Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Manuscript of the Month: A Fifteenth-Century Compendium of Illustrious Men

May 26th, 2020

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz is conducting research on pre-1600 manuscripts at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Each month she will be writing about a manuscript she has worked with and the current KU Library catalog records will be updated in accordance with her findings. 

Kenneth Spencer Research Library MS D13 is a fifteenth-century manuscript that includes two works, both of which contain short biographies of classical historical figures. The first work is attributed to the fourth-century grammarian Aemilius Probus with the following rubric:“ Probi Emilii liber de excellentissimis ducib[us] exterarum gentium felicer incipit” (“Aemilius Probus’s book, ‘On the Most Eminent Generals of Foreign Peoples,’ happily begins”). The second one, on the other hand, is assigned to the first-century natural scientist Pliny the Elder with the following rubric: “Plinii Veronensis de viris illustrib(us) liber incipit feliciter in no(m)i(n)e d(omi)ni” (“Pliny of Verona’s book, ‘On the Illustrious Men,’ happily begins in the name of the Lord”). Both of these attributions, to Aemilius Probus and Pliny the Elder respectively, are in fact incorrect.

Even though the first work is attributed to Aemilius Probus in many of the surviving manuscripts, including MS D13, it is believed that the work known with the title De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium (“On the Eminent Generals of Foreign Peoples”) is part of a larger work by Cornelius Nepos, an author of the late first century BCE who himself was from Verona. This larger work, titled De viris illustribus (“On Illustrious Men”), is thought to have comprised at least sixteen books but not much has survived intact other than the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium. The second work, attributed to “Pliny of Verona” in a number of medieval manuscripts, including MS D13, is usually titled the De viris illustribus urbis Romae (“On Illustrious Men of the City of Rome”). It once was thought to have been written by the fourth-century author Sextus Aurelius Victor, but is now believed to have been composed by an anonymous author of the fourth century referred to as pseudo-Sextus Aurelius Victor.

Image of the Beginning of the De excellentissimis ducibus exterarum gentium, with decorative blue and red initial (fol. 2r) Italy, fifteenth century.
Beginning of the De excellentissimis ducibus exterarum gentium. Italy, fifteenth century. Call # MS D13. Click image to enlarge. See additional images from this manuscript in the Digital Scriptorium.
Image of Beginning of the De viris illustribus, with illuminated initial (folio 66 recto). Italy, fifteenth century. Call# MS D13.
Beginning of the De viris illustribus. Italy, fifteenth century. Call # MS D13. Click image to enlarge. See additional images from this manuscript in the Digital Scriptorium.

In MS D13, the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium opens with a preface and includes twenty-three biographies ranging from that of Miltiades (around 555–489 BCE), the Athenian general who defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon, to that of Hannibal (247–183/181 BCE), the Carthaginian general who commanded the army of Carthage against Rome during the Second Punic War. The De viris illustribus urbis Romae follows the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium with no preface, and includes seventy-seven somewhat shorter biographies beginning with that of Procas, the great grandfather of Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, and ending with Pompey the Great, a leading Roman general of the first century BCE. Ordinarily, this work has eighty-six biographies.

Even though the decorated initials that open each work in MS D13 are in starkly different styles, the manuscript was probably written by a single scribe. It was also very well planned, consisting of nine quires of ten leaves each (the final leaf, which was probably blank is missing). There is no indication that there were other texts before or after either of the two works. Therefore, it may be argued that the scribe had carefully planned to copy both of these works one after the other and intended to create this larger book of biographies by juxtaposing these two works.

John C. Rolfe, the translator of the Loeb edition to the text states that “Nepos arranged his biographies in groups of two books each. The first book of every group included the distinguished men of foreign nations, for the most part Greeks; the second, those of Rome. From references of Nepos himself and others the categories of generals, historians, kings and poets have been determined” (“Introduction,” ix). The argument that the book on the generals of foreign peoples was supposed to be followed by a book on the Roman generals is also supported by the closing words of the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium:

Sed nos tempus est huius libri facere finem et Romanorum explicare imperatores, quo facilius, collatis utrorumque factis, qui viri praeferendi sint possit iudicari.

