A Coptic Remedy Against Sleepless Nights for New Parents

Guest post by Ágnes Mihálykó

There are some problems in human life that are timeless. One of them is sleep deprivation caused by a teething baby. I have had my fair share of it recently, and on one sleepless night when just nothing seemed to work, desperate I remembered a fourth-century Coptic recipe to aid a baby’s teething. This is how it goes:

“For a small child, to make its teeth grow without it feeling pain: put foam of wax on its swellings.”

Translation from Love and Zellmann-Rohrer (2021, 87; §7)

The recipe is contained in a small parchment leaflet inscribed with Greek and Coptic recipes for various, chiefly health-related problems. Inside, purely pharmacological recipes are mixed with incantations and charms, which exemplifies how the distinction between ‘medical’ and ‘magical’ healing was vague, and for practical purposes non-existent, in this period. The small codex belonged to a healing professional in the Fayum, who likely tailored it for his own needs, copying the text from various sources, Greek and Coptic alike. Some of these sources went back to ancient Egyptian incantations and pharmacological lore, others to Greek magical and medical traditions. He passed on his collection to two later owners, who added further recipes in Coptic. The problems they encountered in their practice included some common ailments such as fever, stomach- and headache, earache, sciatica, and constipation, but there are some less familiar problems as well, such as extensive eye-lash growth (§5) or demonic possession (§18). Their collection also included some non-medical recipes: two charms for favour (§12) and supernatural assistance (§15) as well as recipes against pests in the house (§19 and 29).

Pages from the Book of Ritual Spells, University of Michigan Special Collections (Ms. 136)

As for the baby toothing aid, I did not try it. I ended up giving another dose of painkiller instead. But that recipe is certainly more inviting than the following one from the same collection for “a small child that is crying”:

“smear its head with bull’s marrow, or bull’s brain.” 

Translation from Love and Zellmann-Rohrer (2021, 105; §28)

Medicine made of marrow and brain of animals was known in antiquity, especially in its capacity as painkillers. But whether such a medicine succeeded in soothing a crying baby, I am not sure. 

Technical Details
Provenance: Fayum
Date: 4th century?
Language: Coptic (Fayumic) and Greek
Collection: Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Library
Designation: Special Collections Ms 136
Bibliography (edition and translation): Michael W. Zellmann-Rohrer and Edward O. D. Love, Traditions in Transmission: The Medical and Magical Texts of a Fourth-century Greek and Coptic Codex (Michigan Ms. 136) in context (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021). For further bibliography, see the Coptic Magical Papyri Database.

Urine, Torn Clothes, and Ethnic Tensions in Ptolemaic Fayum

By Jennifer Cromwell

On 11 May 218 BCE, a Greek man living in the Fayum was walking through the streets of the village Psya. Suddenly, from above a shower of human effluence poured down upon him, drenching him to the bone. The culprit? An Egyptian woman. But was it an accident or a malicious act by a local against a foreign interloper? 
Our evidence for the altercation comes from the petition that Herakleides, the Greek man in question, wrote to King Ptolemy (Ptolemy II Philadelphus). We see the situation from his perspective, as the victim in a clear act of aggression by the woman, Psenobastis (note that Psenobastis is presumably a mishearing of the name by Herakleides, as it is a male name). The petition records his account, for which he is seeking justice at trial:

On Phamenoth 21 of year 5 in the fiscal calendar, I went to Pysa in the said nome on a personal matter. As I was passing by [her house] an Egyptian woman, whose name is said to be Psenobastis, leaned out [of a window] and emptied a chamber pot of urine over my clothes, so that I was completely drenched. When I angrily reproached her, she hurled abuse at me. When I responded in kind, Psenobastis in her own right hand pulled the fold of my cloak in which I was wrapped, tore it, and ripped it off me, so that my chest was laid quite bare. She also spat in my face, in the presence of several people whom I called to witness. The acts that I charge her with committing are: resorting to violence against me and being the one to start [the fracas] by laying her hands on me unlawfully. When some of the bystanders reproached her for what she had done, she simply left me and went back into the house from which she had poured the urine down on me. I therefore beg you, O king, if it please you, not to ignore my being thus, for no reason, manhandled by an Egyptian woman, whereas I am a Greek and a visitor …

P.Enteux. 79; translation adapted from Lewis (1986, 60–61)

For Herakleides, who was merely going about his daily business, the event was sudden, shocking, and deeply unpleasant. It is likely that the whole thing started as a simple accident. Psenobastis was simply doing what she always did, throwing the contents of a chamber pot out the window. While Egypt had toilets for many centuries by this time, they weren’t a feature of typical houses. Instead, chamber pots would be used, which needed to be emptied, and while faeces would likely have been disposed of in a specific place (to minimise risk of spreading illness), it would have been common practice to simply empty urine out the window. Herakleides describes Psenobastis as leaning out the window to empty the chamber pot, giving the impression of an intentional act against him – but unless he was looking up at her at the time (in which case he surely could have dodged the ensuing shower), he wouldn’t know whether her act was intentional or simply careless, not looking at what might be below. 

An Egyptian toilet seat from Amarna (New Kingdom), which would have been placed over a hole in the ground. Image from the post “Minding your Business: A Look at Egyptian Sanitary Practices” by Nile Scribes, which you can check out for more information about ancient Egyptian toilets.

