In the autumn of 2001, students of Classical antiquity got their first detailed look at over six hundred new lines of Greek poetry from the third century BCE, preserved in a papyrus that had been used as wrapping for a mummy. In all, the papyrus contains about 112 brief poems or epigrams (more on this term below), only two of which were known previously. Many believe that Posidippus of Pella, a famous poet of the third century, is the author of the whole collection, because the two previously known poems are elsewhere attributed to him. This idea remains controversial, since the papyrus itself contains no indications of authorship.
The publication of these poems represents the largest addition to the corpus of Greek literature in years, and scholars have understandably been quick to take up the task of interpretation: to date, several conferences and a slew of articles have been devoted to the papyrus, and two or three books are on the way. Perhaps more surprisingly, the papyrus even made the news. The New York Times, National Geographic, and The Chronicle of Higher Education all ran pieces about the new discovery, a testament to the wide audience that this fascinating text is already enjoying.
In an effort to make the papyrus accessible to as broad a range of people as possible, and in keeping with the aims of the Classics@ website, what follows is a brief introduction, written for the non-expert, to some of the most important aspects of this new collection of poems. The discussion falls into three parts. First, an overview of how the papyrus came to be produced in Egypt and included in a mummy’s wrappings, and how it made its way into the scholarly world in the past decade. The second part treats the Macedonian poet Posidippus of Pella, both his career and what is at stake in claiming his authorship for all the epigrams. The third part fills in the literary context of the third century BCE and offers a taste of the many different aspects of the ancient world — literary, social, political — that the poems of the papyrus can illuminate.
The Journey of a Third-century Poetry Collection
Why should Greek poetry be bound up with an Egyptian mummy? To understand this, a bit of historical background is necessary. Alexander the Great of Macedon captured Egypt in 332/1 BCE, one of the earlier actions in his expedition of conquest that would take him as far as India. While in Egypt, he founded the eponymous city of Alexandria, and after his death this city became the capital of the Egyptian kingdom and seat of power for the Ptolemies, the Macedonian kings who ruled Egypt until the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE. The Ptolemies fostered the development of Greek literature by founding the famous Library and Museum at Alexandria, where scholars and poets from all parts of the Greek world congregated to engage in writing and research.
Greek poetry was consequently flourishing in Egypt during the third century BCE, and the preferred medium for transmitting texts at this time was the papyrus scroll. Our scroll with its 112 epigrams was probably written towards the end of the third century. Its lettering is small and cramped, and the papyrus not of particularly high quality — clearly, the scroll was not intended as a deluxe edition. Probably its original owners were content with a utilitarian copy of the poems it contained.
The next stage of our scroll’s story is, paradoxically, crucial for its survival: it gets thrown out and used as scrap. After being mummified, corpses in Egypt were wrapped in strips of linen or papyrus, and discarded papyrus sheets could be recycled as part of a body’s wrappings. Our scroll wound up over the chest of one such mummy, and this accounts for its preservation, in remarkably good condition, to the present day.
The mummy itself dates to the second century BCE, but we know few details about it, since tomb raiders were the ones who found it and its present location is unknown. The papyrus was brought into Europe, where it appeared on the antiquities market in the 1990s and was purchased by an Italian bank representing the University of Milan. Now christened the “Milan papyrus,” it was published in 2001 in an elaborate edition prepared by G. Bastianini and C. Gallazzi in collaboration with C. Austin. In the next year, Austin and Bastianini put out a second, comprehensive edition containing the epigrams of the papyrus as well as all other poetry attributed to Posidippus, with facing translations in Italian and English.
Posidippus of Pella, Epigrammatist
The second edition of the Milan papyrus states on its title page that it contains “all the surviving works of Posidippus,” a claim that immediately raises questions about who actually composed the epigrams preserved on our papyrus. Before turning to that issue, let us discuss Posidippus himself.
Even before the papyrus appeared, enough poetry survived from Posidippus for us to know a fair amount of detail about his life. He was a native of Pella, a city in Macedonia, but his literary activities brought him to Egypt and the cultural center of Alexandria. There he wrote poetry for the Ptolemies, praising among other things the huge lighthouse that they had constructed off the coast of Alexandria on the island of Pharos–one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Yet Posidippus’ fame was not confined to Egypt. An inscription from Thermum, a city of central Greece, honors him as Posidippus epigrammatopoios, literally “epigram-maker.” This inscription shows the kind of prestige that could attend successful poetic activity in the third century. It also indicates that Posidippus was known particularly as a writer of epigram — precisely the sort of poetry we find on the Milan papyrus. The inscription dates to 263/2 BCE; this and other pieces of evidence allow us to infer that Posidippus was active during the mid-third century, about when our papyrus was written.
As already mentioned above, only two poems from the Milan papyrus were known previously. Both of them had been preserved by Byzantine scholars, and both were attributed explicitly to Posidippus of Pella. Because the papyrus does not give us the name of an author, many have assumed that all of its poems are by Posidippus on the strength of these two attributions. The assumption is a reasonable one: since the papyrus does not assign its individual poems to specific authors, it seems likely that all the poems are by the same author, and then Posidippus is a good candidate.
