The study of papyri chiefly from Egypt. This relatively new discipline is called Greek papyrology for the sake of clarity, although it tacitly includes the small number of Latin papyri also. The texts derive from the period from the second half of the fourth century B.C. to about the ninth century A.D. Because they essentially belong together, texts from this period on other writing materials, except for inscriptions on stone, fall within the field of papyrology. Since the papyri form the largest part of the sources, they have given the name to the discipline, although the papyri in other languages are excluded because they fall to the province of Egyptology or of Oriental studies. Naturally we should not think of this delimitation, which has grown up in practical work, as rigid.
On the contrary, the papyrologist who sets out from the knowledge of the Greek language must take the history of Egypt into consideration and seek the collaboration of specialists in contemporary demotic and Coptic sources. A small group of Greek and Latin papyri and parchments of non-Egyptian origin, particularly from Dura-Europos and Palestine, belongs to the field of papyrology. On the other hand, the literary papyri from Herculaneum have not become the concern of papyrology proper.
Texts are divided according to form and content into literary and documentary categories. Compositions in verse and prose, as well as the works of the special sciences, count among the literary texts. To the documents are assigned the private letters, extant in large number, which do not pursue any literary aim. One problem is the classification of school exercises, although a limited literary interest is not lacking in these. Along with the magical texts they are assigned to a subliterary area. If a literary text is published, it is more a subject for philological research.
The survival of the written evidence in Egypt is due to the dry climate, which is favorable to it. The great mass of the papyri derives from rubbish heaps in towns, from burial grounds, and from papyrus boards, which are separated out to recover the texts. For memoranda, receipts, accounts, or information, and sometimes also for literary texts, potsherds (ostraca) and limestone splinters were used, indeed practically anything smooth and suitable for writing. Lead tablets were in the main reserved for magical texts. Other writing materials were animal skin, leather, parchment, wood and wax tablets, and finally paper, which the Arabs introduced into the Mediterranean world in the eighth century.
The earliest find of papyri in Egypt with consequences for scientific research occurred in 1778. About 100 years later villagers found papyri in hitherto unsuspected quantity in rubbish heaps, so that plans were made for a systematic search. Archaeologists from different nations began extensive excavations.
The importance of the papyri as historical sources lies in their immediacy. Our knowledge of antiquity is based for the most part on presentations founded on the choice and the selective view of their authors. Since the papyri embrace the whole of cultural life, papyrology furnishes source material for numerous special disciplines. From the documents, historians have obtained archival material to an extent that was previously available only to medievalists and modern historians. A cultural and economic history and a history of law in the Hellenistic and imperial period have become possible only through them. The documents have made an essential contribution to the expansion of our knowledge of the Greek language and of paleography, and to the investigation of theology and of the history of book production.
Among the published literary texts the greater part consists of works already known from medieval codices, for which the papyri in some cases offer older readings. However, the significance of the literary papyri lies in the fact that the number of the texts that have become known for the first time through them is considerable. So far as the extent of the literary tradition is concerned, Homer with the Iliad stands first. Then follow Demosthenes and Euripides. While the works of many authors experienced enlargement, Bacchylides, for example, only comes alive for us through the papyri, and only they convey to us a comprehensive insight into Menander’s dramatic art. The Acts of the Alexandrian Martyrs shows the aversion of the Greeks against imperial despotism and its anti-Semitic attitude. Greek professional literature is represented just as much as pagan religious or Christian literature.
The content of the documents provides evidence for political, public, and legal relationships, and for economic and social conditions. The state authorities are the originators of many documents. Edicts, official journals, judicial records, and petitions by private persons to officials are numerous; private contracts, accounts, and letters have survived in great quantity.
Greek remained the language of commerce even after the incorporation of Egypt into the Roman empire. Apart from a few high administrative officials, it was almost only the Roman legionaries who spoke Latin. Thus documents from the army, the administration, and the law and private letters form the bulk of the Latin papyri from Egypt. Among literary works, we find texts of classical authors (Cicero, Sallust, Livy, Virgil), among juridical texts parts of the works of Ulpian and Papinian, the CODEX THEODOSIANUS, and the CODEX JUSTINIANUS.
After preservative treatment of the material, two tasks present themselves to the specialist: the editing of unpublished texts and the evaluation of those already published, according to appointed criteria. Here the main concern is to understand the documents in terms of where they belong, geographically and factually. Something similar holds for the literary field, to make more precise statements, for example, about content, manufacture, writing, book ornamentation, and chronological questions.
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