11 February 2023
Time runs out for Alexander the Great
Have you visited our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth? Featuring astrological clay tablets, ancient papyri, medieval manuscripts, comics and videogames, we reveal how Alexander’s remarkable character and achievements have been adapted and appropriated by diverse cultures over 2,000 years. But hurry, because you only have until 19 February to see this remarkable show in person at the British Library.
Alexander became king of Macedon (in today’s northern Balkans) in 336 BC at the age of 20. In less than ten years, he had conquered the entire ancient world, from Greece to Egypt and from the Middle East to India and Punjab. His large, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural empire did not survive Alexander's death in 323BC, but his legacy was ultimately more pervasive than his conquests: legends about Alexander's life and adventures have maintained his memory for more than two millennia, giving inspiration to some of the greatest literary and artistic treasures. Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth explores this incredible legacy, highlighting some surprising stories and amazing adventures of this ancient hero.
Wooden puppets of Alexander and the Cursed Snake (Athens, c.2000): Private collection
The legendary life of Alexander, known as the Alexander Romance, is one of the most popular ancient literary texts. Written originally in Greek in Alexandria, Egypt, it collected Alexander's deeds as retold by historians, scientists and travellers, with additions from many other sources. Soon after its composition in the 2nd century AD, the Romance was translated into numerous languages, such as Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic, Persian, Arabic and Latin. From the Latin, vernacular European versions emerged, including French, English, German and Russian.
In the course of transmission, these tales were constantly rewritten and supplemented by new stories, so that Alexander’s exploits became ever more implausible. His mythical adventures included:
- conquering dragons, giants and other monsters, including the feared cannibalistic people of Gog and Magog
- encountering strange peoples and incredible monsters in the unknown realms of the world
- descending to the depths of the ocean in a submarine he had himself invented
- constructing an incredible flying machine, pulled aloft by griffins, to explore the secrets of Heaven
- meeting some of the most beautiful and powerful women of his time
Gog and Magog, in Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi, Qisas al-anbiyaʾ(Tales of the Prophets) (Iran, late 16th century): Add MS 18576, f. 118r
Alexander meets the gymnosophists, in Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Harley MS 4979, f. 56v
Alexander’s fairytale descent, in Robert Steele and Fred Mason, The Story of Alexander (1894)
Alexander is lifted into the sky by four griffins in the Roman d’Alexandre en prose: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 76v
Alexander and the Amazon women: Add MS 15268, f. 203r
With the oldest exhibit dating from Alexander’s lifetime, and the most recent an unpublished graphic novel, the exhibition considers how the tales of Alexander’s deeds proliferated and spread throughout Europe, Asia and beyond.
Nathaniel Lee, The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great (London: James Magnes and Richard Bentley, 1677): 11774.g.29
Alexander the Great was the subject of legends during his lifetime, which developed into a complex mythology in the centuries following his death. Instead of trying to understand who Alexander was, our exhibition explores who he has since become and how these stories continue to evolve. The exhibition culminates with a replica of Alexander’s supposed sarcophagus from Egypt, set within a digital reconstruction created by Ubisoft as part of the Assassin’s Creed Origins video game. We also collaborated with Escape Studios’ School of Interactive and Real Time to create an interactive version of the largest surviving medieval world map until it was destroyed during World War II. Based on the original map, produced by the sisters of the convent of Ebstorf around 1300, the new digital map enables us to explore the adventures Alexander purportedly took in his own lifetime.
Screenshot of the digital Ebstorf Map game
Here are some of the highlights of the exhibition:
- one of the most elaborate secular manuscripts from the Byzantine empire, a 14th-century copy of the Greek Alexander Romance containing 250 coloured illustrations, loaned from the Museum of the Hellenic Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies and on display in the UK for the first time
- the armour of Prince Henry Frederick, son of King James I, decorated with scenes of Alexander’s battles
- a pamphlet presented to Henry VIII by his teacher Bernard André in the 16th century, which refers to the new king of England as the future Alexander the Great and himself as Aristotle the philosopher
- a 2,300 year-old silver coin commemorating Alexander’s victory against the regional ruler Porus, on loan from the British Museum
- a description of the meeting between Queen Candace of Ethiopia and Alexander in a 19th-century Ethiopian manuscript
- a luxurious illuminated manuscript of the French Alexander Romance
- part of a child’s homework on papyrus containing an imaginary speech by Alexander
Bernard André, Aristotelis ad Magnum Alexandrum de Vite Institutione Oratio: Royal MS 12 B XIV, f. 10r
The Porus coin (?Babylon c. 323BC): British Museum, 1887,0609.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum
Alexander at the gates of Paradise, in Roman d’Alexandre: The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, Bodley MS 264 f. 186r
Papyrus from Oxyrynchus, Egypt: Papyrus 756
Book your tickets to Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. British Library Members go free. Closes Sunday, 19 February 2023.
