And then a Nero comes along …

NeroPosterThe Library of Trinity College Dublin has recently loaned a papyrus fragment (TCD PAP F.18) to the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Trier for their exhibition Nero – Kaiser, Künstler und Tyrann (Nero – Emperor, Artist and Tyrant) on the life of the notorious Roman emperor Nero.  This exhibition will run from May to October 2016.

This small fragment, written in Greek and dated 54 AD, announces the death of the emperor Claudius, and the accession to the imperial throne of his grand-nephew Nero.  The new emperor is hailed as ‘the expectation and hope of the world … the good genius of the world and source of all good things’.  This description echoes the optimism that was engendered across the empire at the beginning of Nero’s reign.  The exhibition attempts to highlight some of the more positive aspects of his story – his popularity during the early years of his rule, and his love of the arts, as well as dealing with his darker and tyrannical side.



Trier is the oldest city in Germany, and the only one that was a seat of the Roman Empire. This major exhibition features over 700 exhibits, including statues, pottery, coins, jewellery and other artefacts relating to Nero and his world.  A substantial amount of these are from the museum’s own holdings, but there are also many items on loan from European repositories including the Vatican Museum, the Louvre, the British Museum, and of course, the Library of Trinity College Dublin.

The collection of Greek papyri in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library dates from between the 13th century BC to the 7th century AD, and it is ranked second, after Oxford, among papyri collections in Britain and Ireland.  Documents include literary and sacred texts, as well as official and administrative documents: letters, tax receipts, accounts, contracts, leases and valuations.  Most of the several thousand fragments in the Library’s possession came from the excavations of Sir W. Flinders Petrie during the 1880s in the Fayyûm district of Egypt.  The fragment on loan to Trier is part of a find of papyrus documents discovered during the excavations of Hogarth, Grenfell and Hunt of the Egyptian Exploration Fund, which TCD part sponsored.  It was found in the ancient rubbish dumps of the town of Oxyrhynchus, which was roughly 300km south of Alexandria.

In September 2013, the Preservation and Conservation Department commenced work on a small selection of Greek papyri – including the Nero document – which had been housed between glass and Perspex pressure-mounts. The project involved the conservation of 300 papyri fragments and the implementation of an improved housing system as several of the glass mounts were smashed or cracked, so replacement was a priority. Many Perspex mounts also needed to be removed, because of its tendency to scratch and its electrostatic nature.

The papyrus itself was in a fragile condition; many of the fragments had never been surface cleaned and were heavily soiled. They were brittle and fragile, and several different types of tape had been attached in an attempt to hold fragments together; however, more often the tape obscured text or were causing more damage.

Treatment included removing the tapes and other material from direct contact with the papyrus, humidifying and flattening creases and folds. Realigning fibres and fragments and bridging and mending fractured areas. Once treatment was completed the papyri were returned in new glazed pressure-mounts permitting safe handling. The conservation of the papyri was key for their continued preservation and have ensured future accessibility through digitisation and exhibition.

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© GDKE – Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, Th. Zühmer

Ellen O’Flaherty (Manuscripts & Archives Research Library)
Clodagh Neligan (Preservation and Conservation Department)