By Courtney Bobik
The Graeco-Roman Period (332 BC – AD 395) is considered to begin after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, and continues up to the Arab Conquest. The Graeco-Roman period represents a period of great change and a strengthened centralized foreign rule within Egypt and the wider Mediterranean world.
Figure 1: Grenfell and Hunt sitting outside a tent at Oxyrhynchus during their excavations from 1896-1907.
Under Ptolemaic rule, Egypt underwent a fusion of Greek and Egyptian culture. The Ptolemies strived to support all things “Egyptian” with the construction of many new temples and the administration upholding the already existing pharaonic traditions. It was during this time that Greek became the administrative language and new Greek cities and settlements, such as Alexandria were constructed to accommodate the Greek settlers arriving in Egypt. With the triumph of Augustus over Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, the Roman Empire seized control of Egypt bringing an end to the reigning Ptolemaic dynasty. Augustus was eager to revamp and reorganize Egypt in order to assimilate it into the empire. Pharaonic culture however, proved to be more resilient than expected, and Egypt became one of the few places in the empire where most of its original culture remained intact under Roman rule. One site that displays these changes and its impact of classical civilization on Egyptian culture is Oxyrhynchus. Located south of the Fayum basin, Oxyrhynchus was occupied by the Graeco-Roman settlers from Ptolemaic to Islamic times. Oxyrhynchus remained unexplored until Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt excavated at the site on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1896-97 (see figure 1). The success of these excavations eventually led to the formation of a Graeco-Roman Branch of the Fund which still continues to publish the papyrus found during these early excavations.
Figure 2: Photographs of the excavations that were carried out during Grenfell and Hunt’s seasons under the Egypt Exploration Fund.
Grenfell first visited Egypt in 1893-94 to work with W.M.F. Petrie at Koptos. In winter of 1895-96, he and Hunt began investigating abandoned Graeco-Roman villages in the Fayum, and in four seasons they dug at over a dozen village sites. Grenfell and Hunt had dug with great success at ancient Oxyrhynchus after their first season in 1896-97, and they continued to work at the site for another five seasons, from 1903 until 1906-07 (see figure 2). The excavations were postponed indefinitely after the 1906-07 season due to a shortage of funds and Grenfell’s ill health. The achievement of Grenfell and Hunt’s expedition at Oxyrhynchus was the recovery, preservation and recording of a vast quantity of ancient texts on papyrus, now stored on behalf of the EES by the University of Oxford as part of the Imaging Papyri Project. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri contain a wide range of texts in various languages such as Latin, Egyptian (Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, Demotic, but mostly Coptic), Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Pahlavi, though the collection was mostly written in ancient Greek. The texts in the collection include the plays of Menander, fragments from the Gospel of Thomas, Euclid’s The Elements, amongst many other classical and Christian texts.
Figure 3: The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The current project working on the papyri can be seen on Oxford’s website for the project, P.Oxy Oxyrhynchus Online.
Work on The Oxyrhynchus Papyri continues in translating and preserving all the pieces in the collection at the Sackler Library at Oxford (see figure 3). This project is currently under the supervision of staff at the University of Oxford and University College London. The papyri from Oxyrhynchus are valuable because it exemplifies the blending of cultures, languages, and ideas that were occurring in Egypt during its occupation.
Bowman, A., Coles, R., Gonis, N., Obbink, D. and Parsons, P. 2007. Oxyrhynchus. London: The Egypt Exploration Society.
Grenfell, B. and Hunt, A. 1898. The Oxyrhynchus papyri. London: The Egypt Exploration Fund.
Spencer, P. 2007. The Egypt Exploration Society – the early years. London: The Egypt Exploration Society.