The British Library is indebted to the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund, as well as the American Trust for the British Library, The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, The Hellenic Foundation, London, and Professor James H. Marrow and Dr Emily Rose for their support towards the development of this exhibition.
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18 August 2022
The man with the golden bulla
Our current Gold exhibition includes a number of the Library’s most famous treasures, but it also contains some little-known gems. One of the objects that was most fun to research is also one of the least familiar: the golden bulla of Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople, attached to a land grant from May 1269. When I first came across this item while scoping for the exhibition, I had never seen a golden bulla before, nor had I heard of the Latin Emperors of Constantinople. But a bit of digging turned up the fascinating story of a failed emperor and his golden self-promotion.
What is a golden bulla?
In medieval Europe people authenticated documents by attaching a seal impressed with their unique design. Usually these seals were made from wax, but occasionally they were made from metals such as lead or gold. These metal seals were known as bullae (from the Latin for ‘bubble’) and were generally reserved for the most prestigious papal and imperial documents.
The use of golden bullae to seal documents is associated most closely with the Byzantine Emperors. The Byzantine Empire was the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire which continued as a major power until 1453, when its capital, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), fell to the Ottoman Empire. The golden seal, or chrysobull in Greek, was an effective emblem of Byzantine government, used by the emperor to authorise formal documents such as diplomatic correspondence, decrees of law and grants of privileges. The earliest surviving examples are from the Byzantine Emperor Basil I (r. 866-86).
Some western rulers imitated the Byzantine practice of sealing important documents in gold, especially the Holy Roman Emperors. The British Library holds just one other medieval golden bulla, that of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (r. 1440-1493).
The high material value of golden bullae meant that they were frequently melted down and reused. For example, in the 11th century the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III gave a letter from the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX to the church at Goslar, where the gold bulla was melted down to make a chalice (as recorded in the Chronicon Sanctorum Simonis et Judae Goslariense). With their restricted use and low survival rate, medieval gold bullae are extremely rare today.
Who was Baldwin II, Latin Emperor of Constantinople?
The golden bulla that features in the Gold exhibition is particularly fascinating because it was not issued by a Byzantine emperor, but by a man who was pretending to be one. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, a crusader army from western Europe captured the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. The crusaders founded a new Latin Empire of Constantinople with one of their leaders, Baldwin of Flanders, as emperor. His Flemish family ruled Constantinople for the next 57 years until the city was retaken by the Byzantine Greeks in 1261. The final Latin Emperor of Constantinople was Baldwin II, nephew of the first emperor and issuer of our golden bulla.
Baldwin II was born in Constantinople in 1217 and became Latin Emperor in 1228 at the age of eleven. He spent his reign struggling to hold onto power and desperately attempting to raise funds from western rulers. Perhaps his most notable legacy is that he sold one of the most holy Christian relics, the Crown of Thorns, formerly kept in Constantinople, to King Louis IX of France, who built the royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle to receive it. The relic was preserved at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris until the fire of 2019, when it was rescued from the blaze and moved to the Louvre.
Baldwin’s reign came to an end on the night of 24 July 1261 when Greek Byzantine soldiers launched a surprise attack and recaptured Constantinople. Luckily, Baldwin and many other inhabitants were rescued by the Venetian fleet. Although he spent the rest of his life in exile in western Europe, Baldwin never gave up his claim to the throne of Constantinople nor stopped using the title of emperor.
