Glorious and Most Glorious City of the Oxyrhinchites

Christopher Kelly

  • City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt by Peter Parsons
    Phoenix, 312 pp, £9.99, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 7538 2233 3

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 Cairo and ten miles west of the Nile. In concentrating on the ancient town of Oxyrhynchos (literally, ‘city of the sharp-nosed fish’), they were not aiming to uncover another set of impressive ruins that could rival those of Leptis Magna, Ephesus or Pompeii. Their interest lay in Oxyrhynchos garbage dumps, where the dry Egyptian climate had preserved thousands of scraps of papyrus mixed up with earth and other refuse.

Papyrus sheets were manufactured from thin strips cut from the reed-like stems. Under pressure, two layers of strips – the first laid vertically, the second horizontally – were welded together by the plant’s sticky pith. After drying, the papyrus sheet was smoothed with a stone or seashell. Individual sheets, roughly A4 in size, could be glued at the edges to form a roll, typically between 20 and 26 feet long.

In the rubbish tips of Oxyrhynchos discarded papyrus had accumulated in drifts up to 30 feet deep. In all, Grenfell and Hunt recovered more than half a million fragile fragments of ancient writing. Back in Oxford, each piece was flattened or unrolled, allotted an inventory number, placed between pages of the Oxford University Gazette and carefully stored in a tin box. In 1898, the long process of scholarly investigation began; in 2006, the 70th volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri was published; at least forty more are planned.

Most of the papyri salvaged from the city of the sharp-nosed fish were written between the second and fourth centuries AD. During this period, Egypt – like the fifty other provinces stretching from Hadrian’s Wall to the Euphrates – was firmly part of the Roman Empire. Until the excavation of Oxyrhynchos it was not possible to hear the concerns of the empire’s inhabitants. Here at last was evidence of the ordinary: the tattered remains of letters, draft contracts, census returns, official reports, horoscopes and school exercise books that had remained forgotten and unread for fifteen hundred years.

In City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, Peter Parsons sets out to capture the experience of life in an Egyptian town under the Roman Empire. His aim is to reconstitute Oxyrhynchos from its waste-paper, to evoke ‘a virtual landscape which we can repopulate with living and speaking people’. Parsons presents without scholarly fuss or unnecessary pedantry a detailed description of some of the economic, religious, educational, legal, financial, administrative and personal concerns which Oxyrhynchos’ inhabitants chose to commit to writing.

Peter Parsons’s affable prose masks the erudition that underpins his account. Plainly put, even to be able to read the material from Oxyrhynchos is a remarkable technical achievement. Most of the documents are written in Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean. (Latin, the language of imperial domination, was used only when official protocol demanded it.) The script, a kind of running-writing using capitals, often borders on an illegible scrawl. The more skilled the scribe, the more letters he could write without lifting his pen from the papyrus. There are no spaces between words, no punctuation and frequent abbreviation.

Worse still, most of the surviving documents are torn, pitted and worm-eaten. Abruptly, right in the middle of a word, the text may just break off. Modern science offers some help: the binocular microscope, infrared light, the digital scanner and multispectral imaging have all been used to sharpen abraded or worn ink. Even so, making sense of the straggling columns of blotched and broken symbols requires a sharp eye and a highly trained mind: ‘the eye looks for shapes, and the mind looks for sense, and the two in alliance will (all being well) turn a string of symbols into intelligible text.’

The number of scholars in the world who possess the philological and palaeographical expertise to decipher the Oxyrhynchus papyri is tiny: they could all sit comfortably in a minibus. For the last fifty years, Parsons has been one of the leaders of this recondite posse. Like all code-breakers, he is thrilled by the possibility of making sense of an apparently unreadable text. ‘There is always the excitement of the chase. Open a box of unpublished papyri, and you never know what you may find . . . Your new papyrus may offer you unknown Greek poetry; it may offer unique evidence for the inflation of donkey prices at the height of the Roman Empire.’

City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish is driven by Parsons’s own irrepressible pleasure in the discovery of the details of individual lives in second-century Oxyrhynchos. The city walls sheltered twenty thousand inhabitants living in less than a square mile. The detailed reports of the local council’s building inspectorate allow the town to be reconstructed: along one main street, Parsons finds ‘the surgery of Doctor Dioskoros, a stable, the school of the teacher Dionysios, the Temple of Fortune, the Temple of Achilles; a record office, a market, a town-crier’s stand, and the house of Thonis the girdle-maker’. The mayor seeks to excuse himself from office: ‘I am sick and coughing from my lungs.’ A schoolboy is forced to parse the kind of pointless sentence found only in grammar books: ‘Pythagoras the philosopher, having disembarked and teaching letters, advised his pupils to abstain from beans.’ A petulant teenager is determined to see the wonders of Egypt’s greatest city: ‘If you refuse to take me with you to Alexandria, I shall not write you a letter or speak to you . . . If you don’t send for me, I shan’t eat, I shan’t drink.’ Advice is given: ‘To keep bugs out of the house, mix goat bile with water and sprinkle it.’

