The Roman poet, orator and politician Gaius Cornellus Gallus, prefect of Egypt from 30 to 26 BCE, enjoyed a high reputation among his contemporaries as a man of intellect, and was considered by the poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) to be the first of the elegiac poets of Rome. He is known to have written four books of elegies chiefly on his mistress Lycoris (a poetic name for Cytheris), a notorious actress, and he is thought to have been an inspiration for the Latin elegiac poet Sextus Propertius, and the Latin poet Albius Tibullus as well as Ovid. Yet his literary reputation is entirely based on heresay since until the late 20th century only one pentameter of his had survived.

In 1978 excavations at Qasr Ibrim yielded a papyrus fragment containing nine lines by Gallus. Qasr Ibrim was originally a major city perched on a cliff above the Nile, but the flooding of Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam transformed it into an island, which remains a major site for archaeological investigations. The Gallus papyrus is designated PQasrIbrîm inv. 78-3-11/ (L1/2). It consists of five fragments of papyrus which join to make a single piece 19.4 cm wide by 16.3 cm high. The papyrus was published with very extensive analysis by R. D. Anderson, P. J. Parsons and R.G.M. Nisbet in "Elegiacs by Gallus from Qasr Ibrîm," Journal of Roman Studies 69 (1979) 125-55, including color reproductions of portions of the papyrus.

Among some of their observations:

"At all events, we have here the remains of a Roman book, very probably of the reign of Augustus, quite possibly of the lifetime of Gallus himself. It is, with PHerc 817 (Carmen de bello Aegypticaco), by far our oldest MS of Latin poetry." (p. 128) [PHerc 817 is not later than 79 CE.]

"The text is written in a small formal upright bilinear bookhand. This is among the earliest examples (very possibly is the earliest example) of the style, which in many features anticipates the 'canonized' (that is, ossified) Rustic Capital of iv A. D. and after.

"The book can be dated from its archaeological context, more precisely (c.50-20 B.C.) or less precisely (c.50 B.C.- A.D. 25). It therefore provides one of the few fixed points in the early history of Latin literary scripts." (P. 135)

"Given the rarity of early Latin books, it is not easy to assess this one. The script is small and neat and deftly executed, less gawky than PHerc 817, less ostentatiously stylish than in PHer 1475; despite wide inconsistences of ornament, letter-shape and even ductus (which indeed may have been the norm before canonization set in), an elegant calligraphic performance. This, with wide margins, certainly suggests a good professional copy. On the other hand, the apex is not written, in contrast to some other early MSS, and a clear mistake is not corrected, although the employment of a corrector was—for scholars at least—an essential part of proper book production. This mixture of features may be a matter of date, of quality or of both. We cannot even tell whether the book was imported from Italy, or copied (under Gallus' prefecture) in Egypt." (p. 138).

"Scholars used to believe, in the absence of any surviving poetry by Gallus and on the basis of his high reputation among his contemporaries, that his poetical gifts were little short of those of Virgil. A nineteenth-century British classicist famously asked, 'What would we not barter of all the epics of empire for ten lines of Gallus?' The discoveries at Qasr Ibrim have now given us nine lines of Gallus. Coincidentally, one of them mentions Lycoris, ('saddened, Lycoris, by your wanton behaviour'), confirming their authorship. Possibly atypical, these surviving lines are of disappointing quality. They are written in a Latin more Lucretian and Catullan than Virgilian, and a certain roughness in the composition recalls Quintilian's judgment that Gallus's style was durior (rather harsh). Their sentiments are conventional, and show little trace of originality" (Wikipedia article on Cornelius Gallus, accessed 03-01-2014). 

According to Anderson, Parsons and Nisbet, PQasrIbrîm in. 78-3-11/1 (L1/2) (case 7, item 84) is preserved in the Cairo Museum.

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Virgil Composes the Ecologues, the Georgics and the Aeneid 42 BCE – 19 BCE

Virgil

Between 42 and 19 BCE Publius Vergilius Maro composed the Ecologues, the Georgics,  dying before the Aeneid was complete. Virgil's (Vergil's) writings were widely copied in the Middle Ages. Manuscripts of his poems are among the earliest surviving literary codices in Latin.

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The Emperor Augustus Builds Two Public Libraries 28 BCE

Augustus

“Beginning with Augustus, the Roman emperors took over the task of building libraries in Rome. Actually, Augustus was responsible for two public libraries. The first, in the Temple of Apollo, was begun in 36 B.C. and dedicated in 28. B.C. It was divided into two separate collections, one Greek and one Latin. Pompeius Macer was the first librarian, and Julius Hyginus, a noted grammarian, also served in that capacity. Later enlarged by the Emperors Tiberius and Caligula, this library on the Palatine Hill was one of the two major libraries in Rome for several hundred years. It was damaged at least twice by fires but survived well into the 4th century. The second Augustan library was in the Porticus Octaviae, a magnificent structure built in honor of Octavia, the Emperor’s sister. . . . Caius Melissus was the first librarian for this collection, housed in chambers over a promenade. Although damaged by fire in the reign of Titus about 80 A.D., the Octavian Library probably survived into the 2nd century“ (Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World 4th ed. [1999] 57.)

Clark, The Care of Books (1901) reproduces a plan of the Porticus Octaviae on p. 13. 

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The First Census of Which Records are Preserved 2 CE

A map of Eastern China, the territories of the Han Dynasty highlighted in dark brown.

The first census of which records are preserved was taken in China during the Han Dynasty. At that time there were 57.5 million people living in Han China— the world’s largest population.

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Res gestae divi Augusti: The First Person Record of the Life and Accomplishments of the First Roman Emperor Circa 15 CE

After the death of Augustus in 14 CE copies of the Res gestae divi Augusti (The Deeds of the Divine Augustus), the first-person record of his life and accomplishments written by the first Roman emperor, were carved on stone on monuments or temples throughout the Roman Empire. According to the text it was written just before Augustus' death, but it was probably written years earlier and likely went through many revisions. Augustus left the text with his will, which instructed the Senate to set up the inscriptions. The original, which has not survived, was engraved upon a pair of bronze pillars and placed in front of Augustus' mausoleum in the Campus Martius in Rome. The most complete surviving copy, written in Latin with a Greek translation, was preserved on a temple to Augustus in Ancyra  (now AnkaraTurkey). Others were been found at Apollonia and Antioch, both in Pisidia.

"The text consists of a short introduction, 35 body paragraphs, and a posthumous addendum. These paragraphs are conventionally grouped in four sections, political career, public benefactions, military accomplishments and a political statement. . . .

"By its very nature the Res Gestae is propaganda for the principate that Augustus instituted. It tends to gloss over the events between the assassination of Augustus' adoptive father Julius Caesar and the victory at Actium when his foothold on power was finally undisputed. Augustus' enemies are never mentioned by name. Caesar's murderers Brutus and Cassius are not referred to by name, they are simply "those who killed my father." The Battle of Philippi is mentioned only in passing and not by name. Mark Antony and Sextus Pompeius, Augustus' opponents in the East, remain equally anonymous; the former is "he with whom I fought the war," while the latter is merely a "pirate." Likewise, the text fails to mention his imperium maius and his exceptional tribunicial powers. Often quoted is Augustus' official position on his government: "From that time (27 BC, the end of the civil war) I surpassed all others in influence, yet my official powers were no greater than those of my colleague in office." This is in keeping with a reign that promoted itself from the beginning as a "restoration" of the old republic, with a leader who was nothing more than "first among equals," but was virtually akin to absolute monarchy by divine right, backed by the swords of the legions.

"The Res Gestae was a unique public relations move for the first emperor of the Roman Empire, whose political career was in many ways experimental. If their frequent use as "history" by later historians (both ancient and modern) who characterized Augustus' rule according to categories he himself constructed in the Res Gestae is any indication, it is a rather successful piece of propaganda. On the other hand, it would be absurd to overlook the usefulness to historians of what is essentially a first-person account of his rule" (Wikipedia article on Res Gestae Divi Augusti, accessed 09-23-2014.)

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30 CE – 500 CE

The Oldest Surviving Substantial Collection of Buddhist Manuscripts: The Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism Circa 50 CE

In September 1994, the British Library Oriental and India Office Collections acquired a collection of twenty‐nine fragments of manuscripts written on birch bark rolls in the Gāndhārī language and the Kharoṣṭhī script. They were said to have been preserved inside a clay pot, also bearing an inscription in the same language, in which they had been buried in antiquity. However, before their acquisition by the British Library they had been removed from the pot and forced inside thirteen modern glass jars, during which they were damaged considerably. After their acquisition by the British Library the rolls underwent a thorough restoration process. Analysis of these birch bark rolls indicates that they date from about the first century CE, making them the oldest Buddhist manuscripts, as well as the oldest Indian manuscripts known. 

"The texts were written with a reed pen and black ink on scrolls consisting of sections of birch bark, which in most cases were glued together to form long strips. In general, the texts were written continuously over the recto and verso sides of the scroll, but in a few manuscripts only the recto is inscribed. All of the texts are incomplete and have suffered from varying degrees of loss and damage, in many cases severe. This is attributable in large part to the instability of old birch bark, which becomes extremely fragile and usually survives only in favorable conditions such as when it is placed in an airtight container. In all cases the upper parts of the scrolls have been completely lost, since this is the part that is most vulnerable to wear, being exposed on the outside when the scrolls are rolled up from the bottom. Although it is impossible to extrapolate any precise measurements from the original lengths of the complete scrolls, it appears that the largest and best-preserved specimens, such as fragment 15, whose surviving portion is about 115 centimeters long, might represent approximately half of the original scroll. The loss of the upper portions of the scrolls is particularly troublesome because it is at the top of the scrolls that we would expect to find titles and/or colophons of the texts, at least in the case of those written continuously on both sides. Due to these circumstances, such colophons are not found (but for one partial exception. . .) which renders the task of identifying the texts immeasurably more difficult" (Richard Salomon, Ancient Buddhist Texts from Gandhāra. The British Library Kharoṣṭhī Fragments [1999] 22).

"The exact findspot of these manuscripts is unfortunately unknown. But in the past several manuscripts of the same type have been reported to have been found in or around Haḍḍa near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, although none of these have ever been published and most of them apparently are now lost. It is therefore likely that the new manuscripts came from the same region. This area closely adjoins the region known in ancient times as Gandhāra, the homeland of the Gāndhārī language and Kharoṣṭhī script, which were current from about the third century B.C. to the fourth century A.D." (http://www.ebmp.org/p_abt.php, accessed 01-19-2013).

"Although the British Library fragments are comparable to the Dead Sea scrolls and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in that they give actual samples of the textual corpus of a much earlier phase of Buddhist tradition than had been previous available, they are unlikely to contain anything as radically unfamiliar as appeared in their Christian counterparts. The survey of the new fragments carried out to date, the results of which are summarized in the rest of this book, has revealed nothing that is startlingly as odds with early Buddhist doctrine as previously understood, nor is there much reason to expect that further analysis will turn up anything that will be. The importance of the new collection is on a different and perhaps less spectacular level, though this does not diminish its importance. These fragments give us an unprecedented direct glimpse into the contents of what appears to have ben a monastic collection or library of the Dharmaguptaka school in or around the first half of the first century A.D., and they are by far the earliest such sampling of a Buddhist textual corpus that has ever been found. It is likely, though not quite certain, that the British Library fragments are the oldest Buddhist fragments yet known, and in any case they are definitely the oldest coherent set of manuscript material" (Salomon, op. cit., 9-10).

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Probably the Earliest Surviving Image of the Crucifixion: A Graffito Circa 50 CE – 250 CE

The Alexamenos Grafitto. (View Larger)

The earliest surviving image of the Crucifixion appears to be an anti-Christian graffito discovered in 1857 carved in plaster on a wall near the Palatine Hill in Rome, now in the Palatine Antiquarium Museum. A Greek inscription, translated as "Alexamenos worshipping his God," is scratched on the graffito causing it to be known as the "Alexamenos Grafitto." The date of this graffito has been estimated as between 50 and 250 CE.

"It is assumed that the comment is sarcastic: in what appears to be an attitude of prayer, the smaller figure stands before a crucified man with the head of an ass. Contemporary Christian writers remark that pagans accuse Christians of worshiping an ass.  

"In its discussion of the graffito (under 'Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix'), the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia suggests that the graffiti artist may have seen actual Christian worship involving a crucifix, because the figure on the cross is wearing the perizoma, the short loincloth which is commonly used in Christian images of the crucifixion. (In actual crucifixions, the victim is naked)" (http://www.aug.edu/augusta/iconography/2003additions/alexamenosGraffito.html,accessed 10-14-2010).

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The Role of the "Ordinator" and "Sculptor" in Producing Roman Stone Inscriptions Circa 50 CE

"The making of a major Roman inscription was the business of highly efficient and professionalized guilds. The significant document in this connection is an advertisement in the form of an inscription of the first century A.D. This inscription (C.I.L. x. 7296) was in Palermo in 1885 . . . . In Latin and Greek, the advertiser says that in his premises titles were laid out and cut: Tutuli heic ordinantur et sculpuntur.  Here as M. Jean Mallon suggests, the verb ordinare must mean the advertiser had an 'ordinator' who undertook the responsibility for the mise-en-page of the text, and the designation of the type of letter, and it was he who traced on the stone the ordinatio of the text, which the sculptor exerted himself to follow with exactitude.

"There were two main types of capital, that made geometrically, and that drawn freehand. A plurality of tools was involved in the process of cutting both scripts, as may be seen from certain surviving inscriptions described by Hübner, Cagnat, and others, which include representations of the square chisel, compass, rule, curve, hammer and plumb. All this organization lay behind the inscriptions which then included the largest capitals the world had ever seen" (Morison, Politics and Script. . .Barker ed. [1972] 38).

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Roman Inscriptions on Lead Pipes Were Made from Common Text Stamps 69 CE – 79 CE

Lead water pipes from the Roman Empire sometimes contain inscriptions on their surfaces. For example, a section of pipe from the reign of the Emperor Vespasian (69-79 CE) preserved in the Grosvenor Museum in Chester, England, and illustrated in the Wikipedia article on Roman lead pipe inscriptions, contains an inscription one meter long. The technology of creating these inscriptions was only recently understood.

"A recent investigation by the typesetter and linguist Herbert Brekle, however, concludes that all material evidence points to the use of common text stamps. Brekle describes the manufacturing method as follows:

"A stamp (punch) which has the text carved in high-relief and in right reading is pressed into the slightly moist sand or clay of the mould, thus producing a reverse image of the text (matrix) in bas-relief. After the molten lead is poured out in the mould, the inscription appears raised in high-relief on the surface of the lead pipe. This is today considered the most plausible hypothesis for the creation of such inscriptions (full text stamp).

"Brekle lists the following reasons for the employment of stamps and against that of movable type: for printing on lead sheets the way the Romans created them, it would be much more practical to use single stamp blocks than sets of individual letters, since the latter would be unstable and would have required a clamp or some similar mechanism to maintain the necessary cohesion. Neither impressions of such clamps nor of the fine lines between the individual letters typical for the use of movable type are discernible in the inscriptions. By contrast, the outer rim of one examined stamp block left a raised rectangular edge running around the inscription text, thus providing positive evidence for the use of such a printing device.

"In addition, evidence of the poor positioning of movable type, such as individual letters tilting to the right or left or deviating from the baseline – something which could have been expected to occur at least in a few extant specimens – is notably absent. In those inscriptions where the letters are not properly aligned, the entire text is blurred, which clearly points to the use of full text stamps. Finally, it needs to be considered that archaeological excavations have never unearthed ancient sets of movable type, whereas moulds with reversed inscription texts for stamp printing have indeed been recovered" (Wikipedia article on Roman lead pipe inscription, accessed 10-31-2012).

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The Lex de imperio Vespasiani is Cast as a Huge Bronze Plaque December 69 CE – January 70 CE

Written between written December of 69 and January of 70 CE, the Lex de imperio Vespasiani, or lex Regia, ratified by the Roman senate, is the only example of an official document conferring powers to an emperor. The law confirms Vespasian’s total control over the political, administrative, and religious life of the empire. This document, preserved in the Hall of the Faun in the Palazzo Nuovo of the Capitoline Museum in Rome, was cast in bronze, 164 x 113 cm. Its first sentence is incomplete, indicating that at least one other bronze plaque, presumably of the same size, must have been originally cast. 

There are no records of this document before the 14th century, but at that time the plaque was in the Archbasilica of St. John’s in the Lateran, and was misunderstood by the tribune Cola di Rienzo to be an example of the strength of the Roman Senate and People in conferring power upon the emperor. In a letter written in 1350 to Arnošt of Pardubice, archbishop of Prague, Cola told the archibishop how he had the plaque set in the wall of the Lateran basilica. According to Cola, Pope Boniface VIII, had previously had it turned it upside down in order to hide the ancient inscription, and had used it as the top of an altar, perhaps to show his opposition to imperial power.

In 1576, Pope Gregory XIII donated what was then called the Tabula antiquae sanctionis (from the word sanctio, sanction, which introduces the last paragraph of the text) to the people of Rome, ordering it to be placed at the Capitol. It was first displayed in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. In 1733, Pope Clement XII had it moved to its present location on the Hall of the Faun.

The Latin text of the law is available at Epigraphik-Datenbank Clauss / Slaby. For the English translation of the law see M. H. Crawford (ed) Roman Statutes, I (1996), pp. 549—553, no. 39. These texts are also available from AncientRome.ru at this link.

Commune di Roma. The Capitoline Museums Guide (2013) 58.

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Composition of the Four Gospels Circa 70 CE – 110 CE

The four authors.

The canonical Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are understood to have been composed between 70 and 110 CE.

None of the Four Gospels actually identifies its author by name, though the traditions about authorship are based on very early Christian writings that identify them. About 50 Gospels were written in the first and second century CE, each believed to be accurate by various groups within the early Christian movement.

Persecution of the early Christians by the Romans, before Christianity was adopted by the Emperor Constantine in 313, undoubtedly contributed to the scarcity of early Christian documents. 

"The relationship of early Christianity to the Jewish faith, and the foundation of the cult deeply rooted in a people accustomed to religious intolerance actually helped it take hold initially. The Jews were accustomed to resisting political authority in order to practice their religion, and the transition to Christianity among these people helped foster the sense of Imperial resistance. To the Romans, Christians were a strange and subversive group, meeting in catacombs, sewers and dark alleys, done only for their own safety, but perpetuating the idea that the religion was odd, shameful and secretive. Rumors of sexual depravity, child sacrifice and other disturbing behavior, left a stigma on the early Christians. Perhaps worst of all was the idea of cannibalism. The concept of breaking bread originating with the last supper, partaking of the blood and body of Christ, which later came to be known as Communion, was taken literally. To the Romans, where religious custom dictated following ancient practices in a literal sense, the idea of performing such a ritual as a representation was misunderstood, and the early cult had to deal with many such misperceptions" (http://www.unrv.com/culture/christian-persecution.php, accessed 12-04-2008).

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The Continuing Process of Canonization of the Hebrew Bible Circa 70 CE – 90 CE

"There is no evidence in non-Pharisaic Jewish circles before 70 CE of either a fixed canon or text [of the Hebrew Bible]. The Essenes at Qumran exhibit no knowledge of such, and the same is true of the Hellenistic Jewish community in Alexandria, and of the early Christian communities. The earliest clear definition of a 'closed' Hebrew canon is found in Josephus in his apologetic work, Contra Apionem, written in Rome in the last decade of the first century of the Common Era. He writes that there was a fixed and immutable number—twenty-two of 'justly accredited' books. Josephus no doubt draws upon his Pharisaic tradition in making his assertion, and presumes in his remarks a well-established doctrine of canon.

"I am persuaded by the accumulation of evidence, old and new, that the circumstances that brought on the textual crisis that led to the establishment of the Hebrew text—varied texts and editions, party strife and sectarian division, the systematization of hermeneutic rules and halakic dialectic—were the occasion as well for a canonical crisis and responding to it. The establishment of the text and the establishment of the canon were thus two aspects of a single if complex endeavor. Both were essential to erect 'Hillelite' protection against rival doctrines of cult and calendar, alternate legal dicta and theological doctrines, and indeed against the speculative systems and mythological excesses found in the books of certain apocalyptic schools and proto-Gnostic sects. Such literature abounds in the apocryphal and pseudoepigraphic works found at Qumran. To promulgate a textual recension, moreover, one must set some sort of limit on the books whose text is to be fixed. In choosing one edition of a book over another—in the case of Jeremiah or Chronicles or Daniel—one makes decisions that are at once textual and canonical. Utlimately, the strategies that initiate the establishment of biblical text lead to the de facto if not de jure establishment of a canon" (Frank Moore Cross, "The Dea Sea Scrolls: Light on the Text and Canon of the Bible," Gold (ed) A Sign and a Witness. 2000 Years of Hebrew Books and Illuminated Manuscripts [1988] 16-17).

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One of the Oldest and Most Complete Diagrams from Euclid Circa 75 CE – 125 CE

The diagram, which accompanies proposition five of Book II of the Elements, is preserved in the University of Pennsylvania. (View Larger)

One of the oldest and most complete diagrams from Euclid’s Elements, a fragment of papyrus found among the rubbish piles of Oxyrhynchus in 1896-97 by the expedition of B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt, is dated between 75 and 125 CE. It is preserved at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The diagram accompanies Proposition 5 of Book II of the Elements, and along with other results in Book II it can be interpreted in modern terms as a geometric formulation of an algebraic identity - in this case, that ab + (a-b)2/4 = (a+b)2/4 (although the relationship between Euclid's propositions and algebra, which he did not possess, is controversial)."

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Over 11,000 Wall Inscriptions Survived from Pompeii 79 CE

An inscription depicting a contemporaneous politician. (View Larger)

The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius over two days in 79 CE buried the cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in lava, destroying life, but preserving buildings in a remarkable way.

From the ruins of Pompeii over 11,000 inscriptions have been recorded—of many different kinds—carved, painted  or scratched into walls, formal, humorous, erotic, and scatological. They reflect wide use of writing and comparatively wide availability of literacy in Roman society.

"Some of them [the inscriptions] are very grand and formal, like the dedications of public buildings and the funerary epitaphs, similar to others found all over the Roman world. Inscriptions such as these are not necessarily good evidence of widespread literacy. The enormous numbers that were produced in Roman times could reflect a fashion for this particular medium of display, rather than a dramatic spread of the ability to read and write.

"Other Pompeian inscriptions are perhaps more telling, because they display a desire to cummunicate in a less formal and more ephemeral way with fellow citizens. Walls on the main streets of Pompeii are often decorated with painted messages, whose regular script and layout reveal the work of professional sign-writers. Some are advertisements for events such as games in the amphitheatre; others are endoresements of candiates for civic office, by individuals and groups within the city. . . .

"Graffiti offer even more striking evidence of the spread and use of writing in Pompeian society. These are found all over the city, scratched into stone or plaster by townspeople with time on their hands and a message to convey to future idlers. . . .

"Even though we cannot estimate the proportion of Pompeians who were literate (was it 30 per cent, or more, or perhaps on 10 per cent ?) we can say with confidence that writing was an essential, and a day-to-day part of the city's life" (Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization [2005] 153-54, & 155-57).

Because graffiti such as those preserved in Pompeii were intended to be widely shared some have called these evidence of early social media. 

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Discoveries of Greek & Roman Papyri in the Library of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, the Only Library Preserved Intact from Graeco-Roman Times 79 CE – 2015

In 79 CE the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the Roman coastal city of Herculaneum together with Pompeii and Stabiae. Among the vast ruins preserved in lava was the library of papyrus rolls in the so-called “Villa of the Papyri” at Herculaneum— a magnificent home thought to have been built by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Discovery of this library in 1752, nearly seventeen centuries after the eruption, was the first and only discovery of ancient papyri in Europe.

On October 19, 1752 Neopolitan "cavamonti", who had been digging at Herculaneum since 1738 by order of Charles III of Spain (who through conquest was also Charles VII of Naples), excavated the first papyrus rolls from a large suburban villa. Over the next two years several hundred papyrus rolls were excavated from the site, and the villa from which they were excavated became known as the Villa dei Papiri (Villa of the Papyri) or Villa dei Pisoni, after its original owner. This library was the only library that survived "intact" since Graeco-Roman times.

Discovery of the Herculaneum papyri was a landmark not only in archaeology, and in the recovery of classical texts, but also in book history because until the discovery of papyrus rolls at Herculaneum no one in early modern Europe had seen the actual roll form of books from the ancient world, or even a fragment written on papyrus. When Mabillon described papyri in his De re diplomatica (1681) he had not seen an actual example.

Papyrus rolls did not survive in humid environments, and for this reason information on rolls that might have survived into the early Middle Ages had either been lost through the decay of the rolls, or had been copied onto parchment codices for preservation before the rolls were lost or discarded. By about 1200, when paper was introduced into Europe, the precise nature of ancient papyrus as a writing surface had been for the most part forgotten. Without a medieval Latin word for paper, which was new to Europeans, scholars reapplied the old word papyrus to paper. Papyrus remained the Latin word for paper until the early seventeenth century. This double usage of the word, as Christopher de Hamel pointed out, sometimes led scholars to confuse the comparatively modern material (paper) with the material referred to by ancient Christian writers, who wrote on papyrus. 

The papyrus rolls discovered at Herculaneum had been carbonized by lava, and all were deformed to some extent because of the weight of the lava that had covered them over the centuries. Paradoxically, the carbonization process had preserved the rolls and their content, but made unrolling them and reading them exceptionally difficult. In spite of the state in which the papyrus rolls were found they were examples of the Roman papyrus roll and the form in which the rolls were stored in a Roman library. Besides the libary at the Villa of the Papyri,  frescos also discovered at Herculaneum showed how the Roman books were kept.

The first account of the Herculaneum papyri to reach the scientific world was a brief mention in a letter from the artist, sculptor and art restorer Camillo Paderni, director of the Museum Herculanense, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.  The first of these, an extract of a letter to Richard Mead, was written on November 18, 1752, only a month after the discovery, and read to the Royal Society on February 8, 1753. This letter contained a brief extract of what was then the earliest surviving manuscript of Latin poetry, P.Herc 817. In this letter Paderni reported:

"it is not a month ago [specifically October 19, 1752] that there have been found many volumes of papyrus, but turn'd to a sort of charcoal, so brittle, that, being touched, it falls readily into ashes. Nevertheless, by his Majesty's orders, I have made many trials to open them, butt all to no purpose, excepting some words which I have picked out intire, where they are divers bits, by which it appears in what manner the whole was written. The form of the characters, made with very black tincture, that overcomes the darkness of the charcoal. . . ."

Paderni's letter contained portions of two continguous hexameters from P.Herc.817P.Herc. 817, containing the text of Carmen de bello actiaco, sometimes known as the Carmen de Bello Aegyptiaco, was the most substantial Latin papyrus discovered in 1752 in the library of the Villa dei Papiri. Written in Italy between 31 BCE, the date of the battle of Actium, and 79 CE, when Herculaneum was destroyed, this is one of the two earliest manuscripts of Latin poetry, the other being the slightly earlier fragment of the poetry of Gaius Cornellus Gallus discovered in 1978 at Qasr Ibrim, Egypt. The twenty-three papyrus fragments of the poem Carmen de Bello Actiaco preserved in Naples at the Biblioteca Nazionale, and in Paris at the Louvre, represent the earliest surviving dated examples of rustic capitals

"Latin Rustic probably began its career as a rationalized version of official and popular writing, fused with a loosening version of the Square Capitals, the whole written with a pen cut specially for speed. It secured a measure of public approval in Rome during or before the first century B.C., though the evidence is slight" (Stanley Morison, Politics and Script . . . Barker ed. [1972] 43; see also 41-43, and pl. 34.

Two other letters by Paderni were also published in Philosophical Transactions. His second letter, to Thomas Hollis, was dated April 27, 1754 and read to the Royal Society on June 13, 1754, reported that excavators had discovered an entire library:

"In one of these buildings there has been found an entire library, compos'd of volumes of the Egyptian Papyrus, of which there have been taken out about 250; and the place is not yet clear'd or emptied, it having been deem'd necessary to erect props first, to keep the earth, which lies above it, from falling in upon it. These volumes of Papyrus consist of Latin, and Greek manuscripts, but from their brittleness, occasion'd by the fire and time, it is not possible to unroll them, they being now decay'd and rotten. His majesty however has done his part; having sent for a certain monk from Rome [Padre Antonio Piaggio], who belong'd to the Vatican library; in hopes, by his means, to have unfolded them; but hitherto in vain.

'Your servant Paderni alone can shew some fragments of several lines, and more than this he is much afraid will never been seen. Of these there are many in my custody, which I suppose you will have the pleasure of observing in the intended catalogue. There have been found those small tables [i.e. wax tablets] which they are cover'd with what was called the palimpseston, then wrote on them with the stylus; but all these are become a kind of cinder, and have likewise suffer'd by the damps; from both which circumstances they are now so tender, that they break with the touch."

Paderni's third letter, also to Hollis, was dated October 18, 1754 and read to the Royal Society on December 12, 1754. In this letter he explained what he meant by a library, as up to this time no one in Europe had a clear idea of what the interior of an ancient Roman library would look like:

"As yet we have only entered into one room, the floor of which is formed of mosaic work, not unelegant. It appears to have been a library, adorned with presses, inlaid with different sorts of wood, disposed in rows; at the top of which were cornices, as in our own times. I was buried in this spot for more than twelve days, to carry off the volumes found there; many of which were so perished, that it was impossible to remove them. Those, which I took away, amounted to the number of three hundred thirty-seven, all of them at present incapable of being opened. These are all written in Greek characters. While I was busy in this work, I observed a large bundle, which, from the size, I imagined must contain more than a single volume. I tried with the utmost care to get it out, but could not, from the damp and weight of it. However I perceived, that it consisted, of about eighteen volumes, each of which was in length a palm and three Neapolitan inches; being the longest hitherto discovered. They were wrapped about with the bark of a tree, and covered at each end with a piece of wood. All these were written in Latin, as appears by a few words, which broke off from them. I was in hopes to have got something out of them, but they are in a worse condition than the Greek. From the latter the public will see some intire columns, having myself had the good fortune to extract two, and many other fine fragments. Of all these an account is drawing up, which will be published together with the other Greek characters, now engraving on copper-plates and afterwards make separate work by themselves. . . At present the monk, who was sent for from Rome, to try to open the former manuscripts, has begun to give us some hopes in respect to one of them. Those which I have opened, are philosophical tracts the subjects of which are known to me; but I am not liberty to be more explicit. When they are published they are to be immediately conveyed to you. That first papyri, of which I formerly acquainted you, were in a separate room, adjoining to the beforementioned palace." 

Because of the difficulty in reading the carbonized documents, the first publication of the texts of Herculaneum papyri occurred forty years after their discovery, in 1793 with the issue of the first volume of Herculanensium voluminum quae supersunt in Naples. Because of the fragility of the papyrus burned and preserved in lava, Paderni did not attempt to unroll P.Herc. 817  until 1805, at which time apographs were drawn by Carlo Orazi. The first coherent publication of its text appeared in the second volume of Herculanensium Voluminum (Naples, 1809) without facsimiles or reproductions of the papyrus. Orazi's apographs were taken to Palermo before the French occupation of Naples in 1806, but facsimiles of P.Herc. 817 were not published until nearly 80 years later. Efforts to read the remainder of the papyri proceeded very gradually; this series was completed in 11 volumes in 1855. Two hundred years after their discovery many of the Herculaneum papyri remained illegible to scholars, even after sophisticated imaging techniques were applied.

In 1800 the Prince of Wales (later George IV) decided to support the unrolling and deciphering of the papyri found at Herculaneum in 1752, and sent his chaplain in ordinary John Hayter to Naples, who was an expert on antiquities, to take charge of the "Officina" and direct the work. By this time, perhaps out of appropriate caution, or because of the difficulty involved, only 18 of the approximately 1800 manuscripts found in the Villa dei Papiri had been unrolled. It is thought that Padierni opened only the rolls that he thought were most promising from the textual standpoint.

Discussing the background of the project, in 1800 Hayter issued a few copies of a 22-page pamphlet entitled the Herculanean and Pompeian Manuscripts. This was written in the form of a letter to the Prince of Wales. By this time the papyri had been moved to Palermo. Hayter began operations in 1802 at Portici, near Naples. He had charge of the papyri from 1802 to 1806. In four years about two hundred rolls were opened, and nearly one hundred copied in lead-pencil facsimiles under Hayter's superintendence.

In 1802 Ferdinand IV, King of Naples and the Two Sicilies, in a diplomatic move, offered six rolls of Herculaneum papyrus as a gift to First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Eager to discover the contents of these artefacts — some of the most impressive examples — Bonaparte handed them over to the Institut de France in Paris. There the mathematician and keen archaeologist Gaspard Monge, and Vivant Denon, the "founder" of the Louvre, were put in charge of unrolling the rolls. When the French invaded southern Italy in 1806, Hayter followed King Ferdnand into exile in Palermo, Sicily, and the original papyri fell into the hands of the French. The lead-pencil facsimiles also passed out of Hayter's hands, but were recovered from the Neapolitan authorities through the influence of William Drummond of Logiealmond, the British minister. Between 1807 and 1808 copperplates were incised at Palermo under Hayter's direction, and shipped to England where, instead of being published as Hayter had planned, they were archived at Oxford's Bodleian Library. Meanwhile, during the last illness of George III, the Prince of Wales became the Prince Regent, and would ascend to the throne in 1820 at the death of his father. In 1811 Hayter issued a rather grand volume on the project, printed in unusually large type, and illustrated with fine color mezzotint plates, entitled, A Report upon the Herculaneum Manuscripts, in a Second Letter, Addressed, by Permission to his Royal Highness the Prince Regent. The volume discusses Hayter's experience with the papyri in detail, and includes some beautiful color images of the papyrus plant, but no reproductions of papyri. It also reprints the text of Hayter's first (1800) letter to the Prince. My copy is bound in the original pink boards with its title printed in large boldface letters on the upper cover. Hayter's series of reproductions of P.Herc 817 and other papyri were mostly not published until 1885, in an appendix to Fragmenta Herculanensia: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oxford Copies of the Herculanean Rolls by Walter Scott. The first photographs of any of the fragments were published by Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores III (1938) 385.

In 1816 some of the Herculaneum papyrus fragments which had been brought to Paris and London were entrusted to the German polymath and archaeologist Friedrich Carl Sickler who attempted to unroll them, but in the process destroyed several. As a record of this experience Sickler published a pamphlet entitled Herculaneum Rolls. Correspondence Relative to a Proposition Made by Dr. Sickler of Hildberghausen Relative to Their Development (London, 1817).

Following this the chemist Sir Humphrey Davy travelled to the museum at Naples, reported on the state of the papyri found there, and attempted to unroll some of them in Naples, and to use chlorine to unroll some of those in London. Even though he employed scientific care some destruction occurred. Davy published his results as "Some Observations and Experiments on the Papyri Found at Herculaneum," Philosophical Transactions, III (1821) 191-208, plates XI-XVIII, include some of Hayter's reproductions published for the first time. These were probably the earliest reproductions of papyrus fragments published in England. When historian of libraries Edward Edwards published his Memoirs of Libraries I (1859) he was able to get permission from the Royal Society to reproduce Davy's plates from the original copperplates which were still preserved. These he reproduced in his account of Davy's work facing facing p. 72.

________

In 1999 researchers at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, began to apply multispectral imaging, a technique originally designed for the study of extraterrestrial planetary surfaces, to the study of ancient documents that were difficult to read. One of the successes of this project was the revelation of the texts of the documents from Herculaneum.

♦ On December 19, 2013 BBC News published an article by Robin Banerji entitled Unlocking the scrolls of HerculaneumThis contained the best illustrated summary that I had seen to date of the history of the problems in unrolling and deciphering the Herculaneum papyri. (Thanks to my friend William P. Watson for directing my attention to this, and the following paper.)

