Peter Parsons

Peter Parsons is a serial papyrologist and author of City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, about Greek lives in Roman Egypt.

Diary: Rooting around Oxyrhyncus

Peter Parsons, 4 June 2015

I shall call​ my memoirs ‘Fifty Years a Bag Lady’. That is what papyrologists do: they pick over the written rubbish of antiquity for items of interest. You can learn a lot about your neighbours from their dustbins, and the dustbins of the ancient Greeks bring out all my curiosities. What did the Greeks do about garlic breath? What names did they give their cows? Why did...

Eels Tomorrow, but Sprats Today

Peter Parsons, 18 September 1997

‘He made money by selling his country; he went around spending it on prostitutes and fish.’ So Demosthenes vilified a political opponent, as publicly corrupt and privately depraved. James Davidson’s concern is with those ancient appetites: food, drink and sex in classical Athens. At one level, he provides a guided tour from bordello to Billingsgate; at another, an essay on the politics of consumption.

How do Babylonians boil eggs?

Peter Parsons, 18 April 1996

The Greeks themselves had no word for their last and most lasting literary invention. ‘Extended prose fiction’ would describe it; ‘novel’ or ‘romance’ would characterise it. Modern critics used to opt for ‘romance’, with its implication of purple sentiment out in the Mills-and-Boondocks of literature. Nowadays, we hear more about the Greek Novel, with all that implies for a place in the Great Tradition.

Writing it down

Peter Parsons, 31 August 1989

‘Orality’ and ‘literacy’ loom large but fuzzy in analyses of Greek culture. The Homeric poems show stylistic features typical of oral composition: but would the large-scale design of the Iliad have been possible without writing? Plato’s arguments show the picturesque plausibilities of conversation: could Aristotle have invented logic without writing? Writing disseminates information and encourages argument: oral society is a society of rote-learning. The Athenians themselves agreed that written law is central to democracy: for unwritten law is the property of the oligarchs who know it. Chronology alone shows that this was no unitary revolution. But as a key to all locks it appeals as much to anthropologists as to liberal humanists, who cannot believe in high culture without high literacy. On the historical side, much scholarly energy has gone into determining the level of literacy – a futile business, since we have nothing but a sprinkling of casual facts, which prove nothing unless they are typical and their society static. Rosalind Thomas’s rich and invigorating book takes a more concrete and profitable stance. The real question is not how many were literate, but literate in what, and for what? The uses of literacy do not determine social attitudes, but depend on them.’

Learned Pursuits

Peter Parsons, 30 March 1989

The scene is set in Athens, a mid-December in the mid-second century AD. A group of Roman students meet to celebrate the Saturnalia with dinner and conversation. The host sets a quiz: each man gets a problem – a rare word, a doubtful tense-form, a logical teaser, an antiquarian practice, a debated passage of Plato or some ‘charmingly obscure’ verses from an archaic poet. A knowledgeable answer wins two prizes – a laurel wreath, and a volume of the Classics. Thus Polite Learning joins hands with Whole-some Mirth. In the background of this edifying picture reclines our narrator, the lawyer and littérateur Aulus Gellius.’

Roman Wall Blues

Peter Parsons, 17 May 1984

It takes a true patriot to love Roman Britain: all those water-filled ditches, and nothing at the bottom but a few centuries of provincial tat. Boots and bricks survive, but little that is articulate – just a few formal inscriptions on stone, a few lead tablets inscribed with curses and buried for the attention of the powers below. Everyday communications, on wood or papyrus, have rotted away. Or so it might have been thought, until in 1973-5 the Vindolanda tablets turned up, preserved anaerobically in an ancient floor of impacted bracken and human wastes. That find allows us to dip into a military waste-paper basket of 100 AD. The originals can be seen at the British Museum. Bowman and Thomas provide the first and the final publication. Their book does more than decipher the faded and broken scrawl (difficult enough in itself): it provides, with enviable erudition, the whole necessary context, linguistic, historical and palaeographic. The texts owe most of their interest to their ordinariness; the edition is an achievement of eye and mind of which any scholar could be proud.

