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The Vergilius Romanus: the first British book?
Vergil MS Vat. lat. 3867= Romanus
Robert Vermaat

The question is simple enough: do we have any fifth-century, contemporary pictures from Britain?

Vergilius RomanusVergilius, from fo. 9r.

The answer, though, is not so easy: we might have, or we might not. Recently, such a case has been made by Ken Dark for the illuminated Rustic-Capital manuscript known as the Vergilius Romanus. It is written in an elegant hand, comprising 309 folios of 333x332 mm in size, and contains 19 color illumination in a Late Antique style, which I have displayed at this page. These depict Virgilius (Virgil) seated, and scenes from the texts that are contained in the MS: the Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid.


Though now in possession of the Vatican since the 15th century from the papacy of pope Sixtus IV (1471-84), we know that the Vergilius resided at the monastery of St Denis in France before that. It may very well have been there since Carolingian times, when it was probably spotted by the chronist Heiric. Before that, the tracing of its route becomes much more difficult, but similar textual irregularities shared with Irish commentaries of Vergilian texts may indicate that it was in Ireland before the 9th century. How did it get there? Where was it produced? In Ireland or maybe even in Britain? And if so, how did it end up in the Paris area in the first place?

That last question is easily answered. If the Vergilius Romanus was indeed produced in Britain, which we will look in to below, it may have reached Gaul as a gift or with travelling migrants to Brittany. We know from dealings between the 5th-century bishop, statesman and poet Sidonius Appolinaris and the Briton Riocatus (who may or may not have been a relative of Vortigern) that books were taken from Britain to Gaul, and there were new ones among them. Alternatively, it may have been a precious gift from a sub-Roman magnate or British King to an ally in Gaul, whether still Roman or already Frankish. Any such mechanism could have resulted in the manuscript travelling overseas the other way to Ireland as well, before the 8th century.


Though maybe resident in Ireland, most studies are sure that the MS was not produced there, but maybe taken there by refugees from the Roman Empire. An origin in the Eastern Empire or Italy has been suggested, but also Gaul and Britain. Another question still open to debate is the date of origin, which ranges from a 4th- to a 6th-century date. On palaeographical grounds, a 5th- to 6th-century date may be preferred, which seems to be corroborated by art-historical study. Though Ken Dark favors a later 5th-century dating (‘closer to AD 500 than AD 400’), and Martin Henig a 4th-century one, the comparison with supposedly similar artwork may actually point to a period between the both of them. If the illuminaions and the writing of the Vergilius Romanus are indeed comparable to existing material, I must favor an earlier 5th-century dating.


The trouble with comparing the palaeographical aspects of the text is that it has very little distinctive features. Furthermore, there is so little comparative material available, that we can never with any certainty ascribe this work to either Gaul or Britain.
What it does show, however, is that no matter how few of these comparative examples there are, they do not point to a necessarily Eastern or Italian origin. Those distinctive features that are there, indeed show a similarity with Roman inscriptions in Gaul and Britain, which narrows down the area somewhat. The only feature which points to an exclusively British origin is the upward flourish of the letters, which it shares with Romano-British inscriptions, the Cathach of St Columba and the curse tablets found at Bath, although these 12.000 pieces of evidence are somewhat less carefully written.

Lead curse tablet from Bath, Somerset
here for enlargement

detail from the lead curse tablet   Another feature found on these tablets is the slanted L, which tends to go downwards, as is clearly visible on this example, where an owner of a napkin lists several possible suspects of the theft. Furthermore, it shows, because of the similarities with more generally found Late Roman types of script, that we can narrow down the period to a time detail from fo. 6r
before Britain drifted out of contact with the rest of the Empire.


Another reason to look to a northwestern European, indeed even British origin, instead of an Eastern one, lies with the study of the illuminations. Comparison with Roman and Italian art of the period shows that a direct comparison fails. Martin Henig has favoured a provincial Roman origin instead, with 4th-century southern Britain as his favorite. What makes the illuminations of the Vergilius Romanus so different from the rest of Roman provincial art?

In fact two different artistic styles occur in this MS. One is less naturalistic than the other, but it seems both styles coexisted during the same period. It is the more naturalistic art style that will concern us here.

What specific features do actually suggest a British origin?

