Posidippus: The Milan Papyrus

Hello Ancient Lives Users! 
Just a quick note to let you know that we are going to be expanding the scope of the blog in the upcoming months. In addition to our usual tips for using the website, we will include informational posts relevant to classical/papyrological scholarship. Our first concerns the Milan papyrus, which, unlike the Oxyrhynchus texts, was found as part of a mummy cartonnage!

The Milan papyrus was recently discovered and has been immensely valuable for modern scholars. In 2001, the first edition of a collection of Hellenistic poetry was published and a new era began in the study of the 3rd century BCE poet, Posidippus of Pella. The papyrus was once part of the material that formed the chest cavity of a mummy, one that was preserved in the dry desert sands of Egypt for more than two thousand years. The papyrus itself is about five feet long and about a foot wide. Some sections of the text were cut out and there is writing on both sides. One side contains approximately 600 lines of verse in a hand that has been dated to c. 230-200 BCE. The other side has some mythological material which dates to the early 2nd century BCE. There were also five other documents in the cartonnage and many little fragments of papyrus.

This poetry book was a professional copy that had been repaired at some point. Then, around 176 BCE, the papyrus was sent to a recycling center and formed into the pectoral of a mummy, most likely in the region of the Fayum in Egypt. After this cartonnage was rediscovered in the 1990’s, it ended up in the collection of the Università degli Studi di Milano, in Milan, Italy (catalogued as P. Mil. Vogl. VIII 309) and it is now known as ‘the Milan papyrus.’

An exciting part of this discovery is the fact that two of the epigrams on the papyrus were already known and had been attributed to Posidippus of Pella, a Macedonian poet who was one of the earliest of the Hellenistic epigrammatists. Tzetzes, a Byzantine scholar writing in the 12th century, quoted the text of what is now known as AB 15. A second epigram from the Milan papyrus (AB 65) appears in the Greek Anthology (AP XVI 119), another Byzantine source created from earlier books of poetry (the oldest being Meleager’s Garland from the 1st c BCE).

The discovery of this new material has been a boon to scholars of Hellenistic poetry and poetry books. Previously, the Posidippean corpus consisted only of about thirty poems: thirteen undisputed epigrams in the Greek Anthology; nine in the same collection that are doubly ascribed; four epigrams quoted by Athenaeus (who flourished c. 200 CE); two epigrams (AB 115 and 116) from a papyrus dated to 160 BCE, written in the Serapeum at Memphis (P. Firmon-Didot); one poem on a 1st century BCE papyrus (P. Tebt. I 3 32-25), AB 117; an epigram that includes the author’s name (AB 118) from a wax tablet (P. Berol. 14283 = SH 705); and some others of more or less dubious authorship. There are 110 new poems on the papyrus, a significant addition including some that seem innovative (e.g. poems on stones or bird omens) and others that seem familiar from the Greek Anthology (e.g. poems on shipwrecks or epitaphs).

Edited during a time of famous scholarly activity in Ptolemaic Egypt, the Milan papyrus is not only a significant artifact for the study of Posidippus of Pella and of the development of literary epigram in Alexandria under the Ptolemies, but it is also evidence of an actual poetry publication, and a link to literacy, book editing, scribes, education. Today, what was once treated like trash survives as the oldest example of a Greek poetry book. It has even been suggested that the book was edited by the poet himself!

A couple of other fun papyri to compare: a 3rd century BCE papyrus that may be by Posidippus (P. Cair. 65445, vv. 140-154; AB 113); and the “Lille Callimachus,” another 3rd century BCE papyrus from the mask and chest piece of a Fayum mummy.

For more information, see:

Austin, C. and G. Bastianini, eds. Posidippi Pellaei Quae Supersunt Omnia,
Milan: Universitarie di Lettere Economica Diritto, 2002
Acosta-Hughes, B., E. Kosmetatou, M. Baumbach, eds. Labored in Papyrus Leaves:
       Perspectives on an Epigram Collection Attributed to Posidippus (P. Mil. Vogl. VIII 309),
       Washington, D.C.: Harvard University Press, Center for Hellenic Studies, 2004
Center for Hellenic Studies website, especially the online publication with the latest version of
the text of Posidippus
Oxford Bibliographies Online on Posidippus

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