Even if an accident, Herakleides was understandably outraged (who wouldn’t be, standing in a street covered in pee?) and reproached Psenobastis for her actions. Psenobastis, however, was not in the mood for his attitude and reacted aggressively, pulling and tearing his clothes, leaving his chest exposed, and increasing his humiliation in this foreign village. And here lies a key point. As Herekleides stresses, he was a Greek and a visitor (Greek xenos, a stranger or foreigner) and his appeal emphasises the ethnic dimensions involved. It was an Egyptian woman who did this to him, one who would have recognised he was not local, by his features and clothing, and her violence is interpreted as a result of her own xenophobia. 
Psenobastis’ actual thoughts on the matter cannot be determined. We have no record of her account of the event. The role of ethnic tensions in exacerbating her actions cannot be dismissed, but perhaps her response was that of a harried wife and mother, taking care of her family and domestic chores, with neither time nor inclination to deal with the blustering protestations of an unknown man outside her house.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Crocodilopolis, Fayum (Medinet al-Fayum).
Date: 11 May 268 BCE.
Language: Greek.
Collection: Cairo, Egyptian Museum (JdE 58963).
DesignationP.Enteux. 79; older designation: P.Lille Gr II 24 (sigla according to the Checklist of Editions); see also the entries in papyri.info and Trismegistos for further details.
Bibliography: John G. Winter (1933), Life and Letters in the Papyri (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), pp. 115–116; Naphtali Lewis (1986), Greeks in Ptolemaic Egypt (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pp. 60–61; Maryline Parca (2002), “Violence by and against Women in Documentary Papyri from Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt,” Henri Melaerts and Leon Mooren (eds.), Le rôle et le statut de la femme en Égypte hellénistique, romaine et byzantine. Actes du colloque international, Bruxelles – Leuven 27-29 novembre 1997 (Leuven: Peeters), pp. 283–296; Ivo Volt (2011), “Identity and Ethnic Friction in Greek Papyrus Letters from Egypt,” in Thomas R. Kämmerer (ed.), Identities and Societies in the Ancient East-Mediterranean Regions. Comparative Approaches (Münster: Ugarit Verlag), pp. 333–340; Chrysi Kotsifou (2012), “Emotions and Papyri: Insights into the Theatre of Human Experience in Antiquity,” in Angelos Chaniotis (ed.), Unveiling Emotions: Sources and Methods for the Study of Emotions in the Greek World (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag), pp. 39–90.

View of Medinet El-Fayoum (ca. 1868/1870) by the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme. Today in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (2013.62.1)

Death by Nile: Punishing Policemen at Deir el-Medina

By Jennifer Cromwell

Three papyri from the village Deir el-Medina, dating to the late New Kingdom, reveal a shocking event: the punishment of two policemen – medjay – with death by drowning in the Nile. Each letter is written from “the general of Pharaoh”, by his scribe Qenkhnum, to three people: the Scribe of the Necropolis, Tjaroy; the agent/controller (Egyptian rwDw) Payshuweben; and the head of the harem of Amun-Re, the lady Nodjmet. In the letter to Tjaroy, the general writes:

I’ve taken note of all matters you wrote to me about. As for the mention you made of this matter of these two policemen saying, ‘They spoke these words’, join up with Nodjmet and Payshuweben, as well, and they shall send word and have these two policemen brought to this (i.e., my) house and get to the bottom of their charges in short order. If it is determined that they are true, you shall put them in two baskets and they shall be thrown into the water by night – but don’t let anybody in the land find out!”

P.Berlin P.10487, letter to Tjaroy. Late Ramesside Letter 21, translation slightly modified from Wente (1990, 183)
P.Berlin.P10478 (recto – first ten lines of the letter to Tjaroy). Photo of the papyrus from Janssen, Late Ramesside Letters and Communications, pl. 50; transcription from Čern‎ý‎‎, Late Ramesside Letters, pp. 36–37 [no. 21]

While each letter is slightly different, one with more personal enquiries another with reference to other business matters, this instruction regarding the two unnamed policemen is the same in each one. But what had the two men done to warrant such a course of action? As is often the case in letters, the key details, which were well known to the writer and recipient, are not stated directly. Instead, the policemen’s words are referred to obliquely: “They spoke these words”. But what words? 
The medjay fulfilled a number of roles at Deir el-Medina (‘policeman’ is a convenient rather than accurate translation). They were guards of the necropolis, were responsible for maintaining law and order, could serve on tribunals and deliberate with village officials, and also served as a point of contact between the community and central authorities, delivering messages to and from the village. These men were therefore privy to confidential information, potentially relating to the highest authorities in the land. Were they guilty of leaking secrets, whether through indiscretion or acting as informants, and were punished? If this were the case, why weren’t they formally tried and sentenced? The clandestine nature of the investigation reported in these letters – taking place at the general’s house and being drowned at night without witnesses – suggests something else may be taking place. Had the men instead made charges against Tjaroy, Payshuweben, and Nodjmet, who were now taking action to silence them? Either way, as the ‘words’ in question were confidential (or damning), they could not be repeated in these letters and so anybody who read the letters – including the modern reader – is none the wiser, unless they had access to other sources of information. 
And why death by drowning in the Nile? If murder, why not make the deaths look like an accident on the mountain – a fateful slip, or a fight that resulted in fatal wounds? There may be evidence for drowning as an official punishment at this time, if this is how ‘taken to the river bank’ is to be understood in texts from Deir el-Medina. But apart from any pragmatic advantages that drowning may have – the bodies would be carried away by the current and eaten by animals, leaving no evidence ­– there is another aspect of such deaths. The destruction of the body also meant the loss of an afterlife, and so the punishment was not only of this world but also of the next.
A final point about these three letters is that they are the only papyri from Deir el-Medina that were found with their original seal attached. They had been intentionally kept together, having been rolled up and tied by a linen strip with a clay seal. Perhaps after the punishment had been enacted, the letters were reunited and put in a safe place, ready to be brought out in case the bodies were found and the parties involved needed to defend themselves against accusations of murder.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Deir el-Medina.
Date: Late New Kingdom; dated by Wente to year 10 of the whm nswt (‘Renaissance’) of Rameses XI (so year 28 of his reign, ca. 1080 BCE).
Language: Late Egyptian, written in hieratic.
Collection: Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussamlung, Berlin (P.Berlin P.10487, 10488, 10489). Bought together in 1912.
Designation: Late Ramesside Letter 21 (10487), 34 (10488), and 35 (10489).
Bibliography: Jaroslav Čern‎ý‎‎ (1939), Late Ramesside Letters (Brussels: Édition de la Foundation égyptologique Reine Élisabeth);‎‎ Adolf Erman (1913), Ein Fall abgekiirzter Justiz in Agypten. Abhandlungen der Kiniglich-PreuBischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, philosophisch-historische Klasse (Berlin: Verlag der K6niglichen Akademie der Wissenschaften); Jac Janssen (1991), Late Ramesside Letters and Communications (London: British Museum Press); Edward Wente (1969), Late Ramesside Letters (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), available as a pdf here; Edward Wente (1990), Letters from Ancient Egypt (Atlanta: Scholars Press).