Is this a 5th-century British scene? (folio 100v)First, there is the drapery, visible in fos. 76v and 100v (right), which parallels similar drapery in some of the 4th-century Durotrigan mosaics. One of these is the famous mosaic from the villa at Lowham near Langport in Somerset, where the mosaic also depicts 5 scenes of a Vergilian theme, the Aeneid. It tells the story of Dido and Aeneas, which probably reflected the literary tastes of the owner. The style of the mosaic may differ from the illuminations in the VerAeneas on horseback, Low Ham Roman villa mosaicgilius Romanus, I would sug-
gest com-
parisons be-
tween the sleek horses and the Phrygian headgear. The best parallel for the drapery, however, are the wall paintings at Poundbury, Dorset.

click here for enlargement

Dido and Aeneas hide in a cave, fo. 106r.Second, there is the characteristic way the feet of seated people are depicted, which we can see depicted in folio 106r (left) and top (Vergilius). This is not paralleled in (sub-)Romano-Gallic art, but it is found on later insular manuscript, of which the Lindisfarne Gospels (below) Lindisfarne Gospels, St. Johnare an example. Another example for this is the Roman sculpture found at Murrell Hill.

click here for enlargement

Third, Dark proposed there is the shape of the shields. Most of these are in the characteristic pelta shape (depicted also in folio 106r, above), a design which was not used in 5/6th-century Mediterranean manuscripts. It is a north-western 'Celtic' design, which suggests production of the Vergilius Romanus in surroundings where Celtic and Roman art were combined. On the other hand, we could imagine this design being only slightly different from the comon Late Roman infantry shield, complete with the Germanic pointed boss, which seems to have disappeared after the 5th century.

FHead from fo. 76v.ourth, there are the faces of the people depicted in Small bronze head found at Glastonburythe Vergilius Romanus. They have elongated faces with almond eyes, which are also characteristic for the Glastonbury bronze head (click here for enlargement), and possibly also for the Lindisfarne Gospels. Also, the faces have no chins, or rather, the upturned semi-circle that usually indicates the chin is missing. Again, this is not characteristic for (sub-)Romano-Gallic art, but it does occur in Britain at, for example, the 4th-century mosaic
and the wall-paintings of Lullingstone, Kent. This mosaic, dated by Henig to the later 4th century, depicts a seemingly

Mosaic from Lullingstone Roman villa
click here for enlargement

pagan scene (the rape of Europe by the bull Zeus), but with a hidden Christian message. The wall-paintings are definitely Christian.

Head from a wall-painting, Lullingstone Roman villa
click here for enlargement

Fifth, there is the special tendency to depicts scenes from the works of Vergil into Late Roman art. This is unusual for Italy or even the western provinces, but it occurred in Britain more than once, as is shown by a painting at Otford, Kent, and the already mentioned mosaic at Low Ham, Somerset. Virgil was also known to Gildas, which seems to indicate a special interest in Virgil's Aeneid during the 5th century.

These factors, although possibly circumstantial, suggest a British origin when taken together. But could a work like this be commissioned in Britain after its retreat from the Roman Empire? Did the British even produce books during that time?

British books?

Were there any books produced in Britain during the 5th century? Dark states that we can be relatively sure of that. We know that manuscripts were produced in Britain during the 5th or 6th centuries from an 8th to 9th-century copy of a Pelagian text. We also know that find from Dorchester that manuscript-illumination took place within that period. Also, Gildas’ letter to Uinniau (St Finnian?) and poems from Class-I Inscribed stones ascertain that sub-Roman times still knew literacy that produced letters and poems. Also, there seem to have existed enough candidates for literate lay-patrons with access to large resources and craftsmen. If one looks at the enormity of the work carried out at both the British phase of South Cadbury and Wansdyke, it is clear that the south-west British magnates, who later became the kings, had enough culture and resources to have such a work like the Vergilius Romanus produced. If all the above is correct, it would be the first British book known to us.


Is there any chance that Vortigern is depicted in any of the illuminations of the Vergilius Romanus? I seriously doubt it. Though there are powerful images of what people actually looked like in his lifetime, I think it would be pushing the evidence too far to assume that he was depicted himself. We should not forget that Vergil's works, though attractive to the literate elite, still represented a pagan theme. And when we consider that at the same time, pagan shrines at Bath and Uley were desecrated and the heads of pagan gods buried, it might be rather inconsiderate to have yourself portrayed in such a work. What these illumination do show, however, is an insight in the normal dress code and appearance of the 5th-century Briton. And indeed, in that of Vortigern, who no doubt looked more like a civilized Roman than a ferocious Celtic border king.


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