Reading Like a Roman Vergilius Vaticanus and the Puzzle of Ancient Book Culture

How did Virgil’s words survive into the present? And how were they once read, during his own life and the succeeding centuries? Alex Tadel explores Graeco-Roman reading culture through one of its best-preserved and most lavishly-illustrated artefacts.


June 30, 2021

A miniature of Virgil from the reproduction of the Vergilius VaticanusScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A miniature of Virgil, scroll in hand, from a 19th-century lithographic reproduction of the Vergilius VaticanusSource.

Texts of Greek and Roman literature do not usually come down to us in lavishly illustrated editions dating back to what we term classical antiquity. The vast majority have been preserved either in relatively contemporaneous papyrus fragments, which are of major historical value but aesthetically rather underwhelming, or much later copies. The manuscript known as Vergilius Vaticanus is one of only three manuscripts from Graeco-Roman antiquity which preserve illustrations in more than a few scraps. An invaluable rarity dating back to around 400 CE, the Vaticanus is the oldest of the three.1

The name “Vaticanus” denotes the location where the manuscript has been kept since 1600 (the Vatican Library) and not the site of its production, though it was most likely made in Rome. “Vergilius” points to the texts copied in the document, which preserves portions of Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid. At a glance, the former is a didactic poem about agriculture; after a focused read, it becomes a complex web of mythological, political, and philosophical material. The latter, Virgil’s seminal creation and Rome’s national epic, relates Aeneas’ escape from Troy and his quest to find a new home for his people. The texts are accompanied by beautiful illustrations depicting carefully choreographed scenes framed by a border of intense red.

Carthage illustration from Vergilius VaticanusScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Aeneas and his attendant Achates, top left, get a view of Carthage for the first time. Below them spreads a panorama of Carthaginians busily building the new city (Aeneid 1.418ff) — Source.

Orpheus illustration from Vergilius VaticanusScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Orpheus in the Underworld, searching for Eurydice (Georgics 4.453ff) — Source.

The canonical classical texts — Oedipus Rex, Medea, the Aeneid and the like — enjoy continuing universal recognisability. But the materiality of texts in ancient Greece and Rome, and the reading culture in which they were created, remain relatively obscure. How, why, when, where, and who read what are questions the answers to which can usually only be reconstructed from tiny scraps of papyrus or offhand remarks by classical authors. The exceptional state of preservation in which the Vaticanus has come down to us — full folios rather than loose strips of papyrus — makes it perhaps the oldest remnant of Graeco-Roman reading culture a modern observer can think of as a “book”. Although it dates from the very end of classical antiquity, its familiar appearance makes the Vaticanus a convenient starting point from which to explore the fascinating, and, to a modern eye, quite alien world of classical books.

The Preservation of Papyri

While the Vaticanus is the oldest source for the texts it contains, we would still have the Georgics and the Aeneid if we didn’t have the Vaticanus. Like the vast majority of extant classical texts, the works of Virgil are known to us through significantly later copies. There was a continuous Byzantine tradition of copying Greek as well as Latin texts; Arab scientists adopted and significantly enriched Greek medical writings; Christian monks in the territories of the former Western Roman Empire habitually copied authors whom they perceived as the principals of Latin literature.2 As Virgil was the undisputed centre of this clique, we have innumerable manuscripts preserving his works.

But there is another source for classical texts, studied by the relatively new and dynamic field of papyrology. In the late nineteenth century, a boom of archaeological excavations brought to light hundreds of thousands of papyri, flooding the previously negligible field with so many fragments to repair, decipher, and interpret that the work is still in progress. One of the most substantial papyrological sites was discovered in 1896 in Egypt near the remains of a Greek town called Oxyrhynchus. The curious name means “sharp-snouted”: Greek for the Nile fish that was worshipped there by Egyptians. Oxyrhynchus was a flourishing town, though little of its architectural remains have been excavated. What has been of tremendous interest since 1896 is the ancient city’s rubbish dump, where the dry Egyptian climate has preserved innumerable papyri (mostly in Greek), thrown there by people who no longer had any use for them.

