Camel, O Camel: On Camels in Ancient Egypt

Jennifer Cromwell

Playmobil boxed and unboxed: My new desk companion!

I recently bought my first ever Playmobil set: Egyptian Warrior with Camel. It’s only taken me thirty odd years. But I can’t resist a camel. And this kit evokes one of the key images that comes to mind when we think of ancient Egypt: the quintessential image of camels in front of the pyramids. Camels, however, were not common in the pharaonic period – they are not indigenous to Egypt. It’s possible that they were transported to Africa via the narrowest part of the Red Sea, between the Arabian Peninsula and modern Eritrea / Djibouti in ancient times, and so the odd one may have been seen by the ancient Egyptians. If anybody did see one, though, it’s really unusual that camels are never depicted in tomb scenes, which show a whole variety of exotic animals.

Early 20th century archaeologists, including Frederick Green and James Quibell at Heirakonpolis and Flinders Petrie at Abydos, seemingly identified terracotta camel heads on site. However, model camel heads and sheep heads are almost indistinguishable – without the long legs and neck of the camel, when is a camel not a sheep? Possibly the earliest secure pharaonic attestation of a camel is a dish from Qantir in the Delta dating to the late 18th or 19th dynasty, ca. 1,300–1,100 BCE (published in Pusch 1996). The Assyrian occupation may have brought more camels into Egypt, but it is probably not until the reign of Ptolemy II (285–246 BCE) that the dromedary, the single-humped camel, was introduced in large numbers.

camels 2
Left: From Midant-Reynes and Braunstein-Silvestre (1977). Right: from Adams (2007) Both now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In the grand scale of Egyptian history, camels are a relatively new thing. And that postcard of camels in front of the pyramids, never actually happened. And, contrary to Playmobil’s sets, no Egyptian ‘warrior’ would have saddled one up and charged into battle.

After its introduction to Egypt, however, the camel became one of the most important long-distance beasts of burden, perfectly equipped as it is for travel across the desert. Any discussion of transportation in Roman Egypt, especially the Eastern Desert, has a wealth of material to draw upon to discuss the use of camels. But what of smaller scale use closer to the Nile Valley itself? What role did camels play in the daily lives of people in late antiquity? Coptic documents from several sites give us an idea.

Wadi Sarga
The monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga, located in a desert valley a couple of kilometres from the cultivation’s edge, provides great opportunities to study its daily and economic life in the 7th and 8th centuries CE (for which, the project page at the British Museum is a great place to start). Excavation of the site in 1913/14 resulted in the discovery of a large body of documents, mainly in Coptic. Among this corpus are letters written to the monastery that ask for loans of camels for different reasons. In one letter, the senders – the names of whom are unfortunately lost – ask:

… send [us] eight [camels], so we can load them with wheat … And provide three camels for wine … Whenever the camels are coming up(?) loaded with fodder, tell us, so we can load [them], to come down(?)

O.Sarga 93

In another letter, really much more of a brief note asking for a favour, monks from another monastery write to the superior of the monastery at Wadi Sarga for an unspecified number of camels for a different reason:

Give it to the Father, Apa Justus, from the brethren of Pohe. Please send us all the camels, so that they can clear out these palm-branches. For we will come up/down on the night of the feast.

O.Sarga 94

(As a sidenote for both texts, in Sahidic Coptic the same word is used for ‘up’ and ‘down’, so we don’t actually know what directions are intended.) In addition to these letters, receipts of wine show that large quantities were delivered to Wadi Sarga by camels, on a daily basis for a month after the grape harvest. Whether the monastery owned all these camels is difficult to determine, but the letters at least confirm that the monastery did own some of its own and they were used for a range of activities, from transport to cleaning up before a festival.

