“… like he’s somebody …”: Runaway Slaves in Roman Egypt

Jennifer Cromwell

At some point during the third century CE, a slave-owner wrote a notice of a runaway enslaved man. The tall, thin Egyptian man in his early thirties – a weaver by trade – had gone missing and a reward was out for his return. The description of him, given by his owners, is particularly unflattering:

[A reward is available if anyone finds NN] an Egyptian from the nome of Athribites, who does not know Greek, [and is] tall, thin, bald-headed, with a scar on the left side of his head, of olive complexion, jaundiced, thinly bearded, and having no hair at all on his chin, smooth-skinned, narrow-jawed, with a long nose, a weaver by trade, who walks around like he’s somebody, rambling on in a high-pitched voice. He is about 32 years old. He is wearing a brightly coloured cloak.”

P.Oxy. LI 3617; translation by Parkin and Pomeroy 2007

Other documents found at Oxyrhynchus also provide evidence of fugitive slaves. P.Oxy. XII 1423 from the mid-4thcentury is an authorisation for the arrest of a slave, while in P.Oxy. XIV 1643 (dated 298 CE) a slave-owner authorises his representative to imprison his slave, who had fled to Alexandria (380 km away), and to accuse him, beat him, pursue those harbouring him, and return him to Oxyrhynchus.

P.Oxy. LI 3617 (c) Sackler Library, Oxford / Egypt Exploration Society
P.Oxy. LI 3617 (c) Sackler Library, Oxford / Egypt Exploration Society

Runaway slaves were not uncommon in the slave societies of ancient Greece and Rome, as revealed by classical writers. In Xenophon’s Memorabilia2.10.1–2, Socrates asks his companion Diodorus: “Tell me, Diodorus … if one of your servants runs away, do you take steps to bring him back safe?”, to which Diodorus replied “Yes, of course, and I invite others to help, by offering a reward for the recovery of the man.” Despite being separated in time and space (from 4thcentury BCE Athens to 3rdcentury CE Egypt), slave owners’ concern that their slaves would flee was universal, a reflection of the horrors that the majority of slaves endured. The slave owner in the translation above derides his slave as walking around “like he’s somebody”, when in reality he was nobody in the eyes of his owner.

Slaves were property and treated as such. They could be sold, bequeathed, given in dowries and gifts, and even divided up between multiple owners who each owned a part of the slave (or the slave’s services). To protect their property, owners could undertake different measures to restrict slaves’ abilities to escape. Perhaps the most overt examples of these measures that survives in the archaeological record were slave collars. The most famous example of these collars, which is the only one to survive with its bronze label attached, is known as the Zoninus collar, after the name of the slave-owner written on the tag. The Latin inscription reads Fugi, tene me. Cum revoc(a)veris me d(omino) m(eo) Zonino, accipis solidum“I have run away; hold me. When you have brought me back to my master Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin.” These collars seem to be especially common in late antiquity, after the rise of the Christian church, when other brands of marking slaves that involved physical disfiguration may have been frowned upon.

slave collar
Zoninus slave collar (c) Museo Nazionale Romano-Terme di Diocleziano (Rome)

But where would slaves run to? In the example of the tall, thin Egyptian man above, he’s described as from the Athribite nome, but the papyrus was found in Oxyrhynchus, almost 250 km to the south (see map). How are we to understand this? Was he originally from there, but had been brought as a slave to Oxyrhynchus, and perhaps he was trying to return home? Or, had he fled from Athribis and the note of his escape somehow found its way south? When slavery was legal everywhere, where was there a safe haven? And who could provide safe haven when harbouring an escaped slave was also against the law?

As the protagonist Lucius in Apuleius’ Metamorpheses (“The Golden Ass”) asks of a slave-girl: “But where in the world will your flight be directed? And who will provide a sanctuary for you?”

Screenshot 2019-03-15 at 13.03.11
Map of Egypt showing Athribis and Oxyrhynchus (c) Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

Technical Details
Provenance: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt
Date: 3rd century CE
Language: Greek
Collection: Sackler Library, Oxford (papyrus 3617) / Egypt Exploration Society
Designation: P.Oxy. LI 3617 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Tim G. Parkin and Arthur J. Pomeroy (2007), Roman Social History: A Sourcebook (London: Routledge) p. 169; Jennifer Trimble (2016), “The Zoninus Collar and the Archaeology of Roman Slavery,” American Journal of Archaeology 120/3, pp. 447–472

Additional bibliography:
Keith Bradley and Paul Cartledge, eds. (2011) The Cambridge World History of Slavery Volume 1: The Ancient Mediterranean World (Cambridge: CUP)

Published by JCROMWELL

Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

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