What have the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus ever done for us?

Mei – Year 12 Student & Chief Editor, Humanities Journal

Editor’s Note: In a rich vein of form and with her passion for classical studies burning bright, Year 12 student Mei, founder and current Chief Editor of the school’s Humanities Journal, writes once again for us here. In this essay she explores Oxyrhynchus, a well-known ‘rubbish dump’ in Egypt: what do you think she will find? This essay was entered into the Gladstone Memorial Essay Prize organised by the Classical Association (blog here), an organisation dedicated to promoting the study of the languages, literature and civilizations of ancient Greece & Rome. CPD

[Featured image: An Oxyrhynchus papyrus, dated 75–125 AD. It describes one of the oldest diagrams of Euclid’s Elements. (Wikipedia: Public Domain)]

Oxyrhynchus is a place both painfully nondescript and exhilaratingly revolutionary. Some 50,000 fragments of papyri, slithers of this Egyptian nome’s illustrious history have been excavated so far, including the Hypsipyle of Euripides, the First Epistle of John and an epitome of lost Livian Works. Yet the notion at the crux of this question is whether Oxyrhynchus is the pinnacle of papyrology, the Eastern mecca of classical literature or whether it is a city marred by selective excavation constrained by clerical funding, undermined through the application of its rich evidence to unfittingly examine a broader historical position across Roman Northern Africa.

Study of Oxyrhynchus papyri immediately requires the exercise of caution; applying economic concepts found within unearthed documents from this particular nome cannot be extended to wider Egypt, nor Roman North Africa as a whole. Thus, economic documents and their analysis in terms of economic strife at Oxyrhynchus cannot serve as evidence for a theory of general economic crisis across Egypt during the early empire without uncontextualizing data and applying it in a wider, statistically inappropriate manner. This is evidenced through a First Century letter from Paniscus to the basilico-grammateus Asklepiades found at Oxyrhynchus, in which the former discusses a lack of bids from farmers of select money taxes; the likelihood that those who are unwilling to bid, yet are forced, will flee. If tax farming yields a decent profit, it is directly conducive that there should be a surplus of volunteers. Thus, its unprofitability in the 1st Century CE in Oxyrhynchus, evidenced through this general unwillingness to partake in this previously-common economic mechanism popularised under the late Republic, suggests a striking observation: the government’s terms are inequitable. It appears that they made such excessive demands that some taxpayers absconded to avoid monetary taxes, meaning the tax farmers were unable to satisfy quotas, never-mind cultivate a healthy profit margin. The principle of responsibility for farmers to collect the quota, and beyond that make a profit, culminated in a degree of barbarism; Philo speaks of a tax farmer who outraged the corpse of a dissenting tax payer to force his relatives to pay a ransom, making up for the farmer’s loss of income through the deceased defaulting tax payer. Evidentially, this demonstrates that in Oxyrhynchus, the economic situation was crippling and consequentially translated into demands from the tax farmers so unreasonable that the remunerators fled, oppressed by the fiscal policy of the Roman government, to the extent in which Oxyrhynchus faced a minor depopulation. The flight of these internal residents, solely to avoid burdensome monetary taxes to external areas within Egypt suggests that the taxation situation was far more lenient in other nomes than it was in Oxyrhynchus, or perhaps collection enforcement was less draconian, conducive to the theory that the economic situation in Oxyrhynchus is not applicable to the economic climate of Egypt as a whole – applying Oxyrhynchite data to the entire country in a sweeping statement is a paradigm example of uncontexualised evidencing and by no means representative of the economic idiosyncrasies of each nome.

