Friday, 12 June 2020

Who preserved Greek literature? (Part 2)

Part 1 | Part 2

Back in December I wrote about the myth that ancient Greek texts only survived by being preserved in the mediaeval Islamic world. Some readers pointed out that I should have told the true story, as well as dismantling the myth. So here we go.

But first, I’d better repeat that it is a myth. Great Arab and Persian scholars like Averroes and Avicenna were proactive innovators, not passive pipelines for getting texts from A to B. Only in a tiny number of cases do we rely on translations for ancient Greek texts — and into a variety of languages, not just Arabic — and every now and then that number shrinks, when a Greek copy is found.

Recently I realised that, for many people, the Arabic transmission myth doesn’t just apply to Greek texts, but to Latin texts too! (Examples: 1, 2, 3.) So we’d better look at them too. We have a lot of ground to cover: make yourself a cup of tea.

For in-depth accounts, Reynolds and Wilson’s classic book Scribes and scholars (fourth edition 2013) and Pfeiffer’s History of classical scholarship (1968-1976) both cover ancient transmission up to the 1st century BCE very well; Reynolds and Wilson also tell a detailed story from then up to the 1300s. But after that date, things go a bit pear-shaped. They turn into histories of an academic field, of publication and scholarship within western Europe, rather than of the texts themselves. Pfeiffer in particular determinedly ignores any Greek people involved in the story, other than a couple of passing mentions of Manouel Chrysoloras and Ianos Laskaris — and them only for their role in ‘returning’ Greek books to Italy. Western eurocentrism is deeply ingrained in these histories.

Anyway, the short version is this. Latin texts were preserved in western Europe, especially Italy, Germany, and France. Greek texts were preserved in the eastern Roman empire, especially Greece, Anatolia, and greater Syria. Modern editions are based on manuscripts that still exist in various libraries around the world — mostly in libraries in Italy, France, Britain, and Germany, but many elsewhere too, ranging from America to Greece to Armenia to Egypt.

The loss of ancient Greco-Roman books

The ancient Greco-Roman world had a thriving book trade from the 3rd century BCE to around the 3rd century CE. The literacy rate certainly wasn’t at modern first world levels, but scribes were cheap, papyrus was recycled, and books were produced on such a scale that they were reasonably affordable.

Book manufacture was the labour-intensive part of the process. There was no such thing as copyright. When Pliny found out once that his books were being sold at shops in Lyon, he was pleasantly surprised (Letters 9.11.2): he had no reason to be annoyed at any loss of profit, because he would never have tried to manufacture books there himself.

Libraries existed all over the place. Every now and then they suffered catastrophic accidents, like fires, but so long as the local economy was doing well the libraries got rebuilt. Rome had some of the greatest libraries of the ancient world: the library of the Porticus of Octavia, the Palatine Library, and the Ulpian Library. The first seems to have disappeared by the year 200, but the other two survived into the fourth century in spite of several fires. In the east Athens, Antioch, and Alexandria continued to be centres of learning as well.
Cod. Vaticanus latinus 3867, fol. 14r: a 5th or 6th century illustrated edition of Vergil, possibly made in France or Britain. This leaf shows a portrait of the epic poet himself above the text of the Eclogues. (Image © Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana)
But books didn’t survive by being preserved in a library. No ancient library has survived to the present day. Books survived by being copied. Books have a limited lifespan, regardless of format — scroll or codex, papyrus or acid-free paper, monograph or miscellany. Only a handful of ancient copies still exist. The books that survive are the ones that were copied, and copied, and copied again, usually many times over the centuries.

So in the story of the loss of ancient Greco-Roman literature, library fires are just a footnote. No single library had a monopoly on the classics anyway. A much bigger role was played by a format shift that affected every book, everywhere: the shift from scroll to codex. That format shift took place in the years 100 to 400 — in antiquity: most of the loss occurred before Rome fell.