♦ On January 20, 2015 in an article entitled X-ray technique 'reads' burnt Vesuvius scroll Jonathan Webb reported on bbc.com that a 3D X-ray imagining technique sometimes used in breast scans had been successful in reading some of the Herculaneum papyri without unrolling them. Webb's article summarized a paper by Vito Mocella and colleagues: "Revealing letters in rolled Herculaeum papyri by X-ray phase-contrast imaging," Nature Comunications, January 20, 2015. In the United States The New York Times published an equally interesting article by Nicholas Wade, with different illustrations entitled "Unlocking Scrolls Preserved in Eruption of Vesuvius, Using X-Ray Beams." On January 21, 2015 further information and a photograph of the researchers was available from artdaily.org at this link.

____________

The most useful modern study of the library is David Sider's The Library of the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum (2005).

The classic study of the excavation of Herculaneum through 1908, which impressed upon its readers the necessity for further excavation, was Waldstein & Shoobridge, Herculaneum Past Present and Future (1908). This includes a very useful historical bibliography. In 2011 Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, issued the most beautiful large-format full color book entitled Herculaneum, Past and Future. The volume included hundreds of color photographs, numerous full color maps and charts, and several double-foldout 360 degree views. Reading this book truly gives one the feeling of being in the ancient place.

 (This entry was last revised on 01-21-2015.)

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Process of Canonizing the Old Testament Circa 90 CE

About 90 CE Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai relocated to the city of Yavne/Jamnia and received permission from the Romans to found a school of Jewish law there. The school became a major source for the later Mishna (Mishah), which recorded the Tannaim.

This school is often understood as a wellspring of Rabbinic Judaism. The Council of Yavne or Council of Jamnia, thought to have taken place about this time, referred to a hypothetical council under Rabbi Yohanan's leadership that, according to tradition, was responsible for defining the canon of the Hebrew Bible.

"Today, there is no scholarly consensus as to when the Jewish canon was set. Nevertheless, the outcomes attributed to the Council of Jamnia did occur whether gradually or in a definitive, authoritative council. Several concerns of the remaining Jewish communities in Israel would have been the loss of the national language, the growing problem of conversions to Christianity, based in part on Christian promises of life after death. What emerged from this era was twofold:

  1. A rejection of the Septuagint or Koine Greek Old Testament widely then in use among the Hellenized diaspora along with its additional books not part of the Biblical Hebrew/Biblical Aramaic Masoretic Text.
  2. The inclusion of a curse on the "Minim" which probably included Jewish Christians (Birkat ha-Minim). According to the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Min: "In passages referring to the Christian period, "minim" usually indicates the Judæo-Christians, the Gnostics, and the Nazarenes, who often conversed with the Rabbis on the unity of God, creation, resurrection, and similar subjects (comp. Sanh. 39b). In some passages, indeed, it is used even for "Christian"; but it is possible that in such cases it is a substitution for the word "Noẓeri," which was the usual term for 'Christian' . . . On the invitation of Gamaliel II., Samuel ha-Ḳaṭan composed a prayer against the minim which was inserted in the "Eighteen Benedictions"; it is called "Birkat ha-Minim" and forms the twelfth benediction; but instead of the original "Noẓerim" . . . the present text has "wela-malshinim" (="and to the informers"). The cause of this change in the text was probably, the accusation brought by the Church Fathers against the Jews of cursing all the Christians under the name of the Nazarenes."

"Sociologically, these developments achieved two important ends, namely, the preservation of the Hebrew language at least for religious use (even among the diaspora) and the final separation and distinction between the Jewish and Christian communities. (Through nearly the end of the first century, Christians of Jewish descent continued to pray in synagogues.) But see also John Chrysostom#Sermons on Jews and Judaizing Christians" (Wikipedia article on Council of Jamnia, accessed 12-07-2008).

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At Alexandria Ptolemy Writes the Almagest, the Cosmographia, and the Tetrabiblos Circa 100 CE – 178 CE

Ptolemy

In the second century CE, probably at the Library of Alexandria, mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and astrologer Claudius Ptolemaeus (Greek: Κλαύδιος Πτολεμαίος , Klaúdios Ptolemaîos) wrote the Almagest, the Cosmographia, and the Tetrabiblos. In the Almgagest (in Greek, Η Μεγάλη Σύνταξις, "The Great Treatise", originally Μαθηματική Σύνταξις, "Mathematical Treatise") Ptolemy compiled the astronomical knowledge of the ancient Greek and Babylonian world, relying mainly on the work of Hipparchus, which had been written three centuries earlier.

Ptolemy's Almagest is the only surviving comprehensive treatise on astronomy from antiquity. It was preserved, like most of classical Greek science, in Arabic manuscripts, hence its familiar Arabic name. The work was first translated into Latin from Arabic texts found in Toledo, in Al-Andalus, or Moorish Iberia, by Gerard of Cremona, in the 12th century, and it is from Gerard's version that the work became known to European scientists in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

"Ptolemy formulated a geocentric model of the solar system which remained the generally accepted model in the Western and Arab worlds until it was superseded by the heliocentric solar system of Copernicus. Likewise his computational methods (supplemented in the 12th century with the Arabic computational Tables of Toledo), were of sufficient accuracy to satisfy the needs of astronomers, astrologers, and navigators, until the time of the great explorations. They were also adopted in the Arab world and in India. The Almagest also contains a star catalogue, which is probably an updated version of a catalogue created by Hipparchus. Its list of forty-eight constellations is ancestral to the modern system of constellations, but unlike the modern system they did not cover the whole sky (only the sky Ptolemy could see).”

Even though Ptolemy's Almagest remained the dominant textbook of theoretical astronomy from the second through the sixteenth centuries, only an epitome or digest appeared in print during the fifteenth century. This was the Epytoma in Almagestum Ptolemai published by the German mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, translator, instrument maker and Catholic bishop Johannes Müller von Königsberg, who is best known by the Latin version of his name, Regiomontanus.  The Epytoma, printed in Venice by Johannes Hamman for Kaspar Grossch and Stephan Roemer, and issued on August 31, 1496, must have been printed in an unusually large edition as it remains one of the most common of all books printed in the fifteenth century, with more than 100 copies recorded in institutional libraries worldwide by the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC No. ir00111000.) The first edition of Gerard of Cremona's translation of Ptolemy's complete text was published in Venice by Peter Liechtenstein on January 10, 1515. When I wrote this note only two American libraries had recorded their ownership of this edition in OCLC (Yale and the University of Michigan), and nine copies were cited in European libraries by the Karlsruhe Virtual Catalogue. Why so few copies of this edition were recorded remained unclear, but the most likely explanation was that the original printing was small.  Gerard's text was reprinted many times.

Stillwell, The Awakening Interest in Science During the First Century of Printing 1450-1550, No. 97.


Ptolemy’s Cosmographia “is a compilation of what was known about the world’s geography in the Roman Empire during his time. He relied mainly on the work of an earlier geographer, Marinos of Tyre, and on gazetteers of the Roman and ancient Persian empire, but most of his sources beyond the perimeter of the Empire were unreliable.

“Ptolemy also devised and provided instructions on how to create maps both of the whole inhabited world (oikoumenè) and of the Roman provinces. . . . Ptolemy was well aware that he knew about only a quarter of the globe.”

The world-map from the 1482 Ulm edition of Ptolemy's Cosmographia.

The maps in surviving manuscripts of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia date only from about 1300, after the text was rediscovered by Maximus Planudes, a Byzantine scholar working in Constantinople. In 1475, when the text first appeared in print, it was published without maps. Two years later the first edition with maps was published in Bologna. The famous world map illustrated here was included in the edition published in Ulm, Germany by Lienhart Holle on July 16, 1482. (ISTC No. ip01084000).

 


"Ptolemy's treatise on astrology, known in Greek as the Apotelesmatika ("Astrological Outcomes" or "Effects") and in Latin as the Tetrabiblos ("Four books"), was the most popular astrological work of antiquity and also had great influence in the Islamic world and the medieval Latin West. The Tetrabiblos is an extensive and continually reprinted treatise on the ancient principles of horoscopic astrology in four books (Greek tetra means "four", biblos is "book"). That it did not quite attain the unrivaled status of the Almagest was perhaps because it did not cover some popular areas of the subject, particularly electional astrology (interpreting astrological charts for a particular moment to determine the outcome of a course of action to be initiated at that time), and medical astrology" (Wikipedia article on Ptolemy, accessed 07-16-2009).

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The Romance Papyrus Circa 100 CE – 200 CE

The Romance Papyrus. (View Larger)

The Romance Papyrus (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, cod. suppl. gr. 1294, also known as the Alexander papyrus) is one of the few surviving scraps of classical literary illustration on papyrus. It contains two unframed illustrations about an unknown romance set within the columns of text. The fragment is 340 by 115 mm. It was acquired by the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 1900.

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Translation of the Bible From Greek into Coptic Circa 100 CE – 250 CE

The Crosby-Schoyen codex, a Coptic bible circa 300, and the oldest book in private ownership. (View Larger)

“Translation of the Bible into Egyptian, written in the Coptic Script, dates back to the second century AD. At first, some missionaries translated orally or informally from Greek into Egyptian, certain passages to use in their missionary work. In the last half of the Second Century, Pantaenus, the missionary philosopher, came to Alexandria and became the head of the Theological School. Later on St. Demetrius the first became the Bishop of Alexandria. He was the first known Egyptian to be bishop of that city. The presence of those two sparked a concerted effort to spread Christianity among the Egyptian peasants. Thus the Coptic script was officially christianized for use in translating the Scriptures as needed in the missionary work. This was done to ensure the uniformity of the Christian teachings to be given to the new converts.

“The first translations were in the form of passages mainly from the Gospels. Later on, the whole books were translated. Probably the Gospels were translated first, followed by the Acts in the New Testament. Among the Old Testament books, Psalms followed by Genesis was probably the early order of translation. Eventually the entire New Testament was translated, followed by the Books of Moses, the Prophets, the Poetic Books and the Historical Books in that order. . . . This translation process may have lasted about a century or even more. Keep in mind that all the translations were done from the [koine] Greek whether it was Old or New Testament Books. Except on rare occasions, the Hebrew Old Testament was never utilized by the Christians of Egypt" (http://www.stshenouda.com/newsltr/nl3_2.htm, accessed 01-26-2009).

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The Earliest Known Fragment from a Papyrus Codex of the New Testament Circa 100 CE – 160 CE

The recto side of the Saint John Fragment. (View Larger)

Dating from between 100 and 160 CE, the Saint John Fragment (P52), a fragment from a papyrus codex written in Greek, is generally accepted as the earliest extant record of a canonical New Testament text. The front of the fragment (recto) contains lines from the Gospel of John 18:31-33, and the back (verso) contains lines from verses 37-38. The fragment measures only 3.5 by 2.5 inches (9 by 6.4 cm) at its widest. It is conserved at the John Rylands Library at Manchester.

" . . . the dating of the papyrus is by no means the subject of consensus among critical scholars. The style of the script is strongly Hadrianic, which would suggest a date somewhere between 125 and 160 CE. But the difficulty of fixing the date of a fragment based solely on paleographic evidence allows for a range of dates that extends from before 100 CE past 150 CE.

"The fragment of papyrus was among a group acquired on the Egyptian market in 1920 by Bernard Grenfell. The original transcription and translation of the fragment of text was not done until 1934, by Colin H. Roberts. Roberts found comparator hands in papyri then dated between 50 CE and 150 CE, with the closest match of Hadrianic date. Since the contents would unlikely have been written before circa 100 CE he proposed a date in the first half of the second century. Over the 70 years since Roberts' essay, the estimated ages of his particular comparator hands have been revised (in common with most other undated antique papyri) towards dates a couple of decades older; while other comparator hands have subsequently been discovered with possible dates ranging into the second half of the second century" (Wikipedia article on Rylands Library Papyrus 52).

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Frontinus on the Water Supply of Ancient Rome Survived in Only a Single Problematic 12th Century Manuscript Circa 100 CE

De aquaeductibus, or De aquaeductu urbis Romae, written about 100 CE by the Roman senator Sextus Julius Frontinus, provides a history and description of the water supply of ancient Rome, and the laws governing its use and maintenance. It is the earliest surviving official report of an investigation on Roman engineering.

Remarkably, Frontinus's text, which has been extensively read and studied since its discovery in the library of the abbey of Monte Cassino  (Montecassino) on July 9, 1429 by humanist/ bookhunter Poggio Bracciolini, is entirely dependent upon the single manuscript that Poggio discovered, and as Poggio wrote to his friend Niccolò de' Niccoli, the manuscript is so full of mistakes, and is so badly written, that it remains very difficult to read. In spite of these difficulties with the text, access to the information that Frontinus provided came at a strategic time just as Renaissance Rome was reviving and began to require a dependable source of pure water. Over the centuries engineers, mathematicians and classicists have grappled with the difficulties in the text.

The manuscript of Frontinus's De aquaeductibus at Monte Cassino was written about 1130 by Peter the Deacon, librarian of Monte Cassino.

"Errors, of course, are normally to be expected in a text that has been copied and recopied over the centuries. But in this manuscript they are unusually frequent, and there are in addition numerous spaces left blank where the copyist seems to have been unable to decipher the exemplar from which he was transcribing. Readers, beginning with Poggio himself, have been faced with rather serious editorial problems--merely to achieve a modest coherence of grammar and sense. Scholarly landmarks in this critical study are the editions of Giovanni Poleni (Padua 1722) and Franz Buecheler (Leipzig 1858). While many difficulties have been removed, a large number still remain either apparently beyond hope or admitting of no straightforward solution. In most cases, happily, we can be reasonably confident of the general meaning" (A "New" Translation of Frontinus De Aquaeductu Urbis Romae by R. H. Rodgers, accessed 06-12-2015).

Frontinus's brief work was first translated into English as The Two Books on the Water Supply of the City of Rome of Sextus Julius Frontinus, Water Commissioner of the City of Rome, A.D. 97. A photographic reproduction of the sole original Latin manuscript and its reprint in Latin; also, a translation into English, and explanatory chapters by Clemens Herschel,Boston, 1899. Herschel's translation was revised by Mary B. McIlwaine, for the Loeb Classical Library edition of 1925, edited by Charles E. Bennett. The Bennett / McIlwaine translation was in turn revised by R. H. Rodgers for the latest and best edition (Cambridge: Univ. Press 2004).

Both the place and publisher of the 1487 editio princeps of Frontinus (sometimes thought to be printed in 1483) are unstated but inferred by bibliographers. The edition is described bibliographically by the ISTC as if00324000. A digital facsimile is available from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek at this link. That library dates the edition between 1487 and 1490.

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The Sole Surviving Example of Roman Literary Cursive Script and the Earliest Example of a Parchment Codex Circa 100 CE – 250 CE

The fragment of De Bellis Macedonicis, the oldest suriving remains of a Latin manuscreipt written on parchment rather than papyrus. (View Larger)

British Library Papyrus 745, a fragment of a anonymous work entitled De bellis Macedonicis, found at Oxyrthynchus, Egypt, and acquired by the British Museum in 1900, is the oldest surviving remains of a Latin manuscript written on parchment rather than papyrus. Thought to date from about 100 CE, it is the sole surviving example of Roman Literary Cursive Script, and because it is written on both sides of the parchment, it is also "the earliest example of a membrane [parchment] codex, of the type advocated by the poet Martial in the first century" (Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 [1990] no. 4 and plate 4.)

"Athough it was possibly written as early as AD 100, De Bellis has certain letterforms which have unmistakable Uncial character. And, most significantly, it used a slanted pen angle which was copied by all the early Uncial scripts. . . ." (Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance [2009] 35).

According to Brown, palaeographer E. A. Lowe dated this fragment in the third century CE.

Bischoff, Latin Palaeography:Antiquity and Middle Ages (1990) 9.

(This entry was last revised on 08-18-2014.)

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The Oldest Surviving Handwritten Documents in Britain Circa 100 CE

Vindolanda Tablet 309, an inventory of wooden goods dispatched dispatched by and to civilians working for the military. (View Larger, with translation.)

The Vindolanda Writing Tablets, excavated from the Roman fort at Vindolanda, one of the main military posts on the Northern frontier of Britain before the building of Hadrian's Wall, were written in carbon ink on wafer-thin slices of wood around 100 CE. The tablets were excavated in 1973 near the modern village of Bardon Mill from waterlogged conditions in rubbish deposits in and around the commanding officer's residence. Experts have identified the handwriting of hundreds of different people in these documents. They confirm that the officers of Vindolanda were most certainly literate, and that some soldiers in the ranks may also have been literate.

"These, and hundreds of other fragments which have come to light in subsequent excavations, are the oldest surviving handwritten documents in Britain.

"Most of the tablets are official military documents relating to the auxiliary units stationed at the fort. However, others are private letters sent to or written by the serving soldiers. The content is fascinating, giving us a remarkable insight into the working and private lives of the Roman garrison. They also display a great variety of individual handwriting, which adds to our knowledge of Roman cursive writing around AD 100.

"The tablets are not made of wood and wax, previously thought to be the most popular medium for writing in the Roman world apart from papyrus. Instead they are wafer thin slices of wood, written on with carbon ink and quill-type pens. Even after specialised conservation the exacavated tablets are fragile and require a carefully controlled environment" (British Museum, Our Top Ten British Treasures, accessed 05-10-2009).

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Ancient Greek Songs Circa 125 CE

The Yale Musical Papyrus. (View Larger)

Ancient musicians had two completely separate systems of musical notation: one for voice, and another for instruments.

The Yale Musical Papyrus, P. Yale CtYBR inv. 4510, a fragment of probably two Greek songs from circa 125 CE, "contains the sort of musical notation sometimes used by professional singers in antiquity. In between the lines of Greek text can be seen symbols which resemble ancient Greek letters but which are in fact vocal musical notation. The papyrus is a fragment from what was apparently a collection of songs for performance, intended for a baritone voice with a wide range" (William A. Johnson, Fragments of Ancient Greek Songs from the Early Empire).

♦ When I last visited Prof. Johnson's website, in December 2013, I could hear a midi rendition of how the song might have been sung by clicking on a line in the reproduction of the papyrus. 

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Ancient Musical Notation Circa 125 CE

The Michigan Instrumental Papyrus. (View Larger)

The Michigan Instrumental Papyrus, P. Mich. inv. 1205r, is a "Roman era" papyrus containing the sort of musical notation used by instrumental musicians in antiquity, about 125 CE. "The papyrus is a fragment from what was probably a collection of melodies for performance, perhaps intended for the ancient aulos, a woodwind not unlike a modern oboe; or, less likely, the ancient kithara, the performance version of a lyre" (William A. Johnson, Fragments of Ancient Instrumental Music).

♦ When I last visited Prof. Johnson's website, in December 2013, I could hear a mid-rendition by an oboist of how the music might have sounded by clicking any line on the reproduction of the papyrus.

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The Longest Ancient Stone Inscription Circa 125 CE

Originally about 25,000 words long, filling 260 square meters of wall space, the summary of the philosophy of Epicurus by Diogenes of Oenoanda carved onto a portico wall in the ancient city of Oenoanda in Lycia, Anatolia (now southwest Turkey) is the longest surviving Greek stone inscription. It has also been called "die größte antike Inschrift der Welt" (the largest ancient inscription in the world). Less than a third of the original inscription has been recovered. The inscription was assigned on epigraphic grounds to the period of the Roman emperior Hadrian. The inscription expounds upon Epicurus's teachings on physics, epistemology, and ethics.

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The Finest Surviving Example of Roman Monumental Lettering in Britain 130 CE

Fragments of a sandstone inscription from the entrance to the Forum Viroconium Cornoviorum, part of a Roman settlement at present-day Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury, England, were discovered by archaeologist Donald Atkinson during his excavation of the Forum in 1923-24. The inscription records that the Forum was erected by the Cornovii community during the fourteenth year of the reign of the Emperior Hadrian. The exceptional quality of the writing has been used by some as evidence that Hadrian visited the city during his brief visit to Britain in 121-22 CE; it was argued that only a mason travelling in Hadrian's entourage would have been able to carve to such a high standard. This argument has since been disputed.

The inscription, which measures 107 x 345 cm, is preserved in Rowley's House Museum, Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery, Shrewsbury.

"Athough damaged, it is the largest and undoubtedly the finest surviving example of Roman monumental lettering in Britain" (Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) A4 (pp. 20-21, with excellent images).

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In the "Cave of Letters" Discovery of Papyri Recording Israel's Second Century Revolt Against Roman Rule 132 CE – 135 CE

In 1953 the "Cave of Letters" was discovered by Bedouin of the Ta`amireh tribe in the desert near the border of Israel and Jordan on the west shore of the Dead Sea. The cave is in a ravine called the Nahal Hever, about 20 km south of the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. This cave eventually yielded papyri recording Israel's second century revolt against Roman rule, as well as a unique cache of business documents of, Babatha, an upper middle class woman in Israel at the time.

The location came to the attention of Israeli authorities after the sale in 1953 of some letters written by Simon Bar-Kokhba, the Jewish leader of the Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Roman Empire in 132 CE. These letters were found in the caves of a canyon called Wadi Murraba. At the time the Israel Department of Antiquities conducted a preliminary exploration, but did not take further action until more documents from the Bar-Kokhba Revolt were sold to scholars in Jordan. On March 23, 1960 four groups of scientists and qualified experts began their exploration of the desert region with the assistance of the Israeli Defense Forces. Former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces and archaeologist Yigael Yadin led a team that found the "Cave of Letters."

This cave included very significant finds of artifacts and textiles, including a complete set of clothes worn by Jews of the 1st and 2nd century. Letters found in the cave included very detailed letters and orders by Simon bar Kokhba. In a second search of the cave in 1961 artifacts and objects of everyday living were found in a hidden crevice, along with a bundle of documents and six reeds containing papyri rolled inside them. Discovered in a leather pouch along with two other documents, these documents record various land transactions, some being dealt with by Bar-Kokhba’s administrators during his first year as President of Israel. Another one described the terms in which the lands of En-gedi, an oasis in Israel, would be leased. Another larger bundle of documents would be known as Barbatha's (Barbata's) cache. This group is of particular significance for the light it sheds on the business life and legal rights of an upper middle class Jewish woman at the time. 

"Babatha was a Jewish woman who lived in the port town of Maoza in modern-day Jordan at beginning of the 2nd century CE. . . . The documents found include such legal contracts concerning marriage, property transfers, and guardianship. These documents, ranging from CE 96 to 134, depict a vivid picture of life for an upper-middle class Jewish woman during that time. They also provide an example of the Roman bureaucracy and legal system under which she lived.

"Babatha was born in approximately 104 CE in Maoza. Most likely the only child or the eldest daughter, she inherited her father’s date palm orchard upon her parents’ deaths. By 124 CE, she had been married and widowed with a young son, Jesus. She was remarried by 125 CE to Judah, owner of three date palm orchards in Ein Gedi, who had another wife and teenage daughter. It is uncertain whether Babatha lived in the same home as the first wife or if Judah traveled between two separate households, as polygamy was still allowed in the Jewish community.

"The documents concerning this marriage offer insight to her status in the relationship. In their marriage contract, Judah’s debts become part of her liability, indicating a financial equality. In 128 CE, a legal document shows that Judah took a loan without interest from Babatha, showing that she had control of her own money despite the union. Upon Judah’s death in 130 CE, she seized his estates in Ein Gedi as a guarantee against his debts which she had covered as stated in the marriage contract.

"Another document of importance concerns the guardianship of Babatha’s son. In 125 CE, Babatha brought a suit to court against the appointed guardians of her orphaned son, citing their insufficient disbursement of funds. The document contains Babatha’s petition that full guardianship responsibility of her son and his property be transferred to her control.

"The latest documents discovered in the pouch concern a summons to appear in an Ein Gedi court as Judah’s first wife, Miriam, had brought a dispute against Babatha regarding their late husband’s property. Therefore, it is assumed that Babatha was near Ein Gedi in 132 CE, placing her in the midst of the Bar Kokhba's revolt. It is likely that Babatha fled with Miriam and her family from the imminent violence of the revolt. Because the documents were never retrieved and because twenty skeletal remains were found nearby, historians have suggested that Babatha perished while taking refuge in the cave" (Wikipedia article on Babatha, accessed 02-23-2014).

"Many of the papyri in the Babatha archive, including the marriage contract . . .were what are called 'double documents.' The text would be written twice on the same papyrus, with one copy written about the other. The upper (inner) portion of the papyrus [roll], with the first copy, was rolled up and fastened with string to protect the text and prevent tampering with it. The second copy, on the lower (outer) portion [of the roll], would be accessible, and its veracity could be checked, if necessary by comparison with the upper text. 'Double documents' are rare in Egypt. . . but evidently more common further east, as they are found also at Dura Europos . . . " (Grubbs, Women and the Law in the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook. . . . [2002] 131).

The story of the discovery of the the "Cave of the Letters" was vividly retold in a fine illustrated book by Yigael Yadin entitled, Bar-Kokhba. The rediscovery of the legendary hero of the second Jewish Revolt against Rome (1971). In his book Yadin reproduced the letters from Simon Bar-Kokhba that were discovered, along with the large number of other artifacts. In chapter 16 he described the life and trials of Babtha (Babata) based on her documents. The chapter includes excellent photographs of the documents showing how the original bundle of documents looked, how the documents looked when the bundle was opened, and the problems of opening and reading the individual documents. 

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The "Hawara Homer" Circa 150 CE

Recto of papyrus containing lines from Homer's Illiad, found at Hawara. (View Larger)

The ten frames of the so-called "Hawara Homer," preserved at the Bodleian Library (MS. Gr. class. a. 1 [P]) and dated about 150 CE, were discovered lying rolled up under the head of a mummified woman by W. M. Flinders Petrie in the cemetery at Hawara, Egypt.

"William Flinders Petrie excavated at Hawara in 1888. After working in Medinet el-Fayum (Arsinoe) and Biahmu, he moved on to the site south of Arsinoe and took the 60 workers he had already employed at the former sites with him. The results of his excavations at Hawara were published in 1889 in his "Hawara, Biahmu, and Arsinoe". The papyrological material said to have been found at Hawara was studied by Prof. Sayce and published on pages 24 to 37 of that volume. Sayce gave a general description of the great papyrus roll which contains parts of books 1 and 2 of the Iliad (the "Hawara Homer"), emphasizing the importance of the variants, and edited the texts of the most complete documents, some of them in a very preliminary way.

"J. G. Milne undertook a new edition of 37 of these papyri in the Archiv für Papyrusforschung 5, 1913, 378-397. He did not work on the Hawara Homer but concentrated on the smaller literary texts and gave a proper publication of some more documents. The texts which were not reconsidered in Milne's publication were reprinted in Sammelbuch I (nos. 5220, 5223, 5224).

"When Flinders Petrie brought his finds back to England, the material was divided between several institutions. The Hawara Homer was given to the Bodleian Library in Oxford (where it still is today), while all the other papyrological material stayed in London and was given to the Department of Egyptology at University College London. In 1948, the young professor of Papyrology, Eric Turner received permission from the then Professor of Egyptology, J. Czerny, to take the Hawara papyri to the Department of Greek and Latin at UCL and to keep them there in his custody. A letter from 16 June 1949 confirms the transfer of the papyri. They were kept in a secret place in the department for more than 50 years.

"As usual, Flinders Petrie did not give precise indications, as to where the papyri were found on the site. He just mentions that the region north of the pyramid "was the usual place for burials in the early Roman period , when gilt cartonnage busts were used. Papyri from the Ist and IInd cent. AD are also usual in the soil here, and for some way north" (p. 8, no. 11; cf. the map on plate XXV in the book)" (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/GrandLatMisc/hawara/, accessed 04-27-2014.)

"The script is a fine rounded capital hand of large size. In the left-hand margin of frame 10 there are some critical signs of the type developed by the Alexandrian scholars. There are also some brief scholia in which Aristarchus (216-144 B.C.), the greatest of the Hellenistic critics, is named." (Hunt, R.W., The Survival of the Classics, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1975, No. 3).

Illustrated in Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars, 3rd ed., 1991, plate 1.

(This entry was last revised on 04-27-2014.)

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The Earliest Known Image of the Virgin Mary Circa 150 CE

The oldest known image of the Virgin Mary, located in the Cacomb of Priscilla on the Via Salaria in Rome. (View Larger)

The earliest surviving Christian art is preserved on the walls of tombs belonging to wealthy Christians in the catacombs of Rome. From literary evidence there may also have been panel icons. However, like almost all paintings from classical times, these have disappeared. The earliest known image of the Virgin Mary independent of the Magi episode, is a fresco dated about 150 CE in the Catacomb of Priscilla on the Via Salaria in Rome that shows her nursing the infant Jesus on her lap.

"Initially Jesus was represented indirectly by pictogram symbols such as the Ichthys (fish), the peacock, or an anchor (the Labarum or Chi-Rho was a later development). Later personified symbols were used, including Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the whale pre-figured the interval between Christ's death and Resurrection; Daniel in the lion's den; or Orpheus charming the animals. The Tomb of the Julii has a famous but unique mosaic of Christ as Sol Invictus, a sun-god. The image of "The Good Shepherd", a beardless youth in pastoral scenes collecting sheep, was the commonest of these images, and was probably not understood as a portrait of the historical Jesus at this period. It continues the classical Kriophoros, and in some cases may also represent the Shepherd of Hermas, a popular Christian literary work of the 2nd century.

"Among the earliest depictions clearly intended to directly represent Jesus himself are many showing him as a baby, usually held by his mother, especially in the Adoration of the Magi, seen as the first theophany, or display of the incarnate Christ to the world at large" (Wikipedia article on Depiction of Jesus, accessed 10-03-2010).

Situated in what was a quarry in Roman times, the Catacombs of Priscilla were used for underground Christian burials from the late second century through the fourth century. The catacombs extend for roughly 13 kilometers on several levels.

"Some of the walls and ceilings display fine decorations illustrating Biblical scenes. The Catacombs of Priscilla are believed to be named after Priscilla, a member of the gens Acilia and who was probably the wife of the Consul Acilius who became a Christian and was killed on the orders of Domitian. They contain a number of wall paintings of saints and early Christian symbols. Particularly notable is the 'Greek Chapel' (Capella Greca), a square chamber with an arch which contains second century frescoes generally interpreted to be Old and New Testament scenes, including the Fractio Panis. Above the apse is a Last Judgment. New, and somewhat controversial research has begun to suggest that the scenes traditionally interpreted as the deuterocanonical story of Susannah (Dn 13) may actually be scenes from the life of a prestigious Christian woman of the second century AD. Near this are figures of the Madonna and Child and the Prophet Isaiah, also dating from the second century" (Wikipedia article on Catacomb of Priscilla, accessed 10-02-2010).

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The Earliest European Martial Arts Manual Circa 150 CE

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus III 466 (P. Oxy. III, 466), a fragmentary 2nd century Greek papyrus, discovered in an ancient rubbish dump near Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, constitutes the earliest European martial arts manual. It contains instructions for wrestling, including the description of various grips and holds. The text is in three columns with 13, 15 and 10 lines, respectively. Each instruction is followed by plexon (πλέξον) "tangle", translated by Miller (2004) as "mix it up!" (in the sense of "execute!"). Poliakoff (1987) translates "you fight it out".

In 1907 the papyrus was donated to Columbia University by the Egypt Exploration Society.

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The Oldest Surviving Fragment from the Gospel of Luke 175 CE – 225 CE

Fragment 75. (View Larger)

Papyrus 75 (75, Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV), an early Greek New Testament papyrus of the Alexandrian text-type written between 175 and 225 CE, was purchased from the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana by Frank Hanna III, and donated to the Vatican Library in March 2007. This papyrus is believed to contain the oldest known fragment from the Gospel of Luke, the earliest known Lord's Prayer, and one of the oldest written fragments from the Gospel of John. It is also the oldest manuscript that contains two Gospels. This could be interpreted to suggest that after this period the four Gospels were circulated together.

"This affirmation becomes understandable only if one takes a step back in time to the classical world. In Greek and Roman milieus, formal texts were exclusively transmitted on papyrus scrolls whereas informal texts (accounts, notes, receipts...) were transcribed on other types of support, such as wax tablets or pottery 'labels' (ostra-ca).  

"In the first century A.D., 'notepads' made of superimposed sheets folded and sewn together or tied with a piece of string became common. These articles of pagan origin were very soon used by Christians, as can be learned from a famous Deutero-Pauline passage in which Timothy is asked not to forget 'the parchments', that is, the notes (II Tm 4:13).  

"This new format, a single notebook, had enormous advantages in comparison with the traditional scroll: it provided much more space and less bulk as well as more contained costs. At the same time, it facilitated the consultation and reading of a specific passage, all of which were significant factors for public reading at important liturgical celebrations.  

"The Bodmer Papyrus 14-15, that originally consisted of 36 double leaves placed one on top of the other to make a total of 144 pages [of which 101 leaves survived,] is the oldest find that contains the text of two Gospels together, the Gospels of Luke and John. But why, one might ask, did it not contain all four Gospels?  

"This can be explained by the limitations of the new technique which although it provided almost twice as much room as the classical papyrus scroll, was still a fragile structure that inevitably tended to split along the fold, especially if the number of double pages exceeded 50. Thus, a codex of this kind could contain only a little more than two Gospels.  

"However, since all the lists of the Gospels begin with that of Matthew, one might presume that together with the surviving papyrus another volume was also made, now completely lost, which contained the two missing Gospels, that of Matthew and that of Mark" (http://www.ewtn.com/library/SCRIPTUR/bodmerpapyrus.HTM, accessed 09-14-2010). 

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One of the Oldest Papyrus Codices of the New Testament Circa 175 CE – 250 CE

Papyrus 46 (P-46), an incomplete papyrus codex containing most of the Pauline epistles in Greek, remains one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of some of the earliest Christian documents, which were originally written circa 51-58 CE. P-46, estimated to have been written between 175 and 250 CE, is also one of oldest surviving manuscripts of the New Testament. The provenance of the papyrus is unknown, although it was probably originally discovered in the ruins of an early Christian church or monastery. Following its discovery in Cairo, the manuscript was broken up by the dealer. Ten leaves were purchased by Chester Beatty in 1930; the University of Michigan acquired six in 1931 and 24 in 1933. Beatty purchased 46 more in 1935, and his acquisitions now form part of the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri– eleven codices of biblical material.

Dating of this manuscript is problematic with dates ranging from the first century CE to the third century CE.  See Griffin, The Paleographical Dating of P-46 (1996).

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"Attic Nights" : Lack of Arrangement Makes its Own Kind of Arrangement Circa 180 CE

About 180 CE Roman author and grammarian Aulus Gellius published  Noctes Atticae (Attic Nights), a miscellaneously arranged commentary, or compilation of notes on the Latin language, law, philosophy, history, antiquarianism and other subjects. Gellius claimed that he assembled his commentarii from the initial notes or annotationes he made from books that he read or statements that he heard that he wanted to remember:

"I used to jot down [annotabam] whatever took my fancy, of any and every kind, without any definite order or plan; and such notes I could lay away as an aid to the memory, like a kind of literary storehouse" (quoted by Blair, Too Much to Know. Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age [2010] 82).

Attic Nights is divided into twenty books, of which all have survived in some form except book eight, for which we have only the index. The work is devoid of any formal sequence or standard arrangement, which, in itself is a kind of arrangement. Though Gellius was not considered a major author in antiquity, his work was exploited by pagan and Christian authors. 

