Akairos, or The Jerk:
a performance translation of P.Oxy. 5189

Melissa Funke and C. W. Marshall
University of Winnipeg; University of British Columbia

A papyrus found in Oxyrhynchus, in Roman Egypt (P.Oxy. 5189), preserves fragments of an anonymous “mime”, a short comic sketch originally performed by a small troupe in an informal, flexible performance space. This papyrus is from the sixth century CE, and was first published in 2014.1 It is significant for the many explicit stage directions that it preserves, which are otherwise rare in our evidence for ancient Greek and Roman plays. Mime actors (both male and female) were unmasked, and improvisational expansion was encouraged in performance. The kinds of stock characters and plots that are more familiar from Greek New Comedy and Roman comedy are often featured in mime, in a simplified manner that reflects the more informal nature of these performances. The little evidence that survives suggests that a single mime might run 5–15 minutes, and that several could be strung together to form a revue. (P. Berol. 13927, from the fifth century CE, lists the titles and props needed for a larger performance of seven mimes.2) The genre is very poorly understood, and deeper exploration (by performers and scholars) is needed.

This sketch, which we might expect to have been performed as street theatre in a central marketplace, depicts a pair of enslaved domestic workers devising and implementing a scheme to trick a visiting soldier to give up a rich meal, presumably so they can enjoy it themselves. It features repetition of the scheme, as the servants and their accomplices first rehearse the scheme and then attempt unsuccessfully to put it into effect. This kind of plot, in which characters, often of low social status, devise an elaborate and deceptive plan and put it into action with ridiculous consequences, is a mainstay of the ancient Greek and Roman comedies upon which mime so often draws.3 The scene in this script involves a great deal of interpersonal violence, often directed toward the enslaved characters, and emerges from a culture in which the regular physical abuse of enslaved humans was an accepted part of comic entertainment and indeed society more broadly. Since assaults by the enslaved on the free, also part of the scene, were not acceptable in real life, their presence here creates a different, complementary comic effect.

We present the text as a modern play-script, with many supplements to allow for a continued narrative, even though not all details are authorized by surviving fragments. (Dialogue and stage directions without any textual support are underlined and several of the stage directions have been supplemented on the basis of the dialogue that does survive). What distinguishes this script from all other surviving ancient drama is the sheer number of explicit stage directions that have been preserved. Much interpretation remains speculative, and the tone and action are suggestions to prompt further consideration. What does emerge is the type of humour that is being pursued (which can charitably be called “sub-literary”). It represents a stringing together of easy, familiar comic routines. There is also a larger narrative that reflects an appetite for comic physical violence, gluttony, stock characters, and the ongoing tensions between enslaved and free: two enslaved elderly servants, with no sign of their owner about, entertain a soldier and his parasite. Using the money they have (or have received from the soldier?), they invent a scheme whereby they prepare a meal and convince the soldier not to eat it, so they can have the leftovers. The scheme is described twice before it is enacted: first with the parasite and then with the cook that has been hired. When it comes time to put the scheme into practice, however, things go awry because the soldier has returned with a dinner guest, the Jerk (akairos).

This version builds on ideas explained more fully in Marshall and Funke 2019, where a more literal translation is provided,4 though much dialogue will need to be improvised in performance. Line numbers given at right correlate with the lines on each side (recto and verso) of the extant papyrus.

Dramatis Personae (in order of speaking)5

The Parasite a free man economically and socially dependent on the Soldier
The Housekeeper an enslaved elderly woman belonging to the absent owner of the house
The Soldier a self-important soldier described as effeminate, both affluent and gullible
The Attendant an enslaved elderly man belonging to the absent owner of the house. He walks with a staff.
The Cook an independent worker, free but poor (like the parasite, he is addressed as “boss”), hired by the day to prepare a banquet
The Jerk akairos (literally, "he who has not come at the right time"), an uninvited guest who returns with the Soldier in scene 2. The role can be doubled with the Parasite.


A house, represented by a single door, in Late Roman Egypt. One wing continues to the street; the other heads further inside, to the kitchen. A table and two dining couches represent the interior of the home.

[The initial action is not preserved in the papyrus, but is likely to have proceeded as follows.]

Enter the Soldier and his Parasite on the street.

The Parasite approaches and knocks at the door. The Housekeeper answers and scolds the Parasite and the Soldier for noise, mess, interrupting her work, or whatever. With the entrance of the Housekeeper, the location focalizes on the interior of the house. All that follows is “inside”.

The Parasite and Soldier demand entry and hospitality. The Housekeeper does not back down in the face of the soldier’s threats, but does admit the guests.

