Looking at Ciceronian papyri in the John Rylands

When most people think of Cicero, they picture him speaking – standing in the open air forum of Rome, or within the closed temple of a senate meeting. When I think of Cicero, I think of him in the library with his books – both reading and writing. In other areas of the humanities, you can read the very words which were written by a certain historical figure in his or her own hand. I recently noticed that my home institution, the University of Southern California, has digitized some of the correspondence of Voltaire, including letters to and from Frederick the Great, King of Prussia from 1740-1786. The Bodleian library has digitized Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein, written in her own hand with edits and revisions in notebooks from 1816.

Although we are lucky to have an incredibly large body of extant works for Cicero, our earliest texts come from manuscripts of a much later period, and we have no equivalent of – for example – the autograph letters of Voltaire. And so, unable to see our sources in their original materiality, for a long time Classicists have approached texts in a disembodied form. Recently there has been a real push towards considering ancient literature in the context of the cultures of book-making and reading, with the rise of papyrology as a discipline contributing substantially to this research.

One of the issues that we face when we want to look at manuscripts and papyri containing ancient texts is the fact that the originals are kept in all sorts of institutions all over the world, each with different policies concerning access and digitization. In order to even know where these things are takes a bit of effort, honestly. Papyrologists are usually excellent about cataloguing and sharing information, and have many online databases that help you find things. For literary papyri, you can use the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (although this also includes parchment) and Cedopal. There are Cicero papyri in at least Durham (North Carolina), Vienna, Florence, Cologne, London, Manchester, and Giessen. With such a state of affairs, digitization becomes increasingly important, although, as we shall shortly see, it comes with its own complications. Consulting a transcription of the papyrus without seeing an image is not really enough – this became clear to me when I looked at the marginalia of one of the Rylands papyri, which are hard to transcribe in a way which shows where exactly the text appears on the page. Looking at transcriptions, such as the following from Cavenaile’s Corpus Papyrorum Latinarum (CPL), gives you a very disembodied sense of what the papyri look like:

P Ryl 1.61 Cavenaile PRL p74
Transcription of Ciceronian papyrus P. Ryl. 1.61 in Cavenaile CPL p74. The full pdf of Cavenaile can be accessed online here.

Almost all of the Ciceronian papyri come from significantly later than his own lifetime (106-43 BCE). We’re dealing with Ciceronian texts which were used in contexts and formats subsequent to late Republican usage. The majority come from the 4th and 5th c. CE, with one (in Giessen) coming from the 1st c. CE. The two papyri which I saw are dated to the 5th c. CE – P. Ryl. 1.61, a Latin to Greek vocabulary list which corresponds to In Catilinam 2.14-15, and P. Ryl. 3.477, containing Divinatio in Caecilium 34-37, 44-46 with both Greek and Latin marginal comments on the text. Both of these papyri came from Egypt, and both were codices rather than book rolls. All of the extant Cicero papyri are oratorical, with many containing the Catilinarians and the Verrines; all of the Ciceronian papyri contain works which are more fully represented in medieval manuscripts. P. Ryl. 1.61 was used by a Greek speaker who was learning Latin with Cicero’s Catilinarians; P. Ryl. 3.477 was used by someone interested in the legal issues underlying Cicero’s case against Verres. P. Ryl. 3.477 contains the longest extant marginal note on papyrus (McNamee). The Cicero papyri are also of interest to us since they demonstrate bilingualism by inhabitants of the Empire during Late Antiquity; we get the sense that even in 5th c. CE Egypt, there was something of value in Latin for non-Romans (Sánchez-Ostiz).


The John Rylands Library in Manchester contains a number of important ancient materials, including a Greek papyrus fragment from the Gospel of John (pictured above). The library was founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John Rylands. My guide at the library told me that on International Women’s Day, all of the male statues in the historic reading room (also pictured) were covered over with the statue of Enriqueta remaining visible in order to highlight her agency in creating an imposing intellectual space.


Greek papyrus 61 John Rylands Cicero In Catilinam vocab list papyrus codex verso
P. Ryl. 1.61 containing a Greek-Latin vocab list to Cicero’s Catilinarians, digitized by the John Rylands.
Greek papyrus 477 John Rylands Divinatio in Caecilium recto
P. Ryl. 3.477 containing Cicero’s Divination in Caecilium, digitized by the John Rylands.

