01 September 2021
When a text on papyrus is fragmentary, there is always hope that further portions of it may turn up at some point, perhaps in a collection on the other side of the world. In one of our previous blog posts, we digitally re-united two halves of a papyrus from the collections of the British Library and Columbia University, New York. Today we will share another story of virtual re-unification and collaboration among institutions focusing on the story of Appian, an Alexandrian ambassador who stood up to the Roman Emperor against injustices.
Papyrus 2435 is a fragmentary roll bearing a register of contracts from the late 2nd century on the front-side. The roll was later reused and on the back another text was written, known as the ‘Acts of Appian’ (Acta Appiani), assigned to the first half of the 3rd century. This is the latest piece that has come down to us from a collection of texts on papyrus named the ‘Acts of the Alexandrians’ (Acta Alexandrinorum), written by unknown authors over the first three centuries AD. The surviving texts follow the format of the official minutes of legal proceedings (acta), from which their title derives.
The ‘Acta’ promote Alexandrian patriotism and anti-Roman feelings, recounting hearings of some prominent Greek citizens of Alexandria sent as envoys to the court of the emperors in Rome. These hearings usually concern conflicts between Greek and Jewish communities in Alexandria. As the emperors tend to appear hostile to the Greek delegates, the hearings become proper trials, and often end with the execution of the envoys, who are killed as martyrs of the Alexandrian cause. It is difficult to discern what is historical and what is literary fiction in these texts, but the authors of the Acta may have relied on official documents of the hearings.
The ‘Acts of Appian’ recount the hearing of an Alexandrian ambassador called Appian, trialled before the Emperor Commodus (176-192), although the emperor is never named in the surviving portion. Appian is sentenced to death twice, but is surprisingly recalled on both occasions. He accuses the emperor of making illegal profit from the trade of Egyptian grain, hoarding it with the aim of selling it at high prices. After being called back from execution, Appian continues to defy the emperor, accusing him of avarice, dishonesty and lack of education, contrasting him to his father Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher, who was fit to rule as an emperor. After this attack, Appian is condemned to death once again, though he is granted the right to die in his robes, as a symbol of his noble status. On his way to execution, he invites the citizens of Rome to watch the show of his death. Following the complaints of the crowds in Rome, the emperor recalls him again. At this point, however, when Appian starts another argument, the papyrus suddenly breaks off leaving the narrative fragmentary.
In 1933 a fragment entered the papyrus collection of Yale University, and was identified as belonging to the roll containing the ‘Acts of Appian’ now in the British Library. The fragment preserves a few letters from the first column of the British Library papyrus as well as bits of the two preceding columns, providing some missing portions from the earlier part of the account. At this point of the narrative, after having accused the emperor, Appian is being led away to execution for the first time, when he sees a dead body on the way and talks to a certain Heliodorus, who is unable to help but encourages him to face his death: dying for his fatherland will bring him glory.
Thanks to a collaboration between curatorial teams at the British Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, high-resolution images of the two portions have been made available and the fragments have now been joined again, virtually.
We are also happy to announce that the British Library papyrus is now displayed in the new Universal Viewer, compatible with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF).
The account of Appian’s trial is still incomplete, and we do not know whether the Alexandrian was eventually sentenced to death, but we hope that new fragments may come to light in the future to reveal the conclusion of the story.
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26 July 2021
How many of us have ever needed a letter of recommendation to apply for university or to seek employment, to rent a flat or to consult a special manuscript in a reading room? Well, in using these letters we are following a practice that was already in use thousands of years ago.
Letters of recommendation are well attested in the Classical world. They feature as one of the twenty-one types of letters recorded in a letter-writing manual mistakenly attributed in the manuscript tradition to the 4th-century BC orator and statesman Demetrius of Phalerum.
A passage from the sixth book of Homer’s Iliad testifies to a rather treacherous use of a letter of ‘recommendation’, quite the opposite of what is expected. King Proetus writes a letter for Bellerophon asking his father-in-law, the king of Lycia, to kill Bellerophon, who is bearing the folded tablet containing the message.
St Paul also mentions recommendation letters, commenting: ‘Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, which is known and read by all men’ (2 Corinthians 3:1-2).
