Friday, November 28, 2014


W. B. Henry, P. J. Parsons (ed.), The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Volume LXXIX, [N° 5183-5218]. Graeco-Roman memoirs, 100. London: Egypt exploration society, 2014. Pp. x, 220; 8 p. of plates. ISBN 9780856982194. $170.00.

Reviewed by William J. Slater, McMaster University (

Version at BMCR home site

Over 20 scholars have participated in this edition and there is a valuable appendix : "Games competitors and performers in Roman Egypt" by S. Remijsen pp. 190-206. This is a useful idea, because a good portion of the papyri presented here were the subject of a meeting and seminar at the British Academy in June 2012, which focused on papyri that were relevant to games and performances. (This reviewer was present.) Some of the papyri here are of extraordinary interest far beyond the world of sport and festival in antiquity, and will be highlighted.

There are 25 papyri, a few previous published: 12 new literary texts; 6 known texts; 5 subliterary fragments; and 13 documentary papyri. The literary fragments are small and attributed to Euripides (dubiously?), old and new comedy, mime, hexameters, and lyric, and the commentary explores in great depth the possibilities. Notable (pp.20, 27) is the expected alphabetic denomination of characters in mime, with another example of a seventh character. The mime 5188 is verse but written in prose, but 5189 is prose, mixes vulgarities and tragic references, and appears to include stage directions in the text, which makes the editor suggest that this "knock-about comedy" was all meant to be fleshed out in performance. These fragments are more than usually full of desperate interpretative puzzles. Interesting is 5187, yet another example of the Maiden's Lament type of lyrical singing as dramatic monologue, which can be construed as a form of mime, deriving from Euripidean monodies. There follow 5192, prose scraps with references to games and contests, and 5193, a history of antique games containing the remarkable accusation that in the time of Periander τὸ δεινόν spread from the Isthmian games to the others, and that this dreadful innovation concerned ἱερονῖκαι. As the commentator say (p.76), the tone suggests rhetorical argument. 5194, "encomium of the Logos" has been previously published, and is likely a progymnasma of a student.

The known texts include Aristophanes, Plut. 881-97; Menander, Misoumenos 123-54 Sand. with some new details; and the scrap of lines 352-65. Subliterary texts begin with remarkable scholia on Pindar Olympian 1, originally prepared by W.S. Barrett, here completed by D. Obbink, dating to either first century BC or AD. Its importance lies not in what we learn about Pindar, since it is "elementary and perfunctory" and overlaps with the mediaeval scholia, but for the mode of its comment. It writes out practically the complete text in successive lemmata, and then translates them into simple language. Barrett / Obbink call this a paraphrase, which is not an ancient term. There are, it seems to me, two important deductions. The first is that one could reconstruct easily the text of an ancient author from such independent books of scholia, which could therefore be used without (and which might well not be accompanied by) any text of the classical author. This is in my view how the commentaries of Aristarchus and his fellows were best known to later scholars. Secondly, of the several words used to convey the notion of our "paraphrase", the most illuminating is ἐξήγησις: to translate is to explain, and this was a principal method of ancient scholars. 5201 may be an ancient Loeb text, but it was mainstream scholarship as well.

The jewel of this collection is 5202, called "a copy of an honorific inscription for the poetic victor Apion", well treated by A. Benaissa. This is indeed the same Apion, who was the victim of an entire book of abuse by Josephus, and who is now best known for the dreary scholarly remarks preserved in the Homeric Lexicon of Apollonius Sophistes. As is obvious now, Apion was not just a grammarian, but a famous poet and tragedian, much decorated in the great festivals (Olympia, Pythia, Isthmia) and much honoured with statues and other paraphernalia in Rome, Sicily and his homeland Egypt. He was a principal representative of international Greek culture. Benaissa I think rightly argues for Alexandria as his hometown; Josephus said he came from an oasis, but we should long ago have learned to distrust Josephus, and now we have proof of his mendacity. The form of this C.V. eulogy is familiar from inscriptions, and there is even an addition such as we find in inscriptions too. We can now see that similar eulogies circulated in papyri, and therefore in posters. There is much extraordinary detail here: he is praised as the first poet to formally return to his homeland in a four-horse chariot and to be honoured with the gold crown of the periodonikes. He anticipates Nero, but is Nero imitating Apion? The athletic union at Rome (Claudian?) honours him, as does the Dionysiac technitae in Syracuse. I allow myself one query. In the midst of the details of his festival triumphs, we read (l.5-6) καὶ ἐπὶ Σεβαστὸν | παραγε[ν]όμ[ενο]ν ἀγῶνα, which Benaissa reasonably takes to be the Sebasta Italika of Naples. The last two words are both doubtful, and the objections are in the commentary: the Sebasta are never called by this name, though a σεβαστὸς ἀγών appears elsewhere, and "appearing at a contest" is not a victory or honour of any kind. I am certain that the text is a mistake, but can offer no easy correction, though I surmise that the original idea was that he had been an ambassador to the emperor. 5203 is the well known list of the songs of Epagathos the choraules taken from six plays, published by W. Cockle in 1975 and thus is in TrGF V.2 (Kannicht) as DID B 15a. 5204 is another set of "instructions for pankration" addressed in the imperative alternately to two athletes like POxy 466. W. Henry prefers to take these seriously, but cites without discussion S. Remijsen for the opinion that they were directions for an exhibition fight, which I think comes closer to the truth. My own view is that they are librettos for gymnasium skiamachia, and were accompanied by music. But proof is impossible. 5205 is a defixio for a chariot race, the first on papyrus.

The documentary texts are of considerable interest to historians. 5207 are receipts for the great Olympic pankratist M.A. Plutarchos known from Philostratos. 5208 belongs to the well familiar verbiage laden petitions for membership in the union of the Dionysiac Artists, but this application is from a chief priestess, yet another example of a non-performer seeking the privileges of performers. Undoubtedly the document that will achieve greatest notoriety in the world at large is the "contract to lose a wrestling match" attested in 5209. The representatives of two boys contract legally for the outcome of a wrestling match for 3800 dr., the same price as that of a donkey. Match-fixing is well attested in athletics, but we were unaware that it could be the subject of a legal contract. 5210 is the subject of a fine commentary by D. Rathbone and F. Maltomini. An appeal for freedom from civilia munera dated to 298/9 AD is made on the grounds of being a genuine sacred victor and older than 60 years. This shows that Diocletian had introduced his legislation against the abuses of festival awards before this date, and so we can now delimit this imperial assault on union excess probably earlier in the period 293-298 AD. 5215-18 are brief circus programmes with a useful discussion of the other known programmes of this sort. I wonder if the "vokalioi" who appear several times cannot always be choral claqueurs, as they are later certainly in Byzantium, and so equivalent to modern cheerleaders, one possibility raised by Mountford on 5215,9.

The appendix by S. Remijsen giving a history of imperial Egyptian festivals and their operation will be of great value to those seeking a context for these documents, since it collects in convenient form material not readily available to the non-specialist. There are good indices and detailed plates. As is to be expected of this series, the proofreading and editing of such difficult material is exemplary. Perhaps the commentary on such fragments is bound to be more generous and speculative than would be normal, but on the other hand the parallel material laboriously compiled is often a valuable resource in itself, and judgement is always fair and balanced. It is a pleasure to see more than twenty international scholars working together in the resolution of the problems posed by such new fragments. One could wish this example to be followed in other disciplines. Much of the credit must go to the generosity and good sense of that elder statesman of papyrology, Professor Peter Parsons.

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