Dear strenuous Ancient Lives web users,
one of our last posts concerned the differences between Literary and Documentary Papyri in terms of both writing and content. Today’s post will illustrate a third category of texts: Subliterary Papyri. I know this term may sound a little bit over technical and pretentious, but being aware of the existence of this classification will save you time and efforts when dealing with identifications. The reason is simple: subliterary papyri are frequently not included in electronical databases. In other words, they are not searchable.
A definition of subliterary is inevitably offered by negative characteristics. Subliterary texts are neither literature nor documents. They are not excerpts from ancient books, but may be about them (in the form of annotations or direct quotations); they are not everyday life accounts from the Graeco-Roman Egypt, but may be written by ‘ordinary’ people expressing their feelings (that is the case of curses, prayers, and drawings), or providing any sort of information deriving from their professional background (medical prescriptions, horoscopes).
Let me give you a few examples.
– P.Oxy. LXV 4451. Commentary on Homer, Iliad I (I century BC). A good example of a papyrus containing Homer without actually being a Homer papyrus. Always be cautious when finding a literary quotation. Spend some time in going through each line preceding and following that specific quotation, to make sure of the real content of the main text. You can also double-check the papyrus text against that of a critical edition.
– P.Oxy. XVI 1926. A Christian Prayer (VI century AD). Lines 3-5 go: “if it is not your will that I speak about the bank or the weighing office, make me learn not to speak”. Note that subliterary papyri, just like documentary papyri, could be written in cursive scripts.
– P.Oxy. XIX 2222. Chronological List (Early I century AD). A succession of Ptolemaic kings, containing the regnal years and life-spans of the rulers, written by a non-literary hand. Probably a historical, certainly not a historiographical work.
– P.Oxy. LXII 4308. Mythological compendium (II century AD). A list of children of goddesses and mortal men. Compendia often do not chain events in continuous narration and move abruptly from one section to another, not reaching the level of detail and completeness of mythological treatises like the ones by Apollodorus and Hyginus.
– P.Oxy. 4300a. Horoscope (III century AD). “Venus in Libra”, “moon in Acquarius”. Horoscopes were a common astronomical practice in Roman Egypt. We have more than 50 examples from Oxyrhynchus.
I hope I have been of some help. For further clarifications you can contact James Brusuelas (Recipient’s name “Jbrusuel”) or myself (“Perale”) through the Ancient Lives website (http://talk.ancientlives.org/messages/new). Keep up the good work!