I have come across the phrase "economy principle" somewhere I cannot recall, talking about why some combinations of papyrus fragments were made. What is this principle exactly?


As I typed it, I was on my mobile and close to bedtime, so I couldn't look for my source. Right now, I opened the book "The newest Sappho" by Anton Bierl and André Lardinois, which I suspected to be the source, and found the following quotes:

Only the fragments overlapping with Sappho fragment 9 did not seem to fit physically or textually into this sequence. M.L. West posited on grounds of economy that it should be placed in the missing column between fragment 5 and the Brothers Song. (p. 40)

Whether πότνιαι or πόντιαι, it is significant that the placement (indepen- dently, on physical grounds of fiber-matching and the principle of economy) of this fragment at this point in the sequence—results in a continuation of the alphabetic sequence of poems by first letter of incipits in π- (p. 41)

[…] and, while they could have come before the ο- sequence of incipits, reasons of economy suggest that they came together in the gap between the ο-π sequence of incipits and the final poem […] (p. 45, footnote)

So that's where I found this principle mentioned.

  • @Hugh not quite, see update. I assume that would apply to joining P.Oxy. 1231 frr. 50-54, right? They were found together and apart from the rest of P.Oxy. 1231.
    – MickG
    Feb 3, 2018 at 10:58

5 Answers 5


I wonder if this "principle of economy" concerns the text rather than the physical papyrus itself. That is to say, it is perhaps a principle of textual criticism rather than papyrology.

I say this because that was more M. L. West's field (please see edit below) and also because the excerpts you give seem to draw a distinction between the physical aspects of the fragments and this economy principle. Indeed, the argument being made hinges on the agreement between physical and textual clues.

Having read the chapter you cite elsewhere, I understand the argument being made is that Sappho's poems were organised alphabetically (hence the discussion about the incipits). To this end, and this is only a guess on my part because I cannot find a tidy definition anywhere, the principle of economy may be something like another term used in textual criticism, lectio brevior - the shorter reading [is the more likely] (cf lectio difficilor potior - the more difficult reading is the stronger).

Which is to say, perhaps M. L. West's idea is that the fragment in question most easily fits into the alphabetic sequence as anywhere else, given that there is so much evidence that this is indeed the arrangement. Perhaps the principle of economy is a sort of Ockham's Razor where "one should select the solution that makes the fewest assumptions".

Edit: for those interested and with journal access, the M. L. West article cited in "The Newest Sappho" excerpt above is "Nine Poems of Sappho", in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 191 (2014), pp. 1-12. His only reference to "economy" is as follows: "When such large pieces from these columns are preserved, it would be a little surprising if there were no remnant of column v. It is economical to suppose that P.GC fr. 1 is in fact from that missing column." (p. 2)

Note that West's article is indeed an extended piece of textual criticism. Further, this quotation highlights how this "principle of economy" is an educated guess, much like both lectio brevior and Ockham's Razor.

  • "because I cannot find a tidy definition anywhere" - I encountered the same problem. I've even looked it up in Martin West Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique - the principle of economy is not even mentioned there, at least under this name, and we can't ask him directly because he passed way a couple of years ago.
    – Alex B.
    Feb 11, 2018 at 16:45
  • 1
    @AlexB. It's so frustrating! I think we may be spending as much time deciphering this as scholars have spent deciphering the Sappho fragments! I'm glad you've reinstated your answers - no need for economy here; the more food for thought the better :) And +1 for the Textual Criticism and Editorial Technique reference. I have to admit I didn't know of it until now.
    – Penelope
    Feb 12, 2018 at 0:42

Here’s my original suggestion - once again, this is my guess, and it can be wrong.

Economy might stand here for the most efficient use of space/materials/other resources at the disposal of the scribe because, as Roger Bagnall puts it,

"the labor involved in making papyrus was considerable, and its price was therefore significant, most typically several days' average worker's wages for a roll" (Bagnall 1995: 13).

Paul Schubert (Schubert 2011) explains it further:

enter image description here

Cf. Catullus 22:

Suffenus iste, Vare, quem probe nosti,

homo est venustus et dicax et urbanus,

idemque longe plurimos facit versus.

Puto esse ego illi milia aut decem aut plura

perscripta, nec sic, ut fit, in palimpsesto

relata: cartae regiae, novi libri,

novi umbilici, lora rubra, membranae,

derecta plumbo et pumice omnia aequata.

