A Philologist at Work

BKT I, S. 4–73 (P. 9780 R)


The papyrus is fairly extensive, in relatively good condition and contains interesting texts on both recto and verso sides: texts from ancient scholars whom we knew to be prolific but by whom prior to this discovery not a single work had survived. This papyrus yields fascinating insights into ancient scholarship.

The recto side contains the commentary of Didymos of Alexandria, a Hellenistic polymath, on speeches of Demosthenes. It was acquired in the early days of the German Papyrus Trust, a coordinated attempt of several German institutions to acquire antiquities in Egypt rather than competing agains each other. The Trust’s representative (Ludwig Borchardt — a polymath himself, being an architect, Egyptologist and diplomat rolled into one, who in 1912 as archaeologist found the famous Nefertiti bust) bought it in Cairo. We do not know how and where exactly it was found — only that Borchardt was told in the ruins of Hermopolis/el-Ashmunein.

The symmetrical pattern of damages indicates that this was a papyrus roll through which probably insects ate holes over the centuries, with columns further left being on the outside and thus more damaged than those on the right (inside of the roll). The papyrus contains interesting texts on both recto and verso sides, each by an author of whom not much else has survived. The verso side contains a philosophical text by the Stoic philosopher Hierocles, the recto side discussed here contains a philological commentary on four Demosthenes speeches by the Alexandrian scholar Didymos. The Athenian Demosthenes is one of the great orators of classical Greece, active in the middle of the 4th century B.C. and known to us mostly for his political speeches against Philipp, father of Alexander the Great, and king of Macedonia, who was expanding his Macedonian realm and encroaching on the independent poleis including Athens. Didymos lived in Alexandria in the 1st century B.C. (our papyrus does not contain a date but can be dated based on the style of writing to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., so centuries later), his contemporaries gave him the nicknames “Chalkenteros”, “he of brazen bowels”, as he must have produced texts at an astonishing rate, allegedly between 3,500 and 4,000 books, of which our papyrus is the only surviver (with the exception fragments and where Didymos is quoted by other authors).

How do we know the text is by Didymos? Unlike modern books, papyri contain their “title” at the end, and here it is clearly legible at the end of the last column on the right as “Didymos on Demosthenes’ Philippic speeches”. It is fascinating that in the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. someone in (Roman imperial) Egypt was keen to read what a Hellenistic scholar had to say about Demosthenes’ speeches in democratic Athens half a millennium earlier!

The layout is almost modern with text written in neat columns, with Demosthenes quotes 2–3 characters less indented than Didymos’ commentary on them. The columns each have headings in slightly larger font, informing the reader of a new topic beginning in that column. If the column simply continues with the topic of the previous one, the heading is omitted.

The hand is neat and legible but not that of a professional copyist: it contains numerous corrections, letters are written differently without any system, cursive and capital letters are used interchangeably. The copyist starts a system for quotations but then does not follow it consistently. Probably someone made a copy of Didymos’ text for his own use. Funnily enough, the text contains typical errors for copying from a written text (for instance, instead of the letters λι the copyist writes ν, which looks very similar) as well as errors typical for writing from dictation (two persons collaborating on the copy, one reading out the original, the other writing it down by ear). Another small mystery is the blank space of ten lines in column 8 (the third from the left in the image) where one would expect a quotation. Was it missing in the copy the copyist was working from (but then why did the copyist not skip it and save precious writing material)? Or was it missing but the copyist had access to another Didymos roll and hopes to fill in the missing quote?

It was known that Hellenistic scholars worked a lot on commentaries but we only had surviving examples from much later and on poetry (famously Servius on Virgil, from around 400 A.D.) so this papyrus contains a much older commentary unique in being on a prose text. In the absence of any surviving substantial Didymos texts scholars had a pretty mixed view of him until this papyrus was discovered. Partly based on comments by other ancient scholars many were inclined to see Didymos as better at quantity than quality, sloppy, a mere compiler of the knowledge by others, with little original contribution himself. Or was this rather the envy of his colleagues? The Didymos papyrus offers a unique chance to see how early commentaries operated and if Didymos’ reputation is justified. Interestingly, the format of a commentary survices till today in the shape established 2,200 years ago in Alexandria: the commented text is worked through in a strictly linear fashion, the commentary explains linguistic peculiarities (what is the origin of a word, where else is it found, is the Demosthenes text genuine or a later interpolation atypical for the author?) as well as historical facts (which events does the commented text refer to?). Contrary to his reputation, Didymos often names and quotes other authors extensively, refers to different views and evaluates them measuredly. Thus, apart from offering us a window on the work of ancient philologists and the practice of copying and reading in Egypt in Roman times, this papyrus restores the reputation of Didymos as a scholar.

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