The Century of Papyrology (1892-1992)[1]

by Peter van Minnen
Theodor Mommsen is credited with saying the following: the nineteenth century has been the century of epigraphy, the twentieth century will be the century of papyrology.[2] The twentieth congress of papyrologists, celebrating one hundred years of papyrology as an academic discipline, seems to warrant a reconsideration of this prophetic statement. To be sure, the beginning of the so-called century of papyrology has been somewhat arbitrarily set in 1892. That year does, however, mark the inauguration of the longest-running[3] series of papyrus editions: BGU.[4] The first fascicle of the first volume came out in 1892. The driving force behind its publication was Theodor Mommsen.[5]

In the second half of the nineteenth century Mommsen had decided, by the sheer weight of his scholarly production, the old German battle between classicism and Altertumswissenschaft in favour of the latter. Classicism, defined as the study of classical texts belonging to the traditional canon, had given way, by the end of the nineteenth century at least, to Altertumswissenschaft, defined as the study of ancient cultures and embracing all that remains of those cultures: literature, artifacts and, most importantly for my purposes, documents.

Mommsen had devoted most of his life to the study of Latin documents written on stone. The CIL is a lasting monument to his efforts in this respect. He also laid the foundation for the study of Roman law in its historical, i.e. cultural, context. Now, in his long life (1817-1903) he had ample opportunity to become involved in documents written on papyrus as well, but the limited number of texts that became available in the course of the nineteenth century combined with the fact that most of them dated from the Ptolemaic period, with which Mommsen was less familiar, as well as the difficulties in reading the script encountered by the early editors kept him from getting too much involved. Indeed, very few mastered the reading of papyrus documents as did Amedeo Peyron.[6]

Towards the end of Mommsen's life there were three reasons for him to get more involved in papyri.[7] First, the increasing number of papyrus texts from the Roman period that became available in the eighties of the nineteenth century, second, the interest of some of these papyri for the history and the application of Roman law[8] and, third, the quality of the scholars devoting themselves to the study of these papyri.[9] On the British side the Oxford Dioscuri Grenfell and Hunt[10] were soon to become the most prolific contributors to the field, but in Berlin there was Ulrich Wilcken, a man of Mommsen's own making,[11] who was to lead the field for half a century after the inception of BGU.

So, there might be more to the somewhat arbitrary choice of BGU as the first truly papyrological edition. In fact, as far as I know, the idea of calling scholars dealing with papyri 'papyrologists' first came up in relation to this edition. In 1896 Jules Nicole first referred to the editors of BGU as 'les papyrologistes de Berlin'.[12] There is therefore every reason to regard the seemingly arbitrary year 1892 as the starting date of our discipline. Looking back from that pivotal date in the history of our field of studies to the preceding century might be as rewarding as looking forward to what Mommsen prophetically called the century of papyrology. Time, however, forces me to be as brief as possible on the earlier period.[13] As is well known, the first papyrus from Egypt, the so-called Charta Borgiana, was published in 1788.[14] The excitement aroused by the text before it was published matched the lack of interest subsequently shown, when it turned out to be a list of forced labourers on the dykes. In the preface to the edition, the editor, an otherwise unknown Danish philologist, anticipated this reaction and tried to forestall it by carefully listing what, in his view, could be learned from the text by both philologists and historians. This apologetic approach will continue for another century. In the next fifty years after the publication of the Charta Borgiana, most of the limited number of papyri that became available were published by philologists and historians who devoted only a very small amount of their time to the new texts. From 1839 onwards several catalogues of collections started to appear in limited editions.[15]

Part of the reason for the negative reaction to the new texts until about the middle of the nineteenth century undoubtedly lies in the fact that the scholarly public was expecting to see new literary texts from antiquity and was greatly disappointed by the documents. This expectation is most eloquently expressed in a poem by William Wordsworth, written in 1819 and originally published in 1820:[16]

O ye, who patiently explore
the wreck of Herculanean lore,
what rapture, could you seize
some Theban fragment, or unroll
one precious, tender-hearted, scroll
of pure Bacchylides.

That were, indeed, a genuine birth
of poesy; a bursting forth
of genius from the dust:
what Horace gloried to behold,
what Maro loved, shall we enfold?
Can haughty Time be just!

