The Medea: Introduction
This learning resource is part of the University of Michigan Papyrus
Collection's series Reading the Papyri, which aims to provide
younger classics students the opportunity to study ancient texts
via the world wide web. The pages contained in this section cover
a fragmentary leaf from a codex containing Seneca's tragedy, Medea,
which belongs to the University of Michigan Papyrus Collection.
The fragments form part of inventory number 4969, and this piece
has a rather interesting history. These fragments come from a fourth
century parchment codex of the Medea which was eventually
recycled into a tenth century Coptic codex. (see image below)
The piece consists of three fragments of roughly equal size (a
fourth is missing). These fragments were cut from the original leaf
and used to reinforce the binding of the Coptic codex; the pinholes
visible in each fragment show where the binding was sewn together.
As is often the case in papyrology, this text has survived due to
no more than sheer luck.
The fragments were recognized as Latin and published by Gregg Schwendner
and Donka Markus in 1997 (ZPE 117 pp. 73-80). More information about
this text is available online via the APIS database: P.Mich.Inv.
This text is written in a half-uncial script, which uses
letter shapes which are similar to a combination of lowercase and
uppercase letters that we still use today. You will probably recognize
most of the letters without much difficulty.
Below is a table showing the alphabet used by the scribe who wrote
the Medea codex. Briefly familiarize yourself with the
letter shapes. Do they look like capital letters or lowercase letters?
Are any of the letter shapes particularly strange? What letters
are missing, compared to the English alphabet?
The letters k and z were part of the Latin alphabet
by the 4th century, but neither are attested in this small fragment,
since neither letter was especially common. The letters w,
u, and j do not exist in the Latin alphabet.
The text consists of several lines from Seneca's tragedy, Medea.
This complete text of this play is known from other manuscripts,
and the fragments can be identified as containing the continouous
verses 663-704 (663-683 on the recto, 684-704 on the verso). Using
the alphabet above to represent the average size of the letters,
we can reconstruct the lost portions of the lines to give an idea
of the original dimensions of the leaf.
Based on this type of estimation, the original size
of the page was likely around 12 by 18 cm. The image above gives
an idea of how much of the page has been lost. Since the Medea
was written in verse, we expect that the left margin should be straight,
while the right margin will be irregular, varying with the length
of each line. It is reassuring that our reconstruction shows the
same properties as we expect.
Usefulness of the Text
Since the full text of the Medea is already known from
several other sources, what is to be gained from a short, fragmentary
text such as this? As you may already know, most of the classical
literature which survives today was preserved in medieval manuscripts.
However, different manuscripts of the same work often give different
readings, and the goal of the modern editor is to reconstruct the
version of the text which is closest to what was originally written
by the author. This leaf, although it is short and fragmentary,
can help with that goal, since its fourth century date is earlier
than the medieval manuscripts, and thus closer in time to the original
composition. In fact, there are several errors and corrections in
this text which have been useful to scholars.
This text is also useful to us because it provides an example of
a Latin book hand which is very easy for a modern audience to read.
Latin texts from this time period are rare; since most of the papyri
which survive today come from the desert regions of Egypt, they
are mostly in Greek or Egyptian, not Latin. Most of the Latin texts
which do survive are government or military documents, which are
written in a cursive script that is difficult to decipher. A book
hand such as this is an excellent place for the novice to begin
his study of ancient manuscripts. In the next section, you will
have the opportunity to look closely at several lines from this
text and try to read a bit of it for yourself.
Next: Reading the Text