Thursday, April 26, 2007

Same or different

At the TLS, Mary Beard has a great piece about a quite wonderful-sounding book (I think I must read it; I've got a thing about this period, it comes I assume from obsessive re-readings of I, Claudius at an impressionable age--I popped to attention when I saw the name Germanicus!), Peter Parsons' The City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt. She includes a host of fascinating details in the review, go and take a look, but here are Beard's final paragraphs, which touch on something I think about all the time:

In some cases it is actually Peter Parsons’s elegant and judicious translation that serves to domesticate the strange. In one papyrus letter, Titianos, probably a Christian, writes to his sister about a lucky recovery. “I was gripped for a long while by an illness”, runs the translation, “so that I couldn’t even stagger. When my illness eased, my eye suppurated and I had tachomas and I suffered terribly and in other parts of my body as well so that it nearly came to surgery, but thank God!” It is the word “surgery”, or “operation” in another modern version, that gives this account a particularly familiar ring, with all its connotations of hospitals, anaesthetic, antiseptic and so forth. In the original Greek, the word in question is “tome”. This means “cutting” – of anything from wood to flesh. “Surgery” is a perfectly legitimate translation, though a rather nice way of putting it. “It nearly came to the knife” or “it nearly came to chopping me up” might be a better reflection of ancient medical procedures – as well as a stronger prompt for us to go beyond the comfortable modern analogies.

“Same or different” is a dilemma for any historian who tries to recapture the structures and concerns of everyday life at whatever period of the past. On the one hand is the obvious fact that some things do not change, or only very slightly. People in Oxyrhynchus would have had coughs and colds, sore feet and blistered hands just as we do; and they may well have baked their bread in ways that are still instantly recognizable to us. On the other is the unnerving thought that these people lived in a world so different from ours as to call into question that superficial familiarity and to challenge our ability to understand, let alone empathize with it. My only qualm with this otherwise brilliant book is the slightly too cosy image it offers of ancient Oxyrhynchus and its people. Much more stands between us and making sense of their world than the decipherment of Grenfell and Hunt’s tins of papyri – fascinating and formidable a task as that is.


I'm not a historian, obviously, though there's a strong historical component to my scholarly work, but I fall down very strongly on the "same" side of the "same vs. different" divide; really I must get this book and read it. (It is funny what beneficial effects a good night's sleep can have, this time of the semester is quite brutal but I actually feel myself again this morning, that's good! I've been reading in the tiny scraps of spare time I can muster a very delightful young-adult trilogy that's based in a semi-mythologized version of the ancient classical world, about which more anon; also a really wonderful alternate-history novel; no time to blog 'em now, perhaps later...)

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