Euripides, Dionysus and school exercises

‘I, the son of Zeus, have come to this land of the Thebans’

The beginning of one of the greatest (and most famous) Greek tragedies, this line from The Bacchae by Euripides has resonated countless times in theatres from all over the world for the past two millennia. The son of Zeus speaking is Dionysus, the unconventional god of wine and theatre, who went to the city of Thebes to take revenge against those who had claimed that he was not the son of Zeus. With him came the Bacchae, the possessed female followers of Dionysus, mad and murderous.

Theatrical performances and books, however, were not the only places where this line could be heard or read. Indeed in antiquity the incipit of The Bacchae was also used as a writing exercise. That is exactly what happened in Egypt, as documented by an unpublished papyrus from the village of Tebtunis, dated approximately to the second century BC, when Egypt was a Hellenistic kingdom.

Despite the fragmentary state of the papyrus, words from the first line of The Bacchae are still clearly visible. I add here the Greek version of the line for those who would like to do some matching game:

The Euripidean line is repeated at least four times in these fragments, and it is written in a somewhat school boy hand. Someone here was learning to write in Greek. The pupil in question was not a beginner, as he already knew how to write letters and words. Writing short passages from poets represented indeed some sort of intermediate educational level, appropriate for those, like our pupil, needed to improve their handwriting skills. Among the favorite authors chosen for this level (and for the upper level too) there were Homer, Euripides and Menander, each representative of a specific literary genre, respectively epic poetry, tragedy and comedy. There was not, however, a formal school, with a standardized program, where pupils attended classes to learn to read and write. There were, instead, what we might call ‘school contexts’, that is places and situations where teaching and learning took place, which could have been a private house, a porch as well as a temple. Pupils were not only young people, but also adults. It is difficult to tell who the pupil of our papyrus was: an Egyptian who was learning Greek? Or a Greek who was learning to write? It doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that people in Egypt were learning to write Greek and were doing so by reading passages from the tragedies of Euripides or the epic poems of Homer. Our school exercise was not an isolated case. A large number of similar examples have come down to us from Egypt for both the Hellenistic and Roman periods, documenting the widespread will (or pressing necessity) of the people of Egypt, Greeks as well as Egyptians, to learn how to write in Greek (below are two more examples from Tebtunis). How not to be amazed at this phenomenon! To put this in context, think of our contemporary multi-cultural societies. People move continuously, they migrate to other countries, learn new languages. In England, for example, there is a large community of Indian people who, though speaking perfect English, still strive to preserve their own language, culture and traditions. English people, however, are certainly not learning any of the languages of India. That is because, despite the presence of several different ethnic groups, England remains fundamentally English, socially more multi-cultural, but still English. In Egypt things went differently. With the arrival of the Greeks in the third century BC, Egypt did not remain fundamentally Egyptian, and although native language and traditions never disappeared, Greek language gradually took over (see School exercises represented just another way through which Greek spread.

Sayings about Demosthenes and Epaminondas (P.Mil. Vogl. VI 263, AD II) Miscellaneous collection of poetic lines (PSI XI Congr. 3, AD I)