The oldest surviving manuscript of Noctes Atticae is one of the oldest parchment codices surviving from antiquity. It is a fourth century palimpsest (manuscript A of the text) written in rustic capitals that is preserved in the Vatican Library (Vat. Pal. lat. 24). In Codices Latini Antiquiores I (1934) no. 74 E. A. Lowe described it as follows:

"Palimpsest, primary script (for the upper script, Vetus Testamentum in uncial aec. VII-VIII, see No. 68a). Forty-four leaves survive, each folded in two and now foliated: 72, 79, 80, 82-85, 87-99, 102-121, 129-176. The leaves now unbound and kept between cardboard. Size (when opened out) 195 x 150 mm. (105 x 105 mm.) in 2 columns of 13 lines averaging 10 letters to the line. Ruling on the hair-side, which is outside, apparently after folding; single bounding lines enclose each column. Prickings to guide ruling sometimes intercolumnar but more often, apparently, on the outer bounding line. Gatherings of ten; one survives complete, and a second lacks one bifolium only. In each quire the first and the last page are left blank—an extraordinary practice found also in Vatic. Regin. La. 2077 (Cicero, Verrines; see No. 115) but the last page has the quire-mark q followed by a Roman numeral in large sloping cursive placed in the centre of the upper half of the page. Abbreviations: ,  =bus, que: R'=rum at line-ends; P.R. = populus Romanus. Omitted N at line-ends marked by a simple stroke after the vowel. Script is Rustic capital of a striking type, written probably with a reed, and showing marked contrast between fine and thick strokes—an example of extreme technical ability: B, F, L often rise above the other letters; F, G and last stroke of U descend below the base line; Y has a peculiar shape- a straight stem supporting a slant s-like top. Blank spaces carefully calculated were left for the Greek texts cited but were never filled.

"Origin uncertain. A scribe's signature on foll. 173v-172, the first page of a quire, seems to read: COTT.A..SCRIPSIT. The Gellius was erased for rewriting ca. saec. VII-VIII. The MS. was probably at Lorsch during the eighth century. Later it was at Heidelberg, whence it was removed to the Vatican in 1623."

By the end of Antiquity the text of Gellius disappeared; it was unknown to authorities such as Isidore of Seville and the Venerable Bede.

"At this time must have come the split in the transmission, whereby Books 1-7 circulated separately from 9-20- a time which also saw the loss of all of Book 8 (including the lemmata), the lemmata to Book 19 and many of those to 20, and the end of the work (20, 10.7-11.5)" (P.K. Marshall in Reynolds (ed) Texts and Transmission. A Survey of the Latin Classics [1983] 176-77 ff, outlining the transmission of the text through various families of manuscripts during the Middle Ages.) See also Holford-Strevens, "Aulus Gellius," Grafton, Mott, Settis (eds) The Classical Tradition (2010) 386-87.

Gellius's Noctes Atticae first appeared in print from the press of Sweynheym and Pannartz, In domo Petri de Maximis, in Rome on April 11, 1469. It was edited for the press by Giovanni Andrea Bussi, Bishop of Aleria. ISTC No.: ig00118000. Ten printed editions of the text appeared in the 15th century, all from Italian presses.

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Insisting on Only Four Gospels Circa 185 CE

Irenaeus

“Of the many gospels written in antiquity, exactly four gospels came to be accepted as part of the New Testament, or canonical. An insistence upon a canonical four, and no others, was a central theme of Irenaeus of Lyon,[Lugdunum in Gaul] c.185. In his central work, Adversus Haereses Irenaeus denounced various Christian groups that used only one gospel…as well as groups that embraced the texts of new revelations.…Irenaeus declared that the four he espoused were the four pillars of the Church: ‘it is not possible that there can be either more or fewer than four’ he stated, presenting as logic the analogy of the four corners of the earth and the four winds (1.11.8). His image, taken from Ezekial 1, of God’s throne borne by four creatures with four faces—‘the four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and the four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle’— equivalent to the ‘four-formed’ gospel, is the origin of the conventional symbols of the Evangelists: lion, bull, eagle, man. Irenaeus was successful in declaring that the four gospels collectively, and exclusively these four, contained the truth. By reading each gospel in light of the others, Irenaeus made of John a lens through which to read Matthew, Mark and Luke“ (Wikipedia article on Gospel, accessed 12-04-2008).

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Claudius Galen Writes the First Auto-Bibliography Circa 190 CE

About 190 CE Roman physician Claudius Galen of Pergamon wrote two classified bibliographies of his own writings: Peri ton idion biblion [Latin: De Libris propriis liber, On his own writings] and Peri tes taxeos ton idion biblion [Latin: De ordine librorum suorum liber, On the arrangement of his own writings]. These are the first auto-bibliographical works which survived, and they may also be considered the first bibliographies of any kind which survived after the listings from the library of Alexandria by Kallimachos (Callimachus), which survived only in the most fragmentary form.

"The De libris propriis liber opens with a general introduction, in which Galen refers to the books falsely attributed to him. The main text is dvided into seventeen chapters, in which Galen arranges his works under such headings as commentaries, anatomical works, Hippocratic writings, works on moral philosophy, grammar and rhetoric, and so on. This bibliography apparently did not suffice as a guide to the five hundred or so works Galen had put out (many of them now lost), for he added a second one. This is the De ordine librorum suorum liber, of which second bibliography unfortunately only a fragment has come down to us" (Besterman, The Beginnings of Systematic Bibliography 2nd ed (1940) 3, nos. I & II).

Galen's bibliographies were first published in print in Part IV, ff.**1-6, of the editio princeps of his collected writings in Greek issued by the heirs of Aldus Manutius and Aldus's father-in-law, Andreas Asulanus, in Venice in 1525. They were revised and improved by Conrad Gessner for an edition published in Basel in 1562.

Breslauer & Folter, Bibliography: Its History and Development (1984) no. 2.

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Grief at the Loss of a Personal Library: Rediscovery of a Long Lost Treatise by Galen on Books and Libraries 192 CE

In 2005 a long lost treatise by the Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire Claudius Galenus (Galen of Pergamon) entitled Περι αλυπιας (On Consolation from Grief) was discovered by scholar Antoine Pietrobelli in the Monastery of the Vlatades (Moni Vlatadon) in Thessaloniki, central Macedonia, Greece. The manuscript, identified as Vlatadon 14, dates from the fifteenth century. In what is known as the first auto-bibliography, Peri ton idion biblion (De Libris propriis liber, On his Own Writings), Galen referred to Περι αλυπιας, but the last evidence of the text was preserved by the 13th century physician and writer Joseph ben Judah ibn Aknin, who paraphrased and/or translated extacts of it into Hebrew. Rediscovery of the complete text is considered one of the most spectacular finds ever in ancient literature.

Galen was motivated to write Περι αλυπιας in 192 CE after a large portion of his library, his supply of medicines and medical instruments, and wax molds for the casting of new instruments that he had invented, and other valuable items were destroyed when a devastating fire burned the Temple of Peace (Forum of Vespasian) and nearby storehouses on the Via Sacra, the main street of ancient Rome, where his property was kept. Galen chose to keep his library there because the storehouse also held some of the imperial archives, and was kept under military guard. The fire that destroyed Galen's library also burned all the public libraries on the Palatine Hill.

Galen's Περι αλυπιας provides significant information on the use of the codex form of the book in the second century CE, on the general vulnerability of books and texts, and on the production, copying, dissemination and storage of information, including the operation of Rome's imperial public libraries and Galen's use of them. It also provides information on the "consolation genre" of writings in antiquity, 

Galen's newly discovered text was first translated into English by Clare K. Rothschild and Trevor W. Thompson as "Galen: 'On the Avoidance of Grief,' " Early Christianity 2 (2011) 110-129, from which I quote selections interspersed with my comments:

In the fire Galen lost rare texts, including copies of what might have been autograph manuscripts of ancient grammarians, orators, doctors and philosophers, that were available nowhere else:

" 13 It is, therefore, neither possible to find any of the rare books and the ones ‘nowhere else kept’, nor (possible to find) the common ones sought out for the accuracy of the text . . . which include two Homeric works, the Plato of Panaetius, and many other such works, since those writings – which, in the case of each book, the men after whom the books were named either wrote them or had them copied – were preserved inside (the libraries). And, in fact, copies of books from many ancient grammarians were kept (there), also those of rhetoricians, physicians and philosophers."

He also lost texts which he had personally corrected for new editions:

"14 In addition to these (books) so important and so numerous, I then lost on the same day all the books that, after correction, had been written by me onto a pure text, books with unclear and errant readings throughout the texts – planning to produce my own edition. The writings were worked to (the point of) accuracy so that neither was something added nor words taken away, not even a paragraphos – single or double, or a coronis – (a siglum) appropriately placed between books. What is there to say about the period or comma? As you know, they are very valuable in unclear books, so that one who pays attention to them does not need an interpreter."

He lost books that had been miscatalogued in public libraries, including a work by botanist and successor to Aristotle at the Peripatetic school, Theophrastus:

"16 Further, these things will especially distress [λμπειν] you; I found outside (the libraries on the Palatine) books recorded in the so-called catalogs – some in the libraries on the Palatine and some, on the contrary, which clearly do not belong to the author to whom they are ascribed [i.e., in the catalogs] – neither with respect to style nor thought similar to him [i.e., the author]. I also found [books] of Theophrastus, in particular those on scientific matters 

17– there are also his books on plants expounded in two extended treatises – everyone has them. And, there was the tractate in precise agreement with Aristotle, that I discovered and copied, which is now lost. In the same way, both (the books) of Theophrastus and of some other men of old were not reported in the catalogues, some although recorded in them, are no longer extant. I found, then, many of these in the libraries on the Palatine, but some, on the contrary, I prepared."

On this section Matthew Nicholls, "Galen and Libraries in the Peri Alupias," Journal of Roman Studies 101 (2011) 123-42 makes several particularly meaningful points on pp. 135-36, which I quote. (The links are my additions):

"The document to which Galen refers here was probably not a specific catalogue of the Palatine library itself, still less a shelf list in the modern sense: the usual Galenic sense of the adjective καλουμενος is either to flag an unusual technical term, which πιναςι is not, or to refer to a particularly well-known example. It is possible that the Palatine's catalogue was well-known enough to qualify for such a description, but Galen seems to expect his correspondent of the PA, an anonymous friend from his schooldays who was probably still resident in Pergamum, to be familiar with it, so a general reference work with a life outside the Palatine library building seems more likely— Catalogue with a capital C. The Budé commentary identifies it as the Alexandrian catalogue, but another good candidate that fits both descriptions—a work of especial relevance to the books Galen saw in the Palatine library and a book-list well-known enough to have an independent value—is the Catalogue descended from the lists of Aristotle's library drawn up in late Republican Rome by Tyrannio and then Andronicus of Rhodes, which would fit the subject matter of the books discussed above and is confirmed as current in the second century A.D. by Plutarch.

"Even if Galen is not talking of a catalogue with a particular relevance to the Palatine library, his testimony is important, the first clear reference to a Roman library user actually consulting a catalogue in the conduct of his research. Such a catalogue, tracing its roots back to Callimachus' homonymous Alexandrian Pinakes, was supposed to give a comprehensive list of works by a given author or in a given field; for its use in a library context we can compare Quintilian's conclusion to a long list of Greek poets with an airy reference to a similar-sounding type of document. . . .

"Galen seems to have been able to consult this Catalogue within the Palatine library, comparing its contents to the shelf-holdings. The copy he used for that purpose have been his own or the library's (in which case one might have expected it to be rather more accurate). His working assumption seems to have been that the books on the shelves of the Palatine library would reflect the lists in the catalogue, so that both would ideally be complete testaments of the outputs of the authors they house. It is the exceptions to this assumption that exercise Galen; in his excitement at finding a 'lost' work by an important author—one on the shelf but not in the Catalogue—or at proving the Catalogue's identification wrong by his analysis of a unique book, Galen is consciously presenting himself as the heir to the to Alexandrian (and Pergamene) library scholars of the Hellenistic age. . . ."

Galen went to great trouble to copy of some these texts because the papyrus rolls were deteriorating as a result of the humid climate. It has long been known that papyrus may be preserved for centuries in dry climates such as the Egyptian desert, but deteriorates rapidly with humidity:

"19 These (books), then, did not cause me a small pain when copying them. As it is, the papyri are completely useless, not even able to be un-rolled because they have been glued together by decomposition, since the region is both marshy and low-lying, and, during the summer, it is stifling."

The timing of the fire was exceptionally unfortunate because Galen had had all of his works duplicated as was planning to move copies of everything to his home in Campania in a short time:

"21 For all (of my works) intended for publication were already transcribed in duplicate, not counting those that were to remain in Rome. On the one hand, my friends at home [i.e., Pergamum] were requesting that all of the works composed by me be sent to them in order that they may place (them) in a public library – just as, in fact, some other (friends) already placed many of my works in other cities – and, on the other hand, I was planning to have copies of everything in Campania.

"22 For this reason,then, there were duplicates of all of my (works), excluding those that were to remain in Rome, as I said.

"23a So, the fire broke out at the end of winter. I planned, at the beginning of summer, to transport to Campania both those (works) that were meant to remain there [i.e. , at Campania] and those that were to be sent to Asia when the Etesian winds blow." 

Besides his own works which he lost, Galen lost invaluable medical recipes that no one else had, recorded in parchment codices. After the poet Martial's reference (84-86 CE) to the codex form of the book, this is the earliest reference to the codex book that I have seen:

"31 What then, you will say, is even greater than all the things mentioned that might be able to cause distress? Well, I will tell you this: I was entrusted with the possession of the most remarkable medical recipes, such as no one else in the entire Roman world (possessed) – fortune, in part, contributing to this and I myself, in part, contributing equally.

"32 In fact, two-fold fortune granted me each (of the recipe collections) along the way. The first of which is as follows: A certain rich man of those around me hastened to find knowledge concerning effective medications, with the result that he purchased some recipes in the amount of more than one hundred gold coins. He set about this task in such a way as to purchase not only all the recipes that were held in esteem by (physicians) today in Asia, but also by those (physicians) of the past.

 "33 These medical recipes were preserved with the utmost care, in two parchment codices that a certain one of the heirs – himself most dear to me – gave to me of his own accord without being asked." 

Pertinent to Περι αλυπιας, a chapter entitled "Galen's Library" by Vivian Nutton published in Gill, Whitmarsh and Wilkins (eds.) Galen and the World of Knowledge (2009) is of considerable interest. From it I quote a brief section that appeared on pp. 20-21:

"It is clear that Galen's library must have been enormous. It is not just that he wrote so many titles; many of his treatises were in several books, each occupying a single book roll, so that one must imagine at least six or seven hundred rolls containing his own writings alone. In addition shorthand writers took down his words and copied out whatever other treatises he wanted for his own purposes. It is very likely that his was among the largest ancient collections of medical books, along with that of that voracious reader, the Elder Pliny, but any attempt to place Galen and others, along a spectrum of medical bibliophiles is doomed to failure. Both Celsus, the author of On Medicine, and Rufus of Ephesus were men of considerable learning, but establishing their sources is far from easy, and next to impossible for other doctors. Papyrological and archaeological evidence for medical libraries is ambiguous at best. . . . Galen's own comments about the books available to his less fortunate colleagues imply that they owned a mere handful of books. He recommends epitomes of his own more voluminous writings as more suitable for those who had neither the time nor the inclination to involve themselves with long and complicated expositions. His demands in On Examinations for a basic knowledge of a canon of distinguished authorities from the past presume that any competent physician would have a substantial library, but it is also clear from surviving tracts that much of this 'essential learning' could be gained from handbooks and summaries of one kind or another. But undoubtedly there were other healers with substantial resources, even if, as Galen complains, they did not spend as much as he did on books. . . ."

(This entry was last revised on 09-17-2016.)

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The Diptych Document Format 198 CE

An unusually well-preserved diptych dated 198 CE in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, shows how this document format was used during the Roman empire.

"The diptych contains the appointment of a guardian for a woman by the prefect of Egypt. The main body of the text inscribed on the wax is in Latin, followed by a subscription written in Greek by an amanuensis on behalf of the woman, who was illiterate. On the outside there are copies of these sections and a list of the names of seven witnesses, all written in ink directly on the wood. The diptych was originally tied shut and sealed with the seals of the witnesses to prevent tampering with the inner text, the authenticated version, while the exterior text remained available for consultation" (Hunt, R.W., The Survival of the Classics, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1975, no. 32.)

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The Egerton Gospel: One of the Earliest Known Fragments of Any Gospel Circa 200 CE

The front side of the first Egerton papyrus fragment.

The Egerton Gospel, a group of three papyrus fragments preserved in the British Library, are among the earliest known fragments of a papyrus codex of a previously unknown Gospel. They were found in Egypt and sold to the British Museum in 1934. The fragments are now dated to the very end of the 2nd century AD. A fourth fragment from the same papyrus has since been identified in the papyrus collection of the University of Cologne

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The Making of a Gospel Book Circa 200 CE – 300 CE

“Following the custom of the Synagogue, the Scriptures of the Old Testament were read at the primitive Christian assemblies. According as the Canon of the New Testament was decided on, certain extracts from it were included in these readings. Justin tells us that in his day, when the Christians met together, they read the Memoirs of the Apostles and the writings of the Prophets (First Apology 67). Tertullian, Cyprian, and other writers bear witness to the same custom; and in the West the order of lector existed as early as the third century. For want of precise testimony we do not know how the particular passages were decided on. Most likely the presiding bishop chose them at the assembly itself; and it is obvious that on the occurrence of certain festivals the Scripture relating to them would be read. Little by little a more or less definite list would naturally result from this method. St. John Chrysostom in a homily delivered at Antioch exhorts his hearers to read beforehand the Scripture passages to be read and commented on in the Office of the day (Homilia de Lazaro, iii, c. i). In like manner other Churches would form a table of readings. In the margin of the manuscript text it was customary to note the Sunday or festival on which that particular passage would be read, and at the end of the manuscript, the list of such passages, the Synaxarium or Capitulare, would be added. Transition from this process to the making of an Evangeliarium, or collection of all such passages, was easy. Gregory is of opinion that we possess fragments of Evangeliaria in Greek dating from the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, and that we have very many from the ninth century onwards (according to Gregory they number 1072). In like manner, we find Lectionaries in the Lain Churches as early as the fifth century. The Comes of the Roman Church dates from before St. Gregory the Great (P.L., XXX, 487-532." (quoted from the New Advent Encyclopedia article on Evangeliaria).

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The Transition from the Roll to the Codex Resulted in Both Survival and Destruction of Information Circa 200 CE – 400 CE

"The break between Antiquity and the Middle Ages is mitigated by two significant factors that account for the literature which survived. First, the Christian foundations of medieval European civilization were already being built in late Antiquity out of the literary materials of Roman education, while the public book trade still flourished. Western Christianity, we sometimes forget, was first of all a Roman religion, the official faith of the empire in Antiquity. When the primarily monastic Latin Roman Church set forth to convert the pagan North under the direction of Pope Gregory I and his successors, it was able to carry along with its faith the civilization, including the books, of late Antiquity.

"Along with the change in faith, a second change in late Antiquity contributed materially to the survival of ancient literature into the Middle Ages: the transposition of the bulk of ancient literature from the traditional papyrus roll to the recently adopted parchment codex occurred during the relatively stable circumstances of the Late Empire, between roughly AD 200 and 400, so that, in effect, ancient civilization had entrusted Roman literature to a much more durable vessel than the papyrus roll in which to make the transition to the Middle Ages. Ironically, it has proved to be the moments of major change in physical form—which one might expect to have increased the texts' chances of survival—that have seen the greatest volume of physical loss: the changes from roll to codex, from tribal scripts to Caroline minuscule, and from script to print; for once a body of literature is consigned to a new physical form, what remains in the old form, now redundant, is discarded" (R. Rouse," The Transmission of the Texts," Jenkyns  [ed] The Legacy of Rome. A New Appraisal [1992] 42-43).

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Curse Tablets from Roman Britain Circa 200 CE – 400 CE

In 1979 and 1980, the Bath curse tablets (tabella defixionis, defixio) were excavated from the sacred hot spring at the Aquae Sulis in the Roman province of Britannia (now Bath, England). The 130 tablets or defixiones primarily invoked the intercession of the goddess Sulis Minerva for the return of belongings or money stolen while the victim was bathing. Their language is of special value as examples of the everyday spoken vernacular of the Romano-British population during the second to fourth centuries CE. Since the language on these tablets came to light this language became known as "British Latin." 

While most texts from Roman Britain are in Latin, two scripts found at Aquae Sulis, written in Roman lettering on pewter sheets, are in an unknown Celtic language, which may be Brythonic— the only examples of writing in what is thought to be the unwritten language of the Celtic people known as the Britons.  

"All but one of the 130 Bath curse tablets concern the restitution of stolen goods and are a type of curse tablet known as 'prayers for justice.' The complaints of thefts are generally of personal possessions from the baths such as jewelry, gemstones, money, household goods and especially clothing. Theft from public baths appears to have been a common problem as it was a well-known Roman literary stereotype and severe laws existed to punish the perpetrators. Most of the depositors of the tablets (the victims of the thefts) appear to have been from the lower social classes.

"The inscriptions generally follow the same formula, suggesting they were taken from a handbook: the stolen property is declared as having been transferred to a deity so that the loss becomes the deity’s loss; the suspect is named and, in 21 cases, so is the victim; the victim then asks the deity to visit afflictions on the thief (including death) not as a punishment but to induce the thief to hand the stolen items back. The deity whose help was invoked is Sulis, and the tablets were deposited by the victims in the spring that was sacred to her" (Wikipedia article on Bath Curse Tablets, accessed 07-13-2014).

Over eighty other Roman curse tablets were discovered in and about the remains of a temple to Mercury at West Hill, Uley, making south-western Britain one of the major centers for finds of Latin defixiones. Smaller numbers of tablets were also found at the the sites of Roman temples at Lydney (Gloucestershire), Brean Down (Somerset), the Pagans Hill Roman Temple (Somerset), the amphitheatre of the legionary fortress of Isca Augusta at Caerleon, South Wales, and the small towns at Chesterton-on-Fosse (Warwickshire) and Leintwardine  (Herefordshire).

In July 2014 images, transcriptions, and English translations of many of the tablets were available from the Curse Tablets from Roman Britain website operated by the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents at Oxford.

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The Forma Urbis Romae, Monumental Stone Map of Ancient Rome 203 CE – 211 CE

A reconstruction of a portion of the Forma Urbis Romae, showing a section of the Theater of Pompey. (View Larger)

The Forma Urbis Romae, or Severan Marble Plan, a huge map of ancient Rome, was created under emperor Septimius Severus between 203 and 211 CE, and originally measured 18.10 meters (60ft) high by 13 meters (43ft) wide, carved in 150 marble slabs mounted on an interior wall of the Templum Pacis. Only about 10-15% of the map survives, broken into 1,186 pieces. Of these, 712 fragments have been catalogued, many composed of several pieces, but in 1996 less than 50 of the fragments had been positively identified and located. What is left of the map is preserved in the Palazzo dei Conservatori of the Capitoline Museums.

"Created at a scale of approximately 1 to 240, the map was detailed enough to show the floor plans of nearly every temple, bath, and insula in the central Roman city. The boundaries of the plan were decided based on the available space on the marble, instead of by geographical or political borders as modern maps usually are.

"The Plan was gradually destroyed during the Middle Ages, with the marble stones being used as building materials or for making lime. In 1562, the young antiquarian sculptor Giovanni Antonio Dosio excavated fragments of the Forma Urbis from a site near the Church of SS. Cosma e Damiano, under the direction of the humanist condottiere Torquato Conti, who had purchased excavation rights from the canons of the church. Conti made a gift of the recovered fragments to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who entrusted them to his librarian Onofrio Panvinio and his antiquarian Fulvio Orsini. Little interest seems to have been elicited by the marble shards" (Wikipedia article on Forma Urbis Romae, accessed 12-23-2009).

♦ In 1999 Marc Levoy and members of his team at Stanford University began the Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project as a way of solving the jigsaw puzzle of the 1,186 marble fragments and 87 fragments known only from Renaissance drawings:

"First, we digitized the shape and surface of every known fragment of the Severan Marble Plan using laser range scanners and digital color cameras; the raw data collected consists of 8 billion polygons and 6 thousand color images, occupying 40 gigabytes. These range and color data have been assembled into a set of 3D computer models and high-resolution photographs - one for each of the 1,186 marble fragments. Second, this data has served in the development of fragment matching algorithms; to date, these have resulted in over a dozen highly probable, new matches. Third, we have gathered the Project's 3D models and color photographs into a relational database and supported them with archaeological documentation and an up-to-date scholarly apparatus for each fragment. This database is intended to be a public, web-based, research and study tool for scholars, students and interested members of the general public alike. Fourth, these digital and archaeological data, and their availability in a hypertext format, have the potential to broaden the scope and type of research done on this ancient map by facilitating a range of typological, representational and urbanistic analyses of the map, some of which are proposed here. In these several ways, we hope that this Project will contribute to new ways of imaging Rome" (http://graphics.stanford.edu/papers/forma-williams/, accessed 12-23-2009).

Nancy Thomson de Grummond, ed., An Encyclopedia of the History of Classical Archaeology I (1996)  451.

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The Oldest Woodblock Printed Fragments from China Circa 220 CE

The earliest woodblock printed fragments to survive are from China and are of silk printed with flowers in three colors from the Han dynasty (before 220 CE).

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The First Important Work of Rabbinic Judaism Circa 220 CE

The Mishnah or Mishna (משנה, "repetition", from the verb shanah שנה, or "to study and review"), was put into its final form about 220 CE. This was the first major redaction into written form of Jewish oral traditions, called the Oral Torah. It was

"debated between 70-200 CE by the group of rabbinic sages known as the Tannaim and redacted about 200 CE by Judah haNasi when, according to the Talmud, the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions would be forgotten. The oral traditions that are the subject of the Mishnah go back to earlier, Pharisaic times. The Mishnah does not claim to be the development of new laws, but merely the collection of existing traditions.

"The Mishnah is considered to be the first important work of Rabbinic Judaism and is a major source of later rabbinic religious thought. Rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah over the next three centuries were redacted as the Gemara" (Wikipedia article Mishnah, accessed 12-05-2008).

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The Earliest Christian House Church, With the Most Ancient Christian Paintings Circa 232 CE

Dura-Europos church.

The Dura-Europos church, located in Dura-Europos in Syria about 232, is the earliest identified Christian house church and one of the earliest surviving Christian churches. For the first three centuries of the church, known as Early Christianity, Christians typically met in homes because of intermittent persecution before Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 proclaimed religious toleration throughout the Roman Empire. At many points in subsequent history, various Christian groups worshipped in homes, often due to persecution by the state church or the civil government.

The surviving frescoes in the baptistry room of the Dura-Europos church may be the most ancient Christian paintings.

"We can see the "Good Shepherd" (this iconography had a very long history in the Classical world), the "Healing of the paralytic" and "Christ and Peter walking on the water". These are considered the earliest depictions of Jesus Christ. A much larger fresco depicts three women (the third mostly lost) approaching a large sarcophagus. This most likely depicts the three Marys visiting Christ's tomb. The name Salome was painted near one of the women, who is often considered the same person as Mary Mother of James. There were also frescoes of Adam and Eve as well as David and Goliath. The frescoes clearly followed the Hellenistic Jewish iconographic tradition, but they are more crudely done than the paintings of the nearby Dura-Europos synagogue " (Wikipedia article on Dura-Europos church, accessed 12-24-2011).

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Origen's Hexapla: Made Possible by the Codex Form, and the First Codices to Display Information in Tabular Form Circa 234 CE – 253 CE

After his arrival in Caesaria, Palestine, from Alexandria, in 234 Christian scholar and theologian Origen (Ὠριγένης Ōrigénēs or Origen Adamantius) undertook compilation of the Hexapla, an elaborate tool for textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible containing the Old Testament written in six parallel columns laid out across each page opening, in a series of large, thick codices. The project is thought to have taken roughly 20 years to complete, by Origen with a team of assistants and scribes, some of whom may have been slaves. To undertake his scholarly work Origen collected a very significant library, though we have little understanding of its precise contents. 

Origen was the first Christian biblical scholar, and the first Christian scholar to undertake the study of Hebrew. His Hexapla was not only a massive scholarly achievement in the early days of Christianity, but also a landmark in book history, since the Hexapla was undoubtedly the largest scholarly endeavor in the early history of Christianity—a work so large in terms of sheer information quantity that it could only have been written in a series of large codices, the format of the book that was gradually replacing the papyrus roll between 100 and 400 CE. In papyrus roll form the Hexapla would have occupied hundreds of rolls, and would have been virtually impossible to use, a consideration which would have assured that the codex format was employed. The volumes of the Hexapla were also presumably the first codices to display information in tabular form– a form that Origen appears to have invented.

It is estimated that the original Hexapla consisted of about 6000 folio pages in perhaps 40 codices, and that because of the immense cost of its production- perhaps 150,000 denarii based on Diocletian's price edict- it probably existed in only a single complete copy. This copy may have been preserved in the library of the bishops of Caesarea for several centuries, but was lost in the Muslim invasion of in 638, if not earlier. The three column page format of the large codices of the Hexapla is thought to have been influential on the four column format of the other large codex produced about a century later, which did survive— the Codex Sinaiticus. It is, of course, also likely that the Hexapla was used in editing the Bible text recorded in the Codex Sinaiticus. Origen's table format was also influential on the development of Eusebius's table format in his Chronicon.

Because so little physical evidence survived from the transitional period from the papyrus roll to the codex during first four centuries CE, details that we have of Origen's Hexapla and its relationship to Eusebius's Chronicon and to the Codex Sinaiticus are significant markers for this critical early period in book history. Only a few small fragments of codices have survived from the third century, and nothing from that date confirms the tabular form of the Hexapla, or even that it was written in codex form. For confirmation of the layout of the codex page openings of the Hexapla we depend upon later evidence: two early manuscript fragments that survived. The first is a palimpsest from the Cairo Genizah in which the 8th century Greek text of a portion of the Psalms in the columnar form of the Hexapla was overwritten in Hebrew. This leaf, preserved at Cambridge, was first reproduced by Charles Taylor in Hebrew-Greek Cairo Genizah Palimpsests from the Taylor-Schechter Collection, Including a Fragment of the Twenty-Second Psalm According to Origen's Hexapla. (1900),plates 1 and 2. (I discovered this publication detail when I acquired a copy of Taylor's book in 2016.) More recently the leaf was reproduced on p. 97 of Grafton & Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book. Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea (2006) On p. 99 of the same work the authors reproduce a diagram showing the layout of the partial Hexapla leaf showing its actual linear and columnar arrangement in white and a hypothetical reconstruction of the original folio page opening in six columns in gray. The other fragment, coincidentally also of the Psalms, preserved in the Bibliotheca Ambrosiana in Milan, was written in Greek minuscule circa 900, and palimpsested with a 13th or 14th century Greek text.

For further support of the written format of the Hexapla we depend upon the account of Jerome:

"Our best ancient evidence for the form and content of the Hexapla comes from Jerome, writing in Palestine at the end of the fourth century. Jerome knew the work well. Not only did he possess Hexaplatic volumes of his own, which he used extensively in his translations and commentaries, but he also consulted the original at Caesarea. In a brief aside in commentary on the pseudo-Pauline letter to Titus, he gives a detailed account of the work. Jerome says that in the original Hexapla preserved at Caesarea:

"the very Hebrew words, too, are copied in their own letters, and expressed in Greek letters in the neighboring column. Aquila also, and Symmachus, the Septuagint, and Theodion hold their places. But for not a few books, and especially those which among the Hebrews are composed in verse, three other editions have been added, which are called the fifth, sixth, and seventh translations; they are considered authoritative though the names of the translators are lost." 

"Jerome thus confirms the presence of a Hebrew column in Hebrew letters as well as a column in Greek transliteration, which gives an unambiguous description of the order of the columns" (Grafton & Williams, op. cit. 91).

Study of surviving fragments of Origen's Hexapla continued over the centuries. The first edition considered comprehensive was Bernard de Montfaucon's Hexaplorum Origenis quae supersunt (2 vols., 1713). This was superceded by the edition of Frederick Field (1875). 

(This entry was last revised on 02-24-2016.)

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The Library of Lactantius, an Early Christian Author Circa 240 CE – 320 CE

Remarkably little is known about the libraries of individuals in classical, Hellenistic, or even medieval times. In his small book, The Library of Lactantius (Oxford, 1978) R. M. Ogilvie studied the books that the Latin Christian apologist Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (Lactantius) read and knew well. Born in North Africa, possibly at Cirta in Numidia (modern Algeria), Lactantius, a professional rhetor, or teacher of rhetoric, was summoned to the Imperial Court at Nicomedia by the Roman emperor Diocletian. After converting to Christianity Lactantius resigned his post before the publication of Diocletian's first Edict Against the Christians (February 24, 303), and lived in poverty as a writer until he became advisor to the first Christian Roman emperor Contantine I, guiding Constantine's religious policy as it developed, and serving as tutor of Constantine's son Flavius Julius Crispus. It is believed that Lactantius may have followed Crispus to Trier when Crispus was made Caesar (lesser co-emperor) and sent to that city. The circumstances of Lactantius's death are unknown.

Lactantius's primary work, Divinae Institutiones (Divine Institutes), was an early systematic presentation of Christian thought. It was considered somewhat heretical after his death, but Renaissance humanists took a renewed interest in Lactantius, more for his elaborately rhetorical Latin style than for his theology. The early humanists called him Cicero Christianus (Christian Cicero), and his Opera (1465) was the first dated book printed in Italy.

The earliest surviving, and probably the most reliable text of Lactantius's Opera is Bologna, R. Biblioteca Universitaria 701, an uncial manuscript of 283 leaves written in North or Central Italy in a center of learning and fine calligraphy in the second half of the fifth century. Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores III (1938) No. 280. This manuscript is dated within little more than a century after Lactantius's death.

From Ogilvie's The Library of Lactantius, I quote Chapter XII, "Conclusion", pp. 109-10. The links are, of course, my additions:

"The library resources of Carthage or Alexandria or Rome were boundless but Lactantius was a traveller and could not rely on finding what he needed at Nicomedia or Trier. Nor, as we have seen, was he a scholar of great range and acumen: indeed his familiarity with Greek literature is slight, which may partly account for his evident unhappiness in Bithynia. The preceding chapters have attempted to discover what works he either used in writing. D. I. [Divinae Institutiones] or knew sufficiently well to be able to quote from memory.

"The resulting list is an interesting one. No Greek classical prose or poetry. His Greek reading is confined to oracular literature—Sibylline Oracles, oracles of Apollo and Hystaspes, some Orphic poems and some hermetic works—most of which may have been known to him through a single compilation on Theosophy. His Latin reading of poetry extends to Lucretius, Horace, Virgil, Ovid's Fasti and Metamorphoses, and Persius, Satires 2 and 6: for the rest he is indebted to one or more florilegia. Of classical prose authors Cicero leads the field, although the absence of so many speeches and other works, such as the De Finibus and the letters, is striking. He knew Livy's first Decade and Sallust's Catiline but not Tacitus nor, probably, Varro. He knew Seneca's philosophical works and an edition of Book I of Valerius Maximus. Aulus Gellius he came across after writing the D. I., but he may have had access to a similar compendium for some of his antiquarian and mythological material, unless it was all to be found in a commentary on the Aratea. An anthology provided him with most of his biblical and apocryphal quotations and, probably, with those apologetic commonplaces which he could not locate in Minucius, Cyprian, Theophilus, or Tertullian's Apologeticum.

"In his reading he offers an interesting comparison with Tertullian a hundred years before him, and Augustine or Jerome seventy years later. Terullian was writing during the great archaizing revival of the later second century, when old books were unearthed and reread, and before the political breakdown of the third century. he still knew Herodotus, Plato, Josephus, Pliny the younger, Tacitus, Juvenal, Ennius Varro, perhaps the elder Cato— to name but a few.

"In the later fourth century, pagans and Christians rediscovered some forgotten classics, especially Juvenal and Tacitus, but in the intervening period much literature had been lost beyond recall. Thus Jerome was familiar not only with the range of works which Lactantius knew but also with Plautus, Lucan and Martial. But in other respects he and Augustine are very similar to Lactantius. Augustine knew little Greek and derived his Platonic philosophy from Cicero (Epist. 118.2.10), whereas Jerome did not become closely acquainted with Greek literature until thirty years after his school days. On the other hand Virgil and Cicero's works, above all the Hortensius, meant much to Augustine (C.D. 1.3; Conf. 3.4.7). The same picture emerges from a study of Ausonius, or of Claudian although his interest and opportunities gave hima slightly wider range.

"Lactantius, therefore, in a real sense marks the beginning of the Middle Ages. Between the time of Tertullian and his own day the great process of survival had already jettisoned many literary treasures of Athens and Rome to oblivion."

