The Greek Alphabet

Here’s a brief overview of the letters of the Greek alphabet, as found on the Transcribe keyboard, plus some information about letter combinations. The list below gives the form of the capital letter, the lowercase letter, the name of the letter, and the pronunciation. There are 24 of these letters, 7 of which are vowels: α, ε, η, ι, ο, υ, ω.

Α α   Alpha /a/ as in father (when long) or /a/ as in feta (when short)

Β β   Beta /b/ as in bed

Γ γ   Gamma /g/ as in gate

Δ δ   Delta /d/ as in dog

Ε ε    Epsilon /e/ as in red

Ζ ζ    Zeta /ds/ as in cords

Η η   Eta /ey/ as in they

Θ θ   Theta /th/ as in thin

Ι ι      Iota /i/ as in ski (when long) or /i/ as in lit (when short)

Κ κ    Kappa /k/ as in kiss

Λ λ    Lambda /l/ as in lamb

Μ μ   Mu /m/ as in mat

Ν ν    Nu /n/ as in nest

Ξ ξ     Xi /x/ as in ax

Ο ο    Omicron /o/ as in often

Π π     Pi /p/ as in picture

Ρ ρ      Rho /r/ as in red

Σ σ/ς   Sigma /s/ as in sit  (Note: The ς is only used at the end of a word.)

Τ τ      Tau /t/ as in tea

Υ υ      Upsilon /u/ as in food (when long) or /u/ as in put (when short)

Φ φ     Phi /ph/ as in phone

Χ χ      Chi /ch/ as in Bach

Ψ ψ     Psi /ps/ as in lips

Ω ω     Omega /ō/ as in sole

The letter γ (gamma) is pronounced like an “n” sound when combined with certain letters.

γγ   /ng/ as in linger

γκ   /nk/ as in sink

γχ   /nk/ as in sink

Below are all the possible Greek diphthongs.

αι    /ai/ as in aisle

ει    /ei/ as in weight

οι    /oi/ as in oil

αυ   /ow/ as in cow

ευ   /eu/ “eh-oo”

ηυ   /eyu/ “ay-oo”

ου   /ou/ as in soup

υι    /uee/ as in queen

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

Update on Project Goals

Now that Ancient Lives has been active for more than a year, we wanted to remind everyone about project goals. Ancient Lives combines human computing with machine intelligence in order to expedite the process of identifying known texts, contextualizing unknown texts, bringing together fragments for textual reconstruction, and cataloguing fragments in a more expeditious digital way. The overall goal is to rapidly transform image data from papyri into meaningful information that scholars can use to study Greek literature and Greco-Roman Egypt; information that once took generations to produce.

Since Ancient Lives went live in July of 2011, we have logged have over 1.5 million transcriptions. “Volunteer papyrologists” have specifically helped in identifying over 100 texts, including important pieces from ancient authors like Plutarch and Simonides.

With this mass amount of data Ancient Lives is now capable of moving into the emerging field of Digital Philology. We have generated, for the first time, a database of digital Greek texts. Consequently, the project is now working with programming analysts on creating an innovative interface and potential digital text-editing environment that will make this data more accessible to professional scholars and papyrologists. Furthermore, although the core dataset of Ancient Lives has been the Greek papyrus fragments from the city of the sharp-nosed-fish (Oxyrhynchus), the project, in the future, would also like to start collecting transcriptions from the other languages present in the collection (ancient Egyptian, Aramaic, Arabic, Coptic, etc), as well as try to incorporate other datasets from the ancient world. The Ancient Lives team is very pleased with the response and hard work of the Zooniverse volunteers, and would like this site to transform into an online hub where users from around the world can help scholars study the languages and manuscripts of the ancient world.

More Tips for Documentary Papyri

When you start to transcribe a cursive script:

1. Look for words and phrases that typically appear in documents, like χαίρειν (see greeting formula at the end)

2. Watch out for ligatures and unusual forms

Many letters appear differently in different documents.

