Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.29


Monique van Rossum-Steenbeek, Greek Readers' Digests? Studies on a Selection of Greek Sub-literary Papyri. Leiden: Brill, 1997. Pp. 361. $137. ISBN 9-004-10953-6.


Reviewed by Teresa Morgan, Newnham College, Cambridge CB3 9DF UK, tjm1000@cam.ac.uk.

This is an important contribution to an expanding genre. Sub-literary texts, the readership of literature and the functions texts perform in society are areas in which interest has been growing, and all are to a degree the subjects of this study. Van Rossum-Steenbeek brings together the hypotheses to tragedy, comedy and Homer which survive on papyrus, together with Callimachean diegeses, Mythographicus Homericus and papyri containing literature-related catalogues. These texts, which constitute a good proportion of the most interesting sub-literary texts to survive on papyrus, have not previously been studied as a group. The aim is to test the hypothesis that they "were written ... to make it unnecessary for people to read the original writings on which the papyrus texts are based" -- hence the "readers' digests" of the title -- and the project is inspired by the introductory epigram to Ps-Apollodorus Bibliotheca and the prologue of Parthenius' Peri Erotikon Pathematon, both of which make this claim.

Analysis proceeds by genre: each group of texts is defined, its vocabulary and syntax analysed and contents described. Each papyrus is discussed separately; there follows a comparative survey of hands, dates, provenances, and so on. At the end of each chapter a short section deals with questions of function and readership. In the second half of the book, all the papyri are re-presented, sometimes re-edited, making this a marvellously convenient tool of research. There are also very useful indices and bibliography.

It is above all as a meticulously documented prolegomenon and research tool that this book shines. (That being the case, a few indigestibles, such as the fact that many names and technical terms are abbreviated throughout the main text, are easily forgiven.) One can, for instance, follow van Rossum-Steenbeek's analysis of the language and syntactical structure of hypotheses, and where passion prompts, check the texts themselves to test or supplement her conclusions, without spending all day in the library. The fact that the material is analysed according to so many and such varied criteria tempts one to all sorts of interesting and unexpected trains of thought, and I defy anyone to read a chapter and not succumb.

It is probably more appropriate to bless the book for what it does than complain about what is not here. Its own stated project, however, goes beyond what I have described to make claims about the function and readership of these texts, and here far more questions are raised than answers offered, and such answers as there are often do less than justice to what has been well shown to be the complexity of the material. It does not follow, for example, that all texts in "scholarly hands" must be used by scholars, and "scholar's copy" is hardly a comprehensive explanation of the nature or use of a text. Nor, if a text is in a pupil's hand, does that explain its function in education.

As the book progresses, such questions become more insistent. It is true that Homer and other authors contain catalogues, but that does not in itself explain the existence of a papyrus listing Actaeon's dogs. If a text is in a "scholarly" hand, what might "scholarship" mean in Panopolis, or in Oxyrhynchus? Why was it a desirable activity in those places, and for whom? How did such scholarship relate to what went on in the Museum? Why were certain texts studied, and why did certain types of information get into hypotheses, or certain types of hypotheses, and not others? Given, as the author notes, that "scholarly" texts were altered in the course of many years' use, and given that many variants exist within a rather small number of texts overall, I remain unconvinced that conventional stemmata are the most appropriate way to analyse their relationships. And why were such texts preserved (in parts) down generations? When they were altered, why, and what does that imply about the nature of scholarly authority and tradition?

Such unexplored complexities are nowhere more starkly illustrated than in the introductory discussion of the prologues to Ps.-Apollonius and Parthenius, mentioned above. Ps.-Apollonius' epigram, for example, exhorts the reader not to look at other literature because (s)he will find everything in the world in the Bibliotheca. Van Rossum-Steenbeek takes this literally, as implying that the Bibliotheca was intended to be read instead of other literature. But to write an epigram is to mark the importance of a literary tradition. How would the reader understand or appreciate the epigram unless (s)he had read a great deal of other literature? Why would one bother with the Bibliotheca at all, unless one believed literature to be important? How would one appreciate what the author does with the stories, not knowing their other versions? Epigrams, especially as prologues, are notoriously ludic. They frequently deny the importance of the work they advertise. Ps.-Apollonius' version, appropriately to a digest, wittily denies the importance of the books about which his book is written. It is surely simplistic to assume that it means what it says and no more.

Even explicit comments in the sources about the nature and function of sub-literary texts may have diverse and complex implications, and our understanding of the texts to which they refer is still in its infancy. When, therefore, the author concludes at the end of this study that these texts were not "reader' digests" at all, one reader, at least, felt dyspeptically that the investigation, so far from being over, had barely begun. Which is itself, of course, a tribute to the book. It is a tremendous contribution to have provided such a sound basis for so many exciting new debates.