Palaeography and the Hawara Homer: Part 2

After looking at the account of the discovery of the Hawara Homer, I left off the story of the palaeographic dating of this manuscript with Edward Maunde Thompson’s 1912 introductory book, in which the Hawara Homer was assigned with confidence to the second century. This became the standard view of the dating of the papyrus. It was not until the 1960s that a full-scale study of this type of handwriting (now known as the “Rounded Majuscule” or “Roman Uncial”) appeared. This is the classic article of Guglielmo Cavallo, “Osservazioni paleografiche sul canone e la cronologia della cosiddetta «Onciale romana»” (1967).

In this comprehensive work, Cavallo proposed an overall theory of the “canonization” of the style. After starting with the Hawara Homer and other examples deemed to be ideal forms of this style of writing (like P.Oxy. 1.20), Cavallo surveyed other samples of writing bearing different degrees of similarity to this prototypical group. Cavallo then arranged them in a chronological order based on small details of the script. Some surviving examples are relegated to a “pre-canonization” phase, others are placed with the Hawara Homer in the phase of “canonization,” and others are placed in the “phase of decline.” Chronologically, Cavallo placed the transition from pre-canonization to canonization at the period from the end of the first century to the beginning of the second century and the transition from canonization to decline at the end of the second century.

This chronological framework was based on the notion that particular features of writing are a “manifestation of a cultural and aesthetic taste” (manifestazione di un gusto culturale ed estetico). Thus, the ideal forms of such writing could only come about in a period of a flourishing of Greek culture, such as Cavallo found in the period of the Antonine emperors. For this reason, the samples of writing “of highest perfection should be attributed to the advanced second century” (gli esempi della massima perfezione si dovrebbero attribuire al II secolo avanzato). In Cavallo’s view, then, it was “almost certain” that the Hawara Homer should be “attributed to the age of the Antonines,” that is 138-192 CE. Finally, the writing of the parchment codex containing the Ambrosian Iliad, which visually resembles the Hawara Homer, is said to be an example of “a kind of archarizing” (una sorta di arcaizzazione) datable to the late fifth or early sixth century and perhaps representing an expression of a “pagan” outlook. Cavallo developed this point a few years later in another classic article, “Considerazioni di un paleografo per la data e l’origine della «Iliade Ambrosiana»” (1973).

And this is really the present state of scholarship on the dating of the handwriting of the Hawara Homer. In a standard reference work on papyrology published in 2009 (The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology), Cavallo wrote the chapter on Greek and Latin scripts and there assigned the Hawara Homer and other examples of the “flourishing” of the “Rounded Majuscule” to “the second century…essentially limited to the Antonine period.” The script of the Ambrosian Iliad is said to be “an imitation produced in the late fifth century, perhaps in pagan Alexandrian circles.”

What is remarkable to me about Cavallo’s studies is the aesthetic and philosophical nature of the argumentation. Despite the careful description of palaeographic details, the assignment of given manuscripts to periods of “pre-canonization,” “canonization,” and “decline” is a purely aesthetic judgement, and the chronology is mostly based on a philosophical claim (i.e., the writing samples deemed to be most perfect can only have been achieved in a certain historical situation). The driving force of this model seems to have as much to do with imagined historical circumstances and artistic connoisseurship as it does with the analysis of the actual appearance of ink on the surface.

POxy 32 2624 frag 1

P.Oxy. 32.2624, fragment 1; image source: POxy: Oxyrhynchus Online

This impression appears to be confirmed by the existence of data that don’t quite fit the model. Two observations: First, the developmental model shapes the dating of individual pieces as much as (or more than?) the dating of individual pieces builds the model. What do I mean by that? Take as an example P.Oxy. 32.2624, a collection of fragments of a roll (or rolls) of lyric poetry written in the “Rounded Majuscule.” The roll was reused for documents written in a cursive that the editor of the papyrus (Lobel) assigned to the second half of the second century. Lobel assigned the “Rounded Majuscule” of the lyric poetry to the first half of the second century. Here we have a lucky sample that was reused for a cursive document, so we have a decent guide for the dating of the literary handwriting on the front of the roll. Thus this piece should form one of the relatively securely dated anchor points for Cavallo’s model. But here’s the rub: In Cavallo’s model, the writing of P.Oxy. 32.2624 falls into his period of “decline.” So, he reassigned the “Rounded Majuscule” on of P.Oxy. 32.2624 to the late second century and consequently redated the cursive writing on the back to the third century. This is exactly the reverse of how this process usually works. For better or for worse, papyrologists generally have more confidence in their ability to date cursive samples than they do literary samples (usually written in capitals rather than cursives).

The second issue is perhaps even more interesting. Although Cavallo stresses the culturally “Hellenizing” and “pagan” character of the “Rounded Majuscule” script, Christian literature does seem to have been copied in this style as well. An example is an intriguing papyrus known as “PSI 11.1200 bis” that I will discuss in another post.


Cavallo, Guglielmo. “Osservazioni paleografiche sul canone e la cronologia della cosiddetta «Onciale romana».” Annali della Scuola normale superiore di Pisa. Lettere, storia e filosofia 36 (1967), 209-220.

Cavallo, Guglielmo. “Considerazioni di un paleografo per la data e l’origine della «Iliade Ambrosiana».” Dialoghi di archeologia 7 (1973), 70-85.

Cavallo, Guglielmo. “Greek and Latin Writing in the Papyri.” Pages 101-148 in Roger Bagnall (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. New York: Oxford University PRess, 2009. 101-148.

Maunde Thompson, Edward. An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1912.

This entry was posted in Ambrosian Iliad, Guglielmo Cavallo, Hawara Homer, Palaeography. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Palaeography and the Hawara Homer: Part 2

  1. Pingback: Palaeography and the Hawara Homer: Part 3, A Christian Example of the “Rounded Majuscule” | Variant Readings

  2. Gregg Schwendner says:

    Just to clarify, there is a Latin text in crusive on the back as well as a Greek doc. in cursive??

    • Yes, it’s odd. Lobel describes (not very helpfully) as follows: “The Greek on the back, also uncials but on the small side, informal and, in one representative, containing cursive forms, as also the Latin cursive, may be assigned to the second half of the [second] century.” Subsequent scholars have called the text a Greek-Latin glossary. See the image here: The piece on the left seems to be fragment 28e in the second frame on the POxy Online site.

    • I see now from Lobel’s edition that he did in fact suggest that the text was a Latin-Greek lexicon and actually edited the “verso” of fragment 28 along with the text of the choral lyric on the front of the papyrus. Of the Greek on the “verso,” Lobel writes “the Latin appears all to be in the same hand, in the Greek at least two hands to be represented.”

  3. Peter Malik says:

    Even from ‘aesthetic’ viewpoint, Cavallo’s talk of ‘decline’ in case of P.Oxy XXXII 2624 strikes me as odd. I think his observations concerning decline of the canon work pretty well (by and large) for the biblical majuscule, but this seems a bit off. If anything, the Oxy fragment strikes me as a bit more ‘rough’ in appearance, so one could easily pursue the same line of reasoning in reverse. I wonder if its the presence of serifs that threw him off here.

  4. Pingback: Color Images of the Hawara Homer Online | Variant Readings

  5. Pingback: The Inscriptions of the Jewish Catacomb at Vigna Randanini | Variant Readings

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