Futhermore, the agriculturalisation of the early Egyptian economy meant that the economic climate of each nome varied in line with the individual natural causes and problems which afflicted certain areas; natural phenomena served as a probable cause for an economic disruption, but the extent of economic disruption from geographic factors varied across Egypt, mainly depending on the position of each nome in relation to the Nile meaning that data from Oxyrhynchus cannot be applied to the whole nation. This means once again that economic disruption in Oxyrhynchus can certainly be partially attributed to natural causes; however, evidence of the economy being impeded by natural causes in Oxyrhynchus is not conducive to the economy of the whole of Egypt experiencing the same geographic turmoil.  The ramifications of natural phenomena, especially that concerning the flooding of the Nile, fluctuated across Egypt, as did agricultural patterns, suggesting what type of agricultural economy each individual nome functioned around. The evidence for this lies within in agricultural cropping patterns; figure 1 depicts the duration of lease vs the size of the object leased, with the main factor for consideration being  the difference between leasing for an even or uneven number of years. The graph demonstrates that an uneven number of years corresponds to smaller – scale and more intensive agriculture, an even number of years to a more extensive and larger scale agriculture. In contrast to the Fayum and Hermopolite nomes, Oxyrhynchus has produced almost all leases for an even number of years. This suggests that its agricultural patterns, and subsequently its economy, as this is what the yields of agriculture composed the basis of; there is a consensus that the whole of Egypt had an agricultural economy, and that Oxyrhynchus’ was distinctly different to that in the rest of Egypt. Thus, this proves the danger of extrapolating economic data from Oxyrhynchus and applying it to Egypt as a whole, due to the differences in agricultural mechanisms and yields, translating as overall economic differences across the nation.

Figure 1

The overarching issue, however, with the Oxyrhynchian discoveries is that the early excavations of Oxyrhynchus had an insular focus, driven by the requirement for funding and the satisfaction of sponsors; this culminated in the prioritisation of seeking great classical literatures and Christian texts over quotidian documents, which would have provided an unprecedented bottom-up perception of the ancient world through a papyri trail. Grenfell and Hunt’s funding, secured through the Greco- Roman Branch of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EFF) meant that they were primarily concerned with recovering significant papyri from solely the Greco-Roman period rather than material from a melange of eras, which would construct a more extensive, overarching image of the history of Oxyrhynchus. Fundamentally, reliance on the EFF, amalgamated with private funding, cultivated a startling prioritization of lost, obscure literary works over prosaic documents of daily life. In a bid to receive more funding to fuel the excavations over the subsequent seasons, almost in desperation to uncover lost masterpieces in a Schliemann-esk manner, Grenfell and Hunt played upon the desires of the Victorian Christian public to publicise and solicit funding for continued work in the Oxyrhynchian nome. Perhaps the most startling evidence of this selective focus was the hasty publication of the P.Oxy. 1 1: Logia Iesou ‘Sayings of Jesus’: Leaf from a codex (bound book) of the Gospel of Thomas, second or third century AD. This desultory publication of the papyri simply was not in line with its monumental importance for patristic culture: the Pall Mall Gazette of July 1879 notes:

The notes of the editors strike one as perfunctory and rudimentary. They do not even fix the date of the papyrus with any certainty; yet the editors admit that among their spoils they have a large quantity of documents, as yet unexamined, which may throw considerable light on the fragments.

Clearly, there is an indication that the focus of the excavations is searching for what appeals to the people, and quick publication as evidence of their toils (and demonstrating the objective of their funding). This insular focus does not extend to seemingly humdrum documents such as corn dole archives, tax receipts and provincial edicts, which is the veritable, beautiful rarity that Oxyrhynchus proffers to historians. Whilst the British public may not be interested in such documents, which ultimately led largely to their dismissal in the initial excavations by Grenfell and Hunt, clinging on to a desire to find lost works of antiquity consciously aware that the constitution of Athens by Aristotle had been discovered on Egyptian papyri in 1890, Oxyrhynchus provides a unique opportunity to construct a grassroots image of the ancient world: just as a complete papyrus can be constructed from fragments, a complete Oxyrhynchus can be reconstructed through its papyri. Thus, the initial excavations by Grenfell and Hunt appeared to be more of a reputation building exercise, seeking validation, and more importantly, funding, from the public through dwelling on mighty literary finds of classical antiquity and early Christianity instead of the more mundane documents bestowed by Oxyrhynchus which, when pieced together, would create a mighty provincial picture of one of the largest Roman North African cities of the Empire.

