City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish : Greek Lives in Roman Egypt, Paperback Book

City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish : Greek Lives in Roman Egypt Paperback

4 out of 5 (2 ratings)


How an ancient rubbish dump has given us a unique view of life 2,000 years agoIn 1897 two Oxford archaeologists began digging a mound south of Cairo.

Ten years later, they had uncovered 500,000 fragments of papyri.

Shipped back to Oxford, the meticulous and scholarly work of deciphering these fragments began.

It is still going on today. As well as Christian writings from totally unknown gospels and Greek poems not seen by human eyes since the fall of Rome, there are tax returns, petitions, private letters, sales documents, leases, wills and shopping lists.

What they found was the entire life of a flourishing market-town - Oxyrhynchos ( the `city of the sharp-nosed fish' ), - encapsulated in its waste paper.

The total lack of rain in this part of Egypt had preserved the papyrus beneath the sand, as nowhere else in the Roman Empire.

We hear the voices of barbers, bee-keepers and boat-makers, dyers and donkey-drivers, weavers and wine-merchants, set against the great events of late antiquity: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of Christianity.

The result is an extraordinary and unique picture of everyday life in the Nile Valley between Alexander the Great in 300 BC and the Arab conquest a thousand years later.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: African history
  • ISBN: 9780753822333

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This book is about daily life in the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchos, as revealed by a cache of half a million scraps of papyrus that have survived in the dry, desert air - literature makes up about 10%, with the rest including letters, legal documents, account books and lesson texts.It's a painstaking task, and far from all the scraps have been deciphered (they are being published in a series of academic volumes, of which 40 more are expected). But there is enough information for a fairly detailed account of life in the town over three centuries.And the details are fascinating. Leases stipulate that the houses be returned with shutters and doors intact, and that rooms be 'cleansed of excrement'. A letter begging a friend to send papyrus is scrawled on a bit of broken pottery (the cheaper alternative). People petition the gods to ask whether they should go through with a contract, whether to 'approach the Prefect with a higher tender', whether they will ever marry. After Egyptians are given Roman citizenship, a woman applies for the right to manage her business on her own, by the ancient rule that a woman with three children could assert legal independence.A writer more skilled in popularising his subject might have drawn out some of the detail a bit more, and emphasised the stories - for example, one of the chapters which was most vivid for me was the one on teaching materials, partly because I can imagine more easily being a hapless schoolboy struggling with Homer than I can being a brickmaker seeking chaff at low prices. But Parsons has been a leading academic expert in his subject for decades, so it seems pretty demanding to ask for more.

Review by

In 1897, archeologists discovered the trash of the ancient town of Oxyrhynchos, well south of Cairo. The massive trove of papyrus unearthed from the site has taken over a century to translate -- the work continues even now. In this book, Peter Parsons, longtime head of the translation project, draws on the corpus to describe the social, economic, and political structure of the town in the first through the fourth centuries A.D. The book is interesting, but for a non-specialist, much of the detail will be hard to retain. Because of that, I found the most compelling passages were those setting the evidence from the Oxyrhynchos against what is known from other sources about the Roman world. The discussion of the literary riches revealed in the papyri -- fragments and sometimes whole works previously thought lost, both biblical and classical -- made me want to read translations of some of those, which Parsons doesn't provide - fortunately, some are available on line.

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