But it is time for us to put an end to this book and give an account of the Roman generals, to make it easier, with the deeds of both gathered together, to judge which men ought to be given the higher rank.

Thus, the fact that in MS D13 the book on the generals of foreign peoples by Nepos, which has survived, is followed by a series of illustrious individuals from Roman history, somewhat restores the work back to its original form, to the way it was intended to be read.

Unfortunately, P. K. Marshall, who wrote the most detailed study of the manuscript tradition of the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium, did not comment on MS D13, even though he indicated that he had examined the manuscript. In his 1977 study, Marshall lists 86 witnesses to the text including MS D13, two of which had already been lost. He does not, however, comment on what other texts are contained in the manuscripts that include the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium. In addition, to my knowledge there is no detailed study of the manuscript transmission of the anonymous De viris illustribus urbis Romae other than the brief discussion included in the Teubner edition. Thus, we do not know how common it was to cut the text short and not include all the eighty-six biographies. Similarly, we do not know which other works the De viris illustribus urbis Romae was associated with in the manuscripts. It would be interesting to see whether the two works found in MS D13 are arranged in the same way in other surviving manuscripts or whether this was the idea of the compiler of this particular manuscript.

The Kenneth Spencer Research Library purchased the manuscript from William Salloch in 1956, and it is available for consultation at the Library’s Marilyn Stokstad Reading Room when the library is open.

  • See the edition and translation of the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium: Cornelius Nepos. On Great Generals, On Historians. Trans. John C. Rolfe. LCL 467. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984. ISBN: 978-0-674-995-514-7.
  • See the edition of the De viris illustribus: Sexti Aurelii Victoris Liber de Caesaribus; praecedunt Origo gentis romanae et Liber de viris illustribus urbis Romae, subsequitur Epitome de Caesaribus. Ed. Franz Pichlmayr. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1911. Public domain.
  • Read about the manuscripts of the De excellentibus ducibus exterarum gentium: P. K. Marshall. Institute of Classical Studies Bulletin Supplement No: 37: The Manuscript Tradition of Cornelius Nepos. February 1977.

N. Kıvılcım Yavuz
Ann Hyde Postdoctoral Researcher

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“My Dear Mother, With Love Your Affectionate Son”

May 8th, 2020

Richard Blake was a civilian merchant, known as a sutler, at Fort Wallace, Kansas, during the 1860s. At that time Fort Wallace, still located in western Kansas, was a stop on the stage coach line that went through Kansas and on to Colorado. It also served as a military outpost. During his time there, Blake wrote letters to his family describing the area, the men he encountered, and life on the post. Those letters are now among the holdings of the Kansas Collection at Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Among his letters is one written to his mother. In it, he talks of feeling homesick and of his longing for letters from home. In honor of Mothers’ Day, the letter is transcribed here.

Please note that some of the language used by Blake was common during his time, but is considered offensive today.

Photograph of the Officers’ Quarters at Fort Wallace, Kansas, August 1868
The Officers’ Quarters at Fort Wallace, Kansas, August 1868. Richard Blake Letters. Call Number: RH MS-P P32.7. Click image to enlarge.
Photograph of Richard Blake, August 1, 1868
Richard Blake, August 1, 1868. Richard Blake Letters. Call Number: RH MS-P P32.5. Click image to enlarge.
The first page of Richard Blake's letter to mother, July 14, 1867
The second page of Richard Blake's letter to mother, July 14, 1867
The third page of Richard Blake's letter to mother, July 14, 1867
The fourth page of Richard Blake's letter to mother, July 14, 1867
Richard Blake’s letter to mother, July 14, 1867. Richard Blake Letters. Call Number: RH MS P32.1. Click images to enlarge.