camels 3
O.Sarga 94 (left) and 93 (right). Photographs by J. Cromwell, (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Western Thebes
Moving south to western Thebes, a number of legal contracts were drawn upon between individuals and camel herders to work and tend the animals for them. These contracts all differ in their details, based on the needs and expectations of the parties involved. In one ostracon, a man Sacou is hired to look after two camels together with all the equipment belonging to them. In turn, he will be paid in a mix of wheat, wine, and other commodities. One really important incidental detail is that Sacou’s payment will vary depending on whether the inundation is high or low, that is, whether the resulting harvest will be a good or a bad one:

I, Isaac, hired Sacou for the camels, to tend the two camels, their equipment, and their accessories. If I find any negligence on his part, he will swear an oath to me about my cattle and the work [for] the monastery. I, myself, am ready to pay him twenty artabai of wheat in the high-yield year, plus twenty-five jugs of wine, an artaba of dates, and two lakane of oil. In the low-yield year, sixteen artabai of wheat, plus twenty jugs [of wine], and two lakane of oil.

O.Lips.Copt. 28

In a second example, Joseph son of Paul is hired by Apa Victor on behalf of the monastery of Apa Phoibammon (built upon the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri) to look after a camel and its calf, from the first day of the festival of Apa Papnoute on Mechir 15 (9th February or the 10th if a leap year) for one year. Unlike the previous contract, no wages are actually recorded here, but the document specifies the individual pieces of equipment belonging to the camel, including a couple of collars and baskets.

I, Joseph the son of Paul, write to the priest Apa Victor. You hired me to tend your camel. Now, I am ready to devote myself to it, with all my power, and to tend the calf until the time that I will leave your camel. I will tend it from the first day of Apa Papnoute1to the first day of Apa Papnoute of another year. Moreover, I will look after your [equipment] and return it to you when I leave you, namely: a working(?)-collar, a chain(?)-collar, a rope basket, and a […] basket. Moreover, you shall not find me in contempt over anything.

O.Crum 221

But what did the camels do? A short letter found at the monastery of Epiphanius (built in and around Theban Tomb 103) records how two camels were used to transport a loom (P.Mon.Epiph. 352). A contract, from the church of St Mark on Gurnet Mourrai, records that the herder’s terms of employment include drawing water one day a week (SB Kopt. IV 1803).

From short to long distance travel, drawing water from wells, and sweeping up debris, camels became an essential part of everyday life in Egypt. Albeit not until the Ptolemaic period, and not in the way that Playmobil thinks.

Technical Details (Text 1):
Provenance: Monastery of Apa Thomas, Wadi Sarga, Egypt
Date: 7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: British Museum (EA 55736)
Designation: O.Sarga 93 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

Technical Details (Text 2):
Provenance: Monastery of Apa Thomas, Wadi Sarga, Egypt
Date: 7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: British Museum (EA 55752)
Designation: O.Sarga 94 (according to the Checklist of Editions)

Technical Details (Text 3):
Provenance: Western Thebes; Egypt
Date: 7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: Ägyptisches Museum, University of Leipzig, Leipzig (inv. 1611)
Designation: O.Lips.Copt. 28; SB Kopt. IV 1802 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Tonio Sebastian Richater (1998) “Zwei Komposita jüngerer Bildungsweise im koptischen Ostrakon Ägyptisches Museum der Universität Leipzig Inv.-Nr. 1611,” Zeitschrif für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 125, pp. 56-62

Technical Details (Text 4):
Provenance: Monastery of Apa Phoibammon (Deir el-Bahri), western Thebes, Egypt
Date: Early 7th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: British Museum (EA 33062)
Designation: O.Crum 221 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Walter C. Till (1956), “Die koptischen Arbeitsverträge,” Eos48.1, pp. 272—329 (#28); Walter C. Till (1964), Die koptischen Rechtsurkunden aus Theben (Vienna), p. 58.

