The strangely familiar world of Oxyrhynchus
From the Times Literary Supplement
Peter Parsons [no relation – David Parsons]
CITY OF THE SHARP-NOSED FISH
Greek lives in Roman Egypt
320pp. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. £25.
978 0 297 64588 7
In AD 19, the Roman prince Germanicus paid a royal visit to Alexandria in Egypt. According to a surviving papyrus record, he was given a rapturous reception by the crowds. He had hardly got through the first sentence of his speech (“I was sent by my father, gentlemen of Alexandria . . .”) when they broke into applause. And cries of “Bravo” and “Good luck” continued to punctuate his address – as he begged for a chance to be heard in peace, explained how difficult his journey had been, and how much he was missing his family in Rome (including his adopted father, the Emperor Tiberius, and his “granny”, as he affectionately called the austere – and possibly murderous – Empress Livia), and complimented his listeners on their lovely historic town. The Alexandrians probably overdid their enthusiasm. Another papyrus preserves part of the text of an edict issued by Germanicus on this same visit. The gist of it is that if they continue to treat him like a god, then he will show his displeasure by staying away and making rather fewer epiphanies in the future.
It is hard to know how we should read the tone of Germanicus’ speech to the crowds. Is it an adept piece of semi-improvisation (to judge from the repeated “to begin with”), flattering his audience by sharing his anxieties for his family – showing his caring side, as we might say? Or is it an ill-prepared public performance, in which this pampered aristocrat tactlessly whinges on about the inconvenience of foreign travel and his own homesickness? But, whichever view we take, the speech makes a nice counterpoint to the cynical narrative of the historian Tacitus, who asserts that affairs of state were only a pretext for Germanicus’ arrival in Egypt: he was really on a sightseeing trip. And before long, according to Tacitus, the emperor had given him a gentle reprimand for going native and wearing Greek clothes; and a rather sterner one for entering Egypt without permission – for all Senators required a special “visa” from the emperor to visit that particular province. At the very least, it is a nice reminder for us of how different viewpoints offer a dramatically different perspective on the power politics and internecine squabbles of the Roman imperial family.
The papyrus fragment which preserves a sizeable part of Germanicus’ speech is all that now remains of what was probably a pamphlet commemorating important occasions in the relations between Alexandria and Rome. The other side of the document seems to be an account of an embassy sent from Alexandria to the elderly Emperor Augustus in ad 13, written in the same careless hand. It was found not in Alexandria itself, but in one of the ancient rubbish dumps at the Graeco-Roman town of Oxyrhynchus, about 200 miles to the south. Here, no fewer than half a million papyrus fragments, some large, some very small, were excavated by the British Classicists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt over the decade between 1897 and 1907, and shipped to Oxford.
These papyri preserved writing in almost every genre, mostly in Greek, and mostly written in the Roman period: from texts of “lost” plays of Sophocles and Menander to schoolroom writing exercises, from scraps of ancient pornography to contracts and tax documents, from fragments of Christian apocrypha to private letters bewailing illness, arranging weddings, or soliciting a loan. As Peter Parsons puts it in his marvellously evocative City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish (which is the English translation of Oxyrhynchus, and refers to the town’s sacred animal), this amounts to “the paper-trail of a whole culture”. Unlike Pompeii, which preserves the buildings and the bodies of an ancient city, Oxyrhynchus has now no visible remains on site beyond a single column. So far as I can see, for most of us it would hardly be worth the visit. But it exists “as a waste-paper city, a virtual landscape which we can repopulate with living and speaking people”.
History has been kind to Grenfell and Hunt – rather kinder, in some respects, than life itself (his third breakdown ended Grenfell’s academic career in 1920, and he spent his last years in a mental hospital; a few years later, Hunt appears to have been shattered by the death of his only son). Tony Harrison’s play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus reflects their generally friendly reception. Harrison weaves the plot of Sophocles’ Ichneutae, or “Trackers”, which was one of Grenfell and Hunt’s major rediscoveries, into the story of their own tracking down of papyri. In Harrison’s arresting doggerel, the pair come across as an engaging, if dotty, team of boffins, with Grenfell (who is also the Apollo of the ancient drama) being noticeably “highly-strung”: “Grenfell gets so anxious to find dramatic scraps / it almost brought the poor chap close to a collapse”. In fact, their archaeological methods were not much less of a treasure hunt than those of Schliemann. “Good luck with the grave digging”, wrote Grenfell’s brother, aptly, on one occasion to wish them success. With their eyes trained on the holy grail of the lost literary masterpieces of Antiquity, they took little interest in the other material remains of the ancient city, which were still sufficiently well preserved for Flinders Petrie to survey and record in the 1920s: the remains of a large theatre for some 11,000 spectators, as well as a couple of colonnaded streets.
