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These Shreds, Guardians of Human Memory: Papyrus and Culture in Late Antiquity

Jean-Luc Fournet

These Shreds, Guardians of Human Memory: Papyrus and Culture in Late Antiquity

Inaugural Lecture delivered on Thursday 7 January 2016

Jean-Luc Fournet
Traduction de Liz Libbrecht

Note de l’éditeur

Translated with the collaboration of Korshi Dosoo

Texte intégral

Le cose disunite s’uniranno e riceveranno in sé tal virtù che renderanno la persa memoria alli omini. Cioè i palpiri che sono fatti di peli disuniti e tengano memoria delle cosse e fatti delli omini.

Those which are disunited shall be reunited and acquire such a virtue that they will restore to men lost memory: that is, the papyri, which are made of disunited wisps, and which guard the memory of the matters and works of men.

Leonardo da Vinci

1Mr Administrator,
Mr Ambassador,
My dear colleagues,
My dear friends,
Ladies and gentlemen,

2I sometimes wonder what our knowledge of Italian Renaissance art would be if all we had to judge it by was Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, a work which is indeed essential for art history and historiography, but which reduces artistic production to paper. Fortunately, we have preserved some of the original works of the period, which, in addition to helping us to understand this unique artistic movement, allow us to grasp it in the materiality and diversity of its forms. Indeed, mutatis mutandis, the Renaissance without original works somewhat resembles that to which a historian of Antiquity would be condemned without papyri, “these shreds, guardians of human memory”, to paraphrase the striking definition, the first in modern Europe, which Leonardo da Vinci gave them. Today, nobody would dare to deny the contribution of papyri to our knowledge of Antiquity and the beginning of the Byzantine period. Yet the necessity of taking papyri into consideration was a plain fact that only gradually became apparent in France. Accordingly, it was not until 2015 that the Collège de France, which has been since its creation a reliable barometer of the development and reinvention of scholarly knowledge, opened its first Chair in Papyrology. While I am honoured to be the first holder of this Chair, and warmly thank my colleagues for the trust that they have put in me, this delay is nonetheless symptomatic of a French particularity whose investigation and interpretation is not without interest.

  • 1 Ptolemy, son of Lagos, was a general of Alexander the Great. When the latter died in 323 bce, Ptole (...)

3Papyrology is the study of texts delivered to us, for the most part, by the sands of Egypt, and dating from after the Greco-Macedonian conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 bce up until the end of the eighth century ce (or a century and a half after the Arab-Muslim conquest of 642, which initiated the process of the Arabization of the country), texts written mainly in Greek, which became the official language under the Ptolemies.1 It is not concerned with just any texts, but rather those written in ink upon a portable support: not only papyrus (produced from the plant Cyperus papyrus L.), but also the other movable supports used by the ancients, such as potsherds (ostraca), wooden tablets, parchment, leather, and so on, which may be contrasted with engraved inscriptions that were made to remain in one place, and which are the matter of epigraphy (Fig. 1.). Papyrology was long caught in a vice, so to speak, between Egyptology and Greek Epigraphy, two disciplines with which it has much in common: in the one case the geographic area with which it is concerned, and in the other the language and culture of the studied civilization. In pioneering Egyptology in the early nineteenth century, France hindered the blossoming of papyrology by endorsing, surely without any intention to do so, the idea that Egypt – or in any case, that part which was worthy of interest – was first and foremost Pharaonic Egypt. It could not be a pioneer on two fronts at the same time, and all of the scholarly activity that France deployed on the Egyptian front was therefore focused on reviving “the civilization of hieroglyphics” which had remained silent for so long. In so doing, it cast aside more than a millennium of Greek history, which had existed alongside Pharaonic Egypt in its final centuries, but which survived its demise and endured into the Medieval Era.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The main written formats studied by papyrologists: papyrus, potsherds, wooden tablets, parchment © private collection (a-b); Egyptian Museum of Cairo (c); Institut français d’archéologie orientale/IFAO (d).

Photos: J.-L. Fournet.

4At the same time the idea developed that, beyond the study of the medieval manuscripts that had served as its boundaries for four centuries, Classics could be revived only by epigraphy. The latter’s good fortune at the Collège de France illustrates this well: epigraphy made its official appearance in 1861 with Léon Régnier, Chair in Epigraphy and Roman Antiquity, and, in terms of Greek epigraphy more specifically, in 1877 with Paul Foucart, succeeded first by Maurice Holleaux in 1927, and then by Louis Robert in 1939. It is worth noting that Louis Robert replaced Émile Bourguet, Chair of Greek Language and Literature, one of the Collège de France’s oldest chairs, which disappeared for almost forty years until it was re-established for Jacqueline de Romilly in 1973. Consequently, epigraphy was the only discipline relevant to the study of Greek present at the Collège de France for several decades, which is telling of the recent revival in the field. It has since been taught at the Collège more or less continuously up until the time of Denis Knoepfler, Chair of Epigraphy and History of the Ancient Greek Cities (2003-2014) who, to the regret of all, was granted his honesta missio a few months ago.

  • 2 “Papyrus du Musée royal, contenant l’annonce d’une récompense proposée à qui découvrira deux esclav (...)

5Nonetheless, papyrology might have been established earlier in France, and specifically at the Collège de France, through one of its great figures, who remains unfairly unacknowledged today. A thorough Hellenist, Antoine-Jean Letronne (Fig. 2) quickly made Greco-Roman Egypt the focus of his research. Leaving the Chair of History and Morals, to which his peers at the Collège de France had nominated him in 1834, he moved on in 1837 to the Chair of Archaeology previously held by Champollion, who had died five years earlier. However, unlike his predecessor, his main interest was in Greek-speaking Egypt. Studying it principally through its inscriptions, he produced a Recueil des inscriptions grecques et latines de l’Égypte (Collection of Latin and Greek Inscriptions of Egypt), the first volume of which was published in 1842, followed by his masterful Recherches pour servir à l’histoire de l’Égypte pendant la domination des Grecs et des Romains, tirées des inscriptions grecques et latines relatives à la chronologie, à l’état des arts, aux usages civils et religieux de ce pays (Research on the History of Egypt during Greek and Roman Rule, drawn from Greek and Latin Inscriptions relating to Chronology, and the State of the Arts, Popular Customs and Religion in this Country, Paris, 1823). Even though these works make no use of papyrus, Letronne quickly became aware of the necessarily complementary nature of epigraphy and papyrology. He was one of the first scholars in France to understand this, and therefore to attempt to make use of papyrus, as attested by his Lettre à M. Passalacqua sur un papyrus grec et sur quelques fragments de plusieurs papyrus appartenant à sa collection d’antiquités égyptiennes (Letter to M. Passalacqua concerning a Greek Papyrus and certain Fragments of Several Papyri belonging to his Collection of Egyptian Antiquities, Paris, 1826). Moreover, it was he who, in 1828, was asked by Auguste de Forbin, then director general of the Louvre Museum, to edit the papyri belonging to the Charles X Museum, which Champollion had inaugurated the previous year. Letronne agreed, and published papyri from this museum separately in 1833 and 1836.2 However, he died in 1848, and although he had just enough time to publish the second volume of his Recueil des inscriptions grecques et latines de l’Égypte, he left unfinished the papyrus editions that he had planned to publish after the third and final volume of his Recueil des inscriptions. Most importantly, he passed away without having been able to establish the study of papyri. Through his knowledge of post-Pharaonic Egypt, which he had contributed to bringing to light, and owing to the method that he had developed to make use of inscriptions, Letronne was at the time the only Frenchman who had the breadth of knowledge and the intellectual curiosity necessary to establish papyrology as an academic discipline. For the Collège de France, and French research in general, this was therefore a missed opportunity, at a time when the first systematic collections of papyrological material were starting to appear in Europe. The Italian Amedeo Peyron (1785-1870) published the first volume of the Turin Papyrus in 1827, followed by a second the next year. The Dutchman Conrad Leemans (1809-1893) published the Leyden papyri in 1843. The posthumous publication of the papyri of the Louvre and the Imperial Library by Wladimir Brunet de Presle (1809-1875) and Émile Egger (1813-1885), based on Letronne’s 1865 notes (Fig. 3), did nothing to change the lack of interest in papyrology in French academic circles. The discipline continued to expand slowly in other countries before experiencing a sudden spurt of growth in the last decade of the nineteenth century, with a series of groundbreaking British and German publications, supported by a proactive policy of purchases and excavations. France followed this trend, albeit with some delay, through the work of Pierre Jouguet (1869-1949), the founder of academic papyrology in our country. He was the first Frenchman to teach papyrology, initially at the University of Lille, where he created the first French Institute of Papyrology in 1903, subsequently at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, from 1912 to 1927, and finally at University of Paris, from 1919 to 1933. He was also the first Frenchman to carry out excavations in Egypt with the principal aim of finding papyri. However, despite Jouguet’s efforts, papyrology remained an essentially marginal discipline within Greek studies in France.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787-1848).

