by David Ganz
Theodor Mommsen, one of the greatest classicists of the nineteenth century, visited Oxford in March 1889. Legend has it that Mommsen was so keen to work at the Bodleian Library that he stood at the entrance at 7 am, waiting for it to open. He was eager to examine a manuscript of Cassidorus’s Variae (probably MS. Bodl. 96 ) when Edward Nicholson (Bodley’s Librarian 1849-1912) showed him an early composite manuscript that contained Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’s Chronicle, MS. Auct. T. 2. 26. The manuscript had been bought at the Meerman sale in 1824.
(Mommsen made time for modern reading too: he dined with W. Warde Fowler at Lincoln College, who records in an excellent memoir of Mommsen that he had been reading Jane Eyre on his way from Berlin, and spoke of it with enthusiasm. Mommsen was keen to find a copy of Wuthering Heights at an Oxford bookstore.)
Jerome’s translation and expansion of Eusebius’ Chronicle
The composite manuscript proved to be quite extraordinary. Hiding behind a 15th-century addition, it contained an early copy of Jerome’s Latin translation of Eusebius’ Chronicle (Eusebius’ compilation was made in the early 4th century with Jerome’s translation and additions done by c. 380). On fols. 33-145 Mommsen discovered a mid-5th century copy of the text. Without any delay, Mommsen published an article about the discovery of the Oxford manuscript in Hermes 24 (1889) 393-401. Henry Nettleship (Corpus Christi Professor of Latin 1878-1893) had transcribed portions for him.
Marcellinus Comes, Chronicle
The manuscript yielded also another discovery: on fols. 146-178 there is the earliest known text of the Chronicle of Marcellinus Comes (d. c. 534), copied in the second half of the 6th century. Mommsen went on to edit Marcellinus’ Chronicle in 1894.
The manuscript was correctly dated by the eminent palaeographer and latinist Ludwig Traube, and was reproduced in facsimile by another editor, the distinguished classicist and astronomer John Knight Fotheringham in 1905.
Importance of colour of the text
When Jerome translated Eusebius’s Chronicle into Latin, and brought it up to date, he wrote a preface in which he instructed scribes how to copy the complicated series of parallel columns which enabled readers to date biblical events by reference to events in the history of Egypt, Greece and Rome.
He wrote ‘the history is multiplex, possessing barbarian names, matters unknown to the Latin-speaking peoples, inexplicable numbers, and columns equally interwoven with events and numbers, so that it is almost more difficult to discern the order in which things must be read, than to arrive at an understanding of the meaning.’
‘The variety of colours should also be preserved; lest someone suppose that so great an effort has been attempted for a meaningless pleasure of the eyes, and, when he flees from the tedium of writing, inserts a labyrinth of error. For this has been devised so that the strips of the kingdoms, which had almost been mixed together because of their excessive proximity on the page, might be separated by the distinct indication of bright red, and so that the same hue of colour which earlier parchment pages had used for a kingdom, would also be kept on later ones.’
The work was important not only because of its chronology, enabling readers to date the fall of Troy, the rape of Lucretia, and the birth of Christ, but also because it provided dates for the lives of Greek and Latin authors. The Oxford manuscript is one of the four late antique copies to survive, and though the opening leaves are missing, the other copies are fragments or a palimpsest.* The Oxford manuscript is written in uncial script and has some contemporary slanting marginal annotations.
In 1902, to celebrate the Bodleian tercentenary, Ludwig Traube presented the library with his publication of a facsimile of the fragments of a similar manuscript of the Chronicle which had survived as binding fragments in Leiden, Paris and the Vatican. In his Latin preface he stressed the importance of photography for the study of manuscripts. Traube saw the importance of the age of photography, as he named it, for the study of manuscripts, and hoped for the publication of more full photographic facsimiles of manuscripts. He would have delighted in the number and the quality of digital facsimiles. There is another fairly early copy of Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’s Chronicle in Merton College MS. 315 . This 9th century German manuscript is the oldest book at Merton College and likewise accessible on Digital.Bodleian .
* The surviving 5th-century witnesses are:
- Bodleian Library MS. Auct. T. 2. 26[https://elmss.nuigalway.ie/catalogue/551]
- The Fleury manuscript as constructed by Traube that survives now in 4 different locations, all are former binding fragments [https://elmss.nuigalway.ie/catalogue/129and https://elmss.nuigalway.ie/catalogue/153 and https://elmss.nuigalway.ie/catalogue/923]:
- Paris (14 leaves in BnF Lat. 6400B)
- Vatican (2 leaves in Vat. Reg. Lat. 1709B)
- Leiden (6 leaves in Voss. Lat. Quarto 110A)
- Orléans (not actual fragments, but offsets in both front cover and back cover in Orléans France Médiathèque 306 (260))
- British Library Harley MS. 3941 (19 leaves as palimpsest under a 9th century Isidore text) [https://elmss.nuigalway.ie/catalogue/2007]
- Wrocław Poland University Library Rehdigeranus 1 (1 leaf) [https://elmss.nuigalway.ie/catalogue/1540]
W. Warde Fowler, ‘Theodor Mommsen, His Life and Work,’ History Vol. 2, No. 3 (July-September, 1913), pp. 129-142.
W. Warde Fowler, Reminiscences (1912).