The Ancient World Through the Middle Ages

In ancient times, the autographs of great men were regarded with reverence. The Athenians considered the original manuscripts of their poets and playwrights the chief treasures of their city – their cultural patrimony – and displayed them in their temples. Aristotle collected manuscripts and maps, and according to Strabo, the 1st century Greek geographer, was the first person to accumulate a library in Ancient Greece. It is said that Aristotle also communicated the taste for collecting to Ptolemy I, who would later become sovereign of Egypt and amass the greatest collection in the Ancient World.

Aristotle’s own manuscripts are perfect examples of the eternal aspects of both the high and low perceived value of autographs, and the fact that secretarially written manuscripts are an ancient problem indeed. Aristotle died in 322 BC, leaving his papers to his successor Theophrastus, who in turn willed them to one Neleus. Neleus took the writings from Athens to Scepsis, where his heirs saw no value in them and let them languish in a cellar. There they stayed until the 1st century BC, when Apellicon of Teos discovered and purchased the manuscripts, bringing them back to Athens with a fanfare. When the Romans under Lucius Cornelius Sulla occupied Athens in 86 BC, he carried off the library of Appellicon, complete with Aristotle’s papers, to Rome. There they were published by philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes, who, while reviewing them, determined that most did not represent works in Aristotle’s hand that he himself prepared for publication, but appeared to be notes of his lectures taken by his students.

The legendary library at Alexandria was the first known manuscript institution in the sense we would recognize today. It was founded by Alexander the Great prior to his death in 323 BC, but was enlarged by the genius of his successor, Ptolemy, who in 306 BC began collecting the works of the greatest Greek scholars of the time, in order both to educate his people and to work toward a universal synthesis of knowledge. This challenge was made all the more feasible because his era, the Hellenistic, was one of the most intellectually creative periods of humankind, when Greeks and those imbued with Greek learning were writing the books that would become the foundations of Western philosophy, mathematics, science, medicine, history and literature. The library ultimately comprised perhaps as many as 700,000 manuscripts – the whole corpus of knowledge accumulated by the ancients, many of them original autograph manuscripts in the hands of the authors. Plato, Aristotle, Thucydidies, Sophocles, Euripedes, Hippocrates and Euclid were just a few of the geniuses who were either writing at the same time Ptolemy was collecting manuscripts or were not long dead, ensuring the presence of their original works in Ptolemy’s library. The Ptolemys were not afraid to spend money – they had the world’s first fund to acquire autographs, and it was virtually unlimited. The city elders of Athens were approached by Ptolemy III, who asked to borrow the original manuscripts of their notable men, such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, so the papers could be copied. He offered them a large load of silver as collateral and they sent him the originals. When the project was complete, Ptolemy kept the originals and sent the Athenians back the copies. They protested, of course, and he told them to keep the silver instead. This reflected not merely his collecting fervor, but the prestige of owning such treasures at the time.

The Romans loved to display antiquities and deposited important manuscripts in their temples, where they were often on exhibition. And while there is no record of an autograph shop on the Appian Way, we do know that Roman notables collected manuscripts. The Emperor Hadrian, ruler at the very height of the Roman Empire, was such a collector, housing his manuscripts as well as his Greek statues and extensive library at his villa in Tivoli. Cicero is said to have collected autographs and the poet and playwright Pomponius Secundus, a friend of the elder Pliny, did collect them. He must have been interested in the Roman Republic, as he is known to have owned letters in the hands of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, crucial figures in the history of the republican era who had lived two centuries before him. Pliny himself had an autograph collection valued at about a million dollars in today’s money, which he obtained from the consul Musianus, who according to Tacitus published fourteen volumes of his treasures. The elder Pliny was not merely a collector of autographs, but he made the earliest known comments on their rarity, remarking that the letters of Cicero, Virgil and Augustus Caesar were not uncommon, but that those of Julius Caesar had become very rare. This latter remark is enlightening because it indicates that people appreciated letters as items of interest worth having, for if they were considered unimportant, they would never have become rare nor would their status have merited Pliny’s mention.