The Greek papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt offer several examples of recommendations, dating from the 3rd century BC onwards. The letters usually display a consistent format: the author greets the recipient and recommends the bearer of the message, asking the addressee to offer whatever help the recommended person may need. Sometimes letters request even more, asking for loans, job offers, and assistance with taxes or legal issues. The person recommended would usually be introduced as someone close to the writer, often a friend or relative, whose preferential treatment would be considered as a personal favour to the writer.
Among the British Library holdings is a letter of recommendation forming half of a papyrus sheet (Papyrus 2553).
Many details about this letter would have been unclear had the right-hand half of the papyrus not been identified in a fragment (P. Col. VIII 211) now held in the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York. The two papyrus halves join perfectly, as Antonia Sarri recognised in an article published in 2014 in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies.
The full letter, dated 16 February 6, concerns a dispute between Isidorus, a farmer from the village of Psophthis, in the Memphite district, and Tryphon, governor (strategus) of a different district, the Arsinoite.
Isidorus appears to have been detained and compelled by the governor’s agents to swear that he would cultivate a plot of land located on the estate of the empress Livia, wife of Augustus, in the village of Philadelphia, in the Arsinoite district. However, because Isidorus was formally registered in another district, he shouldn’t have been obliged to perform this work. Several influential people took Isidorus’s side in this affair, one of whom is Proclus, author of another letter from the archive.
In this letter, Proclus instructs Asclepiades, a local official, to investigate the matter and cooperate with Isidorus, a member of his household. Moreover, Asclepiades is reminded not to forget in the future that Isidorus is recommended by Proclus. From the tone of the letter, it can be surmised that Proclus’s social standing was rather high.
In the postscript, Proclus adds ‘… do everything for Isidorus, for I am concerned about him.’
Despite being thousands of miles apart, the two fragments can now be joined virtually thanks to the advanced technologies and the combined efforts of the curatorial teams at the British Library and Columbia University. The British Library fragment has now been displayed in the new IIIF Univeral Viewer, and the Columbia portion will made available on their current platform for IIIF, Columbia's Digital Library Collections (DLC), in the coming months. We’ll be sharing further examples of fragments that can be reunited in the coming weeks, so look out for further updates.
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21 July 2021
Medieval manuscripts come in all shapes and sizes: handy books for personal reading, mid-size volumes for the library or classroom, staggeringly huge tomes for the choir or lectern. But manuscripts that are extra tiny are especially rare and fascinating. Miniature books wow us with the skilfulness of their delicate script and puzzle us with the question of "why so small?". What motivated people to make books with pages so petite that they take all your dexterity to turn, and script so minute that you have to strain your eyes to read? Inspired by the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition, we thought we'd explore some of our teeny tomes.
Definitions vary, but books measuring under 3 or 4 inches (76 or 101 mm) on their longest side are generally considered miniature. The earliest books of these dimensions in the British Library are leaves which once formed part of miniature codices from Roman Egypt, written in Greek. A papyrus example, dating from the 3rd century and containing a fragment of the Psalms, measures 73 x 56 mm (Papyrus 2556). Discussing why miniature books appealed to Christian owners in the late Roman Empire, scholars have suggested that they might have been particularly useful for carrying on travels, or for wearing close to the body as religious amulets, or for discretely hiding in times of persecution.
Nine parchment leaves, each measuring about 68 x 45 mm, once formed a complete codex from 6th century-7th century Egypt (Papyrus 120 (3)). These diminutive pages of Greek writing contain a hymn to the Nile with a prayer for the flood, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed and Psalm 132 (133). Its small dimensions, short length and texts which were believed to have particular potency suggest that it may have been used as an amulet.
Miniature books had a novelty value, prompting writers to comment on them as marvels. For example, Pliny the Elder, citing Cicero, reports in his Natural History (AD 77) that there was a copy of Homer's Iliad written on a piece of parchment so small that it could fit inside a walnut shell. Later scribes were inspired to try and match this ancient achievement, including the 16th-century English calligrapher Peter Bales. A note written in 1586/7 describes ‘A most strange and rare piece of worke brought passe by Peter Bales, an Englishman, a Clerke of the Chauncery of the proofe and demonstracioun of the Whole Bible to be written by hym everie word at length within an English Wallnut no bigger then a hennes egg’ (Harley MS 530, f. 14v). Sadly Bales’ tiny Bible doesn’t survive. None of our miniature books can rival these impressive walnut-sized feats (see the image at the top of this blogpost).
