Kittens for Bastet

Jennifer Cromwell and Luigi Prada

 Detail of a relief Bastet – Kom Ombo.jpg
Relief of Bastet, Kom Ombo

On 20th April, either 202 or 178 BCE, an embalmer named Onnophris wrote to Machatas, an official (epistates) in the village of Tanis in the Fayum semi-oasis, concerning kittens he had donated to the cat-goddess Bastet (also known by her Greek name of Boubastis), or at least had intended to donate!

“Since some kittens were born in my house and their mother did not attend to them, I went to the temple of Bastet and asked the dancers [i.e., priests] to come and to carry them back to the temple of Bastet. After they did not arrive, but went elsewhere, it happened that the kittens, while they were being weaned by me with milk at home, were snatched by a tomcat and carried down out of the house into the street. I rushed down and called for help to those who were present and heard. Thus, we stood about and with difficulty removed one kitten, those who had joined to help including Phasis, the village scribe, to whom I gave an official testimony of all that had happened.” (Based on the translation by R. W. Daniel)

The tomcat killed some of the kittens – even though this is not explicitly stated (perhaps intentionally so, out of religious propriety regarding such an unholy happening), the loss of sacred animals is why Onnophris sounds so panicky in this petition.

Onnophris then collected the surviving kitten and took it to the temple of Bastet, handing it over to some of its priests – the same people who had neglected to collect the kittens from his house before the incident took place. To protect himself from future accusations that he acted improperly in this situation, he asked the village scribe Phasis – an eyewitness to the tomcat’s attack – to write down Onnophris’ account of events. Additionally, as an added level of protection, Onnophris also had this plea written:

“So that I am not later denounced in an unseemly way, certain persons having acted maliciously, I beg and request you that, having subscribed regarding each of these statements … [text lost].”

But why did Onnophris have to go to such lengths?

pKöln XV 594.png
P.Köln XV 594 (c) Cologne Papyrus Collection (inv. 21358)

The reason lies in the importance that animal cults had in ancient Egypt, especially in the later phases of the country’s history, including the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods. Overall, animals could play a twofold role in Egyptian religion: some were actual divine animals, physical incarnations on earth of a deity; others, instead, were sacred only in that they were associated with a deity in a ritual fashion. The best example of a proper divine animal is the Apis bull worshipped in the ancient capital of Memphis: honoured even by Alexander the Great on the occasion of his Memphite visit, the Apis was reborn and had to be identified each generation into another bull – almost like a bovine counterpart to the Dalai Lama – and his cult thrived for centuries on end.

As for the other kind of animal cults, its premise lay in the fact that many deities of the Egyptian pantheon had animal associations. Their zoomorphic appearance, and their representation in Egyptian art as animals or as animal-headed humans, is what comes first to mind: think of the god Horus, with his falcon head, or of the aforementioned Bastet, often pictured as a cat, or a cat-headed woman. It is thus no surprise that Egyptian deities could also be worshipped by ritually dedicating animals to them. This applies both to living animals, as in the case of the kittens that Onnophris planned to present to the local temple of Bastet, but it was also true with dead (often, ritually euthanised) animals, whose mummified remains were dedicated in their thousands by pious visitors as ex-votos and buried in sometimes huge catacombs, which archaeologists are still exploring to this day.

Tuna el-Gebel catacombs.jpg
Catacombs at Tuna el-Gebel (the necropolis of Hermopolis), where thousands of mummified ibises and baboons have been found

Once dedicated, these animals were the sacred property of the relevant deity. It is thus understandable why Onnophris sounds so worried in his petition, fearing not so much the goddess’ punishment – as the kittens were killed through no direct fault of his – but rather legal problems. Indeed, the special status of sacred animals was sanctioned in a number of Egyptian texts: legal texts from this time discuss the abuse of sacred animals and the resulting penalties, and people are warned against hurting them in wisdom texts too, compositions that contained moral instructions as to how a rightful person ought to behave. Thus, the demotic papyrus P. Ashmolean Dem. 1984.77 verso, from approximately the 2nd century CE, says:

“Do not beat any (sacred) animals with a stick, stone, or any (piece of) wood. Be careful with regard to the animals which are sacred.” (Translation by R. Jasnow)

pAshm 1984-77.png
P.Ashmolean Dem. 1984.77 (c) Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

And even Herodotus, the Greek writer who visited Egypt in the mid-5th century BCE, makes the following remark, in Histories 2.65.5:

“Whoever kills one of these creatures intentionally is punished with death; if he kills accidentally, he pays whatever penalty the priests appoint. Whoever kills an ibis or a hawk, intentionally or not, must die for it.” (translationby A. D. Godley)

Indeed, the cult of animals was one of the aspects of ancient Egyptian religion that most struck the imagination of contemporary classical writers, for better or for worse. As an egregious example of the latter, the poet Juvenal, active in the late 1st and early 2nd century CE, thus began his Fifteenth Satire:

“Who knows not (…) what monsters demented Egypt worships? One district adores the crocodile, another venerates the ibis that gorges itself with snakes. In the place where (…) ancient hundred-gated Thebes lies in ruins, men worship the glittering golden image of the long-tailed ape. In one part cats are worshipped, in another a river fish, in another whole townships venerate a dog; none adore [the goddess] Diana, but it is an impious outrage to crunch leeks and onions with the teeth. What a holy race to have such divinities springing up in their gardens! No animal that grows wool may appear upon the dinner-table (…) but it is lawful to feed on the flesh of man!” (translation by G. G. Ramsey)

Perhaps as a poetic licence, Juvenal lets his imagination – and his invective against Egyptian cults – run amuck, ridiculing Egyptian beliefs to the point of even making up accusation of vegetable-worship and cannibalism!

In the context of millennia of history of Egyptian religion, the misadventure of Onnophris and of his kittens in the small village of Tanis is perhaps a minor incident – yet, it powerfully and colourfully conveys the worries, hopes, and beliefs of a whole civilisation.

Technical Details (Greek text)
Provenance: Near Tanis in the Fayum; Egypt
Date: 20th April 202 or 178 BCE
Language: Greek
Collection: Cologne, Papyrus Collection (inv. 21358)
Designation: P.Köln XV 594 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Robert W. Daniel (2017), “594: Petition concerning Kittens” in P.Köln XV, pp. 1–11.

Technical Details (Demotic text)
Provenance: Thebes (probably), Egypt
Date: Late 2nd century – early 3rd century CE
Language: Demotic
Collection: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (P. Ashm. 1984.77)
Designation: P. Ashmolean Dem. 1984.77 verso
Bibliography: RichardJasnow, “A Demotic Wisdom Papyrus in the Ashmolean Museum (P. Ashm. 1984.77 Verso)”, in Enchoria 18 (1991), pp. 43–54, pls. 9–11.

