The first discovery of Greek papyri in Egypt took place in the year 1778, when fifty rolls were found in the neighbourhood of Memphis. Unfortunately, all but one were carelessly destroyed; the survivor was presented to Cardinal Stefano Borgia, under whose auspices it was published in 1788, Charta papyracea Musei Borgiani Velitrii, by Schow. It is of the year 191 after Christ. This find was followed early in the present century by the discovery of a collection, enclosed, according to the story of the Arabs who found it, in a single vessel, on the site of the Serapeum or temple of Serapis at Memphis. The finders divided the hoard among themselves, and hence the collection found its way piecemeal into different libraries of western Europe. Paris secured the largest number, which have been published, with an atlas of facsimiles, in the Notices et Extraits des Manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Imperiale, etc., vol. xviii., 1865. A certain number fell to the share of the British Museum, and will be published in the Catalogue of Greek Papyri in the British Museum. Some are in the Vatican, and others are at Leyden.
The larger number of the documents thus brought to light have perpetuated a little domestic romance, and have preserved the memory of two poor twin sisters and the wrongs they endured in the second century B.C. Thaues and Thaus were the daughters of a native of Memphis, who in an unhappy hour married a woman named Nephoris. Deserted by her, and maltreated by her paramour, she fled away and died ; and the twins were forthwith turned out of doors. But a friend was at hand. Among the recluses of the temple of Serapis was one Ptolemy, son of Glaucias, a Macedonian by birth, whose father had settled in the home of Heracleopolis, and who had entered on his life of seclusion in the year 173 B.C. As an old friend of their father, he now came forward and obtained for the two girls a place in the temple. Their duties, upon which they entered in the year 165 B.C., included the offering of libations to the gods, a service which entitled them to certain allowances of oil and bread. All went well for a brief six months, but then the supplies began to fall into arrears. The poor twins tried in vain to get their rights, and their appeals to the subordinate officials, who had probably diverted the allowances to their own use, were disregarded. Again the good Ptolemy came to the rescue and took the matter in hand ; and very pertinaceously did he pursue the claims. Petition after petition issued from his ready pen. Appeals to the governor ; appeals to the king ; reference to one official was referred again to another, who in his turn, passed it on to a third ; reports were returned, duly docketed, and pigeon-holed ; again they were called for, and the game was carried on in a way which would do credit to the government offices of the most civilized nation. But Ptolemy was not to be beaten. We know that he at length succeeded in getting for the twins payment of a large portion of arrears, and at the moment when the documents cease he is still left fighting. That his efforts were eventually crowned with a full success we cannot doubt ; and thus ends the story of the twins.
These documents, then, and certain others including other petitions and documents of the persistent Ptolemy, form the bulk of the collection which was found on the site of the Serapeum at Memphis. Its palæographical value cannot be too highly estimated. Here, thanks chiefly to the ready pen of an obscure recluse, a fairly numerous series of documents bearing dates in the second century B.C. has descended to us. If the sands of Egypt had preserved a collection of such trivial intrinsic importance, probably from the accident of its being buried in the tomb of the man who had written so many of its documents, what might not be looked for if the last resting-place of a scholar were found ? The expectations that papyri inscribed with the works of Greek classical authors, and written in Egypt or imported thither during the reigns of the Ptolemies or in the Roman period, would sooner or later come to light gradually began to be realized.
Several papyri containing books, or fragments of books, of Homer's Iliad have been recovered. The most ancient appears to be the one (the '' Harris Homer") containing a large portion of Book xviii., which was found in 1849-1850 by Mr. A. O. Harris, in the Crocodile Pit at Ma'abdeh, in the Fayoum, and is now in the British Museum (Cat. Anc. MSS., i. pl. 1 ; Pal. Soc. ii. pl. 64). It is probably of the 1st Century B.C. Of later date is the " Bankes Homer," containing the greater part of Book xxiv., which was bought at Elephantine by the traveller William Bankes, and is also in the British Museum (Cat. Anc. MSS., i. pl. 6; Pal. Soc. ii. pl. 153). A third important MS. of Homer, which has also lately found its way into the national collection (Brit. Mus., Papyrus cxxvi.), is the papyrus in form of a book, inscribed on the front of each leaf with the Iliad, from line 101 of Book ii. to line 40 of Book iv., the longest portion of the poem that has hitherto been found on papyrus. It was discovered in the same Crocodile Pit as the Harris Homer, and also belonged to Mr. Harris. It is not, however, of early date, being probably as late as the 4th Century ; but it has a special interest from the existence, on the back of three of the leaves, of a portion of a treatise on Greek grammar, which gives an outline of various parts of speech, and which bears in its title the name of Tryphon, a grammarian who flourished in the latter half of the first Century B.C. The treatise, however, is probably only an abstractof the work of that writer. Besides these comparatively perfect Homeric papyri, there are others of a more fragmentary character : as the British Museum papyrus cxxviii., containing considerable portions of the lliad, Books xxiii. and xxiv., and the fragments in the Louvre of Books vi., xiii., and xviii. (Not, et Extr., pl. xii., xlix.), all of an early period ; of later date, papyri cxxvii. and cxxxvi. in the British Museum, containing portions of Books iii., iv., i v., vi., and xviii. Lastly there are the fragments of Book ii. in large characters, perhaps as late as the fifth or sixth Century, found by Mr. Flinders Petrie at Hawara, and presented to the Bodleian Library (Hawara, etc., ed. Petrie, 1889, pl. xxiii.).
