How I came to read other people's garbage, I mean, became a papyrologist

Michael McOsker |

In this second installment of the magazine's "Why Classics?" column, Michael McOsker reflects on his meandering journey to Papyrology.

A note from the editor of In Medias Res:

I am delighted to be able to introduce papyrologist Michael McOsker to IMR readers, so he can introduce himself! It's not everyone who ends up a papyrologist. His journey getting there offers another account of how the ancient world can come alive for us, as it so clearly has for him. Michael has also graciously agreed, in future articles, to give IMR glimpses into the 'New Greek' that is being discovered in his favorite 'garbage dump' haunts, our very own 'scoop'. –Mark Buchan

Part I: Classics

I started Latin at the age of 11 for bad reasons. My junior high required me to start a foreign language; my options were Spanish, German, and French. And Latin. I didn’t like the way German sounded, I didn’t like the French teacher, and every clown I was in junior high with was going to take Spanish. So I took Latin. I had vague hopes of summoning demons and some kind of ill-defined linguistic mastery, or at least being weird and therefore cool and interesting. (This did not work.) The joke was on me: the French teacher was also the Latin teacher. The curriculum demanded I keep taking it. For four years or so, from 11 to 15, Latin was fine, a class I took and did ok in.

My junior year, things clicked into focus: we read Pliny’s letters to Tacitus about the eruption of Vesuvius and Cicero’s First Catalinarian. I was, at the age of 16, deeply impressed to be reading documents about Real Actual History and had a nascent sense that what I was reading was pretty good in terms of style. English class, another major competitor for my adolescent affections, had stumbled badly with a series of ill-chosen, heavily didactic novellas that I absolutely hated. (History came in a close second to Latin, but it had too much memorization of dates and too little poetry, in the end.) But the real magic happened my senior year, in AP Vergil.

Despite moving at a pace of twenty lines a day, Vergil hit me like a lightning bolt. He was, simply, the best author I had ever read. To this day, opening my Vergil text and turning into my parents’ driveway have the same emotional resonance for me: I’m home now. My academic and personal (re)naissance, the one that began with Pliny and Cicero my junior year, accelerated and flourished: I kept detailed notes on uses of the ablative and met my first serious girlfriend at a Latin club certamen event. We studied together—she was in the quondam AP Horace and Catullus class, so her homework was another window into a magical, literarily competent world. My senior year, I got a 5 on the AP exam and a perfect score on the National Latin Exam.

What was it about Vergil that attracted me so much? One thing—important after being spoon-fed in English class—is that Vergil trusted his readers. He wrote ambitiously and boldly and without stopping to explain anything. After lots of English literature that was carefully calibrated for intermediate readers and moral edification, this was liberating. I liked that an author was treating me as an adult, and I liked wrestling with a serious text. I even liked my sense that I was not strong enough for it: after years of unsalted porridge, even this tender steak made my jaw ache. And every line was perfect: either every noun-adjective pair was satisfyingly correct or surprising and thought-provoking. Whichever path he chose, he followed unerringly. Vergil also had range: read the storm scene in Aeneid Book 1, then the sack of Troy in 2, the “marriage” of Aeneas and Dido in 4, and the Sibyl scene in 6: all very different, all very good. The story also went at the correct pace: Vergil slowed down when details needed lingering over; he did not waste time on the superfluous. My attraction to Vergil was almost purely aesthetic: this was good poetry. Later, I would learn about the neoteric movement and Augustan politics; with scads of other Latin and Greek literature under my belt, I would read Vergil very differently. In high school, I just had Lattimore’s translations of Homer, but also my sense, growing line by line, that Vergil was one of the best.


I went off to college, somehow, with the intention of studying Classics with a second major in something practical and then getting some job in some office somewhere. I continued Latin, started Greek—if Vergil liked it, it must be good. My college career started with the same dull negligence that had characterized my high school career, outside of Latin.

Homer, in sixth semester Greek, saved me, like Vergil had once done. Again, I was completely blown away by the poetry–completely. I read the whole of Iliad Book 2—including the Catalogue of Ships—over spring break because I wanted to (it just felt that good to be reading Homer, even if it is the most repetitive Greek, outside Xenophon’s parasangs, ever put to paper). I chased down an idea I’d had about a word in the first book of the Iliad (δημοβόρος, l. 231, ‘people-devouring’). I was initially attracted by the hint of a leader’s cannibalism and wrote an entire twenty-page term paper that was not required (see McOsker, forthcoming, one day, I hope). Until writing this piece, I had never considered what it was about Greek that attracted me. I must have kept it up because I had a sense that, just as Latin had been a slog and then turned out to be deeply rewarding, so Greek would too. Homer was one of the first Greek authors that I could read with some facility, and his poetry is immediately rewarding: much rougher hewn than Vergil’s, but the narrative moves faster and is apparently simpler, though his characters’ psychology is deeper. The oddities of Homeric language fascinated me, and I found the glimpse he offered of a world before literacy enchanting.

