Murder on the Nile

Jenny Cromwell

“I did not murder anyone, and I also prove it.” So states the soldier Flavius Menas in a report of legal proceedings dated 558/9 CE from Aphrodito (modern Kom Ishgau). He stands accused of murdering two men: Victor and Herakleios. 

P.Mich. XIII 660 (P.Mich.inv. 6900) (c) University of Michigan

The report records the testimony against Menas by people representing each of the deceased. A man, whose name is lost, declares:

Menas forced my brother Victor, a priest, outside and murdered him. He threw a piece of machine wood at his left arm and beat his stomach from the fifth hour until the evening of the same day.

Translation from, with modifications

Herakleios’ wife, Maria, then testifies about the murder of her husband, recounting how he was brutally killed by a group of men at the command of both Menas and an official called Sarapammon.

The headmen of my village Aphrodito, together with others who are in its service, arrested my husband Herakleios and put him in the watch-house of my village Aphrodite. After having taken wine to the same watch-house, they drunk with him, and when the evening came they beat my same husband Herakleios and killed him with their swords and then they gave his remains to the fire. … Being asked why they murdered my husband, they said: ‘The most illustrious Sarapammon and Menas wrote us to kill him’ … When Herakleios, my wretched husband, had been killed and his remains had been given to the fire so that they may be burned, they poured again water on the same remains and they threw his bones in a basket and buried them I do not know where. I ask, therefore, that they are given to me so that I can bury them.

Translation from, with modifications

Menas, in his defence, has brief responses. Concerning Victor, a man who died from a repeated beating, Menas claims that he’d felt nauseous and died from a throat abscess, while he himself was away in Antaiopolis (Qaw el-Kebir). And when Herakleios was killed, he simply claims to have been elsewhere, although an alibi seems to be lacking. 

The same priest, feeling nauseous, stayed in the church – and I in Antaio – and an abscess came out of the priest’s throat and he died from it. About Herakleios, I was not there and I do not know (about him).

Translation from, with modifications

And so who are we to believe? The events and parties recorded in the document are often difficult to piece together, in part because of damage to the papyrus (especially in the second half) and also because of the difficulty in identifying the array of men named as bit-players in this episode. We read about sums of money changing hands, as well as of a conspiracy in Aphrodito over control of the village (for such goings on in Aphrodito, Giovanni Ruffini’s 2018 book is an excellent place to start). One thing that is clear is that Herakleios had been sat drinking with his murderers before they killed him. They knew him, and he them. So why did they do it?
Giovanni Ruffini, in Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt, has proposed a way to understand this case. He suggests that Herakleios was also an official, to be identified with a village guild head (Greek kephalaiotai) of the same name, and that other guild heads named in the document were therefore killing one of their own. In P.Mich. XIII 661, connected to the same legal proceedings, Herakleios is called an informer. Is it possible that his words, his betrayal of his fellow guild heads, caught the attention of Sarapammon – who Maria also names in her testimony, alongside Menas – who arranged his murder? As Ruffini stresses, we cannot be certain about who exactly was involved and their motivations, but the scenario is not impossible considering the complex social interactions and machinations at work in village society.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Aphrodito (Kom Ishgau), Egypt
Date: 558/559 CE 
Language: Greek
Collection: University of Michigan Papyrus Collection, Ann Arbor (P.Mich.inv. 6900 + 6901); Barcelona, Palau-Ribes Collection (P.Palau Ribes inv. 70)
Designation: P.Mich. XIII 660 + SB XVI 12542
Online resources: Trismegistos (TM 36006); (DDbDP); University of Michigan (APIS)
Bibliography: Leslie MacCoull (1990), “The Aphrodito Murder Mystery,” Journal of Juristic Papyrology 20, pp. 103–7; Traianos Gagos (1992), “The Aphrodito Murder Case (“P.Mich.” XIII 660 and 661) and the Ghost-epithet κακοσιωμένος,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 93, p. 222; James G. Keenan (1995), “The Aphrodito Murder Myster: A Return to the Scene of the Crimes,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 32, pp. 57–63; Giovanni R. Ruffini (2008), Social Networks in Byzantine Egypt (Cambridge: CUP), pp. 180–3 [with further references that discuss specific details in the texts]; Giovanni R. Ruffini (2018), Life in an Egyptian Village in Late Antiquity: Aphrodito Before and After the Islamic Conquest (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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