I recently wanted to quickly refresh myself on what can be known about the provenance of the famous papyrus containing nearly the entire text of Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians (British Library Pap. 131, LDAB 391).
As usual, this turned out more complicated than I expected. The artifact itself is also somewhat complicated. It consists of four papyrus rolls that had been used for other purposes. A pair of documents relating to an estate in the Hermopolite nome from the time of Vespasian (78-79 CE) and a short set of scholia to Callimachus written along the fibers. Aristotle’s Constitutions was copied (apparently by multiple different copyists) against the fibers, upside down relative to the documents on the front. The back side of one of the documentary rolls had already been reused to copy some notes on the speech of Demosthenes against Meidias. The copyists of Aristotle simply worked around this existing Demosthenes text, easily identified by its narrow columns as opposed to the broad columns of the Constitution of the Athenians. Three of the rolls are in an excellent state of preservation while one of them is highly fragmentary.
Published information about the acquisition of this papyrus is a little jumbled. In the Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years MDCCCLXXXVIII – MDCCCXCIII (p. 393), Papyrus 131 is listed under acquisitions made in 1889. The British Library website, however, gives the acquisition information as follows: “The first three rolls were purchased with a lot comprising Papyri 130-137 from Doctor John R. Alexander of Cairo on 12 April 1890; the fourth roll was acquired later, on 12 July 1890.”
So, the dates are different (1889 in one case and 1890 in another). I have not yet found contemporary accounts of the “discovery” and acquisition of the papyrus, but two retrospectives that provide detailed narratives are also somewhat at odds with each other. The two sources are the autobiographies of A. H. Sayce (who I have discussed on other occasions), and E.A. Wallis Budge (1857-1934), Assyriologist, Egyptologist, and agent for the British Museum who “energetically acquired a large number of antiquities and manuscripts during the course of his work in Egypt and Mesopotamia.” Budge recounted many of his “energetic acquisitions” in a two-volume work, By Nile and Tigris (1920). Sayce’s stories are compiled in his Reminiscences (1923).
Here is Sayce on the Aristotle papyrus (Reminiscences, pp. 332-334):
“Dr. Alexander, the very efficient Head of the American College in Assiût, . . . was an old acquaintance of mine, and it is due to him that Greek scholars now possess the Politeia of Aristotle and the Mimes of Herodas, one of the most modern and delightful books that have come down to us from antiquity. In the early days of my dahabia life I was stopping at Assiût as usual, on my way down the Nile, and also, as usual, immediately after mooring at the bank, walked to the College and asked Alexander if he had heard of any antiquities having been discovered or offered for sale in his neighbourhood during the previous winter. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘except that the other day a man came to me with a Greek Papyrus which he and a colleague had found in a tomb at Mêr (some 30 miles from Assiût), ‘but as he wanted a large price for it and I do not profess to be a Greek scholar, I could not venture to buy it.’ ‘Was it written in capitals or in cursive?’ I asked. ‘In capitals,’ was the reply. ‘Then,’ I said, ‘it will have been a literary work, and I must get it if the man can be found again.’ Dr. Alexander’s servant was therefore despatched to see if he could find him, and fortunately he was just in time. After leaving the American College the man had gone to the two antika-dealers who had shops in Assiût, but the fact that any papyri except hieroglyphic or Coptic could be valuable had not as yet penetrated to them, and they refused to give the sum demanded. In fear of being discovered and punished for illicit digging, the fellah was now on his way to the river to throw into it the incriminating roll of papyri of which he otherwise could not get rid, and there he was caught by Alexander’s servant and brought back to the College. A hasty glance at the roll showed it was well worth the sum the man had asked, and accordingly I made myself responsible for it, and the roll was sent to the British Museum. It turned out to contain not only the Politeia and the Mimes, but the works of other Greek authors as well. During the two or three days preceding my arrival the man had been riding on his donkey through the Assiût bazaars with the roll in the pocket of his galabîya; the consequence was that a corner of it had been, as the Americans expressed it, ‘mushed up.’ I cleared out the pocket and carried the fragments to London where I handed them over to Sir Edward Maunde Thompson. The papyri had been found in a tomb which contained the mummies of a man and his wife. Along with them, the fellah had brought some inscribed strips of shroud as well as a label that had been placed on the man’s breast. The inscription was gilded Greek letters on a red ground and recorded the name of Sarapous, the son of Serapion, who died ‘childless’ in the 14th year of Augustus. The label and inscribed strips remained at Assiût.”
