The leaves of books in the Middle Ages were made of parchment and vellum, created from animal skins in an expensive and time-consuming craft. It was so costly that scribes often recycled pages from earlier books, removing the ink to create a blank sheet. In the early Middle Ages, the ink was washed off and over time the shadow of former writing reappeared like a pentimento in a painting. In the later Middle Ages, they used pumice powder to scrape the ink away for good.
Volumes with the ghostly memories of previous texts still impressed in the pages are called palimpsests and researchers have been trying to read the vanished writing for centuries, either by careful sight-reading of whatever could be discerned or, starting in the 18th century, by the use of chemicals like tincture of gall which is high in tannic acid and badly damages the manuscript. Nowadays we have new options courtesy of spectral imaging technology.
Researchers Gunther Martin of the University of Bern and Jana Grusková of Comenius University in Bratislava enlisted the aid of Los Angeles-based organization the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) to examine a palimpsest in the Austrian National Library in Vienna using brand new multi-spectral technology. The text in question is the Codex Vindobonensis historicus gr. 73. The bound collection of 10th century ecclesiastical ordinances was acquired in the 16th century by Ogier de Busbecq, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I’s envoy to Constantinople, an avid manuscript collector who would bequeath his collection to the imperial library in Vienna. The parchment pages of the codex came from two different 11th century manuscripts, with 11 pages of monastic rules and prayers added in the 13th century.
The presence of hidden text in the Codex Vindobonensis was discovered decades ago, but even under UV light the text was too faint to be read accurately. A few years ago the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) funded Martin and Grusková’s research into palimpsests, allowing them to look behind the visible script of the codex with EMEL’s multi-spectral technology. The pages were irradiated with lights of different wavelengths. Each type of light is absorbed into the parchment and ink to different degrees. Photographs capture the degrees of absorption and then computer software stitches the pictures together to create a detailed image of the hidden text.
With this system, Martin and Grusková were able to read pieces of the ancient Greek text underwriting the medieval and discovered a precious treasure: significant sections of a history of Rome’s 3rd century Gothic wars written by 3rd century Athenian historian P. Herennius Dexippus. His history, the Scythica (Dexippus called the Goths Scythians), was only known from very fragmentary quotes in much later books. These hefty passages shed a whole new light on the wars of the mid-3rd century.
Martin and Grusková published several of the passages into German in 2014. Now Oxford University’s Christopher Mallan and the University of Queensland’s Caillan Davenport have translated one of the fragments into English. It’s a splendid description of a battle at Thermopylae, probably the most famous battle site of the ancient world where in 480 B.C. King Leonidas’ 300 Spartan warriors and other Greek forces took their brave last stand against the far larger army of Persian King Xerxes.
I find it a tremendous bummer when news stories about this kind of discovery do not include the full text, even when it’s a bit dry or appeals only to the nerdiest history nerds, and in this case the lack of the complete quote in the press accounts is unforgivable because it’s pure awesome. All killer, no filler.
[The Goths invaded Thra]ce and Macedonia, and plundered the entire countryside therein. And then, making an assault upon the city of the Thessalonians, they tried to capture it as a close-packed band. But since those on the walls defended themselves valiantly, warding off the battle columns with the assistance of many hands, and as none of the Scythians’ hopes came to pass, they abandoned the siege. The prevailing opinion of the host was to make for Athens and Achaia, envisioning the gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries: for they learned that the region was exceedingly wealthy in this respect. When the approach of the Scythians was reported to the Greeks, they gathered at Thermopylae, and set about blocking them from the narrow passes there. Some carried small spears, other axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with. And when they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste. And it seemed that the area was otherwise very secure, since the road which led to Greece beyond the Gates was narrow and impracticable on account of the harsh terrain. For the Euboean Sea, at its greatest extent, stretches up to the flat lands near the mountains and makes them most difficult to access on account of the mud, and adjacent to these extends Mt Oeta [, which…] on account of the closeness of the rocks, makes the place almost impassable for both infantry and cavalry. The generals elected for the entire war were proclaimed by the Greeks: first Marianus, who had been chosen previously by the emperor to govern Greece inside the Gates; in addition to him, Philostratus the Athenian, a man mighty in