Some Further reading:
Benedict G. Davies (2018), Life within the Five Walls. A Handbook to Deir El-Medina (Wallasey: Abercromby Press); see the entry on “Medjayu” (pp 184–187).
Kerry Muhlestein (2005), “Death by Water: The Role of Water in Ancient Egypt’s Treatment of Enemies and Juridical Process,” in L’Acqua Nell’antico Egitto: Vita, Rigenerazione, Incantesimo, Medicamento, edited by Alessia Amenta, Michela Luiselli, and Maria Novell (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider), 173–179.
Torgny Säve-Söderbergh (1992–92), “A Stela of a Rameside Policeman,” Orientalia Suecana 41–42: 273–275, which you can read online here.

Stela of Korka – the only known monument of a medjay from western Thebes. Today in Uppsala University museum, Sweden; see Säve-Söderbergh, ‘A Stela of a Rameside Policeman’

Settling Disputes, Casting Lots

By Jennifer Cromwell

Families in late antique Egypt regularly fought over property rights. At least, that’s the impression given by the textual record from some villages, among which a common category of legal documents is those that record settlements of disputes. It is not always clear, though, if the disputes were hostile or simply that mediation was necessary to determine who would receive what specific rooms, especially in inherited houses that needed to be divided between multiple family members. Local officials who mediated the cases and documents often simply say that ‘they distributed lots’. What does this mean and how did these officials reach their decisions? Thanks to short texts on ostraca, we can see how these lots were cast.
Officials divided the property in question into different parcels and these individual divisions were written on ostraca. An ostracon in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UC62880 (published as O.CrumVC 13), bears one such division:

“He who will receive the southern veranda will take the tenth(?) that is outside the house. The entrance room, the stone porch, the area below the entrance room, the storage room, the well, the staircase, and the storage room will be communal.”

O.CrumVC 13 (translation: J. Cromwell)

A short line precedes the main text, which is partially broken and difficult to read, but it should state the identity of the property in question. This ostracon and the others connected with the same property would have been distributed to the parties involved, as a lottery – each share was equal and so the parties received an equal part from the house, thereby ensuring that there was no possible bias in the decision-making process. Here, the person who received this ostraon acquired the veranda on the southern side of the house (a room which was open to the air on at least one side, either entirely or with columns supporting the roof), a part of the land outside the house, and also equal access to a number of communal rooms. We know that this was a common practice to settle disputes because several ostraca provide evidence of the same practice. In the Petrie Museum’s collection alone, three other Coptic ostraca record similar, albeit longer and more complex, divisions. Unfortunately, they are all broken in places and the extent of the individual parcels does not survive. These ostraca are: UC62875 (O.CrumVC 12), UC62847 (O.CrumVC 15), and UC62841 (O.CrumVC 16).

Left: O.CrumVC 13 (UC62880); Right: O.CrumVC 14 (UC62867). Images from the Petrie Museum’s online catalogue (links below)

Another ostracon is slightly different. Rather than note the parcel to be distributed, UC62867 (O.CrumVC 14) names the individual involved: “Susanna shall receive the upper storage room before the door and the veranda, which is to be opened up(?).” In this case, the mediators themselves may have specified who received what, or this ostracon marks the final decision and no long papyrus legal document was written that recorded her share – having a papyrus document written up would have been a much more expensive venture!
It is possible that some of these ostraca come from the village Djeme (built in and around Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Rameses III), which is especially well documented during the 7th and 8th centuries. Until the 1920s, remains of houses from this period survived, but they were removed to reveal the original ground level of the pharaonic temple. Photographs and plans of the houses provide an impression of the ground floor layout and cellars of over 130 houses. Houses had an entrance room, containing a recess for large water containers, which led to another room and staircase – the type of common rooms mentioned in the first ostracon above. Today, remains of these late houses are only visible on the edges of the temple complex, where they were built on top of the ancient mudbrick perimeter wall.

Houses from Djeme (Medinet Habu), showing numbering given by Uvo Hölscher. Photograph from the Oriental Institute, Chicago, Expedition (from Hölscher, Medinet Habu V, 1954)

[Note: This post was originally written by me for the Petrie Museum’s ‘Papryi for the People’ project in 2017. Those posts were not published but material has been included in the Petrie’s online Catalogue for the respective entries, for which see the hyperlinks below, which unfortunately do not credit the contributors involved.]

Technical Details (for both ostraca)
Provenance: Probably western Thebes.
Date: 8th century? Note that the Petrie catalogue notes ‘Byzantine Period’, but it is surely late 7th/8th century based on the handwriting and because Coptic was mainly used for writing legal documents (and associated texts) during this time (the early Islamic period).
Language: Coptic.
Collection: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London. UC62880 and UC62867.
DesignationO.CrumVC 13 and 14 (according to the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: Walter Till, Erbrecthliche Untersuchungen auf Grund der koptischen Urkunden (Vienna, 1954), 226 [both texts]; Walter Till, Die koptischen Rechtsurkunden aus Theben (Vienna, 1964), 237 [both texts].

“Carrying on the art”: Hieroglyph Carvers in Roman Egypt

The year 2022 marks the 200-year anniversary of the modern decipherment of hieroglyphs by Jean-François Champollion. While hieroglyphs are synonymous with ancient Egypt, they continued to be used throughout the centuries of Ptolemaic and Roman rule, although in increasingly restricted areas of use and with fewer and fewer people bearing the knowledge to produce them. The last known hieroglyphic inscription dates to August 394 CE, and was written by one Nesmeterakhem, the Second Priest of Isis, on a wall of the temple of Isis at Philae. 
Dating several centuries earlier, during the reign of emperor Trajan, a papyrus from Oxyrhynchus provides the briefest of glimpses into the lives of hieroglyph-carvers in this town. This papyrus, written to a royal scribe (Claudius Menandrus), records the names of all such men, together with where they were located in the town. Four of the men are from the ‘quarter of the Tenth’, one of whom, Osmolchis, is identified as a hieroglyphic carver of the god Osiris:

