Sometime in an Oxford Greek class in 1895, a professor got off on a tangent about the vast repositories of long-lost ancient texts that might be lying preserved in the hot sands of Upper Egypt. That summer, two undergraduates spent their vacation digging it up. They trekked to Oxyrhynchus, an ancient garbage dump down the Nile from Cairo, and hired a team of laborers to excavate the site. For two months the intrepid explorers sifted the soil, gathering and boxing up every scrap of papyrus they came across—without deigning to observe most standard archaeological conventions like, say, recording where in horizontal or vertical space they’d found each artifact. But it’s a good thing they did. The following year, Egyptian authorities converted what remained of the mineral-rich dirt to fertilizer.
No books survive from antiquity. The Great Library of Alexandria and the Imperial Libraries of Rome have disappeared without a trace. The small fraction of classical literature extant today comes to us by way transmission to the East—
to Byzantium and the Arab world— then reëntering the libraries of medieval Europe. The manuscripts upon which our modern editions are based are not original or even ancient, but copied fifteenth-hand by monks of the Middle Ages or Renaissance.
And so the very thought of what those dozens of tin boxes filled with papyrus fragments no larger than spitballs might contain is enough to get any classicist’s panties in a bundle. Of the over 300 plays Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides wrote, only 32 remain; Sappho’s songs exist only as fragments; most of Aristotle’s treatises are missing. The list goes on, and by now generations of scholars have spent their careers arranging and rearranging these little morsels of papyrus like magnet poetry.
A couple weeks ago, I attended one of the finest conferences I’ve been to at Princeton. Dirk Obbink, the director of the Oxford Papyri Imaging project presented a page of text he’s recently pieced together. The page is about four inches tall. I can picture a man hiding the book in the folds of his tunic or a woman in her bosom to enjoy vigorously in private. Obbink offered it as a climactic passage from the original Greek “ass novel.” This was a relatively popular subset of the genre of picaresque fiction in antiquity, in which the protagonist is transformed into a donkey and experiences a number of erotic and otherwise gripping misadventures. The most famous examples are those attributed to Lucian of Samosata, Lucius, or the Ass in Greek, and Lucius Apuleius, Metamorphoses, or the Golden Ass in Latin. This fragment, which may have launched the fad, is the hardest-core I’ve ever seen in Greek, and the day will not come when the memory of the whole Princeton Classics Department poring over it with the full force of their rational minds will cease to lift my heart.
“δεινῶς φλέγομαι. [
ῥεῦμα μ’ἥκει δι[ὰ σέ,
— τί ποτέ με νυσ<σ>εις;” τὸ[ν
ὄνον φιλοῦσα ἀλ-
γ[ο]ῦντα, ὥς ποτε συν-
εισέ]πες’ αὐτῷ. καὶ
“οὐώ, παχε<ῖ>α καὶ μεγά-
λη ‘στιν, ὡς δοκός. / μέ-
νε, κατὰ μεικρόν. μὴ
— ὅλην ἔσω βάλῃς. τί ποτ(ε);
οὔκ ἐστι τοῦτο ἀλλὰ
τί; οὐ δὲ πᾶν τοῦτο.
and my translation:
“I’m burning up like crazy. You’re making me ooze. Look, I’m itching all over. Why are you poking me that way?” she says, kissing the ass in anguish. “Like you fell on me the last time!” she demands. “Ooh, it’s so thick and big like a roof-beam. Wait a little, don’t put it all in at once. What is that it? That can’t be all. It’s…”
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