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Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts, Virtual Exhibition: Scribes and Scholars

Private Letter about Books: c.170 AD

A window into the world of ancient books and their owners is provided by this private letter. It mentions individuals known from other documents as participants in local government and business, but who were also connected with Alexandria, where membership in the Museum bestowed substantial privileges (free meals and tax exemptions) and local honours. The book-collecting sender added a closing greeting, together with instructions on how to obtain copies of books he needed (middle right):

‘Make and send me copies of Books 6 and 7 of Hypsicrates’ book entitled People Mocked in Comedy (Komodoumenoi). For Harpocration says that they are among Polion’s books. He also has epitomes in prose of Thersagoras’ works on the myths in Tragedy.’

The recipient or his agent added a response (lower right):

‘According to Harpocration, Demetrius the bookseller has got them ... Diodorus also has some which I haven’t got.’

Another Oxyrhynchus papyrus reveals Diodorus to have been a former civic official and member of the Museum at Alexandria. Harpocration is the author of an ancient lexicon of Attic orators which still survives. The main part of the letter was probably dictated by the sender, and is written in the hand of a secretary. The closing greeting and first postscript are penned in faster cursives, the latter more rounded.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. XVIII no. 2192