BM Cat mummy case (EA25298).jpg
Cat mummy case, Ptolemaic period (c) British Museum, EA25298



Facing the Dead? Framing Mummy Panels from Hawara

Campbell Price

Among the most popular objects in many museum archaeology displays, the lifelike mummy panel portraits from Graeco-Roman Egypt hold a special place in the history of representing the human face. Manchester Museum’s first international touring exhibition, ‘Golden Mummies of Egypt’, offers a chance to re-examine the museum’s important collection of 10 mummy panel paintings as part of The Getty’s APPEAR project, and to consider how these objects were viewed in ancient – as well as modern – times.

A glint of light in these ancient eyes is a key element of their seductiveness; a sparkle of life not present in Pharaonic representations. Undoubtedly, a glimmer of recognition is prompted in the human brain – inviting you to wonder if you might know this person.  These painted images apparently give a face to the voices of contemporary papyri; they actively invite speculation about their identities.

Most of the portrait panel mummies are not identified by name; a primary concern in Pharaonic times which is less clearly marked in Graeco-Roman Period Egypt. The accounts of Classical commentators, along with some archaeological evidence, suggests the initial installation of mummies wasin (funerary) chapels, where regular visits and rituals might occur; final deposition was made in groups. As part of an active, living tradition of ritual,perhaps it was felt that most mummies did not require individual written identification.

11306 (2).jpg
Mummy Portrait (c) Manchester Museum, inv. 11306

The subject in the above paintingis shown in a typical three-quarter view, as if turning to look at us. The anonymous man in this painting has curly hair and a beard. Hairstyles may suggest a particular Emperor’s reign, although precise dating is notoriously difficult with the panel paintings. Here,suggestions range from around the time of Marcus Aurelius (161–180 CE) and Commodus (180–192 CE). The man bears a sword belt (balteus), which may imply something of his status –  although the families of all those depicted were no doubt wealthy – or an actual association with the military.

Although the technique of encaustic painting (pigment mixed with hot wax) was foreign to Egypt, the tradition of representing the deceased was not. Pharaonic representations are not ‘true to life’ in any simple way. ‘Lifelike’ sculptures placed in temples apparently show elites with the details of a real face; yet, the aim of these objects was to attract attention in scared spaces crowded with sculpture, and need not reflect anything of a person’s actual appearance.

Looking at the mummy panel paintings – saturated as we are by modern photographic reproduction and the prevalence of glazed and mirrored surfaces – we expect them to reflect a truth about ancient people as they really were. Yet, just because these are plausiblefaces does not imply that these are true, mimetic portraits in the modern sense. We desperately want them to be – that is why facial reconstruction techniques are so popular in museums and in the popular media. This modern conceit has been used as a means of testing the ‘accuracy’ of panel paintings, yet this practice has a sinister background in ‘race’ science. British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, whose Egyptian workmen found many of the panels attached to mummies at the Fayum site of Hawara (hence the common designation ‘Fayum Portrait’), was a keen believer in eugenics and regularly kept the skulls of portrait mummies to compare the two.

But, to me, these (re)constructions are subjective and contingent – they are mirages, fantasises that privilege ‘science’ and view it as a ‘magic wand’ to gain insights into ancient life. The fact that some portraits, such as this one, much resemble others – like portraits now at Eton College and sold recently at Sothebys – does not imply the existence of a group of similar-looking people, but rather indicate the production of panels that depend more on each other (or a stock type) than they refer back to the appearance of real people. Whether the panels were painted during life or posthumously is a major point of scholarly debate. The latter seems more likely to me. Regardless, they fulfilled a very ancient function by giving the deceased a visage with which to face eternity.

Too Classical for Egyptologists and too Egyptian for Classicists, the portraits have been a scholarly bone of contention for some time – yet have been a major attraction for popular audiences since Flinders Petrie exhibited those he was permitted to export in Summer 1888 at the Egyptian Hall in London, where artists like Lawrence Alma-Tadema drew inspiration for their works.                            

Alma-Tadema detail.jpg
Alma-Tadema detail from ‘Love’s Jewelled Fetter’ (1895)

There’s decent circumstantial evidence that the show was seen by Oscar Wilde – his novella The Picture of Dorian Grayappeared three years later. Such has been the impact of these haunting images on popular culture. Yet, despite repeated attempts to characterise their individual backgrounds – in terms of age, ‘race’, status – these faces resist categorisation; their inscrutability only adds to their allure.

**Addendum 22/10/21: This blog post has subsequently appeared (by permission of the author) in Shemu: The Egyptian Society of South Africa’s Quarterly Newsletter 25/4 (October 2021).

Technical Details
Provenance: Hawara(?), Egypt
Date: Second half of second century CE
Technique: Encaustic pigment on lime(?)wood panel
Collection: Manchester Museum, inv. 11306, University of Manchester, UK. From the collection of Max Emil Robinow (1845-1900), a German émigré who settled in Manchester in the 1870s and travelled in Egypt in 1896. This piece likely derived from Flinders Petrie’s purchasing of antiquities in the Fayum region. Its rounded top suggests that it most probably comes from the site of Hawara, where Petrie worked for three seasons. Robinow was likely introduced to Petrie through a major sponsor of his excavations, the Manchester cotton magnate Jesse Haworth.
Bibliography: Barbara Borg, Mumienporträts: Chronologie und kultureller Kontext(Mainz: Philipp von Zabern., 1996), pp. 16, 80, 156–7; Campbell Price, 2020. Golden Mummies of Egypt. Interpreting Identities from the Graeco-Roman Period (Nomad Exhibitions/Manchester Museum, 2020), pp. 160-195.

Max Emil Robinow


Law and the Art of Bookroll Maintenance

Mark de Kreij

In 133 CE Herakleides-Valerius, inhabitant of Antinoupolis, which had only recently been founded, put his signature to a brief document renouncing his father Herakleides’ inheritance. He came to his decision because his father had become embroiled in a protracted dispute over the state of the public archives of the Fayum. By this time, the case had dragged on for half a century, affecting two generations of multiple families, and it provides us a rare glimpse into the practical affairs of maintaining papyrus bookrolls in Roman Egypt.