– Teos son of Onnophris and Taseus
– Onnophris, brother of Teos
– Asklas son of Onnophris (son of Osmolchis) and Tesauris
– Osmolchis, brother of Asklas

We don’t know anything about the parents of these two sets of brothers, born of two men called Onnophris – a common Egyptian name meaning ‘the one who is perfect’ (an epithet of Osiris). The fact that we are dealing with brothers perhaps indicates that this is a family occupation. The only other detail that we get is the association with the temple of Osiris in the town. And this connection is important, as throughout this period knowledge of hieroglyphs is confined mainly to the traditional temples and their priesthood. As for the fifth man, Ptolemais son of Petosorapis (son himself of Petosorapis), he lives in a different quarter of the town, Thoeris.
One especially interesting part of this list is the declaration that there are no more carvers in Oxyrhynchus – not even “apprentices or strangers carrying on the art down to the present day”! In a town of maybe 30,000 people, only a handful of men preserved this ancient knowledge.

Diagrammatic guide to the topography of Oxyrhynchus, from Richard Alston (2002), The City in Roman and Byzantine Egypt (London-New York), p. 267 (fig. 5.11). Mentioned in P.Oxy. VII 1029, he Tenth is located to the left of this diagram, Thoeris is in the middle, and the Osireion (temple of Osiris) on the right.

“To Claudius Menandrus, royal scribe (basilieogrammateus), from Teos, younger son of Onnophris son of Teos, his mother being Taseus, and Asklas son of Onnophris son of Osmolchis, his mother being Tesauris, both of the city of Oxyrhynchus, hieroglyphic carvers, who have been delegated by their fellow-carvers: the list of ourselves and the said fellow-carvers of hieroglyphics for the present year of Trajanus Caesar the lord, as follows:
In the quarter of the Tenth, Teos son of Onnophris, the aforesaid, Onnophris his brother, Asklas son of Onnophris, the aforesaid, Osmolchis his brother, who is also a hieroglyphic carver of Osiris the greatest god.
In the quarter of the square of Thoeris, Ptolemais son of Petosorapis son of Petosorapis. 
Total 5 men.
And we swear by the Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajanus Augustus Germanicus Dacicus that we have honestly and truthfully presented the foregoing list, and that there are no more than these, and that we have no apprentices or strangers carrying on the art down to the present day, otherwise may we be liable to the consequences of the oath. The 11th year of the Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajanus Augustus Germanicus Dacicus, Phaophi 29.”

Trans. Arthur Hunt, P.Oxy. VII 1029 (1910).

But knowledge and use of hieroglyphs was not entirely restricted to a few people in Egypt. Several Roman Emperors removed Egyptian obelisks from Egypt and had them installed in the empire’s capital, Rome. And their fascination with obelisks didn’t end with appropriating ancient monuments. A small number of new obelisks were also built during the late 1st century CE. Today in Piazza Navona stands the obelisk of Domitian (81–96 CE), while two smaller twin obelisks were erected in the name of the same emperor in the city Benevento (see the new study of the obelisks recently undertaken by Luigi Prada, noted in the bibliography below). The identity of the authors and carvers of these obelisks is unknown, yet, even if an increasingly specialised profession in a land of foreign rulers, there remained an important role for hieroglyph carvers to play, at both a local and an imperial level.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Oxyrhynchus.
Date: 27 October 107.
Language: Greek.
Collection: Egyptian Museum, Cairo (JdE 47429).
DesignationP.Oxy. VII 1029; Sel. Pap. II 316 (papyrological sigla according to the Checklist of Editions). The Greek text is available on the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri.
Bibliography: Allan C. Johnson (1936), An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome. II: Roman Egypt to the Reign of Diocletian (Baltimore), p. 397 [#250]; Thomas Kruse (2002), Der königliche Schreiber und die Gauverwaltung. Untersuchungen zur Verwaltungsgeschichte Ägyptens in der Zeit von Augustus bis Philippus Arabs (30 v. Chr.–245 n.Chr.) (Munich-Leipzig), Vol. II, pp. 716–718.

Select bibliography: hieroglyphs in Roman Egypt:
El Daly, Okasha (2008), Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings (London).
Love, Edward O. D. (2021), Script Switching in Roman Egypt. Case Studies in Script Conventions, Domains, Shift, and Obsolescence from Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, Demotic, and Old Coptic Manuscripts (Berlin).
Prada, Luigi (2022), “‘To Isis the Great, Lady of Benevento’: Privately Dedicated Egyptian Obelisks in Imperial Rome and the Twin Obelisks of Benevento Reedited,” in Egypt and the Classical World: Cross-Cultural Encounters in Antiquity, ed. Jeffrey Spier and Sara E. Cole (Los Angeles).
Westerfeld, Jennifer T. (2019), Egyptian Hieroglyphs in the Late Antique Imagination (Philadelphia).

One of the two Benevento Obelisks, today in the Getty. For the recent restoration of the obelisk, see this article by Sara E. Cole, Erik Risser, and William Shelley, “Conserving an Ancient Obelisk” (2018), from which the above photograph is take.

The First Recorded Strike in History

By Jenny Cromwell

In year 29 of the reign of Rameses III, the workmen of the village of Deir el-Medina – state workers who were responsible for the construction of the royal tombs – went on strike. Consistent late payments and poor working conditions forced them to lay down their tools and walk out of the walled village, in what is the first recorded strike in world history.
The 32-year reign of Rameses III (ca. 1184–1153 BCE), the second king of the 20th dynasty, is well known for several events, notably his military conflicts against the Libyans and Sea Peoples, as well as the schemes within his harem to murder him and change the plan of succession. Such turmoil also had repercussions among the population. War is expensive, as is its aftermath. The so-called Great Harris Papyrus (today in the British Museum, EA9999) records the donations that Rameses III made to temples throughout Egypt following his campaigns, including vast quantities of land, produce, and other commodities. Such redistribution of wealth had a detrimental effect on the royal coffers and as a result on the individuals paid from those resources. Not only were the community of workmen at Deir el-Medina affected, they also left records of their grievances and resulting actions.  
Early in year 29 of his reign, an ostracon today in Berlin sets the prelude of what was to come. While overdue grain delivery is attested intermittently throughout the previous 18th and 19th dynasties, the situation came to a head during Rameses III’s reign, such that the workmen felt they had no other options. Towards the end of the second month of the inundation season, akhet (approximately mid-September), the senior scribe Amennakht recorded how the workmen were two weeks (20 days) without payment. As a stop-gap measure, Amennakht himself went down to the temple of Horemheb to procure grain for the workmen. (As Egypt was not a coinage society, payment was primarily in grain, so money was literally food.) 

