Rare Greek Scroll Found With Egyptian Mummy

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Peter Bing, an associate professor of classics at Emory University, said the scroll "provides us with the earliest detailed evidence of how an editor—perhaps the poet himself—organized a poetry collection."

The epigrams offer new insight into daily life during the Ptolemaic era, covering events and beliefs such as official dedications, shipwrecks, omens, and the importance of sporting successes.

"In a whole raft of poems celebrating equestrian victories at the great Panhellenic Games such as the Olympics," said Bing, "the Milan papyrus makes clear that the Ptolemies pursued the international prestige of such triumphs with a determination as single-minded as that displayed in modern times by countries such as [former] East Germany."

Who Was Posidippus?

Posidippus worked in the Aegean region from about 280 to 240 B.C. He was famous even then as a writer of epigrams.

Epigram means "written upon," said Gutzwiller, who is an expert on Greek poetry. But more precisely, she explained, the word refers to a short poem, usually found as an epitaph on a tomb or featured alongside an object to indicate who dedicated it to what god and why.

Literary epigrams began to appear by the third century B.C. These poems were meant to be read or recited for literary enjoyment, rather than just to commemorate a person or event.

"This particular writing form continued into the 20th century, and some people with traditional classical training still do it for fun," said Gutzwiller. While scholars aren't certain that Posidippus is the author of the 112 epigrams, the evidence points strongly in that direction, said Gutzwiller. Two of the poems on the papyrus were already known to scholars and had long been attributed to Posidippus.

"If the scroll had been written by multiple authors," Gutzwiller noted, "we would expect their names to appear before or beside the poems."

Bing agrees. "Two of the epigrams were previously known, and both were attributed even in ancient times to Posidippus. To my mind, nothing in the rest of the poems stands in the way of seeing Posidippus as the author throughout."

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