Sophocles’ Ichneutae (Papyrus 2068 f005r)

Manuscripts of classical Greek authors

Our knowledge of the great works of ancient Greek literature derive from two main sources: manuscripts from Byzantium, and papyri discovered in Egypt since the late 19th century. Here, Mark Joyal surveys the process by which these works were transmitted through the centuries.

Until the advent of the printing press in Europe, the transmission of classical Greek literature was a labour-intensive, time-consuming business. The process was essentially the same from antiquity to the end of the Renaissance: professional scribes made copies from exemplars at the request of clients, transcribing by hand, word by word, letter by letter. Until around the 2nd century CE these manuscript books took the form of rolls composed of papyrus sheets pasted one to the other in succession, often over a considerable length.

By the 4th century, about the same time that the codex supplanted the roll as the standard form of book, parchment was well on its way to replacing papyrus as the principal writing material. Nevertheless, most works of Greek literature which survive in ancient manuscripts were written on papyrus. These are conveniently referred to as ‘literary papyri’, to distinguish them from the much more numerous official or private documents called ‘documentary papyri’.

Literary papyri


Of the literary papyri that have been discovered since the late 19th century, mainly from ancient towns and cities south of the Nile delta in Egypt, relatively few are complete, undamaged rolls or codices. In the vast majority of cases, papyrological finds are merely fragments or scraps, the survivors of time and its ravages. We always prefer to have more text than less, of course, but it often happens that even meagre remnants are of great importance, since they may represent our only evidence for a certain work of Greek literature, or even for the work of a particular author.

Sophocles’ Ichneutae

Sophocles’ Ichneutae (Papyrus 2068 f002r)

Fragments from a papyrus scroll containing Sophocles’ play Ichneutae (Papyrus 2068)

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Usage terms: Public Domain in most countries other than the UK

A good example is Papyrus 2068, a papyrus of the second half of the 2nd century CE which was unearthed in Oxyrhynchus and preserves a substantial portion of Sophocles’ otherwise lost play Ichneutae, or Trackers. Altogether about one half of the play has been preserved, though almost all of these lines are in a fragmentary state. What makes this papyrus so valuable is the literary genre to which Trackers belongs: not tragedy, but the less serious ‘satyr play’, performed last in a playwright’s dramatic tetralogy. Only one complete satyr play survives from antiquity (Euripides’ Cyclops); since Trackers is our second-best preserved sample, it assumes special importance for scholars. Even in its mutilated state, certain features of the papyrus can be readily observed, such as the presentation of text in consecutive columns, the inclusion of notes and corrections in the margins of the text in a hand that is clearly different from that of the main scribe, and short horizontal strokes on the left-hand side of some lines to indicate changes of speaker.

Constitution of the Athenians

The Constitution of the Athenians (Papyrus 131 f001ar)

The Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians is preserved almost intact on four papyrus scrolls, copied around 100 CE (Papyrus 131)

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Often the discovery of papyri shapes what we know about ancient Greek authors or genres of literature. Our knowledge of lyric poetry, for instance, depends in great part on the collective evidence of papyri, most of them in fragmentary condition. The only substantial remains of Greek ‘New’ Comedy are in papyri from Egypt, one of which is a complete play by Menander, the genre’s most famous practitioner. In one remarkable case, a papyrus has changed the way that historians understand and explain the history of ancient Athens itself. In 1891 Frederic Kenyon published for the first time Papyrus 131, which had been discovered a few years earlier, probably in Hermopolis, Egypt. It is a set of four rolls whose original purpose was to record farm accounts, but perhaps 25 years after this initial use, around 100 CE, four scribes copied on the other (‘verso’) side of these rolls a work attributed to Aristotle called the Constitution of the Athenians.

The Constitution occupies 36 columns; the first scribe copied the first 12 and also corrected his own work, while the fourth copied columns 25–30 and corrected the entire text. The four scribes’ economical use of writing material – their production of tiny, sometimes cursive scripts, extensive use of abbreviations, and provision of consistently small margins – strongly suggests that this text was intended to be a serious person’s working copy. The Constitution survives only in this papyrus. It is an unusually important source for the historian, since it details the changes made to the Athenian constitution over the long period stretching from the 7th century to the second half of the 4th century BCE, and it provides a lengthy account of the way in which Athens was governed at the time that the work was written, around 330–20 BCE.