Screenshot 2020-03-06 at 15.49.24.png
British Library Papyrus 1885 (c) British Library Board

It is the summer of 107, and Herakleides arrives in Tebtynis to take up his new position as keeper of the Fayum archives. He is to share his public office with another citizen, Patron, but the actual day-to-day care will remain in the hands of veteran clerk Leonides. Whereas the public office rotates on a 3-year cycle, there is much more continuity in the underlying bureaucracy. Leonides tells Herakleides that he has stepped into quite the mess: the archives have been in a poor state and deteriorating for years. In a later report, the impartial inspector Isidorus describes the situation in the following terms:

“The documents shown to me by the clerk Leonides (…) were in some cases deprived of their beginning, or damaged, or moth-eaten (…). Since the books have been hastily moved from one place to another repeatedly, lying on top of each other and unattached (…). Some were eaten away at the top because of the dry heat (…) and since they are being handled daily, and their material is brittle, it happened that some were destroyed in parts, others were without beginnings, and some had even fallen apart.”

At every change of keepers, the state of the archive was assessed, and it was at such a transition that the first documented complaint was made, almost forty years earlier in 71 CE. By the time Leonides became head clerk, the archives had apparently been handed on in ever-deteriorating condition without anyone wanting to take responsibility for the repair and reconstruction of the damaged documents. The keepers who were in charge before Herakleides had moreover decided that not they, but the clerk Leonides was responsible for the state of the archive. At some point the strategus Apollonius (a high official) decreed:

“Already before I have ordered you and I enjoin you [Leonides] now to take over the documents in their present state.”

Leonides, however, claims that in the end his employers, the public officials, must bear the responsibility. As a result, upon the arrival of Herakleides and Patron, Leonides refuses to accept any damaged rolls from the preceding keepers without the presence and permission of the new keepers. Understanding his precarious situation, Herakleides likewise refuses to take responsibility for the transfer. Leonides’ heirs later maintained

“that their father was appointed as salaried clerk to the keepers and might not be held responsible for the transfer. That, however, all the rolls were transferred except those missing the beginning or damaged or worm-eaten (…) but that the taking over was done at the risk of the responsible persons.”

Screenshot 2020-03-06 at 15.51.53.png
British Library Papyrus 1880 (c) The British Library Board

The stress of the situation is enough to drive Patron over the edge, and his son Euangelos has to replace him for the final year of his tenure.

By now, the heirs of multiple sets of keepers have become burdened with stacks of old, crumbling documents that no-one is willing to take over from them. Their complaints to the strategus and prefect (governor of Egypt) are heard—in fact five successive prefects get involved! But somehow no-one manages to break the impasse until in 114-115 the prefect Rutilius Lupus puts his foot down and forces Leonides to accept all the rolls, damaged or no, from the families of the earlier keepers. The cost of repair is to be borne in part by Leonides, insofar as he accepted rolls without the knowledge of the current keepers, and in part by Herakleides and Euangelos.

Herakleides drags his feet, as evidenced by a hefty fine he pays to the dioikesis (state administration) in summer of 114, but to no avail. In the following months he too passes away, and his son Herakleides-Valerius has to pay a further fine. In the end the heirs concede, paying the required sum to Leonides for the repairs of the rolls.

Skip to 124: Leonides has also died, and the new head clerk finds a situation that still has not changed and appeals to the prefect. The judgment is that the heirs of Leonides are responsible for paying the repairs, but they can in turn privately sue the heirs of Patron and Herakleides if they deem the keepers to have been responsible. As a security, the prefect seizes both parties’ properties, in order to guarantee that they will now finally undertake the necessary work.

And a good thing that was too: around 6 months later 1 talent is raised through sale of property, most probably that of the heirs of Herakleides, since Euangelos, Patron’s heir, is penniless, and this finally paid for the necessary repairs and transfer… Or did it? Almost a decade later, Herakleides-Valerius writes:

“I cede the half due to me in the whole heritage of my aforesaid father in order not to be worried about the penalties.”

But that, finally, is the last we hear of the case in this family’s archive.

This ‘showpiece of bureaucratic tenacity and bureaucratic ineffectiveness’, in the words of Peter Parsons, not only documents an intriguing court case, but incidentally also contains the fullest surviving account of the practicalities of archive maintenance. The same climate that preserved the papyri to be read by scholars in the twentieth century took its toll on documents in the poorly maintained archive. We learn that documents are particularly vulnerable at their beginnings and endings, and that this is one of the reasons to create rolls consisting of documents pasted together (referred to in Greek as tomoi sunkollesimoi). Also, we hear of the possibility to reconstruct broken and damaged documents by consulting and copying master copies kept in Alexandria. No less interesting are the terms used to describe both the damage (including ‘missing its beginning’, ‘missing its ending’, and ‘eaten away at the top’) and the repairs (‘paste together’ and ‘repair’), which are otherwise rarely attested in documents or literature. A new, full discussion of the documents’ importance for these issues, together with a survey of the relevant papyrological evidence for ancient bookroll maintenance, is now available by Mark De Kreij, Daniela Colomo, and Andrew Lui 2020 (for the open access article, see the link in the bibliography below).

Technical Details
Provenance: Egypt, Tebtynis
Date: 114-133 CE
Language: Greek
Collection: London, British Library Pap. 1885, 1980, and 1888 
Designation: P.Fam.Tebt. 15, 17 (= P.Coles 20), and 24 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Bernhard A. van Groningen, A Family Archive from Tebtunis (Pap.Lugd.Bat. VI)(Leiden: E. J. Brill 1950), pp. 46-62, 64-65, and 85-108; Mark de Kreij, Daniela Colomo, and Andrew Lui, ‘Shoring Up Sappho. P.Oxy. 2288 and Ancient Reinforcements of Bookrolls’ in Mnemosyne(2020), available in open access here; Peter Parsons, ‘P.Coles 20. The End of the Archives Case’ in Guido Bastianini, Nikolaos Gonis, and Simona Russo (eds), Charisterion per Revel A. Coles (P.Coles) (Florence 2015), pp. 96-102.

Screenshot 2020-03-06 at 15.53.21.png
British Library Papyrus 1888 (c) British Library Board

Spell to Attract a Woman

Jennifer Cromwell

“For a woman’s love: a really effective charm.
You should write these things on a tin sheet.”

So begins the text of a Coptic magical spell from the 6th/7th century. The things that should be written on the tin sheet are magical signs, drawn on the papyrus for reference and to be copied out when needed. These signs are the first of three parts of this spell, intended to gain a woman’s love. The second part is the burial of several items at the woman’s door.

“Offering: one wild plant, foam from a completely black horse’s mouth, and a bat. You should bury it at the woman’s door, and you will see its power quickly.”

The wild plant in question is the Greek aspartos, but this could be a variant spelling of asphaltos, bitumen – a sticky black substance that would fit in colour terms with the other two ingredients needed, foam from a black horse’s mouth and a bat.
The final stage is the recitation of the spell itself. This incantation includes the invocation of a magical being, Bersebour (=Beelzebub), the King of Demons (the ‘you’ in the translation). Even demons could be called upon for their beneficial powers, as available spirits rather than as evil entities.