Here ‘codex’ means the standard modern book format, sheets bound with a spine. In the year 100, about 98.5% of books existed as scrolls, and only 1.5% in codex form; by 400, things had flipped round, and the codex accounted for 80% of books (Casson 2001: 127-128). After that date Greek texts continued to be lost, as the eastern empire was gradually whittled away, but with Latin texts it’s relatively uncommon to find evidence of texts surviving to that date that haven’t also survived to the present day.

Greek vs. Latin

We’d better dispose of a potential major misconception here. If you imagine that the spread of Roman domination went hand-in-hand with the spread of the Latin language, think again. Latin was never widely spoken in the eastern empire. Rome didn’t speak Greek, Constantinople didn’t speak Latin.

The actual linguistic make-up of each half of the Roman empire is a messy, complex business, with enclaves, immigrant communities, scholarly use of Greek, military and governmental use of Latin, and other languages popping up. But as a rule of thumb, ‘west = Latin, east = Greek‘ won’t go too far wrong. The only part of the empire where Latin actively displaced Greek was in the western Greek colonies, in southern Italy, France, Sardinia, Corsica, and Spain.

So the survival of ancient Latin and Greek texts is actually two distinct stories. The traditional image is of monks busily copying out books in monasteries. Monastic scribes did play an important role in transmission in both the west and the east, but to a different extent and in different ways.

In the west, the fracturing of the empire and the chaos of the 6th century devastated secular libraries, so monastic copying became the main road to a text’s survival. Lay scholars, that is non-ecclesiastical ones, began to play an important role from the 14th century onwards, but monastic transmission still mattered for a long time — even up until the Reformation, when many monasteries were dissolved in Germany.

But in the east, schools and other secular institutions played a significant role in the copying process too, especially in the 800s to the 1400s. Some emperors vigorously encouraged state libraries and non-ecclesiastical schools. But in areas conquered by the Ottomans, books that survived often did so in monastic libraries. A much more robust avenue for survival lay in the books that were moved to Italy in the 1400s: there they made their way into libraries (and by that time civic libraries were coming into existence again there), and onto the printing press.

Latin texts

The ‘fall’ of Rome in the 400s wasn’t the end of book production. The fracturing of the western empire was also a fracturing of the western intellectual economy, but major literary figures like Priscian, Boethius, and Cassiodorus continued to flourish in Italy under Theoderic (r. 493-526) — even if Boethius’ career did end with a big political hiccup.

Then everything changed when the eastern empire attacked. Justinian’s invasion in the 530s engulfed Italy in two hellish decades of war. After that came the Lombard invasion. Some Italian cities managed to remain hubs for literary production and transmission (Rome, Ravenna, Verona), but otherwise, monasteries became the safest haven for literacy and learning after the chaos of the 500s.

There were already some monastic or quasi-monastic institutions that were copying books, like Monte Cassino in Latium/Lazio (founded ca. 529), and Cassiodorus’ Vivarium at Squillace in the far south (the 540s). Like later institutions, these centres collected books, took good care of them, made new copies when needed, and wrote new books. But the wars took their toll. The first abbey at Monte Cassino was destroyed in 570, in the Lombard invasion; the Vivarium faded after Cassiodorus’ lifetime, though it hung on for another century or so.

After 535 the survival of Latin texts is mostly owed to a wave of new monastic foundations in the 600s and 700s. In Italy some of the most important centres were at Bobbio (founded 614), Pomposa (also in the 600s), and Monte Cassino (refounded ca. 718); in France, Auxerre (originally founded in the 400s), Luxeuil (580s-590s), Ferrières (630), Fleury (ca. 640), Corbie (ca. 660), and Murbach (727); in Scotland and England, Iona (563), Lindisfarne (ca. 634), Jarrow (674), and Malmesbury (675); and in Germany and Switzerland, after (re)christianisation in the early 700s, at St Gallen (719), Reichenau (724), Fulda (744), and Lorsch (764). Other important institutions followed in later centuries: St Michael’s in Piedmont, Cluny and Bec in France, Melk in Austria, Heilsbronn in Franconia, and many more.
Umberto Eco, The name of the rose (1980, English edition 1983); Walter Miller, A canticle for Leibowitz (1959)
This monastic environment is the setting for fictional depictions like those in Umberto Eco’s The name of the rose (1980) and Walter Miller’s A canticle for Leibowitz (1959). Eco’s fictional monastery is inspired by the Abbey St Michael, but its multicultural library perhaps owes more to Monte Cassino. Miller depicts a monastic order that was founded specifically to preserve ancient texts. That’s a caricature: libraries were an integral part of daily business for mediaeval monasteries, but not generally the centrepiece of their mission statement.