Display of scribal skill might have motivated the creation of an illuminated 15th-century Book of Hours measuring only 54 x 40mm (Add MS 58280). Unusually, the scribe, Roger Pynchebek, signed his name at the end of the book: 'Scriptori merita mater pia redde Maria. Amen. Nunc finem feci. Da mihi quod merui. Quod Rogero Pynchebek þe writer of þis boke. In þe yere of our lorde MoCCCC.lxx iiiio' (Affectionate Mother Mary, give to the writer his just reward. Amen. Now I have made an end, give me what I deserve. That is, Roger Pynchebek the writer of this book. In the year of our Lord 1474). Perhaps with this tiny volume, Roger Pynchebek hoped to advertise his impressive scribal skills to prospective clients.
In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world. They are sometimes included in medieval portraits of the period, such as that of Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth.
A girdle book made in Paris around 1520 which belonged to a lady at the court of King Henry VIII of England measures a dainty 35 x 20 mm (Sloane MS 116). The book, which contains devotional texts, even includes tiny painted pictures the size of postage stamps, here showing St George slaying the dragon.
A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree that measures a diminutive 40 x 30 mm (Stowe MS 956). It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning. The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.
The tradition of miniature books continued into the modern era and up to the present day. You can visit the British Library’s current Miniature Books exhibition for free in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. The exhibition includes Sloane MS 116 described above, displayed alongside other miniature manuscripts and printed books from the Library’s historical collections, as well as books created especially for the project by contemporary children’s authors and illustrators, and miniature books submitted by children in response to the British Library's lockdown callout. You can also find out more in the British Library's online event The Magnificent World of Miniature Books (Thursday 22 July 2021, 19:30 - 20:30 BST).
16 March 2021
The British Library's papyri are full of surprises. We've often described how our Greek papyri provide insights into the lives of women, children, teachers and even magicians, but even we were astonished, while cataloguing the collection, to come across a number of fragments containing fascinating descriptions of extraordinary creatures.
A fragmentary school composition about the phoenix, written on the back of a tax register (Egypt, 2nd century AD): Papyrus 2239, fragment 1 verso
The first fragment probably dates from the 2nd century, is written on the back of a tax document, and describes a wondrous bird in Greek prose. According to the text, 'This bird can be seen ﬂying through the air with its plumage gleaming, gold and light blue all over, being wondrously similar to the sea. The plumage of its wings seems to imitate the echo of the storming wind. It lives alone even as an adult, rich in wisdom, peaceful not carnivorous.'
Based on parallels in other texts, this miraculous bird can be identified as the phoenix. The bird in question was said to have lived in Egypt and, after living for 1,000 years, to have burned itself alive before resurrecting again from its ashes. Our papyrus provides new information about the colour of the bird, as well as the fascinating information that it could sing in an extraordinary voice which 'had an eternal quality, one with the entire universe'.
The phoenix in a bestiary (England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 45r (detail)
Our second fragment comes from a 4th-century codex and contains a text in verse, probably from a play. The first legible portion of this papyrus describes another mythical creature, a female beast 'with tresses of long hair. Her tail she curls up under her lion’s feet and sits down carrying back her wings. Exposed to sunshine, the monster’s back glistens with gold, if a cloud comes, a sombre splendour, like a rainbow, is reflected on it. It is murderous and chants magical verses of a riddle: "One thing there is that has sense that walks on four feet, then on two and three — what’s that?"'
Two fragments from a play, probably the Oedipus of Euripides (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 4th century AD): Papyrus 3042, fragments 1-2 recto
It is this riddle about a creature that first walks on four legs, then on two and finally on three that helps us identify this beast. It is the Sphinx of Greek mythology, whose riddle refers to a man, who as a boy crawls on four legs, as an adult walks on two, and finally in old age leans on a stick as its third foot. The Sphinx was said to have a female head, a lion's body and wings; but the colour of its plumage is described uniquely in this papyrus.