Old Flames

Peter Parsons, 10 January 1983

Time and philology turn dirt into dust. Housman had to veil Latin obscenity in Latin obscurity; Paul Brandt chose to publish under the speaking pseudonym of ‘Hans Licht’; Hopfner’s monumental Sexualleben was left a torso by a pupil less pious than pudibund. But nowadays, whatever a Latinist always wanted to know, he has no further need to ask: it is in print, sanitary and systematic. By 1984 the snigger will be an endangered species. J.N. Adams’s Vocabulary is a milestone in the brave new frankness. It is also a sterling scholarly achievement by a distinguished philologist: shrewd, learned, concise and rigorous. It contributes something to the study of poetry. (Catullus mourned his sparrow: avian or anatomical? Catullus’s Lesbia ‘peeled’ her lovers: how, exactly?) It contributes something to literary history: that cheerful faker, the Augustan History of the Roman emperors, is shown to have a penchant for the archaically risqué. Above all, it makes possible the serious study of categories: slangy against folksy, vulgar against obscene, social taboo against literary taste, nonce-formation against archetypal image.

Ancient Greek Romances

Peter Parsons, 20 August 1981

In 1834, T.B. Macaulay left Holland House to unaccustomed silences, and set sail for Madras, where he was to save £30,000 and draft the penal code. Indian leisure inspired him to reread Greek. Thucydides, Euripides, Demosthenes, all got good marks. Fiction came off less well. Macaulay was a great reader of novels (to his father’s and Clapham’s distress); the Governor-General’s court wept over his copy of Clarissa. He was also a great connoisseur of trash: he adorned his copy of Santo Sebastiano, or the Young Protector with a league-table of fainting-fits (first prize to the heroine: ‘Julia de Clifford, 11’). But the Greek romances were too much for him. He pronounced with characteristic decision. At the end of Heliodorus’s Ethiopian Story, he noted. ‘The best of the Greek Romances, which is not saying much for it’; on Xenophon’s Ephesian Story, ‘A most stupid, worthless performance, below the lowest trash of an English circulating library’; on the Leucippe and Clitopho of Achilles Tatius, simply ‘Detestable trash’.

Antigone in middle age

Peter Parsons, 21 August 1980

Elle s’appelle Antigone et il va falloir qu’elle joue son rôle jusqu’au bout.’ Anouilh’s chorus states, what most readers would assume: there is only one part Antigone can play, and that is the part which Sophocles gave her. The sons of Oedipus quarrel; Polynices, exiled in Argos, returns to attack Eteocles, who rules in their native Thebes; in the battle, the brothers kill one another; Creon, the next king, orders that Eteocles be buried as a hero, Polynices left unburied as a traitor; Antigone, the sister of the dead men, defies the order and symbolically buries Polynices; Creon condemns her to an underground prison; there she hangs herself, and Creon’s son Haemon, in love with her, kills himself at her side. Before Sophocles’s play (produced about 440 BC) Antigone was a shadowy figure; after it, no treatment escapes the influence.

Cornelius Gallus lives

Peter Parsons, 7 February 1980

Waste-paper is rubbish; ancient waste-paper is scholarship. Most of Greek and Latin literature disappeared without trace in the Dark Ages; what survived in manuscript was printed and so perpetuated at the Renaissance; since then the texts remain constant, while the commentaries multiply. But there is one source that produces new material rather than novel opinions; and that is the salvage of the Egyptian Greeks. The dry sand of Egypt preserves a mass of litter, the books and papers of Greek-speaking settlers and their Roman masters; these fragments, deciphered and published by papyrologists, make their special contribution to the immortalité mouvante of the classics. Each year turns up surprises on papyrus: Archilochus and his Lolita, the prosy Jocasta of Stesichorus, Menander’s love-lorn mercenary, the rococo exercise in rustic chic which Callimachus created from the story of Heracles and the Nemean Lion. This year’s surprise is more surprising than most: a snippet from the most glamorous missing link in Latin literature.

Between 1896 and 1907, the Oxford Egyptologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt spent six seasons digging the low, sandy mounds surrounding the village of el-Behnesa, a hundred miles south of...

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