Making a Pigsty

Emily Wilson

Reports have been circulating in the press of a discovery at Olympia of 13 lines from very early in Book 14 of the Odyssey, inscribed on a clay tablet. These reports all seem to be based on an announcement by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports; various muddles in the English press reporting, such as calling Book 14 a ‘rhapsody’, can probably be blamed on Google Translate. The report also claims that the clay tablet, which the archaeologists are said to have provisionally dated to Roman times, ‘probably before the third century AD’, is ‘extraordinarily unique’ (πέραν της μοναδικότητάς), because it ‘may perhaps preserve the oldest known extract of the Homeric epic’. Hordes of newspapers have repeated the claim.

There are plenty of papyri of parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey that are far older than the third century AD, however, including the first ever discovered, a piece of papyrus housed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which dates to the first half of the third century BCE. There are even earlier bits of Homer on other materials, such as a line from Odyssey 9 on a potsherd found in ancient Olbia (in modern Ukraine), dating to the fifth century BCE.

The claims made in some quarters that the new discovery may change the reading of the text are also way off base. The poems of Homer, composed perhaps in the seventh century BCE, are based on a long oral tradition developed over the preceding centuries. But they then came into existence as written texts; rhapsodes, the oral performers who recited passages from Homer in the classical period, made use of texts, like modern actors working from a script. There’s disagreement about the extent to which the poems of Homer continued to be altered after their initial composition. Hellenistic scholars in Ptolemaic Alexandria in the third century BCE seem to have known of some textual variations. But after this period, the text of Homer was probably no more in flux than any other. Unsurprisingly, the lines inscribed on the tablet, which dates from around 500 years after the work of the great Homeric scholar Aristarchus of Samothrace, have no interesting textual variants from our received texts of Homer.

A German report on the find (in Griechenland Zeitung) includes a crucial phrase apparently omitted from most other reporting, including the Greek Ministry statement: it says that the tablet may be the earliest extract from the Odyssey to have been found in Greece (‘in Griechenland’). I have been told by colleagues that the archaeologists at Olympia have been surprised by the press coverage, and are planning to put out a statement correcting some of the misinformation and clarifying what they know about the find.

It’s a shame that so many people should assume that antiquity is interesting only if it is as ancient as possible. (And you’d have thought that journalists would by now have realised that government statements may not be the most reliable guides to the truth.) Regardless of its age, the find remains interesting, since it raises questions about the reception of Homer in Olympia in the third century AD: in particular, why this particular passage was inscribed on the tablet.

The Reuters report – reproduced more or less verbatim by the BBC, among others – claims that the passage, ‘from the Odyssey's 14th Rhapsody’, is one in which Odysseus ‘addresses his lifelong friend Eumaeus’. But Odysseus is not speaking in this passage; he hasn't yet encountered Eumaeus; and Eumaeus is not his ‘friend’. He is, unambiguously, a slave, who describes (in Book 15 of the Odyssey) how he was taken from his home as a child, trafficked into slavery, and sold to Odysseus' father, Laertes.

The passage on the clay tablet has nothing to do with friendship. It is, rather, an account of how Eumaeus, whose job is to take care of the pigs, constructed his own yard and a neatly arranged set of pigsties, during the twenty years that Odysseus was away from home, with no help from his owners. Part of the passage on the tablet reads (in my translation):

His yard was high and visible for miles,
of fieldstones topped with twigs of thorny pear.
He built it in the absence of his master,
with no help from Laertes or the mistress.
Around the yard, he set a ring of stakes,
of wood with bark stripped off. Inside the yard,
he made twelve sties all next to one another,

The poem continues:

for breeding sows, with fifty in each one.
The boars slept outside; there were fewer of them,
because the suitors kept on eating them.

It would be interesting to know if the writer of the tablet had any particular reason for focusing on this specific passage of the poem, which is not an obvious choice as a quotation. I am told, by colleagues better at epigraphy than I am, that the handwriting is not attractive and the layout of the lines on the tablet is clumsy – which makes it unlikely that the lines were written by a mason or other construction worker, planning out a more permanent inscription in bronze or marble.

So why this passage in particular? Were there pigsties or other animal enclosures near the sanctuary at Olympia at that time? The archaeologists will probably be able to answer that question, though it would be odd to plan a monumental epic inscription to celebrate a pigsty. Or – a theory less easy to either prove or disprove – could the writer have been a Greek-speaker who found analogies between her or his own experience under Roman imperial power, and that of Eumaeus, establishing his own little outpost within an estate owned by Odysseus and Laertes? Or was the writing just an exercise, by a student working on handwriting or literacy, or a Roman practising Greek? Was the clay tablet fired by accident, and never meant to last more than a few moments?

The bright side to this inaccurately reported story is that it reveals a hunger among the general public for news about the ancient world. With many exciting new discoveries, such as the new poem by Sappho discovered only in 2004, and with the new application of digital imaging to make legible faint or obscured marks on papyrus that spent centuries in the trash, these are boom times for the study of very old records of even older texts. Maybe this fake news story will inspire more people to investigate the ancient world for themselves, and also to realise that the stories told about the Odyssey are – like the poem's wily, scheming, deceitful protagonist himself – not always to be taken at face value.


  • 15 July 2018 at 6:06am
    John Cowan says:
    What about the idea that it's a dictée? Being the work of a student scribe would account for the messy handwriting, though then the particulars of the text wouldn't actually tell us anything except what some master scribe could recite either from memory or from another tablet.

  • 16 July 2018 at 10:39am
    AndrewL says:
    This is a salutary lesson (if one were needed) that journalists often publish articles on subjects they don't know very much about. Science, literature, ... history, economics, politics...

    One does not need to reach for "fake news" to complain about so-called "churnalism" and poor fact checking.

  • 17 July 2018 at 3:57pm
    SandyTB says:
    I know it's a trivial point, but is there no chance you could make up your mind whether you're going to be BCE/CE (in which case I get the heads up that I'm going to be irritated by academic pedantry) or BC/AD which is a unit system (with no religious connotations) used and understood by the rest of humanity?

  • 19 July 2018 at 5:50am
    manchegauche says:
    To my shame I know next to nothing about Homer...but the quoted passage (even in translation) is quite beautiful...'feildstones topped with twigs of thorny pear' apart from being - what - linguistically/poetically fantastic crystalizes a picture of a hot sandy yet fertile place and the last line is surely written or said in bitterness and made me laugh.