Figure 3

Figure 3

The first volume of papyri ever published in France: Notices et textes des papyrus grecs du musée du Louvre et de la Bibliothèque impériale by Letronne, Brunet de Presle, and Egger, Paris, 1865.

6Why this lack of affection for papyrology in France? To be sure, papyrology was negatively affected by the development of Egyptology, which, owing to its spectacular novelty, embodied Egyptian studies on its own. But I also believe that, at the time when it started to flourish elsewhere, papyrology suffered both from a certain predisposition of the French mentality and from the particular circumstances of European history.

7In fact, it clashed with one of the distinctive features of the French spirit: its taste for form, which, in the domain of language in particular, translates into purism and respect for the norm. While the few literary papyrus texts published in the nineteenth century brought the potential that papyri held in the field of Greek literature to the attention of the scholarly community, this was not the case of documentary papyri, which constituted the overwhelming majority of papyri, and which were written by people of all social classes, without literary purpose and during periods that were distant from the glorious fires of Athenian Hellenism. These documents were bound to disconcert Hellenists, who saw in them a deformed image of the Greek to which they were accustomed. These texts could but elicit fear, or worse, indifference or disdain, written as they were by obscure individuals in a Greek filled with mistakes and vulgarisms, contravening the good old rules of Atticism, which, we may recall, remains the alpha and omega of the teaching of Greek at our universities – at least for those still lucky enough to teach Greek.

8Most of the works produced by the few French pioneers who dared to delve into this new field criticize papyri for having been written in a barbaric language. It is for this reason that the editor of the first volume of French papyri, Brunet de Presle, felt obliged in his foreword to apologize to his philologist colleagues:

They will see that, independent of the lacunae that sometimes prevent us from grasping the link between ideas, we had to reproduce certain pages written with the strangest negligence and often by people who were near illiterate. […] It was often also difficult to apply the Greek system of accentuation to Egyptian proper nouns.

Thus were the first Frenchmen to study papyri thrown by a language that did not correspond to the rules of Greek that they had learned at school. As for the inscriptions, they did not disorient nineteenth-century philologists to the same extent, for they were destined to be made public and, therefore, they were presented more carefully, and drawn-up in a relatively refined language.

  • 3 Claude Fabre de Vaugelas (1585-1650) was a French grammarian who contributed to codify the proper u (...)
  • 4 Émile Egger, De quelques textes inédits récemment trouvés sur des papyrus grecs qui proviennent de (...)

9Even literary papyri, which reproduced texts of Greek heritage and should thus have been able to avoid this reproach, were at times also subject to this very “Vaugelasian” disdain.3 Émile Egger, the other editor of the first papyrus volume published in France, in a study in which he aims to demonstrate the contribution of Egyptian papyri, speaks of the disillusion ultimately produced by the first literary papyri ever to be exhumed in the modern era, the Herculaneum philosophical papyri: “so much metaphysics and subtlety”, he writes, “not once touched by the slightest hint of eloquence”.4 This says it all.

  • 5 Editor of the Anastasy Papyrus Anastasyi (“Erklärung einer ägyptischen Urkunde auf Papyrus in all g (...)

10While the opposition between the barbaric Orient and the Hellenism underlying Western culture – to which I will later return – is often implicit in these critiques, the philologists’ reservations were also and mainly related to their French linguistic sensibility, which, since the seventeenth century, had been conditioned by the cult of good usage and broken in by the virtues of monolingualism erected as a cultural ideal. It is not an accident that the first papyrological publications in nineteenth-century Europe were by an Italian (Amedeo Peyron), a Dutchman (Conrad Leemans), and a German (August Boeckh);5 in other words, by scholars from countries in which multilingualism and multidialecticism benefited from a degree of linguistic tolerance far removed from Vaugelasian purism.

  • 6 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, Dresde, Walther, 1764.

11The early nineteenth-century French philologists’ lack of affection towards papyrology could also have had more circumstantial causes. The 1820s, which saw the emergence of European papyrology, were marked by the development of philhellenism brought about by the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832). Many were the French figures, who took part intellectually and at times even physically in this crusade for the Greeks against the Ottomans. This war had significant ideological repercussions through its attribution of an ethnic dimension to the notion of Hellenism: whereas this concept had previously encompassed all the citizens of the ancient Greek Empire, who were far from being entirely Hellenophone, it became increasingly the exclusive preserve of the inhabitants of Greece, in the strict sense, who spoke the Greek language. In a way, this new conception corresponded to the political transformation of the ideas that Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) had previously promoted in the domain of art a little more than half a century earlier, in his History of Ancient Art.6 In that work, he exalts Greece as the homeland of sublime art, of good taste, and of an unsurpassed, ideal beauty, opposed to an Orient characterized by excess and imperfection. This polar opposition was echoed in support of the War of Independence with a religious resonance: Christianity (in this case, Orthodox Christianity) on one side against Islam on the other. In brief, this conflict crystallized an irreducible opposition between the West and the East, breaking with a long tradition of “Orientophilia” that had prevailed in intellectual circles up until the eighteenth century.

  • 7 Daniela Bonanno and Corinne Bonnet, “‘Ah ! qui dira les torts de l’Égypte...’ Lorsque Paul Perdrize (...)

