Baby Exposed, Baby Snatched, Roman Egypt-Style

*GUEST POST by Katherine Blouin (see her bio here)


Babies being abandoned by or snatched from their family is, sadly, not a recent phenomenon. One papyrus from 1st-century CE Oxyrhynchus offers a glimpse into how these scenarios were legally dealt with when Egypt was ruled by the Romans.


Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt at Oxyrhynchus (c) Egypt Exploration Society

The document contains extracts from the court proceedings of Tiberius Claudius Pasion, who was the strategos (top official) of the Oxyrhynchite Nome or district. It is the earliest such legal document from Roman Egypt to have come to us. It was, however, not found in an administrative building, but rather in a pile of rubble, together with other documents that were once the personal archive of a man named Trypon. In total, the archive currently includes 44 documents, whose dating ranges from c.15–16 to 83 CE. Thanks to these, we know, among many other things, that Tryphon was a resident of Oxyrhynchus, that he was weaver by trade, and that he got married twice. His second wife, named Saraeus, is one of the main actors here.


On 3 January 46 CE, Saraeus gave birth to a baby boy named Apion (his birthdate can be deduced thanks to his horoscope, which was also found; P.Oxy. II 307). Having breastfed then weaned Apion, she undertook a wet-nursing contract for a man named Pesouris (the document was actually signed by Pesouris’ son Theon). Pesouris had rescued the “male slave” in the rubbish heap – that is at the outskirt – of Oxyrhynchus. In other words, the baby had been abandoned there by his birth family. Since the contract was drawn on year 7 of the emperor Claudius (46–47 CE), we can deduce that little Apion was between 8 and 20 months when his mom started nursing the other baby.


Now things turned sour when, some time after the contract expired and money was exchanged, the little foundling, then aged around two, passed away. This led Pesouris to snatch Apion, alleging that he was his slave. After Saraeus broke into his home to get little Apion back, Pesouris brought the case forward in front of the strategos, Tiberius Claudius Pasion:

“Pesouris against Saraeus. Aristokles was advocate for Pesouris.”

Note how Pesouris, who is the plaintiff, was represented by a lawyer. This, as well as the fact that he could afford to hire a wet-nurse for the baby he rescued, indicates that he was substantially more affluent than Saraeus, who rented her services as a wet-nurse and, according to the text preserved on the papyrus, represented herself in court.


The court hearing quotes both parties’ versions of the events. Judging from the native names of many of Tryphon’s family members (the name Saraeus is of unknown origin) and of Pesouris, the protagonists of our legal story were not part of the ethno-civic “Greek” élite, but rather belonged to the (potentially mixed or Hellenized) Egyptian community of Oxyrhynchus. Whether Saraeus could speak Greek fluently enough to plead in court is unknown. Should that not have been the case, she could very well have had her speech translated by an interpreter. As for Aristokles, since he was a professional lawyer and Greek was the only official language accepted by the Roman administration in the province, chances are he was fluent in Greek. His speech is quoted first:


“Pesouris, for whom I am speaking, raised up from the dung-heap a male slave child named Heraklas in year 7 of Tiberius Claudius Caesar (= 46–47 CE). He turned the baby over to the defendant, and a nursing contract was handed over here (=in Oxyrhynchus) to Pesouris’ son. In the first year she took her wages for nursing. When the stipulated day came round in the second year she also took them again. The proof that I speak the truth is the written receipt through which she agreed that she had received her wages.”


In Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, the “exposure” (that is, abandonment) of unwanted newborns was more commonly associated to Greek communities of higher socio-economic status than to native ones (it was, in other words, an “import” from the Greek world). As Marilyne Parca observes in a recent article on wet-nurses in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, “[c]hild exposure was … not rare in the Greek communities of Roman Egypt, and we may recall how Diodorus Siculus (1.80.3) and Strabo (17.2.5) singled out the Egyptian practice of bringing up all the children born to them as the mark of a deep cultural gap between Egyptians and Greeks”. Parca also highlights how a substantial proportion of the babies attested in known wet-nursing contracts seem to have been “”taken up” (ἀναίρετον) from the rubbish (ἀπὸ κοπρίας) and to be raised (and sometimes sold) as slaves: σωμάτιον ὃ ἀνείρεται ἀπὸ κοπρίας εἰς δουλείαν (CGP I 14, 15, 23).” Seen in that light, then, to have an exposed Greek baby taken, entrusted to a paid wet-nurse, and raised as a slave in an Egyptian family such as Pesouris’ was not, as far as rescued babies were concerned, out of the ordinary.