These places had a variety of aims and specialisations. Some of the most famous mediaeval manuscripts, the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels, were produced in Britain in the 700s, but British institutions tended to specialise in Christian texts and producing new philosophical and historical works. For pre-Christian texts, the libraries in Italy, France, and Germany are much more important.

Lay scholars began to play an important role in the late mediaeval period, as I mentioned. Poets like Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio became fabulously learned in ancient literature. Petrarch coined the phrase ‘dark age’. Some Italian states funded major civic libraries (Urbino, Naples, Florence, Rome), and individuals like Poggio Bracciolini and Coluccio Salutati collected large personal libraries. The printing press arrived on the scene in the mid-1400s, but books continued to be copied by hand as well.

Monastic collections usually ended up in university or state archives, one way or another. For example, the Electoral Palatinate appropriated the library of Lorsch in the 1560s when the monasteries were dissolved: this became the core of the Bibliotheca Palatina. Then in the 1620s, at the start of the Thirty Years’ War, the collection was recaptured and most of it sent to the Vatican, where the manuscripts are still preserved. Some collections were moved wholesale; others were dispersed. More below on some of the major collections today.

Greek texts

Greek texts were primarily preserved and transmitted in Greek-speaking regions of the empire, that is (initially) in Greece, Anatolia, greater Syria, and Egypt. Things shifted as the empire gradually disappeared over the centuries.

From around 500 to the mid-800s there was a serious downturn in literary activity. It didn’t cease to exist — we have part of a parchment edition of Sappho from 7th century Faiyum, Egypt, around the time of the Rashidun conquest — but all the major centres of learning were shut down, except in Constantinople. For once, we can legitimately blame organised religion. This period saw a boom in Christian biblical literalism; most of the flat-earthers of antiquity that we know of came from Syria in this period, justifying their dogma by selective quotation of biblical passages. The waves of iconoclasm in the 700s and 800s didn’t help either.

But even in that touchy climate, considerable effort still went into textual transmission. The development of the catena, or verse-by-verse Bible commentary, in the 6th century prompted a similar trend in the secular classics. Many bodies of scholia, that is to say glosses on literary and philosophical works, seem to have been compiled starting in this period, distilled from ancient treatises and commentaries. The ancient treatises themselves are lost — the works of ancient literary critics like Aristarchus, Crates, Didymus, and Theon — but a significant amount of material survived as scholia in the margins of other texts.
The Homeric Iliad, with scholia. The end of Iliad book 8 and start of book 9 as they appear in codex Marcianus graecus 822, fol. 111v. This is one of the most important manuscripts of the Iliad, also known as ‘Venetus A’. It dates to the 900s, and is now housed at the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. Homer’s poetry is centre-right in large lettering. In the smaller lettering in the surrounding margins are glosses or scholia derived from ancient commentaries. (Source: Homer Multitext Project)
There was a new wave in the 9th century. There was also a new format shift: books were copied from the older uncial script into the new minuscule script. This seems to have been another great filter, deciding which ancient books survived and which ones didn’t. At first the new book culture was dominated by church leaders like Leon the mathematician, who became the head of a revitalised imperial college in Constantinople, and patriarch Photios, and archbishop Arethas, who built up large libraries. But emperor Konstantinos VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959) promoted scholarship outside the church as well, funding new excerpted editions of older authors. The first of the great Byzantine encyclopaedias, the Souda, was compiled in the second half of the 900s.

