4.24.2006

Papyri: Artemidorus and Oxyrhynchus



Photos of Artemidorus Papyrus courtesy of Palazzo Bricherasio, Turin










The rediscovered Artemidorus Papyrus was shown in an exhibition in Turin this winter, and the catalogue is beautiful. Artemidorus wrote an eleven book geography in Greek in the 1st century BC, based on his travels around the Mediterranean. The geography was until now lost, except for a few quotations in Strabo. The rediscovered papyrus is a copy of his Book Two, made in Alexandria soon after the original had been written (maybe as early as 50 BC - for information about ancient copying, see this Oxyrhynchus papyrus). A mistake in the illustrations meant that it was kept by the copyist, and used as a sketch book. At then end of the first century AD it was re-used in the papier mache cartonnage of a mummy. The tomb was excavated a century ago, and the papyrus made its way to Italy in 2004.

My interest in the papyrus is simple - Book Two covered Late Republican Spain. This is where Gaius Marius spent part of his career: we first hear of him serving under Scipio Aemilianus at the siege of Numantia, then later as Praetor he was sent to Lusitania. Papyri tend not to be as appealing as gold coins or statues, but we can learn so much more about the Greeks and Romans from them. This particular papyrus can shed light on the Romanisation of Spain.

(I'm not sure if the head in the photo was one of the original illustrations of the Geography or from its later use as a drawing book, but I include it as a reminder how beautifully ancient papyri could be illustrated.)

Artemidorus of Ephesus wrote the Geography quoted by Strabo, part of which is preserved in this papyrus. A lot of people confuse him with Artemidorus Daldianus, who also came from Ephesus, sometimes combining their two lives: Daldianus lived in the time of Marcus Aurelius, and wrote books about dreams and divination. They were very different !

A distant cousin spent much of his career working on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (the Artemidorus Papyrus is not one of them), and they are equally fascinating. As well as allowing us to rediscover lost works by ancient authors, personal letters found have told us a great deal about ancient life - we know about Ptolemaic and Roman butchers, for example, thanks to the papyri. Not all of it is pleasant reading, as they tend to present the ancients without the gloss of history. In one letter a man tells his wife to expose their baby if it's female (discussed in depth in this ZPE article).
A recent WNYC programme, Detectives Stories, included "The Greatest Hits of Ancient Garbage" about the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. It is available as a PodCast.
See also NPR's earlier Secrets of Ancient Papyrus Fragments Revealed, and Slate's Explainer: New Technology Unlocks Ancient Texts.

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