Epsilon can be straightforward…


…but it often looks like this:


or even this:


Rho can also have several forms:



or with a curled tail:


Upsilon is sometimes written higher than the other letters.

It may be long and broad…


…or small and more pointed


Sometimes letters in documents bear almost no resemblance to their usual forms.

The letter on the right, for example, is open-topped beta.


Look for ligatures…some common ones are:

alpha + iota


epsilon + iota (χαιρειν)


sigma + epsilon


You will also find symbols in documentary papyri. (See the post below for a list of symbols and their meanings.)

The L-shaped year (ἔτους) symbol is very common.


Sometimes horizontal lines are used to mark abbreviations or numbers. (See post on numbers also below.)

Image (abbreviation for ευχομαι)

Here is an example of a greeting formula. The person who is sending the message is in the nominative case (Ἡράκλειος). The person receiving it goes in the dative (Θεμιστοκλεῖ). Ιn this case, an adjective is used to describe Themistocles: τιμιωτάτωι: most honoured. The last part of the formula is the word χαίρειν, greetings!


[All images from published Oxyrhynchus papyri]

Happy Transcribing!

Symbols in Papyri

On the bottom right of the Transcribe page, there is a box with many symbols. These symbols are found mainly in documentary papyi, but a few belong to literary fragments.


ἄρουρα: area measure; 2756 square meters


ἀρτάβη: dry measure; 38.808 liters



χοῖνιξ: dry measure; .97 liter


λίτρα: a measure of weight; 12 ounces


τάλαντον: 6,000 drachmas


δραχμή: coin (about 323 g) worth 6 obols

Imageστιγμα: the number six



multiple uses: it can stand for drachma, the number ½, or the year (ἔτους)


τριώβολον: 3 obols


δηνάριος: Roman monetary unit


μυριάς: the number 10,000


νόμισμα: the “solidus” gold coin



πυρός: wheat


σαμπι: the number 900


κοππα: the number 90


γίνεται: total


ἔτους: indicates a year (see blog post on numbers)



forked paragraphos: indicates a specific break in the text


ImageThis one has many uses! Its most famous use is as a Christian sign (Christ = χριστος), but it was also used as an editorial symbol, χρησις (passage) and χρηστον (useful); other appearances include in Magical papyri and for χρονος.


coronis: marks significant breaks or subsections of text


Coronides come in many forms. This bird-shaped one appears in Timotheus’ Persae, one of our oldest Greek papyrus fragments.


Bagnall, Roger S. The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

The TLG Beta Code Manual (Maintained by Nick Nicholas, TLG, 2000-08-21)

Theresa Chresand

What do all those buttons mean?

Hello Ancient Lives Users!

This post will provide a walk-through of the various buttons found on the website. Some of this you probably already know, but several buttons have uses that aren’t immediately apparent, so hopefully this information will help clarify.

The Transcribe Page

Toolbar on the left side of the page:

The Zoom buttons are straightforward, as is Rotate.

The Toggle button is helpful for when you want to see a papyrus in its original form without losing your transcription work. Click this button, and your transcribed letters temporarily disappear.

Auto is another very useful button. If you are transcribing a long text and you get tired of the ‘click, type, click, type’ method, you can put a series of empty dots on the letters you want to transcribe, make sure the Auto button is highlighted, and then use your keyboard to type them in across the line. This button is also helpful if you want to erase a line of characters quickly.

The Delete button, as you might guess, erases any letter you click on. You can also do this simply by pushing the backspace button on your keyboard.

Also located on the left side of the page, underneath the transcription keyboard, the Favourite button is for saving particular fragments that you want to return to later.


When you want to view one of your “favourite” pieces, go to your Lightbox (see bar at the top) and click the small symbol on the upper left side.


If you’ve ever wondered what to do when you come across a fragment that is either not Greek, or a shot of a ruler or a tag written in English (some extraneous material), the Issue button will be useful. It allows you to mark something “Not Greek,” or “Not Papyri.”


