Sabina and her key

Even the ruins have perished. When Egyptologist Flinders Petrie went to Oxyrhynchus in 1922, he found remains of the colonnades and theatre. Now a single column meets the eye: everything else has gone, building material for modern houses.

[engraving: single column]

From an old engraving: there’s even less of it now

Yet we know far more about Oxyrhynchus as a functioning town, and about its people as living individuals, than we do about many more glamorous ruins.

We know where Thonis the fisherman lived, and Aphynchis the embroiderer, and Anicetus the dyer, and Philammon the greengrocer. We know how much farmers had to pay when they brought in dates and olives and pumpkins to market. We know that on 2 November, AD 182, the slave Epaphroditus, eight years old, leaned out of a bedroom window to watch the castanet-players in the street below, and slipped and fell and was killed. We meet Juda, who fell off his horse and needs two nurses to turn him over; Sabina, who hit Syra with her key and put her in bed for four days (ancient keys are good solid objects); Apollonius and Sarapias, who send a thousand roses and four thousand narcissuses for the wedding of a friend’s son.

The reason we know so much, and in such detail, is rubbish.

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