Monday, August 15, 2016


Reading Only the Beginning of Long Books

Stephanie R. West, "The Papyri of Herodotus," in Dirk Obbink and Richard Rutherford, edd., Culture in Pieces: Essays on Ancient Texts in Honour of Peter Parsons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 69-83 (at 71):
Almost half our papyri (19) come from Book 1; Books 2 and 5 achieve quite a respectable score (six each). Book 8 has four; Book 7 three; Books 3 and 4 two each. Book 6 is not attested at all. There was nothing from Book 9 until the publication in 2004 of P.Oslo inv. 1487,10 preserving parts of 9.74–5, now in the library of the University of Oslo—just too late to get into Flower and Marincola's edition (2002).11 In antiquity, as now, only a small proportion of those who started to read long books actually finished them. Notwithstanding the Herodotean Solon's sage counsel to look to the end (1.32.9) comparatively few can have pressed on to see how Herodotus presented the conclusion of the intercontinental conflict whose origins he outlines at the start of his work. If the last chapter contains a message of profound significance for the interpretation of the Histories as a whole, the majority of readers in Roman Egypt missed it. The relative popularity of individual books is consistent with the impression we get from citations in ancient authors, both pagan and Christian; Book 1 comes top by a long way.12

11 While precise statistics relating to published papyri are subject to rapid obsolescence, the substantial group of Oxyrhynchus papyri in the pipeline confirms the general proportions, enhancing the lead of Book 1; I am very grateful to Dirk Obbink for letting me see this material.

12 Of the 27 passages from Herodotus most frequently cited by pagan and Christian writers, eleven come from Book 1: see Ehrhardt 1988, 858.
Related post: The Hawking Index.

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