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 they prefer Euripides to Sophocles? Why did they throw away so many copies of Homer? The last question invites a reflective answer. The Greeks had their classic texts, which are still among our own ‘classics’: how they reacted to them over time says something particular about the uses of literacy.

The classical canon began forming in classical times. An Athenian comedy of the fourth century bc imagines Heracles (a hero of more muscle than mind) in his schooldays. His tutor Linus takes him to the library, and allows him to pick a book. Heracles looks over the stock: he bypasses Homer and Hesiod and tragedy – and chooses The Art of Cookery. Two millennia on, we can still read Homer and Hesiod and a selection of tragedies, because these authors remained set books in schools, and as set books they were copied and recopied through the Middle Ages. But the cookbooks disappeared for ever, along with a mass of lighter literature: the gossipy memoirs of Ion of Chios, the classic pornography of Philaenis, the gastronomic Odyssey of Archestratus, who ‘travelled the world to gratify his stomach and appetites even lower’.

By the time of Alexander the Great the canon had more or less solidified, the bedrock of what was then, and would remain, ‘a classical education’. With Alexander’s conquests Greek emigrants gained possession of the whole Near East. The new kingdom of Egypt and the new Seleucid empire attracted a steady flow of savants and mercenaries, carpetbaggers and younger sons, and where they went, the classics went with them, the badge of the true Hellene. These colonial regimes, ruling from Alexandria and Babylon, lasted three centuries before they fell, piece by piece, into the hands of Rome. Kings gave way to emperors, but the classics retained their throne. In the East, already colonised from Greece, and the West, opened up by Rome, Greek education shows an astonishing universality. Schoolboys copy the same line of Euripides in Egyptian Thebes and Armenian Artaxata; they perform the same grammatical exercise at Cologne as at Memphis.

In the Roman province of Egypt we can follow the classics on and in the ground: the dry climate has preserved a sample of them, in original papyrus copies, under the sand. Here and there ruined houses yield a scatter of books and documents. At Oxyrhynchus, the ruined city provides papyri in bulk: its lunar landscape shows hardly a stone standing, but the ancient rubbish dumps that surround it represent eight centuries’ worth of salvage, 500,000 pieces and scraps of written material. One in every ten fragments comes from a book, and those books include not only what we call the classics, as private reading or as set books for schools, but a range of leisure reading.

Oxyrhynchus was a county town, a sound bourgeois base for schooling. But the classics reached even the remotest corner. Ten days up the Nile by boat, and eleven days by camel into the Libyan desert, you come to Trimithis in the Great Oasis. On a hill above this little town stands a temple of Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing. Down below, digging has uncovered a schoolroom. Along one wall, a brick bench for the pupils; in the middle, a space where the master will have had his chair (then as now the symbol of academic authority). On the wall behind him you can still read some edifying verses, in red letters two centimetres high:

To my students:
O may the god incline to hear my prayer
That all may learn the Muses’ honeyed fare
And, by the Graces’ aid, and Maia’s son,
The heights of Rhetoric be wholly won.
My boys, be brave: our great god will impart
The victor’s crown in every various art.

We are in the fourth century ad. Far away, the Emperor Constantine cosies up to a new saviour, but in the schoolroom the old patrons, Muses and Graces and Hermes son of Maia, still rule the benches, where another generation will learn the grammatical Greek and sophisticated style that admit it to the Hellenised elite. Several wooden notebooks survive from the same area. One shows students, or teachers, declining pronouns and conjugating verbs and paraphrasing the beginning of the Iliad. Another copies a speech of the classical orator Isocrates, the model of rhetorical urbanity – but marks up the text for those who find the antique grammar and convoluted phraseology hard to follow. The third parodies Homeric heroics in Homeric verse: the author, strong on wit and weak on metre, had allowed his mind a frivolous diversion on the way to the Heights.