“I adjure you by all your holy names, your offerings, your amulets, the thrones upon which you sit, your garments that clothe you, your completed stelae, [and your] places in which you dwell. I adjure you by all these things, for a heartfelt love, a pang, and a heartfelt madness of NN. Quickly! I adjure the great power of Bersebour, the King of Demons […] health […] understanding. I adjure you by all of these things. Do not let her eat or [drink or …] or sit until she becomes like these black dogs, who are crazy for their pups, and like a drop of water, suspended from a jar, like a snake coiled [for the] soul of XX, until she comes to so-and-so. Quickly! […]”

But who is this spell intended for, which woman is the target, and who wants to receive the “heartfelt madness” of her love? Rather than being written for a specific individual, this spell can be used by and for anybody. The spell does not insert names but placeholders that can be substituted by actual names as and when required. Where in the translation NN is written, this is the name of the target of the spell, while XX is for the person casting the spell.
Whether or not the spell was used and was as effective as its opening line claims we do not know. But the desire to attract the attention and love of another is a part of the human condition that transcends the centuries.


The front of the papyrus, which includes the symbols to be drawn on the tin sheet; the text continues for a couple of lines on the other side (c) Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, P.CtYBR inv. 1791

Technical Details
Provenance: Unknown; Egypt
Date: 6th/7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect)
Collection: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven (P.CtYBR inv. 1791)
Designation: P.CtYBR inv. 1791
Bibliography: T. C. Peterson (1964) A Collection of Papyri: Egyptian, Greek, Coptic, Arabic (New York: H. P. Kraus), pp. 38–39; S. Emmel in M. W. Meyer and R. Smith (1994) Ancient Christian Magic. Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 158–159 [#74] and 353–355.

The Powers of Hell: A Deadly Curse from Medieval Egypt

Korshi Dosoo

Leiden curse rib.jpg
Leiden, National Museum of Antiquities F 1965/8.5
Images courtesy of the National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden

Somewhere in Upper Egypt, around the tenth century CE, someone wanted to destroy a man named Haron. They took a pair of rib bones from a large animal, perhaps a cow or a camel, still wet with gristle, and they wrote a curse three times, on both sides of one rib, and one side of the other:

Koukhos, Trokhos, Aphōnos, Pesphokops and Plemos and Ouliat: these are the six Powers of Death, they who bring every soul out of every body, it is they who bring every sickness upon man, it is they who will go to Haron the son of Tkouikira …

I call, I adjure you, oh dead one, by the way that you took, and the places of fear to which they took you  and the places of fear that you saw, and the river of fire which cast wave upon wave … so that in the moment I place this bone under you, you shall bring all your suffering down upon Haron the son of Tkouikira, yea, quickly, quickly! Go, go! Quickly, quickly!

We don’t know what Haron did to deserve this curse, but we have some idea how it was carried out. At night, Haron’s enemy probably hired a ritual specialist, a ‘magician’, to recite a spoken invocation, while writing the curse in red ink, meant to resemble blood, before burying it in a tomb. This type of ritual – known in Greek as a katadesmos (“binding-down”), or in Latin as a defixio (“fastening”) – is first attested in Greek Sicily, over one and a half millennia earlier in the 6th century BCE, but spread throughout the Graeco-Roman world, from Britain to Iran and from Germany to Egypt.

A view of the western mountain of Asyut, the site of the First Intermediate Period tomb where the third curse was found. Photo © The Asyut Project

The rib from which this version of the text is taken is held in the National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden in the Netherlands, which bought it from a Dutch dealer. This dealer had purchased it in turn from the family of the famous Egyptian antiquities merchant Maurice Nahman. But, while we know who the curse was directed against, where it is from isn’t so certain. The two texts on ribs, both owned by Nahman, were published by the Copticist James Drescher, who was told by Nahman’s son, Robert, that they came from Akhmim, although he doesn’t seem to have trusted this claim. A clearer idea of its origin appeared in winter 2004-2005, when a German-Egyptian excavation team in Asyut found another bone, written by the same scribe with the same text, in a tomb from the First Intermediate Period, belonging to a local magnate named Iti-Ibi who lived over three millennia earlier, ca. 2060 BCE. The name of the victim of this curse is missing, but it was found in a burial shaft untouched since antiquity. There were three other shafts in the tomb which had been looted in the 19th century, so it’s possible the Leiden bone came from one of these.

Christopher Faraone, who has done much work on earlier curses in Greek and Latin, has noted that they tend to fall into a small range of categories: some are against legal opponents, and aim to stop them from speaking or succeeding in court; some are against rival businessmen; others are against sportsmen, used by rivals or punters to fix competitions; others still are against those who had wronged the user in some way, often by stealing something from them. Curses in Coptic rarely tell us the reasons they were created, but it’s likely that they arise from similar circumstances – people who felt that their financial, social or emotional wellbeing was threatened might try to fight back using curses, even though such practices were both illegal and condemned by the Christian Church; those using them could be excommunicated, or even executed, depending on who caught them. This might be part of the reason why Haron’s enemy never says who they are, or why they are attacking him.

Crum MS.jpg
A rare depiction of one of the ‘Powers of Death’, here called a dekanos (“decan”) removing a soul from its body. Source: Photo taken by Arthur S. Hunt of a mural of a church in Tebtunis in the Fayum. Crum MSS 24.67

While the older curses are sometimes very narrowly targeted – they might ask for legal opponents to be tongue-tied, or chariots to crash – this one attempts to totally destroy Haron. The opening part names six ‘Powers of Death’, asking them to bring his soul out of his body. These beings are known from many literary texts produced by Christians in Egypt and around the Mediterranean from the second century onwards; they accompany the Angel of Death, and violently separate soul from body in the final moment. A rare depiction of this event from a church in the Fayum shows us their monstrous form – animal headed beings in black armour – pulling a soul in the form of a little human figure out of its body with their teeth.

Once his soul has been taken out of his body, the curse calls upon the spirit of the dead person in whose tomb it is buried. It describes the dead person as being in Hell – having being taken by the Powers of Death upon the terrible path to the afterlife, to the ‘places of fear’ where the evil dead are tortured, past the river of fire which burned the wicked but not the just. This ‘geography’ of the Afterlife, like the description of the Powers of Death, comes from the same literary texts written by Late Antique Christians to expand upon or clarify things which are mentioned, but not fully described, in the Bible. Among these was Hell, in Greek hadēs, Coptic amente.