The Housekeeper takes the Soldier’s travelling cloak and any baggage the Parasite might be carrying.

The Soldier exits to meet a friend or attend to business of some kind, leaving the Parasite to ensure dinner is prepared.

Enter the Attendant from within the house.

Housekeeper: Put the cloak in my hands and he’ll put it away.
Attendant: Got it, Boss! (yanking the cloak and folding it clumsily)
Parasite: My good man, have you never handled a soldier’s cloak? I…
Now you two listen to me! We expect dinner this evening!
Attendant: Got it, Boss!
Housekeeper: Do you remember…[the last time the soldier visited]? (r. 5)
Parasite: [Just be sure there’s enough to eat]…, Pops.
Attendant: Fine by me.
Parasite: Let me see what you’ve got to eat.
Housekeeper: I’ll see what I got here for ya.

The Housekeeper exits to the kitchen and returns with a dish, which she places in front of the Parasite.

Attendant: Look! The soldier will expect some better food than this.

The Housekeeper reaches down from above to help herself to the Parasite’s meal. The Parasite catches the Housekeeper and strikes her with his fists.6

Parasite: How dare you take my… [   ]? (r. 10)
Attendant: Why are you walloping her, Boss? And when I say “Boss”, it’s only because you come with the soldier.
Parasite: (striking the Attendant with his fists) Who do you think you are, Old Man? Do you dare to challenge me?
Housekeeper: (striking both with her fists) Captain Horse-crest is gonna hate this!
Parasite: (striking the Attendant with fists) Get a hold of her!

The Attendant is bent over. The Parasite tries to eat some food, but starts to choke.

Attendant: Calm down, Boss!
Housekeeper: You come, you eat, you drink…
Attendant: …you gag…
Parasite: (indicating the food) Is this for the wuss?7 (r. 15)
Housekeeper: Yeah, Boss.
Attendant: Ah! Ah!

The Parasite vomits.

  Yuck! He’s throwing up.
Housekeeper: Go to the market and hire a cook.
Parasite: Yes, hire yourself a cook. You’ll need better fare when I come in.
Housekeeper: Got anything to eat?
Attendant: Not any more. I’ll go to the market now. How will we pay?
Housekeeper: Cash.

The Housekeeper hands him a bag of coins, and then fetches another plate from the kitchen, from which both begin to eat.

Parasite: Hand me my napkin. (r. 20)

The Parasite, now with an empty stomach, is ready to eat again. He takes too much food. The Housekeeper tries to stop him and he hits her.

Attendant: (as he departs for the market) Why are you walloping the woman?

The Attendant hits the Parasite. The Housekeeper chews ostentatiously.

Parasite: Do you want some…?
Housekeeper: Take what you need, Boss…
Parasite: I don’t have… [  ], I have balls…
Housekeeper:  Boss, you play house, I play the man. I’ll tell ya what we’ll do. Here’s the plan. You go off to market, you come back with the soldier, and when I give you (r. 25)
  something to eat, you taste it and you say to me, “Whore, why’d ya stew it so bad?” And then you wallop me. (She hits the Parasite.) Look! Like this!

The Housekeeper hits him again. The Parasite punches back.

Attendant: (shaking his staff and grabbing his crotch with the other hand) I’ll give you the shaft.

Exit Attendant to the street; he leaves for the market, driving the Parasite before him. The Housekeeper cleans up for the banquet.

SCENE 2 (verso)

The same. Some time has passed. The Housekeeper is on stage. Enter the Cook and the Attendant. The initial lines of their exchange are lost.

Cook: What kind of food do you want?

The Cook shows the food he has prepared.

Housekeeper and Attendant: Yes! Yes! Yes! What else?
Cook: ...
Housekeeper: ...

The Cook cries out in excitement at the plan.

Housekeeper: ...
Attendant: (confused) Why? What are we doing?
Housekeeper and Cook: Stick to the plan! (v. 5)
Cook: Look! You make like you are tasting the food for the soldier
Housekeeper: (to the Cook) … and you go out to the market, come back, and say to me, “Got anything to eat?” And when I give it to you and you taste it, you say to me, “You cock-munching whore, why’d ya stew it so bad?” You give me two thumps (v. 10)
  like this (hitting the Attendant), and he won’t want to eat it, and then the rest of the meal is all ours.
Attendant: I like that plan.

There is a loud knock at the door. The Housekeeper takes a quick bite out of some of the food that is ready to be served.

Housekeeper: (to the Cook) This food is delicious and I am relishing it.
Solider: I am coming in! Make way!

Enter the Soldier.

Soldier: Seat me, my good man!
Attendant: (helping the Soldier) Stop! I’ll put you here. (v. 15)
Soldier: I’ve brought a distinguished guest!

