Scribes and Scholars

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“Sumptuously laid out papyrus roll” (E. G. Turner) written in a large rounded capital, with lavish use of blank papyrus. As usual in literary papyri, the scribe leaves no spaces between words; he also uses no punctuation. The text records the genealogy of the children of Althaea, including Deianeira who married Heracles, a section from Hesiod’s Catalogue of Women (Fragmenta Hesiodea fr. 25, ed. Merkelbach-West). Two additional papyrus copies overlap to fill in gaps and add text at top and bottom. An adjoining fragment of the fragmentary first column was recovered by Italian excavators and is now in Florence (PSI XIV 1384).

Lines 1-8 show obeloi — long hyphen-like strokes — in the margin before the line beginnings. Hellenistic scholars used such signs to indicate lines they thought displaced in the original poem. The lines so marked here turn up again in another papyrus from Oxyrhynchus (fr. 229 Merkelbach-West) on the children of Heracles — from a completely different part of the poem.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XVII no. 2075.

Oxyrhynchus produced few literary papyri written as early as Ibycus’ encomium of Polycrates and this roll containing the ‘Second’ Partheneion (Maidens’ Song) of Alcman. Written in elegant upright capitals of medium size, the papyrus is equipped with punctuation, accents, apostrophes, tremata, and even marks of long and short quantities for use in scanning the lyric metre and reading it aloud. In the top margin, a scholar of the first century AD recorded a debate between the scholars Aristonicus and Ptolemy about the correct position of the poem in the official edition of the poems of Alcman:

‘This one (viz. poem) is inserted by editors in ... copies in the fifth [book of Alcman] ... and within that [book] it was marked by brackets in Aristonicus’ copy (as misplaced here), but not in Ptolemy’s’.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XXIV no. 2387.

The mounds produced a number of papyri of the seventh century BC Lesbian poets Sappho and Alcaeus, from poems previously unknown. The discovery of the papyri early this century coincided with a revival of interest in Sappho among critics and poets. P.Oxy. 2076 is from a papyrus roll containing the second book of her poems: the tiny round hand has some of the informal features of cursive documentary writing. It preserves the end of the book and its last poem (Poetarum Lesbiorum fragmenta 44, ed. Lobel-Page), on the wedding of Hector and Andromache at Troy.

As is customary in ancient Greek books, the last line of the last poem (marked by the coronis in the margin) is followed by the name of the author and title (Sappho, Lyrics); the book number (beta = 2) is given in the next line, both decorated with top and bottom-lines.

Gaps in the poem are filled in by another copy in a different hand, P.Oxy. 1232. The last six lines run:

‘Everywhere in the streets there were bowls full of wine, and cups, myrrh and cassia, frankincense, fragrances all pell-mell. All the women of matronly age shouted Eleleu! while the men singing out in the beautiful Steepscale Hymn called on Paeon, the god of the excellent bow and lyre, praising Hector the prince and Andromache as princess’  (tr. M. L. West).

The same scribe may have written the text in the exhibition’s copy of Plato’s Phaedo.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XVII no. 2076.

Three columns from a de-luxe papyrus roll written in an unusually ornamental hand. The text is a corrected copy of an encomium of the sixth century BC lyric poet Ibycus comparing the famous tyrant Polycrates of Samos to the heroes of the Trojan war (Poetarum Melicorum Graecorum fragmenta fr. S151, ed. Davies). The last three lines (punctuation uncertain, and exact sense controversial) run as follows:

‘With them you too, Polycrates,
shall have immortal fame for beauty
as long as my song and fame endure.’

Before the final line, a marginal monogram known as a coronis marks the end of the poem and guarantees the reader that nothing has been omitted. Blank space follows. But there is no end title, as would have been expected. Instead, inspection under infra-red photography revealed superimposed letters from another papyrus in a documentary script (the word drachmais can be read). At the foot of the empty space an ancient scholar has written a note (scholium) in a cursive hand, commenting on the name Kyanippos, and enabled J. P. Barron to restore this name in an incomplete line of the preceding column.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XV no. 1790.

