Death of a Slave Boy

Jennifer Cromwell

Cymbals struck as festival performers wound their way through the village’s streets . But then tragedy struck. Leaning over the balcony to view the players below, a young slave boy Epaphroditos fell and died. Was it an accident? Was it murder?
This tragic event took place in year 23 of the reign of the emperor Commodus (182 CE), when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire. We know of Epaphroditos’ death because a document was drawn up on 3 November (the Egyptian date Hathyr 7) that recorded its aftermath. This document, referred to by the designation P.Oxy. III 475, was written by Hierax, a senior official (strategos) of the Oxyrhynchite nome, to an assistant, Claudius Serenos. In it, Hierax instructs Serenos to go to the village Senepta, together with a public physician, to examine the dead body, following a request by Leonides alias Serenos, the father-in-law of Epaphroditos
owner, Ploution son of Aristodemos. The doctor’s verdict is not recorded, nor the actions that subsequently occurred, but appended to Hierax’s note is a copy of Leonides’ original petition.

“… At a late hour of yesterday the sixth while there was a festival in Senepta and cymbal-players were giving the performance as custom has it in front of the house of my son-in-law, Ploution the son of Aristodemos, his slave Epaphroditos aged about 8 years, wishing to lean over from the flat-roof of the said house to see the cymbal-players, fell and was killed. Presenting therefore this request I ask, if it please you, that you dispatch one of your assistants to Senepta so that the body of Epaphroditos may receive the suitable layout out and burial. …”

P.Oxy. III 475; Translation from Jean Straus (2014)
P.Oxy. III 475. Image taken from the Bonhom’s online sale catalogue.

Epaphroditos, as a slave, was legally a ‘thing’ (Latin res) owned by his master, Ploution. So why did the owner’s family petition the district’s senior official to examine the boy’s body, rather than just dispose of it, like any other broken possession? As Jean Straus has proposed in his commentary on this case, this document suggests that there were limits to the power of masters over their slaves. Straus suggests two possible reasons why the petition was sent to Hierax. One reason may be rooted in purely economic concerns, to confirm the slave’s death and so free Ploution from paying taxes concerning him. The second reason could connect this case to a Roman law that imposed penalties on a master who unjustifiably killed his slave. If the doctor determined the boy had been wilfully murdered, Ploution could have been punished. Did Leonides want his son-in-law to be in trouble with the law, regardless of whether he actually expected him of murder? Or was Leonides acting to support Ploution and protect him from somebody else’s accusations?

“For in accordance with a constitution of the Divine Antoninus Pius anyone who kills his slave without cause must not be punished less than one who kills another’s slave.”

Justinian, Institutes 1.8.2; Translation from Jean Straus (2014)

Other questions also arise. There is no mention of Epaphroditos’ parents. Were they also owned by the family, and could have accused Ploution of murdering their son? Or was the boy a foundling, a child abandoned by his parents? Examples of such exposed children becoming slaves are recorded in other documents, as discussed by Katherine Blouin in her post ‘Baby Exposed, Baby Snatched’. With only snippets of this family’s life, it’s impossible to determine whether this was in fact a tragic accident, or a cover-up of a master disposing of his unwanted slave. 

Notes on the papyrus
This papyrus was excavated by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt at Oxyrhynchus in 1897 (a time when they removed vast amounts of papyri from the site). In 1902, the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society) presented this document among others to the Charterhouse School in Surrey. In 2002, the Charterhouse Collection was sold at Sotherby’s, and this papyrus (together with a small fragment of another document) was sold at a Bonham’s auction on 28 November 2018 to a private collector for over £40,000. Its current location is not known to the public.

Sketch of Oxyrhynchus by Baron Vivant Denon, 1798. Source: Oxyrhynchus: A City and Its Texts, Virtual Exhibition

Technical Details 
Provenance: Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. 
Date: 3 November 182 CE.
Language: Greek.
Collection: Private collection; previously Charterhouse School, Godalming, Surrey. Last sold, together with a small fragment from Oxyrhynchus, on 28 November 2018 at Bonhams (London) for £43,750.
Designation: P.Oxy. III 475 (according to the Checklist of Editions). Trismegistos TM 20611.
Bibliography: Heinz Heinen, “Amtsärztliche Untersuchung eines toten Sklaven. Überlegungen zu P. Oxy. III 475,” in A. Marcone (ed.), Medicina e società nel mondo antico (Florence, 2006), pp. 194–202; Naphtali Lewis, Life in Egypt under Roman Rule (Ann Arbor, 1983), p. 106; Jean A. Straus, L’esclave: Recueil de documents papyrologiques (Liège, 2004), pp. 18–20 [text 11] – available online here; Jean A. Straus, ‘9.2.1. Investigation into the death of a slave’, in James G. Keenan, Joe G. Manning, and Uri Yiftach-Firanko (eds), Law and Legal Practice in Egypt (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 455–6; John G. Winter, Life and Letters in the Papyri (Ann Arbor, 1933), p. 133.

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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