Homer & the Papyri: Introduction

An Introduction to Homer and the Papyri

by Casey Dué

The Homeric papyri are, with the exception of a few ancient quotations, the oldest surviving witnesses to the text of Homer. These papyrus documents are all fragmentary, and range in date from as early as the third century BCE to the seventh century CE. The vast majority of the fragments were discovered in Egypt, and now reside in collections located all over the world.

Papyrus fragments are extremely significant for Homeric studies. First, as already noted, they are old witnesses to the text of Homer. The medieval manuscript tradition of Homer begins with the tenth century CE manuscripts of the Iliad known as D (Laurentianus 32.15) and Venetus A (Marcianus Graecus 454). Some papyrus fragments predate the medieval tradition by as many as 1200 years.

The fragments, moreover, give us an otherwise irrecoverable picture of the Iliad and Odyssey as they were performed and recorded in ancient times. When taken altogether, Homeric papyri reveal a state of the Homeric texts in antiquity that can be quite surprising. There are numerous verses in the papyri that are seemingly intrusive from the standpoint of the medieval vulgate. These additional verses, the so-called plus verses, are not present in the majority of the medieval manuscripts of the Iliad. Other verses that are canonical in the medieval manuscripts are absent from the papyri – these may be termed minus verses. Also prevalent is variation in the formulaic phrasing within lines. In other words, it seems from this most ancient evidence that the poems were performed and recorded with a considerable amount of fluidity in antiquity. It is not until about 150 BCE that the papyrus texts begin to stabilize and present a relatively more uniform text. (For more about the state of the Homeric poems in antiquity, see the bibliography in G. Nagy’s BMCR review of the new Teubner edition of the Iliad.)

The early Homeric papyri are the vestiges of a once vibrant performance tradition of the Iliad and Odyssey. In such a tradition no poem is ever composed, performed, or recorded in exactly the same way twice. In the earliest stages of the Iliad and Odyssey, each performance would have resulted in an entirely new composition. By the time of the first papyrus fragments, the oral composition and performance tradition of Homeric epic poetry had died out. But variation in the ancient textual tradition, the reflexes of this once oral and performative tradition, persisted for several more centuries. These variations, preserved for us in the Homeric papyri, are a unique window into the oral tradition that we have lost.