As a small bibliophilic aside, I was surprised to acquire R. M. Oglivie's personal corrected copy of his book on Lactantius for only £26. 

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Possibly the Earliest Record of Rabbinic Texts & the Earliest Continuous Cycle of Biblical Narrative Paintings 244 CE – 256 CE

A Frescoe found in Dura Europos depicting scenes from the Book of Ester. (View Larger)

 

The Dura Europos synagogue, discovered in eastern Syria in 1932, was dated from an Aramaic inscription to 244. It is unique in that it was preserved virtually intact. It was preserved, ironically, when it had to be infilled with earth to strengthen the city's fortifications against a Sassanian assault in 256. The synagogue contains a forecourt and house of assembly with frescoed walls depicting people and animals, and a Torah shrine in the western wall facing Jerusalem. The synagogue paintings, the earliest continuous surviving biblical narrative cycle, are conserved at Damascus.

"The painted scenes of stories include Moses receiving the Law, Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, and many others. It is thought that the Synagogue was used in part as an instructional display to educate and teach the history and laws of the religion. Some think that this synagogue was painted in order to compete with the many other religions practiced in Dura Europos. The large-scale pictorial art in the synagogue helps to dispel narrow interpretations of historically prohibited visual images" (Wikipedia article on Dura-Europos synagogue, accessed 12-10-2008).

A parchment fragment discovered in the Dura Europos synagogue containing texts highly reminiscent of rabbinic prayer texts, may be the earliest surviving record of rabbinic texts. Reference: Goldstein & Mintz, Printing the Talmud from Bomberg to Schottenstein [2006] no. 1, p. 170.

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The Persecution, Imprisonment and Torture of Origen 249 CE – 251 CE

"According to Eusebius [Historia ecclesiastica], Origen was a confessor during the Decian persecution. Eduard Schwartz supposes that Origen's library was damaged at this time, although there is no direct evidence of it. Probably Schwartz made his conjecture because it helps to explain why Pamphilus later had to expend great effort to acquire copies of Origen's works for the Caesarean library. Decius required that people of the Roman Empire perform sacrifice and receive certificates (libelli) of compliances with the imperial order. In 249 or 250 Origen was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured, but he evidently survived the persecution. It seems, then that either his case was dismissed or, what is probably more likely, he simply outlived the persecution and was freed in 251. Because Origen's judge had the power to coerce Origen's compliance by imprisonment, torture, and the assessment of fines, even to the extent of confiscation of his personal property, it is possible that his library was damaged, though certainly it was not destroyed, since, for example, the Hexapla survived until at least Jerome's day. Indeed, despite the persecution, as well as whatever other misfortunes may have befallen the library after Origen's death, Pamphilus was probably drawn to settle at Caesarea because of the reputation the city enjoyed as the home of Origen's library.

"Origen died soon after the end of the persecution, between 251 and 253, at Tyre, according to Tradition. Origen's bishop, Theoctistus, survived for almost another decade, through the persecution under Valerian to the restoration of peace by Gallienus in 260. Domnus succeeded him for a short time and was himself then succeeded by Theotecnus, whom Eusebius calls a contemporary. Theotecnus' access is according dated to sometime after 260. Eusebius also relates that Theotecnus had been a member of Origen's school (διατρβπ), presumably at Caesarea. Because of this association with Origen, it is possible that Origen's library now came, if it was not already, under direct episcopal authority" (Carriker, The Library of Eusebius of Caesarea [2003] 11-12. Note that I left out numerous textual citations by Carriker and his many footnotes. The links are, of course, my additions.)

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Certificates of Conformation to Pagan Religious Practice 249 CE – 251 CE

During the the Decian persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius (emperor from 249-251) the imperial Roman government issued tickets (libelli), indicating that citizens had satisfied the pagan commissioners by performing a pagan sacrifice (sacrificati), or burned incense (thurificati), demonstrating loyalty to the authorities of the Roman Empire. The government also issued libellatici (certificates) certifying that apostates had renounced Christianity.

Among the thousands of papyri excavated from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, four papyri (POxy 658, POxy 1464, POxy 2990 and POxy 3929) are libelli issued during the year 250. (A total of 46 libelli from the year 250 have been published.)

"Participating in pagan sacrifices was a sin for Christians and punished by excommunication, because the New Testament forbade Christians to either participate in 'idol feasts' or to eat 'meat sacrificed to idols'. However, not participating made one liable to arrest by the Roman authorities. A warrant to arrest a Christian (POxy 3035) was also found at Oxyrhynchus, this too has been dated precisely—to the year 256. The grounds for this arrest are not documented, however, and it predates the persecution under the emperor Valerian by about a year.

"At various times under Roman rule, failure to sacrifice was punishable by death. Christian theologians (for example Cyprian) debated whether the threat of the death penalty mitigated the sin of having communion with idols, leaving room for forgiveness and restoration to the Christian community" (Wikipedia article on Libellus, accessed 02-02-2013).

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One of the Few Scraps of Classical Literary Illustration on Papyrus Circa 250 CE

The Heracles Papyrus. (View Larger)

The Heracles Papyrus, preserved in Oxford at the Sackler Library (Oxyrhynchus Pap. 2331), is a fragment of about the labors of Heracles dating from about 250 CE. It contains three unframed colored line drawings of the first of the Labors, with the strangling of the lion set within the columns of cursive text. Found at Oxyrhynchus, it is one of the few surviving scraps of classical literary illustration on papyrus. The fragment is 235 by 106 mm.

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Greek Writings on Music and Rhythm Circa 250 CE

Fragment 2687 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, which supplements fragment 9. (View Larger)

The earliest surviving fragments of the writings on music by the fourth century BCE Greek peripatetic philosopher and writer on harmonic theory, music and rhythm, Aristoxenus (Ἀριστόξενος) of Tarentum (Taranto), Italy) are papyri found at Oxyrhynchus.

"Perhaps the most amazing papyrus fragment is a large excerpt from Aristoxenus' Rhythmica, a part of which was first published in 1898 as fragment 9 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. In 1968 it was revealed that fragment 2687 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri completed columns 2-4 by supplying fourteen or fifteen lines at the bottom; this same fragment added substantially to columns 1 and 5. Nearly one hundred lines of the text have now been uncovered in papyrus dating from the third century C.E. But this is not all. Fragments 667 and 3706 of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri preserve in characteristic Aristoxenian language an analysis of conjunct and disjunct scales and of genera. These fragments, too, date from the second or third centuries C.E. and may very well contain parts of the sections of Aristoxenus' Harmonica missing in the manuscript tradition" (Mathiesen, "Hermes or Clio? The transmission of Ancient Greek Music Theory", Palisca, Baker, Hanning [eds.] Musical Humanism and its Legacy. Essays in Honor of Claude Palisca [1992] 5-6).

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The Crosby-Schoyen Codex: One of the Earliest Extant Papyrus Codices, Probably from the Earliest Monastery Library Circa 250 CE

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex, a papyrus codex in Sahidic (a dialect of Coptic) from Alexandria, Egypt, consists of 52 leaves, of which 16 are missing, 15x15 cm, written in 2 columns, (10 x12 cm), 11-18 lines in a bold large Coptic uncial, with 3 decorated cartouches. Its fifth and final text is written in a single column, 12 lines. Dating from about 250, it is one of the earliest extant codices, showing the adoption of the codex form of the book by early Christians. In 2013 it was the earliest codex in private hands.

The five texts in the Crosby-Schøyen Codex are:

  1. Bible: Jonah
  2. Bible: 2 Maccabees 5:27 - 7:41
  3. Bible: 1 Peter
  4. Melito of Sardis: Peri Pascha 47 - 105
  5. Homily, An Unidentified Sermon for Easter Morning

The codex represents the earliest known complete text of the two books of the Bible, Jonah and 1 Peter. Of 1 Peter there is also a Greek papyrus slightly later, circa 300, from the same hoard, now in the Vatican Library. The Schøyen 1 Peter is copied from a Greek exemplar written before 2 Peter existed, that is circa 60-130 CE. It is the single most important manuscript of 1 Peter. Texts 2 and 4 are also the earliest witnesses. Text 5 is unique, and probably the oldest extant Christian liturgical manuscript. 

The codex derives from the hoard known as the "Bodmer Papyri", consisting of 9 Greek papyrus rolls, 22 papyrus codices and circa 7 vellum codices in Greek and Coptic. These manuscripts are now mainly located in the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, Genève, and the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. They are part of what is known as the Dishna papers, which may have belonged to the library of one of the earliest monasteries associated with the first monastic order, the Pachomian order, Faw Qibli, Egypt. In his book, The Story of the Bodmer Papyri. From the First Monastery's Library in Upper Egypt to Geneva and Dublin (2011) James M. Robinson traced the unusually complex provenance of the Bodmer Papyri, documented the history of their publication in the 20th century, and made the case that these papyri were originally part of the library of the first Christian monastery. Robinson's view is not universally shared. The rolls and codices from the library were buried in a large sealed jar probably during the Arabic conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, and were not found until 1952.

The provenance of the Crosby-Schoyen Codex is among the most complicated of all the so-called Bodmer Papyri:

 "1. Copied from exemplars in Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria (3rd c.); 2. Monastery of the Pachomian Order, Dishna, Egypt (4th-7th c.); 3. Buried in a jar in the sand (7th c.-1952); 4. Hasan Muhammad al-Samman, Abu Mana (1952); 5. Riyad Jirjis Fam, Dishna (1952); 6. Phocion J. Tano, Cairo (1952-); 7. Sultan Maguid Sameda, Cairo (until 1955); 8. University of Mississippi, Oxford, Mississippi (1955-1981); 9. H.P. Kraus, New York (1981-83); 10. Vinsor T. Savery, Houston, Texas (Pax ex Innovatione Foundation, Vaduz, Liechtenstein) (1983-1988); 11. Sotheby's 6.12.1988:29. 41 fragments from the beginning of the codex, that came apart in 1952: 1.-6. As above; 7. Dr. Martin Bodmer, Genève (1952-1967); 8. Prof. William H. Willis, Durham, North Carolina (from 1967); 9. Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, "P. Duk. inv. C125" (until 1990), acquired by exchange in April 1990, and rejoined to the main codex June 1990" (http://www.schoyencollection.com/Coptic.htm, accessed 11-25-2010). 

(This entry was last revised on 04-21-2014.)

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The Earliest Stage of Half-Uncial Circa 250 CE – 350 CE

In Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. (1972) Stanley Morison considered a fragment of a papyrus roll of the Epitome of Livy preserved in the British Museum (P. 1532) to be the earliest stage of half-uncial calligraphy. The papyrus was found at Oxyhynchus, Egypt in 1903 "along with cursive documents of the second, third, and fourth centures. In the first half of the fourth century the back of the roll was used to write the Epistle to the Hebrews in Greek uncial (P. Oxy. No. 657), which furnishes a terminus ad quem for the Latin script. Acquired by the British Museum in 1906" (Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores II, no. 208).

Grenfell & Hunt, Oxyrhynchus Papyri IV (1904) 90 describe the writing on this papyrus as "a medium-sized upright uncial, with some admixture of minuscule forms (b, d), and belongs to the same class as the Vergil fragment (P. Oxy. I, Plate viii) and the Bodleian Chronicles of Eusebius (Palaegraphical Soc. II. Plate 130), but is an earliest example of the mixed style than has hitherto been known. . . ." 

Lowe, characterized the script as "calligraphic but provincial," partly in uncial and "b, d, r, m" as "distinctly half-uncial." 

Morison, Politics and Script, 78-79, pl. 57.  

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The Earliest Known Greek Manuscript of the Four Gospels Circa 250 CE

Papyrus 45 (P. Chester Beatty I), an early New Testament manuscript in codex form, was probably created around 250 in Egypt. It contains the texts of Matthew 20-21 and 25-26; Mark 4-9 and 11-12; Luke 6-7 and 9-14; John 4-5 and 10-11; and Acts 4-17. The manuscript is preserved in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Ireland, except for one leaf containing Matthew 25:41-26:39, which is preserved in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (Pap. Vindob. G. 31974).

"On its discovery in 1931, this remarkable survival became the earliest known Greek manuscript of the Four Gospels by at least 100 years. Originally comprising around 220 leaves arranged in gatherings of two leaves, the manuscript demonstrates that Christians used the book (or codex) form for their Scriptures rather than the roll format, from an early date. The papyrus fragments also show that the Four Gospels circulated together. Most of the surviving fragments of the text consist of sections of the Gospels of Sts Luke and John, but enough of the text from the other two Gospels and Acts remains to enable the overall content and structure of the codex to be identified. The texts that they preserve reveal that there were slightly different versions of the Gospels circulating by the beginning of the third century. For example, verse 24, starting ten lines down, includes the additional words 'the birds of heaven' in the phrase 'Consider the ravens: they do not sow or reap', language that is similar to that found in St. Matthew's account (6:26)" (Reeve [ed.] Sacred. Books of the Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam [2007] 64-65).

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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The Earliest Papyrus Codex of the Minor Prophets Circa 250 CE

Washington Manuscript V - The Minor Prophets (Codex Washingtonensis), a papyrus codex from the third century CE written in Egypt, is a complete Christian copy of the Greek text of the twelve Minor Prophets. It is the earliest papyrus codex of the Minor Prophets or Twelve Prophets. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls this was the oldest Greek manuscript of the text. 

"A succession of people added Coptic glosses (clarifications or translations), perhaps adapting the codex to spread Christianity to people living outside the Hellenized cultural centers around the Nile. It was acquired in Egypt by American missionary David Askren, whose finds were purchased in 1916 by Charles Lang Freer in partnership with banker and financier J. P. Morgan, Jr."

One of the Biblical Manuscripts in the Freer Collection, the papyrus is preserved in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, Washington, D. C. It is one of the earliest papyrus codices preserved in North America.

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Warrant for the Arrest of a Christian: One of the Earliest Surviving Recorded Uses of the Word Christian February 28, 256 CE

One of the earliest uses of the word Christian surviving on papyrus is Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 3035 (P. Oxy. XLII 3035), a warrant for the arrest of a Christian issued on February 28, 256 by the authorities of the Roman Empire.

"The order was issued by the head of the Oxyrhynchus ruling council, to the police in a country village, to arrest a man described as a Christian (note χρισιανόν, the papyrus has the early spelling, χρησιανόν). The charge which makes the Christian liable for arrest is not given, unless this is Christianity itself. Persecution could explain this document, but Christians were generally tolerated by the authorities, periods of systematic persecution stand out as distinctive and exceptional in other documentation. One such period, however, was 'instituted under the emperor Valerian in AD 257 and 258.'

The manuscript is dated precisely in its closing lines to the third year of the co-regency of Valerian and Gallienus his son. We know this year to be 256 AD. The day and month are also provided in the last line. Phamenoth is the name of a month in the Egyptian calendar. It is called Paremhat in the Coptic calendar. The warrant was issued on the third day of this month. The equivalent date in our Gregorian calendar is 28 February 256 AD" (Wikipedia article on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 3035, accessed 02-02-2013).

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Pamphilus Establishes a Library and Scriptorium and is Executed During the Diocletianic Persecution of Christians 275 CE – 309 CE

A map of Israel, with Caesarea Maritima highlightd in blue. (View Larger)

Between 275 and his martyrdom in 309 Pamphilus of Caesarea (Pamphilius), presbyter, and teacher of Eusebius, devoted his life to searching out and obtaining copies of manuscript texts, some of which he copied himself. He established a library that may have contained 30,000 manuscripts, and a scriptorium at a Christian theological school at Caesarea Palaestina, now Caesarea Maritima, a town on the coast of Israel between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Because of this library Caesarea was the capital of Christian scholarship in the 3rd century.

"This Pamphilus was of a noble family in the Phoenician city of Berytus [Beirut], where he received his early education. Probably in the early and mid-280's, he studied in Alexandria under the presbyter Pierius, who was himself known as 'the Younger Origen.' From there Pamphilius seems to have come to Caesarea, where his great learning in philosophy and theology enabled him to open a successful school at Caesarea. Pamphilus' school could boast no unbroken descent from Origen's school, because there was no continuous sucession of masters at Caesarea between Origen and Pamphilus. . . ." (Carriker, The Library of Eusebius of Caesarea [2003] 12-13).

During the Diocletianic persecution, the last and most bloody persecution of Christians before Constantine established Christianity as the Roman state religion, Pamphilus was arrested and imprisoned in November 307. He was executed and martyred on February 16, 309. 

"By the end of 307 Pamphilius was arrested under the orders of Urbanus, the local Roman governor, tortured cruelly, and placed in prison. Yet, in prison and suffering from his torture wounds, Pamphilius did not remain idle but continued editing the Septuagint and with Eusebius, wrote a Defense of Origen that he sent to the confessors in the mines of Phaeno, Egypt [i.e. South Palestine, "in a mining area lying east of the Wadi Arabah, between the south end of the Dead Sea and Petra."]

"After being in prison for two years, Pamphilius was ordered killed by the new governor, Firminius. He was then beheaded on February 16, 309 with several of his disciples. In his memory Eusebius called himself Eusebius Pamphili, to denote his close friendship with Pamphilius" (Orthodox Wiki article on Pamphilius, accessed 02-02-2013).

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Perhaps the Earliest Surviving Text of the Hippocratic Oath Circa 275 CE

Side A of Oxyrhyncus Papyrus 2547. (View Larger)

Oxyrhyncus Papyrus 2547 is a fragment of the Hippocratic oath written in Greek in Egypt about 275 CE. It is preserved in the Wellcome Institute Library, London (WMS 5724). 

Conrad et al, The Western Medical Tradition 800 BC to AD 1800 (1995) Fig. 3, p. 21.

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The Imperial Library at Nicomedia 284 CE – 305 CE

Diocletian

Between 284 and 305 CE the Emperor Diocletian established an Imperial Library at Nicomedia, the eastern capital city of the Roman Empire. However, little information about this has survived.

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Early Christian Papyrus Codices in Coptic Bindings 300 CE – 350 CE

Codex IV found at Nag Hammadi. (View Larger)

In 1945 twelve papyrus codices, plus eight leaves from a thirteenth, were found by a local peasant near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammâdi. The manuscripts had been buried in a sealed jar. Eleven of the codices were in their original leather covers. This collection of codices in Coptic bindings, called the Nag Hammadi Library, comprised fifty-two mostly Gnostic tractates or treatises, dating from about 300 to about 350, and documenting a ". . . major side-stream of early quasi-Christian thought. . . formerly attested only by the anti-heretical treatises of orthodox Christianity. . . ." (Needham).  The best-known of these works is probably the Gospel of Thomas, of which the Nag Hammadi codices contained the only complete text. They also included three works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum, and a partial translation/alteration of Plato's Republic. The Nag Hammadi texts were all Coptic translations of works that had been originally written in Greek.

In his "Introduction" to The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 3rd ed. (1984) James M. Robinson suggested that these codices may have belonged to a nearby Pachomian monastery, and may have been buried after Bishop Athanasius condemned the uncritical use of non-canonical books in his Festal Letter of 367 CE.

This collection of codices represents one of the most extensive collections of early papyrus codices in Coptic bindings.

"The Nag Hammadi codices are written on papyrus. Their language is Coptic, the native language of Egypt as recorded in the third century A.D. and after. Coptic script is a modification of the Greek alphabet, reflecting the fact that, in its written form, Coptic was essentially the language of Egyptian Christianity, whose early literature (including the heterodox Gnostic texts) was in large part translated from the Greek. The Nag Hammadi codices were written and bound in the first half of the fourth century, presumably within a religious community. The site of the find was near Chenoboskion, where in the early fourth century a monastery was established by St. Pachomius, the founder of coventional Christian monasticism. The burial of the Gnostic writings may have followed a fourth-century purge there of heretical literature.

"The volumes consist of single-quire codices, of as many as seventy-six leaves each; in two cases, two or more distinct codices, were found together in one volume. The covers are made of prepared goatskin or sheepskin. The upper covers have flaps, similar to those later routine on Islamic bindings. . . , extending over the fore-edge and folding around to the lower cover. Leather thongs are attached to the flaps, by means of which the volumes could be wrapped up and tied. Some of the volumes also have remains of thongs on the top and bottom of the covers. The covers are more than simply wrappers, for their insides are lined with papyrus cartonnage, built up into boards over which the turn-ins of the covers were folded and glued or tied. To secure the quire in its cover, two pairs of holes were stabbed through the fold of the leaves, one pair toward the top, the other toward the bottom. A leather thong was passed through each pair, then either through the spine of the cover itself, or through a strip of leather guard, and its ends tied together. If leather guards were used, they were glued to the inside fo the covers, so that in either case the codex as attached to the cover. Several of the bindings are decorated, the most elaborate being that of Nag Hammadi Codex II. Its covers are scribed with fillets, dividing them into cross and X- (or St. Andrew's cross) patterns. Additional simple scrollwork patterns were added in ink, and what appears to be an ankh, or crux ansata, was drawn at the top of the upper cover" (Needham, Twelve Centuries of Bookbindings: 400-1600 [1979] 5-6).

Apart from those in the Morgan Library and Museum, most of the Nag Hammadi codices are preserved in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

(This entry was last revised on 04-21-2014.)

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The Transition from Papyrus to Parchment Circa 300 CE – 700

"By the fourth century, the use of parchment for books was so widespread in the West that we can speak of a general transition from papyrus to parchment in the book-making process. This was of decisive importance for the preservation of literature because only very few papyrus fragments from medieval libraries have survived, since the European climate is inimical to this material. Nonetheless, in the sixth century AD the law codes of Justinian I were distributed from Byzantium in papyrus as well as in parchment manuscripts. One of the latest western papyrus books preserved (c. saec. VII-VIII) [circa 7-8th century] is a Luxeuil codex containing works of Augustine, in which interleaved parchment leaves protect the middle and the outside of the gatherings" (Bischoff, Latin Palaeography, Antiquity and the Middle Ages [1990] 8).

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One of the Earliest Complete Papyrus Codices on a Secular Subject Circa 300 CE

The Papyrus Graecus Holmiensis (Stockholm Greek Papyrus), a complete 15-leaf (39-page) papyrus codex written in Greek around 300 CE, contains 154 recipes for the manufacture of dyes and colors used in creating artificial stones. It is one of the earliest complete treatises on any technical or chemical subject, one of the earliest surviving complete papyrus codices on a secular subject, and a key record of the transmission of practical, technical information from the Hellenistic world to Byzantium.

The manuscript appears to have been written by the same scribe as a similar codex, Leyden papyrus X, preserved in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, which also contains different recipes for the manufacture of materials. 

"Sometime around 1828 a considerable number of papyri were recovered (presumably by grave robbers) from burial sites near Thebes in central Egypt, many of which were subsequently acquired by Johann d’Anastasy [Giovanni Anastasi] the Swedish-Norwegian Vice Council at Alexandria. These were not in the form of rolls written in ancient hieroglyphics but rather in the form of separate numbered sheets or codices written in Greek, indicating that the documents and burials were from the Greco-Roman period and probably dated from sometime around the late 3rd or early 4th century AD. The papyri in question were in remarkably good condition, due in part to their having been placed either in tightly sealed coffins or in sealed stone containers, and, in part, because they were, at the time of the original burials, brand new, having been especially copied for that purpose as so-called “Totenbeigaben” or death offerings intended to accompany and serve the deceased in the afterlife. The following year d’Anastasy sold 24 of these papyri to the Museum of Antiquities at the University of Leyden, and in 1832 he made a gift of the remaining items to the Swedish Royal Academy of Antiquities. . . .

" . . . neither papyrus contains the mystical symbolism and allegorical indirec- tion so typical of the true alchemical literature. Rather they consist largely of simple, short recipes. In the case of the Leyden papyrus these focus primarily on the preparation of various metal alloys – many of which are intended to imitate the appearance of either gold or silver – for use in making jewelry, in gilding, or in metallic writing, while a few others deal instead with dyes of various sorts. The contents of the Stockholm papyrus have the same form, but focus more on dyeing and the imitation of various precious stones and gems. Both papyri explicitly acknowledge that the alloys and gems which they describe are imitations and not the real thing. Indeed, so simple and safe are some of the recipes that they have actually been proposed as potential laboratory preparations for use in connection with a modern-day history of chemistry course" (The Leyden and Stockholm Papyri. Greco-Egyptian Chemical Documents from the Early 4th Century AD. An English Translation with Brief Notes by Earle Radcliffe Caley, Edited, with a New General Introduction, A Note on Techniques, and a Materials Index by William B. Jensen. Cincinatti, OH: University of Cincinnati, 2008, 3).

In November 2014 a digital facsimile was available from the World Digital Library at this link.

Caley, E. R. “The Stockholm Papyrus : An English Translation with brief notes” Journal of Chemical Education IV:8 (1927) 979-1002.

Lagercrantz, Otto. Papyrus Graecus Holmiensis, Uppsala: Almquist and Wiksells,1913. (Edition and German Translation)

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As a Result of Diocletian's Edict, Police Seize Thirty-Four Biblical Manuscripts in Africa May 19, 303 CE

On February 24, 303 Diocletian's first "Edict against the Christians" ordered the destruction of Christian scriptures and places of worship across the Empire, and prohibited Christians from assembling for worship.

"The police investigation of 19 May 303 into the Cirta (now Constantine) community in Africa reported the seizure of thirty-four biblical manuscripts: one very large, five large, two small, twenty-five of unrecorded size and one made up of four unbound quinions. The figures could suggest that there were a large number of Bible manuscripts in fourth-century Africa. Very many more must have been made when Christianity had survived the persecutions of Diocletian and as it expanded in the following centuries to the barbarian West. Even if Christianity was never to be planted as densely and as intensely in much of the barbarian West as it had been in Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries, there must have been thousands of Latin books of the Bible available in the centuries before 800; indeed they were so numerous that some, no longer wanted or appropriate, came to be discarded and their parchment reused for other texts before that date. [Footnote to the quotation: Examples of discarded fifth-century texts include: Paris, Bibliothèque National, lat. 6400G (fols. 113-30), Acts and Apocalypse (Old Latin) with a fragment of the Catholic Epistles (C[odices]L[atini] A[ntiquiores] v, 565) reused in the seventh to eighth centuries; Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale, lat. 1 (fols. 1-10, 17-18, 20-1, 23-6, 31-5, 38-40, 44, 49), Kings (Old Latin) (CLA III, 389) reused in eighth-century Bobbio; Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, lat. 5763 + Wolfenbüttel, Herzog-August Bibliothek, Weiss 64, Judges and Ruth, (CLA 1, 41) also reused in eighth-century Bobbio. Not all reused texts were Old Latin.] Of these probably thousands only 363 have survived and are listed in the palaeographical guide to Latin manuscripts before 800, E. A. Lowe's Codices Latini Antiquiores" (McGurk, "The oldest manuscripts of the Latin Bible," IN: Gameson (ed) The Early Medieval Bible: Its production, decoration and use [1994] 1).

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Eusebius Introduces His Tabular Timeline System Circa 308 CE – 326 CE

Between 308 and 311 Eusebius Caesariensis (Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius Pamphili), a Roman historian, Christian polemicist, and Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, wrote The Chronicon, or Chronicle (Greek, Pantodape historia, "Universal history").  For the next 18 years Eusebius continued to revise this work, and though Eusebius's Greek text was lost, the work was preserved in Eusebius's final draft (326) by its translation into Latin by Jerome, and by its translation into Armenian.  

One of Eusebius's innovations in this work was a tabular system to coordinate events drawn from several distinct historiographic traditions. His use of the tabular format was influenced by the columnar arrangement of Origen's Hexapla, with which he was familiar. Eusebius's Chronicon became a fundamental text for the development of historical writing in the Middle Ages. 

As Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams wrote in Christianity and the Transformation of the Book (2006, p. 136), Eusebius's Chronicle made it possible "to fix a whole world on paper" by aligning data from various strands of biblical and Near Eastern historiography. Eusebius divided his Chronicle into two parts, the Chronography and the Canons. The Chronography is a tabular list of synchronisms of Greek, Roman, and Jewish history; the Canons is a systematic chronicle of world history and following nineteen ancient states down through time, culminating in one column representing the Roman empire. To Grafton and Williams the importance of the Hexapla for Eusebius was that it trained him to read parallel texts "word by word", comparing them closely and allowing the discrepancies to remain (pp. 169-170).

As first compiled, the Chronicon consisted of two parts: in the first (‘the chronography’),

"Eusebius treated the history of each ancient people or empire separately, listing their rulers or magistrates, the years of their reigns, and the events which took place in those years; in the second (‘the chronological canons’), he tried to reconcile the various chronologies and historical narratives current in the ancient world, by laying out their histories in a tabular format which would allow the reader to look across the columns and to compare what was going on in the different kingdoms at the same time. It was second part which was revolutionary, and it was this section which was translated and made available to the Latin West by Jerome. Eusebius’ Chronicle no longer survives in the original Greek. An Armenian translation exists in two versions, though the end of book one and start and end of book two are lost in both.  

"The tabular layout was achieved by making use of a new type of manuscript, the codex. Consisting of sheets folded and stitched together in the manner of a modern book, this type of book largely supplanted the scroll between the second and fourth centuries. Eusebius took each ‘opening’ in his codex and divided it up into vertical columns. The events of the period were listed in two broad columns, one at the centre of each of the opposing pages. To their left and right were columns of numbers giving the years according to the regnal chronologies current in the period in question. Into the column to the extreme left Eusebius put an index of years divided into ten year intervals, the next he headed as [Kings] of the Persians (or of whichever empire was dominant at the time), and that to the extreme right he headed [Kings] of the Egyptians for as long as they lasted. When a new power came along he added an extra column for them, and when they failed their column vanished with them. The ascent of a new king was placed in the column of his kingdom, but, given a horizontal line of its own, as though it had happened between years. Thereafter the series of numbers in this kingdom’s column would be restarted, running 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on.  

"Merton 315 illustrates this layout. Consider, for example, fols. 49v and 50r, which cover the years 1196–1182 BC in Eusebius’s reckoning. It is to these years that Eusebius assigns the Trojan War. In this opening three rulers come to the throne: the judges of the Jews Esebon and Labdon, and the pharaoh of the Egyptians Thuoris. Some attempt has been made to distinguish the columns by using different coloured inks—red, green and black. Notice also that the entries on folio 49v are very much concerned with issues of chronology: ‘In the book of Judges [11:26], Jephthah says from the era of Moses to himself is reckoned to be 300 years’; ‘After Hesebon in the book of the Hebrews, Aelon is considered to have ruled as Judge over the people for ten years, which the seventy translators do not have.’  

Further into the text, once the Romans have overrun the other major empires of the Mediterranean world, the need for multiple columns is reduced, and the work proceeds on single pages rather than by two-page openings. Note also that Eusebius starts his tables, not with the date of Creation, but with the earliest date in the Biblical narrative which he could correlate securely with the chronologies of the other peoples—namely, the birth of Abraham. He places this event in the 43rd year of the reign of Ninus, king of the Assyrians—2016 years before the birth of Christ. Writing in 379 or 380, Jerome, for his part, extended Eusebius’s coverage from AD 327 to 378—or as he puts it in his preface, from the twentieth year of Constantine to the second of the Emperor Valentinian. But note also that Jerome claims to have modified and added much to the annals between the Fall of Troy and 327/the twentieth year of Constantine.  

"Theories as to the purpose of this chronicle vary. One common view is that Eusebius produced the work as a preparatory step towards the writing of his Ecclesiastical History, because he needed to reconcile the chronological data from various Greek sources—Porphyry, Castor, Erastothenes, and so on—with that found in Scripture. The problem with this view is that the chronological scope of the two works is so very different. Another view is that the aim was to show how the national histories of the Mediterranean world fitted into the overarching scheme of Salvation History—how, that is, they fitted into God’s grand plan for the redemption of humanity. The problem with this theory is that Eusebius starts, not with creation, but with the birth of Abraham—at a point when the world was already, according to his reckoning, 3,184 years old. Another approach focuses on Eusebius’s revision of the received Christian chronology of Sextus Julius Africanus. Whereas Sextus had placed Christ’s death in the 5,500th year of world, Eusebius’s chronology implied that Christ was born in its 5,199th year. This can be seen as an attempt to deflate millennial expectations, because the former dating when combined with the belief that the world would last six millennia—an idea that Sextus had helped to promote—implied that the Second Coming would take place in AD 500. Eusebius’s revised chronology, on the other hand, rejuvenated the world, implying that the sixth age would continue until 799/800. The problem with this theory is that Eusebius does not use annus-mundi chronology as his fundamental system of reference, nor does he make mention in his chronicle of the dangers of millennarianism. There were chroniclers who were much involved with countering this danger, such as Bede and Isidore of Seville, but they are wholly explicit about their concerns, and they use annus-mundi chronology to organise their annals.  

"Another view is that the purpose was to help new converts to the faith to assimilate the historical traditions of the Middle East and the Jews—traditions which would have been alien to those who had been educated according to the established norms of Greco-Roman education. ‘Visually and succintly’, as McKitterick puts it, ‘it sets out and locates in time the relationship between the various elements of an educated Christian’s universe.’ Of the various theories this one is the most in keeping with the words of Eusebius’s preface, which stresses the simple utility of his tabular arrangement for translating dates from one chronological system to another. We have, he explains, placed the series of years in opposition to each other ‘so as to provide a simple method for discovering in which era, Greek or barbarian, the prophets, kings, and priests of the Hebrews existed, likewise when falsely-believed gods of various nations existed, when demi-gods, when any city was founded, concerning illustrious men, when philosophers, poets, princes, and writers of various works appeared, and any other ancient event, if it was thought deserving of recording’ "(http://www.lancs.ac.uk/staff/haywardp/hist424/seminars/Merton315.htm, accessed12-23-2012).

"Ancient and medieval historians had their own techniques of chronological notation. From the fourth century in Europe, the most powerful and typical of these was the table. Though ancient chronologies were inscribed in many different forms, among scholars the table form had a normative quality much as the timeline does today. In part, the importance of the chronological table after the fourth century can be credited to the Roman Christian scholar Eusebius. Already in the fourth century Eusebius had developed a sophisticated table structure to organize and reconcile chronologies drawn from historical sources from all over the world. To clearly present the relations between Jewish, pagan, and Christian histories, Eusebius laid out their chronologies in parallel columns that began with the patriarch Abraham and the founding of Assyria. The reader who moved through Eusebius's history, page by page, saw empires and kingdoms rise and fall, until all of them—even the kingdom of the Jews—came under Rome's universal rule, just in time to make the Savior's message accessible to all of humanity. By comparing individual histories to one another and the unform progress of the years, the reader could see the hand of providence at work.

"Eusebius created his visually lucid Chronicle just when he and other Christians were first adopting the codex, or bound book, in place of the scroll. Like other Christian innovations in book design, the parallel tables and lucid, year-by-year, decade-by-decade order of the Chronicle reflected the desire of early Christian scholars to make the Bible and the sources vital for understanding it available and readily accessible for quick reference. The Chronicle was widely read, copied, and imitated in the Middle Ages. And it catered to a desire for precision that other popular forms—like the genealogical tree—could not satisfy" (Rosenberg & Grafton, Cartographies of Time. A History of the Timeline [2010] 15-16).

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts of Jerome's translation is Bodleian Codex  Lat. Auct. T. II. 26, most of which was written in Italy in an uncial hand about the middle of the fifth century (Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores II [1935] No. 233a.)

"Ff. 1-32 years, are in a late (s.XV?) hand in the priores (long-lines) format. The remainder (A. Abr. 555-2394) is in a fifth century hand, the last leaf is missing, and the one-leaf summary replacing it is either by the same or a contemporary hand. There are marginalia dating from around 1400.

