The three oldest surviving illustrated manuscripts of classical literature have three things in common. They are all written on vellum, were made around the 5th century CE and went almost completely unnoticed for 1,000 years.
If popularity is one of the main factors in assuring a book’s survival over the centuries, then this is true of the literature of classical antiquity. Out of more than 1,000 different works of classical authors in circulation in the West in the 5th century, Virgil’s Aeneid was arguably the most popular. It was first of all a textbook, and continued to be one well into the medieval period. In the East, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey had a similar fate. So it’s not surprising that the most popular texts of antiquity have survived complete with illustrations in the 5th century. They were the most numerous at the time. However, we only have three. Two Virgils and a Homer.
The manuscripts known as Vergilius Vaticanus and Vergilius Romanus are both preserved in the Vatican Library. They were both produced in the 5th century and are similar in layout and style. There origin is unknown, and so is their provenance during the 5th and the 16th century. Vergilius Romanus may have been made at at the abbey of St Martin in Tours, but that is based on the fact that the manuscript shows up there in the 9th century. It may have been made elsewhere. As for the provenance of the Vergilius Romanus, even less is known. Some have conjectured that it may have been produced in Britain, but the evidence for this is flimsier still. More importantly, these manuscripts were hidden/neglected/forgotten until the 15th, when the humanist of the Renaissance took an interest in them, and they both ended up in the Vatican. Written in a style known as rustic capitals (see images), they wouldn’t have been of much use to medieval readers. There were copious contemporary copies of Virgil’s works during the medieval period, so there was no need to consult these manuscripts. The imagery may also have been regarded to ‘paganising’, so it was wilfully ignored. There is no evidence of any manuscripts inspired by these exceptional specimens.
The third manuscript belongs to the Eastern tradition and is a volume containing Homer’s Iliad. This is the manuscript known as the Ambrosian Iliad (see image). Like the two Virgil manuscripts, this one was clearly made in the 5th century, but its provenance remains as unclear as the other two. It may have been written in Constantinople or Alexandria, based on the imagery. And just like the other two manuscripts, the Ambrosian Iliad was forgotten until it joined the library of an Italian collector at the end of the 16th century, but it is not clear where it had previously been preserved.
The loss rate of ancient and medieval manuscripts is staggering and has made every scholar cry, at least once in their lifetime. Yet, we should consider ourselves lucky that such beautiful artefacts have crossed centuries of every possible kind of upheaval and reached us safely.