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Epic Poetry in Egypt: The Forgotten Epyllium Telephi

Martina Delucchi

University of Bristol, UK

In this paper I focus on the popularity and the impact of the myth of Telephus (traditionally linked with the Attalids of Pergamon) in the early third century CE, through the analysis of the oftneglected Epyllium Telephi. The Epyllium Telephi is part of a larger hexametrical text of uncertain length found in a papyrus codex sheet (P. Oxy. 214) published in the second volume of the Oxyrhynchus collection (Grenfell and Hunt 1899). It is commonly referred to as an epyllium, i.e. a short epic poem. The text – 44 lines, of which only half are readable – deals with the myths of Telephus and, probably, of his son Eurypylus. The events are recounted by a female narrator and include: a) the battle of the Caicus, fought between the Mysians and the Greeks (when the latter mistook Mysia for the Troad) and ended with the wounding of Telephus and the retreat of the Greeks; and, seemingly, b) the intervention of Eurypylus in the Trojan War and his forthcoming duel with Neoptolemus.

Most of the studies on the epyllium are reviews of the editio princeps (Platt 1899; Ludwich 1900; Wilamowitz 1900), whilst others, although offering some interesting inputs (esp. Weil 1900; Rostagni 1956), struggle with fitting their own personal assumptions with textual evidence (Fraccaroli 1900; Bolling 1901). Furthermore, Powell includes the epyllium in his Collectanea Alexandrina (1925), Page counts it among his Literary Papyri (1941), and Heitsch features it in his Dichterfragmente (1963). Yet nobody has ever published an in-depth study of the text.

Hence, this paper first focuses on the date of the papyrus sheet: despite the unanimous consensus in dating it to the third century CE, no cogent argumentation supports the date itself. Therefore, I attempt to reconstruct the papyrus’s history through palaeographical parallels, comparing it to further contemporary papyri. Secondly, against previous dating ranging from the third century BCE to the third CE, I propose to date the text to the end of the second century CE (or the early years of the third century CE): to do that, I will analyze the text from a metrical and lexical perspective and set it in its historico-literary context. Thirdly, after establishing the identity of the speaker (sc. Astyoche, Telephus’ wife), I will contextualize the speech within the plot, as it has been a matter of disagreement among scholars so far: indeed, it has been debated whether the action should be set in Mysia, in Troy or even in Italy, before, during or after the Trojan war. Comparing the internal evidence with the accounts of the myth in Sophocles’ Eurypylus, I will hypothesize a Trojan setting after the arrival of Neoptolemus and Eurypylus. Finally, I will analyze the rhetorical and linguistic tools which the author utilized to allude to previous or contemporary traditions (e.g. Homeric echoes, influences of Sophocles’ Eurypylus, Oppian). My analysis will demonstrate that: a) the epyllium is one of the few extant examples of epic Greek poetry of the early imperial age; b) it harmonizes with contemporary epics; c) the poet did engage with the literary tradition. Defying the trend which generally associates the myth of Telephus with the Attalids of Pergamon, this finding shows that the myth was truly widespread and popular in other regions of the Roman Empire – Egypt in particular – during the third century CE, i.e. a long time after Rome’s annexation of the kingdom of Pergamon (133 BCE).

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Culture and Society in Greek Roman and Byzantine Egypt

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