"The manuscript was acquired from an unknown source by Jean de Tillet, Bishop of Meaux, who died in 1570. Du Tillet had obtained authority from Francis I to collect Mss from French libraries; there are reasons to suppose that the Ms. was in the South of France ca. 1400. Pontacus borrowed it from him and cites it by the name of the Meldensis (M). Sirmond, in his edition of Marcellinus (1619, 1696) refers to it as being in Tillet's library. It then passed to the Jesuit College of Clermont at Paris. This library was sold in 1764, when it was acquired by Meerman. On the sale of his library in 1824, it was bought by Gaisford for the Bodleian." This was edited and published in facsimile by John Knight Fotheringham as The Bodleian Manuscript of Jerome's Version of the Chronicle of Eusebius Reproduced in Collotype (1905). In December 2012 an online English translation of this manuscript was available at this link.

Eusebius's Chronicon was first published in print by Philippus de Lavagnia of Milan about 1474-75. The text published was the Latin translation of Jerome with the continuations of Prosper Aquitanus and Matthaeus Palmerius Florentinus. The first printed edition is undated, and the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) ie00116000 states that the edition is "also recorded as [not after 1468?]." As explanation for their estimation of the date of this undated edition, the ISTC states:

"The printer's name appears on the first leaf. The copy in Parma Palatina belonged to Nicodemo Tranchedini who listed this book, among others, in his Zibaldone [an early form of commonplace book] under the date 19 June 1475 (P. Parodi, in Giornale storico delle province parmensi 20 (1920) pp.162-64)

"P. Scapecchi, in L. Fabbri and M. Tacconi (edd.), I libri del Duomo di Firenze (Firenze, 1997) pp.168-70, reports the MS. date 1468 in the copy at Firenze N. Cf. also Ganda(Lavagna) pp.87-88."

Carriker, The Library of Eusebius of Caesarea (2003) 38-40.

(This entry was last revised on 01-05-2014.)

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The First Full Length Historical Narrative Written from the Christian Point of View Circa 313 CE – 326 CE

Between 313 and 314 CE Roman historian and Christian polemicist Eusebius (Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius Pamphili) wrote Historia ecclesiastica or Historia ecclesiae, a chronological account of the development of Early Christianity from the 1st to 4th century. This was the first full length historical narrative written from the Christian point of view. Eusebius prepared his final edition of the work from 325 to 326.

Eusebius wrote in Koine Greek, but the earliest surviving texts of the work are Latin, Armenian, and Syriac manuscripts, one of the earliest of which, National Library of Russia, Codex Syriac 1, dates to 462 CE. 

"In the early 5th century two advocates in Constantinople, Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen, and a bishop, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Syria, wrote continuations of Eusebius' church history, establishing the convention of continuators that would determine to a great extent the way history was written for the next thousand years. Eusebius' Chronicle, that attempted to lay out a comparative timeline of pagan and Old Testament history, set the model for the other historiographical genre, the medieval chronicle or universal history.

"Eusebius had access to the Theological Library of Caesarea and made use of many ecclesiastical monuments and documents, acts of the martyrs, letters, extracts from earlier Christian writings, lists of bishops, and similar sources, often quoting the originals at great length so that his work contains materials not elsewhere preserved. For example he wrote that Matthew composed the Gospel according to the Hebrews and his Church Catalogue suggests that it was the only Jewish gospel. It is therefore of historical value, though it pretends neither to completeness nor to the observance of due proportion in the treatment of the subject-matter. Nor does it present in a connected and systematic way the history of the early Christian Church. It is to no small extent a vindication of the Christian religion, though the author did not primarily intend it as such. Eusebius has been often accused of intentional falsification of the truth; in judging persons or facts he is not entirely unbiased" (Wikipedia article on Church History (Eusebius), accessed 12-23-2012).

Eusebius's Historia ecclesiastica, as translated by Rufinus Aquileiensis, was first published in print by Nicholaus Ketelaer and Gerardus de Leempt of Utrecht in 1474. ISTC No.: ie00124000.

Carriker, The Library of Eusebius of Caesarea (2003) 38-40.

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A Sarcophagus Showing a Greek Physician in His Library Circa 320 CE

A Roman sarcophagus from Ostia, Italy, dating from about 320 and preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, depicts a Greek physician in his library reading a papyrus roll with a book cabinet in which other rolls are visible. On top of the book cabinet an open case depicts surgical instruments.

A warning inscribed on the sarcophagus in Greek may be translated as:

"If anyone shall dare to bury another person along with this one, he shall pay to the treasury three times two thousand [whatever the unit was]. This is what he shall pay to [the city of] Portus, but he himself will endure the eternal punishment of the violator of graves."

"The tomb's owner is shown seated with an open scroll, the pose of a philosopher, demonstrating that he is a learned man. His profession can be identified by the open case containing surgical tools on the cabinet top. Other scrolls and a basin for bleeding patients within the cabinet offer further proof of his profession. The style of his dress and the language of the inscription indicate that he was one of the many Greeks living in Italy. Beginning in the 300s, Christians would adopt in their art the philosopher pose and the undulating motifs, or strigils, that appear on the sides of the sarcophagus" (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/48.76.1, accessed 10-25-2011).

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The Codex Vaticanus Circa 325 CE – 350 CE

A page from the Codex Vaticanus. (View Larger)

The Codex Vaticanus, a 4th century uncial manuscript of the Septuagint and the New Testament, is, along with the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the two extant 4th century manuscripts of the Old and New Testament in Greek, the language used by the early Christians. Some experts estimate the date of the Codex Vaticanus as slightly prior to the Codex Sinaiticus. The Codex Vaticanus was written on sheets of parchment in a three-column format in Biblical majuscule in scriptio continua, without word division, punctuation or pagination, by two or three different scribes.  Quires are numbered in the margin. Its page format is considerably smaller than the Codex Sinaiticus, with its pages currently measuring 27 x 27 cm. Its place of origin is uncertain; Rome, southern Italy, Alexandria, and Caesarea have been proposed.

Originally the manuscript must have been composed of 820 parchment leaves, but it appears that 71 leaves have been lost. Currently, the Old Testament consists of 617 sheets and the New Testament of 142 sheets. Pages 1519-1536 containing Hebrews 9:14 through Revelation, were lost and replaced by a 15th century minuscule supplement.

"The manuscript is believed to have been housed in Caesarea in the 6th century, together with the Codex Sinaiticus (the same unique divisions of chapters in the Acts). It came to Italy – probably from Constantinople – after the Council of Florence (1438–1445)" (Wikipedia article on Codex Vaticanus, accessed 12-05-2010).

During the 10th or 11th century the fading ink of the codex was written over, so that the original characters are obscured.

The manuscript has been housed in the Vatican Library for as long as it has been known to scholars; it was included in the Vatican Library's earliest catalogue in 1475.

The Codex Vaticanus was first reproduced in engraved semi-facsimile as Bibliorum sacrorum graecus codex Vaticanus auspice Pio IX. Pontifice Maximo collatis studiis Caroli Vercellone Sodalis Barnabitae et Josephi Cozza Monachi Basiliani editus (Rome, 1868). In December 2013 a digital facsimile of this 1868 edition was available from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts at this link.

(This entry was last revised on 04-27-2014.)

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The Text of Pappus's Mathematical Collection is Based on a Single 10th Century Manuscript Circa 325 CE – 950

Vat. gr. 218 fols. 39v-40r, two pages of the earliest surviving copy of Pappus's 'Collection.' (View Larger)

Pappus of Alexandria (Πάππος ὁ Ἀλεξανδρεύς) was one of the last great Greek mathematicians, astronomers and geographers of antiquity. His main work, in eight books and titled Synagoge or Collection, did not survive in complete form; its first book is lost, and its other books are lacking portions. Besides a record of Pappus's own work, the Synagoge  is a major source — sometimes the only source — for the work of Pappus's predecessors.

In addition to his Synagoge, Pappus is known for Pappus's Theorem in projective geometry. Virtually nothing is known of his life; even the traditional understanding that he taught at Alexandria cannot be confirmed, and the belief that he had a son named Hermodoros, to whom he dedicated the seventh and eighth books of the Synagoge, is only one possible interpretation of ambiguous language.

The earliest surviving copy of Pappus's text, and the basis for all later versions, is Vat. gr. 218, a 10th century manuscript of the Synagoge written on parchment and preserved in the Vatican Library. The manuscript seems to have been in the Vatican library by 1311 or possibly by 1266, but it does not seem to have been copied until much later. Pappus's Collection was first published in print in the Latin translation and commentaries of Federico Commandino issued by Francisco de Franciscis Senense of Venice in 1588. Because the first book was lost, and the edition did not include book two, the 1588 edition began with book three. The missing book two was first published by John Wallis in Oxford in 1688.

Bulmer-Thomas, Ivor, "Pappus of Alexandria," Dictionary of Scientific Biography 10, 293-304.  Thanks to Juan José Betancur Muñoz who pointed out in an email to me that Pappus's use of Έρμοδωρε τέκνον in his reference to Hermodoros "signifies a certain filial relation between the two persons in the sentence; however, it does not imply necessarily a father-son relation." (This entry was last revised on 11-14-2014.)

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The Codex Sinaiticus Circa 330 CE – 360 CE

The Codex Sinaiticus. (View Larger)

The Codex Sinaiticus (formerly known as the Codex Sinaiticus Petropolitanus) was written in Koine Greek in the mid-4th century, by at least three scribes. The codex was written in uncial majuscule in scriptio continua, without word division, punctuation or pagination; it incorporates two ancient methods for numbering its quires, and it also incorporates a version of the system of numbering the paragraphs of the Gospels developed by Eusebius of Caesarea. It was written in a four-column format except for the poetical and wisdom literature in which a two-column format was used. This is the only surviving biblical manuscript employing the four-column page format, and it has been suggested that this is reminiscent of the papyrus roll format rather than the codex. It is thought that the codex was written somewhere in Asia Minor, Palestine (Caesarea?) or Egypt.

The Codex Sinaiticus is unique among ancient manuscripts for the number of corrections that were made to it by ancient correctors.  In his monograph on the codex (reference below, p. 76) D. C. Parker states that there may be as many as 27,000 corrections to the text. The number of corrections and the care in which they were made suggests, according to Parker, the importance that may have been given to this manuscript early in its history.

Originally the Codex Sinaiticus contained the Old Testament, according to the canon of the Greek Septuagint, including the books known in English as the Apocrypha, (but without 2 and 3 Maccabees), along with the New Testament and two other early Christian books—the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas. The complete codex originally consisted of at least 97 quires, each containing 8 leaves or 16 pages, incorporating a total of 776 leaves. In its current form the codex comprises just over 400 leaves, each of which measure 380 mm (15 in.) high by 345 mm (13.5 in.) wide. In size and extent this represented a quantum leap from the papyrus codices in which early Christian documents were most typically written. Most papyrus codices are thought to have contained only one of the Gospels, and the most it is thought that could have been incorporated in the largest papyrus codex would have been the Gospels and Acts.

Compared to the smaller papyrus codices, from the standpoint of book history the completion of the Codex Sinaiticus on parchment may represent an achievement comparable to Gutenberg's invention of printing by movable type more than 1000 years later. However, just over half of the original book survived, now dispersed between four institutions: St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai (where the manuscript was discovered), the British Library, Leipzig University Library, and the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg. At the British Library the largest surviving portion - 347 leaves, or 694 pages - includes the whole of the New Testament. The other institutions hold portions of the Septuagint, which also survived almost complete, plus the Epistle of Barnabas, and portions of The Shepherd of Hermas

After his conversion to Christianity the Emperor Constantine  commissioned fifty Greek Bibles for the churches of his new capitol, Constantinople, and ever sincer the Codex Sinaiticus was discovered it was speculated that the Codex Sinaiticus was among those commissioned. However, there is no evidence to substantiate this speculation. None of the fifty copies has ever been conclusively identified.

In February 2014 a digital facsimile of the Codex and podcasts about the manuscript were available from the British Library at this link.

All surviving portions of the Codex were joined in a virtual electronic edition at Codexsinaiticus.org.

♦ Please use the exact phrase keyword search under Codex Sinaiticus to locate several other entries in this database pertinent to this codex as it appears in book history over the centuries.

For a general guide to the codex see  Parker, Codex Sinaiticus. The Story of the World's Oldest Bible (2010).

♦ It is one thing to write about a book; it is another thing altogether to see it and handle it; I would never even dream of being allowed to handle this priceless volume. However, in February 2014 I acquired through Amazon.com the full color facsimile edition of the Codex Sinaiticus published by the British Library and Henrickson Publishers in 2010. I noticed this facsimile when it was originally advertised, but resisted purchasing. Then, when it appeared that the facsimile was being remaindered, I acquired a new copy for only $300, plus only $3.99 shipping. I emphasize only $3.99 because the facsimile in its double shipping box weighed 15.5 kg or over 35 pounds, and even though it was sent by media mail, the seller obviously had to pay far more to ship it than Amazon would allow them to charge. Like the priceless original codex, the facsimile is a stunningly impressive volume 43 x 35.5 cm, very finely printed on heavy art paper, and very sturdily bound in a strong slipcase. The volume is 8.5 cm thick. The "Reference Guide" included with the volume indicates that the publishers had to reduce the images of the pages very slightly, by approximately 5%, "to bring the pages down to the maximum size which could be bound by machine." Through hefting this volume and paging through it one can get a sense of the magnificent physicality of the achievement that is the Codex Sinaiticus.

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The Decline of Literacy in the Byzantine Empire 330 CE – 1453

"The Byzantine empire is often thought of as an age of decline. Such a view does not do justice to its distinctive qualities as the home of a new style of art and as a civilising influence in eastern Europe. But there is a sense in which it was obviously inferior to the empire that had once controlled the whole Mediterranean area. In economic terms it was not able to provide for the inhabitants of its towns and villages the standard of living and amenities that had been enjoyed by the vast majority of the citizens of the Roman empire. We may infer that one of the direct consequences of the decline in standards was a reduction the number of people able to acquire an education. Although there is some evidence, principally from lives of saints, that elementary education was widely available, the impression must remain that literacy was less widespread and the average level of culture less high than had been the case in the ancient world. It is hard to imagine, for instance, a Byzantine province producing evidence of readers with such diverse and learned interests as those provded by the finds of papyri from the country districts of Greco-Roman Egypt. From the reduced economic circumstances of the Byzantine empire it would be tempting to infer that the prospects for the survival of ancient Greek literature were poor, and that there would be little chance of it being the object of scholarly study. Certainly a great deal was lost, and it is impossible to deny that the Byzantines failed to save many texts that had come down to them. Publishing and the book trade in general were so much less well organised than they had been in antiquity that the use of these terms in a Byzantine context is scarcely legitimate. Photius in the ninth century, to name only the most obvious example, read many texts that ceased to be copied soon after. But although some blame must attach to the Byzantines, care should be taken not to allocate them too large a share of the responsibility. At least some of the texts read by Photius will have been lost in 1204 when Constantinople was destroyed by the Fourth Crusade, and there were almost certainly many other books that Photius had not been able to read because even the resources of the richer society of antiquity had failed to guarantee production in sufficient numbers of copies for them to survive the hazards of war and accidental destruction.

"In view of their limited resources the Byzantines made a creditable effort to preseve a high standard of literary culture. As will become clear, they achieved what may be their greatest success at a time of economic and political decline in the late thirteen and early fourteenth centuries. By at all times they maintained, even if only in a small section of their society, an intense interest in liteature. One might suggest that though their cultural activies were confined to the few by economic circumstances, the intensity of activity was greater than at almost any time in antiquity itself. The Byzantines struggled against great odds to uphold their ideals, and these can be seen in various distinctive features of their society. The government required of its chief functionaries a good grounding in classical literature, and they attempted to display their culture in the documents drafted for public circulation by the excellence of their prose style and sometimes even by literary allusions. The government's expectations of candidates for employment in the top ranks of the civil service are made clear by an order of the emperor Constantius and his junior colleague Julian in 360 (Theodosian Code 14.1.1): 'No person shall obtain a post of the first rank unless it shall be proved that he excels in long practice of liberal studies, and that he is so polished in literary matters that words flow from his pen faultlessly.' Although this order may soon have been forgotten and does not appear to have been renewed by later emperors, in practice successive governments behaved as if it were still in force. . . ." (Wilson, Scholars of Byzantium [1983] 1-2).

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De rebus bellicis, Including Images of War Machines Circa 337 CE – 378 CE

Detail of image from De rebus bellicis showing fanciful ox-powered wheel boat.  Please click to view entire image.

The anonymous illustrated pamphlet De rebus bellicis, which survived in the late ninth century Codex Spirensis, consists of a series of suggestions for reforming the Roman Empire. It was written after the reign of Constantine, which ended with his death on May 22, 337, but before the battle of Adrianople fought on August 9, 378 between an army of the Eastern Roman Emperor Valens and Gothic rebels.

"Reforms of Imperial financial policy, of the currency, of provincial administration, of the army, and of the law are proposed in turn. The writer describes a number of new mechanical contrivances which in his opinion ought to form part of the equipment of the Roman army. To facilitate the task of constructing them he included in his treatise coloured drawings of what these contrivances should look like when completed. More or less faithful copies of his drawings have survived in several of the manuscripts" (Thompson, A Roman Reformer and Inventor. Being a New Text of the Treatise De Rebus Bellicis with a Translation and Introduction [1952] 1).

A brief work which would have had small chance of survival on its own, De rebus bellicis survived in the Codex Spirensis, a collection of thirteen different texts, which was noticed by scholars in the early 15th century, and copied several times. Though the "original" Codex Spirensis was later lost, De rebus bellicis, and some of the other texts in the codex which did not exist elsewhere, including the Notitia dignitatum, survived through the copies made at that time. These copies appear to have included faithful renditions of the numerous colored illustrations.

Thompson cited above includes black and white reproductions of the images of imaginative machines in De rebus bellicis. The images, some of which are available on the web, are especially notable because they are copies of late Roman book illustrations, very few of which survived.

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The Earliest Egyptian Printed Cloth Circa 350 CE

The earliest Egyptian printed cloth dates from the 4th century.

"In his Natural History, Pliny states that this technique [printing on textiles] was particularly utilized in Egypt. Printed material is only represented by fabrics of the fourth century at the earliest and continues until the Arab period.  In those days, there were great textile centers such as Alexandria, Panopolis, Oxyrhynchus, Tinnis [Tennis] and Damietta, but regrettably we know this only from texts, because any trace of weaving shops and their fragile wooden looms has vanished.  However, by studying the fabrics themselves, scholars are often able to derive their origins. 

"Actually, only two groups of fabrics have been dated with any certainty. One group was a pair of medallions and a band of flax and purple wool coming from a tomb in Hwara in the Fayoum Oasis, which were found together with a coin dated to 340 AD. These medallions are adorned in a manner that is virtually identical with that of painted Egyptian shrouds of the Roman period and fabrics discovered in Syria. Next to the body of Aurelius Colluthus, in his tomb at Antinoe, were discovered sales contracts and his will, all written in Greek between 454 and 456 AD. He was wrapped in a large tapestry with an upper tier showing two busts under arcades supported by two large columns. A geometrical network with florets and leaves covers the space between the columns, which is a composition very similar to the decorations in paintings and mosaics of the same period" (http://touregypt.net/featurestories/fabrics.htm, accessed 01-29-2010).

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The Earliest Surviving Manuscript of the Old Latin Gospels Circa 350 CE

Folio from Codex Vercellensis. (View Larger)

Preserved in the Museo del Tesoro del Duomo (Capitulary library and archives) of Vercelli, in the Province of Vercelli, Italy, the Codex Vercellensis Evangeliorum written on purple vellum is the earliest surviving manuscript of the old Latin Gospels ("Codex a"). The old Latin texts— also designed Vetus Latina, Vetus Itala, Old Italic— is the collective name given to Biblical texts in Latin that were translated before Jerome's Vulgate Bible became the standard for Latin-speaking Western Christians.

The Codex Vercellensis was written in the usual order of the Western Church— Matthew, John, Luke and Mark, but it no longer contains the last twelve verses of the Gospel of Mark. Tradition has it that it was written under the direction of bishop Eusebius of Vercelli. Because the codex was used for the taking of oaths in the early Middle Ages, much of it is either difficult to read or destroyed, so that a significant portion its text is known primarily from writing by later copyists or editors. It was restored and stabilized in the early twentieth century.

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The Oldest Surviving Manuscript of the Comedies of Terence Circa 350 CE – 450 CE

Dating from the fourth or fifth century, the Codex Bembinus (Vatican Library Vat. lat. 3226) is the oldest surviving manuscript containing all or portions of the six comedies, or Fabulae, of Terence. It is written in Rustic Capitals

"The marginal gloss is in a Cursive Half-Uncial, the handwriting of the educated person of late Antiquity which, as in this example, would often be used for annotation of formal works. It consists of a rapid form of Half-Uncial, as the name suggests" (Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 [1990] no. 7, plate 7).

In the middle of the 15th century the manuscript belonged to Gianantonio de' Pandoni (Porcellio) when in 1457 it was acquired by humanist Bernardo Bembo. It later passed into the collection of humanist, collector and archaeologist Fulvio Orsini, and entered the Vatican Library in 1600.

Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 3rd. ed., (1991) 36.

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The Earliest Surviving Document of the Christian Book Trade and Stichometry Circa 350 CE – 825

The earliest surviving document recording the Christian book trade is a stichometric price-list of books of the Bible and of Cyprian's works, the Indiculum Caecilii Cypriani orignally written in Africa, probably in Carthage shortly after 350. The charges for writing in Latin are calculated on a per line basis, using the length of a typical line of Virgil (Vergil) or 16 syllables, as the standard, or stichos. Lines measured in this way were called stichoi (στιχοι or επη) from the Greek standard based on the length of an average Homeric hexameter, similarly consisting of 16 syllables. Our source for this Greek writing standard is Galen, De Placitis Hippocratis et Platonis (On the Opinions of Hippocrates and Plato) Viii.I. 

One motive that the anonymous author of this text seems to have had was to provide a method of checking up on dishonest scribes and booksellers. He wrote:

"Because the index of verses in Rome is not clearly given, and because in other places too, as a result of greed, they do not preserve it in full, I have gone through the books one by one, counting sixteen syllables per line, and have appended to each book the number of Virgilian hexameters it contains" (Translated in Rouse & McNelis, 205). 

In their study of the Indiculum Caecilii Cypriani Rouse & McNelis (reference below) state (p. 202) that "the use of stichometry seems to die in the Latin West in late antiquity."

The earliest surviving text of this work is the collection of texts called Cod. Sang. 133, preserved in the Abbey library of St. Gall (St. Gallen), and probably written there in the late 8th or early 9th century. Chronologically, the next surviving copy of this text is Vitt. Em. 1325 (formerly Cheltenham or Phillipps 12266), written at Nonantola Abbey in the 10th or early 11th century, and now preserved in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma.

Bischoff, Manuscripts and Libraries in the Age of Charlemagne (2007) 2. Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and Middle Ages (1990) 184. Rouse & McNelis, "North African literary activity: A Cyprian fragment, the stichometric lists and a Donatist compendium," Revue d'histoire des textes, 30 (2000) 189-238.

♦ Special thanks to Jean-Baptiste Piggin, whose 5-28-2011 post in his Macro-Typography blog regarding the Cod. Sang. 133, enabled me to revise and improve this database entry on 05-29-2011.

In February 2014 a digital facsimile of Cod. Sang. 133 was available at this link.

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"To Fronto Belongs the Unique Distinction of Surviving Solely as the Lower Script in No Fewer than Three Palimpsests" (Reynolds) Circa 350 CE – 475 CE

A bust of Fronto. (View Larger)

The writings of Roman grammarian, rhetorician and advocate, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, were

"cut to pieces in the Dark Ages. Any author may fall on hard times, when parchment is scarce and other texts are more in demand, but to Fronto belongs the unique distinction of surviving solely as the lower script in no fewer than three palimpsests, which range in date from about 350 to 475.

"The first preserves a few words from the end of his Gratiarum actio pro Cathaginiensibus. It is part of that remarkable manuscript Vatican, Pal. lat 24, which is a tissue of ancient codices, largely of classical authors and Italian in origin, which were reused in Italy to make up a copy of the Old Testament. The Fronto fragment (ff. 45 and 53, CLA I. 72) is written in rustic capitals of s. IV-V [4th to 5th centuries]; the text was discovered by Angelo Mai in 1820 and published by him in 1823.

"The extensive remains of Fronto's Correspondence are transmitted as the lower script of Milan, Abros. E. 147 sup. + Vatican lat 5750, written in an uncial hand of the later fifth century, presumably in Italy; it was rewritten in the seventh century, probably at Bobbio, where it was later housed, with a Latin translation of the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon. Both parts were discovered by Mai, the Ambrosian in 1815, the Vatican in 1819, and published in 1815 and 1823 respectively. The first, in particular, suffered disastrously from his heavy use of chemical reagents.

"It seemed, until 1956, that further gains to Fronto's text could come only from strenuous emendation and decipherment; but in that year Bernhard Bischoff pointed out that a third manuscript, published as early as 1750 and conjecturally ascribed to Fronto (then undiscovered) by Dom Tassin in the Nouveau traité de diplomatique, contained fragments of Epit. ad Verum 2.1 which actually overlap with the Milan palimpsest. This is one leaf of Paris lat 12161 (pp. 133-4,CLA v. 629) rewritten  probably at Corbie, the late seventh or early eight century with Jerome and Gennadius, De viris illustribus. The original script, a sixth century uncial, may perhaps belong to southern France, in which case we have what could be a remnant of the last flowering of rhetorical studies in Gaul" (Reynolds ed., Texts and Transmission [1983] 173-74).

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The Most Richly Illustrated Greek Papyrus Circa 350 CE

The recto side of P.Oslo I 4, a section of the mentioned papyrus. (View  Larger)

The "Oslo Papyrus" (P.Oslo 1.1), a magical papyrus roll about 8.3 feet long, written around the year 350 in 12 columns on the recto, and transversa charta (written at a 90 degree angle to the fibers) on the verso, is "the most richly illustrated Greek papyrus" (Diringer). It is an "erotic magical text, containing recipes, mixtures and medicaments, and, finally, instructions for opening the door, which may have been recommendation to a lover who wished to break into the house of the maiden." Seven of its columns of text are illustrated by figures of the demons invoked.  The illustration is done in the Egyptian style. The papyrus also includes "a remedy to prevent conception, the only one that exists in the world." 

The papyrus was donated to the University of Oslo by S. Eitrem in the 1930s, as part of a collection of 329 papyri and fragments from Karanis and Theodelphia which he purchased from dealers in Cairo and the Faiyum.

"It may, therefore be argued that even if we have not sufficient evidence to show that the Greek art of book illustration descended from the Egyptian, there can be no doubt that the latter had a strong influence on the origin and development of the Greek ornamentation and illustration of books. In Weitzmann's opinion, the so-called papyrus style probably originated in pre-Hellenistic Egypt and was only adapted and further developed by the Greeks; furthermore 'Alexandria was probably the actual centre which provided the facilities for the development of roll illustration as a new branch of Greek art.'

"There is no evidence, however, that 'illumination' of books was practised in ancient Greece or Rome on a large scale. Indeed the earliest preserved MSS, are free from ornamentation, and the earliest codices extant show a minumum of colour" (Diringer, The Illuminated Book: Its History & Production [1967] 29-30).

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The Earliest of Two Surviving Examples of Codices Written Entirely in Roman Square Capitals, and the Earliest Manuscript with a Large Ornamented Initial Letter at the Beginning of Each Page Circa 350 CE

One of the four leaves of the Vergilius Augusteus that resides in the Vatican Library.(View Larger)

The Codex Augusteus of Virgil, or the Vergilius Augusteus, was once thought to have been created in the Age of Octavian, the first Roman Emperor, but was later estimated to have been written in the fourth century CE. This and the Codex Sangallensis, are the only surviving examples of ancient manuscripts written entirely in Square capitals, a style of writing that was extremely complex and time consuming, and most often reserved for display headings. The Codex Augusteus also contains the earliest surviving examples of large ornamented initial letters at the beginning of each page. 

Square capitals were generally reserved for display purposes, or for use in monumental epigraphic inscriptions (scriptura monumentalis). "The angular letter-forms, with their frequent changes of angle and their serifs, were difficult to achieve with the reed pen (calamus) hence the preference for more rounded book scripts" (Brown, A Guide to Western Historical Scripts from Antiquity to 1600 [1990] no. 1 and plate 1).

"According to Lowe, the Codex was almost certainly written in Italy. The script is the creation of the broad pen whose edge is held parallel to the base line; the position of the arm for which, according to the cut of the pen, gives thick perpendiculars and thin sub-strokes. It is a position, also, that requires to be maintained by a constant effort of the will if the letters to is to remain consistent throughout. Accordingly, when, as often, the o is tilted, it is probably against the intention of the scribe" (Morison, Politics and Script. . . . Barker ed. [1972] 49).

Only seven leaves of the manuscript survive, of which four are in the Vatican Library (Vat. Lat. 3256), and the remaining three in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Lat. fol. 416.) The manuscript was probably written in Italy. By the 15th century it was in St. Denis, Paris. The four leaves in the Vatican Library belonged to the jurist, humanist and bibliophile, Claude Dupuy. He gave two leaves to the humanist, historian and archaeologist Fulvio Orsini in 1574, and gave him the other two in 1575.  

Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores I (1934) no. 13.  Lowe, "Some facts about our Oldest Latin Manuscripts," Bieler (ed) E. A. Lowe. Palaeographical Papers 1907-1965 (1972) 189.

Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) B3 (pp. 26-27, with excellent images).

(This entry was last revised on 08-15-2014.)

 

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The Earliest and Largest Part of the Surviving Text of Cicero's De re publica Was Preserved in a Palimpsest Circa 350 CE

Vat. Lat. 5757, a fourth century palimpsest of Cicero's De re publica (De res publica, De republica) preserved in the Vatican Library represents the largest part of the surviving text of this text. It was palimpsested in the seventh or eighth century with a commentary of St. Augustine on the psalms. The palimpsest was formerly in the library of Bobbio Abbey.

In 1819-1822 Cardinal and philologist Angelo Mai discovered and published the undertext of the palimpsest. Ironically, Cicero's first century BCE political text had been preserved when the vellum leaves were copied over with a religious text at a time during the Middle Ages when interest in classical texts was minimal, and vellum was very expensive. Before Mai's discovery "Scipio's Dream" was the only larger excerpt of the text that was known to have survived the Middle Ages. Somnium Scipionis survived because it was the subject of a commentary (Commentarii in somnium Scipionis)  by the early fifth century Roman writer Macrobius, who excerpted large portions. Both Macrobius and his readers in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were mainly interested in its discussion of astrology and astronomy, especially given the loss of the rest of the text. An enterprising copyist early in the textual tradition appended a copy of the Somnium to a copy of Macrobius's Commentary, but this copy appears to be inferior to the text available to Macrobius, who wrote during the twilight of the Roman Empire before the destruction of most of the Roman libraries. The text that accompanied Macrobius's commentary became so popular that its transmission was polluted by multiple copies—so many that it became impossible to establish a stemma for it. The other fragments of De re publica are mainly quotes found in the work of other authors, including Augustine and the Roman grammarian Nonius Marcellus. Through the discussion of Cicero's treatise by these authors the main topics of each book in Cicero's work can be surmised.

Cardinal Mai's discovery was one of "the first major recoveries of an ancient text from a palimpsest, and although Mai's techniques were crude by comparison with later scholars', his discovery of De Republica heralded a new era of rediscovery and inspired him and other scholars of his time to seek more palimpsests" (Wikipedia article on De re publica, accessed 09-14-2010). 

(This entry was last revised on 07-10-2014.)

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Biblical and Roman Law: Precursor of Footnotes; Early Uniform Pagination Circa 350 CE – 450 CE

Of the Collatio legum Romanarum et Mosaicarum, a fourth-century legal treatise which argued that the laws of Moses were compatible with those of Rome, three primary manuscripts survive, of which the Berlin codex, dated by various scholars from the eighth to the tenth century, is considered the earliest and most authoritative.

"The expansion of Christianity and the codification of Roman law are two of the most significant facets of late antiquity. The Collatio Legum Mosaicarum et Romanarum, or Collation of the Laws of Moses and the Romans, is one of the most perplexing works of late antiquity: a law book compiled at the end of the fourth century by an anonymous editor who wanted to show the similarity between laws of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, and Roman law. Citing first laws from the Hebrew Bible - especially from Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy which he believed were written by Moses - the anonymous Collator then compared corresponding passages from Roman jurists and from Roman laws to form discussions on sixteen topics such as homicide, adultery, homosexuality, incest, and cruelty towards slaves. While earlier scholars wrestled with dating the Collatio, the religious identity of the Collator, and the purpose of the work, this book suggests that the Collator was a Christian lawyer writing in the last years of the fourth century in an attempt to draw pagan lawyers to seeing the connections between the law of a monotheistic God and traditional Roman law." 

From the standpoint of book history this text is significant for its precise references to Roman laws, and the way in which these could be precisely cited.

"Fragmentary preserved notes on a legal lecture from the late fifth century C.E. reveal that professors referred students to their sources [in the Collatio] not only by book and chapter divisions, but also by the page number, in what were evidently uniform copies" (Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History [1997] 30).  

If valid, this would be one of the earliest references to maintaining uniform pagination in the copying of manuscripts. 

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One of the Earliest Treatises on Indian Medicine, Written on Birch Bark 350 CE – 550

Dated to the Gupta era, between the 4th and the 6th century CE, the Bower Manuscript, preserved at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, was written on birch bark in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit using the Late Brahmi script or Gupta script. The manuscript preserves one of the earliest treatises on Indian medicine (Ayurveda). The medical parts (I-III) may be based on similar types of medical writings antedating the composition of the saṃhitās of Charaka, Suśruta, and thus rank with the earliest surviving texts on Indian tradition medicine, or Ayurveda.

"The text is written on 51 pages of birch bark leaves of an oblong shape, in the form of those of an Indian pothī. The birch bark of the large portion of the manuscript is of a quality much inferior to that of the smaller portion. The hole for the passage of the binding string is placed about the middle of the left half of the leaves. This placement of the string hole and the oblong form of the leaves point to an imitation of palm leaf pothīs from Southern India by the scribes of Kucā [Kucha].

"The seven parts of the manuscript are written in an essentially identical script, the Gupta Brahmi script, which places the manuscript in the Gupta era (4th to 6th centuries). Hoernle placed the ms. in the 4th century on grounds of paleography, but palaeographical studies. . . present compelling evidence for a later date of about the first half of the 6th century.

"Hoernle distinguished four scribes who wrote parts I-III, part IV, parts V and VII and part VI, respectively. He identified the first and third of these as natives of India who had migrated to Kucā. To judge from the style of writing, the scribe of parts I - III originally came from the northern, the two scribes of parts V-VII from the southern part of the northern area of the Indian Gupta script. The writer of part IV may have been a native of Eastern Turkestan. All four writers must have been Buddhist monks, residing in a monastery near Kucā. The ultimate owner of the whole series of manuscripts, whose name appears to have been Yaśomitra, must have held a prominent position in that monastery, for the bundle of manuscripts was contained in the relic chamber of the memorial stūpa built in his honour" (Wikipedia article on Bower Manuscript, accessed 01-19-2013).

A. F. Rudolf Hoernle, The Bower Manuscript; Facsimile Leaves, Nagari Transcript, Romanised Transliteration and English Translation with Notes. Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing India,1893-1897. A Sanskrit Index was published in 1908, and a revised translation of the medical portions (I,II,and III) in 1909; the Introduction appeared in 1912. 

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The Third Earliest Manuscript of the Four Gospels; One of the Earliest Codices Preserved in the Western Hemisphere Circa 350 CE – 450 CE

The Codex Washingtonianus or Codex Washingtonensis, also called the Washington Manuscript of the Gospels and The Freer Gospels, is the third earliest surviving manuscript the four biblical gospels in Greek, and one of the earliest codices preserved in North America. It is the only ancient codex of the Greek gospels for which at least a partial provenance is known. The codex also has two very distinctive painted wooden covers, encaustic on panels, fifth-seventh century, with portraits of the Four Evangelists. The covers are presently separated from the codex.