  • 1
    So it justifies joining fragments because... why? I mean, the fact they are found together plus the cost of the material implies that the fragments must be joined? Why? There may have been much more papyris that was totally lost, as far as we can say, so it doesn't sound like a solid justification to me... Well, in the case of P.GC. where the fragments were cartonnage, one could say that, on grounds of economy, a single roll was used, and then discuss the placement of the fragments, would this principle be used as (part of the) justification for joining P.Oxy. 1231 frr. 50-54 or...
    – MickG
    Feb 3, 2018 at 20:04
  • ... were those joined only because the 2166(a) scraps overlapped significantly and joined to each other on grounds of "convincing supplements"?
    – MickG
    Feb 3, 2018 at 20:05
  • @MickG Please re-read it again - I changed my answer to make it clearer to you. Also, your post was about the principle, not about how it was specifically applied in a particular case.
    – Alex B.
    Feb 4, 2018 at 3:38
  • 1
    Nice Catullus too. Pity it had to go.
    – Hugh
    Feb 4, 2018 at 17:08
  • @MickG can you please unselect my answer as correct? I want to make significant changes.
    – Alex B.
    Feb 6, 2018 at 14:24

Economy in this context could be the well-known, general principle of economy from linguistics (Passy, Martinet, Tauli etc.) - a possibility which I initially discarded as the most obvious.

E.g. Valter Tauli argued that an ideal language "must contain the maximum possible economy which is compatible with the absolute clarity and necessary expressiveness."

Under his proposal, clarity is more important than economy, and economy is more important than aesthetics.

In this sense, economy means economy of linguistic forms, its purpose is to ease the unnecessary burden - both mental or physical - both for the communicator and communicant.


I have to admit, I don't know. I've done some research and I am not entirely sure. So, I offer two explanations - in two different answers.

The principle of (formulaic) economy

As Russo reminds us,

"Anyone who reads Homer in Greek becomes eventually aware that repetition is constantly at play, some of its forms being more immediately evident than others." (Russo 1997/2011: 252)

Originally, the formula was understood as "a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea" (Parry 1928, 1930), and that formula should be "made up of at least four words or five syllables, with the exception of noun-epithets, which may be shorter" (Parry 1971: 272, 275 n1, as cited in Russo 1997/2011). Here's a screenshot of a relevant section from Finkelberg 2012:

enter image description here

Later the definition of the formula was revised to "a repeated word group" where "the use of one word created a strong presumption that the other would follow" (Hainsworth 1968, as cited in Edwards 1997/2011: 265; emphasis mine - Alex B.).

The current consensus seems to be that around sixty-seventy percent of Homeric diction is formulaic. Finkelberg 2012 adds that the formulaic and non-formulaic elements were mutually complementary.

So, what is this principle of economy proposed by Milman Parry?

As Steve Reece (Reece 2013) writes,

"By economy Parry meant that generally only one epithet for a character or object was available to fill each common metrical space," [emphasis mine] thus

"Given a particular metrical space to fill, the poet was not required to create a new epithet ex nihilo; he did not even have to pause to consider a choice between two or more inherited epithets – only one epithet was available for that particular metrical space."

Formulaic language in Sappho

"The same forces which created the poetic epic language of Homer created the poetic lyric language of Sappho and Alcaeus. […] Yet while we may feel some doubt as to the way in which they made their verses, there is not the least doubt that their poetic language was drawn from an oral tradition: only in an oral poetry does one ever find such a variety of forms that have each one its own metrical value." (Parry 1932: 29-30)

"The majority of Homeric and later poetic repetitions (actually the whole corpus of hexametric poetry (Epic Meter) in Greek, and still further in the lyric and choral poetry) can be defined as more or less formulaic." (Létoublon 2013)

"From beginning to end, then, Sappho 1 is a work wholly indebted to oral traditional poetic techniques in terms of its phraseological thematic structuring, its rhetoric, and even its extralexical encoding of formulaic phraseology, and it was the combination of Sappho's individual poetic talents with these traditional possibilities that imparted such a powerful impact to her verses." (Garner :334)

"I offer proof that a composition like Song 44 of Sappho was created by way of a formulaic language that is cognate with the formulaic language used in the compositions that we know as the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey." (Nagy 2015, October 22)


And another hypothesis.

In a review of Diodoro Siculo: Biblioteca storica: libro XIII: commento storico. Storia. Ricerche by Catherine Rubincam we can read the following:

"In addition, brief general treatment is given here to some subjects of importance to the whole commentary on this book, principally, Diodorus' sources and how he used them. Ambaglio reiterates the traditional judgment that, as an "epitomator", Diodorus observed 'an iron-clad principle of economy' in the use of sources, "almost never us[ing] more than one source at a time" (IX)" [emphasis mine - Alex B.].

A little bit further we encounter a more revealing passage:

"Ambaglio's statements on this subject seem to me too rigidly dogmatic: first, "On his method of working with the sources, it is my opinion . . . that he [Diodorus] applied an iron-clad principle of economy, or rather of saving himself work, in accordance with which an epitomator . . . almost never uses more than one source at a time;" and then, more specifically, 'it is not the practice of an epitomator to have on his table two rolls of history at a time'" (IX) [emphasis mine - Alex B.].

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