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Homer, Euripides, and Mount Athos

Posted On May 22, 2020 | 13:16 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Costas Constantinides catalogues a rare manuscript collection ranging from medieval textbooks to works by classical poets and orators

Costas Constantinides, professor emeritus of Byzantine history at the University of Ioannina, was a spring 2020 fellow in Byzantine Studies. His recent research report, “Catalogue of the Monastery of Iveron Greek Manuscripts, vol. 2, MSS 101–200,” referred to an important manuscript collection on Mount Athos, dating from the Middle Ages onward, which contains special secular manuscripts.


Q&A with Costas Constantinides

What is the manuscript collection you study, and why does it matter?

The monastery of Iveron was founded in 980 CE by a Georgian high-ranking officer of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, and it flourished for a millennium. With 2,350 Greek manuscripts, the collection of Iveron is the second biggest on Mount Athos—the most important Orthodox center in Greece, with twenty monasteries. Iveron holds classical but also rare secular texts, and the best collection of high-quality early Georgian manuscripts in the world. I’ve pursued research in many collections of manuscripts, and the quality of this library is one of the highest, comparable with the Vatican, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the British Library, the Bodleian, and the National Library of Greece. The monks at Iveron are proud of their collection and take extra care of their volumes. 

I am cataloguing one hundred mostly secular manuscripts. One might expect a monastic library to have only liturgical and theological books, but at Iveron we also have very special secular volumes: classical and postclassical texts, rhetorical, philosophical, mathematical, and medical works, all this intellectual achievement that demonstrates the cultural continuity from antiquity to the present. We still study and teach Homer and Aristotle, and the collection preserves teaching commentaries on these and other authors, such as the classical poets and the medical works of Galen.    

The previous catalogue of these manuscripts, published by Spyridon Lambros in 1900 and limited mostly to a brief reference to their content, though valuable, does not meet the requirements of present-day scholarship. Today, beyond content, we carefully study the bindings of manuscripts, the writing materials (i.e., paper and inks), the scribes and their scripts, the colophons, and later owners of the volumes. All these details demonstrate how medieval people produced their own books and how they studied them, in the classroom or privately.

The educational progress of the Western world appears in the manuscripts at Iveron. In my catalogue there are many textbooks with commentaries of well-known teachers on a variety of classical and postclassical works included in medieval curricula. Everything is there in these textbooks: which texts were used for teaching, why these texts were selected, how Homer, Aristotle, and classical authors were taught in the medieval Byzantine and post-Byzantine world. The result is what we have today in the Western world, because the Byzantines became the teachers of the Italians during the Renaissance, and then this culture expanded to Western Europe, and eventually to America.


What are some particularly special manuscripts you study? 

The catalogue contains special manuscripts of Homer, Pindar, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Galen, and others, but also rare later works, such as an anonymous Life of Aesop in the vernacular. A number of them are considered very important for the critical edition of the relevant authors. If scholars don’t have access to this collection when preparing their editions, they ask others to check the readings of the actual manuscripts. For instance, I collated the scholia on Euripides for a classical scholar in the United States, so in his coming book the readings of the Iveron manuscript will be included. These very special volumes will become better known to scholars through my forthcoming catalogue, which will meet all the requirements of present-day codicology. 

We follow the adventures of certain volumes as well, by identifying owner after owner, and thus discover the fate of special manuscripts. For example, the scholar Maximos Margounios, who died in Venice in 1602, bequeathed a volume to Iveron that was originally copied in Constantinople around 1300. When the Ottomans took over, the volume went down to Venetian-ruled Crete, and shortly afterward found its way to Italy, where it was used for the first edition of two classical texts in 1480. Eventually, it was acquired by the collector who presented it to Iveron.


How have you worked on the catalogue at Dumbarton Oaks?

I rejoined the community of scholars in this unique library at Dumbarton Oaks, with my descriptive catalogue almost ready, to check the editions of texts, improve the bibliography on many manuscripts, and solve various minor problems. For instance, I have identified mutilated texts by using the special online resources provided by Harvard, and took advantage of the collection of microfilms. The same applies to anonymous copyists: I am comparing my photographs with published ones of known scribes of the period. I learned more about monasteries of Constantinople in relation to a few of the manuscripts I am studying by visiting the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives. Finally, I met very important humanities scholars and exchanged views and ideas on many aspects of scholarship.


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.