“Most of that stone has since disappeared”, Parsons observes, euphemistically, of the depredations of modern building work that have taken place over the past ninety years. It is hard not to suspect that the favourable reputation of Grenfell and Hunt rests on the fact that they were not ransacking a site for hoards of precious gold and silver, but for these academically priceless pieces of paper. This material came to Oxford in dozens of tin boxes, and was in due course placed for safe keeping between the leaves of back numbers of the University Gazette (which serendipitously was just the right size for the tins). It has been the focus of a thriving scholarly industry ever since.
The first volume of papyri was published by Grenfell and Hunt in 1898 under the aegis of the Egypt Exploration Society, and they continued working together on the decipherment of their discoveries until Grenfell’s final breakdown – when younger members, based in Oxford and University College London, were gradually introduced to the team. Volume LXXII is about to appear (bringing the total of individual new texts and documents published to around 5,000), and forty or so more volumes are in prospect, as well as a collection of essays, Oxyrhynchus: A city and its texts, edited by Alan Bowman and others.
Parsons, who recently retired from the Regius Chair of Greek at Oxford, has been involved with the Oxyrhynchus project for almost half a century. His aim in City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish is to use the surviving scraps of papyrus to provide a guide to the life and letters of this ancient city for the non-specialist as much as for the professional Classicist. (The original germ of the book came from a “Commentary” in the TLS in 1998.) He writes with tremendous verve and wit, and with memorable turns of phrase. I liked, for example, the idea of Egypt being the “California of opportunity” to the Ancient Greeks. The sheer elegance of his style tends to make the reconstruction and synthesis he has attempted look effortless. In fact, it depends on truly phenomenal learning and expertise. It is hard enough to decipher the handwriting of these documents, let alone to work out how any particular fragment might fit into a bigger picture, and then to explain it to a general audience, as he does, without dumbing down.
Parsons evokes a wide range of human experience in this multicultural town (a Greek-speaking community, in the ancient land of the Pharaohs, now under the Roman Empire): from the complaints of its schoolteachers about their pay to the troublesome cough of its reluctant mayor. Several of the stories he tells show vividly how the provincials of the Roman Empire adjusted to interventions from the top, or to developments in Rome itself. A visit of emperor or princeling was one thing. Another problem was the realignments that might have to be made when a new ruler came to the throne or disposed of his rival. This was especially acute when the memory of a previous emperor was “damned” (so-called damnatio memoriae) and his name and images were supposed to be expunged from sight. There was, as Parsons points out, “no easy way of air-brushing the fallen out of history”; it would require tremendous organization to erase all traces of “the late great” from everywhere. What he shows instead are some sporadic attempts by the locals to reflect the new order, as well as a few cases of practical ingenuity. One extract from the journal of the local town council shows that the record of compliments paid to a trio of imperial relatives, who later fell from favour, has been emphatically inked out. In other documents some offending names have been erased, but others apparently not noticed in what must have been a cursory search through the archive. But seals presented difficulties of a different order and might prompt particularly ingenious solutions. At the customs post of Karanis, north of Oxyrhynchus, an official seal had been in use showing the image of the Emperor Septimius Severus, flanked by his two sons, Caracalla and Geta. When Severus died in 211, Caracalla soon had Geta murdered and damned. The response at Karanis was to fill in the image of Geta on the seal with the ancient equivalent of putty, so that it no longer left a mark. Seal stones were presumably pricey, and it would have taken a while to commission a replacement. This was the instant and cheap solution.
Most of the documents at Oxyrhynchus, however, are more concerned with specifically local issues, even if the Roman authorities are present in the background. There are contracts, apprenticeship agreements, accounts, magical spells, legal denunciations, handwriting exercises and thank-you letters. Occasionally the history of an individual family, its trials and tribulations, can be traced through surviving papyri over many years. That is memorably the case for the horribly dysfunctional family of Tryphon, a weaver born in ad 8 or 9. When he was about twenty-five, Tryphon had married a woman, Demetrous, who soon walked out on him: according to his surviving denunciation, “she took a hostile attitude to our marriage and in the end went off, and they took away our property . . .”. In the absence of Demetrous, Tryphon started to live with a woman called Saraeus and signed a formal civil partnership with her in ad 37. But Demetrous was not entirely off the scene; she returned and beat up Saraeus, who was pregnant and miscarried. Another formal denunciation followed. We do not know how Demetrous was finally disposed of, but Saraeus went on to have three children – and then to get into more trouble.
When she was nursing the youngest baby, Apion, she also agreed to wet-nurse a foundling, given to her by a man called Pesouris, who presumably paid for the service. One of the babies died: she claimed that it was the foundling who had died, Pesouris claimed that it was Apion. This tricky judgment of Solomon went before the local governor, who decided against Pesouris “since the child seems from his looks to be Saraeus’s”. Pesouris may well have recognized this for a weak and desperate argument, so he continued to harass Tryphon – who then took his case to the Roman Prefect (that is, provincial governor) himself. Even though Tryphon seems to have won this round, too, Saraeus, pregnant again, found herself beaten up once more by a group of female allies of Pesouris.