Indeed, most philologists of Wordsworth's days, very much like their latter-day counterparts, were only interested in literary texts.[17] It took another fifty years for the vision of August Boeckh to come to full maturity in Mommsen's version of Altertumswissenschaft. During the half century until 1892 several papyri with literary texts were published, and these as a rule attracted the attention of philologists. Among these papyri figured some hitherto unknown texts, like the speeches of the Attic orator Hyperides.[18]

The turning point came only in 1891, when the poems of Herodas and, more importantly, the Aristotelian tract on the Constitution of the Athenians were published from papyri in the British Museum in London (now in the British Library).[19] After that the study of literary papyri has become an accepted practice among philologists, and their appetite was satisfied at every turn, from the comedies of Menander from a papyrus codex in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to the biblical papyri in the Chester Beatty and the Martin Bodmer collections. It would be unthinkable nowadays to study the lyric poetry of archaic Greece, to write a history of hellenistic poetry, or to reconstruct the nature of early Christian gnosticism without the material base provided by the new texts preserved on papyrus. The flood of information that has become available in the past hundred years has not only expanded research in these fields, but it has radically changed the study of testimonia to the study of actual texts.[20]

The way literary papyri have become part of a philologist's everyday routine in the past hundred years is not entirely unproblematic. There is an undeniable tendency to separate literary from documentary papyri.[21] True, allowance is made for the existence of an intermediate category of sub-literary or semi-documentary texts such as magical papyri, but that hardly serves as a bridge between the two other categories. As a consequence, literary papyri are acceptable in philological circles, documentary papyri are nowadays[22] despised or simply ignored. The problem, however, goes much deeper and its roots can be traced back at least to the time immediately following the death of Mommsen.

The version of Altertumswissenschaft embodied by Mommsen and accepted by many of his contemporaries, classicists and ancient historians, was a product of nineteenth-century historicism. It aimed at encompassing all there is to know about the ancient world, and then to reconstruct ancient culture as a whole - from the bottom up, so to speak. The major drawback of this rather positivistic, not to say simplistic, view of the goals of Altertumswissenschaft lies in the glaring discrepancy between the ultimate goal, no less than a Totalitätsideal, and the fact that all our evidence from the ancient world taken together is still a mere collection of fragments. There is, in fact, not a more typical product of much of nineteenth- and twentieth-century German scholarship than collections of fragments.

No wonder, then, that notwithstanding the lip service paid to Altertumswissenschaft during much of the twentieth century the direction actually taken by classical scholarship in Germany and elsewhere has been either towards a narrow approach to Greek and Roman élitist thought through the traditional, canonical, literature or towards carefully circumscribed Einzeldisziplinen. It is clear that the study of papyri has no place in the former[23] and is only one out of many in the latter. In fact, the various disciplines have become so thoroughly specialized and separated from each other that even the term Einzeldisziplinen, taken over from the old conception of Altertumswissenschaft and suggesting a unity that embraces them all somehow, seems inadequate. They stand on their own, and in a time of contraction it is likely that only those with the largest appeal will survive.

A way to help our field of studies survive is to heed the lessons from what is currently going on in the study of history and in literary criticism. It is no secret that large syntheses on long periods of time or broadly canvassed literary histories no longer hold the field in these areas of studies. But it is equally clear that esoteric studies of minute historical details for the eyes of specialists only have no future either. Likewise, dry, formalistic, analyses of pieces of literature are not only devoid of context but also of interest. Historical vision and the concomitant appeal are found in works that use a carefully selected amount of evidence to present an original view of a culture, e.g. through the exemplary study of a village like Montaillou or by interpreting a piece of literature through its cultural context. The former type of study is linked with the names of mainly French historians. For the latter type of study the term 'New Historicism' has been coined, not entirely without reason.

It should be clear that the Montaillou type of study seems very promising for papyrologists dealing with documentary evidence from villages in the Fayum. Indeed, I am not the first one to make that suggestion.[24] As far as the 'New Historicism' type of study is concerned we might think of in-depth studies of documentary archives and private letters, which do not tell us a whole lot about administrative history, but are packed with unique[25] insights into ancient family life, gender relations, literacy, and other 'hot' topics in cultural studies today. Too often these kinds of texts are regarded as too anecdotal and therefore intractable by professional papyrologists. But it only takes a new approach and a proper framework to overcome to some degree the drawbacks of the anecdotal and generally speaking fragmentary character of our evidence.[26] That framework is provided by the wider cultural context. We have to become historians of the culture we have christened Graeco-Roman Egypt, whether we like it or not.[27]

In the new version of Altertumswissenschaft just outlined literary papyri are as important for the study of the culture that produced them as public and private documents, a point not sufficiently taken to heart by most papyrologists. Moreover, the reception of, e.g., Homer in Egypt during the papyrological millenium is as relevant to the literary works we identify by this name as our own reception of these works - or the reception by those who first participated in a presentation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. There is at least a whole lot more evidence for Graeco-Egyptian than for archaic Greek 'audiences.' All this gains in importance once we are dealing with literature that was actually produced in Egypt during the papyrological millenium such as the poetry of Callimachus.