The first fragment of Simonides’ fifth century BC elegy on the Battle of Plataea, written on the occasion of the victory and in memory of those who fought and fell. The fragment contains parts of the proem, praising Achilles and the heroes who fought at Troy, then an invocation of the Muses and a transition to the historical part of the elegy narrating the battle. The fragment overlaps with Oxyrhynchus papyrus 2327, first published as anonymous ‘early elegiacs’ by E. Lobel, who later recognised the identification with Simonides. Fr. 27 of 2327 supplies the line-ends of the first column of this papyrus and remains of a second column, although the two papyrus manuscripts differed in their column layout.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. LIX no. 3965 fr. 1.

Two columns showing top and bottom margins and intercolumn from Aeschylus’ satyr-drama ‘The Net-pullers’ (Tragicorum Graecorum fragmenta III, fr. 47a ed. Radt). The ‘Dictyulci’ were fishermen who rescued Danaë and the baby Perseus set afloat in a chest. The papyrus was recovered by Grenfell and Hunt from the area around Kôm Gamman. Later on, Italian excavators arranged to have the Sheikh’s tomb on the Kôm moved. They recovered two further fragments in the mound from the same play and roll, now in Florence; the same scribe also copied several other plays of Aeschylus (probably in separate rolls), and also the Fables of Babrius.

The identifications may point to the existence of a scriptorium at Oxyrhynchus in the second century AD, in which the same scribe copied many works of classical literature; they also have been claimed for the holdings of a public or private library. Note no indication of speakers as in a modern script. The letter theta (= the number eight) before line 2 of the second column marks the 800th line of the play.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XVIII no. 2161.


A careful copy of Plato’s dialogue Phaedo written in a tiny rounded informal capital very similar (if not identical, as E. Lobel and E. G. Turner optimistically claimed) to that in the Sappho text (P.Oxy. 2076). The scribe marked change of speaker with the placement of a thin line (paragraphos) underneath the beginning of the line in which the change occurs, and also added accents, a few breathings, some punctuation, and critical marks in the margin. The textual tradition followed by the papyrus is interesting and in keeping with modern editions but eclectic as regards the mediaeval manuscripts. In the upper margin a scholarly annotation has been penned by a smaller and more cursive hand.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XV no. 1809.

Nine consecutive columns from a papyrus roll containing Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus (242d–244e). In the format of an Oxford Classical Text these nine columns would occupy three pages (the entire dialogue fills 67 pages, or roughly 25 times the length of the preserved papyrus). The lines are short in proportion to the height of column. At the end of many lines the scribe added a complementary sign (dash or dot) in order to produce a uniform right-hand margin. Accents, breathings, and elision marks were inserted by a second hand, who also introduced corrections. But the corrector failed to observe many obvious errors, and inserted many variants not otherwise recorded, most of them inferior to those normally adopted. Of special note are the ‘double commas’ in the second column, lines 21ff. (243a), marking a quotation from the poet Stesichorus addressed to Helen of Troy (Poetarum Melicorum Graecorum fragmenta fr. 192, ed. Davies), written as prose:

‘That story has no truth in it, and you never even went on the well-benched ships, and you never set foot in the tower of Troy.’

In the fifth column the coronis marks the end of a section.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XVII no. 2102 (cols. i–v). 

Two columns from Aeschines’ speech Against Ctesiphon (sections 51–3). Ctesiphon had proposed a decree that the assembly should honour Demosthenes. Demosthenes’ political enemy Aeschines fought the measure with this speech. The copy is written in very bold, squarish capitals. A second hand revised the text for errors and collated its readings with an exemplar different from that from which it was copied. Two erroneously written expressions are deleted in the nearly complete column, one by lining through, and one by placing a line of ink over the top of a line of writing. The papyrus is one of some 45 papyri of Aeschines published thus far, thirty-five of them from Oxyrhynchus.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XXIV no. 2404.

Two columns from a papyrus roll of Menander’s New Comedy entitled ‘The Man She Hated’, about a soldier named Thrasonides who purchased a slave-girl for his wife, but nobly refrained from making love to her because she ‘hated him’. The play was identified by J. R. Rea, and the arrangement of its various pieces reconstructed as shown here and published by E. G. Turner.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XLVIII no. 3368.

