The World of Ancient Papyri

Long-time blogger Ben Witherington has been running an interesting little series summarizing William Johnson’s Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus which folks might want to spend some time with:

The Deification of Poppaea Sabina … now in Poem Form

LiveScience’s Owen Jarus has put a good one out there … from the latest volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, it’s a recently-translated poem all about Nero and Poppaea Sabina, and the latter’s ‘deification’ … here are some excerpts from Jarus’ piece:

A just-deciphered ancient Greek poem discovered in Egypt, deifies Poppaea Sabina, the wife of the infamous Roman emperor Nero, showing her ascending to the stars.

Based on the lettering styles and other factors, scholars think the poem was written nearly 200 years after Nero died (about 1,800 years ago), leaving them puzzled as to why someone so far away from Rome, would bother composing or copying it at such a late date.

In the poem, Poppaea ascends to heaven and becomes a goddess. The ancient goddess Aphrodite says to Poppaea, “my child, stop crying and hurry up: with all their heart Zeus’ stars welcome you and establish you on the moon…”

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Headed for the heavens

The newly deciphered poem, however, shows a very different side to this ancient couple. In the poem, Poppaea is depicted being taken away by Aphrodite and told “your children for Nero [both deceased] you will guard them for eternity.”

Poppaea does not want this, wishing to stay with Nero. “[S]he was downcast and did not rejoice in the offered (favor). For she was leaving her husband, (a man) equal to the gods, and she moaned loudly from her longing…” part of the poem reads.

“The poet is trying to tell you [that] Poppaea loves her husband and what it implies is this story about the kick in the belly cannot be true,” said Paul Schubert, a professor at the University of Geneva and the lead researcher who worked on the text, in an interview with LiveScience. “She wouldn’t love him if she had been killed by a kick in the belly.”

The poem records her ascending to heaven, mentioning all the planets known to the ancients including “the Cyllenaean star” (Mercury), “belt of the Aegis-bearer” (Jupiter) and “Rhea’s bedfellow” (Saturn).

Her arrival among the stars is also triumphant, “under a clear (moon), the dance of the blessed (gods) she viewed…” with her then going to the northern pole to watch over Nero “looking around for her husband under the darkness…”

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The original article has some other details and a photo of the papyrus, which has been around for quite a while (why did the Dead Sea Scrolls get published so quickly and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri seem to require centuries of work? Oh … right) …