Toolbar on the right side of the page:

The Colour button actually does more than simply change the colour of the dots you are using to mark letters. It can also change the opacity and the size—this is very useful, since some fragments have tiny letters and some have large ones.

If you click the Map button, the little square in the right corner of the transcribe box, which shows your location on the papyrus, will disappear/reappear.

The Match button assists in identifying whether or not a fragment belongs to a known work of Greek literature.

Don’t forget to post on Talk!

Clicking the info button on the bottom right side of the transcription keyboard will give you examples of each letter.


Keep in mind that in addition to transcribing, you can also Measure fragments. (See the bar at the top.) If you are a frequent user, please create an account!

Thanks and keep up the great work!

Theresa Chresand

Greek letter combinations

We thought it might be helpful to provide information on how Greek combines letters and have prepared the following chart that reflects possible and impossible combinations of letters in standard Greek words.  The qualification ‘standard’ is important, as exceptions to these rules are not uncommon. Exceptions may be caused by: 1) abbreviations in documentary papyri; 2) letters used as numerals, both in texts and documents; 3) scribal errors; 4) Greek names  ‘imported’ from other languages, such as Egyptian, Latin, Hebrew (for example, biblical names often combine letters in ways Greek would not and Egyptian names are very common in documentary papyri, see our last blog post); 5) magical words in spells and incantations

1=possible; 0=does not occur.  For each cell, the first letter of the combination is determined by the row and the second by the column.  Thus, the top row represents all the combinations that begin with α.  Please note that word divisions do not matter.  The combination ξξ would not occur within a word, for example, but is marked as possible because it can occur at the end of one word and the beginning of the next.

Theresa Chresand, Rachael Cullick, Marco Perale, Ryan Seaberg

Geographical, Personal, and Month Names

Greetings Ancient Lives Users! Before beginning our next post, we have a small announcement:

We’ve just hit the 1-year mark since the launch of the website! The success of the project so far has been due in large part to your dedicated efforts. Thank you for all of the transcriptions, measurements, and posts in Talk. Please continue the great work!

In previous posts, we have briefly discussed documentary papyri, and provided tips for deciphering their rather difficult cursive script. Now, we will examine the vocabulary of some of these manuscripts.

 Unlike in literary papyri, in documentary papyri there are recurring expressions such as dating and greeting formulas; proper nouns like geographical, and personal names; and units of measurement. For example, Egyptian month names appear with relative frequency.

 These are:  Θώθ, Φαῶφι, Ἁθύρ, Χοίακ, Τῦβι, Μεχείρ, Φαμενώθ, Φαρμοῦθι, Παχών, Παῦνι, Ἐπείφ, Μεσορή.


(Ἁθύρ) P.Oxy. 4700 (Top of Contract) line 2

 Other common vocabulary that might be found? Greek and Egyptian personal names.


Greek, nominative: Ἀπολλώνιος  (P.Oxy. 4889, Order for Transfer of Credit in Grain, line 1)


 Greek, dative: Διονυϲία<i> (the iota adscript was not always written in) (P.Oxy. 4889, line 16)

 There might also be geographical names.


 P.Oxy. 4700: The city of Oxyrhynchus is mentioned at line 6: Ὀξυρυγχιτῶν πόλεωϲ “of the city of the inhabitants of O.”

A papyrus can also consist of only a list of toponyms. Particularly relevant in this respect is the Bell Papyrus, located at the Bell Library in Minneapolis and containing a list of toponyms in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Anatolia, some easy to identify, some much more obscure. It is difficult to tell what the list represents; it is possible that it is has some sort of religious significance, since there were Coptic ties to many of the places mentioned. A picture of the papyrus is available here: (appendix: Illustrations, p. 23)

Theresa Chresand, Rachael Cullick, Marco Perale, Ryan Seaberg

Numbers in Greek Papyri

In documentary papyri, a horizontal bar placed above or next to the Greek letter(s) will indicate a numerical value. Here are some examples from the Oxyrhynchus collection.