Fort Wallace, Kansas
July 14, 186

My Dear Mother,

Another week has gone by and we have had no Mail. consequently I have not heard from any of you, at home or elsewhere. I begin to want to hear, as it is about a month since I got a letter.

Last evening just at dusk we saw on a hill about a mile north of here – about a dozzen [sic] horsemen which a great many took to be Indians – but we were expecting Genl Custer with his command and supposed the horsemen to be the advance guard, which turned out to be correct – it was Genl Custer with what was left of his command. he camped about a mile west of us, and all day to-day we have had the officers up here and quite a lively time. but now all is quiet once more and I am in hopes for the evening as I want to write several letters and no knowing if I will have another chance before the coach goes down which will be on Thursday if nothing happens. The Stages for the present will run once a week, two coaches at a time, and that is a great deal better than being cut off from all communication. I wonder if you know how a person feels when we have nothing to read and nothing but the same story about Indians – with no news of what is going on in the States. I know I feel auful [sic] lonesome sometimes, and hardly know what to do with myself, and generally either go to sleep, or smoke my pipe or go up to see the officers and play whist till I am over the blues.

Brevet Major Genl Custer is Lieut Col. of the 7th Cavalry, which six months ago numbered (1200) twelve hundred men, and since then they have had three hundred recruits, and to-day the whole Regiment, twelve companies do not number over Seven hundred and they have not lost Fifty men in all by death, but they have deserted by tens twenties and fifties, till over seven hundred have gone and now we have “All that is left of them,” left of the Twelve hundred “Stationed here.” I think as every one else with any sense at all thinks, that Genl Sherman, Genl Hancock, Genl Custer and the balance of them have made a grand fizzle. I don’t believe the whole pack of them have killed a dozzen [sic] Indians all told, and only the other day Genl Sherman sent an officer and Ten men from Fort Sedgewick to the Republican River to order Genl Custer to this post. they sure reached Custer but were found a few days afterward, murdered by the confounded Red devils.

I dont remember having told you in my last letter how I spent the Fourth of July, A.D. 1867, in fact I hardly remember what I did write – as I was half asleep when I wrote it having got up at midnight when the Stage arrived, and had to write then or not at all, so will give you a brief sketch now – well to begin we got up as usual eat our breakfast about the same time and opened the Store, which we kept open till twelve o’clock, then as we felt hungry and not going to have dinner till three we eat a box of Sardines and a few crackers – smacked our lips and took a nap till three when we went to dinner and what a dinner. “Oh ye Gods.” Chicken Pie, made from canned chicken, with sobby [sic] crust, and no taste. Then also Oyster Soup – made out [of] Cove oysters with water, with bread and butter. after dinner I took another nap – till dusk when we adjourned up to the Officers quarters – and spent the evening in telling yarns and singing as a [singest?]. I do not excel so did not join in – but listened, and when they sang “Home Sweet Home” I fell well Home sick my heart jumped clean up in my mouth, after that we retired for the night – the day did not seem at all like the 4th of July, more like Sunday, and I cannot now realize that the season is so far advanced.

This evening we had a call from Theodore R. Davis, Special Correspondent and artist for Harper & Bro – he has quite a long article in Harpers Monthly for July – entitled “A Stage Ride to Colorado” with several cuts. I have not yet read it, so cannot say whether it is good or not.

Well all the Officers of the Post came in a while ago – so I had to stop and now it is eleven O’clock so I will stop for the present, but if I get a chance before the coach goes down – I will add a few lines. Give my love to all and all of you write often to your affectionate son.

Richard Blake

P.S. July 15/67 Genl Custer is going down to Fort Hays after his wife this evening – and has promised to take our mail down – so I will send this by him. Will try and write again when the Stage goes down. Love to all. With love your aff. Son

R. Blake

Kathy Lafferty
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