One receipt’s literary „glow-up“: an anthology from the Kleitorios archive

P. 12311


First used a receipt, then upcycled as a surface for a writing exercise: this ostracon contains remnants of a receipt as well as being an “anthology” with three short texts! To be precise, three independent texts are recognisable on the ostracon: firstly, a quotation from Aigeus by Euripides, a work which is only fragmentarily attested; secondly, a saying about dietary moderation that has is often attributed to Socrates; and thirdly, a (hacked-up) quotation from a work of New Comedy in which several vices are rattled off.

The first text comprises lines 1–2 and, as mentioned, comes from the lost play Aigeus by Euripides. Its translation reads: “It does happen that the one who has suffered misfortune displays ἀρετή (virtue, virtuousness, …) before death”. But if you look closely, you will recognise that the text continues after this point into line 3: καὶ πάντα ῥαίδια / γίνεται, “and everything becomes easy”. There is consensus among researchers, however, that this is an addition which did not originally appear in Euripides’ work. In the current edition of the ostracon by the researcher Francisca Pordomingo, the addition is neither printed nor included in the line count. On the other hand, it could be seen as a sentential modification of the Euripidean source, e.g. in the sense that whoever shows ἀρετή before death will find it easier to die, or (according to Viereck): “Even if someone has failed, he can still prove through a noble death that he was a good and capable person; then one can easily come to terms with all the bad things that have happened before and consider them insignificant, i.e. it is possible to atone for all mistakes through death.” (It should be noted that this sort of rather broad interpretation is generally avoided nowadays in research.)

The second text is a saying that clearly has the character of a philosophical dialogue. It is also attested in numerous extant sources, in which it is most often attributed to Socrates, although our ostracon does not contain any explicit attribution. The text concerns the appropriate relationship between people and food: Socrates speaks in favour of a moderate diet that is conducive to one’s life (nowadays, we might say a “balanced diet”) and advises against the kind of diet that “most people” follow, which elevates the pleasure of eating, as it were, to the goal of life. His point is: you must eat for the sake of your life, and not live for the sake of your eating. This is by far the oldest testimony to the saying, which probably originally came from an otherwise unknown dialogue about the right way to live, as suggested by several phrases often found in philosophical dialogues, such as the frequent καὶ γὰρ ὁρᾶις, “for you see” (which Pordomingo describes as “obviously the continuation of an inference of the philosopher”), and τά γε τοιαῦτα, “and such things”. This text is an example of the literary genre of the “Logoi Socratici”, the words of Socrates, beyond the well-known elaborations of Plato and Xenophon.

Finally, the third text is an excerpt from a work of the New Comedy (which began ca. 321 BC; the main representative of this movement is Menander, although in this case no definite attribution to an author can be made). Both verses are incomplete judging by the metre: the first starts after the beginning of the verse, the second ends before the end. Human weaknesses that often go arm in arm are listed, in particular “rashness, negligence, vanity and thousands of other such things”.

But what are ostraca actually? Ostraca are shards of clay containing writing. For a long time in antiquity, such clay fragments were an inexpensive and abundant writing material for quick notes, lists, invoices and writing exercises: everything that we would jot down on a scrap of paper or the back of an envelope today. As soon as the list or invoice was no longer needed, the writing could be scraped or washed off and the shard reused, a common practice at a time when suitable ‘formal’ writing surfaces were not a matter of course as they are today, while pottery shards must have been everywhere to hand in a time when the streets of towns and villages were littered with them.

This ostracon was found in the town of Philadelphia, founded in Ptolemaic times and located in the oasis-like Fayum Basin south-west of Cairo. It belongs to the “Kleitorios Archive”, an archive consisting of 68 ostraca dating from the late 3rd to early 2nd century BC. In addition to a total of five ostraca with literary or paedagogical content (including this one) which can be placed in a school context, the written finds in this collection document the day-to-day operations of a large estate. They detail field work, wage payments, the sale of wine and linen – in other words, all the business that was the bread and butter of such an estate.

Around 1900, several excavations were carried out in Philadelphia, mainly with the aim of discovering papyrus remains. Among other things, the site is known for the so-called Zenon Papyri, a collection of over 2,000 documents by the secretary Zenon of Kaunos (floruit ca. 240 BC). The “Fayum portraits”, mummy portraits on wooden panels or mummy wrappings, also originate from this region. However, these artistic gems date from later times, having been created in the Roman imperial period (1st–3rd century AD).

Four of the five “paedagogical” or “literary” ostraca mentioned in the Kleitorios archive are so-called anthologies. What was the purpose of such anthologies? Copying out sentences which were considered edifying was a common school assignment at the time – as it also was throughout more recent history, up until a few decades ago. The ostracon contains three independent verse texts, written without separation in a scriptio continua (‘continuous writing’), a common style of writing at the time. We can see from the manuscript that it was no beginner’s hand who wrote these lines: the handwriting has been described by scholars as “fluent and regular with some cursive elements” (Cribriore), possibly that of a γραμματικός, i.e. a scholar or, perhaps, an advanced student (Pordomingo).

Ultimately, a task like this was primarily intended as a handwriting exercise, but it was also about upholding and inculcating values such as virtue and moderation – in eating as well as in general. Why the five ‘literary’ ostraca in the collection were included in the otherwise documentary Kleitorios archive in the first place must ultimately remain a mystery, one of history’s countless little secrets.

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