All this prompts two awkward questions. First, how typical was life in Oxyrhynchus of life in the Roman world more generally? Can we generalize from Tryphon to the ordinary citizen in Rome itself, or even in Gaul or Britain? The standard scholarly answer used to be “no”. Egypt, so this argument went, was sui generis. With its mixture of native Egyptian, Greek and Roman traditions, it was much more aggressively multicultural than most parts of the Roman Empire. And thanks in part to the lingering influence of pharaonic bureaucracy, it was also a much more literate culture. It was not simply a question of the Egyptian sands providing the optimal conditions for preserving papyrus; most Romans would never have left behind the kind of paper trail that we find at Oxyrhynchus, or lived in a world so dominated by writing. It is perhaps a pity that Parsons does not venture a view on this. But there is an increasingly strong case for tempering somewhat the old view of Egypt’s uniqueness. Though the conditions of their survival are certainly much less favourable elsewhere, ephemeral written documents are now being discovered in greater quantities all over the Empire (especially in Britain), and their themes and concerns are not so very different from the Egyptian material.
The second question is about interpretation. How far is it legitimate to read into these documents a day-to-day life in Antiquity that is broadly like our own, give or take a few quirky or quaint customs? Or how far do we detect in them a radically alien world, pressing at the very limits of our comprehension? Parsons refers to the series of events in Tryphon’s family as a “soap-opera”. If so, it was a particularly nasty one, involving the death of a baby, assault, harassment and miscarriage by violence. But throughout City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, he tends to paint life in Oxyrhynchus as recognizable and relatively familiar to us. Of course, they did things differently there, but not so very differently. So for example, as Parsons explains, “the gymnasium is cultural centre and country club in one”; bakers made their bread in a kind of terracotta shell or klibanos, such as “are still sold to ambitious home-bakers under the name ‘baking-cloche’”; some crafts trained the next generation with apprenticeships “as we did until quite recently”.
Even those aspects of Oxyrhynchus life that move further up the scale of unfamiliarity still come over as individual oddities, rather than glimpses of an entirely different way of being. Such, for example, were the conventions of writing. There were, apparently, no such things as desks. When you wrote, you rested the papyrus roll on your knee: “the pen wrote me, the right hand and the knee” as one copy of part of the Iliad signs off. Likewise the general lack of sanitation. Parsons probably correctly concludes that the absence of written reference to lavatories is more likely to be due to the fact that there were none, than to modesty about mentioning them. The town, he hints, would have smelled strongly of human and animal waste, and he quotes an extraordinary letter to illustrate the ubiquity of excrement. Missing her absent friend, one Kallirhoe wrote in these affectionate terms: “I make obeisance on your behalf every day before the Lord God Serapis. From the day you left we miss your turds, wishing to see you”. This was too much for the modesty of Grenfell and Hunt, who in the first edition of this papyrus wrote merely, without translating, “A very singular symptom of regret for an absent friend is specified in ll.6–7”. But all you have to do is omit the title “Serapis” and replace “turds” with “laughter”, and it could have been written yesterday.
In some cases it is actually Peter Parsons’s elegant and judicious translation that serves to domesticate the strange. In one papyrus letter, Titianos, probably a Christian, writes to his sister about a lucky recovery. “I was gripped for a long while by an illness”, runs the translation, “so that I couldn’t even stagger. When my illness eased, my eye suppurated and I had tachomas and I suffered terribly and in other parts of my body as well so that it nearly came to surgery, but thank God!” It is the word “surgery”, or “operation” in another modern version, that gives this account a particularly familiar ring, with all its connotations of hospitals, anaesthetic, antiseptic and so forth. In the original Greek, the word in question is “tome”. This means “cutting” – of anything from wood to flesh. “Surgery” is a perfectly legitimate translation, though a rather nice way of putting it. “It nearly came to the knife” or “it nearly came to chopping me up” might be a better reflection of ancient medical procedures – as well as a stronger prompt for us to go beyond the comfortable modern analogies.
“Same or different” is a dilemma for any historian who tries to recapture the structures and concerns of everyday life at whatever period of the past. On the one hand is the obvious fact that some things do not change, or only very slightly. People in Oxyrhynchus would have had coughs and colds, sore feet and blistered hands just as we do; and they may well have baked their bread in ways that are still instantly recognizable to us. On the other is the unnerving thought that these people lived in a world so different from ours as to call into question that superficial familiarity and to challenge our ability to understand, let alone empathize with it. My only qualm with this otherwise brilliant book is the slightly too cosy image it offers of ancient Oxyrhynchus and its people. Much more stands between us and making sense of their world than the decipherment of Grenfell and Hunt’s tins of papyri – fascinating and formidable a task as that is.
Mary Beard is the co-author of The Colosseum, published last year, and of Classics: A very short introduction, 1995. She is the Classics editor of the TLS.
See also New Statesman review.
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