It was raining heavily on the day in late June when I visited the John Rylands Library. Special Collections – a series of desks with book cradles and power outlets – was mostly empty, but there was a lively buzz of activity. Pairs of researchers and scholars spoke rapidly to their partners in low tones, and the staff whispered to one another. My inspection of materials was punctuated by a man behind me muttering “five pounds five shillings” – “June 22nd 1916” – “London”. I had to document myself – present a passport, proof of address – and then the papyri I had summoned were signed out to me. The John Rylands allows photography for personal use but forbids their promulgation. I took many personal photos, but the ones you see in this blog post are those which are officially released by the John Rylands. The two papyri which I looked at had already been digitized by the library, and can be accessed online for free. Most of the other patrons in the Special Collections were using materials which they could handle directly, but the Ciceronian papyri are mounted to glass. Each papyrus, encased in glass, is given to the reader on a foam tray, so that you can flip it and observe both sides.When the librarian handed me the first fragment, I asked about the conditions in which the glazed papyri were kept; one, the smaller of the two, was kept in a flight case (P. Ryl. 1.61); the other was kept in a paper box. Both were stored in a secure room which could have the oxygen removed from it in case of a fire. As I took close-up pictures of the different elements of the papyri, I appreciated one reason why the library would forbid private photographs to be disseminated – the surface of the glass means that details were obscured by the glare of the overhead lights, and by my reflection. As I looked at the papyri, I had the transcription from Cavenaile (CPL) open on my laptop so that I could orient myself in the text, and I also looked at the digitized images from the John Rylands website. Since the photo image of P. Ryl. 3.477, containing the Divinatio in Caecilium, was produced, the papyrus has been rearranged in its glass frame; and you can also see by comparing the original with its digital copy that parts of the papyrus which were once one piece have started to come apart. I noticed that the colour of the papyrus itself was darker in the photograph; as it turns out, the papyri at the Rylands have recently been through certain processes of conservation, which have left them a lighter colour. The papyrus itself, then, looks different from its image, and it is only this image that most people will ever be able to see. This is one of the interesting issues when dealing with ancient materials – they continue to have a life even after they have been made static by reproduction.

Further reading: “Cicero” in Texts and Transmission, ed. Reynolds (1983); McNamee, Annotations in Greek and Latin texts from Egypt (2007); Sánchez-Ostiz, Cicero Graecus: Notes on Ciceronian Papyri from Egypt, ZPE 187, 2013 pp144-153; many chapters of interest in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Bagnall (2009).





Notes from the classroom: Cicero and the genre of biography

I have mixed feelings about the genre of biography. I read recently that as a boy Napoleon used to hide away in the library of the Royal Military school of Brienne-le-Château and read the ancient biographers (Roberts 2015:12). His favourites were Plutarch’s Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. This is not exactly a surprising thing to read about Napoleon – his early obssession with Caesar never left him. In March of 1790, for example, as Napoleon was writing his own history of Corsica, he spent his evenings rereading passages of Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum, and committing pages of it to memory (ibid: 31).

It is precisely the image of Napoleon obsessing over Caesar that makes me uncomfortable about biography. Biography seems to me to generate a feeling of either veneration or voyeurism in its readers, and I find it hard to reconcile this with a scholarly mindset. In certain places and times, the lives of famous men were written precisely to be emulated. But I want to believe that we’ve made it past the need to study “great men” precisely because of their “greatness”, which usually has more than something to do with imperialism, colonialism, or cultural chauvinism. But the fact is that these texts which we use were made by people with personalities and lives – and there’s something to be said for trying to find a satisfying way of discussing that fact without falling into fanaticism.

So when a colleague of mine asked if I would come and speak to her Ancient Lives class about Cicero, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to think through these ideas with her students. This particular class had been asked to read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero, specifically Rex Warner’s 1958 translation with Penguin, given notes and introduction by Robin Seager in 1972. As it happened, the students in this class had never really encountered Cicero before, and their first exposure to him was through Plutarch’s biography. The idea of encountering a figure like Cicero for the first time through an intermediary was interesting to me. We have so much extant Cicero that Cicero usually speaks for himself. When Shackleton-Bailey wrote his biography of Cicero in 1970, he chose essentially to allow Cicero to speak for himself by quoting huge swathes of text from Cicero’s letters, interspersing these translated passages with the biographical narrative. Since at least John Dugan’s Making a New Man (2005), Ciceronians and classicists generally have been pretty comfortable with the idea of rhetorical “self-fashioning” – that is to say, we know that Cicero was always reworking his image in his literary publications, and as a result we know that we have to be careful at taking certain things which Cicero says about himself at face value.

