16 June 2015
Exit, Pursued by a Bear
A recent addition to Digitised Manuscripts is one of our true hidden treasures: possibly the oldest illuminated manuscript in the British Library’s collections. Papyrus 3053, also known as P. Oxy. 2470, was found along with a range of third-century documents at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. Blank on the verso, the recto contains a vivid fragment of a scene from the arena. The papyrus depicts a bear, caught just on the moment of rising up, or perhaps about to leap, to try to catch the figure whose legs are visible in the top left. The hoop in the top right is perhaps a ring through which the figure is aiming to jump. The red swoosh to the right of the fragment is harder to make any sense of, but it seems to serve the purpose of marking off the acrobatic scene from something else. Perhaps it is supposed to designate the curve of the seating at the amphitheatre? Just above the legs of the acrobat are the feet of some letters, reconstructed as ερσωις, though what exactly that might mean (a name, perhaps?) is unclear.
Such feats of acrobatic dexterity, with the goal of escaping wild beasts, were hugely popular in antiquity, and the papyrus calls to mind the words of the late Latin poet Prudentius (348-c. 405), who notes in his poem the Hamartigenia that “rash figures spring with flying leap over wild beasts and sport amid the risks of death” (inde feras uolucri temeraria corpora saltu | transiliunt mortisque inter discrimina ludunt, Ham. 369-70, trans. Thomson). The prevalence of scenes drawn from the world of Roman spectacle in mosaics and in the few illuminated papyri now extant give further attestation of the popularity of these shows (see, for instance, the famous Antinoopolis Charioteers papyrus , or this fine hunting-scene (perhaps a uenatio?) in a Berlin papyrus. Bears were particularly prized: see, for instance, the many references to the difficulties involved in getting good bears for the games in the letters of the fourth-century senator Symmachus, or the splendid scene depicted by Apuleius in the fourth book of his novel the Metamorphoses.
What was the original context of this fragment? Clearly visible are the remains of some sewing along two vertical folds, similar to the sort of sewing we often find in papyrus codices. However, the fact that these two folds are so close to each other makes it clear that the image was not spread across two facing pages of a codex. It has been suggested that the sewing was intended to repair tears that resulted from the folds. Did this image form part of a bookroll, then, or was it perhaps inserted into a codex? In the absence of further information, it’s impossible to say.
I mentioned at the beginning that this is possibly the oldest illuminated manuscript in the British Library. We can perhaps exclude papyri that have simple decorative ink coronides on the grounds that these are not illuminations as we would commonly think of them today. But there remains the fact that establishing a clear date for Papyrus 3053 is tricky: while it was found among documents from the third century, there is no hard evidence for dating it exclusively to that century, and we should allow for the possibility that it is from a later period, possibly even the sixth century. Such a dating would make it a near-contemporary of the Cotton Genesis, generally dated to the fifth or sixth century, and later than Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century), which contains tiny miniatures in the tailpiece (such as the one above). Whatever its date, however, Papyrus 3053 is a rare example of a coloured illustration on papyrus, and a precious glimpse into the world of book decoration in the ancient world.
- Cillian O’Hogan