Year 29, second month of akhet, day 21. On this day, the scribe Amennakht announced to the crew, saying: ‘Twenty days have passed in the month, and rations have not been given to us!’ He went to the temple of Djeserkheperre-Meryamun (Horemheb) in the estate of Amun. 46 bushels of emmer were brought and was given to them on the second month of akhet, day 23.

O.Berlin P.10633
Left: O.Berlin P.10633 (from Deir el-Medine online). Right: Deir el-Medina (photography by Steve F. E. Cameron; Creative Commons CC-BY-3.0)

While civil unrest was averted on this occasion, it wasn’t long before the suspension of rations occurred again and led to crisis. The dispute between the workmen and government authorities is recorded on a papyrus that is today in Turin and known as the Turin Strike Papyrus. The papyrus is an administrative document that compiles multiple events of importance to the village, including lists of personnel, delivery reports, and judicial matters. Eight entries written over three columns on the front (recto) of the papyrus concern the strike action. Overall, the documented events covered a period of about three months that corresponds to early November to early February (the second month of peret, the growing season, to the first month of shemu, the harvest season).
On day 10 of the second month of peret, the workmen left the community, declaring ‘We are hungry!’ Almost two weeks had passed since they should have been paid. Descending down the mountain, they spent the day in peaceful protest sat behind the temple of Thutmosis III while government officials came out and shouted at them to return.

Year 29, second month of peret, day 10. On this day, the crew passed the five guard-posts of the necropolis area, saying: “We are hungry! For 18 days have already passed in this month”. And they sat down at the rear of the temple of Menkheperre (Thutmosis III). Then the scribe of the enclosed Tomb, the two foremen, the (two) deputies, and the two law enforcement officers came and shouted to them: “Go back, then”. They swore great oaths (saying): “Please come, we have a pronouncement of Pharaoh (l.p.h.”. They spent the day in this place and spent the night in the necropolis area.

P.Turin Cat. 1880: Text 1 (Column 1, lines 1–5)

Two days later (on day 12), the crew again left the village and walked to the temple of Ramesses II (the Ramesseum), spending the night at its entrance. Much of the papyrus here is damaged, but the statements of the crew, as related to officials, survive. Not only did suspension of payment mean hunger, it also meant they couldn’t afford any other essentials.

They told them that they had turned to them from hunger and thirst, for there is neither clothing nor oil, neither fish nor vegetables. They (the officials) should therefore write to Pharaoh, their good lord, and to the vizier, their boss, to provide for their livelihood. The rations for the first month of peret were made available to them on the same day.

Text 3 (col. 1 line 7 – col. 2 line 5)

Rations were provided, but each payment was just a temporary measure, a reaction that plastered over the cracks of more systemic issues. In the following month, two workmen leaving the community were apprehended, but refused to return. The protest of Kenena son of Ruta and Hay son of Huy is testament to how bad the situation was.

We will not return, tell your superiors! Truly, it was not because we hungered that we passed (the walls). We have an important statement to make. Truly, evil is done in this place of Pharaoh!

Text 5 (col 2 lines 6–17)

These memoranda attest to the protracted difficulties the workmen faced and the inability of the state to rectify the economic concerns that these men and their families faced – men responsible for the final resting place of pharaoh! At the end of the fourth month of peret, an entry records a response from the vizier, To. The vizier, however, didn’t visit the community in person, sending a message instead, which noted that the granaries were in essence empty and he had sent along what he could find, which amounted to half of the ration delivery. And, of course, it was still not enough. The final strike entry records how the crew left the village again, just two weeks later, going this time to the temple of Merenptah. There they encounter the mayor of the city, who provides aid until Pharaoh can provide. 

Year 29, first month of shemu, day 13. The crew left the necropolis grounds on, saying: “We are hungry!” They sat down at the rear of the temple of Merenptah (l.p.h.). They called out to the passing mayor of the city, who summoned Mennefer, the gardener of the Chief Overseer of Cattle, who told them that he would give them 50 sacks of emmer for their sustenance until Pharaoh gives you rations.

Text 8 (col. 3 lines 14–18)

And there the entries end, with a final stop-gap measure. But this was certainly not the end of the problem. Further texts record how the workmen passed the walls of the village again later in Rameses III’s reign. Such action took place intermittently throughout the rest of the 20th dynasty, with increased frequency under the reigns of Rameses IX–XI, the final rulers of the New Kingdom. The strikes and their frequency highlight the economic weakness of the state. These 3,000-year old records also remind us that civil disobedience and the government refusal – or inability – to meet workers’ demands is not a modern phenomena.

P.Turin Cat. 1880 ((c) Museo Egizio, Turin; from the online database of the Museo Egizio’s papyrus collection)

Technical Details 
Provenance: Deir el-Medina.
Date: Year 29 of the reign of Rameses III (ca. 1155 BCE).
Language: Late Egyptian; written in the hieratic script.
Collection: Text 1: Berlin, Staatliche Museen P.10633; Text 2: Turin, Museo Egizio P.Turin Cat. 1880.
Designation: N/A. ID on trismegistos.org: Text 1 = TM 136297; Text 2 = TM 139434.
Bibliography: Jean-Christophe Antoine (2009), “The Delay of the Grain Ration and its Social Consequences at Deir el-Medîna in the Twentieth Dynasty: A Statistical Analysis,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 95, pp. 223–234; William F. Edgerton (1951), “The Strikes in Ramses III’s Twenty-Ninth Year,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 10/3, pp. 137–145; Paul J. Frandsen (1990), “Editing Reality: The Turin Strike Papyrus,” in Sarah Israelit-Groll (ed.), Studies in Egyptology Presented to Miriam Lichtheim vol. 1 (Jerusalem), pp. 166–199; Jac J. Janssen (1979), “Background Information on the Strikes of Year 29 of Ramesses III,” Oriens Antiquus 18, pp. 301–308; Jac J. Janssen (1992), “The Year of the Strikes,” Bulletin de la Société d’Égyptologie de Genève 16, pp. 41–49; Matthias Müller (2004), “Der Turiner Streikpapyrus (pTurin 1880),” in Bernd Janowski and Gernot Wilhelm (eds.), Texte zum Rechts- und Wirtschaftsleben (Gütersloh), pp. 165-84. 