Iti-Ibi tomb.jpg
The entrance to the tomb of Iti-Ibi in Asyut, as seen during Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt in the late 18thcentury; the facade was destroyed by stone quarrying in the course of the 19thcentury. Source: Commission des sciences et arts d’Egypte, Description de l’Égypte: Antiquités, volume IV, Paris: C.L.F. Pankoucke, 1822, plate 48

Older Greek curses often relied upon the person in whose tomb they were buried belonging to the category of the restless dead – people whose violent or early deaths resulted in their souls being susceptible to manipulation by magic. By contrast, this curse relies on the dead person with which it is buried being in Hell. But how could someone know whether a particular dead person belonged to the category of wicked or righteous? The answer, again clear from literary texts, is that Christian Egyptians believed that their ancestors, whom they called “pagans” (hellênes, literally “Greeks”), were condemned to Hell for worshipping ‘idols’ and animals. It is for this reason that the curse found in Asyut, and likely the two others, were buried in a First Intermediate Period tomb; for the Christian descendants of the ancient people of that town, the Pharaonic tombs and the bodies inside them could serve as a resource in their attempts to triumph in social conflicts through the practice of cursing.

Technical Details
Provenance: Upper Egypt (Akhmim or Asyut)
Date: 10th or 11thcentury CE
Language: Coptic
Collection: Leiden, National Museum of Antiquities F 1965/8.5The second bone once owned by Robert Nahman is Os. Mil. Vogl. inv. 1, held in the Istituto di Papirologia dell’Università degli Studi in Milan. The third bone, found in Asyut is Asyut Tomb III S05/46, belonging to the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Egypt, currently held in a warehouse in Shutb, Egypt.
Designation: Leiden F 1965/8.5 / Nahman Bone B
Bibliography: James Drescher (1948), “A Coptic Malediction”, Annales du service des antiquités de l‘Égypte 48, 267–276; Christopher A. Faraone (1991), “The Agonistic Context of Early Greek Binding Spells”, in Magika Hiera: Ancient Greek Magic and Religion, edited by Christopher A. Faraone and Dirk Obbink (New York: Oxford University Press), 3–32; John G. Gager (ed.) (2005), Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World(New York: Oxford University Press); Jochem Kahl (2007), Ancient Asyut. The First Synthesis after 300 Years of Research (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag); Jochem Kahl (2016), “Magical Bone”, in Asyut, Tomb III: Objects, edited by  Jochem Kahl et al. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag), 332–337; Sergio Pernigotti (1995), “La magia copta: i testi”, in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II 18.5, edited by W. Hasse and H. Temporini (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter), 3721–3722 [nos. 25–26]; Maarten Raven (2012), Egyptian Magic. The Quest for Thoth’s Book of Secrets (Cairo: American University of Cairo Press), 173–174; Robert Ritner in Marvin W. Meyer and Richard Smith (1999), Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 204–206 [no. 98].

A Stingy Boss and a Lack of Beer

Jennifer Cromwell

Deir el-Medina (google earth).png
The village of Deir el-Medina – view from Google Earth (at the right is the later temple of Hathor)

Deir el-Medina in western Thebes was home to a community of skilled workers, who were responsible for constructing and decorating the royal tombs of the period, in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. One draftsman from the village, Prehotep, perhaps after a particularly hard shift, just wanted to relax with a beer. However, with no beer in his house, he wrote to his boss, the scribe Qenhirkhopeshef, to try to convince him to invite him for a drink. Prehotep accuses Qenhirkhopeshef of never wanting to socialise with him, only asking for him when there was work to be done, treating him like a donkey – the main working animal of the village (see more about donkeys in this story).

“The draftsman Prehotep communicates to his superior, the scribe of the Place of Truth Qenhirkhopeshef, in life, prosperity, health!

What’s the meaning of this negative attitude that you are adopting toward me? I’m like a donkey to you. If there is work, bring the donkey! And if there is fodder, bring the ox! If there is beer, you never ask for me. Only if there is work (to be done), will you ask for me.

Upon my head, if I am a man who is bad in (his) behaviour with beer, don’t ask for me. It is good for you to take notice in the Estate of Amon-Re, King of the Gods, life, prosperity, health.

P.S. I am a man who is lacking beer in his house. I am seeking to fill my stomach by my writing to you.” (translation by Edward Wente)

oDeM 303 (Cerny).png
Transcription of O.DeM 303 by Jaroslav Černý

Maybe Prehotep could not hold his drink – though, ancient beer was pretty low in alcohol and so it would have taken a lot of beer to make him drunk and disorderly. But, maybe the problem was his pushy boss.

Qenhirkhopeshef is the best-known scribe of the community, referred to here by the term ‘Place of Truth’ (set ma’at), which encompasses both the village and the Theban necropolis. In addition to his official work as village scribe, we have a glimpse into his interests thanks to the survival of his library, which he left to his young wife Naunakht. This library included the only known dreambook from the period (P.Chester Beatty III, in the British Museum: BM EA 10683), on the back of which Qenhirkhopeshef wrote a draft letter and a portion of the account of the victory of Ramesses II over the Hittites at Kadesh. Another text in the collection is a charm, probably folded and worn as an amulet, against a demon shekek. But what of his professional life and Prehotep’s strong words?

Prehotep makes it clear that Qenhirkhopeshef used him for his own purposes, putting him to work most likely on the building of the scribe’s own tomb. And this is not the only example of Qenhirkhopeshef enjoying this perk. In an attendance sheet dated to year 40 of the reign of Rameses II (ca. 1,239 BCE), the workman Anuy is noted as being absent because he was busy “fetching stone for Qenhirkhopeshef” – and several further ostraca record similar situations. Other texts from the village paint the scribe in a particularly bad light: he is accused of taking bribes in a papyrus now in the British Museum (“Papyrus Salt 124”, BM EA 10055) and in an ostracon written by one Rahotep. In the latter, Rahotep provides services (hair shaving) and goods (fabric and yarn) so that Qenhirkheopeshef will conceal his misdeeds.

In this light, Prehotep’s accusation has a ring of truth, even if he was using the scribe’s negative reputation for his own ends. Sometimes, you just want to join your co-workers for a drink, and if your boss can provide the beer, then even better!