The Sphinx from the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à Cesar (France, 2nd quarter of the 14th century): Royal MS 20 D I, f. 2v (detail)
Our third example dates from around 1,900 years ago. It is found on a papyrus roll containing Greek verses, presumably from a tragedy. The first readable portion of the text describes an horrific monster, 'a compound, with double nature: bull and man, it bears a bull’s head square set on its shoulders, it walks on two legs with a black shaggy tail, it has a look of horror and a tail and strength of …' The rest of the text is missing.
Fragment from a play, presumably The Cretans by Euripides (Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 2nd century AD): Papyrus 3044, fragment 2 recto
Despite the fragmentary condition of this papyrus, the two-fold nature of the bull-man makes it obvious that this is a description of the Minotaur. This creature was born from the love of the Cretan queen Pasiphae and a bull. Imprisoned in the mazes of the king’s palace, it was fed with the human flesh of slaves until Theseus, a young prince from Athens, helped by Pasiphae’s daughter Ariadne, chopped off its head with his sword.
Theseus combatting the Minotaur from the Histoire ancienne jusqu'à Cesar (France, 2nd half of the 13th century): Add MS 19669, f. 96v (detail)
Although this papyrus provides no new details about the Minotaur's appearance , it's an interesting witness to the long-lived tradition of the monster of Crete. Seeing these exciting fragments, one cannot help wondering what other mysteries remain to be revealed among the British Library’s Greek papyri.
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13 February 2021
As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, we have collected some ‘charming’ love spells preserved in the Greek magical papyri of the British Library. Such spells were believed to rouse love and passion, but more worryingly they were also intended to bind and attract the loved one to the user. Some spells even went so far as to cause suffering to the victim, which was to end after the lovers were united. Most of the spells presented below are preserved in Papyrus 121, a magical handbook presumably from 4th-century Egypt, originally a roll over two metres long, containing spells for various purposes, from healing and binding to obtaining protection and success.
A ‘fetching’ love spell
Love spells often have titles that define their nature in more detail. One of the most frequent types are the love spells ‘that lead’, named agōgē and agōgimon in Ancient Greek (from the verb agō, ‘to lead’). This type of spell had the aim of bringing the victim to the person performing the magic. One of these spells instructs the user to take a seashell, write holy names with the blood of a black donkey, and recite a formula to attract the victim. The user should select the time to perform the ritual very carefully, as the spell had immediate effect.
Securing eternal love
Magical words (voces magicae) recur constantly in the magical papyri. These are unintelligible sequences of words or syllables thought to have magical power. This spell, believed to obtain the eternal love of a woman on the spot by invoking the god Iabo, displays some magical words at the end.
An ‘excellent love charm’
Magical signs, known as charaktēres, were another powerful tool. These symbols often had the shape of asterisks or lines ending in small circles. The following love spell makes use of such signs. The spell is described as an ‘excellent love charm’, literally ‘potion’ (philtron). It explains that a tin lamella should be engraved with some magical signs and names, rolled up with some magical material (perhaps a lock of hair or a piece of clothing) and thrown into the sea. The practitioner should also remember to use a copper nail from a wrecked ship for writing!
Invoking deities for help is another common feature of love spells. A special invocation to Selene, the Moon, is contained in the following spell. Addressing Selene as the ‘mistress of the entire world’, the user was instructed to make offerings to her by moulding a mixture of clay, sulphur, and blood of a dappled goat into a figurine of the goddess, and by consecrating a shrine made of olive wood, which should never face the sun. As a result, Selene would send a holy angel, who would drag the victim by their feet and hair to the user. The victims would be fearful and sleepless because of their love for the individual performing the magic. Success is guaranteed, as the ‘power of the spell is strong’, according to the papyrus.
Over a cup…
Among the objects featuring in magical rituals are also those of daily use. The following spell is ‘a good drinking cup’ spell: over a cup, the user ought to repeat magical words seven times. These were believed to be ‘holy names of Cypris’, that is, Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Users of the spell hoped that the loved ones’ heart could be reached, and their love would be returned.
Spells may have been accompanied by drawings to serve as a model for performing the ritual. For example, a picture is mentioned in the following spell, although the papyrus itself does not preserve it:
‘Take a shell from the sea and draw on it with myrrh ink the figure of Typhon given below, and in a circle write his names, and throw it into the heating of a bath. But when you throw it, keep reciting these words engraved in a circle and attract to me her, NN, whom NN bore, on this very day from this very hour on, with her soul and heart aflame, quickly, quickly; immediately, immediately’.