New literary papyri are as a rule studied in splendid isolation from the culture that produced them. The amount of attention lavished on new texts is caused by the philologists' natural focus on establishing texts as such. The typical reaction to an important new text is an outburst of text-critical studies dealing with the various reading problems. After a number of years this initial enthusiasm dies out. Thus, in the case of the poems of Bacchylides, first published from a papyrus in the British Museum in London (now also in the British Library) in 1897, it has been aptly remarked by a reviewer that these not all that exciting poems were more read and studied in the winter of 1897/1898 than ever before - or after, I may add.[28]

That reviewer was none other than Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff.[29] After Mommsen he is undoubtedly the most important professional non-papyrologist who fostered the development of papyrology around the turn of the century. He was the driving force behind BKT,[30] the literary parallel to BGU, and he contributed heavily to two of its volumes.[31] Unfortunately, his favourable reception of the early publications of documentary papyri, mainly by Grenfell and Hunt, has been conveniently forgotten by most of his successors in classical philology. Von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff's reviews of the early volumes of POxy.[32] clearly show his interest in documentary papyri as documents humains,[33] besides much attention to the new literary fragments published in POxy., as one would expect from him. There is, however, more to it than that. Within the conception of Altertumswissenschaft current in von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff's days documents do more than just illustrate various aspects of ancient life. Papyrology is not an ancillary discipline,[34] a view often erroneously held even by papyrologists. Papyrology is a primary discipline.[35] Ever since papyri were found and added to our stock of evidence from the ancient world, they became indispensable and unavoidable, whether we like it or not. Papyri represent ancient life for us on much the same footing as literary texts and archaeological objects. In fact, these categories cannot be kept separate in the case of papyri at all.

In a review of PFay.[36] by von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff this is made even clearer. Again he pays most attention to the fragments of literary texts, but in his view the main contribution of the volume lies in the combination of documents and the archaeological context unearthed by the editors themselves. His attention is notably attracted by the map of the Fayum:[37]

Weit von den Objecten entfernt ist man so sehr leicht in Versuchung die Papyri nur als tote Documente anzusehen, als Schutt, aus dem man Vocabeln oder Formen oder Informationen über dies und das holt. Nun wird man schon durch die Karte veranlasst, sich bei Theadelphia und Philadelphia etwas concretes zu denken.

It is sad to say that even most papyrologists today have fallen for the temptation to regard papyri as dead objects without a context, as Belegstellen for what our predecessors already established or suspected.[38] The fact that seemingly no one cares much about the lack of an adequate, up-to-date, map of the Fayum[39] is a sad testimony to our inability to cope successfully with the spatial dimension of ancient Egyptian life,[40] which is an important part of the context of all papyri.

True, in the case of literary papyri it is often impossible to say much about the immediate context of a text: where the papyrus was found, when it was written, by whom and for whom, and for what purpose. Even if one would restrict the context to these questions there is a lot more to be said than is usually done. Some literary papyri are demonstrably part of documentary archives,[41] but those of which the exact archaeological findspot is known also come into play. The latter should be studied in conjunction with at least the other papyri found at the same spot. This much needed approach seems most promising in the case of Karanis, where the University of Michigan conducted careful excavations from 1925 to 1935. The excavation records allow us to reconstruct the papers of scores of homeowners including their literary texts. Individual homeowners can be identified and their cultural setting described in more detail than is possible anywhere else in the Graeco-Roman world. Yet, although many literary papyri from Karanis have already been published, no attempt whatsoever has been made by any of their editors to take the obvious step and look at the archaeological context of the cherished object of their study. To be honest, this by-and-large goes for the editors of documentary texts from Karanis as well.[42] This unhealthy situation is mirrored by the more strictly archaeological research relating to Karanis, which has been aimed almost exclusively at analytical studies of isolated types of objects. Yet Karanis is a clear case where the diverse nature of our evidence forces us to take recourse to the new version of Altertumswissenschaft.[43] It is high time to put the pieces of the puzzle back together again.[44]

