City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish

April 17, 2008

Oxyrhynchus, the city dedicated to the eponymous fish of Peter Parsons' book, is in some ways the Tutankhamun's tomb of papyrology. It was quite an ordinary place, but it happens to have preserved treasures beyond expectation. Here, the treasures are texts written on papyrus, mainly in Greek and from the period of Roman rule over Egypt. They had outlived their purposes, and were dumped in the ancient equivalent of landfill.

Other Egyptian sites rich in papyri are known, mainly from the oasis of the Fayyum, but Oxyrhynchus is by far the most informative. Its documents have been studied ever since the first discoveries in 1897, but so far there has been no general survey of their contents. In City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish this need is met in full, and by a master who has spent a lifetime publishing this wealth of material.

All the concerns of Roman Egypt are here, pagan and Christian. Will the Nile rise properly this year, and are the defences secure? Will a poor academic, a professor of rhetoric, receive the additional income that will enable him to live? Shall we keep the contract for maintaining the bathhouse, and what about our slave girl who was knocked down by a donkey driver while on the way to singing lessons? What does my horoscope have to say, and is it better to avoid mention of the pseudo-emperor Geta now that he has been murdered by his brother?

The inhabitants of Oxyrhynchus read Homer, of course, but also the poems of Sappho and a lament for a childhood friend by her fellow poet Erinna, which would otherwise have been lost. Some of them were not above turning to the raunchy adventures of Iolaos the bogus eunuch, not to mention a work of pornography entitled Indecent Kisses. But others were Stoics, and here too treasures have survived amid the mounds of rubbish.

From time to time, minor slips afford an Egyptologist's eyebrow no choice but to twitch: the Greeks did not introduce the vine into Egypt, for example, as the contents of Tutankhamun's tomb show. The excavator Edouard Naville was Swiss, not French, and Colonel Vyse at the pyramids in 1836 used gunpowder, not dynamite. But the eyebrow of an Egyptologist carries no firepower, and the elegance and range of this book reduce quibbles to their proper place.

From time to time, the modesty of the author has led him to insert parentheses to qualify his text. These may well have been suggested by readers, but they can break the flow of a sentence. On occasion, first thoughts can be best.

Literary sources survive from the Classical world because someone chose to copy them, but the mounds of Oxyrhynchus have given us texts, ephemeral perhaps, but ones that have not been censored by fashion or later bias. The modern editor is the first person to read them since they were discarded.

As Parsons puts it, from Oxyrhynchus we have "a huge random mailbag of letters to and from small people whose names have not otherwise entered history. We possess no portraits of Akulas or Serenos or Didyme or Apollonios and Sarapias. Even their gravestones have vanished. Yet through their letters we still hear them speak".

So we do, and in these pages we find their verbal portraits. A lesser writer would have analysed the texts into something resembling lifelessness, but this one knows when to comment on background and when to let a text occupy centre stage.

Here is a book of profound scholarship, carried lightly and slightly ironically, and it is, in its way, a definition of what it is to be humane.

City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish

By Peter Parsons
Phoenix
258pp
£9.99
ISBN 9780753822333

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