So, Sayce also mentions a connection to Rev. John R. Alexander (although here he is based in Asyut rather than Cairo), and Sayce’s story accounts for the damaged ending of Aristotle’s text. But the bit about the mummies is implausible, given that the documents copied on the front of the Aristotle papyrus date from well after the time of Augustus. Sayce’s story also seems jumbled with regard to the Mimes of Herodas, by which he presumably means the papyrus now known as British Library Pap. 135 (LDAB 1164). It was also acquired in 1889, but it it is clearly not from the same roll as the Aristotle text, as Pap. 135 is only about 13 cm high but the Aristotle roll is about 26 cm high. Finally, Sayce places the find spot in a tomb at Meir, about 55 km north of Asyut. Let us turn to the account of Budge (By Nile and Tigris, vol. 2, pp. 147-150):
“And here I must break the trend of my narrative concerning excavations in Mesopotamia and explain a matter about which much misconception has existed. It will be remembered that in passing through Port Sa’id in 1889 I made arrangements for the dispatch of a box containing papyri to England. This box arrived in due course, and held several rolls of papyrus, three being inscribed in hieroglyphs and the rest in Greek. The Greek rolls were transferred to the Department of Manuscripts, where they were examined and transcribed by the present Director of the British Museum (Sir F. G. Kenyon) who discovered that the reverses of the rolls were inscribed with a copy of Aristotle’s lost work on the Constitution of Athens. This was a very great discovery, and the Trustees decided to publish a facsimile of the text of the work with a transcript and translation by Kenyon. As he progressed with the work he found that a large piece of one of the rolls was missing, and I was asked if I could account for it, and whether it might possibly be in the hands of some native in Egypt. Ultimately I was instructed to go to Egypt on my way to Mesopotamia and to spare neither trouble nor expense in finding the missing piece of the papyrus, and I forthwith wrote to friends in Egypt asking them to institute a search at once. Meanwhile the report of Kenyon’s great literary discovery spread abroad and, naturally enough, aroused universal interest. At the same time some gentlemen, who for one reason or another generally betook themselves to Egypt for the winter, claimed to have seen the papyrus in Egypt and to have identified the Greek text on its back as the lost work of Aristotle on the Constitution of Athens. Others claimed to have discovered the papyrus themselves and to have sold it to natives who sold it to me, and more than one archaeologist told me personally that the Trustees acquired it from him.”
