Method and Theory in Classics
Session 5: Fragments
When classicists talk about ‘fragments’ they may, sometimes, mean
literal, physical fragments of text preserved (usually on papyrus) in
archaeological contexts (usually Egypt, although many were also
preserved (carbonised) in Herculaneum).
• The vast majority of surviving papyrus documents from Hellenistic
and Roman Egypt are not literary texts but more mundane
documents (which does not make them less interesting – if anything
the reverse is true).
• Most (about two-thirds) of the literary papyri from Egypt come from
• Note in passing that most inscriptions (the subject of chapter 17 in
the textbook) survive in a physically fragmentary state.
Consider the example of Menander (a comic poet of the later 4 century
BCE), who wrote more than 100 plays; all of them were lost in the 7 & 8h th
centuries CE. However, in other surviving works he was quoted over 900
times (often only a single line, but sometimes passages up to 16 lines
long). Many papyri from Hellenistic and Roman Egypt have also been
discovered which contain parts of Menander’s plays; one (Dyskolos) is
virtually complete, and there are substantial fractions of half a dozen
more, along with many more shorter fragments.
Usually however when we talk about fragments we mean quotations of
texts preserved in the works of later authors.
An example, from Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistai (a text written at the end of
the 2 century CE: this section (2.38e) is part of a conversation about
wine): They compare Dionysus to a bull, because of the condition
drunks are in, and to a leopard because those who consume too
much wine are prone to violence. Alcaeus [writes]:
“sometimes drawing themselves wine sweet as honey, at other
times some with a bite harsher than brambles.”
Some people become quarrelsome; th