The codex was purchased by industrialist and art collector Charles Lang Freer "from an Arab dealer named Ali in Giza (Gizah), near Cairo, on December 19th 1906.... The only hint as to origin or former owner... is the prayer for a certain Timothy in the subscription to Mark, p. 372 in the Facsimile. I have already given my reasons for connecting this with the Church of Timothy in the Monastery of the Vinedresser, which was located near the third pyramid (Abu Salih's Churches and Monasteries of Egypt, trans. by Evertts and Butler, p. 190)...." (Sanders, The New Testament Manuscripts in the Freer Collection [1918] 1-2).

The manuscript is preserved in the Freer Gallery, Sackler Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. In December 2013 a digital facsimile of pages from the 1912 printed facsimile was available from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts at this link.

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The Earliest Dated Codex with Full-Page Illustrations 354 CE

Title page from the Chronography of 354. (View Larger)

The Chronography of 354, also known as the Calendar of 354, is an illuminated manuscript produced for a wealthy Roman Christian named Valentius for the year 354. It is the earliest dated codex with full page illustrations; however none of the original survived. It is thought that the original may have existed in the Carolingian period, when a number of copies were made, with or without illustrations. These were copied during the Renaissance.

♦ The Calender of 354 is signed by Furius Dionysius Filocalus, with the word "titulavit," as creator of the titles which "display great calligraphic mastery. Whether or not he also executed the drawings is unknown" (Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and their Methods of Work [1992] 4), but Furius Dionysius Filocalus is the first known name associated with the production of a specific book.

"The most complete and faithful copies of the illustrations are the pen drawings in a 17th century manuscript from the Barberini collection (Vatican Library, cod. Barberini lat. 2154.) This was carefully copied, under the supervision of the great antiquary Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, from a Carolingian copy, a Codex Luxemburgensis, which was itself lost in the 17th century. These drawings, although they are twice removed from the originals, show the variety of sources that the earliest illuminators used as models for manuscript illustration, including metalwork, frescoes, and floor mosaics. The Roman originals were probably fully painted miniatures.

"Various partial copies or adaptations survive from the Carolingian renaissance and Renaissance periods. Botticelli adapted a figure of the city of Treberis (Trier) who grasps a bound barbarian by the hair for his small panel, traditionally called Pallas and the Centaur.

"The Vatican Barberini manuscript, made in 1620 for Peiresc, who had the Carolingian Codex Luxemburgensis on long-term loan, is clearly the most faithful. After Peiresc's death in 1637 the manuscript disappeared. However some folios had already been lost from the Codex Luxemburgensis before Peiresc received it, and other copies have some of these. The suggestion of Carl Nordenfalk that the Codex Luxemburgensis copied by Peiresc was actually the Roman original has not been accepted. Peiresc himself thought the manuscript was seven or eight hundred years old when he had it, and, though Mabillon had not yet published his De re diplomatica (1681), the first systematic work of paleography, most scholars, following Schapiro, believe Peiresc would have been able to make a correct judgment on its age" (Wikipedia article on the Chronography of 354, accessed 11-25-2008).

In December 2013 a digital facsimile from the Codex Vaticanus Barberini latinus 2154 (=R1) as reproduced in Josef Strzygowski, Die Calenderbilder des Chronographen vom Jahre 354, Series: Jahrbuch des Kaiserlich Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts. vol. 1. Berlin:G. Reimer (1888), was available at this link. That website also included much valuable scholarly apparatus. A digital version of Strzygowski's complete work was available at this link.

The standard printed edition is Salzman, On Roman Time: The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Late Antiquity (1990).

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New Testament Canonization in Process 367 CE

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. (View Larger)

In his Easter letter of 367, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, provided a list of exactly the same books as what would become the 27-book New Testament canon, and he used the word "canonized" (kanonizomena) in regards to them.

"Thus some claim, that from the fourth century, there existed unanimity in the West concerning the New Testament canon (as it is today), and that by the fifth century the Eastern Church, with a few exceptions, had come to accept the Book of Revelation and thus had come into harmony on the matter of the canon. Nonetheless, a full dogmatic articulation of the canon was not made until the Council of Trent of 1546 for Roman Catholicism, the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 for the Church of England, the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 for Calvinism, and the Synod of Jerusalem of 1672 for the Greek Orthodox" (Wikipedia article on Development of the New Testament canon, accessed 12-07-2008).

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The Codex Bezae Cantabridgensis Circa 375 CE – 425 CE

A page from Codex Bezae Cantabridgensis. (View Larger)

The Codex Bezae Cantabrigensis (Cambridge MS Nn.2.41), a codex of the New Testament dating from the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century, was written on vellum by a single scribe in an uncial hand, with Greek and Latin texts on facing pages. Consisting of 510 leaves written in one column per page out of, perhaps, an original 534, it includes most of the four Gospels and Acts, with a small fragment of the Third Epistle of John. Its Latin version is one of a small handful of manuscripts which document the development of the Latin version of the Bible before Jerome's Vulgate, which was commissioned in 382.

"No known manuscript has so many and such remarkable variations from what is usually taken to be the normal New  Testament text. Codex Bezae's special characteristic is the free addition (and occasional omission) of words, sentences, and even incidents. . . ." (Metzger & Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration 4th ed [2005] 71).

Where the manuscript was written is uncertain. Places proposed for its origin include southern France, Africa, Egypt, Palestine, and Berytus (Beirut).

"The manuscript is believed to have been repaired at Lyon in the ninth century as revealed by a distinctive ink used for supplementary pages. It was closely guarded for many centuries in the monastic library of St Irenaeus at Lyon. The manuscript was consulted, perhaps in Italy, for disputed readings at the Council of Trent, and was at about the same time collated for Stephanus's edition of the Greek New Testament. During the upheavals of the Wars of Religion in the 16th century, when textual analysis had a new urgency among the Reformation's Protestants, the manuscript was taken from Lyon in 1562 and delivered to the Protestant scholar Theodore Beza [Theodore de Bèze] the friend and successor of Calvin, who gave it to the University of Cambridge, in the comparative security of England, in 1581, which accounts for its double name" (Wikipedia article on the Codex Bezae Cantabridgensis).

The Codex Bezae is preserved at Cambridge University Library. In December 2013 a digital facsimile was available from Cambridge at this link.

(This entry was last revised on 03-16-2014.)

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The Syriac Sinaiticus: The Oldest Translation of the Bible Circa 375 CE

The Syriac Sinaiticus,  a late 4th century codex also known also as the Sinaitic Palimpsest or the Codex Syriacus, contains a translation of the four canonical gospels of the New Testament into Syriac. It is the oldest translation of the Bible into any language. In 778 CE it was palimpsested with a vita (biography) of female saints and martyrs. The Syriac Sinaiticus is the oldest copy of the gospels in Syriac, and one of two surviving manuscripts (the other being the Curetonian Gospels) that are conventionally dated to before the Peshitta, the standard Syriac translation of the Bible.

The codex was discovered in the library of Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai in February 1892 by Semitic scholar Agnes Smith Lewis, who visited the monastery with her identical-twin sister and Semitic scholar Margaret Dunlop Gibson. The following year the sisters returned with a team of scholars that included J. Rendel Harris, to photograph and transcribe the work in its entirety. The manuscript immediately became a central document in tracing the history of the New Testament, both because of its extremely early date, and as evidence for how Greek New Testament manuscripts were understood by Aramaic speaking communities during that period.

In 1894 Agnes Smith Lewis published Catalogue of the Syriac mss. in the Convent of S. Catharine on Mount SinaiShe described the Syriac Sinaiticus as no. 30 in the catalogue on p. 43, and illustrated a page opening.

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Herald of Christianity and Magus: One of the Oldest Surviving Illustrated Codices Circa 380 CE

Vergilius Vaticanus

The Vergilius Vaticanus (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225; also known as the Vatican Virgil or Vatican Vergil) is an illustrated manuscript written in Rome in rustic capitals toward the end of the fourth century, containing fragments of Vergil's (Virgil's) Aeneid and Georgics. It is one of the oldest sources for the text of the Aeneid,  and one of the oldest surviving illustrated codices on any subect. Therefore some of its images represent firsts in book illustration. For example, the image of the seige of Troy on leaf 19 recto is probably the oldest image of warfare in a codex.

The Vatican Virgil is also the oldest of three surviving lllustrated manuscripts of classical literature. The two others are the Vergilius Romanus (circa 450) and the Ambrosian Iliad (Ilias Ambrosiana) (493-508). Before passing into the Vatican Library, the Vergilius Vaticanus, of which seventy-five leaves survive, belonged to the humanist and poet, Giovanni Giovano Pontano, to the poet, literary theorist and cardinal Pietro Bembo, and to the humanist, historian and archaeologist, Fulvio Orsini.

"It is Italy that has left us the greatest legacy of books and literature from the late Roman world. In the Italy of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries there were probably still stationers who employed scribes to produce books and well as scribes and artists who worked independently. The Codex Vaticanus [same as Vergilius Vaticanus] of Virgil and the Quedlinburg fragment of the Book of Kings in the Vetus Latin version are two products of this professional scribal activity from the end of the fourth century. Both manuscripts might have originated in the same scriptorium" (Bernhard Bischoff, Manuscripts and Libraries in the Age of Charlemagne [2007] 3-4).

Note: In his dating of the Quedlinburg fragment, and his consideration that both might have been produced by the same shop, Bischoff, who originally wrote his essays in German between 1966 and 1981, differs from later scholarship. 

"Even as the Roman empire collapsed, literate men acknowledged that the Christianized Virgil was a master poet.. . . . The Aeneid remained the central Latin literary text of the Middle Ages and retained its status as the grand epic of the Latin peoples, and of those who considered themselves to be of Roman provenance, such as the English. It also held religious importance as it describes the founding of the Holy City. Virgil was made palatable for his Christian audience also through a belief in his prophecy of Christ in his Fourth Ecologue. Cicero and other classical writers too were declared Christian due to similarities in moral thinking to Christianity.

•"In the Middle Ages, Virgil was considered a herald of Christianity for his Ecologue 4 verses (Perseus Project Ecl.4) concerning the birth of a boy, which were read as a prophecy of Jesus' nativity.

•"Also during the Middle Ages, as Virgil was developed into a kind of magus, manuscripts of the Aeneid were used for divinatory bibliomancy, the Sortes Virgilianae, in which a line would be selected at random and interpreted in the context of a current situation" (Wikipedia article on Virgil, accessed 12-03-08).

Possibly coincident with the type facsimile publication in 1741 of the text of the fifth century Codex Mediceus of Virgil, an edition of the illustrations of the Vergilius Vaticanus and the Codex Romanus engraved by Pietro Santi Bartoli was published in Rome: Antiqvissimi Virgiliani codicis fragmenta et picturae ex Bibliotheca Vaticana : ad priscas imaginum formas a Petro Sancte Bartholi incisae. Romae : ex Chalcographia R.C.A., apud Pedem Marmoreum, 1741. This contained 58 engraved plates reproducing images from the Vergilius Vaticanus plus 6 additional illustrations from the Codex Romanus. Catalogue records indicate that Bartoli's images may have been first published separately in 1677.

In 1782 Bartoli's engravings were reissued in an excellent edition combining images from both Virgil manuscripts together with related images from ancient engraved gems depicting events in Virgil.  The new edition was entitled Picturae antiquissimi Virgiliani codicis Bibliothecae Vaticanae a Petro Sancte Bartoli aere incisae accedunt ex insignioribus pinacothecia picturis aliae veteres gemmae et anaglypha, and published in Rome by Venantius Menaldini. The frontispiece, engraved title and dedication of this edition are spectacular. The 1782 edition contains 124 images plus the engraved frontispiece, title, and dedication.

In 1899 the Vatican Library issued a black and white facsimile of the Vatican Vergil as the first of its facsimile series, Codices e vaticanis selecti phototypice expressi, vol. 1. In 1980 they followed this with a facsimile in color as Codices e vaticanis selecti phototypice expressi, vol. 40. The best and most exact facsimile was issued by Akademische Druck-u. Verlagsanstalt, Graz, Austria in 1984. That edition reproduced the manuscript and its 19th century red morocco binding precisely, and included a commentary volume in English by David H. Wright. The definitive study of the manuscript, which places it within the artistic and cultural context of its time, is Wright's The Vatican Vergil. A Masterpiece of Late Antique Art (1993).

Reynolds, Texts and Transmission. A Survey of the Latin Classics (1983) 434.

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The Last Major Surviving Historical Account of the Late Roman Empire Circa 385 CE

About 385 Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, wrote Res gestae libri XXI, the last major surviving historical account of the late Roman empire. His work chronicled the history of Rome from 96 to 378, although only the sections covering the period 353 - 378 remain extant.

“This is the history of events from the reign of the emperor Nerva to the death of Valens, which I, a former soldier and a Greek (miles quondam et Graecus), have composed to the best of my ability. It claims to be the truth, which I have never ventured to pervert either by silence or a lie.” (Amm. Marc. 31.16.9)

“An accurate and faithful guide, who has composed the history of his own times without indulging the prejudices and passions which usually affect the mind of a contemporary.” (Edward Gibbon)

The above quotations are from the introduction to the Ammianus Marcellinus Online Project directed by Jan Willem Drijvers of the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen. This site concerns the biography, bibliography, editions, translations, commentaries, concordances, etc. of Ammianus Marcellinus.

"His [Ammianus's] work has suffered terribly from the manuscript transmission. Aside from the loss of the first thirteen books, the remaining eighteen are in many places corrupt and lacunose. The sole surviving manuscript from which almost every other is derived is a ninth-century Carolingian text, Vatican lat. 1873 (V), produced in Fulda from an insular exemplar. The only independent textual source for Ammianus lies in Fragmenta Marbugensia (M), another ninth-century Frankish codex which was taken apart to provide covers for account-books during the fifteenth century. Only six leaves of M survive; however, before this manuscript was dismantled the Abbot of Hersfeld lent the manuscript to Sigismund Gelenius, who used it in preparing the text of the second Froben edition (G). The dates and relationship of V and M were long disputed until 1936 when R. P. Robinson demonstrated persuasively that V was copied from M. As L.D. Reynolds summarizes, 'M is thus a fragment of the archetype; symptoms of an insular pre-archetype are evident.'

"His handling from his earliest printers was little better. The editio princeps was printed in 1474 in Rome by Georg Sachsel and Bartholomaeus Golsch from 'the worst of the recentiores', which broke off at the end of Book 26. The next edition (Bologna, 1517) suffered from its editor's 'monstrously bad conjectures' upon the poor text of the 1474 edition; the 1474 edition was pirated for the first Froben edition (Basle, 1518). It wasn't until 1533 that the last five books of Ammianus' history was put into print by Silvanus Otmar and edited by Mariangelus Accurius. The first modern edition was produced by C.U. Clark (Berlin, 1910-1913). The first English translations were by Philemon Holland in 1609, and later by C.D. Yonge in 1862" (Wikipedia article on Ammianus Marcellinus, accessed 12-29-2013).

The editio princeps of Ammianus Marcellinus, Historia, libri XIV-XXVI, edited by Angelus Sabinus, was issued in Rome by printers Georgius Sachsel and Bartholmaeus Golsch on June 7, 1474. ISTC. No. ia00564000. In February 2014 a digital facsimile was available from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek at this link.

(This entry was last revised on 05-06-2014.)

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The Oldest Surviving Illustrated Biblical Manuscript Circa 390 CE

The recto side of Folio Two of Quedlinburg Itala. (View Larger)

The Quedlinburg Itala fragment consists of six folios from a large  illuminated manuscript of an Old Latin translation of the Bible. It is the oldest surviving illustrated biblical manuscript, and according to Bernhard Bischoff, it may date from the end of the fourth century. If so, it was probably created in Rome.

"The fragments were found in the bindings of books in the town of Quedlinburg. The illustrations are grouped in framed miniatures occuping an entire page. There are between two and five miniatures per page, with the corresponding text being on separate pages. The illustrations, although much damaged, are done in the illusionistic style of late antiquity. . . .

"Much of the paint surface is lost revealing the underlying writing that gives instructions to the artist who should execute the pictures. Translation of the text: "You make the tomb [by which] Saul and his servant stand and two men, jumping over pits, speak to him and [announce that the asses have been found]. You make Saul by a tree and [his] servant [and three men who talk] to him, one carrying three goats, one [three loaves of bread, one] a wine-skin." (Wikipedia article on Quedlinburg Itala fragment, accessed 11-29-2008).

The fragment is preserved at the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin.

Bischoff, Manuscripts and Libraries in the Age of Charlemagne (2008) 5.

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The Only Ancient Manual of Roman Military Instructions that Survived Intact Circa 390 CE

About 390 CE Roman writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus issued Epitoma rei militaris (also referred to as De re militari), and the lesser-known Digesta artis mulomedicinae, a guide to veterinary medicine.

"The latest event alluded to in his Epitoma rei militaris is the death of the Emperor Gratian (383); the earliest attestation of this work is a subscriptio by one Flavius Eutropius, writing in Constantinople in the year 450, which appears in one of two families of manuscripts, suggesting that a bifurcation of the manuscript tradition had already occurred. Despite Eutropius' location in Constantinople, the scholarly consensus is that Vegetius wrote in the Western Empire. Vegetius dedicates his work to the reigning emperor, who is identified as Theodosius, ad Theodosium imperatorem, in the manuscript family that was not edited in 450; the identity is disputed: some scholars identify him with Theodosius the Great, while others . . . identify him with the later Valentinian III, dating the work 430-35.

"Vegetius's epitome mainly focuses on military organization and how to react to certain occasions in war. Vegetius explains how one should fortify and organize a camp, how to train troops, how to handle undisciplined troops, how to handle a battle engagement, how to march, formation gauge, and many other useful methods of promoting organization and valour in the legion.

"As G. R. Watson observes, Vegetius' Epitoma 'is the only ancient manual of Roman military institutions to have survived intact.' Despite this, Watson is dubious of its value, for he 'was neither a historian nor a soldier: his work is a compilation carelessly constructed from material of all ages, a congeries of inconsistencies.' These antiquarian sources, according to his own statement, were Cato the Elder, Cornelius Celsus, Frontinus, Paternus and the imperial constitutions of Augustus, Trajan, and Hadrian.

"The first book is a plea for army reform; it vividly portrays the military decadence of the Late Roman Empire. Vegetius also describes in detail the organisation training and equipment of the army of the early Empire. The third contains a series of military maxims, which were (rightly enough, considering the similarity in the military conditions of the two ages) the foundation of military learning for every European commander from William the Silent to Frederick the Great. When the French Revolution and the "nation in arms" came into history, we hear little more of Vegetius. Some of the maxims may be mentioned here as illustrating the principles of a war for limited political objectives with which he deals:

" * 'All that is advantageous to the enemy is disadvantageous to you, and all that is useful to you, damages the enemy.'

" * 'the main and principal point in war is to secure plenty of provisions for oneself and to destroy the enemy by famine. Famine is more terrible than the sword.'

" * 'No man is to be employed in the field who is not trained and tested in discipline.'

 " * 'It is better to beat the enemy through want, surprises, and care for difficult places (i.e., through manoeuvre) than by a battle in the open field.'

" * 'Let him who desires peace prepare for war.'

"These are maxims that have guided the leaders of professional armies for most of recorded history, as witness the Chinese generals Sun Tzu and Wu. His 'seven normal dispositions for battle,' once in honor among European students of the art of war, are equally useful if applied to more modern conditions. His book on siegecraft is important as containing the best description of Late Empire and Medieval siegecraft. From it, among other things, we learn details of the siege engine called the onager, which afterwards played a great part in sieges, until the development of modern cannonry. The fifth book is an account of the materiel and personnel of the Roman navy.

"The author of the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica article states that 'In manuscript, Vegetius's work had a great vogue from its first advent. Its rules of siegecraft were much studied in the Middle Ages.' N.P. Milner observes that it was 'one of the most popular Latin technical works from Antiquity, rivalling the elder Pliny's Natural History in the number of surviving copies dating from before AD 1300.' It was translated into English, French (by Jean de Meun [1284] and others), Italian (by the Florentine judge Bono Giamboni [circa 1250] and others), Catalan, Spanish, Czech, and Yiddish before the invention of printing. The first printed editions are ascribed to Utrecht (1473), Cologne (1476), Paris (1478), Rome (in Veteres de re mil. scriptores, 1487), and Pisa (1488). A German translation by Ludwig Hohenwang appeared at Ulm in 1475." (Wikipedia article on Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, accessed 05-26-2009).

"English translations [of Vegetius] precede printed books. Manuscript 18A.Xii in the Royal Library, written and ornamented for Richard III of England, is a translation of Vegetius. It ends with a paragraph starting: "Here endeth the boke that clerkes clepethe in Latyne Vegecii de re militari." The paragraph goes on to date the translation to 1408. The translator is identified in Manuscript No. 30 of Magdalen College, Oxford, as John Walton, 1410 translator of Boethius." (Wikipedia article on De re militari, accessed 05-26-2009).

Vegetius' work may frequently be confused with the work with the same titleDe re militari, written by the 15th century humanist Roberto Valturio (Valturius). That work, first published in print in 1472, was the first printed work on technology and the first book with informational rather than decorative illustrations. Vegetius' Epitoma rei militaris was first published in print in an undated edition, probably issued one or two years later in 1473 or 1474 by Nicolaus Ketelaer and Gerardus de Leempt in Utrecht. Their edition had no illustrations. ISTC no. iv00104000.

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The Latest Known Inscription Written in Egyptian Hieroglyphs August 24, 394 CE

The latest known inscription written in Egyptian hieroglyphs is The Graffito of Emset-Akhom (or Philae 436) inscribed in the temple Isis at Philae, formerly an island in the First Cataract of the Nile. Having been relocated as a result of the Aswan dam, it is now on an island in Lake Nasser, in southern Egypt. It includes a relief of a ptolemaic or Roman period pharaoh. 

The inscription, written in both hieroglyphs and demotic, is dated to the Birthday of Osiris, year 110 (of Diocletian), equivalent to August 24, 394. It was added to a temple gateway erected earlier by the emperor Hadrian, leading towards the supposed tomb of Osiris (the Abaton). 

"The figure and inscription were carved in connection with the visits of the pagan Blemmye tribe from the Red Sea hills to the south-east in order to pay homage to the goddess Isis. These visits forced the Byzantine emperors to allow the temple to remain open despite the Christianization of Egypt and the earlier edict of Theodosius [in 392 CE closing all Egyptian temples.] In the fifth century AD demotic was still occcasionally written in the temple, and it is uncertain exactly when the last person to use, or at least read, the ancient scripts would have lived. There were by now Christian churches on the island, and the final centuries of pagan Philae passed into Christian legend. A later Coptic history of he first monk bishops of Philae tells how Bishop Apa Macedonius once deviously gained access to a sacred falcon in the temple and burned it. Between AD 535 and 537 the emperor Justinian ordered the temple's closure, the imprisonment of priests and the removal of its statues to Constantinople. The temple was rededicated to Saint Stephen, further churches were erected on the sacred island. . . ." (Parkinson, The Rossetta Stone [2005] 19-20).

(This entry was last revised on 08-02-2014.)

 

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The Oldest Datable Uncial Manuscript, Probably Written in Hippo Regius, Africa 396 CE – 426 CE

Most of the earliest surviving Uncial manuscripts were written in Northern Africa. The oldest datable Uncial manuscript is a copy of Augustinus, Libri II ad Interrogata Simpliciani, etc. (St. Petersburg, Public Library Ms. Q. V. 1, 3), written between 396 and 426 CE probably in Hippo Regius , the ancient name for the city of Annaba, Algeria. This was described by E. A. Lowe, in Codices Latini Antiquiores XI (1966) no. 1613, and the Supplement  to C.L.A. (1971) p. ix, and plate 3A. Lowe wrote:

"Written probably in Africa, to judge by the script of one of the two hands though the other is manifestly trained in the Italian manner. African origin is supported by W. M. Green's brilliant hypothesis that the volume was produced at Hippo in the author's early episcopacy. This renders it one of the most precious in the entire C.L.A. series. The manuscript belonged to Corbie where it is mentioned in several catalogues. Came to Saint Germain-des-Prés in 1638, where it bore the number 254. Acquired by Peter Dubrowsky [Dubrovsky] in 1791 and by the Imperial Library in 1805."

"It has been suggested that the Uncial script was deliverately devised, at the time when Constantine was Emperor (AD 306-337), as a specifically Christian bookhand to replace the Square and Rustic capitals used for 'pagan' classics. However, there are some ancient scripts and inscriptions with certain Uncial characteristics, which clearly pre-date the time of Constantine. The Timgad inscription of the 2nd or 3rd century, also has letters which are very similar to Uncial forms (see Stanley Morison, Politics and Script, page 63).

"Furthermore, the existence of some early Christian texts written in Rustics, like the fragment of the Gospel of John (Aberdeen, University Library, Papyrus 2a) and the Epistle to the Ephesians (Florence, Ms. Laur. P./S. 1, 1306), as well as at least one 'pagan' author, Cicero, written in the 4th century in Uncials (Vatican, Ms. Lat. 5757), cast doubt on this common assertion" (Stan Knight, Historical Scripts fron Classical Times to the Renaissance [2009] B6 (p. 33)

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The First Western Autobiography 397 CE – 398 CE

In 397 and 398 Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis (St. Augustine), Bishop of Hippo Regius in Roman Africa (Annaba, Algeria), wrote Confessions.

"It is widely seen as the first Western autobiography ever written, and was an influential model for Christian writers throughout the following 1000 years of the Middle Ages. It is not a complete autobiography, as it was written in his early 40s, and he lived long afterwards, producing another important work (City of God); it does, nonetheless, provide an unbroken record of his development of thought and is the most complete record of any single individual from the 4th and 5th centuries. It is a significant theological work. In the work St. Augustine writes about how much he regrets having led a sinful and immoral life. He discusses his regrets for following the Manichaean religion and believing in astrology. He writes about Nebridius's role in helping to persuade him that astrology was not only incorrect but evil, and St. Ambrose's role in his conversion to Christianity. He shows intense sorrow for his sexual sins, and writes on the importance of sexual morality. He also mentions that his favorite subject in school was mathematics because it was concrete and more rigorously defined than other subjects. The book is thought to be divisible into chapters which symbolize various aspects of the Trinity and trinitarian belief." (Wikipedia article on Confessions (St. Augustine) accessed 05-12-2009).

Hundreds of medieval manuscripts of The Confessions survive. The earliest is "Rome, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Sessorianus 55. The script is half-uncial and difficult to date. Lowe (CLA 4.420a) suggested late sixth century; Bischoff (quoted at CCSL 23.xxxviii) once ventured `saec. V/VI', but has since commented that he finds the half-uncial `rätselhaft' and `tantalizing' (see JThS n.s. 34 [1983], 114n2, and Atti-1986, 1.412)" (The Confessions of St. Augustine edited by J. J. O'Donnell (1992), Prolegomena: http://www.stoa.org/hippo/comm.html#B.MA, accessed 05-12-2009).

There are nine surviving manuscripts of The Confessions in Carolingian miniscule from the 9th/10th centuries, mostly preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The first printed edition of Augustine's Confessions was issued in Strassbourg "not later than 1470.

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The Charioteer Papyrus Circa 400 CE

The Charioteer Papyrus, a fragment of an illustration from an unknown work of literature, was arguably produced in Alexandria about the year 400.

"It is one of the finest surviving fragments of classical book illustration. Unlike other surviving illustrated fragments of papyrus, such as the Romance Papyrus and the Heracles Papyrus, which have illustrations that are little more than mere sketches, the Charioteer Papyrus is sensitively drawn and finely colored. It shows portions of six charioteers in red or green tunics. Although there is not any text on the fragment, it undoubtedly served an illustration for a literary work, perhaps serving as an illustration for the chariot race at the games at the funeral of Patroclus in the Iliad."

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"The Earliest Evidence for Tooling on a Leather Bookbinding" Circa 400 CE

Page 215 of MS G.67, depicting the acts of the apostles. (View Larger)

An illuminated manuscript on vellum of the first half of the Acts of the Apostles (G. 67) written in Coptic of the Middle Egyptian dialect around the year 400, and presumably the first half of a two-voume set, is preserved in the Morgan Library and Museum.

"There is a miniature in the final quire of a crux ansata flanked by two peacocks and bearing three smaller birds. It is the earliest-known Coptic miniature. The place of discovery of this Coptic Acts has never been revealed, but it appeared in the antiquarian book trade in 1961 together with a Coptic Gospel of Matthew that must have belonged to the same find. This latter is now in the possession of William Scheide. Its script is very similar to that of the Glazier Acts, its dialect is the same, and the leaf size of both manuscripts is very nearly identical. Their small format suggests that they were made for private use. The Glazier Acts was originally dated as early as the fourth century, but recently a more generalized dating in the fifth century has been argued.

"The binding of the Scheide Matthew is now quite damaged, with loss of the entire spine or backstrip, but was identifical in type to that of the Glazier Acts. Apart from its boards, all that now remains are carbonized portions of the hinging strips. At least two other Coptic codices, also dated to the fifth century, still retain bindings of this type. One of them is in the Morgan Library, M. 910: a complete Coptic Acts, in the Sahidic dialect. Though severely damaged and partly distingetrated, from what remains the system of wooden boards, backstrip, hinge strips (four), and wrapping strips can be clearly reconstructed. The other example, a Sahidic Mark and Luke, is in the Palau-Ribes collection of the University of Barcelona.

"The fine state of preservation of the Glazier Acts binding, and especially of the goatskin backstrip is so fresh as to have cast some suspicion on its authenticity. However, considering the even more ancient Nag Hammadi find, it should not be assumed a priori that the binding is too good to be true, and that leather could not survive and remain flexible for so long. There have been various losses; the backstrip once extended at both ends, so that it could be folded over the top and bottom edges of the leaves for additional protection. The top extension is now frayed, and that at the bottom has been torn away. Two of the three wrapping strips survive, one only partially; and two of the bone securing pegs terminating the strips. Neither strip is now attached to the board. There are only remains of what were originally two plaited leather place marks, once laced into the upper board, one into the lower. In addition to fillets, the backstrip was stamped with a small tool of concentric circles, a common Coptic decorative pattern repeated on the bone pegs. This is the earliest evidence for tooling on a leather bookbinding.

"Three Egyptian bindings dated to the sixth century have survived in bindings which appear to exhibit later, fancier evolutions of this style; two are in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, and one in the Freer Gallery, Washington. The techniques of these bindings have not been entirely deciphered, but in all three examples, the number of hinging holes on the boards was greatly increased, to three dozen or more. In none of the three are there any signs of linkage between sewing and covers--with with the Glazier Acts and others of its group, only glue held the covers to the codex. The backstrips of the two Chester Beatty bndings were stamped with pictorial tools. The wooden covers of the Freer Gospels (a Greek text, but of Egyptian origin) are painted with portraits of the evangelists, two on each cover. It is generally thought that these painted figures were added later, perhaps in the seventh century, and were not part of the orignial conception of the binding. The evangelists are depicted holding codices, a traditional iconography, and it is curious to note that these are quite clearly represented as possessing jewelled covers. . . . "(Needham, Twelve Centuries of Bookbinding: 400-1600 [1979] 9-10).

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The Oldest Extant Book Illustrations of Plants Circa 400 CE

The Johnson Papyrus, a fragment of an early fifth century herbal. (View Larger)

The Johnson Papyrus (London, Wellcome Library, MS 5753) is a fragment of an early 5th century Greek codex written in Egypt, containing the oldest extant book illustrations of plants. It was discovered by J. da M. Johnson, in 1904 while he was working in Antinoë (Antinopolis), Egypt. Johnson later became Printer to the University of Oxford.

One side of the papyrus shows a sphere of dark blue-green leaves supported by some small scraggly roots. Below the illustration is a fragment of Greek text. The illustrated plant has been identified as  comfrey, symphytum officinale. The reverse side shows "phlommos, perhaps mullein" (Conrad, et al, The Western Medical Tradition 800 BC to AD 1800 [1995] Fig. 10, p. 10).

Both sides of the papyrus fragment are illustrated in color in Ford, Images of Sciences. A History of Scientific Illustration (1993) 23.

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At the Beginning of the Dark Ages Production of New Manuscripts Essentially Ceased Circa 400 CE – 600

"There is a tendency to write about ancient literature and late antique manuscripts as if they vanished, all at once, in the chaotic centuries often called the Dark Ages—to see the history of transmission in this period largely in terms of large-scale physical destruction. Such a picture is slightly out of focus. Yes, the period AD 400-600 saw a great deal of destruction; but then, destruction from fire and the elements was not new to Roman history. The exceptional element was that the production of new manuscripts ceased; the market for new books rapidly diminished and, once the market dried up, the means of production disappeared. This was not so much a result of the physical destruction of either the readers or the bookshops, but rather because the traditional audience, namely the Roman senatorial class, within a couple of centuries dwindled in size and recycled itself as an ecclesiastical class with its own, albeit small, means of producing manuscripts.

"Lack of production, of course, does not equal lack of use—in many respects, quite the opposite. The newly emerging societies cherished Roman coins, and clipped them to make the smaller denominations appropriate to their greatly reduced money economy, since they did not mint large quantities of precious metals of their own. In similar fashion, Roman books whether papyrus or parchment continued to serve the needs of the shrinking literate class—not new books, but the enormous residue of the antique book trade that reposed in public and private libraries. These slowly gravitated to ecclesiastical libraries (locus of the new literate class), to be sent north with the missionaries. Benedict Biscop, for example, had no difficulty finding books to carry north to Norhumbria when he visited Rome in the 670s; but these were old books, already a century or two older than he.

"What is remarkable is the length of time that Christian Rome and its infrastructure endured. As we have suggested, Roman civilization, centred on the city, the forum, and the public baths, which was once thought to have been destroyed by the Visigoths and Ostrogoths who sacked Rome in the course of the fifth century, is now generally recognized as having remained, though undeniably altered, reasonably intact until the middle of the sixth century; indeed, the external trappings of this civilization were gladly appropriated by the Ostrogothic kindom of Theodoric (475-527), whom both Boethius and Cassiodorus served. The physical devastation of Roman Italy occurred, ironically, through the reassertion of imperial power—the reappearance in 540 of Byzantine armies in Italy under the emperor Justinian's general Belisarius. Rome changed hands five times in these campaigns.

"What survived Belisarius' legions fell to the Lombards, the last of the tribal groups to move into Italy. Any city, such as Milan, that opposed the Lombard advance was razed; those like Verona that opened their gates survived unharmed. It is no wonder, then, that little of ancient Milan, city of Ambrose, survived—or, conversely, that Petrarch in the fourteenth century could find what was probably a late antique manuscript of Cicero's letters to Atticus in Verona. Remarkably, the Roman aqueducts still functioned in the time of Pope Gregory I (pope 590-604); but gradually the Roman ruling class was replaced or absorbed by Lombard (or, in Gaul, by Frankish) peoples who had little need, or even less ability, to maintain the physical infrastructure of Roman civilization: the forum, public baths, roads, libraries, temples. As they became unnecessary, they were increasingly neglected. Eventually they served the only useful purpose left to them, becoming the quarries that provided the cut stone from which early medieval basilicas and royal palaces were built" (Rouse," The Transmission of the Texts," Jenkyns (ed) The Legacy of Rome: A New Appraisal [1992] 44-45). [As usual, the links are my addition.]

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A Diptych Depicting Roman Orators Holding Papyrus Rolls Circa 400 CE

There appear to be very few surviving depictions in ancient art of how papyrus rolls were actually used in daily life. One that might be more symbolic and ceremonial than "realistic" in our sense is the ivory diptych of Rufius Probianus, which celebrates his installation in Rome as Vicarius urbis Romae. According to Berger's Encyclopedic Dictionary of Roman Law, Vol. 43, 764, the Vicarius in urbe (Roma) was the "head of the administration of the southern part of the dioecesis Italia. . . ." 

In the diptych Probianus appears with his right hand lifted in an oratorical gesture to indicate that he is either speaking or has the right to speak. However, from the perspective of book history what may be more significant about this diptych is not the large seated depiction of Probianus, but the depiction to his left and right of secretaries recording his speech on polyptica, or groups of wax tablets tied together like codices, and of orators in the panel below him pointing with their right hands while they hold open papyrus rolls in their left hand with their fingers used as place markers. This shows how orators held papyrus rolls open for reference while they spoke.