The elder Pliny passed his autograph collection on to his nephew, Pliny the Younger. The situation that led to the younger Pliny coming to inherit the collection is remarkable. Both Plinys were eyewitnesses to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD, and the uncle died trying to evacuate its inhabitants. At the time, the Plinys were living at the elder’s villa in the town of Misenum across the bay from Pompeii. It is best to let Pliny the Younger speak for himself. “On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his [my uncle’s] attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books…My uncle’s scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready…As he was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascus whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat. She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate…He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone. He was entirely fearless…Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain…He was able to bring his ship in…Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night…the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations…there was the danger of failing pumice stones…As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths…they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp. My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous. A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink. Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed. When daylight returned on the 26th – two days after the last day he had been seen – his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.” It would be nice to think that those last books Pliny senior was looking through were his albums of autographs.

Suetonius saw autographs of Augustus and Nero while researching his book The Twelve Caesars, and his mention of autographs in that work may be the earliest use of the term in a publication. He also related seeing a surviving autograph letter of Julius Caesar in which he requested better training for gladiators, and commented that Augustus Caesar “never divides his words, so as to carry his letters which cannot be inserted at the end of a line to the next, but puts them below the other, inclosed by a bracket.” Nero, Suetonius wrote, liked to underline words for emphasis. I suppose these will prove key pieces of information should I be called upon to authenticate a letter of either Emperor.

There is nothing that more completely illustrates the catastrophe to civilization that was the fall of the Roman Empire than the utter disappearance of the original records of antiquity. It has been said that everything was ruined that water could drown and fire could burn. Not a single autograph in the hand of ancient Greek or Roman notables, not one manuscript so carefully preserved in the Classical period, not one book from the library at Alexandria, has survived. The manuscripts that we have are copies rarely older than the 6th century AD and more often belong to the 9th and 10th centuries. In the Middle East and Egypt, some ancient letters and documents have been found, preserved by circumstance and the arid climate. However, with one possible exception, none of these are in the hand of people either mentioned in the Bible or otherwise known to history. That likely exception is Simon Bar Kochba, leader of the last Jewish revolt against the Romans that occurred between 132 and 135 AD. In the 1960’s, while looking for more Dead Sea scrolls, several letters written in his name during the revolt were discovered in caves. Although there is no way of knowing for certain whether he or an aide actually penned them, from their tone they are considered to have been written by Bar Kochba himself, which makes his the earliest surviving notable autograph. His autograph may have survived but his cause did not; the revolt ended in disaster and the Jews were exiled from the land of Israel for 2,000 years.

The Fallow Ages

Cassiodorus is a hero to learning yet few know his name. He lived from about 488-575 AD, in the wake of the fall of Rome, when some forms of Roman civilization remained. He served as consul under Ostrogoth Emperor Theodoric, then under Theodoric’s young successor, Athalaric, as praetorian prefect for Italy, effectively the prime ministership of the Ostrogothic civil government. Cassiodorus was a writer and kept copious records and letterbooks concerning public affairs. At the Gothic court, his rather mediocre literary skill seemed so remarkable that, whenever he was in Ravenna, significant public documents were entrusted to him for drafting. In his retirement Cassiodorus founded an important and influential monastery and his writings turned to religion. He also established a library where he attempted to bring Greek learning to Latin readers and preserve texts both sacred and secular for future generations. To do this, he not only collected as many manuscripts as he could, he also wrote treatises instructing his monks to copy Classical texts, both human and divine, and told them how to do so accurately. It was thus under his influence that, through the long Dark and Middle Ages, patient monks filled their days and evenings carefully transcribing the remaining meager and disintegrating manuscripts of antiquity. We owe so much to them and their labors. The library of Cassiodorus was lost eventually, and with it the collecting of autographs, at least in the West, closes for over 700 years. Although some official records survive from this period, we find no evidence of collecting or general interest in manuscripts.

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