An important addition has been made to classical literature by the recovery of several of the orations of the Athenian orator Hyperides. The papyrus containing his orations for Lycophron and Euxenippus is in unusually good condition and measures eleven feet in length. It may be of the 1st Century B.C. Other portions of the same roll contain fragments of his oration against Demosthenes (see editions of Professor Babington, 1850, 1853 ; Cat. Anc. MSS., i. pl. 2, 3; Pal. Soc., i. pl. 126). A fourth work of the same author is the funeral oration which he delivered over the Athenian general Leosthenes and his comrades, who fell in the Lamian war in 323 B.C. (ed. Babington, 1858). The date of this text was formerly placed in the 1st or 2nd Century B.C. ; a horoscope of a person born in A. D. 95 being inscribed on the other side of the papyrus. But it has now been proved that the oration is on the verso side of the papyrus (i.e. the side on which the fibres run vertically), and therefore was written subsequently to the horoscope ; and, further, the faults in orthography and the rough character of the writing have led to the conclusion that it is a student's exercise. All the papyri of Hyperides just enumerated are in the British Museum, and in a collection of documents recently acquired by the trustees there has also been found the concluding portion of an oration, which is believed to belong to the speech against Philippides, in writing earlier than the Christian era. The Museum of the Louvre has also purchased lately an important papyrus of the period of the Ptolemies, in which is a work which is identified as an oration of Hyperides against Athenogenes (Revue Egyptologique, 1892). When it is borne in mind that none of the works of this orator was known to have survived until the reappearance of these long-buried papyrus rolls, the significance of the recovery of a lost author and the promise which was thus held out of possibly greater prizes have accustomed the world to be ever on the look-out for the " Semper aliquid novi " from Africa.
The large collection of papyrus documents and fragments which a few years ago passed into the possession of the Archduke Rainer attracted considerable attention. Slowly, and with the expenditure of much patience and skill, they are being deciphered and published. But sifted, as they chiefly are, from the sand and light soil of the Fayoum, the rags and tatters of ancient dust-bins, they could not be expected to yield any text of considerable extent. A fragment of Thucydides has come to light (Wiener Studien, vii. 1885), and other such pieces may yet be found. But they would rank only with such discoveries as that of the fragment of the writings of the poet Alcman, now in the Louvre (Not. et Extr., pl. 1.), whetting the appetite it is true, but adding very little to the stock of Greek literature. The Rainer collection is, however, of very great palæographical importance. It covers a wide period, and illustrates in particular the writing of the early centuries of our era, of which we have hitherto had but scanty examples.