Parsons’s chief concern is to present all this detail in an orderly fashion. There are chapters on ‘The River’, ‘Markets’, ‘Family and Friends’, ‘Poets and Pedants’, ‘Bureaucrats’ and so on. Each is broken down into sections (to cite one run of subtitles): ‘Daily Bread’, ‘Honey and Fish Sauce’, ‘Pots and Bricks’, ‘Apprentices’, ‘Banks: Cash and Corn’. Parsons rarely strays beyond this careful reshuffling of the papyri. There is ample illustration and a smattering of judicious comment, but he refrains from sustained discussion of such important themes as the cultural and ethnic complexities faced by Greek-speakers living in an Egyptian city under Roman rule, or the great religious shift from polytheism to Christianity, or the impact of the Roman Empire on the long-established kingdoms of the eastern Mediterranean. Nor is there much reflection on how the ruins of Oxyrhynchos might illuminate the wider economic or social history of the second to fourth century AD.

City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish is a book for those willing to be swept along by the sheer profusion of sometimes curious observations about a city in Roman Egypt and by the humane and often witty retelling of the triumphs and misfortunes of some of its inhabitants. Those in search of ‘something less anecdotal’ are advised from the outset to look elsewhere. Parsons does not offer a thought-provoking analytical reward as a pay-off to readers for patiently wading through page after page of descriptive material. His purpose, he writes, ‘is simply to illustrate some aspects of life in Oxyrhynchos . . . from the original documents’. But even such a seemingly self-explanatory enterprise has its difficulties.

There was no mass literacy in the ancient world: at a rough guess, around a fifth of the adult male population could read or write to some degree. The well-educated enjoyed poets such as Homer, and even attempted their own verses in imitation; highly-skilled craftsmen might not manage much more than their own names.

For those able to read and write with confidence, documents were not only conveyers of information, they were also eloquent witnesses to a superior social status. Letters of thanks, recommendation or congratulation regularly repeated a limited stock of conventional phrases. What mattered was not the banal content, but the very fact of their being sent, received and acknowledged. That exchange in itself set author and addressee apart as members of a privileged minority. Outsiders were exposed by their inability to do more than sign their names on documents (wills, contracts, leases) that were central to their livelihood. At the foot of otherwise competently drafted documents, their ‘tottery’ or ‘spindly’ signatures (the differences in handwriting are noted by Parsons) are the indelible marks of their inferiority. Beneath those who struggled to spell their names were the powerless, who could not read or write at all.

The focus of City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish is on the literate. This book (like the papyri on which it is so firmly based) has little time for the vast majority of slaves, peasant farmers or women. It shares much of the confidence of an elite for whom theirs was ‘the Glorious and Most Glorious City of the Oxyrhynchites’. Parsons reproduces much of their pride and many of their prejudices. He details their friendships, their living arrangements, their financial affairs, their personal ambitions and concerns, their dealings with government and their beliefs.

Not much disrupts this generally sunny image of urban life in Roman Egypt. There are only a few fleeting shadows. The long and wonderfully dense description of the city – its baths, public squares, theatre, shops, houses and temples – is rounded off by brief references to ‘the dunghills which build up in streets’, ‘the familiar smell of waste, animal and human’ (it could not have been phrased more delicately), and the refuse-tips on the outskirts. ‘There everything could be dumped, including unwanted (normally female) babies.’ On this startling fact, no further comment, only further detail. ‘Such babies can be picked up by anyone interested, who then owns them as slaves, or to sell on; wet nurses are hired to get them through the infant stage.’

The reader is moved hurriedly on: there are pleasanter subjects than baby recycling. A similar sphinx-like reticence marks Parsons’s brief references to the life expectancy of Oxyrhynchos’ inhabitants. A scattered handful of sentences note that this is ‘a society in which the average life expectancy at birth could be estimated at 22-25 years’. It might have been worth lingering a little longer, not least because some of the most valuable information on life expectancy in the Roman world comes from Egypt, where a census was taken every 14 years. Parsons offers a translation of a single census declaration. But it is the total number surviving that is important. The three hundred published examples from the first to the third century AD offer the possibility of sufficient data (frustratingly rare in ancient history) to allow tentative statistical analysis.

