Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Erotica find steams up the classics professor

Click to follow
PITY poor Alessandra Mussolini who had to stand around all day catching cold by the shores of Lake Garda last week while four watertight trunks were lifted from the water.

The cases had been thought to contain copies of her grandfather's correspondence with Winston Churchill. He once referred to the Italian dictator, in a mean-spirited moment, as the 'bullfrog from the Pontine marshes'. Churchill's views on his Mediterranean adversary were sadly not destined to be amplified, for all that was found in the trunks was a load of old German gunpowder. Alessandra was not amused.

Never mind, the pouting former starlet, who is making a career as a wolf-whistling deputy in the Italian parliament, can console herself next time she is in Milan with a quiet visit to the Institute of Papyrology where an astonishing discovery has been made.

It all started in December 1991 when the Italian savings institution, Cariplo, fought off other bidders beating their way to the door of a private Swiss collector to carry home a rolled-up papyrus-and-gesso breastplate. It is not known how much of the Italian pensioners' money was used to pay for the scroll, but Cariplo promptly donated it to the University of Milan.

The scroll dates back to the 3rd century BC when it was used to embalm and wrap an Egyptian mummy. It is believed to have been delivered to the embalmers by a dealer in scrap paper. But no ordinary load of old paper, this. After being steamed and unrolled for 18 months by the papyrologists Guido Bastianini and Claudio Galazzi, who grew ever more excited at what they discovered, the scroll was found to be covered with hundreds of verses by a Greek poet named Posidippus.

Of the two Posidippi whose work has survived, the better known is the comic playwright. But this one was renowned for his epigrams about sex and drink. Until the new find, only 20 such epigrams were known to have survived, recorded in a medieval collection in Heidelberg known as the Palatine Anthology. One of them goes: 'Why am I always sober when you're boozed, drunk when you're not? My friend, you break the strict code of sots.'

According to Professor Bastianini, Posidippus couldn't have been drunk all the time. He was born towards the end of the 4th century BC, travelled all over the Mediterranean and lived to the ripe old age of about 70. This new stock increases Posidippus's known works by 600 per cent. In addition to erotica and inebriation, he appears to have turned his pen to dedications and gravestones, as well as illnesses, shipwrecks, statues and unusual characters - misers and men with large noses.

The new find can be identified and ascribed to Posidippus with some certainty since it contains a previously known epigram - about a statue of Alexander the Great by the Greek sculptor Lysippus.

The quiet Professor Bastianini is quite overcome at the find and the changes it will make to his career. 'It is very special,' he says. 'Really quite exceptional. We are very satisfied.'

But leave it to Peter Parsons, Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford, to make the most memorable comment about the find. 'Never mind that it stopped before it got to the good bits. It proves that, yet again, classics lives. As always, the past has a lively future.' Alessandra, should she care to make Posidippus's acquaintance, might well join in the applause.

(Photograph omitted)