Peter Parsons

Peter Parsons is a serial papyrologist and author of City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, about Greek lives in Roman Egypt.

Diary: Rooting around Oxyrhyncus

Peter Parsons, 4 June 2015

I shall call​ my memoirs ‘Fifty Years a Bag Lady’. That is what papyrologists do: they pick over the written rubbish of antiquity for items of interest. You can learn a lot about your neighbours from their dustbins, and the dustbins of the ancient Greeks bring out all my curiosities. What did the Greeks do about garlic breath? What names did they give their cows? Why did...

Eels Tomorrow, but Sprats Today

Peter Parsons, 18 September 1997

‘He made money by selling his country; he went around spending it on prostitutes and fish.’ So Demosthenes vilified a political opponent, as publicly corrupt and privately depraved. James Davidson’s concern is with those ancient appetites: food, drink and sex in classical Athens. At one level, he provides a guided tour from bordello to Billingsgate; at another, an essay on the politics of consumption.

How do Babylonians boil eggs?

Peter Parsons, 18 April 1996

The Greeks themselves had no word for their last and most lasting literary invention. ‘Extended prose fiction’ would describe it; ‘novel’ or ‘romance’ would characterise it. Modern critics used to opt for ‘romance’, with its implication of purple sentiment out in the Mills-and-Boondocks of literature. Nowadays, we hear more about the Greek Novel, with all that implies for a place in the Great Tradition.

Writing it down

Peter Parsons, 31 August 1989

‘Orality’ and ‘literacy’ loom large but fuzzy in analyses of Greek culture. The Homeric poems show stylistic features typical of oral composition: but would the large-scale design of the Iliad have been possible without writing? Plato’s arguments show the picturesque plausibilities of conversation: could Aristotle have invented logic without writing? Writing disseminates information and encourages argument: oral society is a society of rote-learning. The Athenians themselves agreed that written law is central to democracy: for unwritten law is the property of the oligarchs who know it. Chronology alone shows that this was no unitary revolution. But as a key to all locks it appeals as much to anthropologists as to liberal humanists, who cannot believe in high culture without high literacy. On the historical side, much scholarly energy has gone into determining the level of literacy – a futile business, since we have nothing but a sprinkling of casual facts, which prove nothing unless they are typical and their society static. Rosalind Thomas’s rich and invigorating book takes a more concrete and profitable stance. The real question is not how many were literate, but literate in what, and for what? The uses of literacy do not determine social attitudes, but depend on them.’

Learned Pursuits

Peter Parsons, 30 March 1989

The scene is set in Athens, a mid-December in the mid-second century AD. A group of Roman students meet to celebrate the Saturnalia with dinner and conversation. The host sets a quiz: each man gets a problem – a rare word, a doubtful tense-form, a logical teaser, an antiquarian practice, a debated passage of Plato or some ‘charmingly obscure’ verses from an archaic poet. A knowledgeable answer wins two prizes – a laurel wreath, and a volume of the Classics. Thus Polite Learning joins hands with Whole-some Mirth. In the background of this edifying picture reclines our narrator, the lawyer and littérateur Aulus Gellius.’

Between 1896 and 1907, the Oxford Egyptologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt spent six seasons digging the low, sandy mounds surrounding the village of el-Behnesa, a hundred miles south of...

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