Excavations at OxyrhynchusScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Excavations at Oxyrhynchus, photographed by the papyrologist Arthur Surridge Hunt, ca. 1903 — Source.

In more humid climates, papyri have long since disintegrated, and most of the finds we have from elsewhere were likewise stored in comparably dry areas. Others were preserved by exceptionally hot conditions. In Herculaneum, for example, the eruption of Vesuvius carbonised an entire library, turning the scrolls into compact and extremely fragile blocks, essentially frozen in time by fire. Early attempts to unroll and read them often resulted in the scrolls disintegrating; recently, scholars have been trying to read them using X-ray technology. The library seems to have contained mainly Greek philosophical texts.

Papyri excavations in Oxyrhynchus and elsewhere have unearthed innumerable literary works previously unknown from manuscript traditions. To list just a few: an entire comedy by Menander, a playwright previously known only from brief citations in texts by other authors; substantial portions of a satyr play by Sophocles, one of only two satyr plays of which we know more than a few lines; and multiple fragments of Sappho, the lyric poet from Lesbos. It’s not just scraps of discarded papyrus salvaged from a rubbish dump that have proven to be invaluable. Greeks and Romans used a variety of writing materials, and such precious pieces of literature as a previously unknown poem by Sappho have come down to us scribbled on ostraca — pieces of broken pottery.

Papyrus fragments from OxyrhynchusScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Papyrus fragments from Oxyrhynchus, reproduced in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri (1898), alongside fragments from Sappho — Source.

Papyri (and potsherds) are most often found in quite a sorry condition. They are torn, discoloured or in pieces, and even when reassembled usually still have large lacunae. In comparison with these, the Vaticanus is in an excellent state of preservation. Another difference between most classical textual finds and the Vaticanus is the format — the late Vaticanus is a codex rather than a roll. The codex is basically the type of book we still use today: folded sheets (of paper, parchment, or papyrus) held together at the spine. This results in a two-leaf display which is simple to navigate — flicking forwards and backwards to find a particular passage is relatively easy. In comparison, the roll was awkward and inconvenient — only a narrow portion of the text could be seen at a given time, and a search for a passage consisted of time-consuming rolling and unrolling of the scroll. Around 400 CE the codex became the norm for classical texts, and the Vaticanus may have been one of the first copies of Virgil to take advantage of the convenient format.

Pagan Parchment

The Vaticanus was made from parchment of the highest quality. The expensive material and the fine execution of the miniatures make it clear that this was a luxury edition for a member of the Roman elite. A very simplistic (though still persistent) conception of the fall of ancient Rome may lead one to see the Vaticanus as one of the last relics of classical culture and refinement soon to be replaced by the darkness and ignorance of medieval Christianity. It is true that the time of its making — around 400 CE — coincided with the ever more adamant efforts by the Church to suppress pagan religion. In the late fourth century, the emperor Theodosius banned all forms of pagan worship, including private rituals. It is possible that the Vaticanus was commissioned by a pagan noble determined to preserve one of the most important texts of their ancestral culture, full of descriptions of strange rituals and blood sacrifices. But it is equally possible that it was made for a convert to Christianity.

Vergilius Vaticanus illustration of Dido sacrificeScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Dido sacrifices animal victims to the gods (Aeneid 4.54ff) — Source.

William Blake The Pastorals of VirgilScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

William Blake, The Pastorals of Virgil, 1821 — Source.

