Vatican Virgil

Facsimile of a 4th century Roman manuscript

This is a facsimile of the famous Virgil manuscript ( Vat. lat. 3225) in the Apostolic Library of the Vatican in Rome, known as the “Vatican Virgil.” It was copied in the fourth century A.D., making it the earliest manuscript witness of any classical text, barring a few scraps of papyrus. It is written in letters known as “rustic capitals”; these shapes are derived from the formal letters used on classical period stone inscriptions, but with considerable relaxation in the forms. The lettering is among the easiest to read in manuscripts, and so is ideal for undergraduates to study and use. This manuscript contains most of the text of Virgil’s works, though two of four books of the Georgics are missing, and two out of the twelve of the Aeneid . It also features fifty charming illustrations, a treasure trove of artistic expression from late antiquity; and as it happens, the textbook of the 4th book of the Aeneid which we regularly use in Latin 204 at Carleton is illustrated with these very pictures from the Vatican Virgil.

When we take Latin 204 students to Special Collections to see this and other Virgil manuscript facsimiles, they not only recognize the illustrations from their textbook, but they also learn vital things about Latin literature and about the way classical texts have been passed down to us from antiquity. The first thing the students notice is that there is hardly any punctuation in the manuscript, and indeed there isn’t even that most basic of writing conveniences, the separation of words by spaces.


This experience illustrates a vital cultural fact about ancient Greek and Latin literature: that it was always experienced aurally. Even the rare person who was lucky-and rich-enough to own a copy of a literary text would enjoy it by reading it aloud.

Another fascinating realization that comes when we look at this facsimile is the astonishing number of glitches. Missing letters abound on every page, many of them corrected at the time of the manuscript was written, or shortly afterwards, in smaller letters. Crossed out words can also be seen. Observing all this, we realize how slender is the thread by which the literature of the ancient world has come down to us. Imagine: this error-ridden manuscript is our very earliest witness to a classical text, and it is already four hundred years removed from Virgil’s own drafts.

Jackson Bryce
David & Marion Adams Bryn-Jones Distinguished Teaching Professor
of Classical Languages and the Humanities

Vollständige Faksimile-Ausgabe im Originalformat von Codex Vaticanus Lat. 3225 aus dem Besitz der Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana

Virgil. Georgica. Liber 3-4. Selections. Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt, c1980

Special Collections PA6804 .A73 1980