Fragments of an ancient Greek text telling of an invasion of ancient Hellas by the Goths during the third century A.D. have been discovered in the Austrian National Library. The text includes a battle fought at the pass of Thermopylae. Researchers used spectral imaging to enhance the fragments, making it possible to read them. This reports Live Science. The analysis suggests the fragments were copied in the 11th century A.D. and are from a text that was written in the third-century A.D. by an Athens writer named Dexippus. During Dexippus’ life, Hellas (then already part of the Roman Empire) and Rome struggled to repel a series of Gothic invasions.

The Thermopylae fragment is one of several written by Dexippus, discovered in the Austrian National Library book, that discuss the invasion of Greece by the Goths. The text in question is the Codex Vindobonensis historicus gr. 73. The bound collection of 10th century ecclesiastical ordinances was acquired in the 16th century by Ogier de Busbecq, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I’s envoy to Constantinople, an avid manuscript collector who would bequeath his collection to the imperial library in Vienna. The parchment pages of the codex came from two different 11th century manuscripts, with 11 pages of monastic rules and prayers added in the 13th century.

The presence of hidden text in the Codex Vindobonensis was discovered decades ago, but even under UV light the text was too faint to be read accurately. A few years ago the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) funded Martin and Grusková’s research into palimpsests, allowing them to look behind the visible script of the codex with EMEL’s multi-spectral technology. The pages were irradiated with lights of different wavelengths. Each type of light is absorbed into the parchment and ink to different degrees. Photographs capture the degrees of absorption and then computer software stitches the pictures together to create a detailed image of the hidden text.

With this system, Martin and Grusková were able to read pieces of the ancient Greek text underwriting the medieval and discovered a precious treasure: significant sections of a history of Rome’s 3rd century Gothic wars written by 3rd century Athenian historian P. Herennius Dexippus. His history, the Scythica (Dexippus called the Goths Scythians), was only known from very fragmentary quotes in much later books. These hefty passages shed a whole new light on the wars of the mid-3rd century. The Thermopylae battle fragment was first published in 2014 in German in the journal Wiener Studies by Gunther Martin and Jana Grusková, researchers at the University of Bern and Comenius University in Bratislava, respectively.

Lecturers Christopher Mallan, of Oxford University, and Caillan Davenport, of the University of Queensland in Australia, recently translated one of the fragments into English. The translated text, detailed in the Journal of Roman Studies, describes the Thermopylae battle: at the start of the fragment, 'battle columns' of Goths, a people who flourished in Europe whom the Romans considered barbarians, are attacking the Greek city of Thessalonica. Though no one has an exact date for the Thermopylae battle, it was likely fought in the 250s or 260s. Dexippus wrote of the attack, as translated by Mallan and Davenport:

“[The Goths invaded Thra]ce and Macedonia, and plundered the entire countryside therein. And then, making an assault upon the city of the Thessalonians, they tried to capture it as a close-packed band. But since those on the walls defended themselves valiantly, warding off the battle columns with the assistance of many hands, and as none of the Scythians’ hopes came to pass, they abandoned the siege. The prevailing opinion of the host was to make for Athens and Achaia, envisioning the gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries: for they learned that the region was exceedingly wealthy in this respect.
When the approach of the Scythians was reported to the Greeks, they gathered at Thermopylae, and set about blocking them from the narrow passes there. Some carried small spears, other axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with. And when they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste. And it seemed that the area was otherwise very secure, since the road which led to Greece beyond the Gates was narrow and impracticable on account of the harsh terrain. For the Euboean Sea, at its greatest extent, stretches up to the flat lands near the mountains and makes them most difficult to access on account of the mud, and adjacent to these extends Mt Oeta [, which...] on account of the closeness of the rocks, makes the place almost impassable for both infantry and cavalry.
The generals elected for the entire war were proclaimed by the Greeks: first Marianus, who had been chosen previously by the emperor to govern Greece inside the Gates; in addition to him, Philostratus the Athenian, a man mighty in speech and thought; and also Dexippus, who was holding the chief office among the Boeotians for the fifth time.
It seemed that the most prudent course was to encourage the men with a speech, and to recall the memory of their ancestors’ valour, so that they would undertake the entire war with greater heart and not give up either during an extended period of watch, or during an attempt on the wall, if such an attempt were to take place at some point in time. When the men had gathered together, Marianus, who had been given the responsibility of addressing them on account of his status, spoke as follows:
‘O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds. For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state, for they fought bravely in the Persian wars and in the conflict called the Lamian war, and when they put to flight Antiochos, the despot from Asia, at which time they were already working in partnership with the Romans who were then in command. So perhaps it may be good fortune, in accordance with the daimonion, that it has been allotted to the Greeks to do battle against the barbarians in this region (indeed your own principles of fighting the wars have turned out to be valid in the past). But you may take confidence in both your preparation for these events and the strength of the region — as a result of which, in previous attacks you seemed terrifying to the enemies. On account of these things future events do not appear to me not without hope, as to better…

The fragment ends before the completion of Marianus’ speech, and the outcome of the battle is uncertain. Marianus may well have given a speech (or speeches) to the troops, researchers said; however, the speech recorded in this text was likely invented by Dexippus, something ancient historians often did.

For a much more thorough breakdown of the text and background of the seige, please go here.