Byzantine book culture continued to thrive, at times erratically, until the Ottoman conquest. Paper was introduced in the 1000s. New commentaries on ancient authors appeared, some of them by scholars who worked with the great Anna Komnene. There continued to be significant book collectors, both inside the church (Eustathios, Michael Choniates) and outside (Michael Psellos, Ioannes Tzetzes). The Palaiaologan period (1261-1453), the last phase of the Byzantine era, was an even greater revival, with major lay scholars like Maximos Planoudes, Manouel Moschopoulos, and Demetrios Triklinios, who are still routinely cited by modern editors of ancient Greek plays.

After the Ottoman conquest, civic support dried up. Just like 900 years earlier in the west, it fell to monastic libraries to carry on preserving books. But in the east the survival rate was much poorer. Partly because monasteries operating under Muslim rule were inevitably much less well-equipped than those in the west; and in Turkey, Israel, and Egypt, also because of the ravages of the 20th century, when some libraries came to be neglected amid the chaos of many wars.

I haven’t been able to consult complete catalogues. Catalogues of microfilms held in Paris and Washington show thousands of manuscripts of Christian texts and Byzantine histories held in Greece, Israel, and Egypt, but the range of pre-Christian texts is limited:
  • Mt Athos, Greece, microfilms held by the Institut de recherche et d’histoire des textes:
    • Iviron: 8 codices (Aesop, Euripides, Sophocles, Synesius, Pindar, Lycophron, and Aelius Aristides)
    • Megisti Lavra: 7 codices (Thucydides, Hesiod, Pindar, Iliad, Philostratus, Aesop, Sophocles, and Libanius)
    • Vatopedi: 7 codices (Aristophanes, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Pindar, Libanius, Dio Chrysostom, Aristides, Ptolemy, Strabo, Homeric Hymns, Callimachus, and Babrius)
  • Patriarchal Library, Jerusalem, microfilms held by the Library of Congress:
    • Holy Sepulchre (Agios Tafos): 3 codices (Aristotle, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, Simplicius)
    • Photios II’s collection: 2 codices (Iliad, Aristotle)
    • (Also note that the famous Archimedes palimpsest was held by the Patriarchal Library until it was transferred to Constantinople sometime between the 1600s and 1840s.)
  • Sinai, Egypt, microfilms held by the Library of Congress:
    • St Catherine’s: 5 codices (Plutarch, Homer, Aristotle)
There are presumably others in various collections in Greece, but the information available online is unfortunately not very extensive. There are also many palimpsests, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of them have never been identified.
Monastery of Iviron, Mount Athos, Greece
Because of this shortage, modern knowledge of ancient Greek texts relies much more on the Greek books that were taken from Greece to Italy in the 1300s and 1400s. Petrarch (1304-1374) is the most famous person in this part of the texts’ story. But there are other book collectors who are even more important: Giovanni Aurispa (1376-1459), Francesco Filelfo (1398-1481), and Basilios Bessarion (1403-1472, a.k.a. Vissarion) all lived in Greek-speaking lands and brought large libraries to Italy — Aurispa and Filelfo because they were westerners who were appointed to positions in Greece, Bessarion because he was a Catholic cleric. Bessarion bequeathed his library to the city of Venice, and it formed the basis of the Biblioteca Marciana. The early 1400s saw a boom in translating Greek texts into Latin, and the rise of the printing press led to a wave of printed editions from the 1470s onwards.

The subsequent history of the texts is entangled with westerners’ idealisation of antiquity, and the fact that modern knowledge of the texts has been filtered through Italy. Westerners came to treat ‘Greece and Rome’ as something separate from, and superior to, other ancient (and contemporary) cultures. And because of the Italian filtering, they are often thought of as inextricably linked to ‘western culture’. So we need to have a word about racism here.

What about now?