Beer brewing model – Liverpool.jpg
Brewing (at the right) together with baking and butchery, in a Middle Kingdom model from Beni Hasan now in the World Museum, Liverpool (55.82.7)

Technical Details
Provenance: Deir el-Medina, Egypt
Date: Mid-Dynasty 19 (ca. 1,250 BCE)
Language: Ancient Egyptian (Late Egyptian)
Collection: Institut français d’archéologie orientale, Cairo ‎‎‎‎‎‎‎(O.IFAO 800)
Designation: O.DeM‎303 (see the Deir el-Medina database for more details)
Bibliography: Jaroslav Černý (1939), Catalogue des ostraca hiératiques non littéraires de Deir el Médineh. Vol. 4 (Nos 242 à 339) (Cairo), p. 16 + pl. 18; Jaroslav Černý (1973), A Community of Workmen at Thebes in the Ramesside Period (Cairo), p. 337; Kenneth A. Kitchen (1982), Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt (Warminster), p. 194; Edward F.‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎Wente (1990), Letters from Ancient Egypt (Atlanta), p. 149 [no. 204]

Death Declarations: The Bureaucracy of Death in Roman Egypt

Jennifer Cromwell

In year 7 of the reign of Emperor Claudius, a widow Tapapeis daughter of Pasis submitted a declaration of the death of her husband Abeis son of Horos. In accordance with Roman law, she acts with a male guardian, her relative Adrastos.

“To the royal secretary Hermaios from Tapapeis, daughter of Pasis, acting with her relative Adrastos, son of Diogenes, as her guardian. My husband Abeis, son of Horos, paying the poll tax at the village of Philadelphia, died in the month Epeiph of the current seventh year of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator. I therefore request that his name be entered among those who have died. 

Tapapeis, about 45 years old, with a scar on the right foot.

Adrastos, about 50 years old, with a scar on the 3rd finger of the right hand.

I, the aforesaid Tapapeis, acting with the aforesaid Adrastos as my guardian, swear by Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator that … everything said above is true. If I swear truly, may it be well with me; if I swear falsely, the reverse…”

Translation from the University of Michigan APIS website with minor modifications

This translation is actually a composite of two papyri: the original version of the declaration, which was sent to the royal secretary Hermaios (=SB XIV 11586) and the copy of the declaration that was probably sent to the village secretary at Philadelphia (=SB XIV 11587). The reason for this is because neither the original nor the copy survives in full: the original preserves only the beginning, while the copy has the bulk of the text, missing only the very beginning and very end.

Death Declarations – Michigan.jpg
Death Declaration. Left: the original (Michigan inv. 795). Right: the copy (Michigan inv. 853) (c) University of Michigan Library

But, why did Tapapeis need to report her husband’s death in the first place, let alone have the declaration written in two copies? The key to understanding why lies in the reference to Abeis as a taxpayer. During the period of Roman ruler in Egypt, a census declaration took place every 14 years, and the names of all taxpayers were subsequently collected into a separate tax list. To keep these records up to date, and to make sure that families didn’t remain liable for the taxes of the deceased, declarations such as these were issued to the state authorities. Part of this bureaucratic process meant that duplicates of the originals were also entered into local offices – hence the two copies of this declaration. And copying wasn’t confined to declarations, the census returns themselves were copied multiple times and sent to different offices. Also as part of this administrative process, Tapapeis and Adrastos are described – their ages are given and identifying features are noted, in this case small scars that each bear, to make sure that they are who they claim to be.

As a widow, Tapapeis’ quality of life became dependent on the rest of her family. But, the indications are that if she survived to the age of 55 (and so an old woman in Roman terms), her life would not have been easy. Nine years after this declaration, in 56 CE, Abeis’ son Horos appears in a list of delinquent taxpayers (P.Corn. 24) and the year later is named in a list of missing persons, of tax fugitives (P.Ryl.IV 595). While we don’t know anything else about this family and their daily life, the paperwork produced and stored by Roman bureaucrats provides brief snapshots of some of their experiences, especially regarding two of the constants in life: death and taxes.

Technical Details
Provenance: Philadelphia (Fayyum), Egypt
Date: 28 June(?) 47 CE
Language: Greek
Collection: University of Michigan, P.Mich.inv. 795 and P.Mich.inv. 853
Designation: SB XIV 11586 and 11587 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Herbert C. Youtie, “P. Mich. Inv. 795 and 853: Notification of Death,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 22 (1976), pp. 56–59; Jane Rowlandson (ed.), Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 342–343 (#269).

Further Reading
Walter Scheidel, “The Death Declarations of Roman Egypt: A Re-appraisal,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 36 (1999), pp. 53–70



Warm Hoopoe’s Blood for the Eyes: A Coptic Remedy

Jennifer Cromwell

Ever suffered from dry eyes? A late Coptic medical text may have the cure for you! Written on a small piece of parchment, probably in the 11th century CE, the remedy requires just two ingredients: the warm blood of a hoopoe and cardamom.

“For eyes starting to cry salt: heated hoopoe’s blood and a herb called ‘cardamom’, in Egyptian ‘shife’ (a tree that grows in mountain regions, like a pomegranate tree, its leaves being slightly long like a […], its wood resembling that of the pomegranate tree.”

pRylCopt 108.jpg
P.Ryl.Copt. 108 (C) John Rylands Library, Manchester

The exotic nature of the second ingredient, cardamom, leads the writer to describe the plant, likening it to the more familiar pomegranate tree. At the end of the description, a line confirms this is the end of the text, yet there is no information about how to apply this concoction, whether directly to the eyes, as a poultice, or whether it was to be ingested. Perhaps the writer was so taken with the digression about cardamom that he forgot the rest of the text!

While cardamom may have been a new and uncommon medical ingredient, the hoopoe – kukupat in Coptic – had a much longer history in Egypt, from the Old Kingdom to the Islamic period, in art and in texts. The hoopoe is (and remains) a common breeding resident throughout Egypt, meaning that the ancient Egyptians were very familiar with its physical attributes, notably its distinctive long black-tipped crest, which it raises when excited. One of the most famous images of the hoopoe is found in the Twelfth Dynasty tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hasan, where it stands crest erect, perched on a tree.

EES Hoopoe - art21.jpg
Howard Carter’s painting of the hoopoe in the tomb of Khnumhotep II (Beni Hasan), now in the Lucy Gura Archive of the Egypt Exploration Society.

Outside of pharaonic tomb scenes, the hoopoe makes its most significant mark in the written record of later periods. In the Theban magical text collections known as the Demotic Magical Papyri (PDM) and the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), dating to the 3rd–4th centuries CE, hoopoe blood and hearts are used for a range of ailments. In one spell, a live hoopoe is required, which is then decapitated, its heart being removed through its right ribs. After these Roman texts, the record is silent until the 10th and 11th centuries, the date of the dry-eyes remedy. From this time, only a couple of Coptic texts mention the hoopoe. For example, in a codex now in Cairo, CGC 42573, the blood of a hoopoe and the hair of a pig are mixed and thrown into a person’s house, as what seems to be a measure against hatred (the spell is simply headed: “a hatred”). One of the most important points here is that in these texts, the use of the hoopoe in medical or magical texts is a foreign introduction. In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History 30.18 (1st century CE), the efficacy of the hoopoe’s heart is noted for pains in the side and in the loins. In the Islamic tradition, the hoopoe (Arabic hud-hud) appears in connection with the Prophet Solomon (Qur’an 27.20–28), revealing to him things of which he had no knowledge. Later, the thirteenth-century physician Ibn al-Beithar discussed at length the medicinal virtues of the hoopoe and its various body parts. In this light, the PGM and PDM occurrences reflect the use of the hoopoe in Greek medicine, while its inclusion in late Coptic recipes stems directly from translations of Arabic texts.

