In 297 CE, the usurper Lucius Domitius Domitianus led a revolt against the emperor Diocletian, proclaiming himself emperor and ruling Egypt for almost a year. From this same time survives an archive from an army family, consisting of nine letters written on papyrus. All nine texts were found at the village Philadelphia in the Fayum and are now in the papyrus collection of the University of Michigan, which acquired them from the antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman in 1923. This group gives us a remarkable insight into life in a military family in antiquity, with the wife at home in the Fayum and the husband stationed elsewhere. The husband in question is the man Paniskos, writing to his family from almost 600 km to the south in Coptos. The archive includes six letters between him and his wife Ploutogenia and their young daughter Heliodora, one to his brother Aion, and two other letters written between female members of the family. And so, what was the experience like for this family, so far apart?
Before getting into the letters themselves, a quick note on their dates. None of the letters have dates beyond a month (if any date survives at all). Nevertheless, the texts can be dated relatively to each other based on their contents, at least for the most part (the letters between the female members aren’t anchored and it’s difficult to date them in relation to the letters from Paniskos). The order followed here is that proposed by Jacques Schwartz in his 1968 article on the archive. In terms of dating this group to the major events of 297, the key detail is that Ploutogenia’s brother, Hermias, is described in one of the letters (P.Mich. III 220) as being with the prefect (i.e., Domitius Domitianus), but requested to join the prefect’s deputy Achilleus. The mention of these men and the military content of the letters suggests that Paniskos was involved in the revolt, as part of Domitius’ troops.
In Paniskos’ first letter, we find little info about the family, except that he is away and writes to ask how they are doing. He sends wool and money to buy jewellery for his daughter and clothes for his wife. In amidst the talk of gifts, he also slips in a brief note to remind Ploutogenia of certain responsibilities, in this case seeing to matters concerning their cattle.
I wish to know if you have need of anything. … I have also sent you wool for yourself in order that if you wish you may use it for yourself. And attend also to your cattle. And as for the three holokottina(=gold coins), make anklets of them for my daughter, and prepare the accessories of your chiton and himation (=items of clothing).P.Mich. III 218; translation from Winter 1927
In the second letter, we discover more information. Paniskos is in Coptos (modern Qift) and he instructs Ploutogenia to prepare herself to travel south should he ask her to, softening the request through mention of her siblings who live in the area. When he does send for her, he has a list of requests for her to bring along: various provisions, as well as his armour (his new shield and his helmet) and weapons (lances). And here we can infer that Paniskos is a soldier – the reference to multiple lances may suggest he’s supplying equipment rather than using them himself, but it seems more likely that the kit is for his own use. We also get a hint of the potential dangers faced by women travelling down the Nile, with Paniskos cautioning Ploutogenia not to wear her jewellery on the journey – or is this the concern of an anxious spouse, rather than a reflection of the threat of robbery?
So when you have received this letter of mine make your necessary preparations to come quickly if I send for you. And when you come bring ten shearings of wool, six jars of olives, four jars of distilled honey, and my shield, only my new one, (and) my helmet. Bring also my lances. … Bring all our clothes when you come. When you come bring your gold ornaments, but do not wear them on the boat.P.Mich. III 214; translation from Winter 1927
Ploutogenia, however, was seemingly disinclined to leave her home, or even reply to her husband about the matter, a fact that he bemoans in a follow up message: “I am now writing you a second letter that you may come to me, and you have not come. If, then, you do not wish to come, write me a reply. Bring my shield, the new one, and my helmet, and my five lances.” (P.Mich. III 216; translation from Winter 1927). But, this entreaty also fails to receive a reply, leading Paniskos to pen the most strongly-worded letter in the group.
I enjoined you when I left, ‘do not go off to your home’, and yet you went. If you wish anything you do it, without taking account of me. … See, I have sent you three letters and you have not written me one! If you do not wish to come up to me, no one compels you. These letters I have written to you because your sister compels me to write from here. But since you do not wish (?) to write about this, at least write about yourself. I have heard things that do not become you! Send me my helmet and my shield and my five lances and my breastplate and my belt. … The letter-carrier said to me when he came to me: “when I was on the point of departing, I said to your wife and her mother, ‘give me a letter to take Paniskos,’ and they did not give it.” I have sent you one talent by Antonius from Psinestes. I pray for your welfare.P.Mich. III 217; translation from Winter 1927
Paniskos’ emotions sway from reprimanding his wife for neglecting him, to saying he’s only made the request because of her sister, to concern for her – but is this concern about her or her reputation? Does hearing things not becoming of her mean slanderous gossip, or has she run into difficulties that affect her life and lifestyle – he sends her money with the letter, on top of the provisions he’s sent previously. We have no other evidence on this matter, but not replying to letters seems to be a family trait. In the letter from Ploutogenia to her mother, which may be considerably later or earlier than those from Paniskos, Ploutogenia notes that she has been in Alexandria for eight months and her mother has not written to her once: “You again consider me then not as your daughter but as your enemy!” (P.Mich. III 221). Maybe some people just aren’t good at replying to letters …
These letters give us a peak into the life of a military family in Roman Egypt – here at a period of upheaval in the country, but separation is a common experience for soldiers and their wives and children even in quieter times. As we read one letter to the next, we see Paniskos’ changing emotions – from the messengers, he knows that his wife is alive, but aside from possible gossip he has no clue what’s happening with her and why she won’t reply or travel south. Is he overbearing and she uncaring? Or is he anxious and concerned, while she has no time – while caring for her family and their property – to find a scribe to dictate her letter to? While Ploutogenia did not send her husband a letter, we should at least remember that she saved those that she received, and that may tell us something, even without her words.
Provenance: Found in Philadelphia (Fayum), but written in Coptos (letters from Paniskos) and Alexandria (letter from Ploutogenia).
Date: 297 CE (most likely for the letters from Paniskos).
Collection: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (the letters have inventory numbers ranging from 1362 to 1371, with some additional small fragments; records and images for all texts can be found via the papyrus collection’s online catalogue).
Designation: P.Mich. III 214–221; SB XVI 12326; P.Mich.inv. 1371+1368a (published in Heilporn 2012) (sigla according to the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: Roger S. Bagnall and Raffaella Cribiore (2006), Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC – AD 800(Ann Arbor), pp. 285–286 and 294–295; Paul Heilporn (2012), “Une nouvelles des Paniskos,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists49, pp. 119–138; Jane Rowlandson (ed.) (1998), Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook(Cambridge), pp. 147–151; Jacques Schwartz (1969), “Autour du dossier de Paniskos (P.Mich. 214–221),” Aegyptus48, pp. 110–115; John G. Winter (1927), “The Family Letters of Paniskos,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology13, pp. 59–74.
See also: Online resource: Ruben Smolders (2013) “Ploutogenia, wife of Paniskos”, Trismegistos Archives (ArchID 167), which gives an overview of the whole archive. See here.