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The City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt Paperback – December 1, 2007

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Editorial Reviews


a memorable book LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS astonishing work of research and imagination THE HERALD a remarkable book... to miss this is to iss a very rich treat -- Paul Foster Expository Times

About the Author

Peter Parsons was Lecturer in Papyrology from 1960 to 1989 and Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University from 1989 until his retirement in 2003. For many years he was chairman of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project of the British Academy, of which he has been a Fellow since 1977. He lives in Oxford.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Phoenix (an Imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd ) (December 1, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0753822334
  • ISBN-13: 978-0753822333
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #736,579 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on May 4, 2007
Format: Hardcover
The idea of archeology in Egypt brings with it associations of pyramids, hidden passages, mummies, and gold statues. The ancient city of Oxyrhynchos didn't have any such claims. All it had was its garbage dumps, and instead of Indiana Jones, it had two young Oxford dons to dig around in it in 1896. They did not find treasure as might be displayed under spotlights in museum cases, but treasure it was, nonetheless. It was a vast quantity of papyrus documents from the first to fourth centuries, preserved in Egypt's dry heat, and still legible. In _City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt_ (Weidenfeld and Nicolson), Peter Parsons has revealed some of what the papyri have to tell us. He is fully qualified for such a work; he is a professor of Greek and a lecturer in Papyrology at Oxford, as well as the former head of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project. He says that when you open a box of unpublished papyri, "you never know what you will find - high poetry and vulgar farce, sales and loans, wills and contracts, tax returns and government orders, private letters, shopping lists and household accounts." It is quite a jumble, but his book has organized the findings by thematic chapters, and so provides a remarkable portrait of everyday life in a culture that turns out to be both alien and familiar.

Accidental finds of papyrus a hundred miles south of Cairo and ten miles west of the Nile led to archeological interest in England. The two young Oxford archeologists, Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt, could not have known what they were getting into when they began their exploration, but they quickly learned that there were heaps of papyri to be unearthed. An excited Grenfell wrote, "The papyri were, as a rule, not very far from the surface.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Anson Cassel Mills on December 9, 2007
Format: Paperback
Peter Parsons, Regius Chair of Greek at Oxford emeritus, has been an enthusiastic papyrologist since graduate school in the 1950s. This unlikely book is his popular presentation of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, thousands of mostly Greek fragments discovered in the dump of Oxyrhynchus, the "City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish," a now-leveled ancient town about hundred miles south of Cairo.

After an introduction to the discovery, excavation, and interpretation of the papyri, and a chapter devoted to Greeks in ancient Egypt, Parsons provides an outline of city life and describes the place of the emperor and the Romans in city affairs. Most of the book, however, cleverly treats mundane matters, the records of which ended up in the city's landfill and were preserved (sometimes thirty feet deep) by the dry Egyptian climate: business contracts, legal paperwork, sympathy notes, handwriting exercises, magic spells. From these scraps, Parsons ventures shrewd guesses about medicine, religion, education, family relationships and the operation of bureaucracies.

My own favorite chapter discusses the annual inundation of the Nile, which annually deposited new soil on the fields and was the basis for Egypt's reputation as the breadbasket of the ancient world. Parsons notes that while most ancient economies had two seasons, sowing and harvest, Egypt had a third, the season of inundation. This geographical bounty provided idiosyncratic records about dike building, grain shipment, tax levies, and even worship of the river.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Meaghan on August 26, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I don't think this book is as engaging as it could have been -- like, say, if Philip Matyszak had written it -- but it's far from dry either. The story is of a minor Greco-Egyptian city in ancient times that, through accident of location, wound up yielding an archaeologist's wet-dream in the form of a two-thousand-year-old city dump full of papyrus debris such as letters, receipts, petitions, schoolboys' notebooks, lists, cartoons, etc etc etc, that shows in a way that nothing else can what life was really like at that time and place.

The book is nothing if not methodical, carefully laying out the pieces of the society that formed the City of the Sharp Nosed Fish. Included were many quotes -- some quite long -- from the papyrus, and some photo inserts of the scraps themselves. So you see a boy threatening to starve himself if his dad doesn't come to see him, and a schoolteacher complaining that the city council hasn't paid him as promised, and little children struggling to learn their letters. I was particularly interested in the opening pages, where they talked about the difficulties of working with papyrus and reading it. I had no idea that the ancients did not put spaces in between their words. You learn something every day.

I would recommend this to people with an interest in ancient history. It's written in a fairly serious way and I don't think it's the best book to introduce people to ancient history, but if you're already into the subject you'll love it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By David Emery on May 20, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I got this after seeing a recommendation from Dr Mary Beard as one of her favorite books, and it was a good recommendation!

This is a well written exposition of life in Egypt during Roman times, based on translations of bits of papyrus from the archeological site. It's not an academic text, but rather the rare book that takes a scholarly approach to consolidate and interpret a large body of knowledge for both the lay reader (like myself) and the specialist.

This is useful for people interested in Egyptian and Graeco/Roman history, as the author discusses how Greek and then Rome influenced the administration of traditional Egypt. The Nile and its flood are of course central to the economy, but the text also covers religion and family life, as well as economics and politics.

It's very unfortunate that more academics don't write these kinds of synthesis books.
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