Love in an Orchard

Jennifer Cromwell

The scene: young lovers escape the heat of the early afternoon soon for the shade of an orchard. Concealed among the shadows, sheltered under the trees, they lose themselves in each other. Nobody is present to witness their tryst, except for the trees.
From the New Kingdom (ca. 1,539–1,075 BCE) survives a small group of love songs (or poems). One of these poems stands out because it is not written from the perspective of one lover to another, but from that of the trees under whose branches they meet. The trees’ songs reveal a glimpse of the secret lives of young Egyptians, the excitement of love kept hidden from those around them. It is written on a papyrus originally from Deir el-Medina, the village of the workmen who built the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, which today is in the Museo Egizio (Egyptian Museum) in Turin. While such poems give a suggestion of sensuous intimacy, they probably weren’t to be recited in private to a lover but sung, perhaps at a festival or celebration.

P.Turin 1966. Originally from Deir el-Medina, today in the Museo Egizio, Turin.

Three trees sing their song to the girl. The first tree’s name is lost, but it may be a pomegranate or a persea, for it describes its seeds like her teeth and its fruit like her breasts. The second tree is a sycamore fig, and the third a little sycamore, and all three have their own personality and attitudes towards the young couple.

All that is done by the beloved and her lover [I see],
When they are drunk on wine and pomegranate liquor,
And anointed with oil of moringa and balsam […].
[Every last tree] except me vanishes from the field,
But I pass the (full) twelve months in the orchard.
When I begin to lose my bloom,
Last year’s is (still) within me.
I am the first of my companions,
But I am regarded only as second.
If they do it again, I shall not be silent about them!

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

The first tree is indignant. Even though he – among all the trees in the orchard – is in bloom all year round (and so the first among his companions), he is ignored, “regarded only as second”. If the couple continue to ignore him, he threatens to reveal their secret and prevent their happiness. The second tree also bemoans his neglect by the lovers. Brought to Egypt from afar, and planted in this foreign land for the girl, the sycamore fig serves her, but she has forsaken him.

Though you have no servants,
Yet I am your servant [brought from afar]
As a captive for my beloved.
She caused me to be planted in her orchard,
But she gave me no [water when I needed] to drink,
Nor was my body filled with water from the waterskins.
They find me for pleasure,
[…] because of not drinking.
As my ka endures, my beloved,
Get yourself into my presence!

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

The little sycamore’s song is different. Planted by the girl herself, the tree:

Sends forth its voice to speak,
And the chatter which comes from its mouth
Is (like) a stream of honey.
It is beautiful, and its boughs are lovely; 
It is verdant and flourishing,
Burdened down with notched figs
More crimson than red jasper.
Its leaves are like turquoise, and their hue like faience.
Its wood is like the tinge of feldspar,
And its resin is like the besbes draught.
It attracts him who is not under it,
For its shade is refreshing.

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

Whereas the first two trees demand attention, demand to be acknowledged for what they provide for the girl and her lover, the little sycamore asks for nothing in return, and their secret is safe with it. 

Come and pass the day in happiness,
Tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow,
Even for three days, sitting beneath my shade.

All the while she is with her lover.
Her secret is safe with me,
The beloved one in her adventures.
I am discreet enough not to repeat what I have seen,
And I shall not say (even one) word.

P.Turin 1966; trans. Vincent Tobin

What would such an orchard look like? The second and third tree both talk about being planted in this place. They do not belong to a natural landscape but one that is carefully cultivated by its owners. Tomb models and tomb scenes from the Middle and New Kingdom provide indications of what such an orchard would look like. One of the models in the tomb of Meketre, a senior official during the late 11th dynasty and early 12th dynasty, is of a garden and porch (today in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC). In the centre of the garden is a pool, which is lined on three sides by sycamore figs, with red fruit growing from their branches. A scene in the 18th dynasty tomb of Nebamun, today in the British Museum, shows a pool full of fish and fowl and surrounded by trees – date-palms, sycamores, and mandrakes. Not everybody would have access to such orchards. But for those who did, the trees offered not only their shade and their fruit, but secluded, private corners for lovers, whether young or old.

Left: the model of a porch and garden from the early 12th dynasty tomb of Meketre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, inv. 2.3.13 (other images are also available on the museum’s online catalogue).
Right: fragment from the tomb of Nebamun, today in the British Museum EA37983, showing a pool surrounded by trees. (c) Trustees of the British Museum.

Technical Details 
Provenance: Deir el-Medina
Date: Dynasty 20, New Kingdom (ca. 1190–1077 BCE). Possibly the reign of Rameses IV (1,155–1,150 BCE)
Language: Late Egyptian (written in the hieratic script)
Collection: Museo Egizio, Turin, P.Turin 1966. 
Designation: P.Turin 1966 / P.Turin Cat. 1966. The poem is one of several texts collected on this papyrus. The museum’s online catalogue contains further information and bibliography about the papyrus, which you can access here.
Bibliography: Edda Bresciani (1969), Letteratura e poesia dell’antico Egitto (Torino: Giulio Einaudi), pp. 443–451; Michael V. Fox (1985), The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press), pp. 44–51 [translation and commentary]; Vincent A. Tobin (2003) “The Love Songs and the Song of the Harper”, in The Literature of Ancient Egypt. An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry, edited by William Kelly Simpson (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 319–322 [translation]. 