Other bibliography on camels:
Adams, Colin (2007), Land Transport in Roman Egypt. A Study of Economics and Administration in a Roman Province (Oxford: OUP)
Agut-Labordère, Damien, and Bérangère Redon, eds. (2020) Les Vaisseaux du désert et des steppes: Les camélidés dans l’Antiquité (Camels dromedarius et Camels bactrianus) (Lyon: MOM Editions); available online here.
Midant-Reynes, Béatrix and Florence Braunstein-Silvestre (1977), “Le chameau en Égypte,”Orientalia, NOVA SERIES 46/3, pp. 337–362
Pusch, Edgar B. (1996), “Ein Dromedar aus der Ramses-Stadt,” Ägypten und Levante6, pp. 107–118
Ripinsky, Michael (1985), “The Camel in Dynastic Egypt,”The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 71, pp. 134–141 (note: this article repeats early archaeologists’ presumed discovery of ceramic camel heads)

camels 4
Left: camel terracotta (UC48026), Right: camel mould (UC33303). Both in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. See online publication here.

An Egyptian Christmas Carol

Ágnes Mihálykó

What did late antique Egyptians sing about at Christmas? Angels, shepherds, and the Virgin Mary, of course.
Angels have the main role in what appears to be the earliest manuscript of a Christmas carol, preserved in Greek on a papyrus from the city of Hermopolis (modern el-Ashmunein) in Middle Egypt, Berlin P. 11842. The somewhat effaced hymn is written on the back of a tax receipt from the mid-fifth century, thus it probably hails from the same period. It is a single text that was scribbled on any available scrap papyrus, and all the empty spaces were used to write lists; perhaps someone took a note of a hymn he heard in church. The text evokes the light that appeared to the shepherds and cites the song of the angels. Here is my rough translation:

“Light shone from above… to us the word of faith, and he heralded us the song of the angels, Glory to God in the highest, to God our Saviour, hallelujah.”

Berlin P. 11842 vo 1 (C) Berlin Papyrussammlung

But why do we have to wait until the fifth century to get the first Christmas carol on papyrus? After all, Christian hymns were recorded in Egypt already in the third century. One reason is that the earliest hymns do not make reference to the liturgical year. They are usually general praises of Jesus Christ and elaborate on salvation and baptism. Even more importantly, Christians in Egypt did not celebrate Christmas until the end of the fourth century. They had only Epiphany (that little noticed festival on 6 January about the Magi and the baptism of Jesus), and they accepted Christmas as a separate feast day of Jesus’ birth only at some point in the 5th century.

Once introduced, however, Christmas became a favourite topic of hymn writers, just like in the West. Berlin P. 11842 is the first in a long series of Christmas carols preserved on papyrus. Many of them paraphrase the Nativity narrative of the Gospel of Luke and elaborate on shepherds and angels. A few turn to the Gospel of Matthew and cite the star and the Magi. The Virgin Mary takes the centre stage in many hymns. Her miraculous virgin birth and her being the Mother of God was a matter of theological importance, and liturgy in Egypt was eager to reaffirm it. There is, however, much less focus on baby Jesus. His birth is of course the central question, but it is only on a few occasions that his person enters the spotlight and he is described as an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, especially to emphasize the contrast between his divine glory and his self-humiliation as a human child in a manger. But altogether the late antique Christians in Egypt were little interested in images of a cute little baby Jesus. Their focus was on the theological complexities and the salvific value of the mystery of incarnation.

Coptic mural from the Monastery of Appolo at Bawit with the Virgin Mary and Jesus

Technical Details
Provenance: Egypt, Hermopolis
Date: ca. 450 CE
Language: Greek
Collection: Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin (P. 11842 verso)
Designation: Berlin P. 11842 vo 1 ( TM 64971 / LDAD 6212)
Edition: Kurt Treu (1971), “Neue Berliner Liturgische Papyri,” Archiv für Papyrusfroschung 21, 66.

How to be Successful in Life (Fourth-Century Style)

Ágnes Mihálykó

What did a young man in the fourth century CE wish from life? Not much different from what young men today might desire: professional success, favour with others, and, of course, women.
His means of attaining his goals were, however, not that familiar to the modern reader. He resorted to a long roll filled with Greek magical charms, a papyrus now kept in the Oslo University Library, which promised him immediate success with all these things. Or as the title of the second spell suggests: “Charm to restrain anger, to secure favour and an excellent charm for gaining victory in the courts. It works even against kings, no charm is greater.” Who would not want that? And it was easy to perform. All our ambitious young man needed to do was to write with a bronze pen on a silver foil (lamella) the figures and signs below, and wear the result under his garment.

