British Library papyrus of the Aristotelean constitution of the Athenians – images online

Via AWOL I stumbled across this item:

Sean Bonawitz, Neel Smith, and Christopher Blackwell are working during the summer of 2012 on the first steps of a comprehensive publication of only surviving witness to the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians. The papyrus is B.M. Pap. 131, that is, British Museum Papyrus number 131. Christopher Blackwell and Amy Hackney Blackwell, working with Chris Lee of the British Library, photographed this papyrus in November of 2011. …

The papyrus exists in five fragments. The five fragments show four different manuscript hands. The hands differ in appearance and in their use of abbreviations. According to John Edward Sandy’s 1893 commentary, pp. xxxvi–xxxix,, the first hand “extends over Columns 1–12” the second columns 13 to 20, the third hand runs from 20 to 24 and columns 31–37, while the fourth scribe includes columns from 25 to 30.

Hands one and four are most similar to each other, but certainly not identical; Sandy’s came to this conclusion by counting the occurrence of abbreviations. While the first and fourth scribes used a significant amount of short-hand (“tachygraphy”) and abbreviations, the second hand hardly uses any, and in the columns written by the third hand they are scarce. Perhaps the most important thing about the change of hands are the editorial notes that occur throughout the piece. Who was this editor, and why did he make these notes?

Images of the papyrus are here.

The papyrus is public property, so naturally the British Library staff have demanded copyright notices all over the place, in case somebody not a member of the public should use them for something.  It reminds us forcefully how much we need reform of copyright law.

But placing the images online is invaluable!  I very much hope that people will work with them.

The papyrus itself dates to the end of the 1st century AD.  It is a roll, from Egypt, acquired on the art market apparently, and on the “normal” side there is a set of accounts drawn up by a bailiff on a private estate in the 11th year of Vespasian (i.e. Aug. 78-June 79 A.D.).  The reverse was used, some time later, for a column and a half of a summary of the Midias of Demosthenes.  But this was then erased, and the Constitution of the Athenians written instead.

The text exists in translation by F.G.Kenyon here.  It was composed before 322 BC, and after 334 AD.[1]

The constitutions begin with an overview of Athenian political history, and they contain many interesting snippets on ancient life in Athens.  Here are a couple of random examples:

As soon as he was at the head of affairs, Solon liberated the people once and for all, by prohibiting all loans on the security of the debtor’s person: and in addition he made laws by which he cancelled all debts, public and private. This measure is commonly called the Seisachtheia [= removal of burdens], since thereby the people had their loads removed from them. In connexion with it some persons try to traduce the character of Solon. It so happened that, when he was about to enact the Seisachtheia, he communicated his intention to some members of the upper class, whereupon, as the partisans of the popular party say, his friends stole a march on him; while those who wish to attack his character maintain that he too had a share in the fraud himself. For these persons borrowed money and bought up a large amount of land, and so when, a short time afterwards, all debts were cancelled, they became wealthy; and this, they say, was the origin of the families which were afterwards looked on as having been wealthy from primeval times. However, the story of the popular party is by far the most probable.  …

It was in one of these progresses that, as the story goes, Pisistratus had his adventure with the man of Hymettus, who was cultivating the spot afterwards known as ‘Tax-free Farm’. He saw a man digging and working at a very stony piece of ground, and being surprised he sent his attendant to ask what he got out of this plot of land. ‘Aches and pains’, said the man; ‘and that’s what Pisistratus ought to have his tenth of’. The man spoke without knowing who his questioner was; but Pisistratus was so leased with his frank speech and his industry that he granted him exemption from all taxes. …

The democracy has made itself master of everything and administers everything by its votes in the Assembly and by the law-courts, in which it holds the supreme power. Even the jurisdiction of the Council has passed into the hands of the people at large; and this appears to be a judicious change, since small bodies are more open to corruption, whether by actual money or influence, than large ones. At first they refused to allow payment for attendance at the Assembly; but the result was that people did not attend. Consequently, after the Prytanes had tried many devices in vain in order to induce the populace to come and ratify the votes, Agyrrhius, in the first instance, made a provision of one obol a day, which Heracleides of Clazomenae, nicknamed ‘the king’, increased to two obols, and Agyrrhius again to three.  …

It is interesting to see that, in ancient Athens as today, ordinary people have better things to do than attend political meetings!

There are ten Commissioners for Repairs of Temples, elected by lot, who receive a sum of thirty minas from the Receivers-General, and therewith carry out the most necessary repairs in the temples.

There are also ten City Commissioners (Astynomi), of whom five hold office in Piraeus and five in the city. Their duty is to see that female flute-and harp-and lute-players are not hired at more than two drachmas, and if more than one person is anxious to hire the same girl, they cast lots and hire her out to the person to whom the lot falls. They also provide that no collector of sewage shall shoot any of his sewage within ten stradia of the walls; they prevent people from blocking up the streets by building, or stretching barriers across them, or making drain-pipes in mid-air with a discharge into the street, or having doors which open outwards; they also remove the corpses of those who die in the streets, for which purpose they have a body of state slaves assigned to them.

  1. [1]All these details from Sandys, p.xxxix.

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