Just as their pagan predecessors, most late antique Christians, and especially the learned clergy, admired the staples of Greek and Roman literature, among which Virgil held absolute primacy. Nevertheless, to make the explicitly pagan Virgil more palatable and to enhance the glory of the new religion, the quintessential pagan poet was transformed into a kind of Messianic prophet. His Fourth Eclogue, written around 40 BCE, described the birth of a saviour child who would mark the start of the golden age — it is easy to see how this could be reinterpreted to fit Christian mythology. Besides, Christians often found the evidently pagan elements in Virgil such as sacrifice intriguing rather than in need of censorship. Explanations of pagan rituals formed lengthy passages in medieval commentaries, suggesting that paganism was perceived with the curiosity which attracts us to bygone, distant phenomena. The Vaticanus may well have been owned by a Christian who appreciated the texts for their artistic value.3

Reading (in) Antiquity

The Vaticanus was undoubtedly a prestigious edition made for a wealthy client, whether pagan or Christian. But we know that the Aeneid was known far beyond such elite circles, as graffiti from Pompeii quoting (and mocking) it testify.4 How widespread was reading for leisure then? Where did people get books? What did they look like? There is little doubt that there was a thriving book culture in ancient Greece and Rome, but as the evidence is often anecdotal, biased, or highly specific, it is difficult to get the full picture. Even while the puzzle of antiquarian book culture remains unsolved, the following few pieces are absorbing enough on their own.

Plato testifies that already by the turn of the fifth century BCE, one could buy popular works of philosophy at the Athenian agora for a relatively low price of less than a drachma — one drachma was the average daily wage at the time.5 Greek papyri from Egypt, which start to appear about a century later, show us that the demand and desire for non-luxury copies in the Greek-speaking world was continuously high. Literary texts were found on the backs of papyri formerly used as official documents, which suggests that they were copies made for people who could not afford fancy papyrus. Works by Athenian authors were found in faraway, difficult to access desert towns. Even if most of these copies were made in an educational setting, we cannot completely dismiss the possibility that at least some people found deciphering a scroll — with no spaces left between words — an agreeable enough pastime.

Vergilius Vaticanus illustartion of LaocoonScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

ThelateantiqueVaticanusstillleavesnospacesbetweenwords. However, the script — rustic capitals — is quite easy to read, with the mention of Achilles in the penultimate line readily identifiable. On the right, Laocoon is attacked by the serpents (Aeneid 2.195–227) — Source.

When it comes to Latin texts, we have less contemporary evidence in the form of papyri, but much more information about their readership from the authors themselves. Latin authors, to a greater extent than the Greeks, liked to write about their books and their literary success. These discussions paint a picture of conflicting impulses towards elitism and popularisation.6 To begin with the former, Horace is representative in advising aspiring authors to be happy with just a few select readers. In a dedicatory address to his own new collection of poems, he personifies the work and compares its desire to be read by as many as possible to prostitution.7 The content itself of a great portion of Latin texts was somewhat inaccessible. This was highly allusive, learned literature, the enjoyment of which was greatly enriched by one’s ability to recognise and appreciate its sophisticated intertextuality.

On the other hand, the wish to be popular, which Horace projects onto his personified poems, might be the author’s own desire to see them widely read; the poems’ longing to be displayed at the booksellers’ stalls in the Forum is their author’s excitement in anticipating the publication of his work. This kind of pride in popular success contrasted with snobby pretensions, and seems often to have prevailed in the most diverse authors. Cicero, the self-important politician, wrote that the number of people reading his philosophical works was far greater than he had expected. Martial, a more lighthearted poet, nonchalantly presented himself as a universally recognised and admired celebrity, and stated that everyone in Rome read him.8

Scattered Fragments and Future Glory

It is hard to determine to what extent either the elitism or the popularity were mere wishful thinking. What is certain is that the works of Horace, Cicero, Martial, and many others were continuously considered worthy of copying by a sufficient number of people that they survived until the present day. The power of texts to give eternal life to their author was a perennial theme of classical literature, but the longevity they actually enjoy may well have exceeded these authors’ wildest expectations.

The potential of poetry not only for self-immortalisation, but also for promoting politically advantageous visions of past, present, and future was not overlooked by the brilliant propagandist Augustus. Poets under his patronage presented a vision of history as a fateful trajectory culminating in his rule, a narrative which legitimised and exalted his subversion of the republic and assumption of imperial power.

