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Full text of "The Legacy Of Egypt"

252                        The Greek Papyri
and consequently of the form and methods by which literature
was transmitted, was limited to a few papyrus codices of the
sixth century, the small and late group of Papal and Ravenna
documents, and the damaged rolls of Herculaneum. To-day we
have specimens of writing, both literary and documentary, in
a series which, if not unbroken, has few serious gaps from the
fourth century B.C. down to the eighth century A.D. ; we have
some fragments of a roll of the Phaedo written less than a century
after Plato's death, a papyrus of Cicero probably anterior to the
Christian era, and what may even be the relics of a contemporary
roll of Polybius. We should note, too, that here is what we may
call a direct legacy from Egypt to the West, whose character
has been more clearly defined by the discoveries of papyri; it
was only to be expected that the country which produced the
material should also exercise a marked influence on the form and
organization of the ancient book—for example, it is highly likely,
though not proven, that the papyrus codex, the precursor of the
parchment book, has its origin as a regular vehicle for literature
in Egypt. In these matters Egypt means Alexandria, and it is
to Alexandria that we owe the illuminated manuscript of the
Middle Ages; but here the actual evidence of the papyri, valu-
able though it is, is scant.
Yet to term this gift of Egypt a legacy is, in a sense, a mis-
nomer and a paradoxical one; for never was a testator less con-
scious of what he was doing or a bequest more fortuitous. The
great mass of our Greek papyri have been salvaged from ruined
towns and villages of Upper Egypt and the adjacent rubbish-
dumps abandoned to the desert when, in Byzantine and Arab
periods, the irrigation system broke down. Occasionally the
digger is fortunate enough to find some family or official archive,
carefully stored in a jar or a box (Dioscorus of Aphrodito has
earned our double thanks for choosing to wrap up his papers in
the leaves of a codex of Menander); a few of our literary papyri
have been found in tombs, as for example the Hawara Homer