BMCR 2018.04.59

Classics from Papyrus to the Internet: An Introduction to Transmission and Reception. Ashley and Peter Larkin series in Greek and Roman culture

, , , Classics from Papyrus to the Internet: An Introduction to Transmission and Reception. Ashley and Peter Larkin series in Greek and Roman culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017. xi, 344. ISBN 9781477313022. $29.95 (pb).


Few would deny that an awareness of the history of the text is useful to anyone working within classics, yet the prevalence of neatly packaged and accessible editions can make the history of their material form diminish in importance. However, as the field of classical reception has evolved across recent decades, it has been increasingly acknowledged that understanding the transmission of the classical text is vital if its meaning and importance to later audiences is to be fully comprehended. This volume offers itself as a tool for those scholars seeking to engage with this renewed emphasis on the history of classical scholarship. As the title signifies, this project is an adaptation of Fabio Stok’s I classici dal papiro a Internet, (Rome: Carocci Editore, 2012), a work that argued for the need to reintegrate the material evidence and scholarly tradition into the study of classical reception. The authors promise a work “based on but distinct from [Stok’s] original,” (ix) so not simply a translation, but a collaborative effort to produce a text suitable for their stated aims. These aims are identified as two-fold: first, to “convey the history of classical scholarship,” and second, “to speak broadly to the training and development of a new generation of classicists.” (ix) To this end, the book—maintaining the structure of the original—is divided into six chapters, with the first five chapters directed towards the first aim through the provision of an overview of the transmission of classical texts from original composition to modernity. The final chapter addresses the most modern aspect of this transmission, namely the various digital tools now available to the classicist. This last chapter speaks most directly to the desire to contribute to the training of classicists, while the preceding chapters grant the budding philologist the means to understand the “grand contributions of those who came before.” (ix)

Before this journey through textual history begins, a foreword is provided by Craig Kallendorf, whose work on the Renaissance history of Virgil has contributed so much to the field of classical reception. This foreword is a powerful and important statement both on how studies into the reception of classical texts should be pursued, and on how these issues relate to the broader classical discipline. Emphasising the apposite timing of the work, Kallendorf declares that “it is a brave new world out there, one which demands a new treatment of how classical texts have been passed from generation to generation and is compatible with the developments that are transforming classical studies as a field. This volume provides that treatment.” (2) The papyri, manuscripts, commentaries and printed editions which make up a work’s textual history are not solely tools for the reconstruction of a ‘correct’ text, but significant moments in determining how the meaning and value of a text was judged and presented to its audience. As Kallendorf concludes, “any vision of classical studies that takes reception seriously should have a material foundation to it, such that to clarify our own understanding of a classical text, we must also study the manuscripts and printed books that have brought it to us.” (4) The arguments made here by Kallendorf summarise neatly both the undertaking facing scholars of classical reception, and the changes in method and mentality necessary to achieve the most comprehensive and effective scholarship. Of course, the resultant challenge—unconfronted in this volume—is how best to integrate not only the history of scholarship, but all the other disciplines necessary for a full appreciation of this material history, including book history, bibliography, and intellectual history. 1 Still, its goal is to highlight the need for blending textual transmission with classical reception, and in this it succeeds.

The inevitable question must be, is such an account necessary given the continued prominence of Reynolds and Wilson’s Scribes and Scholars 2, now on to its fourth edition, which was reprinted as recently as 2013? The authors anticipate this question, acknowledging their debt to the work in the preface, while Kallendorf uses the foreword to suggest its value as a “complement” to the newer work, claiming that this volume offers a “different perspective” and “comparatively little repetition.” (4) Indeed, while structurally these books are similar, and while they necessarily consider much of the same subject matter, this volume distinguishes itself in two essential ways: first, presentation and readability, and second, the attention given to introducing the various skills and disciplines needed to actually study the history of the text. Where previous histories of classical scholarship have tended to allow their narrative to be driven by the activities of the individuals pursuing that scholarship, Classics from Papyrus to the Internet tells the story of the discipline through its evolving methodologies. 3 Turning to the content itself, attempting to reflect on the choices made concerning what to include in a volume such as this is inevitably problematic. The sheer amount of material and history covered forces the author to be selective in what is used; as reviewer, I might inquire as to why certain examples or individuals were omitted, but that would lean towards pedantry given the necessary omissions for the work to fit within one volume. It would be impossible for everything to be included. Nevertheless, the authors manage a comprehensive treatment of the history of classical scholarship.