On Egyptian love poetry: A select bibliography
Cuenca, Esteban Llagostera, and Xesus Rabade Paredes (1995), La Poesía Erótico-Amorosa en el Egipto Faraónico (Ferrol: Esquio).
Fox, Michael V. (1985), The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).
Guglielmi Waltraud (1996), “Die ägyptische Liebespoesie,” in Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms, edited by Antonio Loprieno (Leiden: Brill), 335–347.
Lichtheim, Miriam (1976), Ancient Egyptian Literature II: The New Kingdom (Berkeley: University of California Press).
Mathieu, Bernard (1996), La Poésie Amoureuse de l’Égypte Ancienne: Recherches sur un genre littéraires au Nouvel Empire (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale).
Tobin, Vincent A. (2003) “The Love Songs and the Song of the Harper”, in The Literature of Ancient Egypt. An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry, edited by William Kelly Simpson (New Haven: Yale University Press), 307–333.
Vernus, Pascal (1992), Chants d’amour de l’Égypte antique (Paris: Imprimerie).

A Fake Patchwork of Genuine Fragments

Jennifer Cromwell

At a quick glance, a Coptic document today in the collection of the Università di Genova (Italy) looks pretty standard. There is some damage at the edges and a few small holes in the middle. But, otherwise, it looks quite well preserved. However, on closer inspection, things aren’t as they seem. While the writing seems to follow the same lines, the text in one area on the left is written upside down and in different handwriting to everything else. And looking at the rest of the document, even though the handwriting is quite similar, it becomes clear that there are three other fragments: one in the top-centre, one in the bottom-centre, and another at the right. In total, this one piece, which has maximum dimensions of 17.2 cm (width) by 8.2 cm (height), is therefore made up of four unrelated smaller fragments.

P.Genova V 225 (Università di Genova inv. 1330). Image from P.Genova V pl. XXXI

No names – of places or people – survive on these fragments, labelled a–d (their positions are noted on the image above), so their authors can never be identified, nor where they were written or to where they may have been sent. Only minimal details can be determined. At most, fragment c on the right may be traced to a monastic origin, because it refers to ‘the brother’. Of the four fragments, three are certainly from letters. Despite what little survives, this can be established based on the presence of standard formulae, mainly greetings (frag. a) and farewells (frag. c), and addresses to other people (‘and you (plural) will say it’ in frag. d). Fragment d concerns a tax in grain (the embolé-tax), but too much is lost from the other pieces to determine what they were about. As for fragment b, the only noun that can be read is ‘fruit’, but there is too little writing (and much of it is faint) to figure out if this is a letter or some other type of document. 

With so little information about the fragments, their story largely becomes one about their modern history. In particular, why are these four fragments joined together in this way? Given the clear intention of making the manuscript look like a mostly intact document, including substantial upper and lower margins, this must be a modern patchwork. When they were joined together and by whom, before being acquired by the Università di Genova in the mid-20th century, remain unknown. One thing, though, is certain. By gluing the pieces together, four small ancient fragments were made to look like a complete manuscript, and this made them a more attractive and profitable sale item on the antiquities market. On the market, a faked whole is worth more than the sum of its genuine parts.  

Technical Details 
Provenance (findspot): Unknown.
Date: 7th/8th century.
Language: Coptic.
Collection: Università di Genova (Italy), inv. 1330.
Designation: Edited by J. Cromwell and L. Prada in P.Genoa V 225a–d (designation according to the Checklist of Editions). Trismegistos numbers: TM 565480 (frag. a); TM 565481 (frag. b); TM 565482 (frag. c); TM 565484 (frag. d). 
Bibliography: n/a.

Nomads, Mercenaries, and Goldmines: Desert Politics in the Ramesside Period

Julien Cooper

When we think of Egypt’s wealth, our mind often wanders to geological riches. Most of this wealth originated in the Eastern Desert: the gold of Tutankhamun’s mask, the famous Egyptian eye-paints of kohl or malachite, or even the majestic purple porphyry columns that today hold up the roof in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, shipped there by the Egypt’s Roman rulers. A cliché of Ancient Egyptian geography is that the deserts were empty wastes, possessing nothing but mineral wealth that the Egyptians were free to exploit. But we need to acknowledge that these regions, despite their aridity, were home to various indigenous peoples – nomads who are largely shrouded from the historic record. Wandering from well to well with herds of goat and sheep, these peoples were the guardians of much of Egypt’s famous mineral wealth, variably escorting or harassing Egyptian mineral and trade expeditions.
The ancient Egyptian record of the local affairs of these nomads in the Eastern desert is quite stereotyped, usually narrating encounters between Egyptian expeditions and nameless groups of herders. But there is one tantalizing and informative glimpse from the Ramesside period (late New Kingdom) that illustrates just how complex local desert affairs could be. This source consists of a set of letters recorded on a papyrus written in hieratic (cursive) script, today in the Cairo Museum and labelled “papyrus Cairo ESP”. Unfortunately, its original findspot is unknown and it was found in a tin box in the Cairo Museum as one roll of five glued sheets, without any notes that would tell us anything of the find. The papyrus constitutes a set of administrative letters sent by a well-known High-Priest of Amun called Ramessesnakht and mentions the city of Coptos and a fortress in the nearby desert. It would be reasonable to assume that this set of letters belonged to a group of directives sent to expeditions or perhaps an Egyptian fortress in the Eastern Desert. The city of Coptos was the main gateway to the Eastern Desert and provided easy access to desert mines and Red Sea harbours through which Egyptians facilitated trade with distant lands like Punt. 
Despite being a religious institution, the Temple of Amun was dedicated to the task of gold and mineral exploitation. Earlier in his life and well-before writing these letters, Ramessesnakht himself travelled to the Eastern Desert, leaving an inscription at the quarries of Wadi Hammamat, so he was well-versed in the local geography. Considering the sender, these letters almost certainly originated in a temple archive. One section of the letter (C-D) concerns a military escort that the Egyptians employed to guard its gold-washers on their expedition to the goldmines. This military escort consisted of people from the land of Akyet, the name for the deserts east of Lower Nubia (modern Wadi Allaqi). These people, related to the Medjay, spoke a language ancestrally related to Beja, a language still spoken in Eastern Sudan today. This escort had left its homeland in the southern deserts and ventured further north near Coptos to help the Egyptian miners. The other group of nomads mentioned in the papyrus are the Shasu. This group is usually encountered in the Sinai and the Levant and are famous amongst historians for their shadowy origins and connections to Pre-Israelite history. Some Shasu may have even worshipped Yahweh, the god of the Hebrew Bible, and spoke a Semitic language. Here, however, a band of Shasu had come south along the Red Sea coast into the Egyptian Eastern Desert and evidently became a nuisance for Egyptian goldminers. Ramessesnakht, the High-Priest of Amun-Re, and the official in charge of desert expeditions, writes:

