One of the Best Preserved Ancient Manuscripts of The Iliad Is Now Digitized: See the “Bankes Homer” Manuscript in High Resolution (Circa 150 C.E.)

Each time I sit through the end cred­its of a film, I think about how weird auteur the­o­ry is—that a work of cin­e­ma can be pri­mar­i­ly thought of the sin­gu­lar vision of the direc­tor. Typ­i­cal exam­ples come from arti­er fare than the usu­al Hol­ly­wood block­buster in which crews of thou­sands of stunt­peo­ple, spe­cial effects tech­ni­cians, and ani­ma­tors (and sev­er­al dozen “pro­duc­ers”) make essen­tial con­tri­bu­tions. In the case of, say, David Lynch or Wes Anderson—or ear­li­er direc­tors like Godard or Kubrick—one can’t deny the evi­dence of a sin­gu­lar mind at work. Even so, we tend to ele­vate direc­tors to the sta­tus of god­like arti­fi­cers, sur­round­ed by a few angel­ic helpers behind the cam­era and a few star actors in front of it. Every­one else is an extra, includ­ing, very often, the actu­al writ­ers of a film.

Of course, the notion of the auteur comes from the gen­er­al the­o­ry of author­ship that iden­ti­fies lit­er­ary works as the prod­uct of a sin­gle intel­lect. French the­o­rists like Michel Fou­cault and Roland Barthes have cast sus­pi­cion on this idea. When it comes to writ­ing from the man­u­script age, hun­dreds or thou­sands of years old, it can be next to impos­si­ble to iden­ti­fy the author of a work.

Many an ancient work comes down to us as the prod­uct of “Anony­mous.” In the case of the major Greek epics, The Odyssey and The Ili­ad, we have a name, Homer, that most clas­sics schol­ars treat as a con­ve­nient place­hold­er. As a Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincin­nati clas­sics site notes, “Homer” could stand for “a group of poets whose works on the theme of Troy were col­lect­ed.”

Though writ­ten ref­er­ences to Homer date back to the sixth cen­tu­ry B.C., giv­ing cre­dence to the his­tor­i­cal exis­tence of the leg­endary blind poet, he might have been more direc­tor than author, bring­ing togeth­er into a coher­ent whole the labor of hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent sto­ry­tellers. For his­to­ri­an Adam Nicol­son, author of Why Homer Mat­ters, “it’s a mis­take to think of Homer as a per­son. Homer is an ‘it.’ A tra­di­tion. An entire cul­ture com­ing up with ever more refined and ever more under­stand­ing ways of telling sto­ries that are impor­tant to it. Homer is essen­tial­ly shared.” The nar­ra­tive poet­ry attrib­uted to Homer, Nicol­son sug­gests, might go back a thou­sand years before the poet sup­pos­ed­ly put it to papyrus.

You can read this Nation­al Geo­graph­ic inter­view with Nicol­son (or buy his book) to fol­low the argu­ment. It isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly original—as Daniel Mendel­sohn writes at The New York­er, “the dom­i­nant ortho­doxy” for over a hun­dred years “has been that The Ili­ad evolved over cen­turies before final­ly being writ­ten down” some­time around 700 B.C. We have no man­u­scripts from that ear­ly peri­od, and no one knows how much the poem evolved through scrib­al errors in the trans­mis­sion from man­u­script to man­u­script over cen­turies. This is one of many ques­tions lit­er­ary his­to­ri­ans ask when they approach papyri like that at the top—an excerpt from the so-called “Bankes Homer,” the most well-pre­served spec­i­men of a por­tion of The Ili­ad, con­tain­ing Book 24, lines 127–804, and dat­ing from cir­ca 150 C.E.

Pur­chased in Egypt in 1821 by Egyp­tol­o­gist William John Bankes, and acquired by an adven­tur­er named Gio­van­ni Finati on the island of Ele­phan­tine, the papyrus scroll, which you can see in full and in high res­o­lu­tion at the British Library site, was cre­at­ed like most oth­er “lit­er­ary papyri” for hun­dreds of years. As the British Library describes the process:

Pro­fes­sion­al scribes made copies from exem­plars at the request of clients, tran­scrib­ing by hand, word by word, let­ter by let­ter. Until around the 2nd cen­tu­ry CE these man­u­script books took the form of rolls com­posed of papyrus sheets past­ed one to the oth­er in suc­ces­sion, often over a con­sid­er­able length.

In addi­tion to the text itself, notes the site His­to­ry of Infor­ma­tion, the man­u­script con­tains “breath­ing marks and accents made by an ancient diorthotesor ‘cor­rec­tor’ to show cor­rect poet­ic pro­nun­ci­a­tion.” The ancient prac­tice of “cor­rect­ing” was a ped­a­gog­i­cal tech­nique used for train­ing stu­dents to prop­er­ly read the text. Like­ly for hun­dreds of years before there was a text, the poem would be com­mit­ted to mem­o­ry, and recit­ed by anony­mous bards all over the Greek-speak­ing world, prob­a­bly chang­ing in the telling to suit the tastes and bias­es of dif­fer­ent audi­ences. Who can say how many, if any, of those ancient bards bore the name “Homer”?

Again you can see the Bankes Homer in high res­o­lu­tion here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear What Homer’s Odyssey Sound­ed Like When Sung in the Orig­i­nal Ancient Greek

Emi­ly Wil­son Is the First Woman to Trans­late Homer’s Odyssey into Eng­lish: The New Trans­la­tion Is Out Today

Explore 5,300 Rare Man­u­scripts Dig­i­tized by the Vat­i­can: From The Ili­ad & Aeneid, to Japan­ese & Aztec Illus­tra­tions

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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