Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.01.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.01.03

Tomasz Derda, Adam Łajtar, Jakub Urbanik (ed.), Proceedings of the 27th International Congress of Papyrology, Warsaw 29 July – 3 August 2013 (3 vols.). JJP supplement, 28.   Warszawa:  Journal of Juristic Papyrology, 2016.  Pp. 2,100.  ISBN 9788393842582.  €180.00.  

Reviewed by Amin Benaissa, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford (

Table of Contents

Jean Bingen once said, ‘il y a presque autant de papyrologies qu’il y a de papyrologues’.1 The International Congresses of Papyrology, held every three years in different cities of the world under the auspices of the Association Internationale de Papyrologues, are the best illustration of the diverse avenues of research opened up by the papyri and texts written on comparable media. The three volumes under review publish the majority of papers delivered at the 27th ICP in Warsaw in 2013. They do not include the longer keynote papers given at the morning plenary sessions, which have been published separately in a special issue of JJP (not reviewed here).2

The proceedings total over 2000 pages and include 124 papers. They are prefaced by the editors’ forward, an index of authors, a group photo of the participants, and the original programme of the Congress. The first paper is the opening plenary lecture on ‘Illegitimacy in Roman and Late Antique Egypt’ by Roger Bagnall, the then president of the AIP. In it he argues that the well-known phenomenon of individuals without a legally recognized father in the papyri cannot be explained only by the restrictions on intermarriage between various status groups imposed by the Romans or the marriage ban for serving soldiers (as Herbert Youtie once contended), since the phenomenon persisted well beyond the early third century, when these constraints no longer existed. Bagnall suggests that this reality more likely reflects the widespread practice of ‘concubinage’ based on unequal socio-economic status, such as informal unions between freedwomen and their patrons. Perhaps ironically given the venue, there is little direct papyrological evidence to bolster this hypothesis, but the paper is a good demonstration of the creative thinking required when standing at the limits of the evidence, and it has the merit of extending the discussion to Late Antiquity.

The three volumes are divided into nineteen sections, each with two to fifteen papers. The first volume focuses on literary papyri. The second is not particularly unified in content and concerns ‘Subliterary Papyri, Documentary Papyri, Scribal Practices, Linguistic Matters’. The third is subtitled ‘Studying Papyri’ and contains historically oriented papers based on documentary papyri. The unequal number of contributions per section does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of the various sub-disciplines of papyrology and is partly due to the chance number of papers included in the proceedings. Thus, juristic papyrology, of which Warsaw has always been an important centre, is represented by only three contributions in Section XIV, but the programme of the Congress reveals that there were several more papers in this area not published here.

The contributions, by authors ranging from doctoral students to emeriti, underwent peer review and are on the whole of a good standard, though there is inevitably some unevenness in quality and rigor in large proceedings of this kind. Some of the papers are also clearly works-in-progress rather than definitive treatments of a question, whereas others go far beyond their original scope as 20-minute papers. As one has come to expect from the JJP Supplements, the set of volumes is handsomely produced on high-quality paper and is well typeset. The editors and their assistants are to be congratulated for collecting and editing such a large number of papers and publishing them in less than three years (a feat that often eludes even much smaller conferences). Ideally one would like to have a subject index to find references to themes across papers in different sections or at least an index locorum listing the papyri discussed, but it is understandable that such a task might have been too laborious for proceedings of this size and might have hindered the swift publication of the volumes.

Obviously, even the briefest and most superficial summary of the 124 contributions is impossible in a 2000-word review, and it is impractical to engage meaningfully or critically with particular arguments. The following is only a bird’s-eye-view of the general shape and diversity of the proceedings, highlighting a few notable items but without implying that unmentioned papers are not worthy of mention. Since many scholars of the ancient world ought to find something of interest in the range of topics covered, readers of this review would profit from browsing the extensive table of contents or the abstracts of the original papers, which are still available online.

Actual presentations of new papyri – the traditional core of the discipline – are relatively few. Two papers in Section III on the papyri from Herculaneum offer new fragments from Philodemus’ On Vices and their Opposing Virtues: five small fragments from the first book on flattery, which are preserved only as disegni (Capasso, vol. 1), and a partial column from the section on slander (D. Delattre et al., vol. 1). The most intriguing subliterary text is a numbered list of oracle answers from Kellis in the Dakhla Oasis dating from the fourth century CE, in which each answer is given under the heading of a particular god (Hoogendijk, vol. 2). The text contains distinctive vocabulary and names some unparalleled deities like ‘Aphrodite Melpomene’, and it bears a number of resemblances to dice oracles in inscriptions from Asia Minor. Gampel and Grassien (vol. 1) present the earliest liturgical poetic canon on papyrus, which they assign to the late seventh or early eighth century CE. Among documents, a number of texts are published by Egyptian colleagues from the collection of the Cairo Museum, many of them with connections to known papyri: for example, a sixth-century list of payments by Oxyrhynchite nobles with prosopographical overlaps with the snapshots of the city’s aristocracy in P.Oxy. XVI 2020 and 2040 (Gad, vol. 3), and ten ostraca containing orders of payment addressed to the olive-oil makers of Aphrodito, whose archive is scattered in different collections (Aish and Salem, vol. 2). Frösén (vol. 3) gives a preview of P.Petra inv. 6a, a bilingual (Greek- Latin) donatio mortis causa from Petra in Jordan dating from 573 CE, a proper edition of which is forthcoming in P.Petra V.