A hoopoe (upupa epops)

But did the mix of warm hoopoe’s blood and cardamom work? At a later date, the text was crossed-out with two diagonal and one vertical stroke, and the parchment was reused to practice writing the names of the months and numbers, an exercise that continues onto the other side. Why was the text struck through like this? The lack of application directions may have reduced its efficacy and so it was of no use. Alternatively, the remedy may have been copied into a larger compendium and so this individual sheet served no purpose. Examples of such Coptic medical compendiums include the 5th/6th century Coptic medicinal plant book, Papyrus Carlsberg inv. 500 (see here) – the description about cardamom does echo this book, which includes descriptions of plants according to their habitat and external characteristics. Whatever the reason, though, the piece of parchment was used as scrap, without any record about the concoction’s success.

Technical Details
Provenance: White Monastery (near Sohag), Egypt
Date: 11th century
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect)
Collection: John Rylands Library, Manchester (Coptic inv. 108)
Designation: P.Ryl.Copt. 108 (sigla according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Jennifer Cromwell, “Warm Hoopoe’s Blood and Cardamom: A Coptic Medical Text”, Egyptian Archaeology 51 (2017), 10–13.

Birthday Parties on the Roman Frontier

Jennifer Cromwell

The Roman fort Vindolanda is located just south of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. Occupied approximately from 85–370 CE, the fort guarded the Stanegate, the Roman road that ran from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth. In addition to the archaeological remains of the site, a large number of Latin texts written on postcard-sized thin wooden boards provide snapshots of daily life on the Roman frontier. While Vindolanda was a military outpost, the tablets don’t just talk about military affairs. The officers stationed at the fort lived there with their families, and letters, lists, and other records give remarkable insights into their lifestyle and social and economic activities.

Vindolanda: Photo taken July 2019 by J. Cromwell

One day in late summer, Claudia Severa, wife of Aelius Brocchus, wrote to Sulpicia Lepidina, wife of Flavius Cerialis, inviting her to come to Vindolanda to join her birthday celebrations on 11th September. This invitation is perhaps the best-known of the Vindolanda tablets, and is  probably the most striking text to a modern audience, with its recognisable activity and presentation of personal relationships.

“Claudia Severa to her Lepidina, greetings. On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are present(?). Give my greetings to your Cerialis. My Aelius and my little son send him (?) their greetings.

I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

To Sulpicia Lepidina, (wife) of Cerialis, from Severa.” (translation: Bowman 1994)

tVindol II 291.jpg
T.Vindol. II 291 (c) British Musum (1986,1001,64)

This party invite isn’t our only evidence for Romans celebrating the birthdays of individuals. Latin birthday poems were written by authors such as Horace, Ovid, and Martial in honour of the birthdays of particular people – and the poems themselves are often intended as birthday presents. These poems give us an idea about how Romans celebrated, by wearing white clothing, bedecking an altar with garlands, burning incense, and sometimes eating cakes and drinking wine (as we see in Ovid’s poems Tristia III.13, about his own birthday, and Tristia V.5 about his wife’s).

Severa didn’t live in Vindolanda but in another fort, Briga – one of the places named in the tablets that hasn’t yet been identified (the word is a common Celtic place-name meaning ‘hill’, but which hill?). Did Lepidina join the birthday party? We don’t have any definite proof, but other letters between the two women indicate that they did regularly travel to see each other, as Severa notes in another letter: “just as I had spoken with you and promised that I would ask Brocchus and would come to you, I asked him and he gave me the following reply, that it was always readily permitted to me … to come to you in whatever way I can” (T.Vindol. II 292; translation Bowman 1994). Hopefully Lepidina was able to make the party and eat cake and drink wine with Severa!

One final point about this letter needs to be made. While most of the letter is written probably by a professional scribe, Severa wrote her final greeting herself. Her personal note to Lepidina is written in the bottom right side of the tablet. Apart from being an indication of her affection for her friend, this short message is the earliest known example of writing in Latin by a woman. It’s not just the words that are important for our understanding of life in the ancient world, but how they were written as well.

Technical Details
Provenance: Vindolanda (Chesterholm), England
Date: 97–103 CE
Language: Latin
Collection: British Museum (inv. 1986,1001.64)
Designation: T.Vindol. II 291 (abbreviation according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Kathryn Argetsinger (1992), “Birthday Rituals: Friends and Patrons in Roman Poetry and Cult,” Classical Antiquity 11/2: pp. 175–193; Alan Bowman (1994), Life and Letters on the Roman Frontier (London: British Museum), p. 127 (#21); Alan Bowman and J. David Thomas (1987), “New Texts from Vindolanda”, Britannia 18: pp. 137–139 (#5); David Campbell (1994) The Roman Army, 31 BC – AD 337: A Sourcebook (London: Routledge) #254. 

Imperial Decrees, Animal Sacrifices, and Christian Persecution

Jennifer Cromwell

On 17 June 250 CE, Aurelius Sakis had a certificate drawn up that proved he and his children Aion and Heras had participated in the sacrifice of an animal to pagan gods. Two other men, Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas witness the declaration, confirming that they had actually witnessed the sacrifice.

“To those appointed to oversee the sacrifices, from Aurelius Sakis from the village of Theoxenis, with his children Aion and Heras, staying in the village Theadelphia. We have always sacrificed to the gods and now, too, in your presence, in accordance with the decree we have sacrificed and we have poured a libation and we have eaten of the sacrificial offering, and we ask you to undersign. May you continue to prosper.

We, Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas, saw you sacrificing.

The Year 1 of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Pauni 23.”

(P.Mich. III 157; translation by A. D. Lee)
pMich III 157.jpg
P.Mich. III 157 (c) University of Michigan (P.Mich. inv. 262)

Over forty such certificates written in the same year survive from Egypt and provide the only contemporary evidence of the edict ordered by emperor Decius (249–251 CE) that everybody in the Roman Empire was to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and the well-being of the emperor. Why would the emperor introduce such a policy? On one hand, the sacrifices were proof of loyalty to Decius, but they also were the first example of legislation that persecuted against Christians, as whoever refused to sacrifice would be punished. This leads to the question of who had to demonstrate that they were sacrificing: everybody, or just those accused of being a Christian? We don’t have enough information to answer this particular question.