In addition to texts of the Lesbian poets Sappho and Alcaeus, Oxyrhynchus significantly increased the number of texts of the new poets of the Hellenistic age who ushered in a new way of writing. Foremost was Callimachus with his elegiac poem Aetia, on foundations of cities and families and origins of myths. The papyrus copy shows the opening of the poem’s first book, containing a riposte to his critics and an account of his boyhood investiture of poetic skill by Apollo (at lines 21–3):

‘And when I first put a writing tablet on my knees, Lycian Apollo said to me: “Poet, make your sacrifice as fat as you can but, my good fellow, nourish a delicate Muse”.’

The line beginnings of 21–2 can be filled in from quotations of these two lines in ancient authors; in v. 24 threpsai ‘nourish’ was supplied by R. Pfeiffer (Grenfell and Hunt had restored dounai ‘give’). Above Telkheines (‘bad-spirited back-biters’) in the opening line, a later annotator has written a one-word comment: [b]askanoi (‘of the evil eye’).

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XVII no. 2079 fr. 1.

Five consecutive columns from an anonymous history of Sicily under Agathocles. The text is assigned by some to the Hellenistic historian Duris (but it is not included in Jacoby’s edition of his fragments). The papyrus and its script are notable for its early date. Letter-shapes and decoration suggest a date before the Augustan period. Note that the lines of the columns drift progressively further to the left, a feature familiar in books on papyrus. At ends of lines, letters are clumsily crowded-in so as to produce an even margin.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XXIV no. 2399.

Well-heeled book-owners among the upper classes at Oxyrhynchus could get professional advice on matters of the heart from this well known manual on the ars amatoria which circulated widely in the ancient world. It is also one of the few technical works believed to have been written by a woman. Of Hellenistic date, her work was regarded as an authoritative guide for the voluptuary. She treated the art of love systematically, including descriptions of sexual positions, aphrodisiacs, abortifacients, and cosmetics. We know her text only from this papyrus fragment of a professionally produced book written in a fair-sized book hand, and preserving the beginning of the work (or an epitome of it):

Fr. 1 col. 1, lines 1-4:

‘Philaenis of Samos, daughter of Okymenes wrote the following things for those wanting ... life ...’

The beginning is reminiscent of the opening of Herodotus’ Histories. Philaenis, however, begins with ‘How to Make Passes’ (peri peirasmon), then a section on seduction through flattery (‘say that he or she is “godlike”...isotheon’), followed by a section on kissing (peri philemat[on]). The style was simple, the treatment summary and matter of fact. The work represents the technical prose tradition on which Ovid drew in his elegiac didactic poem Ars Amatoria.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XXIX no. 2891.

A list or index of epigrams by their opening words or incipit. At least three hands were at work: two wrote the epigram incipits, one careless in a semi-cursive script (column 1), the other in a good rapid cursive. An inexperienced, ‘slow’ writer wrote in awkward upright capitals a recipe for cough mixture in the upper centre, which has been crossed out. The purpose of the list is unknown. But incipits were the ancient equivalent to the title of a poem as a form of reference. In the first column, one epigram, and probably another, are copied in full. In the rest, including the two columns on the back, 175 epigram beginnings are given, of which 31 come from the beginnings of previously known poems: two of these are ascribed to the epigrammatist Asclepiades, twenty-seven to the Epicurean philosopher and poet Philodemus.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. LIV no. 3724.

A papyrus roll of unusually narrow format, on the back of a reused tax document cut down, thus a ‘pocket-roll’. The informal script, with cursive tendencies, is amateurish but neat. The poem, by an unknown author, concerns themes of erotic mythology, especially gods and their boy loves: Apollo and Hyacinthus, Heracles and Hylas. The style and subject show that these verses are Hellenistic or later. Vocabulary points to the Roman period. The author adds four words to our dictionaries.

J. R. Rea has suggested that the basic subject was the love of the Emperor Hadrian for his favourite Antinoos, who drowned in the Nile and was a favoured subject with Greek-Egyptian poets.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. LIV no. 3723.

Written on the back of legal proceedings of 284 AD, in a tight, crabbed cursive of contemporary date, the text records a version of a prophecy already known from two papyri in Vienna. The prophecy, couched in the voice of a ‘potter’, is a version of an Egyptian original composed in Demotic. Apocalyptic in character, it looks forward to a ‘golden age’, when a good daemon or king will come as a source of evil ‘to the Greeks’, and reduce the ‘upstart city by the sea’ (parathalassios polis) — i.e. Alexandria — to ‘a place where fishermen dry their nets’ (psugmon hallieon).

