Peter Parsons

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 they prefer Euripides to Sophocles? Why did they throw away so many copies of Homer? The last question invites a reflective answer. The Greeks had their classic texts, which are still among our own ‘classics’: how they reacted to them over time says something particular about the uses of literacy.

The classical canon began forming in classical times. An Athenian comedy of the fourth century bc imagines Heracles (a hero of more muscle than mind) in his schooldays. His tutor Linus takes him to the library, and allows him to pick a book. Heracles looks over the stock: he bypasses Homer and Hesiod and tragedy – and chooses The Art of Cookery. Two millennia on, we can still read Homer and Hesiod and a selection of tragedies, because these authors remained set books in schools, and as set books they were copied and recopied through the Middle Ages. But the cookbooks disappeared for ever, along with a mass of lighter literature: the gossipy memoirs of Ion of Chios, the classic pornography of Philaenis, the gastronomic Odyssey of Archestratus, who ‘travelled the world to gratify his stomach and appetites even lower’.

By the time of Alexander the Great the canon had more or less solidified, the bedrock of what was then, and would remain, ‘a classical education’. With Alexander’s conquests Greek emigrants gained possession of the whole Near East. The new kingdom of Egypt and the new Seleucid empire attracted a steady flow of savants and mercenaries, carpetbaggers and younger sons, and where they went, the classics went with them, the badge of the true Hellene. These colonial regimes, ruling from Alexandria and Babylon, lasted three centuries before they fell, piece by piece, into the hands of Rome. Kings gave way to emperors, but the classics retained their throne. In the East, already colonised from Greece, and the West, opened up by Rome, Greek education shows an astonishing universality. Schoolboys copy the same line of Euripides in Egyptian Thebes and Armenian Artaxata; they perform the same grammatical exercise at Cologne as at Memphis.

In the Roman province of Egypt we can follow the classics on and in the ground: the dry climate has preserved a sample of them, in original papyrus copies, under the sand. Here and there ruined houses yield a scatter of books and documents. At Oxyrhynchus, the ruined city provides papyri in bulk: its lunar landscape shows hardly a stone standing, but the ancient rubbish dumps that surround it represent eight centuries’ worth of salvage, 500,000 pieces and scraps of written material. One in every ten fragments comes from a book, and those books include not only what we call the classics, as private reading or as set books for schools, but a range of leisure reading.

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