The context we have most sadly neglected in papyrological studies, even in the program of the twentieth congress of papyrologists, is Egyptian culture. Only in the past decades a new interest in the study of documents in demotic Egyptian in their relation to contemporary Greek papyri has gained wider support, mainly thanks to the work of the Leiden school.[45] What is still lacking is the study of Coptic[46] - and, dare I say it, Arabic - documents in their relation to contemporary Greek papyri. Graeco-Roman Egypt is only a slice out of a much longer, continuous, historical culture. To our detriment most Egyptologists end their studies with the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, and their handbooks get very thin towards the end. And yet, much of our picture of Egyptian religion, architecture, art history, and a host of other aspects of Egyptian culture are unthinkable without taking the evidence from Graeco-Roman Egypt into account. Whenever this is done, the new approach to the evidence I have suggested should prevent Egyptologists from lifting this evidence out of its Graeco-Roman context without looking at the wider picture. This will only happen if we from our side stop presenting our evidence in a lifeless vacuum. The step from the study of Greek papyri to the study of Graeco-Roman Egypt as a multilingual culture is, of course, not without problems for those of us who are unfamiliar with the Egyptian language. But the step is unavoidable if we want to study Graeco-Roman Egypt in its true character, viz. as a multicultural society.

All this is not to deny editions of papyri their rightful place in our field of studies. On the contrary, every edition broadens the base of our knowledge of the ancient world. But editors of papyri would do well to take two suggestions to heart. They should make more concessions to the possible users of their texts and they should put the texts in their proper context. The latter can easily be done in the case of an edition of related texts, but why not in a monograph on a specific topic of wider interest? Scholars outside our field, e.g. ancient historians, are not likely to embark on this kind of enterprise all on their own given the esoteric character of most of the existing editions of papyri.

As far as the technical side of the presentation of papyrus editions is concerned, we should take the following distinctions into account. There are literary and documentary papyri and there are related, topical, and unrelated, miscellaneous, texts. The following table of possibilities will clarify what I mean by 'topical' editions:

documentary papyri e.g. an archive or texts of a particular type
documentary and literary papyri e.g. a house in Karanis or a religious topic
literary papyri e.g. Homeric papyri or lyric poetry

Miscellaneous editions are much harder to define, but I admit that they are unavoidable when it comes to the publication of smaller collections.

In all cases we can apply the advice given to editors of inscriptions by Louis Robert.[47] One obvious piece of advice is to provide every edition with a subject index. A subject index presents the topics treated systematically in the edition itself in alphabetical and summary form, and it therefore offers an entirely different approach to the texts than is otherwise possible. A subject index has the added advantage of being an 'index' of what we really have to say. If we have provided no background and if we have done little more than transcribe the text, the subject index will be very slim indeed. It is a curious fact that in the early days of papyrology subject indices were sometimes provided.[48] They have almost entirely disappeared from the scene.

In the age of electronic storage of all kinds of information the subject index is actually the only one we really need. Let us briefly review what is available or should be developed in the sphere of electronic papyrology. As far as the strictly documentary papyri are concerned there is the Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri,[49] which now contains more than 90% of all the 35,000 texts that have been published over the years. Highly selective databases with sub-literary papyri and inscriptions from Graeco-Roman Egypt exist in rudimentary form. Literary papyri can presumably do without a database of their own, but it is important that a new version of Pack's catalogue of literary papyri becomes available as soon as possible,[50] preferably on a disk as well for more complicated searches.

As far as the documents published separately in journals are concerned, cooperation between SB,[51] which we still need in hard copy, and the Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri could speed up the entry of the latest, but dispersed, publications in our field of studies. We can dispense with most of the cumbersome indices to SB. Just a concordance and a subject index[52] to the texts will do. The Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri has effectively eliminated the need of additional supplements to the so-called Wörterbuch.[53] There is however, a growing need for an up-dated explanatory dictionary of documentary papyri, much in the vein of the so-called Fachwörter.[54] This would be an enormous help to users of papyrus editions who are unfamiliar with the special language of the papyri, and we would all profit from it for Byzantine papyri.