And so, given the size and complexity of the Ciceronian corpus, it’s interesting to have an ancient account that makes Cicero a singularity using the sources which we still have, as well as the ones which we will never even know we’ve lost. But although Plutarch puts Cicero in the state of being an object, objectivity is not really the aim of biography, nor is it the outcome. With Plutarch, we get an ancient opportunity to reflect on Cicero’s self-representation and how that representation was received by an audience which is already historically removed. We have something in common with Plutarch, in that he also only had Cicero in a textual form. I asked the students to consider Petrarch’s shock at uncovering Cicero’s letters in 1345 and his inability to reconcile the spirit of philosophy with the grimy reality of his being a human person. “It is true, Cicero,…that you did live as a man, you did speak as an orator, you did write as a philosopher. It was your life with which I found fault,” (De rebus familiaribus 24.4). This is a nice example of the disjuncture which biographical knowledge (if you can call it knowledge) introduces; that faith can be rescinded from an author whose text is venerated due to his biography begs for an assessment of what one should be doing with the text in the first place. I asked the students also to consider Theodor Mommsen’s 19th c. criticism of Cicero as cowardly and constitutionally indifferent for his execution of the Catilinarians. Both Petrarch and Mommsen were reacting against Cicero in worlds where the lives of the ancients were to be venerated and taught as examples – their disappointments and disgust in Cicero were still essentially rooted in a biographical view of this figure, even if that view was still developing.

Further reading: Ironically, my readings on Napoleon come from an (excellent) biography of Napoleon by Andrew Roberts. This irony accounts for my initial comment about having mixed feelings regarding biography. As for responses to Cicero in the Renaissance and the 19th c., there are good chapters by David Marsh and Nicholas Cole in the 2013 Cambridge Companion to Cicero.

On eclipses and human terror

Annie Dillard’s essay Total Eclipse was first published in 1982 in the journal, Anteaus. It was reprinted in the same year in a collection of Dillard’s essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk, which is where I read it.

One passage of Dillard’s essay in particular caught my attention:

The Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus, looks, through binoculars, like a smoke ring. It is a star in the process of exploding. Light from its explosion first reached the earth in 1054; it was a supernova then, and so bright it shone in the daytime. It expands at the rate of seventy million miles a day. It is interesting to look through binoculars at something expanding seventy million miles a day. It does not budge. Its apparent size does not increase. Photographs of the Crab Nebula taken fifteen years ago seem identical to photographs of it taken yesterday. Some lichens are similar. Botanists have measured some ordinary lichens twice, at fifty-year intervals, without detecting any growth at all. And yet their cells divide; they live.

crab nebula
The Crab Nebula. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A Loll (ASU)

One of the messages of Dillard’s essay is the disjunction between intellectual knowledge of an event and its phenomenological effect on the perceiver. Knowledge that the sun is occulted by the moon is itself eclipsed by the experience of the event. “If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once.” Dillard notes that her reaction could have been like the Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, who “simply died of fright on the spot.” Famous passages from the ancient world attest to a similar epistemological horror at the sight of solar eclipses. From Herodotus (7.37-38), we have the eclipse of 480 BCE which is immediately interpreted by mediterranean earth-dwellers to foreshadow a successful Persian incursion into Greece.

total solar
Total solar eclipse, 11th July 2010. Image credit: Williams College Eclipse Expedition
total lunar
Total lunar eclipse, 15th April 2014. Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center/Brian Day

In Cicero’s hexameter poem, On the Consulship (of which only 78 lines are extant, due to their embedding in his philosophical work, On Divination, 44 BCE), we hear of a lunar eclipse that took place on 3rd May 63 BCE (Div. 1.18, Ewbank p75), as well as a possible reference to a solar eclipse of 18th May 63. Of the 78 lines, these correspond to lines 19-22:

cum claram speciem concreto lumine luna
abdidit et subito stellanti nocte perempta est.
quid vero Phoebi fax, tristis nuntia belli,
quae magnum ad columen flammato ardore volabat,
praecipitis caeli partis obitusque petessens?

“…when the moon hid its clear shape with dulled light
and was suddenly removed from the starry sky.
What means the torch of Phoebus, the herald of bitter war,
which was climbing towards its zenith with blazing heat,
while longing for the western parts of heaven and its setting?” (trans. Wardle)

The “torch of Phoebus” (Phoebi fax) here can be interpreted to refer to a partial solar eclipse, a comet, or a meteor (cf. Wardle p149). Both phenomena form part of a long list of horrific astronomical and cosmological events which are pressed into service as portents of the Catilinarian conspiracy of 63 BCE. Alongside these terrors are listed the fact that a “citizen” was struck by lightning (lines 23-24), and ghostly shades were seen at night (lines 26-27).

Another of the focuses of Dillard’s essay is the effect of a solar eclipse on an observer; it so subverts the normal experience of human life, is so overwhelming, that it comes to lack significance. Seeing a solar eclipse is like seeing a mushroom cloud on the horizon:

The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself. If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is its significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance.