If Posidippus did write the poems of the Milan papyrus, we would know considerably more about his literary career. Most of his other poetry concerns themes of drinking and love. The new epigrams, by contrast, are closely engaged with the court of the Ptolemies and show a wide range of other interests, from gemstones to lore about divination by birds. Not all scholars are convinced that Posidippus is author of the whole collection, however, and the debate on this issue is likely to continue.
It is important to keep the authorship question in perspective. Whether by Posidippus or not, the new poems are a window into the culture and tastes of the third century BCE, and we can also examine how the papyrus puts together sequences of pieces with related or contrasting themes, enriching the meaning of individual epigrams. To a certain extent, the issue of authorship concerns how we talk about the papyrus much more than what we say: the poems and the complex sequences are there, whether attributed to Posidippus, another author, or a group of authors brought together by an anthologist.
Epigrams in Order
The Milan papyrus was written at a time of intensive development for the genre of epigram. The word epigram comes from a Greek verb meaning “write upon,” and the first epigrams were short poems intended to be inscribed in specific contexts, on the stone of a tomb to commemorate the deceased, for example. In the third century BCE, poets cultivated epigram as a means of literary expression that readers could enjoy apart from one specific context. The efforts of these poets to invest their epigrams with learning, subtlety and humor account for the connotations of pithiness and wit that the word “epigrammatic” now carries.
The new papyrus is in line with these literary trends, but it has an additional feature that comes as a surprise. It groups its epigrams into nine categories, each with its own subject heading (a tenth section may lurk in the tattered remains of the end of the roll). Some of these categories are familiar, such as “poems on tombs” (epitumbia); other sections are more exotic and verge on the bizarre, e.g., poems about stones (lithika), omens (oionoskopika), statue-making (andriantopoiika), even a group of funerary epigrams with the enigmatic title “turnings” (tropoi). Some of the most interesting recent work on the papyrus examines how these groupings bring the poems together into thematic movements that extend beyond the confines of the individual epigram.
The “poems on tombs,” for example, show an unparalleled interest in the lives and roles of women: eighteen out of twenty poems treat women young and old, with a preference for members of the working classes (among the deceased are a weaver, an old nurse and a slave). The “poems on horse-victories” (hippika) balance this section with a corresponding focus on the powerful queens of the Ptolemaic court, and the victorious chariot teams that they sponsored at Panhellenic contests like the Olympics. These victories and the poems that commemorate them promoted the prestige of the Ptolemies in the Greek world at large. The emphasis on women here and in other sections may reflect the considerable influence that the queens held over their court and subjects.
The section on “turnings” (tropoi) contains a selection of epigrams ostensibly meant for tombs, but several have an unusual twist. In one, the deceased complains to passers-by that they are disturbing his sleep. The following poem is a companion piece: the deceased scolds passers-by for not paying enough attention to him! Perhaps the title of this section refers to the unexpected twists and turns that these epigrams give to conventional themes. If so, then the concept of the section displays a remarkable degree of literary self-consciousness in the way it groups poems according to a certain manner of treatment, rather than solely by subject matter.
The first and longest section of the papyrus, the lithika, encompasses gems and other noteworthy stones in a tour de force of geographical, cultural and literary references. The entire section reads like a gazetteer of the Hellenistic world: beginning far in the east with the Indian river Hydaspes, it proceeds through Persia and Arabia to the island of Euboea off the coast of central Greece, as it details the provenances of the stones and the distances they have traveled. Women often serve as the final destination, the recipients of the precious objects. The elaborate descriptions of the carved gems themselves are valuable sources for this period’s culture of connoisseurship, and these descriptions are often enriched by allusions to Greek literature of all periods. Many scholars have even sensed a link between the intricate craft of the gemstones and that of the poems themselves: the jewels of the lithika might be a particularly appropriate introduction to the literary “gems” contained in the remainder of the papyrus.
The lithika display in miniature the ambitious scope of the entire collection, its ability to weave together literary and material culture, the powerful and the humble. It is as if the unusual format of the papyrus hits on an ideal compromise between brevity and expansiveness: the short poems grouped in sections maintain the point and pith of the epigrammatic genre, without sacrificing a sustained exploration of broader themes.
Epilogue: The “Posidippus Industry” and Beyond
Publications on the Milan papyrus are already so numerous, and appear so quickly, that one scholar has jokingly referred to all the new work as products of a “Posidippus industry.” This industry promises to continue yielding important results. Our understanding of the organization of the papyrus keeps advancing, which gives us a new appreciation for the complexity of third-century BCE experiments in epigram. The collection has provoked interesting discussion about what happens when discrete but related works of art are collected into a sequence and begin to affect each other’s meaning — clearly the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Nor is current work on the papyrus limited to analyzing the epigrams themselves. Already, scholars are examining what the new poems have to tell us about the general development of ancient literature. Like ripples in a pond, insights gained from the Milan papyrus may one day spread to impact, say, how we read the collections of love poems assembled by Roman poets. Part of the excitement of a new text is how it alters old perspectives, and helps us to see familiar literature with new eyes.