The text may reveal dissatisfaction in Egypt with Imperial administration, such as we also find reflected in the Acta Alexandrinorum.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XXII no. 2332.

Papyrus text of an ancient novel of Roman date, but unknown except from this fragment. The exciting narrative concerned persons being initiated into the mysteries of Cybele or the Great Mother. Together with one Iolaus and a male prostitute — a cinaedus — they masquerade as galli, castrated initiates of Cybele, in order to escape some danger.

In the fragment, a speech is addressed to Iolaus in appropriately salacious Sotadean metre, although the verses are written as prose. The romance represents a tradition of the Greek comic novel, on which Petronius drew for his Satyricon.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XLII no. 3010.

Two pages from a Christian codex, the modern form of the book which increasingly replaced the papyrus roll after the third century AD, folded open to form a double leaf. The codex contained the Epistle of Jude (or a least part of it) in an unusually small format. All margins are intact. The leaves are not consecutive, but are missing c. 330 letters between them, which will have filled probably two more such double leaves. Very likely the work was copied only in part. But such extensive writing would be impractical in miniature codices, most of which served as amulets thought to protect their possessors against harm, and tend to record short works (like the pater noster) or extracts from longer ones. The largish leisurely half-cursive hand of this codex contrasts with the scale of that of the Cologne Mani codex, for example, which contained the entire life of Mani in miniature format.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XXXIV no. 2684.

A window into the world of ancient books and their owners is provided by this private letter. It mentions individuals known from other documents as participants in local government and business, but who were also connected with Alexandria, where membership in the Museum bestowed substantial privileges (free meals and tax exemptions) and local honours. The book-collecting sender added a closing greeting, together with instructions on how to obtain copies of books he needed (middle right):

‘Make and send me copies of Books 6 and 7 of Hypsicrates’ book entitled People Mocked in Comedy. For Harpocration says that they are among Polion’s books. He also has epitomes in prose of Thersagoras’ works on the myths in Tragedy.’

The recipient or his agent added a response (lower right):

‘According to Harpocration, Demetrius the bookseller has got them ... Diodorus also has some which I haven’t got.’

Another Oxyrhynchus papyrus reveals Diodorus to have been a former civic official and member of the Museum at Alexandria. Harpocration is the author of an ancient lexicon of Attic orators which still survives. The main part of the letter was probably dictated by the sender, and is written in the hand of a secretary. The closing greeting and first postscript are penned in faster cursives, the latter more rounded.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XVIII no. 2192.

Ancient books had no spines. Instead, many of those from Oxyrhynchus and elsewhere came equipped with tags made of papyrus or parchment, called sillyboi which were glued or tied to the outside of the roll and allowed the book to be identified at a glance while still stored in a capsa (kibotos), a container for papyrus book-rolls.

About a half dozen such tags have been published, most of them from Oxyrhynchus. Cicero refers to them with the spelling sittybai in his letters to Atticus (Ad Att. iv 8.2, iv.5.4). The tags were attached to the back of the roll, hanging down, with the title on the tag facing outwards, as seen in a wall painting from Herculaneum.

Title tag: Tryphon, On the Dialect of the Laconians (second century AD)

sillybos or label bearing the name and title of a book by the grammarian Tryphon. He wrote numerous works on the Greek lyric poets. This book probably explained the language and words of poets like the seventh century lyric poet Alcman who wrote in that dialect.

On the Dialect of the Laconians by Tryphon, son of Ammonius, [the first book?] of two books.’

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XXIV no. 2396.

Title tag: Hermarchus, In Empedoclem IX (first or second century AD)

Sillybos or title tag for the ninth book of the treatise Against Empedocles by the third century BC philosopher Hermarchus, a pupil of Epicurus. Hermarchus’ original treatise extended to twenty-two books, according to a later biographer, Diogenes Laertius, who calls the work by the title Epistles concerning Empedocles. The sillybos shows that Cicero and a papyrus from Herculaneum give the correct title in the form Against Empedocles.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XLVII no. 3318.

