Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The History and Early Textual Scholarship of Sophoclean Manuscripts

The 1994 Loeb publication of Sophocles (Ajax-Electra-Oedipus Tyrannus, Edited and translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones) contains as part of its introduction to the works an interesting digression on the texts themselves and how Sophocles has come down to us from the Classical era. I thought it would be worthwhile to provide a brief summary.
Ptolemy III Euergetes
The plays were originally composed and performed in the 5th C BCE. It is not entirely clear at this very first stage how many manuscripts would have existed. There must have been a few copies and the master copy of Sophocles’ own hand and perhaps the winning plays might have been deposited at a shrine or temple archive. Whatever the case is the plays were performed again throughout the 4th C BCE and the number of manuscripts must have increased with this activity. As they circulated the texts began to be amended and variants appeared according to the predilections of the particular theatre group or dramatist. This came to a head when the orator Lycurgus (396-323 BCE) issued a decree at some time between 338 and 326 BCE ordering an official copy of all the great tragedians be made and that all future performances should not deviate from this text. 
At the beginning of the 3rd C BCE Ptolemy I established the Library at

Alexandria and scholars were sent out to collect the works of the foremost Greek authors for archiving and classification for further study. Galen refers to Ptolemy Euergetes I (regnat 247-222BCE) who borrowed an official copy of Sophocles from the Athens in return for a security of 15 talents of silver – a huge sum of money for that time. For example during the Peloponnesian War, a 200 man trireme crew would be paid 1 talent or a month’s work – I suppose that for highly trained ancient marines it was probably a decent wage, especially if you take into account that it would been a dangerous job including combat duties on an ad hoc basis!
 In modern money it would be 12,000 pounds so a deposit of 180,000 pounds was pretty substantial amount to leave with the Athenian Treasury. He must have thought it a steal since that is effectively what he did when he failed to return it and forfeited the deposit. This text was duly housed in the Alexandrian Library and became the next link in the chain, the basis for an edition of the text of Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 257-180 BCE). However, it is likely that even this ‘official’ version was probably already a modified text with the interpolations and amendments of the era in which it was transcribed (late 4th –early 3rd C BCE).

The Great Library at Alexandria
It is at this point that we start to see the appearance of ancient scholarship on the work as a text with a commentary on Sophocles by Aristarchus (c. 216-144 BCE). In the Roman era, specifically during the reign of Augustus, Didymus ‘Bronze Guts’ (ca. 63 – 10 BCE?) came out with a variorum edition; essentially a mish-mash of different scholars material. He was a complier of the Aristarchus school and although not particularly original in his approach is valuable for his scholia on Sophocles. A much potted version of this work survives in later Byzantine manuscripts (scholia). 
Greek (Hellenistic ) scholarship continued on in much the same way with copies of the plays as well as commentaries and compilations of previous scholars works until some point in the 3rd C AD, when the versions were whittled down to a selected canon of  seven plays each of Aeschylus and Sophocles and ten of Euripides. The other texts and versions of plays start to become very rare after this date.
Byzantine scholarship seems to go through a dark age between the 7th and 9th Centuries CE and it is very probable that not much copying went on and the study of Sophocles petered out for a while. There is one exception; in the 9th C one manuscript of the seven plays was transcribed from the old uncial writing into the new-fangled (for the time!) miniscule script. There are about 200 medieval manuscripts and the majority of these contain only three plays of a later selection, Ajax, Electra and Oedipus Tyrannus. Only three of the manuscripts come from this first Byzantine period of scholarship which lasted from the 9th C until 1204 when the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade ‘liberated’ Constantinople.

Manuscript in Greek Uncials
Adrianus Turnebus
One manuscript of the above period is the famous Laurentianus 32.9 (from the mid-10th C CE), preserved in the Laurentinian Library in Florence, known as ‘M’ in editions of Aeschylus and as ‘L’ in Sophocles texts. Apart from Laurentianus 31.10 (K) from the latter half of the 12th Century, the remaining Byzantine manuscripts are from periods later than the Crusader conquest. Of these there are various groups and it is here where the versions start to fan out into various trees.  The key groups are: - the Roman Family (r) and the Paris Family (a). Other manuscripts from the Paleologan Period (c.1261-c.1350) are known as ‘p’.
Modern texts of the 7 plays of Sophocles are based upon the medieval manuscripts occasionally supplemented with details from papyrus fragments (e.g. P.Oxy.2180 from the 2nd C CE)
We finally move into the print age with an indifferent Aldine edition (Aldus Manutius) in 1502 but the first decent edition was that of Adrianus Turnebus (Paris 1552-3) who based his text on manuscript Paris Gr. 2711, containing a recension of the Byzantine scholar Demetrius Triclinius; not the most accurate version but a step in the right direction.

From this time on there are more and more impressions in Europe and the first English printed edition was that of Peter Elmsley in 1823 based on Laurentinian manuscript L. The latest scholarly edition based on the latest and most accurate research is the Oxford text 1990 by Hugh Lloyd Jones and N.G. Wilson.
I cannot help but speculate on what might have been had Ptolemy III Euergetes returned the manuscript to its rightful place in the Athens treasury instead of ‘permanently borrowing’ it. What if anything at all of Sophocles would we have been left with? A sobering thought indeed!


  1. Thanks for this. Its always amazing that we have any of these texts at all. Its a shame that we don't have more from lesser playwrights so that we could contextualise the work of the Big Three. I've been enjoying reading the two Electra plays, very different interpretations of the material. I've also been listening to Richard Strauss' Electra, which is based on Sophocles version. Perhaps we could have a bit of opera at the next meeting!

  2. Sadly there are only minute and scattered fragments or summaries of the other dramatists of those times. Most are merely names and their works lost to posterity. As you note, its a miracle that any texts have survived at all. The survival history of the Sophocles texts demonstrates how precarious and seemingly arbitrary the road to the 21st Century has been for many ancient works. I think we have about 10% of the entirety of the classical canon that has survived to our times - that's a small tip of an iceberg forever submerged in the seas of the past!