Enter the Jerk (drunk?), but both the Cook and the Housekeeper try to stop him.

Jerk: And I’ll go here.

The Jerk stumbles towards a seat.

Housekeeper and Cook: Don’t fall! Don’t fall! Don’t fall!

The Jerk sits behind the Housekeeper and she falls on top of him.

Soldier: Got anything to eat?
Attendant: (quickly) I’ll taste it for you… (he grabs some food and tries it) (v. 20)

The Attendant chews madly and is unable to speak. When he doesn’t say anything, the Cook nudges him.

Attendant:8 Ow! Is everything okay, boss?

The Housekeeper stands up and joins the others.

Housekeeper: (to Attendant) Are you jabbering on?

The Housekeeper hits the Attendant, prompting him to remember his line, which he gets wrong.

Attendant: “Tell me, you cock-munchin’ whore, why’d ya stew it so good?”

The Housekeeper hits him.

  Ow! Ow! “Why’d ya stew it so bad?” (v. 25)

The Housekeeper hits him again.

Attendant: I said it right this time. He didn’t even notice. Look!

The Housekeeper hits him again.

Cook: Granny, please stop that.
Attendant: I got it right.

The Attendant hits the Housekeeper.

Cook: Why’d ya hit her, Pops?

The Cook hits the Attendant.

Attendant: ’Cause she stewed it bad!

The Attendant hits the Cook.

Soldier: My good man, whatever is going on here? Where is the cook?

The Housekeeper steps closer and joins them.

Housekeeper: Uh oh! He’s catching on!
Attendant: God knows, I’ll murder ’em! (v. 30)
Housekeeper: Oooh. Look at him over there. He’s so mad he breathes Orestes.9

The Soldier, about to explode with anger, begins to speak.

[the text breaks off]

Much of the narrative must have unfolded in the material that would originally have followed, and it is not clear why the Jerk is foregrounded as he is (with the fuller character marker that does not follow the pattern of the alphabetic numbering). His arrival with the soldier interferes with the plan of the enslaved characters. Perhaps he similarly proves himself an unwelcome, boorish dinner guest in what follows.


1P. J. Parsons. 2014. “5189. Mime”, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Volume LXXIX (Graeco-Roman Memoirs 100), W. B. Henry and P. J. Parsons (eds.). London: Egypt Exploration Society. 26–41. Parson's reconstruction of the scene has been animated in a short film, “Trashy Humour: A Comedy in Pieces”; see “Broken Scenes: Resurrecting Ancient Fragmented Voices Through Animation” (http://www.papyrology.ox.ac.uk/trashyhumour/). A brief description of the project can be found in J. H. Brusuelas, “Broken Scenes: Resurrecting Ancient Fragmented Voices through Animation” (https://digitransglasgow.github.io/ReimaginingData/contributions/04_BrokenScenes.html).

2I. C. Cunningham. 2002. “Popular Mime,” in Theophrastus, Herodas, Sophron, Characters. Herodas: Mimes. Sophron and Other Mime Fragments, Jeffrey Rusten and I. C. Cunningham (eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library). 353–421, at 361 and 418–19.

3Such plays include Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, Menander’s Aspis, and Plautus’ Pseudolus.

4C. W. Marshall and Melissa Funke. 2019. “A Script for a Sixth-Century Mime (P.Oxy. LXXIX 5189),” GRBS 59: 460–92.

5The papyrus identifies these characters with the first five letters of the Greek alphabet, with only the name of the Jerk (akairos) given in full. Descriptions included are based on stock characters from Greek and Roman comedy.

6We cannot know how the stage violence was enacted, but the use of fists is indicated by the script: it’s not the safer alternative of cartoonish violence, hitting with comically outsize props, for example.

7In his absence, the Soldier is mocked for being effeminate. The joke works regardless of whether the Soldier is presented as effeminate or hyper-masculine. The latter is perhaps more likely given the anger he will express at the end of the surviving script.

8Giving this question to the Attendant alone shows the gradual awakening of this slow-witted character. At first he is too preoccupied with the tasty food to speak at all; then in response to a prod and a prompt he does speak but at random; then on seeing the Housekeeper and receiving a punch he remembers that he is meant to be playing a part, but he still gets it wrong; finally in response to more punches he gets it right. The “boss” here is the Cook. With sincere thanks to Andrew Brown for his help interpreting this passage.

9This reference to the tragic character Orestes, who is driven mad after killing his mother, suggests that major violence is about to erupt. It seems to allude not to a particular literary source, but to a popular perception of the character as someone prone to great bursts of anger.