Decoding Baldwin’s golden bulla
The golden bulla at the British Library dates from after Baldwin was deposed and fled west. The charter to which it is attached was issued in May 1269 at Biervliet, a small town in the Netherlands. In it, Baldwin confirmed the grant of lands at Biervliet by his uncle, Philip I, Marquis of Namur, to the church of St Bavo in Ghent. The seal is made from two thin gold plates, each stamped with a different design, then joined together, rather like the foil on a chocolate coin. It is affixed to the document with red silk cords which pass through the interior of the bulla between the two plates.
Although the charter deals with the administration of Baldwin’s ancestral lands in Flanders, its gold seal speaks of his pretensions in Constantinople. The rare use of the golden bulla emulates Byzantine imperial practice, and the images and inscriptions reinforce Baldwin’s claim to be emperor.
The front of the seal shows Baldwin seated on a throne in full Byzantine regalia. He wears a Byzantine-style crown with pendilia (hanging ornaments) and holds the imperial sceptre and globe. He also wears a loros, an embroidered cloth wrapped around the torso and draped over the left arm. The Latin inscription reads:
‘BALDUINUS DEI : GRATIA : IMPERATOR ROMANIAE SEMPER: AVGUSTUS’
(Baldwin Augustus, by the grace of God, Emperor of Romania forever).
Romania (‘the land of the Romans’) was one of the contemporary names given to the Latin Empire of Constantinople, which was claimed to be the second Rome and the legitimate heir of the Roman Empire.
The reverse of the bulla shows Baldwin on horseback bearing the Byzantine crown and sceptre, perhaps as a reference to the famous equestrian statue of Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) that stood in the main square of Constantinople in the Middle Ages. Remarkably for a seal issued in the Netherlands, the inscription on this side is in Greek. It reads:
‘BAΛΔOINOC ΔECΠOTHC . ΠOPΦIPOΓENNHTOC ΦΛANΔPAC’
(Baldoinos despotes Porphyrogennetos Phlandras / Baldwin the Ruler, purple-born, from Flanders).
The term Porphyrogennetos (‘born in the purple’) was used to refer to individuals born legitimately to a reigning emperor. The term was said to refer to the porphyry chamber in the imperial palace of Constantinople where empresses traditionally gave birth. Baldwin’s description of himself as Porphyrogennetos emphasises his birth-right as a Byzantine emperor as well as his birth location in the imperial palace in Constantinople.
They say that all that glisters is not gold. Baldwin’s bulla is certainly golden, but the message of imperial power it conveys is illusory. By the time it was issued, the crown of Constantinople was firmly planted on another man's head. Still, this rare object is fascinating for its cross-cultural mix of features and its insight into one man’s construction of a public persona at odds with reality.
The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.
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The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.
23 April 2022
A 2000-year-old postcard
Sending greetings to friends and family from places we visit has always been popular. Whether we text, call or just post something on social media, we love to let others know about where we travel and what we see there. Although we may associate tourism with modern or postmodern society, there are some fascinating documents surviving to prove that people were also interested in travel and sightseeing thousands of years ago.
The British Library has a fragment of a Greek letter that is the ancient equivalent of a postcard from a sightseeing trip, written on papyrus in the 1st or 2nd century AD in Middle Egypt. A man called Nearchus is writing to his friend Heliodorus to tell him about his trip on the River Nile. After the short greeting, Nearchus tells his friend why he started to travel:
‘As many people embark on ships today to travel and see the excellent works of human hands, I have also decided to follow their example and sailed downstream on the Nile towards Syene'.
From what Nearchus tells us, it seems like there was an extensive market for tourism to Upper Egypt. His first destination, Syene, is a town by the Nile near today’s Aswan. It is a picturesque place with an island in the river that has the great temple of Isis, famous for its architecture and miracles, which Nearchus probably visited.
His next stop, the Siwa Oasis, is quite a distance away: it is in the Western Desert near the Libyan border. Siwa had a famous sanctuary where the ram-headed god Amon gave oracles to his visitors, which Nearchus was keen to visit:
‘I went to Libya where Amon chants his oracles to everyone. I have received very promising words and I scratched the names of all my friends on the wall of the sanctuary for eternal memory…’
Just like Alexander the Great, who visited the same site some 500 years earlier and was proclaimed the son of Amon by the oracle there, Nearchus also received good news from the god. He also tells us that he scratched his friends’ names on the temple wall. Although this may sound very alarming today, putting names on the temple wall was considered pious at that time. It was to ensure that the absent friends would be present at the holy place forever – exactly as Nearchus assures his friend.