This ‘fetching’ spell (agōgē) was believed to work with ‘unmanageable’ targets. The names of seven ‘great gods’ should be written with myrrh on seven wicks of a lamp, which ought not to be red. The lamp was lit and had wormwood seeds on top. A formula should then be recited. The victim would be sleepless until they reached the practitioner’s house: this would happen by the time the seventh wick flickered.
After reading these ancient love spells, we definitely prefer our Valentine's Day celebrations to be ‘charmless’.
The development of erotic magic continued in the following centuries: you can discover more in our previous blogpost on medieval love spells.
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Translations are from The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, ed. by Hans D. Betz (London-Chicago 1986).
13 January 2021
Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.
There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:
During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:
Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.
Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.
In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.
Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.
Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.
Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.
Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.
We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!
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15 December 2020
Papyrus documents often provide unique glimpses into the everyday lives of individuals as well as entire families. As the festive season is approaching, in today’s blog post we have decided to tell a story of family affection and fondness from over 1,800 years ago, preserved on a sheet of papyrus recently catalogued and now fully available online.
Papyrus 2102 is part of the archive of a woman called Saturnila and her sons. It is also known as the ‘Happy Family Archive’, because of the affectionate tone in which the members of the family address each other. This archive consists of eight papyri containing twelve letters, now held in collections across Europe and America. The correspondents are members of a family of Roman citizens living in the Fayum (Middle Egypt), perhaps in the village of Karanis. On palaeographical grounds, the papers, written in Ancient Greek, have been dated to the late 2nd century, when Egypt was part of the Roman empire.
The key figure is Saturnila, mother of at least five and probably seven children; she was presumably a widow as no mention of a husband is made in the documents. Most of the letters preserved are addressed to her, and one of these is Papyrus 2102, which contains two letters written on the same sheet.
In the first letter, Sempronius, apparently the eldest of the brothers and undoubtedly a very caring son, writes to his mother, as he often does. He is frequently away from home, and is presumably staying in Alexandria. As usual in his letters, he expresses anxiety over Saturnila’s welfare, for whom he makes daily supplications to the god Serapis. He is also concerned about her silence, and urges her to reply to the numerous letters that he had sent her:
‘How many letters have I sent you and not one have you written me in reply, though so many people have sailed down! I beg you, my lady, be not slow to write me news of your welfare that I may live in less anxiety; for your welfare is what I pray for always’.
The second letter, on the other hand, is addressed to Maximus, one of the oldest brothers (perhaps the second oldest), who seems to have acted as the head of the household in Sempronius’ absence, and who features as the addressee of many letters. We learn from other missives that Maximus was married, had daughters, but lost his wife, whose passing he deeply mourned.
In this letter from Sempronius, the tone of brotherly affection is vivid, but the message contains a heavy reproach:
‘I have been informed that you serve our mother and lady grudgingly. I beg you, sweetest brother, do not grieve her in anything; and if any of our brothers gainsays her, you ought to cuff them; for you ought now to take the name of father. I know that without my writing you are able to humour her, but do not be offended by my letter of admonition; for we ought to revere our mother as a goddess, especially one so good as ours. This I have written to you, brother, because I know how sweet a possession our revered parents are.’
Sempronius’ words recall the Greek concept of ‘gerotrophia’, that is, the caring for an elderly parent, which was considered a moral duty in return for everything the child had received during their upbringing. Already in Hesiod’s myth of the ‘Five Ages’, for example, people dishonouring their aged parents and not repaying them for the care they received were considered a sign of human degradation.
Although one of the letters is for Saturnila, Maximus features as the only recipient in the address on the back of the papyrus. Saturnila is not mentioned, and nor does she feature in the address on the other letters for her. She may have been illiterate, as many women were at that time. It has also been argued that in this way the information reaching Saturnila’s ears could be kept under control by her sons. Saturnila’s correspondence was probably read out loud to her by one of them, and this could also explain why two letters were written on the same sheet. Or was perhaps Sempronius a very parsimonious man?
