Subliterary Papyri

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.1926

– 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.4308

– 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 ( Keep up the good work!


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7 responses to “Subliterary Papyri”

  1. Joan Bushnell says :

    Hi Marco
    Thankyou for this posting… it has answered one of my Queries… I had already mostly stopped checking for matches. As yet, I do not read or speak any Greek, so my usual query is to wonder what fragment I’ve got. I find the transcribing process to be Addictive and relaxing… as I’m not hung up Re total accuracy… but I would still like to know what my improvement rate is?I love the fact that we get all types of fragments. I almost need a ‘transcribing buddy’, who could tell me what my pieces are as I go along! Could someone check my lightbox, with this in mind?.. please!!

    • Marco says :

      Hi Joan, thank you for your comment. Lightboxes are personal accounts, therefore private and confidential. I am afraid I can not have access to yours. What I suggest you to do is posting a comment in the Talk section, where we will be happy to help you identifying the fragment you are working on. Once you know the publication number, you can double check your transcription against the text edition (the actual Oxyrhynchus volumes or the online transcriptions at

      • Joan Bushnell says :

        Thankyou! It’s just that I have already done this, and not had a reply. Perhaps I wasn’t direct enough with my Questioning… I’ll try a comment ..e.g. What is this? please, as I have no idea!

      • Marco says :

        Yes, please. To leave a comment on a papyrus you are working on (or simply ask for help), click on the Talk button in the Transcribe section.

  2. Kiros says :

    Hi Marco,

    Being Greek and being well accustomed into various forms of Greek letters, I still find it extremely difficult to transcribe cursive-script papyri. I suggest that you posted some examples with both the original and the transcribed text.
    Also some “magic” texts are full with calligraphy and mysterious abbreviations. I am helpless with them.

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