“I therefore take this opportunity of saying how the rolls of papyri came into my hands. I was travelling to Asyut with the Rev. Chauncey Murch in December, 1888, by slow trains and easy stages so that I might be able to go to various villages in Upper Egypt and examine objects which natives wished to sell. Among other places we stopped at Malawi, about 185 miles from Cairo, and as we arrived at two o’clock in the morning we gratefully accepted the hospitality of some Coptic friends of Murch for the rest of the night. Early in the morning various natives brought us antiquities. . . In the course of our conversation a native from the other side of the river reminded me that the Greek magical papyri which I bought in 1887 had come from him, and I asked him where he obtained them. He mentioned a place a few miles down the river on the opposite bank, and pressed us to go and visit it with him that day. We crossed the river and then rode donkeys northwards to the site of the ancient city of Khemenu. . . Keeping well away from the ruins of the old city, which the Greeks called ‘Hermopolis,’ we bore to the east and came to a low, flat spur of the hills close by, where there were the remains of many fine ancient rock-hewn Egyptian tombs of the twenty-sixth dynasty. In one side of the spur of the hill two series of tombs had been hewn during the Roman period, the upper series had been occupied by Greek or Roman settlers or officials in Egypt, and several mummies of the fourth or fifth century A.D. had been taken out of them. The lower series had not been excavated because of the immense heaps of stone and sand that blocked up the approaches. There seemed no doubt that the tombs of the lower series contained important antiquities, and I suggested to the Copts who had come with us from Malawi that they should apply to the Service of Antiquities for permission to excavate the site. They absolutely refused to do this, saying they had no faith in that Department. Finally I made an arrangement with them personally, and undertook to purchase from them one-half of everything they might find in the tombs. . . . The Copts made no attempt to get the tombs cleared until the following summer, when the great heat usually paralysed the energies of the inspectors of the Service of Antiquities, and the contents of the tombs were left to take care of themselves. In September it became possible to enter the tombs of the lower series in the spur of the hill, and the searchers found that several of the coffins in them had been ransacked in ancient times by tomb robbers, who had broken up many mummies and left the pieces lying in the coffins. I kept in communication with the natives who were making the search for papyri, and I received from one of them in November, 1888, a letter saying that they had found some good-sized rolls of papyrus in a painted cartonnage box. The writer of this letter and two of his partners met me in Port Sa’id in April, 1889, for I had informed him from Aden when I expected to arrive there, and we discussed the purchase of all these papyri and they named their price. The papyri reached England in due course and the Trustees bought them.”
So, Budge locates the site of the find not at Meir but north of Mallawi in the neighborhood of Hermopolis (Al Ashmunin), a plausible location given that the document on the front of the Aristotle papyrus relates to an estate in the Hermopolite nome. The map below illustrates the different places named in the accounts of Sayce and Budge.
But it is interesting that Budge is uncharacteristically silent about his own role in buying and exporting the papyrus. And his story isn’t quite finished. There was that missing portion of the Constitution of the Athenians, and Budge’s description of the export of this part of the papyrus is much more explicit:
“I left London on September 26th, 1890, embarked on the Messageries Maritimes s.s. ‘Niger’ at Marseilles on the 27th and sailed for Alexandria. . . . I went to Cairo on [October] 3rd, and had to wait there until the morning of the 7th for a train to take me to Asyut. . . . I left for Upper Egypt on the morning of the 7th, and began making enquiries among the natives who busied themselves with antiquities for the missing columns of the Aristotle papyrus. After many fruitless visits to villages on both sides of the Nile, I gained the information I sought at Beni Suwef, and finally found the piece of papyrus itself in the hands of a gentleman at Asyut. I had no difficulty at all in arranging the matter with him, and I took the fragment with me to Luxor. The next question was how to get it to London. It was quite hopeless to expect that the Service of Antiquities would allow it to leave the country, and I did not want to take it with me to Mesopotamia. At length I bought a set of Signor Beato’s wonderful Egyptian photographs, which could be used for exhibition in the Egyptian Galleries of the British Museum, and having cut the papyrus into sections, I placed these at intervals between the photographs, tied them up in some of Madame Beato’s gaudy paper wrappers, and sent the parcel to London by registered book-post. Before I left Egypt a telegram told me that the parcel had arrived safely, and that its contents were exactly what had been hoped for.”
So, Budge’s account (kind of) matches up with the British Library report that the text of Aristotle arrived in two batches, but according to Budge those dates should be sometime around April 1889 for the first portion and after October 1890 for the second portion, rather than 12 April 1890 and 12 July 1890, as the British Library records have it. And this portion of the papyrus was said to be with a man in Asyut rather than the area of HErmopolis. But needless to say, the narratives of both Sayce and Budge rely on information from sellers, which is always suspect.
Finally, it should be noted that if either of these stories is true (especially if Budge’s story is true), the Aristotle papyrus was quite clearly taken from Egypt without the consent of the relevant local authorities.