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Classical Literature Collection

5,000 items (dispersed).

Mrs Rylands’s acquisition of the Bibliotheca Spenceriana in 1892 secured her one of the finest collections of Classical literature in the world. Few other libraries can boast that some fifty principal Greek and Latin authors are represented in their collections by the first edition.

Cicero is represented by seventy-five editions before 1501, of which sixty-four are earlier than 1480. Particularly noteworthy is a vellum copy of De Officiis, printed by Fust and Schöffer at Mainz in 1465, the first edition of any Classical author.

The editio princeps of De Oratore, printed by Sweynheym and Pannartz at Subiaco in 1465, is the first surviving work printed in Italy. Chief among the editions of Pliny’s Natural History are the editio princeps printed by Johannes de Spira (Venice, 1469); a vellum copy of the first Sweynheym and Pannartz edition (Rome, 1470); and a magnificently illuminated vellum copy of the Jenson printing of Landino’s Italian translation (Venice, 1476).

There are no less than twenty-two editions of Virgil printed before 1480, including the two 1469 editions of the complete works (Strasbourg, Mentelin; Rome, Sweynheym and Pannartz). There is also an exquisitely illuminated vellum copy of the Aldine edition of 1501, the first book to be printed in italics. Of editions, translations and commentaries of Horace there are some 800 beginning with the Venetian edition of 1471/2.1

The Homeric epics are represented by the first printing of Nicolaus de Valle’s Latin translation (Rome, 1474); the first edition in the original Greek (Florence, 1488), enhanced by a Roger Payne binding; and an illuminated vellum copy of the Aldine edition of 1504. Of the scores of later editions, attention may be drawn to first editions of Chapman’s English translations: Seaven Bookes Of The Iliades Of Homere, Prince Of Poets (1598), Homer’s Odysses (1614) and The Whole Works of Homer (1616); a large-paper copy of the six-volume first edition of Pope’s translation (1715–20); and the splendid three-volume Foulis Press edition of 1756–8.

Mention should also be made of the unique copy of a work once attributed to Homer, the Batrachomyomachia, probably printed by Thomas Ferrandus in Brescia in c.1474.

Many Greek writers are represented by editiones principes. The Library holds a copy of the first ancient text printed in Greek, Aesop’s Fables, printed in Milan by Bonus Accursius around 1478.2

Handsome first editions of Apollonius Rhodius, Callimachus, Euripides, Lucian of Samosata and the Greek Anthology were edited by the humanist scholar Janus Lascaris (c.1445–1535) and printed in Florence by Laurentius de Alopa between 1494 and 1496. However, few men made a greater contribution to the revival of Classical scholarship than Aldus Manutius, whose Venetian press issued almost thirty editiones principes in the original Greek. The Library holds the vast majority of these, including Aristotle (1495–8), Theocritus (1496), Aristophanes (1498), Thucydides (1502), Sophocles (1502), Herodotus (1502), Demosthenes (1504), Plato (1513), Aeschylus (1518) and Hippocrates (1526).3

It should also be noted that the Library holds extensive collections of works published in the Loeb and Teubner series of Classical texts.

See also:

1Of the eleven editions of Horace published in the 1470s, the Library lacks only the Parisian edition of 1475-9 (the only known copy of which is in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France) and the Milan edition of 1477.

2The Library also holds the first book of any kind printed in Greek, Constantine Lascaris’s Erotemata, a Greek grammar published in Milan in 1476.

3For further information on early editions of the Classics, see John Sandys, Harvard Lectures on the Revival of Learning (Cambridge, 1905), and the same author’s A Short History of Classical Scholarship from the Sixth Century B.C. to the Present Day (Cambridge, 1905).

Finding aids

  • Recorded in general printed-book catalogue.
  • The John Rylands Library: Catalogue of an exhibition of the earliest printed editions of the principal Greek and Latin Classics and of a few manuscripts (Manchester, 1926).


The John Rylands Library

Using the reading rooms in the John Rylands Library