Classical Latin manuscripts

Livy 22.1, with corrections by Petrarch (interlinear) and Lorenzo Valla (marginalia). Harley MS 2493, f 105v. Italy and France (Avignon), late 12th century-c 1329.
Livy 22.1, with corrections by Petrarch (interlinear) and Lorenzo Valla (marginalia). Harley MS 2493, f 105v. Italy and France (Avignon), late 12th century-c 1329.

The British Library has a substantial collection of manuscripts of classical and late antique Latin authors.

About the collection

Many of these manuscripts are important for the reconstruction of the text of specific works; others are lavishly illuminated or equipped with marginalia, providing an insight into the medieval and Renaissance reception of classical antiquity.

Collection highlights

The Harley Aratea

This lavishly produced manuscript is significant for the text of Cicero’s poem, the Aratea, and as a fine example of Carolingian art. Particularly noteworthy is the way in which the images are filled up with text drawn from the Astronomica of Hyginus, acting as a commentary on Cicero’s text.

Petrarch’s Livy

Though relatively late in date, this manuscript is of considerable importance for the text of Livy, not least owing to the corrections of its two famous owners, Francesco Petrarca and Lorenzo Valla.

The earliest manuscript of Vitruvius

Almost all the extant manuscripts of Vitruvius’s treatise on architecture are descended from this manuscript, which may have been written at the scriptorium attached to the court of Charlemagne. The last two leaves of the manuscript were cut out, and now form ff. 135 and 136 of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Rawlinson MS D. 893.

The King’s Virgil

Made for Ludovico Agnelli, apostolic protonotary and bishop of Cosenza, this fine humanist manuscript, containing the complete works of Virgil, was copied in Rome in the 1480s, and contains 17 miniatures, along with many other decorations throughout. It later passed into the possession of King George III, hence its name.

What is available online?

A small number of classical Latin manuscripts have been digitised in full on Digitised Manuscripts. Partial coverage of items containing illuminations can be found on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. The main Explore Manuscripts and Archives catalogue contains entries for many (but not all) classical manuscripts.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Guidance can be found in the Class Catalogue, Volume 83, held in the Manuscripts Reading Room, while the most important manuscripts are mentioned in Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics, ed. L. D. Reynolds (Oxford, 1983). However, this collection is largely restricted to authors of the second century AD and earlier. A catalogue of the manuscripts of Virgil in the British Library can be found in R. D. Williams and T. S. Pattie, Virgil: His Poetry through the Ages (London, 1982), pp. 125–143.