But the most important recent discovery that has been made, as far as palæography is concerned, is that of Mr. Flinders Petrie at the village of Gurob in the Fayoum. Here he found that the cartonnage coffins which he obtained from the necropolis were composed of papyri pasted together in layers, fortunately not in all instances too effectively. The result of careful separation has been that a large number of documents dated in the third Century B.C. have been recovered. These, together with a few of the same Century which are scattered in different libraries of Europe, and whose early date had not in some instances been hitherto recognized, are the most ancient specimens of Greek writing (as distinguished from sculptured inscriptions) in existence above ground.Besides miscellaneous documents, there are not inconsiderable remains of registers of wills, entered up from time to time, and thus presenting us with a variety of different handwritings as practised under the early Ptolemies. Still more interesting in a literary aspect are the fragments of the Phædo of Plato, and of the lost play, the Antiope, of Euripides, which have happily been gleaned from the Gurob mummy-cases. The tragedians had already been represented by the finding some years ago of a fragment of papyrus, on which were written some lines supposed to come from the Temenides of Euripides, and others from the Medæa (H. Weil, Un papyrus inédit de la Bibl, de M. A. Firmin-Didot, 1879) · and the date of the writing is at least as old as the year 161 B.C. But by the recovery of the classical fragments at Gurob, we are brought within almost measurable distance of the authors. Indeed, this copy of the Phædo, written, as there is good reason to believe, within a hundred years of the death of Plato, can hardly differ in appearance, in a very material degree, from the copies which were published in his lifetime. The only other extant document that can be compared, as regards style of writing, with these fragments, is the papyrus at Vienna, inscribed with an invocation of a certain Artemisia, which has been ascribed to the 4th Century, and may with certainty be placed as early as the first half of the 3rd Century B.C. It will be noticed below.
These discoveries, of such inestimable value for the history both of Greek palæography and of Greek literature, had been scarcely announced, when the world was astonished by the appearance of a copy, written about the end of the first or beginning of the second Century, of Aristotle's treatise on the Constitution of Athens, the Πολιτεία των Ἀθηναίων, a work which had vanished from sight more than a thousand years ago. The papyrus containing this valuable text came into possession of the British Museum in the course of the year 1890. Like the Funeral Oration of Hyperides, the work is written on the back of a disused document, the account-roll of a farm bailiff in the district of Hermopolis in Egypt, rendered in the reign of Vespasian, A.D. 78-79. Four hands were employed in the transcription, the first of which is probably that of the scholar wlio desired the copy for his own use ; for a text written so roughly, and that, too, on the back of a waste papyrus, would have had no sale in the market. This recovery of a lost classic of such traditional fame has cast into the shade all previous finds of this nature, however important many of them have been ; and there is every reason to hope that the more systematic and careful exploration of Egypt in our days may achieve still greater results. By the side of the work of Aristotle, other papyri which have lately passed into the British Museum, containing fragments of works of Demosthenes, of the 2nd or 1st Century B.C., and of Isocrates of the 1st Century after Christ, may appear insignificant ; but the acquisition of a papyrus of fair length, restoring to us some of the lost poems of the iambographer Herodas, who flourished in the first Century B.C., is one more welcome addition to the long lost Greek literature which is again emerging into light.
Outside of Egypt, Herculaneum is the only place in which Greek papyri have been found. Here, in a house which was excavated in the year 1752, a number of charred rolls were discovered, which were at first taken for pieces of charcoal, many being destroyed before their real nature was recognized. Almost immediately attempts were made to unroll them ; and with more or less success the work has been carried on, at intervals, down to the present day. The process is a difficult one ; the hardened crust, into which the outer portion of the rolls has been converted by the action of the heated ashes which buried the devoted city, must be removed before the inner and less injured layers can be reached, and so fragile are these that the most skilful and patient handling is required to separate them without irreparably injuring the remains. Copies of the texts recovered have been engraved and published in the series of volumes, the Herculanensia Volumina, printed at Naples.
In the year 1800, the Prince of Wales, afterwards George the Fourth, undertook the expense of unrolling and copying the papyri ; but the work was interrupted by the French invasion of 1806. The tracings and copper-plates which had been prepared by his agent were presented by the Prince to the University of Oxford in 1810, together with a few unopened rolls, part of a number which had been given to him by the Neapolitan Government. Four of the rest and the unrolled fragments of a fifth were subsequently presented by the Queen to the British Museum in 1865. In 1824 and 1825 two volumes of lithographs of some of the Oxford facsimiles were published; and recently, in 1885, others have been given in the Fragmenta Herculanensia of Mr. Walter Scott.
But none of the facsimiles in these publications can be considered sufficient for palæograpliical study, and unfortunately the blackened condition of the rolls is such that little can be done by the agency of photography. Two autotype plates copied from some of the original fragments, will be found in the facsimiles of the Palæographical Society (i. pi. 151, 152).
Of the rolls which have been opened, a large proportion are found to contain works of the Epicurean Philodemus, while others are the writings of Epicurus and the leading members of his school. From the fact that several of Philodemus's works are in duplicate, it has been suggested that the principal part of the collection was formed by Philodemus himself, and that the house in which it was found was that of L. Calpurnius Piso Cæsoninus, the patron of the philosopher and the father-in-law of Julius Cæsar. However this may be, the date of the destruction of Herculaneum, A.D. 79, forms a posterior limit for the age of the papyri. Roughly, then, their period may be fixed at the end of the first Century B.C. or the beginning of the first Century of the Christian era.
