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This is an archived exhibit of The Bancroft Library, University California, Berkeley.

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Reading and Copying Literature


text fragmentUp until 1998, scholars had identified 94 Greek and 138 Egyptian literary texts from Tebtunis. These texts include poetry and narrative prose as well as commentaries and paraphrases, medical, astronomical and astrological treatises, orations and reference works, magical and school texts. Although the use of demotic declined in official spheres in Roman Egypt, demotic literature seems to have flourished. Few Egyptian-language literary papyri from Roman Tebtunis have yet been recognized in Berkeley's collection, but many such texts are now in British, Danish and Italian collections.

By contrast, the Greek literary papyri now in Berkeley give us some idea of what the residents of Tebtunis liked to read (or hear read to them). The neat, even capitals (known as book-hands) used to copy texts indicate something of the status of owning luxury books, although the less formal, cursive hands used in documentary texts are in evidence as well. Accents and other marks in the texts provide some insight into the process of copying (P.Tebt. II 432) or reading (P.Tebt. II 265, 426, 428, 431, 432); variations from vulgate editions attest diverse textual traditions (P.Tebt. II 265, 266).

There is little archaeological evidence to securely link literary papyri to their ancient owners. Literary texts are occasionally found on the other side of documents indicating that one or the other was considered waste paper by the time the later text was written (P.Tebt. II 267, 268, 427). When the documents are dated, such combinations of texts can give us an idea of the date the literary text was copied. But only very rarely (and not yet at Tebtunis) can we be assured that people named in the documents are the owners of literary papyri. In the absence of archaeological and paleographical evidence scholars must rely on circumstantial evidence to characterize owners of literary papyri.


[NO IMAGE] Inaros epic
early II century CE

The Inaros epic is the longest known example of Egyptian narrative literature. In the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, numerous stories concerning the hero, Inaros, and his allies circulated in Egypt. Kim Ryholt has identified the fragment displayed here as part of the same manuscript found within the Tebtunis temple complex and now in Copenhagen (P. Carlsberg 68+123).

P.Tebt.Suppl. 1,241 (1)


Homeric variations: Iliad 2.556–576 Homeric variations: Iliad 2.556–576
II century CE

Homeric papyri are ten times more numerous than those of the next leading author, Euripides. This is one of several large fragments from thirteen columns of Iliad Book 2; it was once a finely copied book-roll. The preserved text includes a number of variant readings including one (line 345) found also in Plutarch. Several alterations such as the accent on line 562 were made by a different hand and facilitated reading aloud.

P.Tebt. II 265, Column x


Reading Iliad 2.32–37, 46–52, 55–60 Reading Iliad 2.32–37, 46–52, 55–60
II century CE

The punctuation in this text provided practical reading tips: there is a rough breathing mark over the alpha of aireitô (line 1 of the first fragment), and an acute accent over the epsilon of mên (in the second fragment) indicates that the following word is enclitic. A dot (or "high stop") and a filler stroke in the third fragment signals a full stop or period in Agamemnon's speech to the Achaians (2.58).

P.Tebt. II 426


the Odyssey 24.501–508 Copying the Odyssey 24.501–508
II century CE

This tiny fragment of the Odyssey contains a number of points of interest. The epsilon in the left-hand margin marks line 500 of the papyrus text and, because this was a regular method by which scribes kept track of money they were owed, it indicates that the copiest was almost certainly a professional scribe. As the epsilon occurs at line 504 of the standard critical edition of the Odyssey, we cannot know which four lines were omitted (or if the scribe's fee was prorated!). The acute accent and diaeresis on the first word of our text aid pronunciation and the diagonal stroke almost touching the tau of the sixth line signal the beginning of Odysseus' speech to Telemachos.

P.Tebt. II 432


The Trojan War 4.9–15 The true story of the Trojan War: Pseudo-Dictys of Crete, The Trojan War 4.9–15
Early III century CE

Homer's account of the Trojan War was not the only one circulating in antiquity. By the Middle Ages the most popular description of the war was based on a Latin text describing itself as a translation of an eyewitness account given by Dictys of Crete. According to the prologue, Dictys fought against the Trojans and later recorded the war (in the Phoenician alphabet) on sheets of bark that were placed in his tomb upon his death. A thousand years later in the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, the prologue continues, an earthquake opened the tomb and the sheets were discovered and transliterated into Greek and subsequently translated into Latin.

Until the discovery of the text on display here, modern scholars had been content to assign the story a medieval date; however, this text proves that the original composition was written no later than c. 250 CE. Although criticized by modern scholars as "a dreary chronicle," it was precisely the author's claim to eyewitness status and the matter-of-fact reporting style that ensured the popularity of the account in medieval Europe.

P.Tebt. II 268


Olympian Odes 9.109–114 and 10.1–12 Pindar, Olympian Odes 9.109–114 and 10.1–12
I or II century CE

P.Tebt. II 684



Euripides, Hecuba 216–231 Euripides, Hecuba 216–231
Late I or early II century CE

P.Tebt. II 683