My simple and straightforward love for just reading Latin and Greek met the right professors, and I was unleashed: I started German, on the optimistic assumption that I would be in grad school the next year, took one last geology class to finish my gen-eds, and took seven Greek and Latin classes, including “Propertius” and “Lucan.” I say just “Propertius” and “Lucan” because in those classes, I read all of “Propertius” and “Lucan.” I found myself, the first Thursday of my senior year, having a beer with my roommates for my 21st birthday, and then cutting that short to go to an evening Propertius class. Many were the nights on which I was shooed out of the library at closing time with Butler and Barber’s Propertius OCT or a photocopy of Housman’s Lucan and the gigantic Oxford Latin Dictionary under my arm. But ever since Homer, it was Greek for me. I decided to go pro. I got into Michigan, where I was going to study Homer.

Part II: Papyrology

When I visited Michigan, still a prospective student, I got to visit the papyrology vault. Before then, I had known, intellectually, what papyri were—ancient paper made of reeds in Egypt, sometimes Greek was written on them, sometimes the Greek was really good literature. I had even read one or two bits of Greek literature that were preserved only on papyrus and excavated at the end of the 19th or in the first part of the 20th century. But I had never seen one before, let alone held one or tried to read it. The Extremely-Distinguished-and-British professor showing me around thrust a leaf of the (allegedly) oldest known codex of the Letters of Paul into my hands and said “why don’t you give this a try?” I nearly fainted, but sounded out my way through a few lines. This was the beginning of the telos for me. When I arrived at grad school, I had no goal beyond “keep reading this cool stuff, especially Homer, as long as possible,” but now, like a goose getting itchy on the first cool evening in September, I had a destination, even if I didn’t know it yet.

After my plans to write a commentary on the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite fell through because someone published one and scooped me, I wrote my dissertation on Philodemus of Gadara’s poetics and poetry. Philodemus was an Epicurean philosopher, roughly contemporary with Cicero, who fell in with Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Philodemus was an accomplished epigrammatist and a prolific and polemical philosopher. He was a rare case of a theorist of poetry who also wrote poetry, which gives us a chance to compare them, and bolstered my pretensions to being a student of philosophy. Mostly, my work was one of Philodemus’ treatises called On Poems, in five books, of which we have probably a bit less than half (books 1 and 2 relatively complete; chunks of 3–5), but other works played a role (especially his On Music, On Rhetoric, and the delightfully titled On the Good King According to Homer). My goal was to reconstruct his account of how poetry worked and what made it good, and to try to illustrate this from his own poems. But while the epigrams are easy, and fun, to read - Philodemus had a great sense of humor—the philosophical works are drier and, worse, are preserved on papyrus rolls that were turned into charcoal when Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE. This makes them extremely hard to read. My dissertation director tried to talk me out of it. But I knew I couldn’t be scooped, because three fifths of the source material was Word documents on his computer and inaccessible to anyone else. I would be unscoopable.

Papyrology is an art, not a science. Or better, it is nothing more than learning how to read over and over again, but the handwriting gets worse, the spelling gets worse, the books’ physical condition gets worse. Eventually, you get better at seeing through the scribbles and guessing at half-words left by tears and holes. The only way to get good at it is to read and read and read. But I got into this business to read. The best papyri look like they were printed and are as clear and complete today as they were the day they were written, and any second semester Greek student can transcribe them without a problem. The handwriting on them is, as a rule, clear and careful. “Documents,” i.e. notes, receipts, letters, legal documents, all the detritus of daily written life, are usually written quickly in cursive hands. In formulaic passages, such as dating by imperial titulature, the cursive devolves into a wavy line with occasional loops. These could be quite long:

ἔτους ιβ’ Αὐτοκράτορος Καίσαρος Γαΐου Αὐρηλίου Οὐαλερίου Διοκλητιανοῦ καὶ ἔτους ια’ Αὐτοκράτρος Καίσαρος Μάρκου Αὐρηλίου Οὐαλερίου Μαξιμιανοῦ Γερμανικῶν μεγίστων Σαρματικῶν μεγιστῶν καὶ ἔτους δ’ τῶν κυρίων ἡμῶν Κωσταντίου καὶ Μαξιμιανοῦ τῶν ἐπιφανεστάτων Καισάρων Σεβαστῶν

“In year 12 of Emperor Caesar Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus and year 11 of Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus, both Germanicus maximus, both Sarmaticus maximus, and year 4 of our Lords Constantinus and Maximinaus, the most noble Caesares Augusti” (In P.Oxy. XXXVIII 2849, instructions to a local official about how to respond to a petition.)