12Nonetheless, our papyri document an “oriental” Hellenism. What is more, they originate from an Arab land that had lost, in the eyes of the intellectuals, part of its charm following the failure of the Egypt expedition (August 1801), the last manifestation of the Egyptophilia that peaked during the Age of Enlightenment. This provenance had long burdened these texts with the suspicion that they were the product of a barbarized Hellenism, contaminated by the Orient and perverted by its multilingualism and multiculturalism. This prejudice, which was to weigh heavily on the future of papyrology in France, persists beneath the surface in a great deal of research carried out even into the twentieth century. Evidence of this is given in Paul Perdrizet’s recently published7 1919 letter to Franz Cumont, in which he mentions his participation in the Convention on Classical Archaeology that took place ten years earlier in Cairo:

I was enraged to see that none of the Hellenists present on that occasion in the land of Egypt thought it necessary to distinguish between Hellenism and Egypt: a disciple of comprehensive Hellenism must approach Egyptian superstitions only with a sort of horror. It is not from Egyptologists that we must await the perfect and profound judgment that history must pass upon Egypt: this judgment pertains to us.

That same year, he was writing with his colleague Gustave Lefebvre, in the introduction to the Greek Graffiti of the Memnonion at Abydos: 

Greek medicine, in contact with Egyptian superstitions, became perverted: it forgot the rationalism of Hippocrates in exchange for the absurdities of Nechepso and Hermes Trismegistus: Oh! Who can speak of the wrongs of Egypt and the diseases that it passed on to Hellenism.

*     *

13These words, which might now bring a smile to our lips, demonstrate the most fundamental problem of the representativeness of Greek documentation from Egypt. For, if papyri are to be considered essential for our understanding of ancient and byzantine Hellenism – a proposition that I put forth at the beginning of this lecture – they must also be representative of the culture that they supposedly documented. It is not simply because the 70,000 or so papyri from Egypt fill a gap left by the disappearance of documents produced in less peripheral regions of the Roman or Byzantine Empire, such as Rome or Constantinople, in which weather conditions did not allow for their conservation, that the data that they provide can necessarily be generalized across all of the territories of the empires to which Egypt once belonged. Scholars have long wondered whether Egypt might have been an institutional, economic, or cultural exception in the Greco-Roman world. Even without coming to such an extreme conclusion, we can assume that local particularities developed due to the Egyptian substratum and its specific geographic realities (notably the famous Nile floods, which shaped the landscape and determined its agriculture). How much of this is specific to Egypt as opposed to what applies beyond it? How do we distinguish the one from the other? Can we follow Ernest Babelon when he claims, as he did in his address to the Convention on Classical Archaeology of Cairo in 1909, of which I spoke above, that “[i]t is not the Egyptizing Egypt that we have come to admire and glorify, as was done throughout the whole nineteenth century following Bonaparte’s expedition. We have come to contemplate […] the classical ornaments of literature, poetry, and art with which the Greeks and the Romans adorned the Nile Valley and which this valley in particular has preserved, as grandparent tenderly preserves gifts from his grandchildren”? It is nonetheless in these questions that the status of papyrology as a discipline of ancient history comes into play. The question of whether it is legitimate to extrapolate Egyptian data to the entire Greco-Roman world has received varied answers, depending on the time period and the personality (and sometimes ideology) of those who answered it. The current trend even consists in minimizing Egyptian particularities. There is, however, a time period and a field in which papyrology has the legitimate vocation of transcending the geographic limits of the texts with which it is concerned.

14This time period is Late Antiquity. Egypt was then more than ever integrated with the rest of the Empire. From an administrative point of view, this integration, which started with its annexation to the Roman Empire in 30 bce, accelerated with the Diocletian reforms and the subsequent exclusive position of Roman law, which exerted considerable pressure upon local legal systems up until the time when the country separated from the Byzantine Empire with the Arab conquest of 642 ce. Despite the theological disputes that shook and divided the Empire, Christianity also contributed to the greater integration of this province, in particular by causing the disappearance of a large number of Egyptian particularities originating in Pharaonic religious traditions. This was therefore a period of koinê – to avoid the term globalization, nowadays somewhat suspect – in a political, religious, and cultural sense, during which Egyptian papyri have the greatest likelihood of being representative of the situation outside of Egypt, or of offering information that might be directly relevant to study the rest of the Empire.

15The interest of papyri is, furthermore, less in their confirming or completing our knowledge – which, in the domain of institutions, is based primarily on legislative writing and sources (Imperial law, Canon law) – than in demonstrating the practical implementation of the norms, which we know thanks to theses texts. Only the papyri from Egypt allow us to do so, given that documentation of this nature does not appear in Byzantium before the ninth century, and that it is exclusively limited to monastic milieus. If there are often coincidences or convergences, there are no less often discrepancies, which make this form of documentation even more valuable. Papyrology could even be defined as the art of interpreting discrepancies: discrepancies between norms and practices, between the centre and the periphery, between innovation and the continuity of tradition. While these discrepancies exist in all societies, they are only documented by sources of the most ephemeral nature and personal intention, such as contracts drawn up by lawyers. These may be chronological discrepancies, for example between a law as it is proclaimed and actually implemented, or – more interestingly – adjustments to or circumventions of the law in the name of customs, habits or conflicting interests. The papyrologist is called upon to bring nuance to the legislative and epigraphic sources when they become too normative, injunctive or theoretical, and in doing so, to become a field practitioner, an anthropologist of social practices. He do not study people as they wish to appear, but as they are.

16We can observe these discrepancies not only in what papyri tell us, but also in the way they tell it, in other words in their form and their language. Papyrologists must be on the constant lookout for disparities between discourse and reality. They must, for example, be capable of revealing the true purpose of a loan agreement that actually conceals a marriage contract, of a nursing contract or a sale agreement which hides a loan, or of a rental contract which is in fact a sale or a gift in disguise. Words can be treacherous too, and papyrologists must relentlessly resist the temptation to settle for the most obvious definition. The sheer volume and repetitiveness of the available documentation has allowed us to disprove the apparent meaning of expressions such as apatôr (literally “fatherless”), which does not mean orphan, but refers to the child of a soldier born during his service, and “of Persian descent”, which had nothing to do with Persian ancestry, but in fact developed into a legal fiction used in loan contracts to refer to anyone contracting a debt. We have also come to realise that the symmachoi (literally “those who fight with, allies”) were messengers, while the terms exôpylitai (literally “those beyond the gates”) or allophylai (literally “foreigners”) were used to refer to gravediggers. Comparing papyrus church inventories with Coptic and Arabic hagiographic accounts, I recently realized that the commonplace word trapeza, “table”, hence “altar”, came to mean “paten” in the Late Period. As such, when the hagiographers tell us of the theft of trapeza committed by malefactors in churches we must not imagine, as we once did, that the robbers made off with an altar table over their shoulders – which would have been no mean feat! – but rather that they were stealing the liturgical vessels, often made of precious metals. Many terms relating to the administration and taxation also acquired meanings which are hard to deduce from their etymology or their traditional definition. One of the great lessons of papyrology is in its invitation to be constantly wary of obvious meanings, and to refuse, a priori, to take words at face value.