1) P.Oxy. 3340.5 (Senatorial Proceedings): ις̄ β[ο]υ̣λῆϲ = day 16, (there being a meeting) of the senate

2) P.Oxy. 2596.6-7 (Letter from Sarapammon to Andronicus): ταρίχουϲ ε͞   καὶ καθαροὺϲ δ͞    … / χαρτάρια β͞   = 5 salty fishes and 4 fine loaves … / 2 pieces of papyrus

3) P.Oxy. 3084.5 (Letter of Heraclius to Themistocles): τῆι κ͞δ ἑϲπέραϲ = on the 24th at evening

4) P.Oxy. 3096.2 (Complaint of an Error in Records): ϛ͞   φυλῆϲ γ͞   περιόδου = sixth tribe, third cycle

Theresa Chresand, Rachael Cullick, Marco Perale, Ryan Seaberg

Cursive Script

P.Oxy. XLIV 3180. Receipt for Φόροι, Διδραχμία and Ζευγματικά

α (ἔτουc) Γαίου Μεccίου Κυίντου Τραιανοῦ
Δεκίου Καίcαρ[ο]c τοῦ κυρίου, Μεcορὴ ια ̄<
διέγ(ραψεν) Αὐρη(λίῳ) Διονυcίῳ τῷ κ(αὶ) Ἀπολλωνίῳ
‘Year I of Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus
Decius Caesar the lord, Mesore II.
Paid to Aurelius Dionysius also called Apollonius’

Two notable features that make documents such as this difficult to read (even for experts!) are the abundance of abbreviations and the way that some letters seem to disappear in the connexions between surrounding letters.

Abbreviations may be marked by either a vertical , a horizontal or diagonal slash, or sometimes by nothing at all–-a word may simply break off.

‘vertical’ slash:

ΔΙΕΓ| = διέγ(ραψεν). διέγραψεν ‘he paid’ was, as you can imagine, a very common word in receipts, so it was often abbreviated. Here the abbreviation is marked by a ‘vertical’slash after the first four letters of the word.

horizontal slash:

ΑΥΡΗ ̄ = Αὐρη(λίῳ). Here we see the name Αὐρηλίῳ (dative of Αὐρήλιοc; the case of the unabbreviated name has to be inferred from the context) abbreviated with a horizontal slash. Certain common prenames, like Αὐρήλιοc, were regularly abbreviated without much confusion in documents like this, where you expect to see names. (We need to know who is paying whom!)

no indication of abbreviation:

TΩKA = τῷ κ(αὶ) Ἀ[: here we see the very common word καὶ ‘and’ abbreviated without indication; the word just stops after the first letter κ. (Think of all the various shorthand ways of writing ‘and’ there are in other languages.) Fortunately, very few words are ever abbreviated in this manner.

Ligatures can also make words difficult to decipher, and sometimes letters in cursive script are compressed.

ΔΕΚΙ: here you can see how the epsilon, kappa, and iota are joined into what could look like only one or two letters.



ΚΑI[: this combination is more difficult, as the alpha is extremely simplified and integrated into the ligatures.  Note also that these are the first three letters of Καίcαρ[ο]c but there is a gap between the iota and the following sigma.



]ΝΥΣΙ[  from Διονυcίῳ. Again, we see that letters can be greatly compressed; the sigma here is hard to distinguish from the ligature and the length of the iota can be misleading.




ΤΟΥ: here we see that the final two letters of τοῦ  are small and elevated, almost a superscript. This does not fit precisely in either of the above categories, but is worth pointing out as a common feature of cursive documents. Note that it appears at the end of Δεκίου and κυρίου in the same line.



Marco Perale, Rachael Cullick, Ryan Seaberg (University of Minnesota)