P.Oslo I 1
P.Oslo I 1 col. ii © The Oslo University Library Papyrus Collection

Our young man was perhaps a lawyer or was involved in local politics, as many ambitious young men in the period were, hence his interest in winning court cases, reflected in another charm for “gaining the favour of people in your presence and of crowds.” Victory could be achieved by restraining the tongue of the advocate of the adversary as well, as the first charm of the roll promises. A prudent man moreover counts on the other party using a similar charm against him, and learns “a charm to break all spells,” which included drawing this cute figure on a lead foil:

P.Oslo I 1 col. vii © The Oslo University Library Papyrus Collection

Gaining favour and restraining the evil intentions and gossip of adversaries is a general desire, and it is all the better if you can achieve it by simply holding your thumbs and saying a short prayer seven times: “Ermalloth archimalloth, stop the mouths that speak against me, because I glorify your sacred and honoured names which are in heaven.” (If it does not work, you might be holding your thumbs in the wrong way. You can also try saying a much longer prayer to Helios, the Sun-god, provided a few columns below.)

P.Oslo I 1 col. vi © The Oslo University Library Papyrus Collection

However, the main concern of our fourth-century young man, as of young men in all ages, was getting women. For attaining his goal he collected seven “irresistible love spells of attraction,” the most efficient dating tricks available, since they also worked against the will of the woman. The user of these charms never needed to take no for no again if he could also command a cock-headed demon to set the soul of the desired woman on fire until she rushes out of her home and, as the spell says, “glues her female pudenda to my male one” (just to make sure the demon does not misunderstand his job).

P.Oslo I 1 col. iii © The Oslo University Library Papyrus Collection

Once our young man attained the woman he wanted, he could resort to another charm to ensure her faithfulness, the “pudenda key spell,” to be recited over a balm which is then applied to the penis before lovemaking. As a result, “she will love you alone and by no one else will she be laid,” ensures the spell. And another useful thing for ambitious young men, a contraceptive charm, “the only one in the world.”

In short, this impressive roll of over two meters contained a lot of things that a young man in the fourth century (or indeed in any time) would need for professional and personal success. If the charms worked we do not know, but many needed desperate users, since they involved blood from a bat, gall of a river electric eel, the umbilical cord of a firstborn ram, and manipulating dangerous demons. Try only at own risk!

Technical Details
Provenance: Egypt, Fayum
Date: ca. 350 CE
Language: Greek
Collection: University Library, Oslo
Designation: P.Oslo I 1 = Pap.Graec.Mag. XXXVI (following the Checklist of Editions)
Translation: Hans Dietrich Betz (ed.), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Bibliography: William M. Brashear, “The Greek Magical Papyri: An Introduction and Survey; Annotated Bibliography (1928–1994)”, in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen WeltII. 18.5. Berlin, 1995, 3552–3553; Todd Hickey, Anastasia Maravela, Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, “Historical and Textual Notes on Magical Texts in the Papyrus Collection of the University of Oslo Library”, Symbolae Osloenses: Norwegian Journal of Greek and Latin Studies 89 (2015), 156–185.

“I am dying of a broken heart”

Moudhy Al-Rashid

The Neo-Assyrian physician Nabû-tabni-uṣurseems once upon a time for reasons we may never know to have fallen out of favour with the court. Unlike his colleagues, he no longer received compensation for his work. Payments promised by the court never materialised. Concern for his financial well-being and his position in the court snowballed into fear. Gripped by anxiety, he penned – or, rather, impressed – this letter to the king.

“To the king, my lord, your servant Nabû-tabni-uṣur. Good health to the king, my lord!

If the king, my lord, knows a fault made by me, let the king not keep my alive!

