In Classical education, students of rhetoric were trained through a series of ‘preliminary exercises’ (progymnasmata) used to practise and develop their writing skills as well as the art of speech. There were fourteen types of such exercises, including the compositions of a fable, anecdote, praise, and description.
In the papyrus collection of the British Library, these two larger fragments (and the very small detached strip) were part of a longer roll containing a second-century register on the front. The back was re-used to host rhetorical exercises, two of which partly survive.
The first exercise preserved on this papyrus, and found in the first fragment from the left, is in praise of Aidos, the Greek goddess of modesty, and quotes a few verses from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (eighth century BC) and Hesiod’s Works and Days, a didactic poem written around 700 BC. At the end of the second column there is an elaborate marginal sign, called a coronis, which marks the end of the exercise.
The second exercise occupies the right-hand side fragment and provides a description of the phoenix, focusing on its harmonious song, its gleaming plumage and its peaceful and wise nature.