Unfortunately, the last two lines of Nearchus’s postcard have been washed off the papyrus and are missing, so his story remains unfinished. But there is still hope his graffiti of his friends’ names may survive somewhere in the ruins of Amon’s Temple in Siwa. You can read more fascinating stories from our ancient papyri on our Greek Manuscripts webspace.
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11 January 2022
Reach for the stars
Marcus Tullius Cicero (b. 106 BC) is one of the best-known ancient Roman authors. A formidable speaker at court trials and political debates as well as a prolific theorist of rhetoric and philosophy, he influenced generations of scholars and students. It is less known, however, that through his striking and often beautifully illustrated work the Aratea, he was also responsible for introducing many a medieval and early modern reader to the Classical constellations.
In addition to his many prose works, Cicero was also a poet. However, his reputation as a poet was tarnished somewhat by an infamous work he wrote about his own political genius, The history of my own consulate, which is now lost. Nevertheless, other examples of his poetic texts are preserved, including his translation of an epic poem by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus.
Aratus was asked by the Macedonian king Antigonus Gonatas (320 – 239 BC) to compile a handbook on stars and constellations. The resulting work, entitled Phaenomena (Appearances on the Sky) is in hexametric verse and presents an overview of the entire astronomical knowledge of Aratus’s time in polished poetic language. It was highly esteemed, and survives in many copies, often with commentaries. An early example is a fragment of a 4th-century papyrus codex that contained the poem with notes on the right-hand margin.
The popularity of this work is also demonstrated by the fact that the Phaenomena is the only pagan poetic text that is explicitly referred to in the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul speaks to the Athenians on the Areopagus, his speech begins with a quotation from ‘one of the poets’ of the Greeks. The unnamed poet was in fact Aratus. Paul cites from line 5 of his Phaenomena claiming that ‘we are all offspring’ of a supreme God (Acts 17: 28).
It was perhaps this wide-reaching popularity of Aratus’s poem that attracted Cicero to translate it into Latin at the very beginning of his career. His translation became known as the Aratea, after the original Greek poet. Unfortunately, Cicero’s translation does not survive in its entirety; the prologue and several other portions of the work are now lost and less than half of the original text has eventually come down to us. However, what the manuscripts did preserve is the illustrative tradition of the text, which may date from Late Antiquity.
One of the earliest and fullest copies of Cicero’s Latin translation of Aratus’s poem is a manuscript made in the early 9th century (Harley MS 647). The manuscript preserves a carefully edited text: Cicero’s Latin verses are arranged in blocks copied on the lower half of the page in Caroline minuscule. Above, there are lavish coloured illustrations, which contain explanatory notes written in old-fashioned Roman rustic capitals inside the images. The work, therefore, is both useful and beautiful, as is apparent in the section on the constellation Cygnus the swan.
This early layout comprising text, illustration and commentary proved very successful. It had a long afterlife surviving in a number of later manuscripts, such as a deluxe copy produced at a Benedictine abbey in Peterborough around 1122. This adaptation of Cicero’s Aratea shows a similar layout to the manuscript 300 years earlier but the illustrations are now drawn in pen, without colours except for red dots marking the stars of the constellation.
Manuscript copies of Cicero’s Aratea were produced up until the end of the 15th century when they were replaced by printed copies retaining the illustrative tradition of the earliest manuscripts on the printed pages. This longstanding history of the textual and illustrative tradition of the Aratea shows not only the success of Cicero’s poetical skills in translating Aratus but also the wide-reaching influence of ancient literature and scientific thought on the evolution of science through the manuscripts and their illustrations. You can read more about medieval astronomical manuscripts in our article Medieval science and mathematics on the Polonsky Foundation Medieval England and France, 700–1200 website.
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Part of the Polonsky Digitisation Project
16 November 2021
The archive of Zenon
In the 1910s an exceptional lot of more than 1,800 papyri was unearthed by the ‘sebakhin’ (local diggers searching for decayed mudbricks used as a fertilizer) in the ancient site of Philadelphia in the northeast of the Fayum region, in Egypt. This collection of documents constitutes the richest Greek archive on papyrus hitherto unearthed and dates from the mid-3rd century BC. These papers, collected in ancient times and kept together for more than 2000 years, are today held in different collections around the world. While the vast majority were acquired by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the rest entered European and American collections, from London and Manchester to Florence and Paris, from Ann Arbor to New York.