All my associates are happy, (and) I am dying of a broken heart. I have been treated as if I did not keep the watch of the king, my lord; my heart has become exceedingly troubled, heartbreak has seized me, I have become exceedingly afraid: may the king revive my heart before my colleagues!” (ABL 525)

Found at Nineveh in the royal library and now housed in the British Museum (K. 590), the cuneiform tablet that carries these words provides a window onto a language for anxiety that overlaps with modern ways of framing worry, fear, and sorrow, a language that centres the heart, or Akkadian libbu,as an organ of thought and emotion. More specifically, a broken heart.

ABL 525: Letter from Nabû-tabni-uṣur © Trustees of the British Museum (K.590)

Our physician’s description organises his experience of heartbreak along the same lines as those found in contemporary therapeutic medical texts, a rich corpus of texts that describe illnesses and prescribe treatments, like this one from nearby Aššur:

“[If] he continually has heartbreak… in his bed he is continually afraid, he suffers paralysis up his form; toward god and king, his heart is filled (with anger), his limbs are poured out repeatedly, on repeated occasions he is afraid; day and night he does not sleep, he continually sees frightening dreams, he continually suffers paralysis; he has no desire for bread or beer; he forgets the words that he speaks.” (BAM 234)

Fear, paralysis, nightmares, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and forgetfulness are recorded as presenting with the condition labelled as heartbreak.

For anyone who has experienced anxiety, some of these symptoms might sound familiar. In modern biomedical models, anxiety is also described both in mental and physical terms. Adjectives that describe emotional states, like worried, afraid, and nervous, appear alongside descriptions like physical weakness, gastrointestinal problems, and a pounding heart to describe experiences associated with anxiety.

Symptoms of any illness are labelled according to socially available categories, and it seems that for a Neo-Assyrian physician, the vocabulary for this particular experience of mental distress has echoes in today’s world. And it seems that in the first millennium BCE, it was acceptable to admit, even to a king, that one was suffering emotional anguish.

Some of the earliest known expressions of mental distress come from ancient Mesopotamia, where ancient scribes impressed into clay words that capture individual, collective, and historical experiences not just of anxiety, but of a whole spectrum of mental health issues, from depressed states to disorganised thoughts.

So, if you ever you find yourself feeling anxious, remember Nabû-tabni-uṣur and his letter to a Neo-Assyrian king, and remember that you are not alone. These are ancient and human problems. They connect us to the past, and they connect us to each other.

Technical Details: ABL 525
Provenance: Nineveh (near modern Mosul, northern Iraq)
Date: Neo-Assyrian (911–612 BCE)
Language: Akkadian
Collection: British Museum, London (K.590)
Designation: ABL 525; Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative P.334358
Bibliography: Simo Parpola (1993)Letters from Assyrian and Babylonian Scholars. State Archives of Assyria 10 (Helsinki: Helsinki University Press): Text 334

Technical Details: BAM 234
Provenance: Aššur (modern Iraq)
Date: Middle-Assyrian (ca. 1400–1000 BCE)
Language: Akkadian
Collection: Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin
Designation: BAM 234; Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative P.285320
Bibliography: Franz Köcher (1963) Die babylonisch-assyrische Medizin in Texten und Untersuchungen. Volume 3 (Berlin: De Gruyter): Text 234

Kouyunjik Mound near the ancient city of Nineveh (Photo by Stephen Lumsden, May 1990)

Student Life in the 2nd Century CE

Some time around the turn of the 2nd century CE, a student – probably in Alexandria – wrote back to his father Theon to complain about various parts of student life. Unfortunately, the name of the student isn’t mentioned, so he remains anonymous. But his litany of complaints nevertheless will almost certainly strike a chord with many students today:

  • Bad, or at least uninspiring, teachers: the ones the writer had hoped to study with are no longer in the city, only “junk” is left behind.
  • Too many fees! Despite paying more and more fees, he has had to resort to self-study and learning by attending public declamations.
  • Neglect of personal appearance: “it is my despondency about those things that forces me to disregard my physical appearance, as it is not necessary for those who are not engaged in work to care about these things”.
  • Living in cramped quarters. The writer is currently living with another boy, Didymus (probably his brother), and is awaiting the arrival of another boy (probably their youngest brother), but is looking for a new, bigger place to live.
  • Food parcels from home – the letter ends with the writer acknowledging receipt of various goods, including lentils, vinegar, and meat.