The modern history of Greco-Roman texts is brutally colonialist, to an almost comical extreme. ‘Classics’ as a field is practically the archetype of a field that is white, male, and parochial. ‘The glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome’ (Edgar Allan Poe) is still a cornerstone of how these cultures are perceived: it’s no coincidence that people like Steve Bannon and Boris Johnson are enthused about Greek antiquity, and that white nationalists are obsessed with ancient Sparta.

This affects the position of ancient texts in the modern world in many ways. One obvious sign is the personnel involved. Racism plagues the field as much as ever. That isn’t because the material is an automatic switch-off for black people. Positive role models exist (though we need more of them). Just a few days ago the writer Maaza Mengiste tweeted that
Someone asked me yesterday why I liked Greek classics so much. I pointed out I could find myself in those stories. Ethiopia, the Ethiope, that was me Homer & Virgil & Herodotus were writing about. I was erased from European literature, I said. You didn't see me, so I looked away.
If you want to find university courses on colour and race in the ancient world; if you want to learn Latin or Greek from a textbook that doesn’t cast ancient slavery as comical, or even benign — well, they exist. But you’ll have to hunt around.
According to this widely used textbook for learning ancient Greek, published by Oxford University Press, slavery was benign, and enslaved people were ‘lively and cheeky characters’. (Balme and Lawall, Athenaze, 3rd edition 2016, ch. 2)
For our purposes today, the main outcome of western-eurocentrism is a widespread disregard for textual transmission, manuscripts, and scholars in any place other than western Europe. It’s seen in things like Pfeiffer’s avoidance of mentioning Greek libraries, scholars, and book-collectors. We also saw it in Part 1, in those popular articles that refuse to acknowledge transmission in Greece, let alone in eastern Europe or western Asia.

In the standard histories you won’t find a single word about Athanasios Papadopoulos-Kerameus’ monumental work in the 1880s and 1890s on cataloguing manuscripts held at libraries in northern Greece, Jerusalem, Izmir, Istanbul, and St Petersburg. It’s unsurprising that a scholar who was ready to undertake that work ended up finding a home in Russia, and not in a western country.

New editions

Popular perceptions and general introductions may keep quiet about transmission outside western Europe, but editors are more diverse. When a modern editor wants to to put out a new edition of an ancient text, they will go where the manuscripts are — whether that’s in Italy or Greece, France or Egypt, Britain or Turkey.

The surviving manuscripts of ancient Latin and Greek texts are kept today in a wide variety of libraries. Almost all of them are available to any scholar with reasonable credentials. If you’d rather save the airfare, digitised copies are available to anyone for a moderate fee — maybe on the order of €50 to €100 if there aren’t too many pages. Some of the most important collections are the Apostolic Library at the Vatican, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, the British Library in London, and many, many more.

When an editor makes a new edition of Livy or Herodotus, they regularly draw from manuscript copies made as recently as the 1700s. A modern edition will normally list the manuscripts that exist; which libraries they’re in; catalogue numbers and physical descriptions; and the genetic relationships between them, showing which manuscripts matter more than others. There will also be a set of abbreviations or sigla, which are used to scrupulously annotate variants where the manuscripts differ from one another.

Let’s take an example. A 2013 edition of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the philosophers, edited by Tiziano Dorandi, lists 30 Greek manuscripts. Here’s a boiled-down version of the first few:
and so on. The list carries on with manuscripts held in other collections too, in London, Leiden, Moscow, Madrid, Prague, Vienna, Cambridge, and Munich. The text of Diogenes Laertius as we know it is entirely dependent on these physical manuscripts, held at these specific archives.

You’ll notice from the links that many of these are available online. Click on them, and you’ll find yourself looking at the basis of the modern text. Some libraries are more proactive about digitising manuscripts than others. The Vatican has been making a big push to digitise as much as possible. Most institutions charge fees, because digitisation costs money, but often they’ll have a policy of making the digitised manuscript freely available online straight afterwards.