The first prophet of Amun-Re, king of the gods, Ramessesnakht said to the feathered-Nubian Anytna, the feathered-Nubian Sisenut, and feathered-Nubian Terebdedi, and the Nubian-soldiers of the hill-country of Akyet… I have learned that you went out as a military-escort together with the miners and gold-washers of the House of Amun-Re…
The strong arm of the Pharaoh, my lord, has cast to the ground the enemies of the Shasu of Mu-qed who were sitting in Qehqeh, on the shore of the sea. Since it is Amun-Re, king of the gods, the great-god, lord of the earth who went with you in order to give to you a hand. Rejoice two times for the many good things that Amun-Re, king of the gods, did for the Pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!), his child, in casting to the ground the enemies of the Shasu who attacked the land of Egypt…
When my letter reaches you, you will establish yourselves in the gold-working-settlement, until the supplies which I sent to you under the responsibility of my scribe and the retainer of mine reach you (the feathered Nubians). And you shall pay-attention to the miners and gold-washers of the house of Amun under my authority so that they will bring this gold for Amun-Re, king of the gods, your lord, to cause that the Shasu may not attack them. And you must not come to transgress in the land of Egypt. As for that which you require, you may send to me a letter and I will cause that it will be brought to you and you will make good servants for Amun-Re, king of the gods, the pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!), your lord, and you will see this: 

The list of the supplies which were for the feathered-Nubians and the Nubians of the land of Akyet who went as a military-escort against the enemies of the Shasu of Mu-qed (the Red Sea) so that the strong arm of the pharaoh (life, prosperity, health!) could cast them to the ground:

25 kilts of thin-cloth
25 kilts of round-tunic
25 metal cups
25 metal knives
25 metal axes bound on a shaft
1000 good loaves of kershet-bread100 cut loaves of iped- and kershet-bread
50 herd assorted herd animals
5 carrying-donkeys
1 bag of condiments (?)
1 bag of ingredients

Papyrus Cairo ESP, sections C–D; trans. Julien Cooper
Left: Helck’s transcription of the latter part of the text (Helck 1967). The original photographs of the papyri remained unpublished. Right: Map of Egypt & Nubia with locations of places in the text (by Julien Cooper over Google Earth image)

The letters describe a complicated vision of desert politics involving vying nomads, goldminers, and the priests of Amun. Underpinning Egypt’s gold exploitation was conflict and alliances involving two rival nomadic groups, the Nubians of Akyet and the Shasu. They likely spoke different languages and had different customs, and the Egyptians seem to have taken advantage of these differences by employing one group of desert experts to fight against the other and protect its miners. A battle ensued at the place of Qehqeh, somewhere on the Red Sea (Egyptian Mu-qed) coast. With the divine patronage of Amun and the Pharaoh, the Akyet nomads were victorious but were urged to keep vigilant, protecting the gold washers in a gold-working settlement. This arrangement between Ramessesnakht and the Akyet nomads, despite being successful in this instance, was not an altogether comfortable situation for the Egyptians. Ramessesnakht warns Anytna, Sisenut, and Terebdidi not to attack Egypt on their mission, alluding to the fact that that the Akyet people sometimes went rogue and raided Egyptian lands. Egyptian campaign texts from Nubian fortresses speak of these same Akyet-nomads thieving grain from the Egyptians. On this instance, the Akyet nomads were rewarded for their efforts with rations and supplies of clothing, bread, knives, and livestock so that they could continue their conflict against the Shasu, perhaps carving out their own territory in the desert and using Egyptian patronage to further their goals.
Just what the phrase “feathered-Nubians” means in this text is unclear and has few parallels in administrative documents. Some consider this phrase as specifically referring to the headmen in charge of nomads, thus making Anytna, Sisenut, and Terebdidi, the chiefs of their tribes. But Egyptian art often depicts Nubians (as well as Libyans) as donning ostrich feathers (as shown in the scene from the tomb of Amenhotep-Huy below). Perhaps in this dossier it is the administrative jargon to specifically mark out ‘allied’ Nubians specifically.
Although this text is unique in the politics of the Eastern Desert, the general narrative and pattern here is common in world history and conjures identical ‘divide and conquer’ politics ever-present amongst imperialistic states and colonial encounters. From the Roman invasion of Gaul, to Cortes’ courting of his Tlaxcala allies against the Aztecs, to the British East India companies’ alliances with local princes, empires achieved their objectives by hiring foreigners well-versed in local affairs and pitted them against their foes. For the Egyptians who had little experience in the notoriously dangerous conditions of the Eastern Desert, the hiring of local desert specialists was a necessity. 

Nubians donning feathers, from the tomb of Amenhotep Huy, Viceroy in the reign of Amenhotep III (Theban Tomb 40)

Technical Details 
Provenance: Unknown, likely from an archive belonging to the Temple of Amun, but whether this copy was archived at the Temple of Amun at Karnak or Coptos (or the fortress temple) is unknown.
Date: Ramesses IX (1129–1111 BC)
Language: Late Egyptian (hieratic script)
Collection: Cairo Museum.
Designation: Various; often “Papyrus Cairo ESP”; “P. Cairo C-D”. Also referred to as KRI VI, 519-522 (Kenneth A. Kitchen (1982), Ramesesside Inscriptions. Vol. 6: Ramesses IV to XI and Contemporaries)
Bibliography: Wolfgang Helck (1967), “Eine Briefsammlung aus der Verwaltung des Amuntempels,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 6, pp. 146–151; Edward Wente (1990), Letters from Ancient Egypt (Atlanta), pp. 38–39 [#38]; Julien C. Cooper (2020, Toponymy on the Periphery: Placenames of the Eastern Desert, Red Sea, and South Sinai (Leiden), pp. 198–200, 460–461, 494–495.

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.