The Bankes Homer

The Bankes Homer (Papyrus 114, part8)

The ‘Bankes Homer’ is a well-preserved section of part of a papyrus scroll, containing most of the final book of Homer’s Iliad (Papyrus 114)

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As a general rule, the more popular an author, the larger the number of copies that were made of his works, and the greater the likelihood that these works would survive through antiquity. Homer is the author whose works were copied and transmitted in largest numbers. Papyrus 114, the famous ‘Bankes Homer’, is an especially attractive specimen. It contains Iliad Book 24, lines 127–804, in 16 columns; the sheets which held lines 1–126 have been lost, and the roll may once have included Book 23 as well. The scribe took great care over the quality of his work. His script is characterised by capital letters on a highly uniform scale, exemplifying a style often called ‘rounded majuscule,’ which is found especially in some of the finest literary papyri of the 2nd century CE. But the striking impression which this text makes on the viewer is broken by the appearance everywhere of large accents and diacritical (pronunciation) marks added by a later hand. Since the Iliad was the literary staple of ancient Greek education, it is reasonable to suppose that these accents are the work of a student carrying out a school exercise without due regard for the vandalism that he was perpetrating.

Minuscule manuscripts


Until approximately 800, works of Greek literature were transmitted in manuscripts written in majuscule letters. In circumstances that are not entirely clear, a new script was developed around this time, consisting of smaller, ‘lower-case’ letters. We call the script ‘minuscule’, and the advantages of its use are obvious: texts written in minuscule script used considerably less space than those written in majuscule letters, and therefore required a smaller quantity of expensive parchment; and the script allowed professional scribes to copy text much faster than before. During the 9th and 10th centuries many manuscripts were copied in minuscule letters from older manuscripts written in majuscules. Most of these majuscule exemplars were discarded after they had served their purpose. As a result, ancient Greek literature survives mainly in papyri written in majuscule letters or in medieval manuscripts written in minuscule.

The earliest manuscript of Lucian

The earliest manuscript of Lucian (Harley MS 5694 f060v)

This early 10th-century volume is the earliest extant manuscript containing the works of 2nd-century author Lucian. It was copied by the notary Baanes and annotated extensively by Arethas, Archbishop of Caesarea (Harley MS 5694)

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A fine example of minuscule in its earliest period (ca. 800–950) is Harley 5694, one of the oldest extant manuscript witnesses for the works of the 2nd-century satirical writer Lucian of Samosata. It was copied by a scribe named Baanes around 910 at the request of the bibliophile Arethas, Archbishop of Caesarea. We know from subscriptions in some of his other surviving books that Arethas paid handsomely for his manuscripts, and this one must have been no different. It is a calligraphic copy, in an elegant, upright, uniform script. Produced on high-quality parchment, its ample margins are far from cost-effective, though Arethas did make some use of them for the notes which he wrote in his characteristic tiny majuscule letters. These notes consist mainly of invective against the pagan Lucian.

The Townley Homer

The Townley Homer (Burney MS 86 f086v)

The Townley Homer, copied in 1059, is one of the most important manuscripts of Homer’s Iliad (Burney MS 86)

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In striking contrast to the rather spare annotation that we find in the Lucian manuscript is Burney 86, the Townley Homer, copied on parchment in 1059. It contains the Iliad and shows clearly the development of minuscule since the early 10th century. The script, often cursive, slopes a little to the right, some majuscule forms appear repeatedly, and numerous letter-combinations are employed. Most noticeable, however, is the density of annotation in all margins, written both by the scribe himself and by later hands. These notes reflect a long tradition of interpretation and commentary on this most widely read of all ancient Greek authors. They trace their ancestry to research carried out in the Museum of Alexandria that began early in the 3rd century BCE.

A Renaissance volume of Greek oratory

A Renaissance volume of Greek oratory (Harley MS 6322 f015v)

This 15th-century manuscript of Greek literature exemplifies the style of Greek handwriting in the Renaissance and its influence on the types used by the earliest printers of Greek literature (Harley MS 6322)

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Most surviving manuscripts of ancient Greek literature belong to the period c. 1300–1600. In very general terms, the scripts that we see in these books are of two kinds: either they show distinctive personal characteristics, departing significantly from the relative uniformity of earlier minuscule, or they are based on and develop rather stereotypically from the formal script of much earlier books. An excellent example of the latter type is Harley 6322, written on paper in Italy and containing, among works by other authors, some speeches by the orator and politician Demosthenes (384–322 BCE). The first 75 pages were transcribed by Ioannes Rhosos, a prolific scribe who copied scores of manuscripts in the last decades of the 15th century. Printing houses in the Renaissance and even after based their Greek typefaces on scripts such as this one.

  • Mark Joyal
  • Mark Joyal is Professor of Classics at the University of Manitoba, Canada. He specialises in the textual traditions of ancient Greek authors, especially Plato, as well as in Socratic literature and ancient education.