What was John Milton reading on the afternoon of 30 October 1638? I think I can offer an informed guess and, at the same time, point to a possible source for Paradise Lost that has so far escaped notice.
We know that Milton was in Rome on that day and that he dined in company at the Venerable English College in the Via di Monserrato. The college was dedicated to training Roman Catholic priests to serve in England, so it is something of a surprise to discover that the fiercely Protestant Milton visited it. In the earlier 17th century, however, the comparatively rare Protestant travellers to Rome from England tended to seek the company of their exiled Catholic countrymen, having few alternatives if they sought company or were in need of local introductions. Milton’s name and the names of his fellow visitors are recorded in the manuscript register known as the Pilgrim Book, which is still at the college. At a time when English Catholics were thoroughly on the wrong side of the laws of their homeland, their exiled brethren were harassed by spies and informers. It was therefore prudent to keep records of visitors.
The investigations of Gordon Campbell and Thomas Corns have shown that the poet is the only possible ‘Dominus Miltonus’ (the name that appears in the Pilgrim Book) to have been in Rome on that day. His companions were expatriate Catholic aristocrats (‘nobiles Angli’). All were ‘magnificently received’ in the college.