17Papyri do more than just offer a different perspective in relation to other sources, by correcting perspectives or restoring information that they cannot or must not give; they yield their own share of novelties, whether unknown works transmitted only by papyri, new facts revealed by particular documents, or words or expressions hitherto unattested in other sources. In this sense, papyrologists always have something new to contribute, as I will attempt to show in my lectures by making use of the numerous unedited texts that I have been able to assemble over these last years, as well as those which I hope to discover in the future, and those which have been misread, misunderstood and can be revisited – which is equivalent to rediscovering them – or which can be re-united with fragments from other collections which change their meaning – such as this folio of a fourth-century edition by Aristophanes, which I was able to reconstruct from fragments conserved in Paris and in Oxford (Fig. 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4

Papyrology as a puzzle: a folio from an edition of Aristophanes reduced to fragments distributed between the Institut de France (Paris) and the Bodleian Library (Oxford). Source: Commentaria et lexica graeca in papyris, Pars I, vol. 1, fasc. 4, tab. II.

  • 8 Jean Maspero, Papyrus grecs d’époque byzantine. Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du mus (...)
  • 9 Germaine Rouillard, L’Administration civile de l’Égypte byzantine, preface by Charles Diehl, Paris, (...)
  • 10 Jean Maspero, Organisation militaire de l’Égypte byzantine, Paris, Honoré Champion, coll. “Biblioth (...)
  • 11 André Bataille, Traité d’études byzantines, volume II: Les Papyrus, Paris, PUF, coll. “Bibliothèque (...)

18Moreover, this complementarity between papyri and the other sources used by historians and philologists is particularly effective, as I have pointed out, in the period of Late Antiquity and the beginnings of the Byzantine period. This is a period, however, that has long been neglected, though not by the Viennese school, which benefitted at an early date from a very large collection of papyri, primarily from the Byzantine and Arabic periods, and by the French school. While the latter took time to understand the usefulness of papyri, it has nonetheless been able to make up for its lateness and distinguish itself in the field of Byzantine papyrology thanks to three scholars to whom I gladly pay tribute this evening: Jean Maspero (Fig. 5), whose publication Papyrus grecs d’époque byzantine in the Cairo Museum8 paved the way, and whose work would have been even more significant had he not died in the trenches at the age of twenty-nine; Roger Rémondon (1923-1971) who, in his position as a professor at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, established the discipline not only in France but also abroad; and last of all, his student and my mentor Jean Gascou, without whom I would not be before you tonight and who, in the density of his reflection and the originality of his interrogation, brought the discipline to a new level of maturity for which French research is renowned. Indeed, Byzantine papyrology would likely not have developed without the support of the great French Byzantinists who very early understood the potential of papyri in their field: Charles Diehl (1859-1944), who led Germaine Rouillard (1888-1946) onto the path of papyrology by supervising her thesis on civil administration in Byzantine Egypt,9 a work published in 1923 which formed a diptych with Jean Maspero’s monograph on military organization in Byzantine Egypt (1912);10 later, Paul Lemerle (1903-1989), professor at the Collège de France from 1967 to 1973, who was himself educated in papyrology at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and whose interest in papyri is demonstrated by, among others, the fact that he inaugurated his new collection “Traité d’études byzantines” with André Bataille’s work on papyri;11 finally, his successor at the Collège de France from 1975 to 2001, Gilbert Dagron (1932-2015), who encouraged the development of papyrology in the team that he directed at the Centre d’Histoire et de Civilisation de Byzance, to which I was appointed upon my admission into the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). I would like to pay homage this evening to this master of his field, who was taken from us this summer, by dedicating this inaugural lecture to him, as a modest testimony of my recognition of his kindness and of my admiration for his work, which was so remarkable that the world of Byzantine studies now feels itself orphaned.

Figure 5

Figure 5

The pioneer of Byzantine papyrology in France: Jean Maspero (1885-1915).

  • 12 A codex (plural: codices) is a set of folded and bound sheets much like a modern notebook. Supplant (...)

19Nevertheless, it is true that Byzantine papyrology was long impeded by the prejudice surrounding the Late Roman Empire (there is reluctance to use the derogatory French term Bas Empire, “Low Empire”, today, in the name of “linguistic correctness”). The period was stigmatized as an era of decadence foreshadowing the “dark” (sic) centuries of the Middle Ages. We abandoned this idea some forty years ago – and the scholars whom I have just cited contributed considerably to this shift. Interest in what is now called Late Antiquity has even intensified over the past years, judging by its increasingly abundant bibliography. The acute sensitivity of our age for transitional phenomena and periods of change has not been unimportant in establishing the favour that Late Antiquity now enjoys. It was during this period that the survival of Greek culture, among other facts, was established as a result of choices made between the works of its literary heritage; that a new relationship with written culture developed; and that new means of reading and writing were adopted or created (among them the codex and the minuscule12), all of which had a profound effect on the transmission of texts and, more generally, of written culture up until today. Finally, the fact that we have available to us sources which are at once abundant and in large part unedited or poorly studied, in contrast to earlier periods, cannot fail to stir the curiosity of researchers.

20This revival of interest considerably stimulated, of course, Byzantine papyrology, which saw the emergence of a new generation thirty years ago. By extending papyrology beyond the Egyptian geographical area, recent papyrus discoveries and publications originating from Middle Eastern countries (from the Judean Desert, Massada, Petra, or from the Middle Euphrates) are constantly transforming it into a broader and more useful discipline for historians of Late Antiquity and Byzantium. In the past years, all of this has resulted in an unprecedented increase in editorial activity carried out by a constantly growing number of papyrologists. However, although the documentary base is growing as new papyri volumes are published, there is still much to do in terms of reflection and contextualisation of textual data. The study of fields as fundamental as institutions and legal practices, for example, are still lying fallow (the syntheses stop with Diocletian). This is a subject that I am planning to include in the curriculum for my forthcoming lectures these next years. The same goes for written culture, which deserves to be studied further, and above all, studied differently.

*     *

21Written culture is precisely that domain in which papyrology, as I have said, is destined to play a role that is not limited to Egypt, by providing data which may be extrapolated to the Greek East in its entirety. And again, the way in which it is studied depends on the type of papyrus that we are dealing with. It is common to class papyrological sources according to two categories: literary papyri, which are the books from Antiquity (currently around 10,000 edited examples), and documentary papyri, which are texts of everyday life, both public and private (around 60,000 edited examples). Both of these categories testify to the written culture of ancient peoples in their own way, although they are studied using different methods and, more and more often, by researchers specializing in one or the other.

  • 13 Empedocles (5th c. bce): Alain Martin and Oliver Primavesi, L’Empédocle de Strasbourg (P. Strasb. g (...)

22It is in the field of literary papyrology that cultural historians’ expectations have been highest. We know how much our knowledge of classical literature was renewed by the late nineteenth-century discovery of papyri containing works that the Byzantine written tradition had not preserved. What would we know of Menander, Bacchylides, Herondas, the speeches of Hypereides, or of certain of the tragedies of Sophocles or Euripides, without literary papyri? These past years have contributed their share of momentous discoveries, with the resurrection of Books I and II of the Physics of the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, the epigrams of the poet Posidippus of Pella, who made his career at the court of the Ptolemies, a portion of Artemidorus of Ephesus’ Geography (or a text derived from it), illustrated with a geographical map (the oldest known on a Greek papyrus), later used as a sketchbook by artists, a codex of epigrams, at least a portion of which belong to Palladas, and, last of all, two poems by Sappho.13 I will end this deliberately selective list here, for each volume of papyri brings its own discoveries; it is, indeed, the best-known and most indisputable contribution of the discipline in the eyes of the wider public. It is also its most unreliable contribution, given that it is completely subject to chance discoveries, whether in the field or in collections.