Homer of course was the king of the classics. ‘Homer is a god, not a man’: the schoolboy who copied this out knew his curriculum. Homer rules, and because his language had been archaic since the fifth century bc, he was served by a whole household of dictionaries, vocabularies, paraphrases and plot summaries, with catechisms to test your command of the sacred text. The Iliad and the Odyssey, like War and Peace and Anna Karenina, represent contrasting worlds of martial struggle and domestic stress. If we trust the statistics, Egypt as a Greek kingdom preferred the Odyssey: perhaps the tale of long wandering in strange places appealed to the early generations of the diaspora. The Roman province of Egypt much preferred the Iliad: perhaps the tale of total war suited the new imperial theme, perhaps Greeks found special satisfaction in recalling how their own ancestors destroyed the Trojan ancestors of the Romans.

Homer provided role models, but his divine text also possessed prophetic powers. The anxious could simply open the Iliad and find their destiny in a line chosen at random. Brutus tried this, on the night before his final battle; he found: ‘Cruel fate killed me, and the god Apollo.’ They could also take a more scientific approach. A pocket-sized book called the Scimitar contains 216 arbitrary lines of Homer, each indexed with three numbers between 1 and 6, beginning with 1.1.1 and ending with 6.6.6: roll three dice, and check those three figures in the oracle. (I tried this yesterday, and got 2.3.1 = ‘You are valiant, and posterity will speak well of you.’) Those who preferred more intellectual guidance could turn to the classical philosophers, among whom Plato remained a bestseller. Those who found Plato too wordy and patrician might prefer the informal teaching of a humble pundit who could still outclass priests and professors. Aesop had been a folk hero for at least five centuries: a slave, deformed and grotesque, yet vastly cleverer than his philosopher master, author of fables that present human sense through animal talk. Along with the fables went a biography, in which Aesop began with divine inspiration and ended as the murdered victim of a jealous establishment: a popular read that survived even the Middle Ages. At the same time there began to circulate, in rather cheap copies, the biographies of another lowly guru, the son of a Jewish carpenter, who similarly preached a message of good morals and faced down the self-appointed wise men of his society. This Jesus was called the Christ, an ambiguous word in the pronunciation of the time: scholars might interpret it as ‘the anointed’, but many took it to mean ‘the good man’. His gospel went round in the form of a notebook, rather than the roll normal for literary works. Both the medium and the message were destined to upstage Homer.

Humankind cannot bear very much genius. We sometimes feel the need to domesticate our set books: the Shakespeare of the second-best bed seems more tractable than Shakespeare on the blasted heath. The Greeks had devised recognisable strategies to defang their own classics. You could dramatise them: actors in full costume performed selections from Homer. You could undermine them: already critics were arguing that Sophocles was a plagiarist, that Plato did not invent the dialogue. You could make them redundant, with a bluffer’s guide to Greek historians, or the Tales from Euripides, which summarised all the plays. Best of all, you could humanise them by looking at their lives; and where, as with Shakespeare, information was lacking, it could be invented. There circulated a mini-epic on ‘The Battle of the Frogs and Mice’, not (it was alleged) a parody of Homer but a juvenile creation of the master himself: a famous relief shows the poet being crowned by World and Time, while under his feet a frog and a mouse guard the papyrus roll of his works. There circulated also a diary of the Trojan War, by a fictitious ‘Dictys of Crete’, who claimed to be (unlike Homer) an eyewitness of the conflict. Libraries contained a Life of Euripides by Satyrus, which filled many gaps by inferring the life from the plays, and taking seriously the jokes that Aristophanes and others had made about the Poet of Rags and his mother the greengrocer. For further intimacy with the illustrious dead, nothing served so well as their private letters. Fraudsters or funsters duly invented the correspondence of Alexander with the King of India, and the heartwarming epistle in which Euripides congratulates Sophocles on escaping from shipwreck (‘without losing a single slave’), even though some of his plays had gone down with the ship.