Two other research tools in papyrology could be made available on disks at least in part. The BL[55] surely has to be issued in hard copy for the time being, but as the preparation of a volume progresses, preliminary versions of it could be made available on disks at no great expense of time or money. The Bibliographie papyrologique, launched in 1932 by the late Marcel Hombert, would be far more useful on disk, and the material of the more recent years will soon be made available in that way.[56] We might as well dispense with the cumbersome cards once and for all. Updates can be issued on ordinary paper as well as on disk. More useful in hard copy are the old-fashioned Literaturberichte that now appear in the Journal of Juristic Papyrology, the Revue Historique de Droit Français et Étranger[57] and the Archiv für Papyrusforschung. These should appeal to non-papyrologists as well and deserve to be properly indexed like the Bulletin Épigraphique.

Let me conclude my discussion by dealing with one issue in more depth: the linguistic study of papyri. Not insignificantly, this part of our field of studies received its initial impetus in the nineties of the nineteenth century as well. It came from an 'outsider,' Adolf Deissmann.[58] Earlier efforts to use papyri for the study of a particular phase in the development of the Greek language remained by-and-large ineffective.[59] Deissmann and his followers definitively changed the study of post-classical Greek primarily on the basis of the evidence from the papyri. After the initial breakthrough, culminating in E. Mayser's monumental grammar of the Ptolemaic papyri,[60] the linguistic study of Greek papyri has not progressed very much. It has yet to receive an impetus from the new approaches in the field of linguistics. Horsley's recent overview[61] should be welcomed as a timely reminder of what remains to be done. The study of phonology, morphology, and syntax, the three parts of traditional grammar, are badly in need of an update. Beyond that, no one has attempted to apply text grammar, discourse analysis,[62] and sociolinguistics to Greek papyri. And yet, Greek papyri represent a thousand years in the study of the Greek language and, moreover, a bilingual culture that was apparently able to cope somehow with the problems inherent in such a culture. To be sure, we know more about the context of the written word in Graeco-Roman Egypt than anywhere else in the ancient world.

In short, we have to face the enormity of the tasks that lie ahead. Yet, we can hardly fail to appreciate what has already been done by our predecessors in the past. Their most precious legacy is the proverbial friendship and generosity that characterize the relationships within our truly international and 'catholic' organization.[63] But in the final analysis, a multiple of the papyri from Graeco-Roman Egypt that have been published to date, an estimated 40,000, remains to be published. We know that they are the representatives of an ancient culture, and we have finally come to realize that their potential contribution to our understanding of that culture is of a higher quality than anyone could have imagined a hundred years ago. We have no choice but to publish them in a way that has been sketched for us so eloquently by H.C. Youtie,[64] and with a versatility of mind that fully deserved the appreciative comment of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff:[65]

es ist nichts kleines, von den Geschäftspapieren und Zauberbüchern Aegyptens zu der Lyrik von Keos übergehn zu können, was sich Specialisten hoffentlich gesagt sein lassen, die ihr ganzes Gebiet alle Tage ganz durchmessen können.

But in addition, we have to bring the papyri to bear on the current issues relating to historical cultures. If we neglect to do so, they will become dead objects, no matter how many we publish. Von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff knew by experience that we can only do the best we can, as is clear from the following, laconic, statement, which may be our motto as we press on:[66]

Ich zeige was ich sehe, sage was ich weiss; habe ich mich nachher zu schämen, so werde ich es schon tun.

Let me conclude with a quotation from Ulrich Wilcken that sums up the ambition of the generation of papyrologists of Mommsen's days:[67]

In der Geschichte unserer Altertumswissenschaft werden dereinst die Papyrusfunde - - - als epochemachende Erweiterung unserer antiken Tradition eine hervorragende Rolle spielen. Hoffen wir, dass man dann von den heutigen Männern wird sagen können, dass sie das ihrige gethan haben, um diesen unerwarteten Schatz zu einem Segen für die Wissenschaft werden zu lassen.

For us, the men and women of today, the challenge lies not in doing our predecessors' part, but, as I have tried to make clear, in doing our very own part.

(from Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 30 (1993): 5-18; (c) American Society of Papyrologists 1993, reprinted with permission)

Return to the papyrus home page

Return to Duke University Special Collections Library home page

Please see our page with contact information if you have any comments or questions about the Duke Papyrus Archive.

Last updated by Peter van Minnen and Suzanne Corr on 5/10/95