Beginning with its earliest roots in antiquity, the first chapter proceeds from the origins of writing in Greece to the development of the early codex and the resultant expansion of libraries and a book trade. This is grounded in material history, providing useful surveys of early receptacles for writing, including stone, papyri and parchment, allowing these changing physical tools to direct the narrative of the chapter. At the same time, the disciplines evolving from these materials are usefully introduced, particularly epigraphy and papyrology. The second and third chapters advance the story into late antiquity and the middle ages, discussing both the earliest examples of textual scholarship, and the fate of the text in this difficult period. The preservation, codification, and organisation of the words themselves are the focus here, as systems of writing, correcting, and transcribing are detailed. Some problems of repetition arise here, perhaps a consequence of multiple authors, as the development of the codex is returned to, despite its detailed treatment in the first chapter. Chapter two is an extremely useful starting point for those interested in philology, detailing in a clear and logical manner the developments in antiquity that contributed to the state of the text as it is now, and hence the need for textual criticism. It is all too easy to lose sight of precisely why the classical text requires such intense editing. The third chapter, ‘Classical Reception from Antiquity to the Middle Ages,’ has a vast range of material to cover, as reflected in the length of the chapter; for the purposes of accessibility, this might have been broken down into two or more smaller chapters. Again, the emphasis here is on the means by which texts were preserved and organised, explaining how, in spite of the apparent decline in interest in the classics, large portions of text were able to survive the tumultuous events of the period. Particularly useful in this chapter is the continuation of chapter one’s discussion of script, offering an accessible survey of how letter forms developed, with excellent illustrations, up to the Carolingian minuscule.

Moving on to the Renaissance and the early modern period with chapters four and five, we learn about the rediscovery of the manuscripts that defined this period, their preservation and subsequent transmission into print, with all the associated challenges that process produced. Cultural and contextual issues impacting on this process feature, with the tension between classical Latin and the rising use of the vernacular, the development of civic humanism (although this term is not used), the Reformation, and the changing geographical centres of scholarship all considered. Somewhat disappointing was the continued neglect of the scholarship of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, beyond acknowledgement of development in antiquarian disciplines and the contribution of Richard Bentley. As the brief outline of editorial practices in this period suggests, there was extensive opportunity for editors—who also tended to be politicians and religious men—to intervene in the text, a consequence of scholarship that would cohere neatly with the ideas promoted by Kallendorf in the foreword. Here Scribes and Scholars has the advantage, as textual criticism is granted a whole chapter across which its changing practices are outlined. Instead, the eighteenth century is all but ignored, as the narrative leaps forward to Karl Lachmann’s ‘method’ and the scholarship of nineteenth century Germany.

Where this volume can, of course, move beyond the shadow of Scribes and Scholars is in the final chapter, which considers the tools for practising classical scholarship in the modern age. The resources that have developed over the last century codifying inscriptions, papyri, and texts, together with the dictionaries and encyclopaedias created to aid the researcher, are all present, together with some of the prominent digital manifestations of these tools. This is useful, as far as it goes, yet with Digital Humanities on the rise some discussion of the most modern tools for classical scholarship would have been a valuable addition. Digital editing tools are increasingly reliable, with the xml TEI (Textual Encoding Initiative) a very flexible tool for converting text, enriched with specific elements and attributes for classical texts and manuscripts. Such editorial resources extend beyond texts into inscriptions and papyri with the platforms EpiDoc and EFES, and even into mapping software based on the Barrington Atlas with the Pelagios Commons. In the preface, the authors promise that this book will contribute to the digital world of classics, creating a webpage to function alongside the book. This website remains a ‘work-in-progress’ Papyrus to Internet, but should develop into a useful resource.

The volume itself is well put together, with beautiful illustrations supplementing the text. A crucial tool for a book that covers such a vast stretch of history, and so many significant individuals, is a rich and detailed index, which is provided here. A more structured bibliography would have been useful, equipped with all the relevant details for the digital resources outlined in the final chapter.

This volume is a timely reminder to scholars of the burgeoning discipline of classical reception that a full understanding of that reception is difficult to attain without engaging with the transmission of the classical text. It provides a clear and comprehensive overview of the issues surrounding that transmission, and the skills necessary to further pursue such studies. The theory and the tools are present; what remains now is to apply them to the actual studies of classical reception and classical influence on intellectual history, in order to advance the subject.


1. On this difficulty see the essay by Christopher Ligota and Jean-Louis Quantin introducing their edited volume History of Classical Scholarship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1-38, esp. 10-13.

2. Leighton D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: a guide to the transmission of Greek and Latin literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968).

3. For example, Rudolf Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship: from 1300 to 1850 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).