The most important Lesson. which we, as palæographers, learn from these ancient papyri is, that through out all periods, as far back as we can reach, we have side by side two classes of Greek writing : the Literary or Book-hand, in which works of literature were usually (but not always) written, and the Cursive hand of every-day life ; that, however remote the date of these documents, we find in them evidence that then all sorts and conditions of men wrote as fluently as we do now ; that the scribe of those days could produce as finely written texts as the scribe of later times ; and that the educated or professional man could note down records of daily business with as much facility as any of their descendants. And if we had these evidences of a wide-spread knowledge of Greek writing so far back as the third Century B.C., and writing, too, of a kind which bears on its face the stamp of matured development, the question naturally arises, to what remote period are we to assign the first stage of Greek writing, not in a primitive condition, but so far developed as to be a practical means of intercourse. There has hitherto rather been a tendency to regard the earliest existing Greek inscriptions as the first painful efforts of unskilled hands. But it is far more natural to suppose that, almost simultaneously with the adoption of an alphabet, the keen-witted Greek trader must have profited by the example of Egyptian and Phoenician and have soon learnt how to express himself in writing. It is impossible at least to doubt that the Greek mercenaries who were able to cut so skilfully not only their names but also longer inscriptions on the statue of Abu Simbel some 600 years B.C., were perfectly able to write fluently with the pen.
But without speculating further on this subject, we may rest content with the fact that in the papyri of the third Century B.C. we have styles of writing so confirmed in their character that we have no difficulty in forming an approximate idea of the character of the writing of the best classical period of Greece. Indeed, judging by the comparatively slow changes which passed over Greek writing in the hundred years from the third to the second Century B.C., we probably have before us, in our oldest specimens, both literary and cursive, styles not very different from those of a hundred years earlier.
It will here be convenient to state the plan adopted in the following sketch of the progress of Greek writing.
The courses of the two styles of writing, which have already been referred to as the Literary hand or Book-hand and the Cursive hand, will be kept distinct for the earlier centuries, previous to the adoption of the minuscule as a literary hand in the ninth Century. Again, a general distinction will be observed between MSS. written on papyrus (as well as examples on pottery or wax) and MSS. written on vellum. The examples of the book-hand on papyrus will first be considered ; next, the cursive writing on the same material. Then the history of the uncial hand on vellum will be traced ; and, lastly, the long series of mediæval minuscule MSS., Coming down to the sixteenth Century, will be examined.
It will be observed that cursive writing is here only specially dealt with under the early period. Although the cursive writing of the day was moulded into a settled style to serve as a book-hand in the ninth Century, it naturally still continued in use as a current hand in the ordinary affairs of life ; and, if sufficient independent material had survived, this current hand would bave formed a separate division of the subject. But no such material exists. We have no great collections of Greek charters and documents cursively written, such as we have in Latin. We must therefore look for the traces of the progress of the Greek cursive hand in the more hastily written minuscule literary MSS. of successive centuries.
The different terms which are used to describe various styles of letters may here be explained. In both Greek and Latin palæography, large letters are called " majuscules"; small letters, " minuscules." Of large letters there are two kinds : Capitals, or large letters, formed, as in inscriptions, chiefly by strokes meeting at angles and avoiding curves, except where the actual forms of the letters absolutely require them, angular characters being more easily cut with the tool on hard substances such as stone or metal; and Uncials, a modification of capitals, in which curves are freely introduced as being more readily inscribed with the pen on soft material such as papyrus. For example, the fifth letter is E as a capital, and Ⲉas an uncial. The term "uncial" first appears in St. Jerome's Preface to the Book of Job, and is there applied to Latin letters, " uncialibus, ut vulgo aiunt, litteris," but the derivation of the word is not decided ; we know, however, that it refers to the alphabet of curved forms.
In early Greek papyri, as well as in early vellum MSS., the ordinary character in use is the uncial. As will be presently seen, in some of the very earliest specimens on papyrus certain of the letters still retain the capital forms of inscriptions. These instances, however, are rare. At the earliest period of Greek writing of which we have knowledge the uncial character was, no doubt, quite developed.
Minuscule, or small, letters are derived from majuscules ; but, although in early cursive specimens we find at once certain forms from which the later minuscules directly grew, a full minuscule alphabet was only slowly developed.