Beginning in 1897, a huge number of papyri were found in the ancient garbage dumps outside of where the city of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt had stood. Written on these papyri were passages from the Bible, apocryphal Gospels, Classical Greek literature both known to the modern world and hitherto lost, legal and official and business documents and private letters and other things. Over 5000 of these papyri have been published so far, but that's still just a tiny fraction of what was dug up. (Some sources give the total number of Oxyrhynchus papyri at 500,000, some 1 million, so for now I'm just going to stick with "only a tiny fraction have been published so far." I also can't tell you how many papyri, if any, have been excavated after the period between 1897 and 1903, although I want very much to be able to tell you. I'll keep researching.) Volume 1 of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri was published in 1898, and volume 82 was published in 2016, and there are many more volumes still to come.
One of the biggest-selling of those 82 volumes is volume 4, published in 1904.
And by far the biggest reason for the interest in volume 4 are the first 2 papyri in the volume, P. Oxy 654 and 655, which Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, the Oxford archaeologists who discovered the Oxyrhynchus garbage dumps full of history-changing papyri and who edited volume 4, named "New Sayings of Jesus" and "fragment of a lost Gospel," respectively. In the 1940's a Coptic manuscript found at Nag Hammadi was discovered to have come from the same Greek text as these two papyri and P. Oxy 1, the first papyrus in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, volume 1, and now all of the text which has been discovered and put together is known collectively as the Gospel of Thomas.
And there truly is no shortage of web pages, websites, books, TV shows and other things devoted to the Gospel of Thomas.
But I came here today to talk about another papyrus in volume 4: P. Oxy 668, an epitome of Livy, books 37-45 and 48-55. This papyrus is transcribed and discussed on pages 90-116, as well as a part of it being shown in a photograph in Plate VI at the back of the volume.
Perhaps some of you are asking: what is an epitome of Livy, books 37-45 and 48-55, and why should I care about it? Livy is the common English name of the Roman historian Titus Livius, who lived from 59 BC to AD 17, and wrote a history of Rome from its mythical beginnings to the end of the reign of the Emperor Augustus in AD 14.
There has been quite a lot of discussion of and controversy over Livy's reliability and worth as an historian. There is general agreement that he wrote very well, that his works are tremendously enjoyable and exciting to read, whether they deliver a high degree of historical value or not. I personally tend to think somewhat more highly of Livy the historian than some others do. But it must be understood that the rules for writing history were much different in ancient Rome than they are today. Much of Livy is what we would refer to as historical fiction rather than history -- when, for example, Livy puts long speeches into the mouths of people when it is clear that, whatever they said, Livy had no word-for-word record of it. Still, I think it's very important to keep in mind that some of what is written and marketed in our modern age as historical fiction -- Lion Feuchtwanger and Gore Vidal come to mind -- contains more solid reliable information about history, and far fewer egregious historical errors, than much which claims to be nonfictional historical writing.
Livy's history, commonly referred to as ab urbe condita, contained 142 books. "Books" here means much the same as the books of the Bible: a piece of writing which would fit onto a scroll. However, only 35 of those 142 books are known to us today -- books 1-10 and 21-45 -- plus a few fragments and condensations. Altogether, the text of those 35 books and the other surviving scraps add up to a text about as long as that of the canonical Bible, Old plus New Testament, since it seems that all 142 books were similar in length, what we have appears to be about 1/4 of the original work.
An epitome is a short condensed version of a text. Books 48-55 in their complete form, covering topics having to do with the Roman Republic in the mid-2nd century BC, such as the third and final Punic War, topics about which we truly do not have an overabundance of information -- Ah say Ah Say, books 48-55 are at large today, which is the biggest reason why Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 668 is such a big deal. A condensation like this misses a lot of the grand writing style of the original, but still contains many priceless bits of information which can be compared with the few other known bits of historical writing about the time and place. But this great historical value is far from the only reason why this manuscript is important. The manuscript was made in the 3rd century, and any manuscript at all which is that old is of great value because of its age alone. And a 3rd-century Latin manuscript even more so than a Greek one, because, since discoveries at Oxyrhynchus and elsewhere, ancient Greek manuscripts are suddenly much less rare than they were 200 years ago. (In Classical Studies 200 years is sudden.) The great majority of the papyri found at Oxyrhynchus are written in Greek. It's always nice for those of us who specialize in Latin, although we too are mightily excited about all of the Greek manuscripts, when a Latin papyrus like this one is found among the Greek ones. Ancient Oxyrhynchus was in a time and place dominated by writing in Greek. It's just about inconceivable that a comparatively huge collection of ancient mostly-Latin manuscripts will ever be found in one place -- inconceivable even by me, and I daydream very recklessly, believe me. Besides Oxyrhynchus, some other, smaller collections of ancient manuscripts have been found in Egypt: for example, at the above-mentioned Nag Hammadi, and also at Fayum. What these Egyptian sites have in common is the Nile, which provided enough water to sustain cities, but was close enough to regions which were arid enough that papyri, and also some pieces of parchment, could be buried in the ground and left there for thousands of years without being rotted away by moisture, or eaten by little crawling things kept alive by the same moisture.
There is no Nile in the middle of a desert where the main written language was Latin, and that is why there could be no Latin Oxyrhynchus laying around waiting to be excavated, full of ancient Latin manuscripts. There could be huge discoveries of ancient Latin manuscripts, but because of climate, as several papyrologists finally managed very patiently to explain to me, those discoveries would have to be of some different nature.