Transmission: why we have these poems

Most of the Latin poetry on this site was written shortly either side of the year 1 CE. The oldest surviving manuscripts are of Virgil, but even these postdate him by at least 400 years and printing wasn’t invented until 1440 CE, so there would not be very many copies around as they couldn’t be mass-produced. How come we still have the poems at all?

For most Latin poets, the texts we rely on date from 1,000 years or more after their time and were copied by hand from successive versions also copied by hand, and so on back along the centuries. For the Greek predecessors of Horace and Catullus, it is even harder. We depend on quotations in ancient academic writers (who themselves survive only in later copies) and chance survivals found in huge dumps of papyrus bits or old and unstudied collections of archaeological material – where copies of two unknown poems by the poetess Sappho, who lived around 600 BCE, were recently discovered.

Transmission by hand-copying is obviously very precarious, so it is a bit of a miracle that the poems have survived (some authors didn’t). Nor is it very reliable: as material has been copied again and again over centuries, mistakes have not surprisingly crept in by a process of Chinese whispers. So you often can’t be sure that what is in a manuscript is what the poets wrote, sometimes because it simply doesn’t make sense and sometimes because there are different readings in different manuscripts. When there is more than one manuscript, some may come from a common earlier copy and some from different ones, and where there are variations between them, comparisons, choices and informed guesses have had to be made.

Then there is punctuation. I used to wonder why Roman poets used so many semicolons. The truth is that they didn’t: punctuation has been added by modern scholars to help us make sense of the Latin. The Romans did not go in for it much: there was a sign to indicate breaks between words, but even that wasn’t always used. Early Virgil manuscripts, from the fourth or fifth century, are written in continuous capitals without word breaks.

What does all this mean? That the route by which these poems have survived and been put into a form that you and I could read and understand is much less straightforward and more surprising than you might suppose, and that we are lucky enough to be able to enjoy them only because of the learning and labours of many generations of scholar-heroes, who to most of us are nameless and unsung.

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