A clearer image of the Probianus diptych than that in Wikipedia commons appears in Wright, The Roman Vergil and the Origins of Medieval Book Design (2001) 8. Quality images of both covers, each subtly different, with commentary are reproduced in Weitzmann (ed) Age of Spirituality. Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century (1979) no. 53.

The diptych is preserved in the Staatsbibliothek, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, Ms. theol. lat. fol. 323.

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The Durability of Papyrus Circa 400 CE

". . . papyrus books and documents had in ancient and medieval times a usable life of hundreds of years. Aristotle's manuscripts, many of them in bad condition through neglect, were part of the loot taken by Sulla to Rome, where they were edited by Andronicus of Rhodes some 250 years after they were written. Pliny tells of seeing papyrus documents 100 and 200 years old. Searching in books 300 years old is mentioned by Galen. Cardinal Deusdedit, working the papal archives c. 1085, consulted papyrus rolls of the Lateran library going back by his specific citation to c. 1000 and by inference to c. 950. In 1192 the papal chamberlain Cencius searched 'in thomis charticiniis et voluminibus regestorum antiquorum pontificum', which included archives of the period 600-1000. Papal documents up to 330 years old were handled in AD 1213, and there are references in the fourteenth century to documents contained in volumes (papyrus rolls) of the fifth to tenth centuries. The historian Tristano Calchi [Calcho] working in Milan c. 1500, refers to a papyrus document of the reign of Odoacer (476-93). Among extant examples may be noted a Pindar volume of the late first or early second century that is patched on the back with strips of papyrus bearing writing of the third or fourth century A.D.; a Gospel manuscript of c. 200 with marginalia of c. 400; a roll that was first written on in the reign of Septimius Severus (193-211) then made into a codex and reused in the fifth century; and a document written in Paris at the end of the eleventh century on the verso of a testament of c. 690.

"From all of the above it seems fair to conclude that the papyrus produced by the ancient factories had, and retained for years and years, the following qualities; it was white (or slightly coloured. . . .) flexible, and durable, and its surface was shiny and smooth. It was not for lack of these qualities that papyrus gave to parchment and paper, but because these other materials were better able, with the passage of time, to meet the needs and conditions of different times and places for carrying the written and eventually the printed word" (Lewis, Papyrus in Classical Antiquity [1974] 60-61).

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The "Architecture" of Early Latin Gospel Books 400 CE – 800

In 1961 Patrick McGurk issued Latin Gospel Books From A. D. 400 to A. D. 800. Of the approximately 1566 codices that survived from this period McGurk identified and studied 138 Gospel books in European libraries, and one in St. Petersburg. McGurk's study grew out of his 1954 doctoral disseration which was titled The Architecture of Latin Gospel Books before A. D. 800, and some of the most useful aspects of his 1961 book were his general observations on the structure of Gospel books— what he called "architecture." I quote some of his more interesting observations below:

"Those Gospel books that survive from the two hundred and fifty years between A. D. 400 and A. D. 650 are uniform both in their appearance and in their scribal traditions. They are nearly all written in that clearly set book hand, uncial, and their gatherings are noramally quaternions. Had they been written one, two or three centuries earlier, they would probably have been more varied in their make up and in their script, and would thus have reflected a more formative period in the making of codices; as it is, the range of tentative book hands in which many 3rd, 4th and 5th century classical fragments are written, and the variety of quires and formats found in the Chester Beatty papyri and in the earlier Greek and Coptic Christian books are absent from our 5th, 6th and 7th century uncial Gospels. Because they are so uniform and so numerous, they form the common classical standard by which the deviations of later Gospel books can be measured. (McGurk p. 7)

"Colophons like margins were given generous allowance of space [in the earliest Gospel books]. In the earliest Greek papyrus rolls the colophon was given only a little space; its function seemed either to give a heading to a particular work or else to announce its end; explicitum nobis usque ad su cornua librum. The colophons of the Chester Beatty papyri look reserved and discreet when contrasted with the florid creations of the Codex Alexandrinus. The colophon provided many of the sober uncial manuscripts with the only scope or theme possible for ornament. Again and again, it is found not squeezed at the bottom of a column as in the rolls, but filling a whole page and adorned with dashes and swirls, ropes, ivy leaves and dots. Eventually, the colophon written in large monumental capitals across a single page, acquired the appearance of an inscription; it is the quality that imitations like the incipit pages of the Franco-Saxon school or the description pages of Royal I.E. VI tried to posess. Specifically Christian colophons are found in only three of the earlier Gospel books." (McGurk 9-10)

"The opening of Gospels are not distinguished by the use of a different script; they are marked by a restrained austere intial letter and one or two lines in a differently coloured ink. The initials are not until the 7th century made the subject or ornament or decoration. And with the exception of the Cambridge Corpus Gospels . . . no book survives with illustrations. The Cambridge Gospels possessed at least two cycles of pictures, arranged in compartments in a rectangular box, and these were placed one in the middle (at the end of St. Mark) the other at the end, of the book. In this way, the Cambridge Gospels differed both from the Eastern picture Gospels, which concentrated their illustrations with the Canon Tables at the head of the book, and from books like the Codex Sinopensis or the Virgil Vaticanus, which distributed their pictures throughout a text. In addition, a picture of the evangelist and his symbol, accompanied by more Gospel miniatures, prefaced each Gospel, those for Matthew, Mark and Luke facing the opening page of the Gospel text, that for John facing the first page of the prologue to John, a variant position found in some later books, both Latin and Greek. The Cambridge Gospels, which, in its layout of the uncial script on a page, is as disciplined as the other uncial books, bears witness to the existence of illustration in some early Latin Gospel codices" (McGurk 10)

"The unformity of the uncial books down to about A. D. 650 constrasts with variety and indiscipline of books later than that date, and ilustrates the unifying scribal work of the Roman church. It is true that most of these early books were probably written in Italy and that therefore the uniformity may only reflect an Italian cohesion. But recent work in epigraphy as well as comparison between manuscripts attributed to different parts of the Roman world do not reveal fundamental differences inscript or in methods of arranging apage or making up a book in France and Italy, Africa and Spain. When the Gothic version of the Gospels was sent down in codex form, its arrangement, appearance and structure were the same as those of the codices of the Latin world. The initials, the colophons, the Gospels grouped in sets of quires, the silver ink, the purpose purachement, the very script of the Codex Usaliensis [Codex Argenteus] are those of the Brescia or Verona Gospels.

"The emergence of barbarian scripts—and of the barbarian kingdoms—is reflected in changes in the structure and lay out of the Roman Gospel book. And the surviving numbers of Insular Gospel books, as well as the fact that the finest books of the Carolingian period are made in Northern Europe, reflect a switch in eccleiastrical energy and direction. The changes in the lay out of a page and arrangement of a codex introduced by Insular and Continental scribes had a permanent effect, and the Carolingian books, in spie of their self-conscious classicism, adopted many scribal distinctions which had first made their appearance in the 7th and 8th centuries—distinctions in the use of scripts in the first lines, on first pages, in colophons, and in prefaces. These aspects of Carolingian scribal methods—the earliest copying of classical forms and the conserving of post-classical themes—can be paralelled in Carolingian poetry. The Carolingian Gospel books, like the themes of Gottschalk or the elegiac metres of Alcuin, looked back to a Late Antique world tinged by the intervening centuries of barbarism. If the early purple codices of Verona nd Brescia had not survived, the Carolingian Metz Gospels. . . . would have presented the modern palaeographer with a good approximation of their models. They could never have been more than approximations because the Metz books have the same relation to their models as Italian Renaissance copies of inscriptions have to their originals or the early Humanist hand has to the Caroline minuscule" (McGurk 18-19).

(This entry was last revised on April 13, 2014.)

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The Oldest Manuscript Collection Surviving in Pakistan and India Circa 400 CE – 600

Discovered in a wooden box in a circular chamber inside a Buddhist stupa by cattle grazers in 1931, the Gilgit manuscripts may be the earliest surviving Buddhist documents. They were named after the city of Gilgit, now part of Pakistan, in which they were discovered. Gilgit was an important city on the Silk Road, along which Buddhism was spread from South Asia to the rest of Asia.

A corpus of many Buddhist texts such as four sutras from the Buddhist canon, including the famous Lotus Sutra, the manuscripts survived because they were written on the bark of the bhoj (birch) tree which does not decay, and were kept in the freezing sub-zero temperatures of the Gilgit region. Theyere were writein the Buddhist form of Sanskrit in the Śāradā or Sharada script.

The most famous of the Gilgit manuscripts, the Gilgit Lotus Sutra is preserved in the National Archives of India in Delhi. Known as the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra – or the teachings of the white lotus and sun – the sutra is the basis of the Tiantai and Nichiren schools of Buddhism. In 2012 a facsimile edition of it was published by by the National Archives jointly with the Institute of Oriental Philosophy and Soka Gakkai, a Japan-based non-governmental organization. 

"In August 1938, seven years after the discovery of the texts, the archaeologist Madhusudan Kaul Shastri led a systematic excavation of the Naupur site and discovered another larger chamber at the base of the structure. The chamber contained another set of the Gilgit Manuscripts along with votive objects and probably Buddhist cult bronzes.

"According to renowned scholar Karl Jettmar, inscriptions on these bronzes “reveal that they were produced and dedicated due to the generosity and the religious zeal of a Patola Shahi”. The Patola Shahis, also known as Palola Shahis, were the rulers of Gilgit and Baltistan from the late sixth to the early eighth centuries AD.

"Shortly after, Kaul Shastri and his team outlined the specifications of the second group of manuscripts and other finds from the site including the hand painted covers of two manuscripts.

"In the third phase, the well-known Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci secured another small group of the manuscripts in 1956. Obtaining them from a street vendor in Rawalpindi, he presented them to the Karachi museum.

"Roughly 60 manuscripts and 17 Avadnas emerging from Naupur are of unmatched significance in Buddhist studies. These are the oldest surviving collection of religious texts in the subcontinent. Based on the paleographical evidence, scholars agree that local Buddhist devotees compiled these texts between the fifth and sixth century AD. With the exception of only a few scripts, all the manuscripts were written on birch bark in Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit language in the Gupta Brahmi and post-Gupta Brahmi script.

"The birch bark that does not decay or decompose and the cool climate of the area helped the manuscripts survive till the day of their discovery in the 20th century. The Gilgit Manuscripts deciphered thus far cover a wide range of subjects such as religion, religious rituals, philosophy, iconometry, monastic discipline, folk tales, medicine and culinary art.

"The manuscripts contain sutras from the Buddhist canon, the Samghata Sutra, Samadhiraja Sutra, Saddharma Pundarika Sutraand Bhaisajyaguru Sutra.The Samadhiraja Sutra is one of the important Mahayana canonical texts, which are collectively called Navadharma. The Saddharma Pundarika Sutrapopularly known as Lotus Sutra, figures prominently in the Gilgit Manuscripts and scholars agree it was the most venerated sutra of the Buddhists from the Gilgit area" (http://tns.thenews.com.pk/gilgit-manuscripts-in-naupur/#.VDwu5NR4ovE, accessed 10-17-2014).

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The Oldest Surviving Consular Diptych 406 CE

The mentioned diptych, portraying Emperor Honorius in both panels.

The oldest surviving diptych that can be called a consular diptych was commissioned by Anicius Petronius Probus, consul in the western empire in 406. It is the only consular diptych to bear the portrait of the emperor (Honorius in this instance, to whom the diptych is dedicated in an inscription full of humility, with Probus calling himself the emperor's "famulus" or slave) rather than a portrait of the consul. It is preserved in the cathedral treasury at Aosta.

Honorius was Emperor of the Western Roman Empire from 393 until his death in 423. Ascending to the throne at the age of only ten, Honorius was an especially weak military leader. In this diptych, however, he is portrayed in elaborate armor, holding an orb surmounted by a Victory, and a standard with the Latin words translated as "In the name of Christ, may you always be victorious." In actuality Honorius never led his troops in battle. At his death he left an empire on the verge of collapse.

A pair of linked panels, generally in ivory, wood or metal with rich sculpted decoration,  a diptych could function as a wax tablet for writing. More specifically a consular diptych was also intended as a deluxe commemorative object, commissioned by a consul ordinarius, and distributed to reward those who had supported his candidacy, and to mark his entry to that post.

"The chronology of such diptychs is clearly defined, with their beginnings marked by a decision by Theodosius I in 384 to reserve their use to consuls alone, except by an extraordinary imperial dispensation, and their end marked by the consulship's disappearance under the reign of Justinian in 541. Even so, great aristocrats and imperial civil-servants bypassed Theodosius's ban and produced diptychs to celebrate less important posts that the consulship - Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, for example, distributed some to commemorate his son's quaestorian then praetorian games in 393 and 401 respectively (Wikipedia article on consular diptych, accessed 11-19-2010).

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One of the Few Surviving Sources for the Administrative Structure of the Late Roman Empire Circa 420 CE

The Notitia Dignitatum is one of the few surviving manuscripts documenting the administrative organization of the eastern and western Roman empires, listing several thousand offices from the imperial court down to the provincial level. It is considered relatively up to date, with the expected problems and omissions, for the Western empire circa 420 CE, and for the Eastern empire circa 400 CE.

"Notitiae were lists or catalogues, also referred to as latercula. Such lists were typical of the systemization of that characterized the late Roman bureaucracy. The variety of extant notitiae. . . can be broken down into four categories: provincial lists, urban catalogues, episcopal lists, and the Notitia Dignitatum" (Bowersock et al [eds.] Late Antiquity. A Guide to the Postclassical World [1999] 612).

One of the most significant surviving early copies of this text was made for the bibliophile Pietro Donato, bishop of Padua, in January 1436, while Donato was presiding over the Council of Basel. In addition to the exchange of ideas, long meetings such as this Council were also places to which manuscripts and scribes could be brought for copying and exchange, and new works could be disseminated to readers who would take their copy back to their home region possibly for further distribution by copying at their local scriptorium.

Donato's manuscript, which also includes several other texts, including the geographical compilation, Liber de mensura orbis terrae, by the Irish monk Dicuil composed in 821, and the De rebus bellicis, was given the general title Cosmographia Scoti. According to a note in Donato's hand in the manuscript, the exemplar from which the manuscript was copied was a "vetustissimus codex" from the library of Speyer Cathedral. This late 9th or early 10th century manuscript, most of which no longer survives, is generally known as the Codex Spirensis. The manuscript is known to have existed in 1542, but was lost before 1672; only a single leaf of the Codex Spirensis survives today at Maihingen (HS. I,2,2°.37). It was used in the binding of a record book which dates from 1602-3. (Thompson 11).

Later in the fifteenth century Donato's copy of the Codex Spirensis came into the possession of A. Maffei at Rome, and passed into the collection of manuscripts assembled by the Venetian Jesuit Matheo Luigi Canonici. After Canonici's death his collection was purchased in 1817 by the Bodleian Library.

The miniature paintings in the Donato's copy of the Notitia Dignitatum were by Peronet Lamy, an illuminator who worked for Amadeus VIII of Savoy, later elected Pope by the Council, as Felix V. The manuscript is preserved at the Bodleian Library, and according to their exhibition catalogue from 1975, the same scribe and illuminator prepared another copy of the collection that is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

"The Notitia Dignitatum is a unique document of the Roman imperial chanceries. One of the very few surviving documents of Roman government, it details the administrative organisation of the eastern and western empires, listing several thousand offices from the imperial court down to the provincial level. It is usually considered to be up to date for the Western empire in the 420s, and for the Eastern empire in 400s. However, no absolute date can be given, and there are omissions and problems" (Wikipedia article on Notitia Dignitatum, accessed 11-29-2008).

Hunt, R.W., The Survival of Ancient Literature, Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1975, no. 146.

Thompson, A Roman Reformer and Inventor. Being, a New Text of the Treatise De Rebus Bellicis with a Translation and Introduction (1952) discusses the history of the various early copies of the Codex Spirensis, which preserved the text of the Notitia Dignitatum as well as De rebus bellicis, and other works.

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An Early Fifth Century Palimpsest Circa 425 CE

A section of the Codex Ephraemi from the National Library in Paris, containing Matt. 20:16-23. (View Larger)

The Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, an early fifth century palimpsest, and the last of the four great uncial manuscripts of the Bible in Greek, was preceded by the Codex Sinaiticus, the Codex Alexandrinus and the Codex Vaticanus. It was named "Rescriptus" because in the 12th century Greek translations of the treatises of Ephraem the Syrian were written over the biblical text that had been washed off its vellum pages, forming a palimpsest. However, the effacement of the biblical text was incomplete, and beneath the text of Ephraem what was once a complete Bible, containing both the Old and New Testaments, could eventually be deciphered.

The manuscript was probably written and preserved in Constantinople. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Codex was brought to Florence by an émigré scholar, and in 1533 Catherine de' Medici brought it to France as part of her dowry. From the Bourbon royal library it was eventually transferred to the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The first complete collation of the New Testament text was made by Johann Jakob Wettstein (1716). In 1834-1835 potassium ferricyanide was used to bring out faded or eradicated ink, and Constantin von Tischendorf made his reputation when he deciphered the very difficult to read texts, and published the Greek New Testament in 1843 and the Old Testament in 1845.

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The Earliest Surviving Copy of the Vulgate Gospels Circa 425 CE

Codex Sangallensis 1395, designated by Σ, is the oldest surviving Latin manuscript of the New Testament in the Vulgate translation by Jerome, who was commissioned by Pope Damasus I in 382 to make a revision of the old Latin (Vetus Latina) translations. The manuscript was written at Verona on vellum in half-uncial in the early fifth century, and contains marginalia which have been related to notes added to an earlier exemplar probably by Jerome, and by a second unknown scholar. 

The text was edited by C. H Turner and published as The Oldest Manuscript of the Vulgate Gospels (Oxford, 1931). Turner believed the manuscript was a copy made for personal and not public use. McGurk supported this view citing E. A. Lowe's note in CLA VII, 984 of its "pleasingly irregular" half-uncial "in contrast to the regular and formal uncial of many contemporary books), and from the scholarly and non-liturgical character of the marginalia" (McGurk, "The oldest manuscripts of the Latin Bible," IN: Gameson, ed. The Early Medieval Bible: Its production, decoration and use [1994] 20, see also p. 6).

In February 2014 a digital facsimile of Codex Sangallensis 1395 was available at this link.

(This entry was last revised on 08-10-2014.)

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The Earliest Image of Codices in a Book Cabinet and Possibly the Earliest Image of a Bookbinding in Wall Art 426 CE – 450 CE

A mosaic in the so-called Lunetta di San Lorenzo in the Byzantine Mausoleo di Galla Placidia in Ravenna, Italy, represents the earliest image of codices in a book cabinet or book press or armarium— specifically codices of each of the Four Gospels lying flat on book shelves with the edges of the book blocks rather than the edges of the spines facing outward. To the right of this cabinet, on the other side of the marble lunette, the mosaic depicts the standing evangelist holding a large cross in one hand and an open codex in a chemise binding in the other hand.  This may be the earliest image of a bookbinding in wall art.

Clark, The Care of Books (1901) 41.

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Fragments of a Fifth or Sixth Century Codex Circa 450 CE – 550

Fragment 26v of the Cotton Genesis, depicting Abraham. (View Larger)

The Cotton Genesis, a luxury manuscript with many illuminations, is one of the oldest surviving illustrated biblical codices. However, most of the manuscript was destroyed in the Cotton library fire in 1731, leaving only eighteen charred, shrunken scraps of vellum, preserved in the British Library. It is thought that the manuscript originally extended to more than 440 pages with approximately 340 miniature paintings that were framed and inserted into the text column.

"The miniatures were executed in late antique style comparable to Catacomb frescoes. Herbert Kessler and Kurt Weitzmann argue that the manuscript was produced in Alexandria, as it exhibits stylistic similarities to other Alexandrian works such as the Charioteer Papyrus.

"The Cotton Genesis appears to have been used in the 1220s to design 110 mosaic scenes in the atrium of St Mark's Basilica in Venice, after it was brought to Venice following the sack of Constantinople in 1204. The manuscript arrived in England, and was acquired by Sir Robert Cotton [Robert Bruce Cotton] in the 17th century." (Wikipedia article on Cotton Genesis, accessed 11-26-2008).

Regarding what some of the missing or fragmentary images might have looked like see Marion Wenzel, "Deciphering the Cotton Genesis Miniatures: Preliminary Observations Concerning the Use of Colour"(1987). In February 2014 this paper was available from the British Library website at this link.

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The Codex Alexandrinus Circa 450 CE

The Codex Alexandrinus, a fifth century manuscript containing the majority of the Septuagint and the New Testament, is, along with the Codex Sinaiticus, and the Codex Vaticanus, one of the earliest and most complete manuscripts of the Bible. It derives its name from Alexandria, Egypt where it resided for a number of years. The manuscript contains the Gospels in Byzantine text-type and the rest of the New Testament in Alexandrian text-type,

In 1621 the codex was brought to Constantinople by Cyril Lucar, who was first a patriarch of Alexandria, then later a patriarch of Constantinople. "Lucar was involved in a complex struggle with the Turkish government, the Catholic Church, and his own subordinates. He was supported by English government and presented the codex to James I in 1624, as a gratitude for his help. The codex was presented through the hands of Thomas Roe, . . . the English ambassador at the court of the Sultan. King James died before the manuscript started for England, and the offer was transferred to Charles I in 1627. It became a part of the Royal Library, British Museum and since 1973 of the British Library. It was saved from the fire at Ashburnham House (the Cotton library) on 23 October 1731, by the librarian, [Richard] Bentley."

The origin and history of the manuscript is unusually complicated and unclear:

"The manuscript's original provenance is unknown. Traditionally Alexandria is pointed as a place of its origin and it is the most probable hypothesis. Cyril Lucar was the first who pointed Alexandria as the place of origin of the codex. This popular view based on an Arabic note from 13th or 14th century, on folio 1 reads: 'Bound to the Patriarchal Cell in the Fortress of Alexandria. Whoever removes it thence shall be excommunicated and cut off. Written by Athanasius the humble.' 'Athanasius the humble' is identified with Athanasius III, Patriarch of Alexandria from 1276 to 1316.

"F. C. Burkitt questioned this popular view as the first. According to Burkitt, the note reads: 'Bound to the Patriarchal Cell in the Fortress of Alexandria. He that lets it go out shall be cursed and ruined. The humble Athanasius wrote (this).' The manuscript had been found on Mount Athos, and the manuscript might have been taken to Egypt by Cyril in 1616, and that all the Arabic writing in the manuscript could have been inserted between that date and 1621, when Cyril was elected Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. On this suppposition 'Athanasius the humble' might have been 'some person of Cyril's staff who had charge of his library'. According to Burkitt's view the codex was found on Athos, but it was written in Constantinople, because it represents a Constantinopolitan text (now known as the Byzantine text). This hypothesis was supported by Kirsopp Lake.

"Frederic G. Kenyon opposed to the Burkitt's view and argued that Cyril firmly believed in the Egyptian origin of the codex. A. S. Fulton, the Keeper of the Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts (in the British Museum), in 1938 re-examined the Athanasius note, and gave it as his opinion that on palaeographical grounds it could be dated 13th to 14th century and that the 17th century was excluded. In 1945 T. D. Moschonas published a catalogue of the library of the Patriarch of Alexandria, in which he printed two Greek notes, both from 10th century manuscripts of John Chrysostom, inserted by the Patriarch Athanasius III. The two notes must have been written between 1308 and 1316. Although the note in the Codex Alexandrinus is entirely in Arabic, and therefore no identity of hand the Greek notes can be expected, the similarity of wording leaves no doubt that this also is the work of Athanasius III.

"According to Skeat the note in the codex indicated that the manuscript had not previously been in the Patriarchal Library in Alexandria. The manuscript was carried from Constantinople to Alexandria between 1308 and 1316, together with two mentioned above manuscripts of Chrysostom. It remained in Alexandria until 1621, when Cyril removed it once to Constantinople. Whether was originally written in Constantinople or in Alexandria, is another question. Skeat did not try to give the answer on this question ('if any future scholar wishes to claim a Constantinopolitan origin for the Codex Alexandrinus, it is at least open to him to do so'). This view was supported by McKendrick, who proposes an Ephesian provenance of the codex.

"A 17th century Latin note on a flyleaf (from binding in a royal library) states that the manuscript was given to a patriarchate of Alexandria in 1098 (donum dedit cubicuo Patriarchali anno 814 Martyrum), although this may well be 'merely an inaccurate attempt at deciphering the Arabic note by Athanasius' (possibly the patriarch Athanasius III). The authority for this statement is unknown." (Wikipedia article on Codex Alexandrinus, accessed 06-27-2009).

In February 2014 a digital facsimile of the codex was available from the British Library at this link.

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The Church Replaces the Roman State as the Source of Order and Stability Circa 450 CE – 650

"The Church gradually replaced the Roman state as the source of order and stability in the course of the fifth and sixth centuries. In the act of disseminating Christianity to the heathen the Church disseminated the remains of Roman learning to the barbarian. Gregory of Tours (540-94) emulated Gregory of Rome (540-604), in that each as bishop of his respective city organized the city's affairs, legal and financial. Each came from a family of senatorial rank, living in the twilight of ancient civilization. The importance to textual transmission of the joining of ancient and medieval, the connection of the past with the future, in the seventh century vividly represented in the conversion of England by Gregory I's missionaries and the growth of monastic culture, culminating in the Northumbrian renewal upon which, in turn, the eighth-century Carolingian renascence in Gaul rests in large part. The Church in England both north and south of the Humber was built by ecclesiastics from Italy; moreover, this took place at a time (c. 660-85) when the still-Byzantine portions of central and southern Italy harboured many ecclesiastics who had fled there to escape Muslim advances in the Middle East and North Africa. This explains why it is that Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury (669-690), was a Greek from Tarsus in Asia Minor, and that his companion Hadrian (d. 709), who knew Greek and taught it at Rochester, was originally from North Africa. The books from which Bede (673-735) studied at Monkwearmouth, and those which Boniface (c.675-754) read at Canterbury, were products of the late antique booktrade, some of which had passed via Cassiodorus' Vivarium and the library of the Lateran Palace, to be brought to England by Theodore, Hadrian, Benedict Biscop (c. 628-89) and their followers" (Rouse, "The Transmission of the Texts," Jenkyns (ed) The Legacy of Rome: A New Appraisal [1992] 45-46).

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The Smallest Codex Known from Antiquity Circa 450 CE

The Cologne Codex Mani (Cologne Mani-Codex, Codex Manichaicus Coloniensis) is the smallest codex known from antiquity. It is a vellum codex describing the life of Mani, the prophet and founder of Manichaeism. Written in Greek on leaves measuring 3.5 x 4.5 cm or 1.4 x 1.18 inches, and found near Asyut (the ancient Lycopolis), Egypt, it was originally the size of a small matchbox. 

In December 2013 color images of the codex were available from the University of Cologne at this link.

See Henrichs, "The Cologne Mani Codex Reconsidered," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 83 (1979) 339-367.

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The Codex Mediceus of Virgil Circa 450 CE

The Codex Mediceus of Virgil (Vergil) (Florence, Laur. 39.1 + Vatican lat. 3225, f.76), a fifth century manuscript preserved in the Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurentiana) in Florence, with a single leaf preserved in the Vatican Library, contains the Ecologues from VI.48, the Georgics, and the Aeneid. A subscription at the end of the Ecologues records that the manuscript was corrected at Rome by Turcius Rufius Apronianus Asterius, consul in 494. Reynolds states that the manuscript "found its way to Bobbio, and was still there in 1467." Soon thereafter it was taken to the Vatican Library in Rome, and by 1471 it was in the hands of humanist Julius Pomponius Laetus (Pomponio Leto) who wrote emendations in the codex in red ink. The manuscript was first preserved in the Vatican Library, and later purchased by Cosimo de' Medici from the heirs of Cardinal Rodolpho Pio da Carpi, who died in 1564. 

In 1741 the Codex Mediceus was first published in print in an extraordinary typographic reproduction, or typographic facsimile, planned and edited by Vatican librarian and philologist Pier Francesco Foggini. The edition, printed by Manniani in Florence, was printed with types imitating the uncial script of the original, in red and black. By combining different sizes of types, the printer was also able to include the annotations and emendations of Asterius and Laetus. The edition began with an engraved vignette that reproduced a fragment of the manuscript in more literal detail.

In Printing Types I (1962, p. 171) Daniel Berkeley Updike commented on this edition as follows:

"A curious piece of Italian typography, very characteristic of the eighteenth century, is an edition of Virgil (P.Vergilii Maronis, Codex Antiquissimus, A Rufio Turcio Aproniano V. C. Distinctus et Emendatus. . . Florentiae. Typis Mannianis), published in 1741 at Florence, and printed by Joseph Manni, a person of scholarly tastes. It is set entirely in old style capitals with a few characters imitating those of an ancient and famous manuscript of Virgil in rustic characters in the Laurentian Library, Florence. The preface exhibits a fairly accurate engraved reproduction of a few lines of the model on which the book was based, and in the text the ingenious introduction of but three specially cut letters give the general effect of a font of 'rustic' type. Thus the work displays that amazing audacity in arriving at a striking effect, notwithstanding inaccurate details and economy of method, which was typical of Italian printing at that time. Issued at a place and period which appears unfavourable to such a venture, and dedicated to lovers of the Fine Arts, it also indicates there has always been a public sufficiently sympathetic to encourage such publications. The volume is enlivened by occasional rubrication which gives it a distinguished air." 

Reynolds, Texts and Transmission. A Survey of the Latin Classics (1983) 433.

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Hesychius of Alexandria's Dictionary Survived in Only One Deeply Corrupt Renaissance Manuscript Circa 450 CE

The "Alphabetical Collection of All Words" (Συναγωγὴ Πασῶν Λεξέων κατὰ Στοιχεῖον), written in the fifth century by the Greek grammarian Hesychius of Alexandria (Ἡσύχιος ὁ Ἀλεξανδρεύς), remains the richest lexicon of unusual and obscure Greek words that survived. It includes many words not found in surviving ancient Greek texts, and its explanations of many epithets and phrases also reveal important facts about the religion and social life of the ancients.

Hesychius's work survived in only one "deeply corrupt" 15th century manuscript preserved in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice (Marc. Gr. 622). This manuscript, which belonged to the Mantuan scholar Giangiacomo Bordellone, was edited by Greek scholar and philosopher Marcus Musurus (Μάρκος Μουσοῦρος; Marco Musuro) and published for the first time in print by Aldus Manutius of Venice in 1514. In his preface to the first edition Aldus thanked Bordellone for loaning the manuscript to Musurus so that it could be published.

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One of the Two Surviving Ancient Codices Written Entirely in Square Capitals Circa 450 CE

Codex Sangallensis 1394, containing pp. 7-48 of the Works of Virgil (Vergil) was written in Italy during the fifth century. With the Codex Augusteus of Virgil, this is one of only two surviving ancient codices writen entirely in Square capitals, a laborious and time-consuming style of writing, probably avoided by most scribes except for display headings. The twelve leaves of the Codex Sangallensis 1394 that survive are badly damaged, and most are severely cropped.

In August 2014 a digital facsimile was available from the St. Gallen Stiftbibliothek at this link.

Stan Knight, Historical Scripts from Classical Times to the Renaissance (2009) B4 (pp. 28-29).

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Composition of the Babylonian Talmud Circa 490 CE – 542

The Babylonian Talmud was composed by the late 5th or early 6th  centuries, no later than 541-542 CE when the Black Plague, the so-called Plague of Justinian, appeared in Byzantium.

The Babylonian Talmud comprises more than 1.8 million words. One way to put the size of the document in perspective is to compare it with the other major and legal compilation of the period, the Codex Justinianus, or Digest of the Roman emperor Justinian I, which contains roughly 800,000 words.

"Far beyond any other legal compilation of Late Antiquity, the Babylonian Talmud is marked by a salient characteristic, its continuous and unending dialogue. The debates are not haphazard. Certain authorities who were contemporaries or near-contemporaries debate all sorts of issues related to the Mishnah, issues that are sometimes only remotely relevant to them personally.

"Some statistics will give us an idea of what is happening. The Babylonian Talmud is the creation of at least seven generations of Babylonian authorities, and contains several generations of Israeli authorities as well. However, of the hundreds of authorities mentioned by name, more than forty thousand times in toto, only a dozen or so dominate the discussion and are scattered in pairs. Chronologically, Rav and Samuel, R. Óuna and R. Óisda, R. Naòman and R. Sheshet or R. Yehuda, Abaye and Rava, R. Papa and R. Óuna b. R. Joshua, and R. Ashi overwhelmingly carry forward the debate.

"These debates are often arranged as structured discussions on a given topic, so that they appear to be stenographic records of actual debates. This appearance is literary only, however, as few of these authorities lived in close proximity" (Yaakov Ulman, "The Babylonian Talmud in its Historical Context",  Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein, 20-21, http://www.printingthetalmud.org/essays/2.html, accessed 12-05-2208).

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The Only Illustrated Homer from Antiquity 493 CE – 508

Achilles sacrificing to Zeus from the Ambrosian Iliad. (View Larger)

Fifty-eight miniatures cut out of a 5th century illuminated manuscript on vellum of the Iliad of Homer are known as the Ilias Ambrosiana (Ilia picta). The manuscript is thought to have been produced in Constantinople during the late 5th or early 6th century, specifically between 493 and 508. "This time frame was developed by Ranuccio Bandinelli and is based on the abundance of green in the pictures, which happened to be the color of the faction in power at the time" (Wikipedia article on Ambrosian Iliad, accessed 11-30-2008).

The images from the Ambrosian Iliad are the only surviving portions of an illustrated copy of Homer from antiquity. Along with the Vergilius Vaticanusand the Vergilius Romanus, this incomplete manuscript of the Iliad is one of only three illustrated manuscripts of classical literature that survived from antiquity. The Iliad images

"show a considerable diversity of compositional schemes, from single combat to complex battle scenes. This indicates that, by that time, Iliad illustration had passed through various stages of development and thus had a long history behind it. It seems mere chance that neither an illustrated Odyssey nor any of the other Greek epic poems has survived" (Weitzmann,  Late Antique and Early Christian Book Illumination [1977] 13).

Before it was preserved in the Bibliotheca Ambrosiana, Milan, the Ilias Ambrosiana fragment was in the library of humanist, botanist, and collector, Gian Vincenzo Pinelli, whose library of hundreds of manuscripts and roughly 8500 printed works was probably the greatest in 16th century Italy.

Nuovo, "The Creation and Dispersal of the Library of Gian Vincenzo Pinelli", Mandelbrote et al (eds) Books on the Move: Tracking Copies Through Collections and the Book Trade (2007) 39-68.

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500 CE – 600

One of Few Surviving "Scientific" Manuscripts from Late Antiquity Circa 500 CE – 1554

A page from Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum, depicting a perspective of a house and the boundaries of the property on which it was built. (View Larger)

 

The Corpus agrimensorum romanorum, a Roman treatise on land surveying, the earliest text of which is preserved  in the 5th or 6th century codex known as Herzog August Bibliothek, Cod. Guelff. 36.23 Augusteus 2, is one of the few surviving illustrated, non-literary or non-religious texts from late antiquity. The manuscript text is written in an uncial script, with red letters indicating the beginnings of paragraphs.  The codex is preserved in the Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel.

♦ In 1554 the Corpus agrimensorum romanorum was first published in print by Pierre Galland and scholar printer Adrien Turnèbe in Paris as De agrorum conditionibus, & constitutionibus limitum, Siculi Flacci lib. I . Iulii Frontini lib. I. Aggeni Urbici lib. II. Hygeni Gromatici lib. II. Variorum auctorum ordines finitionum. De jugeribus metiundis. Finium regundorum. Lex mamilia. Coloniarum pop. Romani descriptio. Terminorum inscriptiones & formae. De generibus lineamentorum. De mensuris & ponderibus. Omnia figuris illustrata. Parisiis, M. D. LIIII. Apud Adr. Turnebum typoraphum regium. 