23A literary papyrus does not, however, speak only through its content; it also conveys certain information through its specific form. This is the second and less obvious lesson of literary papyri, which allows us to produce an archaeology of the literary practices of Antiquity: how did people write literature? How did they read it? Through the writing that they preserve, their bibliology, and their layout, literary papyri are in fact the only texts that can provide the information that we lack for the rest of the Greek world about the form of ancient and proto-byzantine books (information which is, once again, available for more recent periods). Some scholars are inclined to think that this contribution is limited to formal considerations alone, without touching upon the actual content of the culture that these papyrus texts help to re-establish. A single example may disabuse them of this notion.

Figure 6

Figure 6

Short but informative: a fragment of an edition of Thucydides, front and back (4th/5th century)

© Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg.

  • 14 I edited this text in “Un papyrus strasbourgeois inédit de Thucydide, III, 42, 1; 43, 3-4”, Ktèma, (...)

24At first sight, this fragment (Fig. 6) appears too insignificant to contribute anything. It is a paltry remainder of an edition of the great Athenian historian Thucydides (fifth century bce), displaying only one textual variant, which was, moreover, already known to scholars.14 Yet it nonetheless provides us with interesting information if we look beyond its textual surface. Its first point of interest is its date (fourth to fifth century ce). Adding it to previously known papyri of Thucydides, dating from Late Antiquity, it joins a rather plentiful group of nine texts; this is significant, especially when we consider the increasing scarcity of non-Christian literary papyrus texts in Late Antiquity, and if we compare it to the number of witnesses to the other great historian of the classical canon, Herodotus:




































25First of all, the difference between the number of papyri of Thucydides (92) and those of Herodotus (47), too marked to be the result of chance, demonstrates that the former was by far the more widely read of the Greek historians. Thucydides continued to be copied up until the end of Hellenism in Egypt, which is more than can be said of Herodotus. This relative interest in Thucydides, to which the papyri testify, corresponds to the idea that Greeks had of the author: a model historian, of course, but also a model rhetorician, both for the discourses that are present throughout his work and for his prose in general. This quality suffices to explain why he was so highly valued throughout the entire imperial period, and why he continued to be read during Late Antiquity, a period in which rhetoric triumphed in all domains, and in which works of the Greek literary tradition were chosen and reclaimed as potential manuals of eloquence. The main practical works on rhetoric, such as those of Theon, Hermogenes (or Pseudo-Hermogenes), and Aphthonius, often cite him, giving him preference over other historians as well as selecting subjects from his work for exercises (progymnasmata or “preparatory exercises for rhetoric”).

  • 15 I draw here on the work of Eric G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex, Philadelphia, Universit (...)

26This rhetorical dimension of the works of Thucydides may thus explain the specific presentation adopted by the copyist of our papyri – which is what I wish to discuss here. Indeed, this fragment has the particularity of belonging to a codex with two columns per page (even if the existence of a second column is demonstrated only by a few traces of ink!). Let us take a look at a list of double-column papyrus codices with non-Christian content:15

Demosthenes II/III Mertens-Pack3 258.1

Demosthenes II/III Mertens-Pack3 256.01

Thucydides II/III Mertens-Pack1516

Thucydides III Mertens-Pack3 1509.3

Aeschines III Mertens-Pack3 3.11

Anubion III Mertens-Pack3 96.01

Heliodorus medicus (?) III Mertens-Pack3 2376

Lysias III/IV Mertens-Pack3 1290

Isocrates IV Mertens-Pack3 1251.02

Demosthenes IV/V Mertens-Pack3 303.01

Declamation against AlcibiadesV Mertens-Pack3 2497

Rhetorical catechism V/VI Mertens-Pack3 2288

Demosthenes V/VI Mertens-Pack3 300.01

27We may note that orators form a great majority in this list: Isocrates, Lysias, Aeschines, Demosthenes, a “declamation” and a “rhetorical catechism”. It is thus tempting to conclude that there is a causal link between rhetorical content and the use of this coded form in non-religious literature. As a result, the use of this form for Thucydides, which is not merely chance, considering that the list gives two other examples, tells us much about the conception of his work held by the Greeks, namely, the predominantly rhetorical dimension they ascribed to it. Why was such a form associated with this type of literature? Herein lies a new field of research, in which cognitive psychology may have a part to play. In any event, we can see to what extent the very form of a book may reflect the way in which people of the time viewed the author, in other words, to what extent bibliology, far from being merely contingent, may be the physical manifestation of cultural facts. It would be worth making a more systematic use of this type of approach in papyrological studies.

  • 16 This will be one of the subjects of my first years of lectures on multilingualism: http://www.colle (...)

28Documentary papyri also have their contribution to make to the domain of written culture, even if they are far less exploited in this regard. The information that they provide on the Greek (and indeed Latin) language has long captured philologists’ attention. Scholars have however sought to mark the Greek of papyri with the stamp of particularism, by referring to it with the more convenient than accurate term “Egyptian Greek”. Of course, we cannot deny that it does have certain particularities, related both to the indigenous substrate, which generates interference, and to the realities peculiar to the country – giving us an excellent stance from which to observe the adaptation of an exogenous language in a given area over more than a millennium.16 However, while the Greek of papyri offers numerous particularities in comparison to non-papyrological (that is, epigraphic and literary) Greek sources, this is above all because papyrus is the support for texts which, written in the urgency of daily life, were not necessarily destined to be made public or to be kept for posterity. Their language is at times that spoken in widely diverse milieus, at other times that of administrative offices, and they deal principally with concrete subjects. Papyri are a good means of observing “vulgar” (in the etymological sense of the term) and technical Greek, which are less well documented in other sources. Lastly, unlike inscriptions and literary texts, these documents originated in all literate milieus and did not undergo any selection – except for that effected by the ravages of time. Despite its particularities, then, it may be said that the Greek of papyrus texts is attuned to the general dynamics of the language spoken in other Greek-speaking regions between the end of the classical era and the modern era. Papyri may consequently shed additional light on the Greek used in the rest of the Greek world, by filling the numerous gaps in our current knowledge. Moreover, papyri commonly reveal words that were previously unknown to us due to the inadequacy of our less peripheral sources.

29These documents contribute to our knowledge of written culture not only through their language but also through their writing. This is however a field in which much remains to be done. It would be necessary to step out of the excessively restrictive and persistent limits of palaeography, which confine itself to studying the development of writing, so as, instead, to analyse the relationships between writing and text, as scholars of literary texts or medievalists readily do. This is less about studying the development of writing than about examining style and page layout in relation to textual content on the one hand, and to the scriptural traditions of local administrative offices on the other. The existence of regional styles or formats is an issue that has hardly been touched upon. But even this is not enough. If central and local governments developed recognizable graphic styles, individuals (officials, notaries, or ordinary citizens) too had several styles from which to choose, depending on the type of document or part thereof that they were writing. In short, while there were preferred styles in the chancelleries of a certain province or in the notary offices of certain districts, widely available systems of functional graphic differentiation also developed. Variation depended on the type of document and reflected a graphic awareness at the supra-local level, which became increasingly widespread during Late Antiquity. Research in this domain is only beginning.