Map – Barrington Atlas.jpg
Map showing the Fayum and Oxyrhynchus (from Barrington Atlas, Map 75)

The majority of the known Decian libelli (a word used to refer to short documents, especially official ones) come from the Fayumic town Theadelphia (modern Batn el-Harit), located 30 km northwest of Medinet al-Fayum. Smaller numbers, however, do survive from other sites, including Narmouthis and Oxyrhynchus – for the locations of all known libelli, see the table at the end of this post. P.Oxy. IV 658 is an example from Oxyrhynchus. Most of the man’s name is lost, but his children’s names survive, his son Dioscorus and his daughter Lais. The witness statements from this text are also now lost – only the smallest of traces survive of them.

“To the commissioners in charge of the sacred victims and sacrifices of the city. From Aurelius L[…]thion son of Theodorus and his mother Pantonymis, of the same city. Always have I continued sacrificing and pouring libations to the gods, and now in your presence in accordance with what has been ordered I have poured a libation and I have sacrificed and I have tasted of the sacrifices, together with my son, Aurelius Dioscorus, and my daughter Aurelia Lais. I request you to certify this for me below.

The year one of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Pauni 20.”

(P.Oxy. IV 658; translation from Blumell & Wayment)

This certificate shares many of the same features as the text from Theadelphia. Note that gods generally are mentioned – there is no specificity regarding to which gods sacrifices should be made. Imperial officials recording these sacrifices probably weren’t concerned about the identity of the gods, which almost certainly changed from place-to-place across the empire, only that the sacrifices took place.

pOxy IV 658 (Yale).jpeg
P.Oxy. IV 658 (c) Beinecke Library, Yale University (P.CtYBR 65)

The similarities between the texts indicate that the process of monitoring and recording the sacrifices was highly organised. The two examples given here are also very close in date – the Oxyrhynchus text was written only three days before the one from Theadelphia. In fact, nearly all of the known libelli date to June 250, approximately six months after Decius issued his decree. This six-month gap may suggest that the decree was not immediately adhered to, and so increased monitoring of sacrifices took place to ensure the emperor’s command was being carried out. However, it may simply be a case that communication of the order took this long to reach Egypt. Whatever the reason, these documents mark the beginning of a period of persecution of Christians across the empire, before the adoption of Christianity as its official religion in the fourth century.

*Note that the designation ‘Aurelius’ (‘Aurelia’ for a woman) marked somebody as a citizen of the Roman empire. Following the Edict of Caracalla (or Antonine Constitution) of 212, all free men in the empire were granted full Roman citizenship.

Technical Details (Text 1)
Provenance: Theadelphia, Fayum (Egypt)
Date: 17 June 250 CE
Language: Greek
Collection: Papyrus Collection, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (P.Mich. inv. 262)
Designation: P.Mich. III 157 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Clifford Ando, Imperial Rome, A.D. 193 to 284 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp. 134–141; Régis Burnet, L’Égypte ancienne à travers les papyrus. Vie quotidienne (Paris: Flammarion, 2003), #28; A. Doug Lee, Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity: A Sourcebook (London: Taylor and Francis, 2001), pp. 50-51

Technical Details (Text 2)
Provenance: Oxyrhynchus (Egypt)
Date: 14 June 250 CE
Language: Greek
Collection: Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven (P.CtYBR 65)
Designation: P.Oxy. IV 658 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Clifford Ando, Imperial Rome, A.D. 193 to 284 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp. 134–141; Lincoln H. Blumell & Thomas A. Wayment (eds.), Christian Oxyrhynchus: Texts, Documents, and Sources (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2015), pp. 380–384 [#106]; John R. Knipfing, “Libelli of the Decian Persecution,” The Harvard Theological Review 16 (1923), pp. 365­–366; J. B. Rives, “The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire,” The Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999), pp. 148–149

Further bibliography:
Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century AD to the Conversion of Constantine(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986)
Paul Keresztes, “The Decian libelli and contemporary literature”, Latomus 34 (1975), pp. 761–781
John R. Knipfing, “Libelli of the Decian persecution”, Harvard Theological Review 16 (1923), pp. 363–390
James B. Rives, “The Decree of Decius and the Religion of Empire,” The Journal of Roman Studies 89 (1999), pp. 135–154

List of Decian Libelli
The following table provides a list of all published certificates. It has been compiled from the Trismegistos archive database (Decian libelli from Theadelphia) and a search of the papyrological website




SB I 4439Theadelphia26 May – 24 June 250
P.Wisc. II 87Narmouthis4 June 250
Tyche 30 (2015), 13–18Theadelphia4 June–14 July 250
SB I 4435Theadelphia12 June 250
P.Hamb. I 61aTheadelphia13 June 250
SB I 4436Theadelphia14 June 250
SB I 4437Theadelphia14 June 250
P.Oxy. IV 658Oxyrhynchus14 June 250
P.Ryl. I 12Theadelphia (written in Crocodilopolis)14 June 250
PSI V 453Theadelphia14–23 June 250
SB I 4438Theadelphia15 June 250
SB I 4440Theadelphia16 June 250
SB I 5943Theadelphia16 June 250
P.Lips. II 152Theadelphia (written in Euhemeria)16 June 250
P.Mich. III 157Theadelphia17 June 250
SB I 4441Theadelphia17 June 250
SB VI 9084Theadelphia17 June 250
SB I 4442Theadelphia19 June 250
SB I 4443Theadelphia19 June 250
P.Ryl. II 112aTheadelphia20 June 250
P.Mich. III 158Theadelphia21 June 250
P.Hamb. I 61bTheadelphia21 June 250
SB III 6827Theadelphia21 June 250
SB I 4444Theadelphia21 June 250
SB I 4445Theadelphia22 June 250
P.Ryl. II 112cTheadelphia22 June 250
SB I 4446Theadelphia23 June 250
SB I 4447Theadelphia23 June 250
SB I 4448Theadelphia23 June 250
SB I 4449Theadelphia23 June 250
BGU I 287Theadelphia (written in Alexandrou Nesos)26 June 250
PSI VII 778Fayum(?)26 June 250
P.Meyer 15Theadelphia27 June 250
P.Oxy. XII 1464Oxyrhynchus27 June 250
SB I 4450Theadelphia14 July 250
P.Meyer 16Theadelphia250
P.Meyer 17Theadelphia250
SB III 6828Theadelphia250
P.Ryl. II 112bTheadelphia250
SB I 4451Theadelphia250
SB I 4452Theadelphia250
SB I 4453Theadelphia250
SB I 4454Theadelphia250
Chr.Wilck. 125Ptolemais Euergetis (written in Crocodilopolis)250
P.Oxy. XLI 2990Oxyrhynchus