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Ancient Fragments

Ancient Fragments

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Oxyrhynchus lies about 100 miles southwest of Cairo, beneath the modern village of el-Bahnasa.

Who's ever heard of Oxyrhynchus? You're forgiven if you haven't, because this ancient city still lies buried beneath Egypt's desert sands. Yet scholars actually know heaps about this once-thriving cultural oasis, which during the Greek and Roman occupations (332 B.C. - A.D. 641) became the third-largest city in Egypt. How do they know so much? Because of the city's garbage dumps, specifically the thousands of fragments of ancient writing on papyrus that were preserved there until British archeologists dug them up in the late 19th century. Here, see a selection of papyrus writings that have revealed a city and a time.—Rima Chaddha

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The Gospel of Thomas (3rd century)
"Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you. For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed."—Jesus Christ, 5th saying

With a stroke of beginners' luck, one of the British team's earliest finds in Oxyrhynchus was also one of its most important. The men stumbled upon fragments of logia, or sayings of Jesus Christ, which until their discovery had been lost for nearly two millennia. The publication and sale of these lost sayings allowed the team to generate funding for additional excavations at Oxyrhynchus.




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Adventures of Heracles (3rd century)
"[Heracles] built up the one entrance and came in upon the beast through the other, and putting his arm round its neck held it tight till he had choked it...."—Apollodorus, The Library, Book II

While it might look like part of an ancient comic strip, this colored drawing comes from what was likely a schoolboy's reading assignment. The fragment and its accompanying text illustrate the first of the 12 famous labors plaguing the demigod Heracles: slaying the supposedly unconquerable Nemean Lion and bringing back its skin.




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"The Tracking Satyrs" (c. 2nd century)
"What kind of a way to hunt is that, bent over and leaning down to the ground? ... You're lying there like a hedgehog fallen on the ground, or an ape sticking his head forward and having a temper tantrum.... Where on earth did you learn this, and how?"—Silenus to one of his satyr children, Ichneutae

This snippet of a once-lost comedic satyr play turned heads when scholars translated it in the early 20th century. The author, it turns out, was famed Greek tragedian Sophocles, who until a century ago had a reputation among classicists for being too serious to venture into this genre of light-hearted humor.




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Lost poetry of Sappho (3rd century)
"My heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me /.... This state I oft bemoan; but what's to do? / Not to grow old, being human, there's no way."—Sappho, Book IV

Famous for her ability to capture human emotion, Greek lyric poetess Sappho published nine volumes of poetry in her lifetime, all of which were lost until excavators discovered a few fragments among the Oxyrhynchus papyri. Until the find, Sappho's influential works were known only through brief quotations used by later authors.




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How to flatter a woman (2nd century)
"To an ugly woman, say that she is `fascinating,' and to a middle-aged one, that she is a `wild pigeon.'"—Philaenis of Samos, The Art of Love

When magical spells or advice from the local oracle failed to do the trick, the upper-class citizens of Roman Oxyrhynchus could always improve their romantic luck through handbooks like this one. Regarded as an authoritative guide to passion in the ancient world—complete with advice on aphrodisiacs and sexual positions—this is one of the few technical works of the time believed to have been written by a woman.




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Letter to a priestess (after A.D. 217)
"You will do well to go ... to the temple of Demeter to perform the usual sacrifices on behalf of our lords and emperors and their victory and the rise of the Nile and the increase of the crops and the healthy balance of the climate."—Marcus Aurelius Apollonius, priest

This brief letter from a priest to a priestess provides a revealing look at the multiculturalism of Greco-Roman Egypt. The temple and its deity Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, are Greek; the "lords and emperors and their victory" are Roman; and the sacrifice for the annual flooding of the Nile is a decidedly Egyptian need.




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Acknowledgment of indebtedness (A.D. 223-224)
"If I fail to repay as is set down in this bond I will pay you interest at 50 percent, you retaining the right of execution on me and my possessions of any and every sort."—Aurelius Papontos

Like most of the citizens of Oxyrhynchus, this man was illiterate and had to hire a scribe to write this legal agreement. The employment of scribes had a major influence upon the tone of all personal documents in Oxyrhynchus, even private letters, which tended to be very formal and impersonal.




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Against philosophers (2nd/3rd century)
"...[W]hat could be whiter than silver? Yet still Thrasyalces says that silver is black. So, when even the whiteness of silver is on the doubtful side, what wonder that men differ when they consult about peace and war, about alliance and revenue and expenditure and things like that?"—Anonymous

Probably the work of a philistine or a rival philosopher, this fragment further illustrates the assimilation of Greek life into ancient Oxyrhynchus as well as its prevalence through the Roman-Egyptian period. The writer goes on to say that madmen locked in a house would behave more peaceably than a group of philosophers confined in their place.




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Items for a sacrifice (c. 4th century)
"Hens, 4; piglet, 1; eggs, 8; cones, 8; jars of wine, 2; honey, milk, olive oil, oil of sesame, a small measure of each; flower garlands, 8."—A list of items for a sacrifice

Addressed to a beneficiarius (a Roman soldier on special assignment), this list is typical of the items used in religious sacrifice. Written in the Egyptian month of Hathyr, which corresponds largely to our modern November, these items were probably requested in relation to an important winter festival.




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Oath to care for the trees (A.D. 323)
"We agree, swearing the august divine oath by our lords the unconquered kings, that we shall take every care of and do every service to and regularly irrigate the persea tree ... for it is to propagate and to grow always."—A sworn declaration from a group of men to Roman-Egyptian magistrate Dioscourides

Despite being employed under Roman administration in the fourth century, Oxyrhynchus officials continued the ancient Greek practice of commissioning contractors to plant and care for trees, generally in the city streets. Religiously, the persea was considered the "tree of life."




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A Latin will (2nd century)
"[M]y sons and Claudia Techosis ... mother of my children, shall be my only heirs to all my property in equal shares"—The last will and testament of C. Iulius Diogenes

Even as the Romans came to power in Egypt in 30 B.C., most Oxyrhynchus documents, whether official, religious, literary, or private, were still written in Greek. But the use of Latin is not the only thing that makes this will stand out. Few papyrus fragments of Roman wills exist today because most wills were engraved on wax tablets; in fact, this document is likely a copy of an official wax will.





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