A village of literature

It is generally believed that in the ancient world literature was produced in cities and circulated mainly in major cultural, religious and economic centers. The papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt, however, have demonstrated that that was not always the case, and that literature could be found in villages too. A special role was played by the villages in the Fayum (ancient Arsinoite district), where the Greek presence was particularly strong (this was the district where, under the early Ptolemies, the Greek soldiers were given land and settled). Of the Fayum villages, Tebtunis stands out as the best documented ‘literary village’. In other words, most of the literary texts which have been preserved from the Graeco-Roman Fayum come from Tebtunis. The Homeric poems were very popular, as one would expect, and the first two books of the Iliad seem to have been largely preferred over the others. Twenty-five Homeric pieces are so far known to have come from Tebtunis, mostly dated to the Roman period, and the great majority are kept at the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (CTP) here at Berkeley. To these we need to add a few new pieces that were dispersed in several boxes after the 1899/1900 excavation and found only in recent times (read, for example, the post on the Odyssey piece http://blogs.lib.berkeley.edu/tebtunis-papyri.php/homer-in-tebtunis, and the more recent post on the Iliad fragments, whose publication is underway http://blogs.lib.berkeley.edu/tebtunis-papyri.php/ancient-egypt-chemistry-and-greek). But it was not just Homer. A varied array of literary texts is attested to have circulated in Tebtunis, including the Greek tragic poet Euripides, the lyric poet Pindar and the historian Xenophon. Such a wide circulation of literature in a village is remarkable and should not be taken for granted. It points indeed to the existence of an eliterian readership made up of those Greeks who resided in the village and certainly did not want to give up the privilege of reading ‘best seller’ books. Some literary texts, like Iliad books I and II, were also used as schoolbooks.

In the meantime, new literary texts keep coming up from the boxes of unpublished material kept at CTP, adding new information to our understanding of the nature of Greek literature in the village. Sometimes, however, a papyrus comes to light that preserves a literary text unknown to us. It is the case of P.Tebt. 896, dated to the second century BC, and P.Tebt. 897, dated to the late third century BC.

Both papyri come from mummy cartonnage, a wrapping material that was used to make mummy cases and masks (see http://blogs.lib.berkeley.edu/tebtunis-papyri.php/it-is-not-just-a). The first one includes two columns written in capital letters, the script used for literary texts. Interestingly, a study of the papyrus has not been able to reveal what text we are dealing with, nor do we know the author. All we know is that it is probably a philosophical text. The second papyrus is written in a more cursive hand, and includes lines of what seems to have been a scientific treatise. Again, the author has not yet been identified. Both papyri need further investigation, as it is clear that we are in front of new texts. Papyri like P.Tebt. 896 and 897 are not rare, and many other cases are to be found in the Berkeley collection. A future study of these papyri as a whole has the potential to shed new light on the state of literature and its readership in Tebtunis, both under the Ptolemies and under the Romans.