Aeneas and the Sibyl by Jan Brueghel the YoungerScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Jan Brueghel the Younger, Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld (detail), ca. 1635 — Source.

The Aeneid was one such work, narrating as it does the Augustan version of the grand destiny of Rome. Aeneas, a Trojan prince, flees his burning city and after a lengthy wandering brings his people to Italy, where their descendants will found a new Troy — Rome. Rome’s future dominion, sanctioned by gods, will have no spatial or temporal limit. The nation will reach its peak in Augustus, whose reign will usher in the golden age promised to Aeneas. This teleology is made explicit in Aeneas’ descent to the Underworld in the company of the Sibyl.9 There Aeneas is shown a procession of future kings and notables of Rome, and told of their achievements — Aeneas needs this display of his people’s future glory to boost his ever-faltering motivation to continue his journey. The absolute apex of the procession is Augustus, who will conquer distant lands, bring peace at home, and lead the way to the golden age.

The Aeneid, however, is not a simplistic piece of propaganda. The heroic epic is continuously complicated, most evidently in the flawed character of its superficially exemplary protagonist. The very act of imagining a glorious history and a timeless empire is questioned, modified by an awareness of the fragility of memory, transience, and unpredictability of the future. Even a well-functioning memory can be dangerous, represented by the unforgiving Juno, or paralysing, exemplified by the nostalgic Aeneas, while distorted, fragmentary, interrupted and elusive moments of remembering feature prominently in the Aeneid.10 Attempts to control or interpret the future are just as fragile, as embodied in the Sibyl’s scattered prophecies. She writes prophetic verses on leaves and carefully arranges them in her cave. When the wind blows in, it scatters them through the cavern, and the Sibyl makes no attempt to put them back in order.11

Raphael fresco of The Cumean SibylScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

The Cumean Sibyl from Raphael’s fresco in St. Maria Della Pace, ca. 1600 — Source.

Every text is liable to fragmentation, corruption, or misinterpretation. The Sibyl’s fragmentary prophecies offer partial glimpses into the future, while we in the present day are left to reconstruct the past from pieces of papyri. Even the Aeneid, the grand Augustan epic, is to an extent the result of reconstruction. We do not have the original manuscript Virgil wrote, and the later ones we do possess present us with different versions of the text. Textual critics carefully select the most likely variants for present-day editions of the Aeneid, but the original text will never be recovered with absolute certainty. As far as the Vaticanus is concerned, the care and reverence that went into its making were mostly invested in the lavish illustrations rather than the text, as was often the case with luxury editions. Relatively little attention was paid to the correctness of the copy, and later versions are usually considered more faithful to the original Virgilian manuscripts. Even though the Vaticanus is our oldest source for the Georgics and the Aeneid, its chief interest undoubtedly lies in the illustrations.

In Miniature: From Scroll to Codex

While the images preserved in the Vaticanus date from antiquity, they are still four centuries after Virgil’s day, and so provide a somewhat belated, anachronistic vision of what a classical Roman illustration tradition might have looked like. But with the help of the Vaticanus we can surmise how other, earlier editions appeared. There was a fixed iconography in Roman book illustration — just as scribes copied the text, so illustrators copied models provided by earlier manuscripts. Based on the style of military dress in the Vaticanus, it is possible that the model for its miniatures dates back to the first half of second century CE.12 Sometimes illustrators conflated earlier models and combined several illustrations within a single frame, which could result in awkward overcrowding. A single illustration in the Vaticanus represents three episodes: a wounded deer flees to its mistress, who in distress cries for help; Allecto, an Erinys, sounds the war call to turn the ensuing quarrel into a fight; a fierce battle follows. As the artist tried to fit the three scenes into the available space, the menacing Allecto was reduced to a tiny, barely noticeable figure.

Vergilius Vaticanus reproduction of a scene fro the AeneidScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Left to right: Sylvia and her wounded deer; on the roof, Allecto; the battle between Latins and Trojans (Aeneid 7.500–539). A 19th-century lithographic reproduction of a Vaticanus miniature — Source.

