Shane Butler

Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities

20022003 Forum on The Book

Shane Butler

Assistant Professor, Classical Studies

Ciceronian Palimpsests

Thanks to a generous subsidy from Van Pelt Library, the University of Pennsylvania will soon receive a full set of photographs of a precious late-antique manuscript (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana, MS R 57 sup.). The fragile condition of this manuscript has prevented its consultation for more than a century. The manuscript is a palimpsest, and its leaves were erased and re-used for copying a text of Sedulius in the seventh century. Its lower texts, made visible by the use of reagents and ultraviolet light, contains fragments of several speeches by Cicero, including several that have not otherwise survived. Aside from the Milanese palimpsest, three additional ones reside in the Vatican Library and one in Turin, the latter of which only photographs remain. Dr. Butler will use these photographs to complete a study of surviving Ciceronian palimpsests. These documents are interesting for numerous reasons. Of the 26 texts contained within the palimpsests, the most startling of their hitherto overlooked features is that they are divided throughout into paragraphs. Dr. Butler has demonstrated that these same divisions are found in highly fragmentary Ciceronian papyri and can be traced back to Cicero himself. These divisions embody several thousand pauses foreseen by Rome's great orator. Moreover, their very existence flatly contradicts current dogma about ancient books, which are imagined as lacking any such devices, including punctuation and word-division. A closer examination of these textual divisions has much to yield regarding the nature of reading in antiquity.