Wednesday, July 11, 2012

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

Peter Parsons' City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish brings to life the ordinary business of Egyptians living in the city of Oxyrhyncos under the late Roman Empire. Here you'll find everything from Sappho to scatology.

A while ago I reported the problem of "book lag", something which everyone whose professional duty it is to read books suffers from (and, I imagine, a lot of people whose duty it isn't). This means that perfectly interesting and enjoyable books get forgotten about; you get half way through them before, suddenly, you are called upon to review three 900 page novels by the day after yesterday, or similar. Inevitably, the books on my Book Mountain (rapidly becoming a Book Himalayas) turn out to be worth it. One such was Gardner Botsford's A Life of Privilege, Mostly, which memorably featured a tiger-skinned lady chasing its unsuspecting hero with a whip.

This time it's a star turn for Peter Parson's City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007). This charming, entertaining and informative book is not only easy to read, it also delights with its clear-sighted analysis of the papyrus fragments found at the site of the Egyptian city of Oxyrhyncos. Here, in the early twentieth century, the archaeologists Grenfell and Hunt stumbled upon a classicist's dream – mounds and mounds of intact papyroi.