The other day I was chatting with a learned chap, but not a Classicist, who repeated several times, obviously rather astounded by the fact, that the earliest known manuscript of Tacitus is from the 9th century. I was somewhat surprised that he was surprised, but, I repeat, he's not a Classicist. And so I thought that a blog post about the oldest known manuscripts of some Classical Latin authors might interest some laypeople. (A manuscript is something written in ink or pencil on parchment, papyrus or paper. The very oldest copies of Latin which we have are inscriptions, carved in stone as early as 700 BC.)
Most of the ancient Latin poets, novelists, historians, letter-writers and others who wrote before Christianity took over, whom we call the Classical Latin authors, are known to us from manuscripts copied out in the 9th century or later. There are some exceptions.
[PS, 20. June 2016: LD Reynolds, Texts and Transmission, ed Reynolds, Oxford, 1983, says that the two oldest-known manuscripts of Latin poetry are a fragment of papyrus containing 9 lines by Gallus copied between 50 and 20 BC, quite possibly during Gallus' own lifetime (c. 70-–26 BC) and excavated at Qasr Ibrim in 1978, the only currently-known manuscript of Gallus, who until then had been known to the modern world only by the high praise of Ovid and other ancient poets; and the anonymous Carmen de bello Actiaco in a papyrus roll discovered at Herculaneum and unrolled in 1805. This manuscript was made sometime between the Battle of Actium in 31 BC and the eruption of Vesuvius AD 79, which buried Herculaneum in ash.]
Vergil, the papyrus fragment CLA VI.833. In the mid-20th century Lowe dated it to the 4th century, but more recently Seider has revised that to an estimate of the 1st or 2nd century.
There are 4th-century manuscripts of Livy (a papyrus), Gellius and Sallust (a papyrus).
The oldest manuscript of Lucan dates from the 4th or 5th century, as does the oldest of Terence.
The oldest manuscripts of Plautus and of the Elder and the Younger Pliny all date from the 5th century.
Authors whose oldest known manuscripts were copied in the 9th century include Valerius Flaccus, Julius Casar, Quintilian, Tacitus, Macrobius, Ovid, Ausonius, Petronius, Horace, Suetonius, Lucretius, Frontinus, Martial and Juvenal. Don't thank me -- thank Charlemagne. He turned this whole bus around.
The oldest known manuscript of Ammianus was made in the 9th or 10th century. The oldest of Tibullus was made in the 10th century, of Propertius, in the 12th or 13th century, and of Catullus, in the 14th century.
In the case of every single one of those authors, more recent manuscripts play a very important role in establishing the text (that is -- in aiding scholars to make their best attempt to guess what the original author actually wrote). [PS: Except in the case of Gallus, of course, because there ARE no known more recent manuscripts.]
All of the ancient papyri mentioned here have been discovered since the late 19th century. That 1st-or-2nd-century papyrus of Vergil is certainly sensational, but because it's a manuscript of Vergil, it's made less of a sensation among classical scholars than a manuscript of comparable age of, say, Catullus would. It's a little scrap of papyrus, and 7 manuscripts copied out before 500 contain most or all of Vergil's work, as does 1 more made before 600 and another made before 800. Likewise, there is quite a lot of the writing of Livy preserved on 5th century manuscripts, so the 4th century papyrus mentioned above, although quite a nice find, has not been earth-shattering to those studying Livy. On the other hand, 4 little scraps of papyrus containing writing by Sallust, copied before 500, have been found. AD 500, not such a dramatically early date for Vergil manuscripts, or even for Livy, a leading runner-up in the Abundance of Ancient Latin Manuscripts Sweepstakes, but all of the manuscripts of Sallust besides those 4 little papyri date from the 9th century and later, so those 4 little scraps of papyri are -- yeah, somewhat earth-shaking, if you're really into Sallust. (And you should be, he writes rings around everybody else I've mentioned except for Horace and Ovid.)
The fans of ancient Greek are having almost all of the fun with the papyri: millions, literally millions of ancient documents on papyrus have been unearthed since the late 19th century, and most of them are in Greek. I'm not sure whether the number of Latin and/or partly-Latin documents found among those millions has yet gone from the hundreds to the thousands. [PS, 18. November 2016: Timothy Renner, in his piece "Papyrology and Ancient Literature," in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, 2009, p 289, describing the corpus of Latin papyri found in Egypt (which is where the great majority of papyri have been found), states that there are "about two hundred known items at present."] So, good for the students of Greek, and as for us fans of Latin: papyri continue to be found.