Title tag: Commentary on Simonidea (second century AD)

Sillybos or title-tag for a commentary (hypomnema) on a book entitled simply Simonidea. The monogram abbreviation hyp(omnema) also appears in the next example, and in a title (probably also a sillybos) for a commentary on book 4 of the poet Alcman (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2392). E. Lobel thought that ‘Simonidea’ might be taken to mean various poems of Simonides. But the normal title for a commentary on these would be Hypomnema on Poems of Simonides (Simonidou melon hupomnema). R. Pfeiffer argued that the title was for a popular exposition of the collection of proverbs known as ‘Sayings of Simonides’.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XXV no. 2433.

Title tag: Commentary on Aristophanea (second century AD)

Sillybos or title-tag for a commentary (hypomnema) on a book entitled Aristophanea. Presumably these were points of interpretation or discussion on the plays of the fifth century Athenian comic dramatist Aristophanes (or alternatively on the work of the third century grammarian and scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium). In the first line, the last three letters of the author’s name can be read, perhaps [Aristarch]os ([Aristar]khou | Arist[o]phaneion). In the last line, the number six has been written (normally this would express a book number), followed by the monogram abbreviation hyp(omnema).

P.Oxy. inv. 5 1B.44/G(b).

Memorandum(?): Homer, Iliad 2 + month (third century AD)

A square slip of papyrus recording the title Iliad, Book II, followed by a date: the month Mekheir (February) and a number (zeta crossed out and corrected to eta?). Purpose unknown. Several sillyboi (Oxyrhynchus Papyri nos. 381 and 958) designate records (mnemonika) for business or administrative activities specified by month and year of an emperor’s reign. The papyrus slip might be thought to label a copy of Iliad 2 similarly written in the month Mecheir. But in comparison with extant sillyboi, the slip seems too wide to hang properly if attached to the end of the papyrus roll, and is thus more likely a reader’s note or reminder for reading or study.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XXXI no. 2605.

The schools of Oxyrhynchus, where locals were educated to speak and write classical Greek, are well represented in the papyri. This little book (possibly a miniature roll) contains the rudiments of Homeric mythology presented in a matter-of-fact tabular form for reference or memorising. The fragment on the left contains a list of the top nine Achaean heroes of the Iliad from Menelaus to Nestor. Answering questions about heroes was part of the job of the grammatikos or schoolmaster.

The fragment on the right contains a list of gods (indicated by the heading theon), descending in order of birth from Cronus to the generation of Zeus, Poseidon and Hera, and then through the children of Zeus, including a learned note on Athena who was conceived ‘when Zeus swallowed Metis (i.e. Wisdom)’.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. LXV no. 4460.

One of the oldest known manuscripts of the Institutiones of Gaius, this papyrus is among the many contributions of Oxyrhynchus to the texts of Roman Law. Written in a clear Roman cursive hand familiar from the second or third century AD, the text came complete with numeration in the upper margin designating the number of columns in the roll. The second column, according to this numeration, was the nineteenth of the roll. Thus column one of the roll began with the beginning of the fourth book. Each book will have occupied a separate roll. Note that the writing is set closer at the bottom of the first column: it contained four or five lines more than the next one.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XVII no. 2103.

A writing exercise in which a professional Latin scribe copied two lines of Virgil (Aeneid Book XI lines 371–2) an uncertain number of times. On the reverse a Greek register has been written, with the papyrus turned at ninety degrees. There is no kollesis or sheet-join in evidence. But presumably this was not a single sheet. Rather, it was cut between the sheet-joins of the documentary roll and reused for its blank back. The lines of Virgil have been written with thin strokes of ‘light writing’, in comparison for example with the heavier or ‘medium weight’ Latin writing of the elegiacs of Gallus from Qasr Ibrim.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. L no. 3554.

One of the ancient scribes of Oxyrhynchus in the process of demonstrating his talents. The same line is written in various styles. A fictitious pseudo-epic line is used for copying practice because it contains every letter of the alphabet. (Similar lines are discussed by Clement of Alexandria, Strom. V 8.46–9; see also D. Hagedorn, ZPE 2 (1968) 65–9, to whose examples may be added P.Köln IV no. 175). The first line is written in cramped, tall upright letters of the ‘chancery’ type. The second line is in a similar style, but larger. The third attempt is the same pseudo-epic line in large, round uncial letters, decorated with serifs, of a much more archaic type.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XXXI no. 2604.