30And yet it is of considerable importance for reconstructing the concrete physiognomy of everyday writing not only in Egypt but also in the rest of the Eastern Empire, where the few papyrological remains confirm their affinities with the papyri of Egypt. For example, the epistolary genre, which was widely practiced and prized during Late Antiquity, gave rise to numerous compilations of famous authors (notably Libanius, Synesius, Theodoret of Cyrus, and Procopius), but the manuscripts through which they have been transmitted to us have altered their original form. Only papyri permit an archaeology of the letter able to reveal the discrepancies – always this art of the discrepancy! – which may sometimes exist between original documents and texts included within the literary tradition at the price of certain adjustments; discrepancies which are not always easy to spot when documents have been removed from the actual conditions of their development. The example of the letter is not fortuitous: a study of proto-Byzantine epistolography remains to be done, a study not limited solely to phraseology or rhetoric.

31This archaeology is even more important given that it ultimately shows how the form of ancient writings was determined by the cultural options of the society that produced it. Extended to other formal aspects such as diplomatics, lexicography, and phraseology, this approach consists in taking the document as a field of research for a history of Greek culture during the proto-Byzantine period. I hope that the following concrete example will demonstrate how fruitful this can be, and the light that papyri may shed on other types of sources. The rhetorician Procopius of Gaza (ca. 465-529) wrote to one of his former students, Jerome, who was temporarily working in Egypt, a letter in which he attempted to defend himself, with all the irony of which he was capable, against criticism levelled at him by his correspondent in a previous letter:

  • 17 Epistolae, 91 in Procopii Gazaei, Epistolae et declamationes, ed. A. Garzya and R.-J. Loenertz, Stu (...)

With such accusations, with such moderate appearances, you compliment us, we who are ‘arrogant’ ‘too sophistic’ and ‘morbidly pretentious’! I do not know how to express all the criticism that you have accumulated against us, as if you had long awaited the opportunity to let your tongue run wild against us. All of a sudden, you did not even make use of a just pretext to unleash all the criticisms that, without my realizing, you had long been kept hidden. What is so extraordinary, tell me, about the fact that in writing to you, I begin my letter with ‘Procopius to Jerome, greetings!’? That this is an ancient rule, you also, I think, certainly recognize. ‘There is no reason’, you will say, ‘to deviate from today’s common usage’. In that case, let us accuse whoever would wish to reform the softness which prevails in our days and return to the noble pride of Antiquity […]. Yet, for your part, having learned Egyptian softness, you have divested yourself of the morals of your ancestors, you who decree the observance of usage, even when it is inappropriate.17

32This entire text may appear extremely abstruse, and Procopius’ heated arguments ridiculous if we fail to place them in the context of early sixth-century epistolography, as documented by Egyptian papyri. Jerome criticizes Procopius for having had recourse in one of his preceding letters to the ancient introductory formula “So-and-so to so-and-so, greetings!”, and consequently, for having placed his name before that of his recipient, contrary to the usage which had imposed itself in private correspondence during the fourth century, as a result of a change in sensibility and relationships between individuals, according to which one wrote “To so-and-so from so-and-so, greetings!”. While Procopius counterattacks by accusing Jerome of having been overcome by Egyptian laxness, this is not because of any difference between the opening phrase of letters in Egypt and Gaza. The entire text clearly demonstrates that it is a question of principle: one must respect the usage of the ancient Greeks who, regardless of the hierarchical relationships that they may have had with their correspondents, started their letter with the above-mentioned canonical phrase, in which the name of the sender was systematically placed first. What appeared to be arrogance in Jerome’s eyes is actually nothing but conservatism. This subtle game of reproach over such an anodyne formula would have been difficult for the modern readers to perceive without the thousands of original letters preserved in the sands of Egypt, given that the letters of Procopius, as well as those of other writers whose correspondence was preserved by medieval tradition, do not have their original greeting formulae or display modified formulae. This example clearly shows, moreover, the extent to which the wording of a document such as a letter, even in its most fixed aspects, is a mirror held up to the attitudes and conceptions that a society holds about sociability, and about its forms of written expression.

*     *

33All this leads to a particular methodological consequence: we must break down once and for all the barriers that have riven papyrology for decades by dividing it into two disciplines, increasingly hermetically sealed the one from the other: on the one hand, literary papyrology, which pertains to philology and literature and, on the other, documentary papyrology, which is the domain of historians. This rampant hyper-specialization has only served to reinforce the rift separating the two, to such an extent, and so effectively, that few papyrologists are capable of, or willing to, deal with both. Yet without going so far as to awaken the great spectres of the past (Kenyon, Grenfell, Hunt, Schubart, Vitelli, and more recently Turner, all of whom were at ease with both literary and documentary papyri), we must recognize what intellectual impoverishment such a conception has led us to today. Moreover, this polarity was also foreign to the spirit of the ancient peoples whom we study: they used the same term, bibliothêkê, to designate a library of literature (in the modern sense of the term) and a public archive, and in them they placed their books and their documents within the same space. Furthermore, they did not hesitate to put literature and documents side by side on the same support, reusing a document to copy a literary text on the parts that remained blank, or vice versa, and thus demonstrating a deeper permeability between these two types of text than our modern conceptions allow us to imagine. The dialogue between literary and documentary papyrology, which is something that I have wished to revive for years, is above all highly fertile in a methodological sense when we take the time to allow the two domains to interact. How? In two ways.

34The first consists in reading literary papyrus texts like documents; in other words, in placing them in the historical context of their writing (for contemporary works) or of their copying and reading (for works transmitted by tradition), and thus analysing them like historical or cultural documents. This sociology of literature and literary practices is not new, although it is rarely practiced, mainly because of the difficulties encountered in the contextualization of literary papyri which, resulting often from illegal excavations, are not readily linked to archives or to their owners-readers.

  • 18 Ludwig Mitteis, Griechische Urkunden der Papyrussammlung zu Leipzig, Leipzig, Teubner, 1906, docume (...)
  • 19 “Homère dans les papyrus non littéraires: le poète dans le contexte de ses lecteurs” in Guido Basti (...)