In the Vaticanus illustrations, the entire surface circumscribed by the red frame is filled in. The minimalistic backgrounds, which represent little more than the basic outlines of the landscape and the sky, are nevertheless carefully painted, soft pink shading into pastel blue. The heavy frames and coloured backgrounds could only be executed in the codex format. In a roll, such large surfaces of paint would lead to the pigments flaking off. If the Vaticanus is the first codex in the tradition of illustrations it belongs to, it is likely that the frames and the backgrounds were added by the Vaticanus painters, with only the figures inherited from earlier models. In these earlier rolls, small illustrations would be inserted at the appropriate point in the columns of text.13

Unfortunately, few examples of this system of illustration survive in Graeco-Roman literary papyri. The ones we have suggest that illustrations in scrolls could be much more casual than in late antique codices like the Vaticanus. Illustrations in what is known as the Heracles papyrus — preserving portions of an unknown poem about the hero — appear to have been drawn with quick, informal brush strokes. The result strikingly resembles a hastily sketched modern comic. The Charioteer papyrus probably comes from a codex but preserves the scroll style of illustration without backgrounds or borders.14 Its charioteers are much more finely executed than Heracles. They form a dynamic, expressive group dressed in the colours of the factions of the hippodrome. There were blues, greens, reds, and whites, each of these attracting a loyal following not unlike sports teams do today.

Papyrus fragmentsScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Left: The Heracles Papyrus, a fragmented 3rd-century Greek poem about the hero’s labours, recovered in Oxyrhynchus — Source; Right: The Charioteer Papyrus, a 5th-century fragmented illustration from an unknown work — Source.

Just as the Vaticanus was based on earlier models, so the medieval manuscript style that followed in its wake built on, transformed, and adapted models it found in late antique documents according to its needs. While no medieval manuscript appears to preserve the Vaticanus tradition of Virgilian illustration, late antique codices in general shaped illumination practices in the Middle Ages. This influence was so ubiquitous that it often went undetected. A peculiar example of this process is the false etymology of the word “miniature”. Far from implying the smallness of an illustration, the expression derives from the Latin word for red lead (minium), which was used to paint the signature red borders in codex illustrations. The word remained in use even as frames gradually started to be done in other colours, and became erroneously associated with the minute character of medieval illuminations.

Vergilius Vaticanus illustration of watering flocksScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Watering the flocks at midmorning in summer (Georgics 3.327ff) — Source.

If the line separating the classical from the medieval is already hard to draw in Western European manuscripts, the distinction becomes even hazier if we move eastward. The still persistent westernising distinction between the classical and the medieval — which sets the boundary in 476 CE, when Odoacer deposed the final Roman emperor — glosses over the continuous Byzantine political and cultural tradition. Byzantine scholars copied works lost in Western Europe, only to be rediscovered there when these scholars brought their collections to Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These scholars’ contribution was not just in mechanical copying, but also in the critical compilation and interpretation of classical texts.

As a product of very late antiquity, the Vaticanus lets us think beyond the habitual contrast between the classical and the medieval. Tales of total overhaul in 476 CE, of the unbridgeable gulf between classical antiquity and the Middle Ages seem naïve and simplifying. The lines of descent linking the late Vaticanus to earlier manuscripts — and its influence, in turn, on (lost) medieval copies — invite us to see patterns of continuity, transferral, adaptation, and development, alongside instances of fragmentation, loss, and oblivion. While the Vaticanus is the oldest surviving illustrated Roman manuscript we have, it is hardly the last relic of a dead tradition. It is part of a continuous culture of reading stretching far beyond the geographic and temporal boundaries of what we term classical antiquity.

Alex Tadel is a recent graduate from a Master’s in Greek and Latin Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford. Stationed in Ljubljana, Slovenia, she is taking a short break from academia and working as a freelance writer, researcher and tutor.

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