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Groups of books in Hellenistic Greek and Roman Egypt

From the late fourth century BC, Greek became the administrative script and language of the new Macedonian rulers of Egypt. The Roman and Byzantine Emperors retained Greek as the administrative script and language of Egypt, along with the rest of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, and its privileged position ended only with the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 639-642, following which Greek was replaced by Arabic. The leading institutions of the age included the Museum and its Library at Alexandria. Libraries may have become a regular feature of civic life, if the comment of the Greek historian Polybius in the 2nd century BC can be taken at face value, that 'it is possible to assemble without risk and without difficulty information in books, simply by taking the steps to reside in a town with writings in abundance and a library at hand' (Book 12, 27).


Early Greek papyri - Greek books outside Egypt

In Egypt, Greek entered a world where writing had been in use for over 2,500 years, and where the 'House of Books' or library had long been a part of religious life, and groups of books a part of elite possessions. Conversely, by the fourth century, papyrus paper had probably been in regular use for writing in the Greek world for over two hundred years, as it had been for centuries across western Asia in the empires of Assyria and then Achaemenid Iran. The earliest surviving depiction of a book-roll in the Greek world seems to date after 500 BC (Legras 2002, 50, citing Henry Immerwahr 1964). A painted Greek vase of about 490 BC bears a depiction of a youth reading from a scroll, presumably of papyrus, beside a chest marked perhaps with the name of the composition 'Teaching of Chiron' (the vase is now preserved in the Berlin State Museums, F 2322; for a photograph, see Legras 2002, 27). A woman is represented reading on a water-jar (hydria) of about 475-450 BC (British Museum GRA E190, reproduced in Legras 2002, 32). To date, only one papyrus earlier than Alexander the Great has been found in Greece, a carbonised roll bearing compositions concerning Orphic mysteries; it was found in 1964 in a Macedonian tomb at Derveni, near Thessaloniki, and has been dated to the mid-fourth century BC, but it has not yet been fully published (Legras 2002, 51-52).


Early Greek papyri inside Egypt

The earliest surviving Greek papyri from Egypt are thought to date to the late fourth century BC, perhaps immediately after rather than before the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC:

  1. a papyrus roll from a Greek burial at Abusir, now preserved in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin, inventory number 9875; it contains 250 verses from a play called 'The Persians', by Timotheos of Miletus (about 450-360 BC); the preserved part describes the Greek victory at the end of the Battle of Salamis (Legras 2002, 53-54 with illustration)
  2. a short document on papyrus, from Saqqara, now preserved in Vienna; it preserves a plea by Artemisia daughter of Amasis, asking for justice from the god Osirapis, with a curse against her daughter's father for not supporting the burial, asking that he perish on water or land, and not receive a burial himself (Legras 2002, 55-57 with illustration)
  3. short document on papyrus, discovered in the Egypt Exploration Society excavations of 1972-3 at Saqqara North, under the direction of Geoffrey Martin; it preserves three lines giving a succinct order posted by the Macedonian military authorities, perhaps in 331 BC, to prevent local looting following the occupation: "order of Peukestos - let noone go farther, this is the property of a priest" (Legras 2002, 64-65 with illustration); there are holes along the margins where the papyrus had been nailed to a support for public view; Peujestas is recorded as one of the generals remaining in Egypt when Alexander moved on to the conquest of the remainder of the Persian Empire


Book copying and book-sellers in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt

The great quantities of Roman Period papyri discovered at Oxyrhynchus include several accounts and letters referring to the book-trade, and reveal the market for literary manuscripts, not previously visible in the written record (Legras 2002, 152-153):

1. a letter from a man named Apollonios refers to delivery of chests of books by a captain Heraklas from his son Apollonios junior at Alexandria (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus VIII, 1153, 2nd century AD)

2. a private letter of about AD 170 includes two postscripts concerning copying and opportunities for acquiring books (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus XVIII, 2192):

First postscript: 'Have copies made of Hypsicrates, 'Figures of comedy', books 6-7, and send them to me; according to Harpocration, they are among the books of Polion, but other individuals must have them too; and he also has the prose summarieis of Thersagoras, 'Myths of tragedy'

Second postscript: 'the book-seller (bibliopoles) Demetrios also has these books according to Harpocration. I have written to Apollonides about sending me some of my own books, that Seleukos himself is going to show you soon. If you find any that I do not have, have them copied and send them to me. Diodoros and his friends also have some that I lack.'

Such notes from a provincial town in the Eastern half of the Empire may be compared with the epigram of Martial a century earlier from Rome, the imperial capital.


The Library of Alexandria and other libraries of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt

The most famous library in Western history is the great library of the Museum at Alexandria.

A second great library at Alexandria was attached to the temple of Serapis (Serapeum). This may have been created in the third century BC, and contained copies made in the great library of the Museum; its scope is uncertain, and it seems to have been smaller than the Museum library, with a figure of 42,800 rolls cited (Legras 2002, 130). The Serapeum was closed as a pagan institution in AD 391 by order of the Emperor Theodosius: the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, preserves a fragment of an illustrated papyrus codex (book) of about AD 400, with a depiction of the Christian patriarch on the ruins of the temple (Legras 2002, 131, colour pl.14).

In the Greek-speaking world outside Egypt, libraries are attested at gymnasia (centres of Greek education) at cities including Athens, Kos and Tauromenion (Taormina, Sicily), but no library is mentioned for any of the gymnasia within Egypt (Legras 2002, 102-105). This gap in the evidence contrasts with the data on private ownership of books from Oxyrhynchus, cited above.




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