Yet such practices, as well as the apparent adoption of foundlings by some Egyptian families, were not to the liking of Roman authorities. Thus the Gnomon of the Idios Logos (= BGU V 1210; P.Oxy. XLII 3014; a document meant to “guide” the high official in charge of all matters dealing with confiscated and abandoned properties such as productive and unproductive land, temple properties and offices, and issues dealing with inheritance and civil status) stipulated that Egyptians who either adopted exposed babies or “raised up” male foundlings from the rubbish heap were to see 25% of their property confiscated at death (par. 41 and 107). What seems to have bugged the Romans is the idea whereby babies from a higher ethno-civic status (“Greek”, that is either citizens or, in metropoleis like Oxyrhynchus, members of the local “gymnasium” class) were integrated into “native” (laoi; a status which applied to the vast majority of the population and came with the highest set of fiscal burdens) families. Be it as it may, judging from known papyri documenting the hiring of wet-nurses for babies who had been raised up from the dung-heap, either these Idios Logos policies did not exist or they weren’t properly implemented before the 2nd century CE.

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 18.15.03

P.Oxy. I 37;  from M. M. Masciadri and O. Montevecchi. 1984. I contratti di baliatico (Milano).

Let’s now get back to Pesouris’ version of events. Aristokles goes on:

“When the slave child became emaciated, Pesouris snatched him away. After this, when Saraeus found an opportune moment, she penetrated the house of my client and grabbed the child away, and she wants to carry the slave child off on the pretext of (its being) freeborn. I have, first of all, the written contract of nursing; and second, I have the receipt (of wages) for nursing. I ask that these contractual agreements be safeguarded.”


So according to Aristokles, Saraeus snatched Heraklas after Pesouris took him away from her due to him being dangerously thin. Note how there is no mention of Apion nor of any baby dying. Let’s now see what Saraeus had to say:

“Saraeus: I weaned my own baby, and their slave child was turned over to me. I received from them eight staters in all.”

Jane Rowlandson, whose translation I borrow here, observes that the wages provided to Saraeus in exchange for her nursing of Heraklas is “a low salary in comparison with contemporary nursing contracts”. She wonders whether the scribe made a mistake. If not, then, it seems like Pesouris was cheap or Saraeus desperate for money, or both.


Saraeus continues:

“After this the child died, although x staters remained for me. Now they want to snatch away my own child.”

Follows a quick note by Theon, Pesouris’ son:

“We have documents concerning the slave child.”


How did the strategos rule? In that case, version of the events did not prevail. His decision relied on two main points: The resemblance between Apion and Saraeus; and previous “rulings” from the prefect (governor) of the province:

“The strategos ruled: ‘Since from its appearance the baby seems to belong to Saraeus, if she and her husband will sign a sworn affidavit that the slave child turned over to her by Pesouris has died, my opinion, in accordance with the rulings of our lord prefect, is that she should have her own child, provided she pays back the money she received.”


Pasion’s verdict indicates that little Apion – who was then a toddler – was either present in court, or had been seen by witnesses or official staff. The fact that he looked like Saraeus is invoked as a proof of his biological link to her. In a world where many children were breastfed and raised by other individuals besides their biological parents or even family members (the case of Heraklas being one of those), to resemble one’s parent was the closest one could get to a DNA test. This was enough to invalidate Aristokles’ twisted (as Tryphon’s overall archive confirms) narrative. As for Saraeus needing to give back the money she had received from Pesouris, this decision is in line with standard clauses from other nursing contracts, which stipulate that wages have to be repaid in the case where the child dies. That being said, we are of course in the dark as to the actual cause of Heraklas’ death. We also need to keep in mind that according to available data, the mortality rate among children younger than 5 years old was high.


Our story doesn’t end here. In a petition dated from 49 CE (thus written seemingly a few months after the court hearing), Tryphon complained to the prefect that Pesouris (called Syrus this time) “refuses to comply with the judgement, and hinders [him] in [his] trade” (P.Oxy. I 38). How Pesouris hindered Tryphon’s weaving trade is unknown. What is known, though, is that Apion did remain with his family after all. On 14 June 56 CE, a receipt for the weavers’ tax (SB X 10247) was issued in the name of the apprentice Apion, son of … Tryphon.


Technical Details

Provenance: Egypt, Oxyrhynchus

Date: 29 March 49 CE, and some time after that date

Language: Ancient Greek

Collection: London, British Library (inventory: Papyrus 746)

Designation: P.Oxy. I 37 = CPGr. I 19 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

Select bibliography: R. S. Bagnall and B. Frier. 1994. The Demography of Roman Egypt (Cambridge: CUP) chapter 7; M. Biscottini. 1966. “L’archivio di Tryphon, tessitore di Oxyrhynchos,” in Aegyptus 46.1: 60–90; J. Keenan, J. Manning, and Y. Yiftach-Firanko (eds.). 2014. Law and Legal Practice in Egypt from Alexander to the Arab Conquest : A Selection of Papyrological Sources in Translation, with Introductions and Commentary (Cambridge: CUP) pp. 487–489 (=10.3.1); M. Parca. 2017. “The Wet Nurses of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt,” in Illinois Classical Studies 42: 203–226; M. Piccolo. 2003. “Osservazioni ad alcuni papiri dell’archivio di Tryphon,” Aegyptus 83: 197-213; J. Rowlandson. 1998. Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: CUP) pp. 112–118; A. J. Straus. 1988. “L’esclavage dans l’Égypte romaine,” in ANRW Principat 10.1: 854–856.


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