Universal as Hellenism was, the new colonial aristocracy found itself camped among the monuments of ancient vainglory: a visitor to Alexandria disembarked on a quayside lined with sphinxes. They had various guides to the new environment: an archaic Greek view in Herodotus, a Hellenised native view in such works as Manetho’s History of Egypt and Berossus’ History of Babylonia, even direct access to indigenous sources (recent finds in Egypt show how many such texts circulated in Greek translation). All this informed the standard stereotypes of popular history to create the legends of Queen Semiramis and Pharaoh Sesonchosis, despots and conquerors. Legend helped also to decode the material inheritance of inscrutable structures and enigmatic inscriptions. Early Greeks in Assyria saw reliefs of Assyrian kings who raised their right hands in a commanding gesture; from that they constructed the story of Sardanapalus, King of Nineveh, whose tomb showed him snapping his fingers at life and saying ‘Eat, drink and be merry: everything else can go to hell.’ Early Greeks in Egypt identified the Ramesseum at Thebes as the tomb of Ozymandias, with the supposed inscription: ‘If anyone wants to know my greatness, let him try to excel one of my works.’ The Greeks appropriated the prestige of such barbarian conquerors, and added a gift-wrapping of Hellenic sensibility.

The threatening allure of the foreign plays its part in two new genres, rapidly expanding in the second century ad, which we might classify as classics-lite. The novel takes its place alongside the epic, and the mime (in its Greek sense of ‘drama imitating life’) alongside tragedy and comedy. Many novels (we have five complete, since they survived the Middle Ages, and fragments of a dozen more in the Egyptian salvage) took their characters on voyages of adventure. In Calligone, the heroine comes from Olbia, a Greek colony in the Crimea, always under threat from the Scyths of the interior. Expelled from her homeland, she washes up in the land of the Amazons, who live nearby, and forms an alliance with them, a girl from a real city rescued by women of the mythical past. Antonius Diogenes, whose lost work we know from a late summary, set up the serious challenge: his Incredible Things beyond Thule ran to 24 books, the exact length of the Odyssey. This expansive fiction purports to be a documentary record set down before Alexander’s conquests. (Incredible challenges the reader from the start.) Through its Chinese box structure, an Egyptian magician pursues a Greek heroine and her brother as far as Scotland; he turns them into zombies, and the spell is broken only when he himself is killed. Such romances of the road enact the anxiety of immigrants and their fear of the conquered foreigner. Some, like Calligone, have one foot in history. Others offer the real stuff of nightmares: witness Babylonian Story, where the star-crossed lovers get pursued by a pair of noseless eunuchs.

If the novel represents para-epic, the mime represents para-drama. The Oxyrhynchites read the tragedies of Euripides (as far in their past as Shakespeare in ours), and the comedies of Menander. They had a theatre to seat 11,000; and these plays got performed, to judge from the papyri in which the text is marked up, not with the names of the characters but with the numbers of the first, second and third actors who played them. At the same time the citizens were entertained with solo arias, pocket dramas and parodies of tragedy, all short enough to fit in a variety show, alongside tightrope walkers and chariot races. ‘Mime’ is the cover-all classification. So a monologue by a girl who has lost her lover updates a Euripidean heroine. So Charition takes its plot from Euripides: heroic male rescues innocent girl from barbarian king (the plot has many possibilities, witness Die Entführung and L’italiana in Algeri). This version rescues the maiden, after much drumming and farting, from an Indian monarch, for India was now much closer – Alexander had reached the Punjab, and Egypt traded with the west coast and the Deccan.

Heracles had shown no taste for the classics; when Linus tried to set him right, he beat him to death with a chair leg. The Greeks of the diaspora practised more respect, however much they threw away; and it was their classical education that secured the survival of selected texts through the decline and fall of Rome up to their rebirth in the Renaissance. At the same time, global Hellenism allowed for cultural microclimates, in which local lore could receive a Greek gloss. Orientalism proved a powerful force; and if many of its para-classics remain lost, their heroes and marvels entered the tradition as new myths of exciting otherness. Homer still rules, but Ozymandias and Sardanapalus lived on, as names and as morals, to catch the imaginations of Shelley and Delacroix.

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