Dillard’s essay on the power of an insensate solar eclipse to instill in an observer a sense of mortal catastrophe circles around several issues that face a modern commentator on the ancient world. For one thing, we find that Dillard is careful to describe her horror at the instant of observation, and simultaneously careful to trace the impact of cosmological events on the human record: e.g. the fact that the explosion of the Crab Nebula was visible on earth in 1054, the fact that an eclipse of 840 terrified a monarch to death. We are invited to meditate upon the notion that human terror is just as iterative as the events which precipitate them, and that, despite our intellectual or technological advancement, the synchronisation of the human record of time with the cosmos, serves as a reminder of our own internal disjunction in the face of rational events which we are still not fully capable of rationalizing.

Further reading: Annie Dillard’s essay, Total Eclipse, can be read online. For Cicero’s On the Consulship, see Ewbank (1933 repr. 1997) The Poems of Cicero, for the Latin and a commentary (no translation). We owe the survival of this 78 line fragment to its embedding in Cicero’s On Divination; see the commentaries of Pease (1955) and Wardle (2006).

Writing Cicero’s “Aratea” in the 17th c.


When I was doing research for a chapter on the extensive (“self”-)quotation of Cicero’s Aratea in his philosophical work On the Nature of the Gods (45 BCE), I found myself reckoning with Hugo Grotius’ Syntagma Arateorum published in 1600. The Aratea is Cicero’s Latin translation of a Greek astronomical poem by Aratus of Soli, the Phaenomena (c. 275 BCE), which is sometimes translated as “Appearances” in English. Aratus’ poem reads like a map of the night sky in the form of a poem; the idea is that if you read, or memorize, the Phaenomena, then you will be able to “read” the constellations in the sky. Knowledge of the stars allows you to recognize changes of season, to anticipate weather changes, and to navigate through space. If we can believe what is said in On the Nature of the Gods, then Cicero translated this Greek poem into Latin as a young man, which would place its date of composition in the mid 80s BCE. Several other Latin translations subsequently appear within a century, including one by Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of the future Emperor Tiberius.

Harley 647 f2v
Harley 647 f.2v depicting Aries ©British Library

At the very beginning of the 17th century the Dutch Hugo Grotius (Hugo, Huigh or Hugeianus de Groot), who had been a student of Scaliger at Leiden, produced an edition of Aratus, Cicero, and Germanicus. This, the Syntagma Arateorum (“A collection of Arateas”), can be viewed online through google books.

One of the interesting things about this work is that Grotius had to deal with the fact that Cicero’s Aratea only survived in pieces. We have Aratus’ Phaenomena in full, but Cicero’s Aratea is in a fragmentary condition. There is an incredible independent manuscript transmission of Cicero’s Aratea which comes with illustrations of the described constellations, such as Harley 647 (see above), which can also be viewed online, but the text isn’t complete. We also get about 90 verses of Cicero’s Aratea from his On the Nature of the Gods. Because Cicero’s Aratea is a translation of the Phaenomena, Grotius had a basis for the missing material, so he decided to provide the missing parts from Cicero’s Aratea by translating the equivalent Greek himself. Consider the following page:

Grotius p4


The actual verses of Cicero here are lines 96-101 (Arctophylax…Virgo), and 116 (Malebant tenui contenti vivere cultu). Everything else, in italics, is Grotius’ own Latin translation of Aratus. To my mind, this is an incredible response to a fragmentary text – to supply what you don’t have by doing the translation yourself. Grotius was giving himself a lesson in how to write Ciceronian verse. Another remarkable aspect of this is that Grotius, born in 1583, was 17 years old when he published the Syntagma. I wonder whether Grotius was inspired by Cicero’s note that he himself was just a young man when he translated the Aratea (admodum adulescentulus, On the Nature of the Gods 2.104). There may be some shared idea between them that dealing with the Greek hexameters of Aratus’ Phaenomena is a kind of intellectual rite of passage. Grotius is a fascinating figure – one anecdote that you hear about him is that he escaped prison by hiding in a trunk that was supposed to be filled with books…

Further reading: More on Hugo Grotius. English text of Aratus’ Phaenomena, based on the 1921 Loeb. Emma Gee has an excellent book – Ovid, Aratus and Augustus (2000, Cambridge) – which deals especially well with the idea of astronomical writing and the control of time. The Oxford World’s Classics series very recently brought out an English translation of Aratus’ Phaenomena accompanied by the astronomical commentaries of Eratosthenes and Hyginus (Eratosthenes and Hyginus: Constellation Myths, with Aratus’ Phaenomenatranslated by Robin Hard, 2015).