City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt by Peter Parsons - review by Peter Jones

Peter Jones

The Sands of Egypt

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

By

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 288pp £20 order from our bookshop
 

The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter (‘Dear Aunt/Uncle/Stinker, Thank you very much for the train/tractor/germ gun. It was lovely/useful/not bad’ and so on) has proved a blessing to schoolchildren for many years now, but the principle is at least 1,700 years old. For the desert sands of an ancient Greek town in Egypt have yielded a model ‘Letter of Consolation’, datable to about AD 300: ‘--- to ---, be of good heart. When the terrible news was signified to me about the deceased ---, how I was distressed …’, etc.

It is just one of the thousands of items recovered a hundred years ago from a garbage-tip in the ancient Graeco-Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchos, ‘sharp-nosed’, named after its sacred fish (modern el-Behnesa). Peter Parsons, Emeritus Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford and one of the world’s leading papyrologists, has been

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