Galland and Turnèbe worked

"from a manuscript found in the monastery of St. Bertin at St. Omer during a ‘humanist tour’ of Northern France and Flanders undertaken around 1545, the time that Turnèbe was teaching at the University of Toulouse. In the preface Galland says that they visited each monastery in turn and ‘carefully collected old manuscripts like keen-scented dogs’ (quoted by Lewis, p. 38). The illustrations are of ‘boundary stones, properties, cities, roads, rivers, and swamps, as well as diagrams of the cosmos. The areas to be surveyed are shown in plan from a bird’s-eye view, so that their dimensions can be reproduced accurately.

"Mountains, cities, buildings, and boundary stones, by contrast, are shown receding into space according to the technique that Vitruvius called 'scene drawing' (scaenographia). This scaenographia is not the one-point perspective of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries but rather the Roman technique of varying viewpoints’ (Rowland p. 135). The fact that the Agrimensores manuscripts are illustrated is in marked contrast to the surviving manuscript sources for Vitruvius, none of which retain the illustrations mentioned in the text" (Roger Gaskell, Catalogue 47 [2012] No. 22, with illustrations).

Rowland, The Culture of the High Renaissance (1998). Lewis, Adrien Turnèbe (1512–1565): A Humanist Observed 1998).

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The Earliest, Most Significant Rabbinic Texts Are Preserved in Stone Circa 500 CE – 600

The theater at Bet She'an. (View Larger)

The most significant archaeological evidence for the textual history of rabbinic literature, and particularly of its halakhic component, was uncovered between 1974 and 1980 in the ancient synagogue of Rehov, a site located five kilometers south of the Decapolis city of Scythopolis, called in Hebrew, Beit Shean. Stone and mosaic inscriptions found at Rehov contain extensive passages of legal material relating to biblical agricultural law that are well known from rabbinic sources. The Rehov inscriptions reformulate and apply these classical rabbinic texts to life in the Beit Shean Valley during the Byzantine period, the closing years of the redaction period of the Mishnah and the Talmud.

"The synagogue of Rehov was built in three phases, consisting of a fourth-century basilica enlarged in the fifth-sixth centuries and destroyed (apparently by an earthquake) during renovation and enlargement the following century. The fifth-sixth century synagogue contained a variety of unpublished inscriptions. The excavator notes that 'the columns bore large inscriptions in red paint, some of them in a tabula ansata and a wreath. The inscriptions, in Hebrew and Aramaic on white plaster, included a variety of texts: benedictions, dedications, a list of the priestly courses and a copy of a letter dealing with the laws of tithes in the Sabbatical year.' The so-called 'letter' is of particular interest, as it is the earliest preserved halakhic text yet discovered. According to the excavator, this inscription begins with the word 'Shalom' and contains texts that directly parallel classical rabbinic traditions in Tosefta Shevi’it 4:8–11, Sifre Deuteronomy 51, and Jerusalem Talmud Demai 2:1, 22c–d and Shevi’it 6:1, 36c. The inscription concludes with the phrase: אטרכ ינבלכלע םולש (“peace upon all the people of the town”). S. Lieberman suggests that this text may be a transcription of a letter sent by a beit din (rabbinical court) to Rehov adjudicating practical matters of biblical agricultural law" (Goldstein & Mintz, Printing the Talmud from Bomberg to Schottenstein [2006] no. 1, p. 170.)

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Possibly the Earliest Surviving Illuminated Christian Manuscripts Circa 500 CE – 650

The manuscript before and after restoration and repagination. Image from June 2010 edition of The Arts Newspaper. (View Larger)

The Gospels of Abba Garima, an illuminated gospel book in two volumes written on vellum in the Ge'ez language and preserved in the Abba Garima Monastery east of Adwa, in the Mehakelegnaw Zone of the Tigray Region of northern Ethiopia, were, according to legend, written and partly illuminated by the Ethiopian missionary Abbu Garima, who is thought to have arrived in Ethiopia in 494 CE. Most outside scholars and scientists previously agreed that the gospels, based on Garima's teachings, were written centuries after his death, probably by priests in the tenth century. However recent radiocarbon dating carried out at Oxford University suggested a date between 330 and 650 CE for their creation, opening the possibility that the gospels were actually created by Abba Garima. If the Abba Garima Gospels date from the time of Abba Garima (circa 500)they are possibly the earliest surviving illuminated Christian manuscripts.

"The survival of the Garima Gospels is astonishing, since all other early Ethiopian manuscripts seem to have been destroyed during turbulent times. Very little is known about the history of the Abba Garima Monastery, but it may have been overrun in the 1530s by Muslim invaders. More recently, in 1896, the area was at the centre of resistance to Italian forces. The monastery's main church was destroyed by fire in around 1930.

"The survival of the Garima Gospels may have been due to the fact that they were hidden, perhaps for centuries or even for more than a millennium. The hiding spot may have been forgotten, and it could have been rediscovered by chance in relatively modern times.

"In 1520, Portugues chaplain Francisco Álvarez visited the monastery and recorded that there was a cave (now lost or destroyed), where Abba Garima was reputed to have lived. Álvarez reported that the monks would descend into it by ladder to do penance. Although speculation, it is possible that the Gospels may have been hidden in this cave" (http://ethiopianheritagefund.org/artsNewspaper.html, accessed 07-10-2010).

In 2007 the English binder and restorer Lester Capon did a partial restoration of bindings of the Abba Garima Gospels and wrote about it with great photos in the Skin Deep blog of leather manufacturers J. Hewit & Sons under the title of Extreme Bookbinding.

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Probably the Most Beautiful of the Earliest Surviving Scientific Codices Circa 512

An illustration of illustration of the species 'Akoniton napellus,' folio 67v. (View Larger)

The oldest surviving copy of Pedanius Dioscorides's treatise on medical botany and pharmacology, De materia medica, is an illuminated Byzantine manuscript produced about 512 CE. Dioscorides, a Greek military physician who served in the Roman army of the emperor Nero, wrote De materia medica in the first century CE. The Anicia Juliana codex also contains the earliest illustrated treatise on ornithology. It is one of the earliest surviving relatively complete codices of a scientific or medical text, one of the earliest relatively complete illustrated codices on any medical or scientific subject, and arguably the most beautiful of the earliest surviving scientific codices. It also contains what are probably the earliest surviving portraits of scientists or physicians in a manuscript.

The manuscript was produced for the Byzantine princess Anicia Juliana, the daughter of Flavius Anicius Olybrius, who had been emperor of the western empire in 472 CE. "The frontispiece of the manuscript, the first donor portrait in the history of manuscript illumination, features her depiction, flanked by the personifications of Magnanimity and Prudence, with an allegory of the "Gratitude of the Arts" prostrate in front of her. The encircling inscription proclaims Juliana as a great patron of art" (Wikipedia article on Anicia Juliana, accessed 11-22-2008).

For this and other commissions Juliana may be considered the first non-reigning patron of the arts in recorded history.

"Splendid though the figures in the Codex Vindobonensis are, they reveal a naturalism so alien to contemporary Byzantine art that it is obvious that they were not drawn from nature but derived from originals of a much earlier date—as early, at least, as the second century AD. They vary, however, very much in quality and are clearly not all by the same hand, possibly not even all after the work of a single artist. In the text accompaying eleven of them there is association with the writings of Krateuas. All these figures are admirable, and clearly by the same hand; it must therefore seem certain that they, at all events, are derived from drawings by Krateuas himself" (Blunt & Raphael, The Illustrated Herbal [1979] 17).

The story of the manuscript's survival is relatively well documented:

"Presented in appreciation for her patronage in the construction of a district church in Constantinople, the parchment codex comprises 491 folios (or almost a thousand pages) and almost four hundred color illustrations, each occupying a full page facing a description of the plant's pharmacological properties. . . .

"In the Anicia codex, the chapter entries of De Materia Medica have been rearranged, the plants alphabetized and their descriptions augmented with observations from Galen and Crateuas (Krateuas), whose own herbal probably had been illustrated. Five supplemental texts also were appended, including paraphrases of the Theriaca and Alexipharmaca of Nicander and the Ornithiaca of Dionysius of Philadelphia (first century AD), which describes more than forty Mediterranean birds, including one sea bird shown with its wings both folded and open" (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/aconite/materiamedica.html, accessed 11-22-2008)

From the time of its creation "Nearly nine centuries were to pass before we have further knowledge of the whereabouts of the codex. Then we learn that in 1406 it was being rebound by a certain John Chortasmenos for Nathanael, a monk and physician in the Prodromos Monastery in Constantinople, where seveteen years later it was seen by a Sicilian traveler named Aurispa. After the Muslim conquest of the city in 1453 the codex fell into the hands of the Turks, and Turkish and Arabic names were then added to the Greek. A century later it was in the possession of a Jew named Hamon, body physician to Suleiman the Magnificent, and it was presumably either by Hamon or by his son, who inherited it, that Hebrew names were also added" (Blunt & Raphael, op. cit., 15).

"Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, ambassador of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I to the Ottoman court of Süleyman, attempted to purchase the Anicia codex in 1562 but could not afford the asking price. As he relates at the end of his Turkish Letters (IV, p.243),

"One treasure I left behind in Constantinople, a manuscript of Dioscorides, extremely ancient and written in majuscules, with drawings of the plants and containing also, if I am not mistaken, some fragments of Crateuas and a small treatise on birds. It belongs to a Jew, the son of Hamon, who, while he was still alive, was physician to Soleiman. I should like to have bought it, but the price frightened me; for a hundred ducats was named, a sum which would suit the Emperor's purse better than mine. I shall not cease to urge the Emperor to ransom so noble an author from such slavery. The manuscript, owing to its age, is in a bad state, being externally so worm-eaten that scarcely any one, if he saw if lying in the road, would bother to pick it up.

"In 1569 Emperor Maximilian II did acquire the Anicia codex for the imperial library in Vienna, now the Austrian National Library (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek), where it is designated Codex Vindobonensis Med. Gr. 1. (from Vindobona, the Latin name for Vienna) or, more simply, the Vienna Dioscorides." (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/aconite/materiamedica.html, accessed 11-22-2008)

(This entry was last revised on 05-03-2014.)

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The Codex Argenteus, The Primary Surviving Example of the Gothic Language Circa 520

A page from the Codex Argenteus. (View Larger)

About 520 CE the Codex Argenteus (silver codex) was written in silver and gold letters on purple vellum in probably in Ravenna, or in the Po valley, or in Brescia, probably for the Ostrogothic ruler of Italy, Theodoric

The Codex Argenteus contains fragments of the Four Gospels translated into Gothic by the fourth century Bishop Ulfilas (Wulfila), of Nicopolis ad Istrum (now Northern Bulgaria). It is the primary surviving example of the Gothic language, an extinct Germanic language that was spoken by the Goths, and set down in writing by Ulfilas who devised devised the Gothic alphabet. Of the original 336 leaves only 188 are preserved at the Carolina Rediviva library at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, plus one separate leaf, discovered, remarkably, in 1970 in the cathedral of Speyer in Germany.

During the Ostrogothic rule of Italy there was a bilateral Gothic-Latin culture, of which the Codex Brixianus, also produced in Italy at approximately the same time, survives as a Latin counterpart to the Codex Argenteus. It is believed that the Latin version of the Bible in the Codex Brixianus may be the Latin text from which Ulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic.

"With the end of Gothic rule the Gothic manuscripts in Italy were rendered valueless; what remained of them (with the exception of the Codex Argenteus) became part of that waste material which in the seventh and eighth centuries was re-used in Bobbio" (Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and Middle Ages [1990] 186).

After about a thousand years during which the Codex Argenteus appeared in no inventories, it was rediscovered in the middle of the 16th century in the library of the Benedictine monastery of Werden in the Ruhr, near Essen in Germany (Werden Abbey). This abbey, whose abbots were imperial princes with a seat in the imperial diets, was among the richest monasteries of the Holy Roman Empire. The Dutch physician, humanist, and linguist Johannes Goropius Becanus published the first mention of the manuscript in his 1569 book Origines Antwerpianae. In 1665 Franciscus Junius the Younger published the editio princeps of the text as Quatuor D. N. Jesu Christi euangeliorum versiones perantiquae duae, Gothica scil. et Anglo-Saxonica (Dordrecht, 1665).

In 1597 Bonaventura Vulcanius, professor of Greek at Leiden, published portions of the Gothic Bible text from the Codex Argenteus in a collection of treatises on the Goths which he edited for publication by the Plantin Press. In his preface to one of these treatises, De literis et lingua Getarum sive Gothorum, Vulcanius wrote that it represented two brief disserations by an unidentifiable scholar, the first of which he said was "concerned with the script and prounciation, and the other with the Lombardic script, which the author said he copied from a manuscript codex of great antiquity which he called 'the Silver.' This was the first publication in print of any Gothic text, and it gave the manuscript its name, Codex Argenteus. Vulcanius identified Ulfilas as the translator of Gothic text of the Bible. Vulcanius's book included images of Gothic script as compared to other ancient languages. 

"Later the manuscript became the property of the Emperor Rudolph II, and when, in July 1648, the last year of the Thirty Years' War, the Swedes occupied Prague, it fell into their hands together with the other treasures of the Imperial Castle of Hradcany. It was subsequently deposited in the library of Queen Christina in Stockholm, but on the abdication of the Queen in 1654 it was acquired by one of her librarians, the Dutch scholar Isaac Vossius. He took the manuscript with him to Holland, where, in 1662, the Swedish Count Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie bought the codex from Vossius and, in 1669, presented it to the University of Uppsala. He had previously had it bound in a chased silver binding, made in Stockholm from designs by the painter David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl" (http://www.ub.uu.se/arv/codexeng.cfm, accessed 11-22-2008).

Munkhammar, Lars. The Silver Bible: Origins and History of the Codex Argenteus. (Uppsala, 2011).

In February 2014 a digital facsimile of the Codex Argenteus was available from Uppsala University Library at this link.

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An Archive of Papyri, Including the Oldest Surviving Poems Written by a Known Poet Circa 520 – 585

The archive of Flavius Dioscorus (Dioscoros), called Dioscorus of Aphrodito, consists of several hundred papyri in mostly in Greek, with some in Coptic. The papyri are the records of Dioscorus, an Egyptian landlord, notary and village administrator who lived in the Egyptian village of Aphrodito from about 520 to 585. This town, located 45 north of Sohag, is now called Kom Isgaw, Kom Ishgau or Kom Ashkaw. The archive was discovered by accident in Kom Isgaw during a home renovation in 1905 when a floor collapsed revealing historic objects below. As a result of this discovery, more is known about Dioscorus and his intellectual-political-religious milieu than virtually any other individual in Egypt during the Early Byzantine period.

Dioscorus's native language was Egyptian and his faith was Christian; however, he was also versed in pagan Greek culture, and he had studied Roman law. Petitions that he composed on behalf of citizens of Aphrodito are considered "unique for their poetic and religious qualities." Dioscorus was also a writer of poetry; his poems represent the oldest surviving poems written by a known poet. In December 2013 a scholarly English translation of his poems was available from byzantineegypt.com at this link.

"The archive can be divided into several, well-delinated periods. Some of the oldest documents are related to Dioscoros's father, Apollos, who moved the family into the upper classes of Aphrodito, and was eventually accorded the honorific nomen 'Flavius." In the last decade of his life, Apollos retired to a monatery that he had himself founded. Disocoros received a higher education in Antinoopolis or Alexandria. Following in his father's footsteps, he became village headman and received numerous petitions. After acting as a notaroy in the nome metropolis Antinoopolis for some years, he returned to Aphrodito sometime between 570 and 573. Having a great interest in Chrstian and pagan literatures, Disocoros maintained a private library that included works by Homer and the comedy writer Menander. In his spare time he appears to have been an enthusiastic poet of wedding songs and the lie, written in classical Greek meters" (Vandorpe, "Archives and Dossiers," Bagnall (ed) The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology [2009] 241-42).

A standard biography is Mac Coull, Dioscorus of Aphrodito. His Work and His World (1989); in December 2013 a digital edition of this was available at this link.

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Thedoric Executes the Philosopher Boëthius: Beginning of the Middle Ages 524 – 525

Boethius teaching his students. (View Larger)

On charges of treason, Theodoric the Great, Ostrogothic ruler of Italy, executed Hellenist and philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, who had risen to the office of Magister officiorum (head of all government and court services) in Theodoric's court.

The execution took place in 524 or 525,  possibly because Theodoric suspected Boëthius's involvement in a plot with the Byzantine Emperor Justin I, whose religious orthodoxy, in contrast to Theodoric's Arian opinions, increased their political rivalry.

♦ The date of Boëthius's execution is often taken as a date for the onset of the Middle Ages.

"Boethius's most popular work is the Consolation of Philosophy, which he wrote in prison while awaiting his execution, but his lifelong project was a deliberate attempt to preserve ancient classical knowledge, particularly philosophy. He intended to translate all the works of Aristotle and Plato from the original Greek into Latin. His completed translations of Aristotle's works on logic were the only significant portions of Aristotle available in Europe until the 12th century. However, some of his translations (such as his treatment of the topoi in The Topics) were mixed with his own commentary, which reflected both Aristotelian and Platonic concepts.

"Boethius also wrote a commentary on the Isagoge by Porphyry, which highlighted the existence of the problem of universals: whether these concepts are subsistent entities which would exist whether anyone thought of them, or whether they only exist as ideas. This topic concerning the ontological nature of universal ideas was one of the most vocal controversies in medieval philosophy.

"Besides these advanced philosophical works, Boethius is also reported to have translated important Greek texts for the topics of the quadrivium.His loose translation of Nicomachus's treatise on arithmetic (De institutione arithmetica libri duo) and his textbook on music (De institutione musica libri quinque, unfinished) contributed to medieval education. His translations of Euclid on geometry and Ptolemy on astronomy, if they were completed, no longer survive.

"In his "De Musica", Boethius introduced the threefold classification of music:
1. Musica mundana - music of the spheres/world
2. Musica humana - harmony of human body and spiritual harmony
3. Musica instrumentalis - instrumental music (incl. human voice)" (Wikipedia article on Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, accessed 11-28-2008).

Note: "Boëthius" has four syllables; the o and e  are pronounced separately. This was traditionally written with a diæresis, viz. "Boëthius," a spelling which has been disappearing due to the limitations of word processors.

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An Almost Unique Witness to the Original Justinian Digest 533 – 555

Littera Florentina. (Click to view larger.)

The codex called the Littera Florentina or Pandectarum codex Florentinus was written between 533 and 555 CE. It is the closest survivor to an official version of the Digesta or Pandectae portion of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the digest of Roman law promulgated by Justinian I for the first time in 529, of which no copies survived. What survived was the revised edition of 533-34.

"The codex, of 907 leaves, is written in the Byzantine-Ravenna uncials characteristic of Constantinople, but which has recently been recognized in legal and literary texts produced in Alexandria and the Levant. Close scrutiny dates the manuscript between the official issuance in 533 and 557, making it an all-but contemporary and all-but official source.

"Marginal notes suggest that the codex was in Amalfi—part of the Byzantine territory in Italy governed by the Exarchate of Ravenna in the 6th century— and that it passed to Pisa in the 12th century; the codex was part of the war booty removed from Pisa to Florence after the war of 1406. The manuscript became one of Florence's most treasured possessions. It was only shown to very important persons. Scholarly access was difficult. It took more than three centuries before a reliable edition of the Littera Florentina was finally made available."

"The importance of the manuscript lies in the fact that is an almost unique witness of the original Justinian Digest. Most medieval manuscripts of the Digest have a substantially different text. Its sudden reappearance in the late eleventh or early twelfth century has been much debated by legal historians" (Wikipedia article on Littera Florentina, accessed 12-05-2008).

"A compilation of pre-classical and classical Roman law (written before 245 c.e.), the work was culled from some three thousand books of the Roman jurisconsults and comprises 800,000 words. It is important to note that many of these quotations had been altered during the nearly three centuries of their transmission from the end of the classical period in the middle of the third century. The sources of the Babylonian Talmud, transmitted orally, were also subject to changes in wording, context, and, occasionally, substance.

"The Digest was the major constituent of Justinian’s Code, which we have only in its second edition, completed in 534 by the Roman Jurist, Tribonian. Tribonian headed a committee of sixteen Byzantine law professors, and accomplished this daunting task in just three years. In addition, the Code contained the Institutes, a first-year textbook for law students who would enter the emperor’s bureaucracy trained in his version of Roman law, and the Fifty Decisions, which was supposed to adjudicate all outstanding differences of opinion. The entire work thus runs to about one million words, and is restricted to civil, or private, law" (Yaakov Ulman, "The Babylonian Talmud in its Historical Context," Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein, 19, accessed 12-05-2108).

Roman Legal Tradition and the Compilation of Justinian, Robbins Collection, University of California Berkeley (PDF), accessed 02-18-2014).

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Considered the Oldest, Well-Preserved Illustrated Biblical Codex Circa – 540

The Vienna Genesis. (Click to view larger.)

Considered the oldest, well-preserved, illustrated biblical codex, the Vienna Genesis  is an illuminated manuscript, probably produced in Syria.  It is preserved in Vienna at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (cod. theol. gr. 31).

"The text is a fragment of the Book of Genesis in the Greek Septuagint translation. The text is frequently abbreviated. There are twenty-four surviving folios each with a miniatures at the bottom of both sides. It is thought that there were originally about ninety-six folios and 192 illustrations. It is written in uncials with silver ink on calfskin parchment dyed a rich purple. This shade of purple dye was also used to dye imperial cloth.

"The illustrations are done in a naturalistic style common to Roman painting of the period. The manuscript's illustrations are, in format, transitional between those found in scrolls and later images found in codices. Each illustration is painted at the bottom of a single page. However, within a single illustration, two or more episodes from a story may be included, so that the same person may be represented multiple times within a single illustration. There are both framed and unframed illustrations. The illustrations contain incidents and people not mentioned in the text of Genesis. These incidents are thought to have been derived from popular elaborations of the story or from a Jewish paraphrase of the text" (Wikipedia article on the Vienna Genesis).

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The Second Most Important Witness to the Text of the Latin Vulgate 541 – May 547

The Codex Fuldensis, (Fulda, Landesbibliothek, Bonifatianus 1) considered the second most important witness to the text of the Latin Vulgate, was written in an uncial hand, in one column, between 541 and 546 CE at Capua, Italy by order of Victor, bishop of that see, and was corrected by Victor personally in May 547, as indicated in his subscription on folio 433. It contains the whole New Testament together with the apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans. The Gospels are arranged in a single, consecutive narrative, in imitation of the Diatessarona prominent Gospel harmony created by Tatian, an early Assyrian Christian apologist and ascetic.

The manuscript is preserved at the Landesbibliothek, Fulda, Germany.

Metzger & Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption and Restoration. 4th ed (2005) 108, 131-33.

Parker, An Introduction to the New Testament Manuscripts and Their Texts (2009) 76.

Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores VIII, 1196: "One of the subscriptions that places and dates our manuscript—a milestone in palaeography—reads on fol. 433: "UICTOR FAMULUS XPI ET EIUS GRATIA EPISC CASPUAE LEGI UI NON MAI δ INδ NONA QUINQ PC BASILII UC CO."

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The Codex Brixianus Circa 550

Canon tables from Codex Brixianus. (View Larger)

The Codex Brixianus, a 6th century Latin Gospel Book, was written on 419 folios of purpled dyed vellum. The text is a version of the old Latin translation which seems to have been a source for the Gothic translation of Ulfilas. At the base of each page is an arcade very similar to that found in the Codex Argenteus. The manuscript, which was probably produced in Italy, is preserved in the Biblioteca Civica Queriniana in Brescia, Italy.

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Written in the Imperial Scriptorium of Constantinople and Dismembered by Crusaders Circa 550

Folios 23v and 24r of the Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus. (View Larger)

The Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus, a 6th century Greek New Testament codex gospel book with very many lacunae, originated in the Imperial Scriptorium of Constantinople, and was dismembered by crusaders in the 12th century. The manuscript text is in two columns, 16 lines, in large majuscules (capital letters), measuring 32 x 27 cm. The lettering is in silver ink on vellum dyed purple, with gold ink for nomina sacra. The text is of the Byzantine text-type in a very early stage, but some parts represent Caesarean readings.

In 1896 Nicholas II of Russia commissioned Fyodor Uspensky's Russian Archaeological Institute to buy the greater part of it for the Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg. 

Perhaps as a result of its 12th century dismembering, the 231 surviving folios of the manuscript are preserved in an unusually large number of different libraries in different countries:

  • "182 leaves in the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg,
  • 33 leaves in the Library of the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian on the Island of PatmosGreece, Mark 6:53-7:4; 7:20-8:32; 9:1-10:43; 11:7-12:19; 14:25-15:23;
  • 6 leaves in the Vatican Library in Rome, Matthew 19:6-13; 20:6-22; 20:29-21:19
  • 4 leaves in London, British Library, Cotton Titus C. XV; Matthew 26:57-65; 27:26-34; John 14:2-10; 15:15-22; they were named the Codex Cottonianus;
  • 2 leaves in the National Library of Austria in Vienna,
  • 1 leaf in the Morgan Library in New York,
  • 1 leaf in the Byzantine Museum in Athens,
  • 1 leaf in the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessaloniki
  • 1 leaf in the private collection of Marquis А. Spinola in Lerma (1), Italy." (Wikipedia article on Codex Petropolitanus, accessed 02-18-2014).
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The Syriac Bible of Paris Circa 550 – 650

Folio 46r from the Syriac Bible, depicting Job. (View Larger)

The Syriac Bible of Paris, an  illuminated Bible written in Syriac, is thought to have been created in northern Mesopotamia in the sixth or seventh centuries. The manuscript has 246 extant folios. Large sections of text and the accompanying illustrations are missing. The folios are 312 by 230 mm. In the archaic style, the text is written in three columns.

"The illumination consists of miniatures introducing each of the books of the Bible and set into one or two of the text columns. The miniature for the Book of Genesis which may have been the most sumptuous miniature is missing. Although most of the miniatures are full length author portraits, some depict scenes from the following book. For example, the miniature before the Book of Job depicts Job on the dung heap. This miniature combine several scenes from the Book of Job. Job is pictured lying naked on the dung heap, covered with sores. Below him his wife is talking to him. To the left are his three friends. One of them is seen rending his garments, while the other two are seated, and talking to him. The Book of Exodus also has a narrative miniature before it. It depicts Moses and Aaron requesting permission to depart from Pharaoh. It is hard to understand why this scene, rather than one of the many more popular scenes was chosen to be the sole illustration for Exodus. Other miniatures are allegorical groups. The miniature before the Book of Proverbs shows the Virgin and Child, flanked by Solomon, representing the wisdom of the Old Testament, and Ecclesia, a personification of the Christian Church. Only one New Testament miniature survives, that of James the Apostle. The miniatures show mixture of Hellenistic heritage and a native Syriac tradition. Some of the miniatures, especially the miniature before Exodus, show stylistic similarities to the miniatures in the Rabula Gospels. Based on this it is unlikely that this manuscript was made much later than the Rabula Gospels which were made in 586." (Wikipedia article on Syriac Bible of Paris, accessed 11-29-2008).

The manuscript is thought to have come from the Episcopal library of Siirt near Lake Van in Turkey, where it may have been produced. It is preserved in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS syr. 341.

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The Dark Ages for Study of the Classics on the European Continent Circa 550 – 750

"Although few ages are so dark that they are not penetrated by a few shafts of light, the period from roughly 550 to 750 was one of almost unrelieved gloom for the Latin classics on the continent; they virtually ceased being copied. Among the mass of patristical, biblical, and liturgical manuscripts that survive from this period there are precious few texts of classical authors; from the the sixth century we have scraps of two Juvenal manuscripts, remnants of one of the Elder and one of the Younger Pliny, but at least two of these belong to the early part of the century; from the seventh century we have a fragment of Lucan; from the early eighth century nothing.

"The fate that often overtook the handsome books of antiquity is dismally illustrated by the surviving palimpsests—manuscripts in which the original texts have been washed off to make way for works which at the time were in greater demand. Many texts that had escaped destruction in the crumbling empire of the West perished within the walls of the monastery; some of them may have been too tattered when they arrived to be of practical use, and there was no respect for rags, however venerable. The peak period for this operation was the seventh and early eighth centuries, and although palimpsests survive from many centres, the bulk of them have come from the Irish foundations of Luxeuil and Bobbio. Texts perished, not because pagan authors were under attack, but because no one was interested in reading them, and parchment was too precious to carry an obsolete text; Christian works, heretical or superfluous, also went to the wall, while the ancient grammarians, of particular interest to the Irish, often have the upper hand. But the toll of classical authors was very heavy; amongst those palimpsested we find Plautus and Terence, Cicero and Livy, the Elder and Young Pliny, Sallust and Seneca, Vergil and Ovid, Lucan, Juvenal and Persius, Gellius and Fronto. Fronto survives in three palimpsests, fated always to be the underdog. Among the texts that have survived solely in this mutilated form are some of outstanding interest such as the De republica of Cicero (Vat. lat 5757. . . ) written in uncials of the fourth or fifth century and covered at Bobbio in the seventh with Augustine on the Psalms, a fifth-century copy of De amicitia and De vita patris of Seneca (Vat. Pal. lat. 24) which succumbed in the late sixth or early seventh century to the Old Testament, and a fifth-century codex of Sallust's Historia (Orléans 192 + Vat. Reg. lat. 12838 + Berlin lat. 4º 364) which, in France and probably at Fleury, was supplanted at the turn of the seventh century by Jerome. Other important palimpsests are the Ambrosian Plautus (Ambros. S.P. 9/13-20), olim G. 82 sup.) and the Verona Livy (Verona XL (38)), both of the fifth century" (Reynolds & Wilson, Scribes and Scholars 3rd ed [1991] 85-86).

(This entry was last revised on 03-22-2014.)

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The Herbal of Pseudo-Apuleius Circa 550 – 625

Folios 33v-34r from MS. Ashmole 1431, an eleventh century copy of the Herbal of Pseudo-Apuleius. (View Larger)

The Latin herbal associated with the name of Apuleius Barbarus or Apuleius Platonicus or Pseudo-Apuleius, in distinction to Lucius Apuleius Platonicus, author of The Golden Ass, may have been put together from Greek material around 400 CE or might have been compiled earlier, possibly in Roman Africa. Nothing is known about the so-called author except his name, which may have actually been a pseudonym of Lucius Apuleius Platonicus, who described himself as "half-Numidian half-Gaetulian," and who was born in Madaurus (now M'Daourouch, Algeria), a Roman colony in Numidia on the North African coast, bordering Gaetulia.

"The history of the work has been lost with the passage of time, leading to endless speculation on the identity of the author. In all probability 'Apuleius Platonicus' was a pseudonym of Lucius Apuleius of Madaura in Numidia born AD124, [author of The Golden Ass,] while other writers refer to the him as Pseudo-Apuleius. A study of the book shows some of the plants being endemic to North Africa and lends support to the idea that the author was African" (Wikipedia article on Herbarium Apulei Platonici, accessed 06-13-2009).

The earliest surviving manuscript of this herbal, a codex containing a Latin herbarium and other medical texts, was produced in Southern Italy or Southern France in the sixth or early seventh century. It is preserved in the library of Universiteit Leiden, Vos. Lat. Q9. 

"Its figures are much inferior those of the Vienna Dioscorides, and, like them, derivative, though of different origin; it is, therefore, in spite of being denounced by Singer as 'a futile work, with its unrecognisable figures and incomprehensible vocabulary', and by Frank J. Anderson as a 'straw desperately grasped at by despairing men', in its way a landmark in the history both of botany and of botanical illustration. It was probably written in the south of France and for many generations was unhappily to provide western illustrators from Italy to the Rhine with a storehouse for plunder " (Blunt & Raphael, The Illustrated Herbal [1979] 28).

The Herbarium Apulei was one of the most widely used remedy books of the Middle Ages. Over 60 medieval manuscripts of the text survive.

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The Earliest Manuscript of the New Testament in Christian Palestinian Aramaic Circa 550

Several pages from te Codex Climaci Rescriptus. (View Larger)

The Codex Climaci Rescriptus, a 7-8th century Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament as well as a 6th century Christian Palestinian Aramaic uncial manuscript of the Old and New Testament, represents in its Christian Palestinian Aramaic version of the New Testament, "the closest surviving witness to the words of Jesus Christ. It preserves the Gospels in the nearest dialect of Aramaic to that which he spoke himself, and unlike all other translations, those here were composed with a living Aramaic tradition based in the Holy Land." 

The palimpsest-manuscript in Christian Palestinian Aramaic was probably written in Judea, the mountainous southern region of Israel, in the sixth century. It was turned upside down and palimpsested in Syriac in the ninth century. It is thought that it passed to St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, which was built by the Emperor Justinian I between 527 and 565.

The manuscript was

"acquired by the pioneering Biblical scholars and twins, Agnes Smith Lewis (1843-1926) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843-1920) in three stages between 1895 and 1906 (all in the vicinity of Cairo, the manuscript having presumably been 'liberated' from its monastic home in order to supply leaves for the antiquity trade there). They were staunch Scottish Presbyterians with a consuming interest in the early versions of the Bible, and profound belief in female education, in an age when it practically did not exist. They used their own fortune to become celebrated scholars in the fields of Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Syriac, and thrilled by Tischendorf's discoveries at Sinai, they set off to St. Catherine's on a 'manuscript-hunting' expedition in 1892. They won over the difficult patriarch, partly through their insistence that nothing was to be abstracted from the library there, but only photographs taken, and on that expedition they returned with pictures of the Syriac manuscript which would make them famous, the fourth century Syriac Sinaiticus (their lives and its discovery are the subject of a recent book, J. Soskic, Sisters of Sinai, 2009, which was adapted for BBC Radio 4 this April). Having returned home to Cambridge they were tipped off by a mysterious informant that spectacular manuscripts were to be had through various dealers in Cairo. This was quite different from the questionable removal of manuscripts from ancient libraries, and the twins regarded it as a rescue mission, returning to Egypt and acquiring a single leaf of the present codex . . . in 1895. They acquired a further 89 leaves from the present manuscript in October 1905, and in April of the following year, while passing through Port Tewfik, Agnes Lewis bought two palimpsest - manuscripts on a whim. Upon returning home she discovered that one contained another 48 leaves of the present manuscript, and that the two portions were separated by only a single leaf - that which the twins had acquired first in 1895. They published the entire text in 1909. Only one other leaf of this scattered manuscript has emerged in the last century. . . . On the death of the twins the manuscript was left to Westminster College, Cambridge."

Westminster College consigned the Codex Climaci Rescriptus to auction at Sotheby's London for sale on July 7, 2009 with an estimate of £400,000- £600,000. The quotations in this note were taken from Christopher de Hamel's much longer illustrated description of the manuscript as lot 14 in the catalogue of Sotheby's sale L09740, Western Manuscripts and Miniatures. According to Sotheby's website, the manuscript failed to sell in the auction. In June 2010 it was publicized that the Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores, bought the manuscript for their planned Bible museum expected to be located in Dallas, Texas.

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One of the Earliest Surviving Legal Codices Circa 550

Alaric II, as depicted on a Visigothic coin. (View Larger)

The Breviarum Alarici (Breviary of Alaric, Breviarium Alaricianum or Lex Romana Visigothorum), written in southern France in the sixth century, is one of the earliest surviving manuscript codices of Roman law. The text was compiled by order of Alaric II, King of the Visigoths, with the advice of his bishops and nobles, in 506, the twenty-second year of his reign.

"It applied, not to the Visigothic nobles under their own law, which had been formulated by Euric, but to the Hispano-Roman and Gallo-Roman population, living under Visigoth rule south of the Loire and, in Book 16, to the members of the Trinitarian Catholic Church. (The Visigoths were Arian and maintained their own clergy.)

"It comprises:

◊"sixteen books of the Codex Theodosianus;

◊"the Novels of Theodosius IIValentinian III, MarcianMajorian and Libius Severus

◊"the Institutes of Gaius

◊"five books of the Sententiae Receptae of Julius Paulus

◊"thirteen titles of the G