Knut Kleve, Professor of Classics at the University of Oslo, is a papyrologist who attended the Bellagio conference. He prepared a delightful essay that puts our current consensus for preservation into a truly long-range perspective. The essay has been slightly condensed and makes a splendid introduction to this report.–Patricia Battin
Papyrus was the writing material of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and papyrus rolls the brittle books of antiquity. Lucretius and other authors tell how the rolls crunch and go to pieces in use, and these accounts are confirmed by modern discoveries of papyri under the lava of Herculaneum and the sands of Egypt. Papyri had other deficiencies. One could write only on the inside of the roll, for the outside was too liable to damage when unrolled. A roll could not be too long, lest it become unmanageable. Most of the Greek and Latin rolls that are preserved are less than ten meters long. For that reason, a roll did not contain much text, and major works, such as Homer’s Iliad, had to be divided among several rolls. It was, furthermore, difficult to look up a particular place in a papyrus roll. The text columns were unnumbered and you had to roll up until you found the place you were searching for Therefore, current authors were likely to cite from memory–and erroneously.
Parchment was occasionally used from the second century B.C. and it eventually became the material of the future, while papyrus gradually fell out of use. Parchment held sway, in turn, until it was replaced by Arabic paper. Here we have the three p’s of cultural history: papyrus, parchment and paper. Now we seem to have a fourth: the PC.
Parchment was a tougher material than papyrus and could easily be bound into codices (i.e., our form of books). One could write on both sides of the parchment and one codex could contain the content of many papyrus books, say, the whole of the Iliad. A numbering system was introduced for the pages (or the chapters and verses) in the text, especially for the Holy Scripture where it was important to find the right quotation The fourth century was a critical time for the classical literature of Greece and Rome. Written on papyrus, it was gradually crumbling away and threatened to sink into oblivion unless transferred to parchment Constantine the Great had begun that process by having the books of Holy Scripture copied, and his son the Emperor Constantius II undertook to continue the effort. The result of his initiative was the first imperial library of Constantinople, which contained more than 100,000 volumes The leader of the project was Themistios who commanded a considerable team of calligraphers and librarians.
One of the main problems was, as it is today, to choose what to save, for it was impossible to save everything. First, Themistios and the emperor chose to save the old literature–Homer and other great authors of the golden age of Greece. Themistios seems to have been uninterested in Latin authors. He did not, and did not want to, understand Latin. He was an arrogant Greek who regarded all other people, including Romans, as simply barbarians. But the emperors were Romans and Latin speaking, so Constantius saw that the classical literature was also transferred to parchment.
Although the older literature was regarded as more valuable than contemporary work no one any longer spoke the Greek of the great Attic authors. So it was necessary to save commentaries and works of grammar as well as the texts of Sophocles, Plautus and other classical works From the record, we can see that Themistios knew many more classical authors than we have today. For instance, he mentions a triad of Stoic philosophers whose work is completely lost to us except for a few citations by other classical authors and some scraps among the carbonized remains at Herculaneum,
Themistios also had a remedy for the papyrus rolls that could not possibly be transcribed. He tried to delay the decay by putting the rolls into parchment coverings, rather like our attempt to encase brittle books in special envelopes or boxes.
The greatest enemy of ancient literature was, however, fires Several fires in the Constantinople library eventually destroyed much of the collection, but Themistios’ efforts had not been wholly in vain, for visitors came to the library from the provinces to consult works and take away copies–and some of the copies were recopied. Without the efforts of Constantius and Themistios our knowledge of the classical literature would certainly have been even smaller.
Certainly some of the lost literature was deliberately and systematically destroyed. A quite unhistorical, but probably apt, story comes to us through the Norwegian humorist, Nils Kjaer. At the time of Caliph Omar’s invasion of Egypt, the Arab officer on duty in the destruction of the library of Alexandria used two stamps with which he marked the books. One said: “Does notagree with the Koran–heretic, must be burned. The other said: Agrees with the Koran–superfluous, must be burned,”
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