Our texts of Vergil and Homer can’t be based on copies from the poets’ own lifetimes, because no such copies have survived. But the texts have. Don’t go thinking that their convoluted history means we can’t trust that text: scribal copying has on the whole been reasonably faithful over the millennia.

If some scribes have been dishonest or incompetent, that can often be spotted by comparing different manuscripts. Modern editors have an arsenal of techniques for analysing the differences between manuscripts and reconstructing how they came about. Once again Reynolds and Wilson’s book is a useful introduction here: they give a compact account of the principles, and the most common types of textual corruption.


  • Casson, L. 2001. Libraries in the ancient world. Yale University Press.
  • Pfeiffer, R. 1968-1976. History of classical scholarship, 2 vols. Oxford University Press.
  • Reynolds, L. D.; Wilson, N. G. 2013. Scribes and scholars. A guide to the transmission of Greek and Roman literature. Oxford University Press.


  1. Clear and informative as ever, thankyou. However, I always get to wondering what we can know of loss in Hellenistic and Roman times of earlier material. It must have been quite considerable, I guess.

    1. I can't give a thorough answer off the cuff, but as a sample ... here's a piece from earlier this year that talks about the loss of the Epic Cycle. Beyond that, take a look at some books on ancient libraries! Casson's one is pretty good. There are others too!

  2. always love these posts! it's been a few years since I last read Scribes and Scholars, but I recall it was Reynolds who points out that if your book was often read in schools, its chance of survival increased!

  3. The Book of Kells was produced in Britain? If the rest of the article is as accurate as this, it should be taken 'grano salis'.

    1. I take it this is a complaint over suggesting that Iona is 'in' Britain? If so, I suppose a comparable objection might apply to Lindisfarne. Still, I'd accept the quibble.

  4. A good overview of the Byzantine contribution to the preservation of ancient texts can be found in Anthony Kaldellis' survey in vol. 132 of the Journal of Hellenic Studies.

    1. Oh I am so annoyed at myself for forgetting he wrote that article. I wish I had looked for it before finalising this write-up. I'll defintely grant that Kaldellis is much better informed than I am.

      His article is even accessible on the open web here -- anyone can read it online, downloading requires creating an account (but you don't have to use real credentials).

  5. The text of Vergil is unique, in that it’s based on three codex books surviving from late antiquity and fragments of three others, though there is increasing recognition that some of the large number of medieval manuscripts from the 9th century onwards preserve valuable readings from sources outside the traditions of the ancient manuscripts. Ancient manuscripts of Terence have also survived.

    1. You're absolutely right. When ancient copies do survive, they're extremely important. There just aren't many authors as blessed as these ones! Ancient copies are also v important for the text of Homer -- though they're much, much more fragmentary, often just a couple of lines. Though there's also a papyrus at the Rylands Library in Manchester -- 4th century IIRC -- which has an awful lot of the Odyssey.

  6. You really have to wonder how Balme and Lawall managed to miss all the jokes in Aristophanes's comedies about slaves being beaten and abused. There's a whole scene in The Frogs in which Xanthias and Dionysos switch places and are both beaten. That scene only makes sense when you realize that the people who were in the audience when the play was first performed were at least accustomed to seeing slaves being beaten, if not beating them personally. How anyone could say that slaves in Greek comedy are "by no means downtrodden" is beyond me. Slavery in ancient Greece was inherently abusive.

    1. They're not alone. It's just the textbook that I happened to have used most recently. The JACT Reading Latin uses Plautus for its first several chapters, and while I don't remember it clearly I'm sure there are Cunning Slaves running around there. Reading Greek, the Cambridge Latin Course, and Disce! also strike me as casting slavery as basically akin to being lower middle class. Cambridge says slaves were protected by masters' 'common sense'. Only the Oxford Latin Course has a back-of-the-chapter essay on ancient society that emphasises brutal treatment of slaves, but it still doesn't depict that in the Latin readings.

      Kelly Dugan (@dugankp) at Trinity College, CT, is doing some work directly on the depiction of slavery in language textbooks: I don't know if she's got anything in print yet.