A Cow by Any Other Name

Jennifer Cromwell

An archive from the Fayum dated to the 340s CE opens a window onto the life of a Roman garrison commander in Egypt. Flavius Abinnaeus was appointed to the command of the cavalry unit (ala) at Dionysias in the western part of the Fayum, and his professional and private activities are known from a number of papyrus documents that have survived. As important as this archive is and as much as it has been studied for Roman military history, a sale contract from this group catches the eye for a completely different reason. Soldiers named their cows.
One document from the archive is a sale contract dated 28 July 346 – it can be dated absolutely because the emperors Constantius II and Constans are named within the dating formula. This contract records that Abinnaeus purchased two cows from a soldier, Flavius Elias, who was seconded to the camp at Dionysias. As is standard with legal documents, much of the text itself is legalise introducing the parties and confirming the sale. The sale itself is noted in a few lines:

“… he has sold to Flavius Abinnaeus the cows hereafter mentioned, two in number, perfect, one black, Sale[..]u by name, the other dirty-coloured (?), Teeiaei by name, and I have received from you the price agreed between us, the capital sum of twelve hundred talents, tal. 1200, of silver of the imperial currency, in full, hand down. And I warrant the sale with full warranty against any person who questions it or lays claims against it. The purchaser Abinnaeus has taken the cows away from here such as they are, irrevocably.”

P.Abinn. 60 (translation from the edition by Harold Bell et al.)

Not only are the two cows described, but they are named! The first cow’s name is partially lost, Sale[..]u, but that of the second cow survives in full: Teeiaei (a variation of the Egyptian female name Teeiaeis). Sale[..] is black, Teeiaei is maybe a dark brown (the editors provide the translation ‘dirty-coloured’ as a guess). And both are perfect. Together, they are sold for 1,200 silver talents. This is the equivalent of approximately 40 artabas of grain, a volume that equates to a bit over 1,000 litres. 

Different coloured cows from a much earlier period, the New Kingdom, from the Theban tomb of Nebamun, dated ca. 1350 BCE. Today in the British Museum, EA 37976 (c) Trustees of the British Museum.

But Elias, their original owner, was not alone in naming his cows, that is, if he was even the one to name them. On the back of a grain account is a list of sales for the village Andromachis, as well as other villages in the Fayum, including Theadelphia. The list includes sales of sheep, goats, horses, and cows, sometimes with descriptions, but not always. A soldier called Elias is mentioned with two cows, perhaps the Elias mentioned above who sold Sale[..]u and Teeiaei, but the cows aren’t given names here. However, two entries later in the list do include names:

Heron son of Ation, a full-grown cow named Taepis: 600 silver talents

P[…]aeis from Theoxenis, one heifer, named Pipaeis: 800 silver talents

P.Abinn. 80 (translation from the edition by H. I. Bell et al.)

What’s particularly notable from this whole list is that only the cows are named. While it would be impractical to name all ten sheep that appear in one of the entries (sold by Sakaon son of Stabous, from Theadelphia), many of the entries in this list are for a single animal. So why are only these cows named? Is it because only some cows were named, or only some owners thought the names were a distinguishing point and should be noted? Or were these particular animals special? Whatever the reason, small details like this are easily overlooked – or not thought worthy of discussion – but are important for understanding the relationship of people to the world and the animals that lived alongside us.

If you’re interested in other evidence for animal naming from the ancient world, check out this post about A Donkey Called Rameses.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Dionysias, a village in the western Fayum.
Date: 340s CE (P.Abinn. 60 = 28 July 346). 
Language: Greek.
Collection: Bibliothèque de Genève (P.Abinn. 60 = P.Gr. 6; P.Abinn. 80 = P.Gr. 36 verso).
DesignationP.Abinn. 60 (=P.Gen. I 48); P.Abinn. 80 (=P.Sakaon 54; SB VIII 9697 verso); according to the Checklist of Editions.
Bibliography (on Abinnaeus more generally): Richard Alston (1995), Soldier and Society in Roman Egypt: A Social History (London: Routledge) – see especially pp. 148 onwards [accessible in part on GoogleBooks]; Roger S. Bagnall (1992), “Military Officers as Landowners in Fourth Century Egypt”, in Chiron 22, pp. 47–54 [read online here]; Timothy D. Barnes (1985), “The Career of Abinnaeus”, Phoenix 39, pp. 368–374 [available on JStor for those with access]; Roger Rémondon (1965), “Militaires et civils dans une campagne égyptienne au temps de Constance II,” in Journal des Savants 1965, pp. 132–143 [read online here]

Left: P.Abinn. 60 (P.Gr.6); Right: P.Abinn. 80 (P.Gr.36v). Both (c) Bibliothèque du Genève

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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