These precious survivals have allowed scholars to reconstruct the phases of the career of the owner of these papers: Zenon, son of Agreophon, born around 285 BC and originally from Caunus (modern Dalyan), in ancient Caria (southwest of modern Turkey). Covering a period of some thirty years (261-229 BC), the archive includes private and official letters, accounts, contracts, petitions as well as a few literary texts. Besides dealing with official and business matters, some correspondence from this archive is more personal in tone, providing details on Zenon’s life, family and friends.
The documents reveal that from around 261 BC, Zenon served as a business agent and private secretary of Apollonius, the finance minister (dioiketes) of the country, advisor to King Ptolemy II Philadelphus (reigned 285 BC – 246 BC). In the first phase of his career, Zenon was travelling as a representative of Apollonius to Palestine, which at that time was under the control of Ptolemy.
Apollonius also owned property in Palestine. In a letter from May 257 BC (Papyrus 2661), addressed to the finance minister himself, one of his agents reported that his Palestinian estate was being well cultivated under the management of his local agent, Melas, and the vines amounted to 80,000. The agent even tasted the wine, but could hardly say whether it was Chian wine (one of the most prized wines in classical antiquity) or a local one. He concluded: ‘So your affairs are prospering, and fortune is favouring you in everything’.
In the spring of 258 BC, Zenon returned to Egypt and travelled on a few occasions on inspection tours around the Nile Delta. Following a long and apparently serious illness, from which he recovered sometime in 256 BC, Zenon settled down in Philadelphia and became overseer of Apollonius’ large estate (c. 2750 hectars!). Ptolemy II had gifted the estate to Apollonius in the winter of 259 BC, and Zenon succeeded a certain Panacestor as its manager.
Zenon kept this role until 248 BC, when he was discharged from his duties and focused on managing his own businesses in Philadelphia. Having been engaged in various enterprises over the years, such as money-lending, tax farming and renting of animals, he had now become a wealthy and influential businessman. The number of documents relating to Zenon decreases after 240 BC, and the latest dated text mentioning him is from 229 BC.
With the archive held in various collections worldwide, it is no surprise that even fragments belonging to the same papyrus are now housed at different institutions. However, digitisation and cross-institutional collaboration can help overcome the limits of time and space. For example, a letter from Philinus, a friend of Zenon’s, survives in two fragments, one at the British Library (Papyrus 2351) and one at the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York (P.Col. IV 114d).
In this letter, Philinus advises Zenon that he has despatched five shields of extraordinary quality: ‘I have sent you the five shields so highly prized by me that not even in Aetolia are there any such.’ The Columbia fragment perfectly joins the British Library portion to the right, containing the ends of the first seven lines of the letter, as shown on the image below.
In another interesting case, a receipt written in duplicate form has ended up in the British Library and in the papyrus collection of the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Nechthembes, apparently a small contractor employing a group of men for the cultivation of an estate, acknowledges that he received money for twenty workmen for the levelling of a vineyard. The British Library holds the upper receipt (Papyrus 2340), representing the inner text, which was originally rolled up and sealed to serve as the authoritative copy. The seal, in this case not preserved, would usually carry the impression of the man acknowledging receipt of payment. The Michigan fragment (P.Mich.inv. 3151), on the other hand, constitutes the outer text that was left open and visible.
Our Greek papyri cataloguing project, generously sponsored by the American Trust for the British Library, has focused on fragments shared by the British Library and American collections. You can read about two other examples of such joins in our previous blog posts: A letter of recommendation split between two continents and Defying the Emperor. You can also learn more about the Zenon archive on the Trismegistos dedicated page. All the Zenon papyri from the British Library collections have been digitised and catalogued and will be made available on the British Library new IIIF viewer in the coming months.
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01 September 2021
Defying the emperor: the ‘Acts of Appian’ in London and New Haven
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
A letter of recommendation split between two continents
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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16 March 2021
Fascinating beasts (and where to find them)
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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