35The other method is more innovative: it consists in studying documentary papyri as documents of culture. We are too inclined to limit the realm of culture to literature alone, yet the culture of an era is not reflected only in lists of works that it values or statistics generated from the corpus of surviving literary papyri. Documents also have something to say, and they do so in multiple ways. The first of these ways obviously consists in making use of the content and information that they provide about the world of culture: schools, literate practice (the copying and circulation of books), manifestations of culture (lectures, recitals, competitions) and, more generally, the literacy of populations. Onomastics, often exploited for the study of religious change, also offers data on cultural trends, which continue to be underestimated. It is not insignificant that, in the early fourth century, a magistrate of the city of Hermoupolis was named Achilles and his wife Hermione,18 two distinctively Homeric names that indicate the identitarian reactions of the traditional municipal elite faced with the rise of Christianity, whose Hellenism aligned itself more and more visibly with the fundamental pillars of secular Greek culture. Later, Christians too adopted Homeric names, such as Odysseus, which made its appearance in the fifth century, and in the seventh century Menelaus, showing the peaceful development of an essentially cultural paganism deemed to be complementary to Christian culture. Making use of the contents of documents to create a cultural history is an approach that may seem self-evident, yet it was not until 2012 that this type of approach was applied to the most widely read Greek author, Homer, and that I published the first systematic document-based study on Homeric culture in Greco-Roman Egypt.19

36The other “documentarian” approach to literary culture consists in analysing the form of documents: their language, their phraseology, their diplomatics, and their page layout. I have already briefly discussed this through Procopius’ letter. Obsessed with the contents of documents, papyrologists all too often overlook what they can learn from their form. In this sense, papyrology suffers from the overabundance of its documentation. In the urgency to edit, the message of the text is given priority, while information that may appear to be incidental, less interesting, or in any case less immediately useful due to its concrete or material and formal nature, is disregarded. Yet so much information can be extracted from the formal analysis of a letter, complaint, contract, or edict, which show, better than any amount of text, the cultural conditioning of a society, along with the cultural or even intellectual profile of the individuals who wrote them. For this analysis we are lacking a manual of documentary poetics – I intentionally use an expression bordering on the oxymoronic –, the writing of which is one of my intentions and which will fill a methodological and intellectual void.

  • 20 This papyrus was published by Jean Maspero, Papyrus grecs d’époque byzantine, op. cit., vol. I, Cai (...)

37The combination of these two approaches – the historical-sociological analysis of literary papyri and the literary-cultural analysis of documentary papyri – allows us to reveal two phenomena that seem to me characteristic of Late Antiquity and which transcend the cleavages of the documentation. The first is what we may call the “literatization” of documents. More and more clearly, from the late third century, letters, contracts and complaints pertaining to this everyday or practical type of writing, as opposed to that of literary texts, attest, through their palaeography, vocabulary, and rhetoric, to the influence of not only Christian literature, as one might expect, but also, more surprisingly, of secular literature. Thus we see the multiplication of citations from authors (often poets), the development of a vocabulary marked at once by a return to Atticism and, through the influence of poetry, the systematic use of introductory sections based on rhetorical models that attempts to establish themselves as short pieces of literature justifying the more down-to-earth text which follows. Let us consider one example among many: the conclusion of a complaint that an individual victim, along with his fellow villagers, addresses to the governor of the Thebaid province in 576 against a local official and his henchmen (Fig. 7):20

As God is our witness, in the winter we fed ourselves with chicory, and in the summer the leftovers (I mean what is left over from sifting) and grain dropped from the wheat tax, distributing them among our households, given that, once the wheat tax is paid, we have absolutely nothing left. Above all, we have been divested of the rights that are ours in times of peace, long oppressed by the attacks of innumerable bandits, day and night, bandits who associate with vagabond shepherds who are in league with them. They pillage and damage all of our goods to the detriment of the public treasury and to our greater ruin. And we have suffered an even more severe lack of food due to their wrongdoing, and have no longer any desire to live or to withstand such bold acts committed illegally and which have gone unpunished, to withstand their wolfish and predatory dispositions, always acting like carnivorous beasts. For such creatures, both cruel and fearless, spread human blood just as a careless person throws water across the ground in waste.

Figure 7

Figure 7

The last column of a complaint addressed by villager to a governor (567 ce).

© International Papyrological Photographic Archive; photo: A. Bülow-Jacobsen.

  • 21 Iliade, XVI, v. 156-163.

38Though it may not seem so, this seemingly banal cry of distress by taxpayers complaining of being mistreated and no longer able to pay their taxes, hides a clever game of references both to the Old and the New Testament, to the great Greek poet of proto-Byzantine Egypt, Nonnus of Panopolis, and to Homer, whose long comparison with carnivorous wolves21 is here very closely paraphrased. The divine Homer, master of the epic, is strikingly used to denounce pillaging by low-ranking officials. Is there any better example of the prestige of ancient literary culture in this world in the throes of cultural change? The effect of this prestige was felt even in the script itself as well as in the page layout. The script was increasingly influenced by bookhand writing and had recourse more and more often to the diacritical marks used in literary manuscripts (accents, punctuation, etc.). The page layout made use of spaces, contrasting writing styles, and a presentation marked by the bookhand productions. Both bear witness to the fact that greater attention was paid to the graphic element and its consubstantial relations with the text.

39All of this reflected the choices of a society that had developed a high opinion of literary culture, and poetry in particular, to such an extent that it shaped the forms of writing adopted by both the government and its subjects, and that the highest positions in the administration were not (always) given only to legal or administrative professionals, but also to men of letters, and notably to poets such as Cyrus of Panopolis, who became a prefect of the Eastern Court under Theodosius II, who reigned from 408 to 450.

40The influence of literature upon documentary writing was not unidirectional. Papyrological sources show us another phenomenon, working in the other direction, which I will call, by analogy to the term employed earlier – and I must ask you to forgive me for these ugly neologisms – “documentarization”. At least in certain milieus, and to the extent that we are able to observe this in dossiers containing both books and documents, literature is seen as having a practical function. Far from having the (sole) purpose of fostering and maintaining the pleasure of reading seen as a gratuitous act, the works of certain authors became practical manuals for eloquence or the writing of documents. We have seen that Thucydides was considered a master of rhetoric; likewise, Homer, Menander, and Isocrates were read as models of good writing, which could be directly imitated in everyday texts.

41If the literary corpus changed its nature and function, it also underwent a redefinition of its limits, opening up to genres that came from the world of documents. Collections of letters, of which I cited a few examples above, became fashionable. These texts, originally ephemeral documents, took on a second life by acquiring the status of literary texts, disseminated as literary manuscripts to a readership for whom they could once again serve as potentially reusable models. Contemporary literary works were also marked by this interest in documents: people began to write letters or even complaints in verse, or to include real or fictitious documents in less circumstantial, literary works. They produced patriographic rhapsodies or hagiographic collections, for example by transmuting documentary material into literature.

42To conclude, it is clear that we can understand this interpenetration and these interactions only if we adopt a comprehensive view of written culture, not limited to literary texts alone or to great literary figures, but understanding writing in its entirety, with the same dynamics that allowed the people of Late Antiquity to develop a unified conception of writing in which creation, development, and action constantly interacted. This will be the goal of this Chair, the binary title of which, “Written Culture of Late Antiquity and Byzantine Papyrology”, should hopefully now be clearer to you. Such will be the challenge of my lectures, which, by focusing on previously unpublished works, will attempt to reconcile the two great domains of papyrology, and, through them, history and philology, which should be in constant dialogue – need I even say it? – if we wish to establish a less biased and richer understanding of their subject. Now more than ever they need to support one another to survive and to continue to help us, by sharpening our critical faculties and insight, to piece together the shreds of past memories and thus, as far as possible, to avoid falling victim to our illusions, or worse, to those of others.