Student life doesn’t seem to have changed that much over the past two millennia! One point is notably different, though. Despite all his problems and moaning, the writer is from a wealthy family who can afford to send a slave with him to the city: Heracles. Heracles had been sent to do unskilled labour to provide extra funds for our unhappy student, but is presented as a miscreant who has escaped and run back to tell-tales to Theon. One can’t help but wonder if this letter is a pre-emptive strike, to protect the student from his slaves’ tales of abuse at his hand.

While the student only mentions individual teachers and public declamations, it is possible that he studied at the site in Alexandria known today as Kom el-Dikka, which could be described as an ancient university complex, with auditoria and the only  Roman theatre to survive from Egypt, surrounded by domestic quarters and imperial baths.

The theatre at Kom el-Dikka (Alexandria) (c) Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Warsaw

The full text of the letter is provided here, with the translation taken from Parkin and Pomeroy (2007):

“To Theon, my lord and father, greetings. You have rescued us from the greatest despondency … I hoped by hurrying in sailing down that I would find fine opportunities – but what have I achieved for my enthusiasm? Even now, I am looking for a teacher and I have discovered that Chairon the teacher and Didymus son of Aristocles, with whom I have hoped that I might make progress, are no longer in the city, but only junk through whom most have taken the direct road to ruin. Previously, I wrote to you, just as I wrote to Philoxenus and company, to deal with the matter, and I was introduced by them to someone who looked suitable. But you immediately rejected him, although he had begged for Theon’s pardon, on the ground that you know him personally and he is totally lacking in ability. When I passed on your judgement to Philoxenus, he thought the same, saying that he pitied the city only for this lack of rhetors, but Didymus had sailed down [to Alexandria], apparently a friend of his who ran a school and would look after the others – and in particular he persuaded the pupils of Apollonius son of Herodas to transfer to him. They have up to now been seeking such a teacher of a higher education after the teacher they had enrolled with had died. But I, having prayed not to even look at Didymus from a distance if I found teachers worth mentioning, am depressed by this very fact: that he who used to teach in the country is settling himself up in competition with the others here.

So, knowing this – that, apart from paying more fees in vain, I have gained nothing from my teacher but have achieved something by myself – please write back as soon as possible saying what you think. I have Didymus, as Philoxenos will also say, always available to me and offering whatever help he can. Furthermore, by auditing the public performances, including those of Poseidonius, if the gods are willing I will quickly make good progress.

But it is my despondency about those things that forces me to disregard my physical appearance, as it is not necessary for those who are not engaged in work to care about these things, especially when they don’t have anyone to bring in some money. For once upon a time after a few days the helpful Heracles – woe of woes – would bring in some obols, but now along with his being put into restraints by Isidorus, he has run away and gone off, so it appears, to you. Be well aware that he isn’t averse to plotting against you if he has the opportunity. For he is not ashamed, especially to spread tales of events in the theatre and the city with alacrity and to babble out lies that no prosecutor would declare – and he has done this although he hasn’t suffered anything such as he deserved, but had been let roam and was acting like a free person in all matters.

But, all the same, you can hire him out to a builder if you don’t send him back, as I hear that a young man can make 2 drachmas a day. Or assign him some other task, where he can earn more money, so that the wages collected by him can be sent to us from time to time. For you know that Diogas is studying literature as well. In the time it takes you to send the young fellow, we will look for a bigger place in a private house: in order to be Dionysius’ neighbours, we have been living in a very small place.