A large number of papers, especially in the volume on literary papyri, offer discussion of a single known papyrus, perhaps reflecting the originally short nature of the contributions, which did not allow easily the confrontation of large themes or the adoption of a synthetic approach. These papers often provide fresh interpretations of various texts, some familiar (e.g. Sampson, vol. 1, on Sappho fr. 44), others revived from obscurity (e.g. Prada, vol. 2, on the Greek handbook of dream interpretation P.Oxy. XXXI 2607). Some of these re-examinations lead to surprising results. Thus Ucciardello (vol. 1) shows that some Strasbourg fragments long thought to contain Archaic lyric poetry in fact belong to a collection of the wise sayings of the second-century CE philosopher Secundus. Del Mastro (vol. 1) rereads the title of one of Philodemus’ polemical works as Πρὸς τοὺς Φασκοβυβλιακούς, uncovering a new hapax word meaning ‘self-proclaimed book connoisseurs’. There are, however, also several papers on broader themes or ones that survey phenomena across a large body of papyri, for instance Fernández Delgado’s assessment of the 28 new papyri of the Hesiodic triad published since Solmsen’s and West’s editions (vol. 1), Vassallo’s investigation of the evidence for Presocratic philosophy in the Herculaneum papyri (vol. 1), Goñi Zabalegui’s analysis of private letters addressed to women (vol. 2), and Mossakowska-Gaubert’s overview of the lexicon of lighting equipment (vol. 3). Some papers are quite extensive and clearly go beyond the scope of the oral version, such as those in the section on bibliological and palaeographical aspects of literary papyri in vol. 2.

The historically focused contributions in vol. 3 exploit documentary papyri to investigate various aspects of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. Monson reviews old and new evidence in both Greek and Demotic suggesting that cleruchic land in early Ptolemaic Egypt was not as fiscally privileged as was previously thought. Fischer-Bovet offers a revisionist argument on the important role of native Egyptians in the Ptolemaic army and navy in the late fourth and third centuries before the battle of Raphia in 217 BCE. Rossi investigates in detail the evidence for large-tonnage maritime ships (kerkouroi) in Nile transport in the Ptolemaic period and the possible reasons behind their disappearance in the Roman period. Kruse devotes a paper to the essential but often invisible ‘Hilfspersonal’ of administrative officials, with the interesting suggestion that boethoi – ubiquitous in administrative documents of the Roman period but absent in Ptolemaic times – were modelled on the adiutores of Roman bureaus. The paper by Maurer and Tost gives a thorough overview of the policing and law enforcement apparatus of Late Antique Egypt, which is complemented by Stern’s discussion of prisons under the authority of the pagarch.

Although Greek papyri and Graeco-Roman Egypt remain at the centre of most branches of the discipline, simply because Greek was the dominant language of the period and Egypt is the provenance of the vast majority of papyri, the papers are by no means limited to them. Papyri and comparable documents in other languages – Demotic, Coptic, Latin, Arabic, Nubian (Ochała, vol. 2), and even Bactrian (Mairs, vol. 3) – and from other regions are becoming more strongly represented than in previous congresses, although papyrologists of some of these languages also have their own specialist gatherings.3

An increasing number of papers in congresses today are not concerned directly with the contents or formal aspects of the papyri themselves, but rather with their wider context or with methodological questions: the archaeological context (Section XIII, vol. 3), the history of the discipline (e.g. Essler’s overview of the letters written by Ulrich Wilcken to British colleagues in vol. 3), the formation of modern collections (Section VI, vol. 2), and digital tools (Section XII, vol. 3). The papers on the potential of closer collaboration between papyrology and archaeology make for particularly interesting reading. Fournet and Russo show how the combination of archaeological, documentary, and literary sources can enrich the study and understanding of the material culture of Graeco-Roman Egypt (announcing a database that will facilitate such cross-disciplinary work), while Davoli and Ast demonstrate the importance of careful stratigraphy to the interpretation of ostraca and their reuse in Amheida-Trimithis. Landvatter, on the other hand, makes some salutary methodological observations on the complexities and pitfalls of correlating individuals attested in papyri with the find-spots of the texts (particularly in Karanis).

Some readers may wonder whether such a wide variety of ancient languages and subject matter risks making the term ‘papyrology’ meaningless except in a formal sense. This can be related to the worry, occasionally voiced, that papers and parallel sessions at congresses have proliferated to such an extent in recent years that participants can no longer get a proper sense of the ‘field’.4 But the heterogeneity of the papers is an inevitable result of the broad temporal arc and diverse contents and languages of the papyri themselves, and it is precisely the range of contributions at such congresses that allows interesting cross-pollinations to take place between different ‘papyrologies’ (to echo Bingen). By extension, proceedings such as these, miscellaneous as they are, present an opportunity to the casual browser to come across unfamiliar or new areas of papyrology and can hopefully lead to better dialogue between sub-fields that do not usually have much to do with one other.


1.   J. Bingen, ‘La papyrologie grecque et latine: problèmes de fond et problèmes d’organisation’, in J. Bingen and G. Cambier (edd.), Aspects des études classiques (Bruxelles 1977) 33–44, at 33.
2.   JJP 43 (2013) ‘Special issue: Papyrology AD 2013’. In the interest of full disclosure, I should declare that I participated in the Congress but did not contribute towards the proceedings.
3.   The logo of the Warsaw Congress printed on the cover aptly epitomizes this variety: it is a composite image of four papyri written in Demotic, Greek, Coptic, and Arabic respectively.
4.   The organizers of the 27th Congress in Warsaw tried to counter this concern by establishing plenary sessions every morning, each focused on ‘a common topic that would bring together a number of papers in which the speakers aimed to bring back the integrity to the shattered picture of papyrological science’ (loc. cit. [n. 2] p. 8).

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