For Gilbert Dagron and Antonio Velluto


Audio and video recordings of this inaugural lecture are available on the Collège de France website:​site/​jean-luc-fournet/​inaugural-lecture-2016-01-07-18h00.htm


1 Ptolemy, son of Lagos, was a general of Alexander the Great. When the latter died in 323 bce, Ptolemy became satrap, and then king, of Egypt (306 or 305 bce), inaugurating the Ptolemaic (or Lagid) Dynasty. This dynasty would continue until the reign of Cleopatra VII (known as “the Great”) and the conquest of Octavian in 30 bce, after which Egypt became a Roman province.

2 “Papyrus du Musée royal, contenant l’annonce d’une récompense proposée à qui découvrira deux esclaves échappés”, Journal des savants, 1833, p. 329-341 and 477-486; “Papyrus grec du Musée royal, contenant une plainte en violation de sépulture”, Nouvelles Annales publiées par la section française de l’Institut archéologique, vol. I, Paris, 1836, p. 273-285.

3 Claude Fabre de Vaugelas (1585-1650) was a French grammarian who contributed to codify the proper use of the French language and who exerted a strong influence on the latter.

4 Émile Egger, De quelques textes inédits récemment trouvés sur des papyrus grecs qui proviennent de l’Égypte, Paris, P. Dupont, 1857, p. 15 (my emphasis). This essay was read at the quarterly meeting of the five academies on 7 October 1857, and was reprinted with new contributions in Émile Egger, Mémoires d’histoire ancienne et de philologie, Paris, A. Durand, 1863, VII (the quote is on p. 194).

5 Editor of the Anastasy Papyrus Anastasyi (“Erklärung einer ägyptischen Urkunde auf Papyrus in all griechischer Cursivschrift” in Sitzungen der königlich preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, 1821).

6 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, Dresde, Walther, 1764.

7 Daniela Bonanno and Corinne Bonnet, “‘Ah ! qui dira les torts de l’Égypte...’ Lorsque Paul Perdrizet louait les mérites de l’hellénisme à Franz Cumont”, Pallas, no. 90 (L’Antiquité en partage. Itinéraires d’histoire et d’archéologie. Mélanges offerts à Jean-Marie Pailler), 2013, p. 91-100; accessible online since 7 March 2014 at:

8 Jean Maspero, Papyrus grecs d’époque byzantine. Catalogue général des antiquités égyptiennes du musée du Caire, vols. I-III, Cairo, 1911-1916.

9 Germaine Rouillard, L’Administration civile de l’Égypte byzantine, preface by Charles Diehl, Paris, PUF, 1923; 2nd ed. Reviewed, corrected and illustrated, Paris, librairie orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1928.

10 Jean Maspero, Organisation militaire de l’Égypte byzantine, Paris, Honoré Champion, coll. “Bibliothèque de l’École des hautes études. Sciences historiques et philologiques”, vol. 201, 1912.

11 André Bataille, Traité d’études byzantines, volume II: Les Papyrus, Paris, PUF, coll. “Bibliothèque byzantine”, 1955.

12 A codex (plural: codices) is a set of folded and bound sheets much like a modern notebook. Supplanting in the fourth century the harder-to-handle scroll, it was the prototype of the modern book. Minuscule is a cursive writing that harmoniously reconciles the principles of readability and the efficient use of space, which began to develop in the seventh century and which, by ousting the ancient forms of cursive documentary writing and the majuscules of literary manuscripts, was used throughout the Middle Ages up until our times, in which it has been reproduced by modern typography.

13 Empedocles (5th c. bce): Alain Martin and Oliver Primavesi, L’Empédocle de Strasbourg (P. Strasb. gr. inv. 1665-1666), Berlin/New York, Bibliothèque nationale et universitaire de Strasbourg, 1999; Posidippus of Pella (4th-3rd c. bce): Guido Bastianini and Claudio Gallazzi, Posidippo di Pella. Epigrammi (P. Mil. Vogl. VIII 309), Milan, LED, 2001; Artemidorus of Ephesus (2nd c. bce): Bärbel Kramer, Claudio Gallazzi and Salvatore Settis, Il Papiro di Artemidoro, Milan, Edizioni universitarie di lettere economia diritto, 2008; Palladas (4th c. ce): Kevin W. Wilkinson, New Epigrams of Palladas: A Fragmentary Papyrus Codex (P.CtYBR inv. 4000), Durham, North Carolina American Society of Papyrologists, 2012; Sappho (7th-6th c. bce): Dirk Obbink, “Two new poems by Sappho”, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, no. 189, 2014, p. 32-49.

14 I edited this text in “Un papyrus strasbourgeois inédit de Thucydide, III, 42, 1; 43, 3-4”, Ktèma, no. 27, 2002, p. 65-70.

15 I draw here on the work of Eric G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977, p. 36. Papyri are cited by the number assigned to them in the Mertens-Pack3 database of literary papyri, which is accessible at:

16 This will be one of the subjects of my first years of lectures on multilingualism:

17 Epistolae, 91 in Procopii Gazaei, Epistolae et declamationes, ed. A. Garzya and R.-J. Loenertz, Studia patristica et byzantina, vol. 9, Ettal, 1963.

18 Ludwig Mitteis, Griechische Urkunden der Papyrussammlung zu Leipzig, Leipzig, Teubner, 1906, document no. 84, col. III, lines 9-10.

19 “Homère dans les papyrus non littéraires: le poète dans le contexte de ses lecteurs” in Guido Bastianini and Angelo Casanova (eds.), I papiri omerici, Florence, Istituto papirologico Girolamo Vitelli, 2012, p. 125-157.

20 This papyrus was published by Jean Maspero, Papyrus grecs d’époque byzantine, op. cit., vol. I, Cairo, 1911, no. 67002.

21 Iliade, XVI, v. 156-163.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende The main written formats studied by papyrologists: papyrus, potsherds, wooden tablets, parchment © private collection (a-b); Egyptian Museum of Cairo (c); Institut français d’archéologie orientale/IFAO (d).
Crédits Photos: J.-L. Fournet.
Fichier image/png, 5,4M
Titre Figure 2
Légende Antoine-Jean Letronne (1787-1848).
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Titre Figure 3
Légende The first volume of papyri ever published in France: Notices et textes des papyrus grecs du musée du Louvre et de la Bibliothèque impériale by Letronne, Brunet de Presle, and Egger, Paris, 1865.
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Titre Figure 4
Légende Papyrology as a puzzle: a folio from an edition of Aristophanes reduced to fragments distributed between the Institut de France (Paris) and the Bodleian Library (Oxford). Source: Commentaria et lexica graeca in papyris, Pars I, vol. 1, fasc. 4, tab. II.
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Titre Figure 5
Légende The pioneer of Byzantine papyrology in France: Jean Maspero (1885-1915).
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Titre Figure 6
Légende Short but informative: a fragment of an edition of Thucydides, front and back (4th/5th century)
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Titre Figure 7
Légende The last column of a complaint addressed by villager to a governor (567 ce).
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Chair in Written Culture in Late Antiquity and Byzantine Papyrology at the Collège de France,
Liz Libbrecht (Traducteur)

© Collège de France, 2018

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