In this case it is the hard aggregate of information preserved on papyri that matters, not the patchwork of individual examples: one-third of all babies perished before their first birthday; half of all children died before they turned five; roughly one-third of the population was under 15; fewer than 10 per cent were over 55. High mortality rates placed severe reproductive pressure on women; the Egyptian census data show 60 per cent of women married by the age of 20. Death also separated the generations: up to one-third of children lost their fathers before reaching puberty; over half before the age of 25; the average ten-year-old had only a one in two chance of having any grandparents alive.

These patterns of mortality reveal an experience of life utterly foreign to modern Western societies. The contrasts are significant: surveying Oxyrhynchos now, one is immediately struck by the relative absence of old people, the pervasive presence of teenagers, the high incidence of orphaned children and, above all, the distressingly high number of dead babies. This was a society in which most people’s lives were likely to have run their course by their mid-forties – if they were fortunate enough to survive childhood. Such an expectation also carries with it a radically different sense of the passage of time, of the trajectory of an individual’s career and of what might reasonably be achieved or experienced in a generation.

City of Sharp-Nosed Fish offers a much less alien or depressing picture of everyday life in Oxyrhynchos. To be sure, the attentive will be able to find information on such subjects as brother-sister marriage, banditry, plague, illness, assault and famine. Here is the slave-boy Epaphroditos killed by a fall from a roof-terrace. Here a report from a Doctor Heron on a cavalry officer with a wounded left buttock. Here an anonymous sufferer from shivering-fits. Here a corpse found in a vineyard ‘stretched out by the palm tree and mutilated by dogs’. Here an extensive pharmacopoeia. Here a remedy for nosebleeds: ‘mix powdered frankincense with leek juice and smear the juice inside’.

But what one should make of such vignettes remains unclear. In each case, a fistful of fascinating examples is offered and then the text rolls inexorably on to illustrate the next topic. The few paragraphs devoted to the grim details of life’s unpleasantnesses are eclipsed by often much more extensive accounts of such matters as the clearing of the Nile flood dykes, the varying designs of rivercraft, the complexities of fishing leases, the different sorts of bread and cake available, the variety of tradesmen in the city, the floorplans of houses, or the difficulties of delivering a letter or learning to write.

It is this painstaking revelation of the frankly mundane that makes City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish such a memorable book. Parsons is at his best in his concern to establish with patient precision the facts of everyday life. The names of vessels on the Nile, their size and their origin by administrative region or nome, are carefully listed. (Homer would no doubt smile at this humbler catalogue of ships.) ‘The Ammon, from the Hypselite nome, 93 tons; the Apollo, from the Lykopolite, 78 tons; the Hermes, from the hamlet of Big Place, 81; the Dionysos, from the Upper Kynopolite, 99 . . . the Pythios, from the Lykopolite, the Oracle from the Leontopolite, the Ocean from the Prosopite, and many more’.

Scholarly order is imposed on a similarly bewildering variety of mud bricks, pots, pickles, preserves and cakes: ‘the standard flat cake (plakous), cakes with honey and nuts chopped up (koptai), crumbly cakes with honey and sesame (itria)’. Parsons slowly, meticulously explains the process of Egyptian baking in klibanoi, terracotta shells roughly equivalent to the modern baking cloche. ‘You place your dough on a clean, hot surface in the fire, cover it with the klibanos, and sweep the hot ashes around it.’ A similar method could apparently be observed quite recently in Yugoslavia. ‘If this is a fair guide, an Oxyrhynchite bakery with three ovens could have produced six loaves an hour.’

And so, learnedly, entertainingly, enthusiastically and inexhaustibly on. In the end, the sheer weight of anecdotage remains firmly weighted towards the more agreeable parts of the ancient world. Yet there is a good case for thinking that everyday life in Roman Egypt was much nastier and more brutish than the steady accumulation of illustration in City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish suggests. Oxyrhynchos’ literate elite can perhaps be forgiven for not writing at greater length about slaves and peasant farmers, or for not committing to papyrus frequently or emphatically enough their anxieties about disease, famine, plague or imminent death. Maybe they should have done more than neatly fill out their census returns? ‘Simply to illustrate some aspects of life in Oxyrhynchos . . . from the original documents’ is not an obvious or straightforward undertaking. Documents (no matter how extensive the archive) rarely offer a transparent or uncomplicated guide to everyday life. Between experience as lived and experience as written down we should always be careful to mind the gap.