The Bodleian holds classical papyri from the Hellenistic to Byzantine periods, mostly written in Greek with a few in Latin. The Bodleian’s first papyri were a group of four carbonized rolls excavated at Herculaneum in 1752: MS. Gr. class. f. 25–27 (P). The Prince of Wales gave them to the university in 1810 along with disegni, facsimile transcripts from other rolls opened at Naples (MSS. Gr. class. c. 1–7, online through Imaging Papyri and an 1885 facsimile, Fragmenta Herculanensia).
Most of the Bodleian’s papyri were acquired from Egypt between 1878 and 1934 and relate to the public or private business of Graeco-Roman Egypt. The earliest and most important of these are the two rolls containing the Revenue Laws of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, as revised in 259–8 BC: MS. Gr. class. a. 4 (P). By contrast, the most personal document is a letter of an Egyptian boy, Theon, from the second or third century, requiring his father to buy him a lyre at Alexandria: MS. Gr. class. f. 66 (P).
The literary papyri include a number of unique fragments of Greek poetry: second-century fragments of the lyric poets Alcaeus (MS. Gr. class. a. 16 (P)) and Sappho (MS. Gr. class. c. 76 (P)); and over 300 lines of Euripides' lost play Hypsipyle (MS. Gr. class. b. 13 (P)); from a papyrus codex of the fourth century, seven leaves of Callimachus's Aetia and Iambi (MS. Gr. class c. 72 (P)). Other papyri represent ancient witnesses for texts already known from the medieval tradition: substantial remains of two second- and third-century rolls of Homer’s Iliad (MSS. Gr. class. a. 1 (P) and a. 8 (P)); fragments of Plato’s Laches, early third century BC, written probably less than a century after the author’s death (MSS. Gr. class. d. 22–3 (P)). Latin highlights include small fragments of Livy and Sallust from the fourth and fifth centuries: MS. Lat. class. f. 5 (P) and MS. Lat. class. e. 20 (P). There are a few biblical, theological and liturgical papyri in Greek. The most famous of these contains the Sayings of Jesus, in a single leaf from a papyrus codex of the third century (MS. Gr. th. e. 7 (P)), which was later identified from a parallel Coptic version as part of the Gospel of Thomas.
Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries describes the library’s papyri briefly. Two published exhibition catalogues highlight Bodleian papyri: An Exhibition of Papyri, Mainly in Greek (1974) and Greek Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library (1966).