Although more than a millennium has passed, Sempronius’ love for his family is still vivid: thanks to the papyri, we can still be moved by his words, share his concerns, and reflect on his advice.
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Translations by Arthur S. Hunt and Campbell C. Edgar, Select papyri. Vol. 1, Private affairs (London: W. Heinemann, 1932), no. 121.
04 December 2020
Steam engines are heat-operated devices which use the force of steam pressure to generate rotational force. The importance of steam-generated energy for human history can hardly be overestimated. Without steam engines and the machines, trains and ships they powered, industrialisation, globalisation and economic growth would all have taken radically different shape.
The invention of the steam engine is usually ascribed to British engineers of the 17th and 18th centuries. James Watt (d. 1819) is best known for inventing an especially efficient type of the engine in 1786, which was applied first to trains and then in the early 19th century to ships. It is much less known that the engine was invented in the 1st century AD by Greek engineers of Alexandria, more than 1,500 years before Watt. The British Library holds a remarkable collection of Greek manuscripts that describe and illustrate these early steam engines in great detail. More information can be found in Ian Ruffell's article, Greek mechanical texts.
The most important authority in mechanics from Antiquity was Hero of Alexandria, who lived in the 1st century AD. Relying on the work of earlier scientists, Hero compiled a number of treatises on mechanics, physics and war machinery, which were often richly illustrated.
The title-page of a copy of Hero’s Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)
One of Hero's works, entitled Pneumatics after the Greek word (pneuma) for air and gases, contains descriptions of a number of machines and automata that made use of gases and steam in various ways. One of these was a construction that fulfilled exactly how a steam engine should convert steam pressure to rotational force. Fortunately, the manuscripts contain illustrations of the machine Heron described, so we have a reliable image of what this Greek scientist may have had in mind.
Hero’s steam engine from his Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Harley MS 5589, f. 12v (detail)
Hero’s device was very simple. It consisted of a cauldron under which a fire was ignited. The cauldron contained water and was covered by a lid with two bent tubes (marked ξ and μ on the illustration) connecting to a ball (λ), which had two nozzles (θ and κ) pointing in opposite directions. Once heated underneath, the steam went through the pipes into the hollow ball and exited through the two nozzles in opposite directions, resulting in a rotational movement of the ball in order to achieve a steady speed. Hero’s description was so accurate that it has been possible today to recreate a fully operational version.
A modern replica of Hero’s steam engine (credit Wikimedia Commons)
Surprisingly, the ancient scientists do not seem to have recognised the revolutionary potential of their invention. The machine, along with a number of similar constructions preserved in these manuscripts, seems to have served very unpractical purposes. Many of these automata were designed only to entertain and surprise the guests at banquets and feasts, having figures of animals or mythical figures that moved around and had water flowing through them.
Hero’s installation for animating birds in fountains, from a collection of mechanical texts (Venice, 16th century): Burney MS 108, f. 42v (detail)
Hero used some of his automata for cultic and religious purposes. He constructed a special system to open temple doors without any human interaction. In one construction he even designed trumpets to be sounded at the opening of the gates. There were sacrificial pyres that lit up at the sound of the trumpet to praise the power of the gods. Rather than machines to help the production of goods and sustain economic growth, ancient engineers explicitly considered their inventions only as devices which, as the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote in the first century AD, 'show the mighty and wonderful laws of heavens and Nature'.
The design of an animated model of a sanctuary from a copy of Hero's Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 20r (detail)
Hidden in this context, Hero’s designs and illustrations were forgotten and barely copied for centuries until the Renaissance. It was only with the arrival of Greek intellectuals to Florence that manuscripts of Hero’s works, with their rich illustrative tradition, reached Europe, where humanists were amazed by their scientific content.
Marginal annotations in Latin to one of Hero’s designs, comparing it to other ancient scientific sources, from a copy of the Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)
Around this time there arose a great demand for copies of Hero’s works. 15th- and 16th-century illustrated manuscripts of his treatises abound and were soon dispersed across Europe. Hero’s texts were translated into Latin and Italian and printed several times. His designs, originally intended for entertainment and worship, had now become practical guides for further experiments and new discoveries. In the hands of the engineers of the 17th and 18th century, they became the blueprints for a more elaborate and effective steam engine that could be used in factories, trains and ships.
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