All these beautiful literary gems were published a hundred years ago. What’s left now, mostly, are the problem children of ancient literature and history, the bits and pieces of unidentifiable books and first drafts of boondock poetasters and tax receipts and newspaper horoscopes and left-halves of pro forma letters. As a former problem child myself, I love them.

Philodemus’ books—and others by other authors—happened to be in a very large villa outside Herculaneum—called the Villa dei Papiri because it’s the villa where they found the papyri—when Vesuvius lost its temper in 79 BCE. Fate decreed that the pyroclastic flow would travel at exactly this speed and that temperature, and the papyrus rolls underwent chemical transmogrification and slept undisturbed for almost a thousand and seven hundred years, thirty meters or so underground.

They were found in the 1750s and unrolled, cracking and snapping, at the unthinkable cost of all the little bits that broke off and are lost forever, cut up, and eventually stored safely. It turns out that this collection that survived against all odds contained not Livy or Simonides or any of the greats of Greek or Latin letters, but the treatises of the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara. This came as a disappointment to pretty much everyone who cared about Classics in the 18th century, but that’s for a different essay. But to give you a taste, Wordsworth wanted Pindar or Simonides. Livy, Tacitus, and, oddly, Diodorus Siculus were all popular choices.

The Herculaneum papyri are abominably hard to read. The ink is black, the papyrus is black. The papyrus is curved, you can’t look at it straight. You can’t flatten it or even really touch it without it turning into dust. God help you if you sneeze on one. Two hundred scrolls or so were never unrolled and cannot be read (yet!) by any human means.

But, oh man, is the work rewarding.

As I said, the most important part of being a papyrologist is going and reading, so I went and read. During my dissertation, I spent a year and a half in Naples staring at these things for five hours a day (that part of the library closed at 1 pm in those days). That year, I published an improved edition—and the first ever English translation—of the first half of an Epicurean treatise on poetry, by a guy named Demetrius of Sparta, and started working on Philodemus’ work On Anger. Later, David Armstrong, professor of Classics Emeritus at UT Austin, and I would publish an edition of that, again with the first ever English translation. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s nothing new to do in Classics! A project to work on the second book of Demetrius’ On Poems took me to Germany, to the Universität zu Köln for two years on an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship.

That experience got me my current position: now I read garbage. That is, I work on papyri found in the garbage heaps of Oxyrhynchus, a town a few hours south of Cairo in Egypt. Their story is well-known, or at least told by people better at it than I. Read Peter Parsons’ City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish for an introduction, and then go read the papyri. The Herculaneum papyri have been in the news recently because of attempts to read the scrolls that are still rolled-up. Because they’re charcoal, they can’t be unrolled without damage, sometimes catastrophic damage. I support this work wholeheartedly—I’m active on the Discord server for the Vesuvius Challenge and consulted in the construction of a mocked up roll that was carbonized and scanned to try to develop a more reliable way of detecting ink. At UCL and Oxford, our project is to publish the bits of dactylic hexameter left in the collection written by the anonymous poets who wrote poems for specific occasions, whose work was doomed to be forgotten before long, or whose ambitions were not met with proportionate success.

This is a long way from Vergil, but I love it anyway: I feel immediate contact with ancient authors, the ability to immerse myself deeply in their language, and I’m working on material that is genuinely new. It’s true that the Great Age of Papyrological Discovery is almost entirely behind us—after the Newest Sappho, big flashy new material on the market will be the object of well deserved scrutiny—and I don’t expect that more authors will come back to life, like the Gospel of Thomas, Hyperides, Menander, Bacchylides and the other lyric poets did in the 20th century. Even substantial chunks of lost works and authors are unlikely to have the luck that Sophocles’ satyr play Ichneutae did. But there is still more to do.

The literature that remains to edit are the papyri that generations of scholars took a look at, thought “ehh, maybe not,” and returned to the box. This is important material, and we are in a better position to appreciate it than ever. Some will turn out to be small pieces by major authors, but a lot will be by amateur poets writing for local festivals. It might not be the lofty summits of literature—a panegyric in honor of a local governmental official might only have ever been read once—but it can be extremely informative about the kinds of poetry most people read and heard. Some pieces raise interesting questions; for instance, in the most recent volume of Oxyrhynchus papyri, there is a lengthy first century CE text with capsule biographies of Romans and a bit of of a previously unknown early (2nd century) Christian text that opens questions about the sources of the Gospels and about what the earliest Christian texts were. But that too is for another post.


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Michael McOsker

Michael McOsker is a papyrologist of both Herculaneum and Egyptian papyri and a researcher in the Department of Greek and Latin at University College London in the "Hexameters Beyond the Canon" project.


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