speech and thought; and also Dexippus, who was holding the chief office among the Boeotians for the fifth time. It seemed that the most prudent course was to encourage the men with a speech, and to recall the memory of their ancestors’ valour, so that they would undertake the entire war with greater heart and not give up either during an extended period of watch, or during an attempt on the wall, if such an attempt were to take place at some point in time. When the men had gathered together, Marianus, who had been given the responsibility of addressing them on account of his status, spoke as follows: ‘O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds. For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state, for they fought bravely in the Persian wars and in the conflict called the Lamian war, and when they put to flight Antiochos, the despot from Asia, at which time they were already working in partnership with the Romans who were then in command. So perhaps it may be good fortune, in accordance with the daimonion, that it has been allotted to the Greeks to do battle against the barbarians in this region (indeed your own principles of fighting the wars have turned out to be valid in the past). But you may take confidence in both your preparation for these events and the strength of the region — as a result of which, in previous attacks you seemed terrifying to the enemies. On account of these things future events do not appear to me not without hope, as to better…
It’s the content and style of the writing that identifies it as the work of Dexippus. The Scythica was known to include several siege narratives and long speeches (likely fictionalized) by military leaders. The details about the engagement at Thermopylae — the geography of the site, the weapons of the militia, the names and origins of the generals — indicate this passage was part of a far larger narrative history of the period. No other history written in Greek during the 3rd century goes into such detail about events in the reign of the emperor Gallienus. Only Scythica fits the bill.
There are other characteristics that mark it as Dexippus’ history. The author uses no Roman terms, titles or Latinisms. The focus is on regional figures — Dexippus the Boeotian and Philostratus the Athenian — working in tandem with Roman authorities — Marianus — and on the valor and achievements of Greeks. Even the Roman general makes a point of admiring the history of Greeks’ fight for freedom.
On these points Mallan and Davenport agree with Martin and Grusková, but there are significant areas of disagreement as well. For example, Martin and Grusková believe this battle happened during the Herulian invasions (267/8 A.D.), when the barbarian invaders defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae, but Mallan and Davenport make a strong case, in my opinion, for the battle taking place during an earlier Gothic invasion in around 262 A.D. The Herulian invasions were predominantly seaborne, but there’s no mention of naval engagements in any of the newly discovered fragments, nor do any other sources on the Herulian invasions mention a battle at Thermopylae, which, given its iconic status, is an unlikely oversight. Also Thessaloniki was successfully besieged by the Heruli. This passage describes the Thessalonian defenders as victorious.
Another area of disagreement is the identity of the Roman general Marianus. Martin and Grusková identify him as dux Aurelius Marcianus, one of Gallienus’ generals who fought against the Goths in the late 260s and conspired to kill the emperor in 268. Mallan and Davenport posit that he is a previously unknown general named Marianus, a senator and proconsul of the Roman province of Achaia. (In keeping with his rejection of Latinisms, Dexippus’ reference to Achaia is a geographical region of Greece, not the Roman province. The Greeks called the Roman province “Greece inside the Gates.”) Since proconsuls had limited garrisons at their immediate disposal, he would have had to turn to local militias to help defend the pass.
The reference to the generals being “elected” suggests the defensive forces were assembled by a Greek political body, probably the Panhellenion which was the only body in the 3rd century that covered the regions of Greece represented by the three generals: Boeotia (Dexippus), Athens (Philostratus) and Marianus (Achaia). No other sources mention the Panhellenion appointing military leaders, but the invasion was an extraordinary circumstance which required a speedy military response.
Mallan and Davenport therefore propose a new reconstruction of the Gothic invasion of the early 260s. In late 261 or early 262, the Goths invaded Greece and laid waste to the provinces of Thrace and Macedonia. They besieged Thessaloniki, but it was ably defended by the residents so they moved on to the Roman province of Achaia. The Greeks, likely through the Panhellenion, quickly organized a defense of the province under three generals with Marianus, Roman proconsul of Achaia, at the lead. The Goths invaded Achaia by late 262, early 263, but were turned back by Marianus and Greek militia at the pass of Thermopylae. They didn’t leave empty-handed. On their way out they sacked the rich temples and sanctuaries of Greece before moving on to the Roman Asia province at the end of 263. The threat to Greece was over (for a few years).