March 23, 2014, by Richard Rawles

When Texts Are Things: the writing’s on the wall

It would be easy to think that new material in ancient literature was confined to a small number of very rare discoveries – but actually the evidence changes all the time. Here is just one small, unspectacular but nevertheless exciting example…
When I last posted here, it was about the ‘New Sappho’, forthcoming in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik. This papyrus is a special case and has been reported all over the place (apart from Christian material, probably no other text from antiquity would attract as much media attention as Sappho). But new papyri of Greek texts come up all the time. The Oxyrhynchus project is still publishing new material excavated a century ago, and plenty of papyri come up from elsewhere. Excavations reveal new inscriptions. In some areas of study, the world of texts has been transformed in less than a century; in my module on Greek lyric next year, we will be reading important texts which were unknown when I was an undergrad.

Still, papyri and inscriptions aren’t only fun because they give us new material; they are fun because they are a place where we are reminded that texts are also things – something which is always true (in ancient literature, the question ‘what’s the evidence for that?’ will always lead to a manuscript of some kind in the end), but is especially exciting where the ‘thing’ in question goes all the way back to antiquity. As a student, I was excited to discover that one can actually see Sophocles’ name inscribed on the Athenian Tribute Lists (inscriptions recording tribute paid to Athens by her imperial subjects in the fifth century BC; Sophocles served as hellenotamias – a kind of imperial tribute collector – in 443/2). Not because I thought there was any danger that Sophocles didn’t really exist, or that his works were all made up by medieval monks; simply it was fun to see the tangible, singular, somehow real qualities of the object constituting a text. Similarly, my students like to be shown pictures of the papyri from which the poems they are studying have come, even where they are reading in translation.

This perhaps explains part of my delight in an article found in the last-but-one ZPE. Here we see a report not of a papyrus, but of part of a building. The team in question are excavating at Amheida (ancient Trimithis) in the Dakhla Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert. There they have dug a house belonging to a fourth century AD landowner, Serenos, next to a building that seems to have functioned as a school. In both buildings, some rooms have texts written on the plaster of the walls, and some of these survive: fascinating evidence for education in late antiquity, and there are some amazing wall-paintings as well (some of them on their facebook page)!

One text is from Euripides’ tragedy Hypsipyle. This play told the story of how Hypsipyle, while a slave in the house of the palace of King Lycurgus at Nemea, accidentally brought about the death of the baby Opheltes and was to be killed as a result, but was rescued by the seer Amphiaraus. The play did not make it into the medieval tradition: we know about it from a big papyrus first published in 1908 (not the one in the photo: the picture shows the papyrus of Timotheus’ Persians). At fr.60 line 86, Amphiaraus is prophesying, but the papyrus is badly preserved, and only the left hand part of the line survives:

Ἄδραστος ἥξει τ’ Ἄρ[
Adrastos, and he will come to Ar[gos

In his useful Loeb edition, Greek Literary Papyri (revised edition 1942; the first edition, we are told in the preface, was “destroyed by enemy action”), Denys Page proposed that the text might have read

Ἄδραστος, ἥξει τ’ Ἄρ[γος, ἐκ Θήβων πάλιν
Adrastos, and he will come to Ar[gos, back from Thebes

The text on the wall of Serenus’ house is in even worse condition, but the legible part reads


Combined with the information from the papyrus, this must represent this (square brackets enclose what is not legible from the wall alone):

Ἄδραστος,] ἥξει <τ’> Ἄρ[γος,] ἐκ Θήβω[ν πάλιν

So: Euripides wrote in the late fifth century BC. The papyrus was published in 1908. Professor Page conjectured a supplement in 1942. And lo and behold, in 2013 Rafaella Cribiore and Paola Davoli publish a wall-inscription from a fourth century AD Roman villa in Egypt, giving (almost) exactly the same text as Page had suggested sixty years earlier…

It’s just a few words, but for some of us this is a deeply satisfying thing to happen!


[Cribiore, R., and P. Davoli (2013) ‘New Literary Texts from Amheida, Ancient Trimithis (Dakhla Oasis, Egypt)’, ZPE 187, 1-14.]
[photograph from ; public domain]

Posted in ClassicsGreek dramaGreek mythGreek poetrypapyrologyUncategorized