However, the monumentality of the literary findings at Oxyrhynchus are not to be ignored; rather they are to be revered, despite the failings on other fronts suggesting that the finds are certainly of some utility. Whilst the patristic and Septuagint findings at Oxyrhynchus hold great importance for the study of early Christianity, the focus of this section will be the Athenian playwright Menander, who has benefitted most richly from the discovery of his works in papyrus fragments at Oxyrhynchus; his convergence of the dramatic interests of tragedy and humour were the genesis of Athenian New Comedy, and the revival of his works through Oxyrhynchus has bolstered his reputation as the pinnacle of familial satire. The question of why Menander’s works were lost in the first place is a pertinent one; they were not studied in Byzantine schools due to his ‘linguistic defences against the canons of Pure Attic which had already been stigmatized by Phyrnichus’, with this movement away from his works by the turn of late antiquity also symptomatic of a general change in values and attitudes found among Christian educators. By the 7th and 8th Centuries, primarily as a result of Byzantine neglect and Arab incursions, his works were lost, until Oxyrhynchian excavations in the 20th century signalled the greatest revival of Menandian works, including Dyskolos, the only play that has survived intact: Misoumenos, EpitrepontesKarchedonios and Kolax are fragmented. The discovery of this work, and the Menandian renaissance it has triggered, is of monumental importance; the papyrus form provides a more authentic connection with Menander, as it is crucial in understanding how he physically wanted the plan to be read and performed. Philosophically inflected and politically complex, Menander’s work reflects the contradictions and desires of early Hellenistic Athens, indicative of turbulent times stranded between a pining nostalgia for the democratic world and the new political order, emerging in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests and the negation of democracy as the defining aspects of the contemporary Athenian citizenship. They are critical in understanding the foundations of New Comedy, presenting a satiric view of Athenian life with a focus on its domestic aspects, reflecting on one level the moral ambiguity of the Bourgeoisie, and on a deeper level, the human condition. The work is also historically important due to its influence upon 16th Century commedia erudita and commedia dell’arte, as well as Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists, all overwhelming evidence of the excellence of this find at Oxyrhynchus.

Oxyrhynchus, despite the succulent fruits of classical literature it has cultivated, appears to be a locus of untapped potential and futile historical manipulation. The extrapolation of economic data from the nome, and its remiss application to the polity of Egypt is laden with conjecture and baseless assumption; the overt desperation of Grenfell and Hunt in seeking literary masterpieces and appearing somewhat ambivalent towards prosaic finds is striking. It is only with the advent of the 21st Century that the diurnal soul of Oxyrhynchus is being constructed through the fragments of papyrus, yet there is still a long way to go. Perhaps the real question not is what the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus have done for us; rather, it is what we can do for the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus.

Mei 620640


Bell, H. (1938). The Economic Crisis in Egypt under Nero. The Journal of Roman Studies, 28, 1-8. Retrived May 28, 2020.

Easterling, P. (1995). MENANDER: LOSS AND SURVIVAL: ζώεις εἰς αἰω̑να (AP 9.187). Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies. Supplement, (66), 153-160. Retrieved May 28, 2020.

Grenfell, Bernard P. and Arthur S. Hunt 1903. Graeco-Roman branch. Excavations at Hibeh, Cynopolis and Oxyrhynchus. Archaeological Report (Egypt Exploration Fund) (1902-1903), 1-9

MORRIS, R. (1978). THE ECONOMY OF OXYRHYNCHUS IN THE FIRST CENTURY. The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, 15(4), 263-273. Retrieved May 28, 2020

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