We received the basket that had all that you wrote about safe in it: all the jars with the half-cadus, in which we found not 18, but 22 choes. And I sent a half cadus with a letter to all you wrote about. I got the six measures of whole lentils and a Coan jar full of vinegar, and 126 pieces of salted meat, plus those in the jar, and 30 pieces of cooked meat.


P.Oxy. XVIII 2190, online here (c) Egypt Exploration Society


Technical Details

Provenance: Egypt, Oxyrhynchus

Date: ca. 100 CE

Language: Greek

Collection: Sackler Library, Oxford (which houses the Oxyrhynhus papyri for the Egypt Exploration Society)

Designation: P.Oxy. XVIII 2190 = SB XXII 15708 (following the Checklist of Editions)

Bibliography: John Rea (1993) “A Student’s Letter to His Father: P. Oxy. XVIII 2190 Revised” in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 99, pp. 75–88; Tim G. Parkin and Arthur J. Pomeroy (2007), Roman Social History: A Sourcebook (London: Routledge), pp. 140–142


For Kom el-Dikka, see also:

Tomasz Derda, Tomasz Markiewicz, and Ewa Wipszycka (eds.), Alexandria: Auditoria of Kom el-Dikka and Late Antique Education. Journal of Juristic Papyrology Supplement 8 (Warsaw: Foundation Raphael Taubenschlag, 2007)

Jealousy, Bullying, and Broken Thumbs

Jennifer Cromwell

While texts from day-to-day life provide immediate insights into the very personal concerns of individuals living in the ancient world, literary works also give glimpses into different aspects of daily life, even if their accounts may be embellished. In the Life and Martyrdom of two saints, Panine and Panew, the story begins with the boyhood friendship of the two, who would later go on to become monks and then martyrs. One episode in the life of Panine sends us back to his classroom, and what follows focuses on the window into the world of education in late antique Egypt that it contains.

Panine and Paneu - Vienna page (r)
Page from the Vienna Manuscript: P.Vindob K 9615 (recto) (c) Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

The story is preserved in two different manuscripts, which today are in the collections of the Austrian National Library in Vienna and the National Library in Naples, but neither are complete. The manuscripts derive from the library of the White Monastery in Sohag and date to the 9th-11th centuries, although the story was originally composed around the 6th/7th centuries. The first surviving fragments start when Panine’s mother journeys to Antinoopolis to visit her parents. At this point, Panine is still known by his birth name, Symphronios. Whatever reason led his mother, Jonia, to bring him to the city is lost, but her parents rejoiced and immediately entered him into the classroom of a local notarial scribe called Silvanos. And Symphronios quickly excelled at his studies.

“The young boy Symphronios progressed daily through the teaching and the fear of the Lord. The eyes of his mind were enlightened and he quickly learned the art of writing. He began to surpass the older students, who had already received tuition in reading, accounting, and mathematics, and they became jealous of Symphronios, because they saw that he was cleverer than them and had surpassed them in the (study of the) Old Testament. The young boy Symphronios learned day-to-day writing (lit: ‘small hand’) in six months, and then book hand (lit: ‘big hand’) was written out for him.”

The curriculum that the boys followed in this metropolitan setting is here laid out, in terms of literacy and numeracy, as well as the different kind of scripts that they learned. First, they learned to write a common hand, which they would use in their daily writings. Once they had mastered this, they were able to move on to book hand – the type of hand that was used for producing literary works. Symphronios is able to move on to this more advanced writing skill after only six-months; how long the older boys had been learning is not stated, but clearly six-months was extraordinarily fast and earned him the even greater ire of his classmates.

“When the first letter was written for him, the older students on the same day became even more jealous of him. One of them, called Alexandros, who was related to the hegemon Arianos, said to his teacher ‘[…] Symphronios from Terôt-Shmoun, I can teach him and show him the principals of the letters.’ But the schoolteacher Silvanos said to him, ‘He doesn’t need any one of you to help him, because that young boy is clever than you.’”

Not the most subtle of responses from the schoolteacher …

“When Alexandros and the other older students realised that their teacher had made them look like idiots before Symphronios and […] Symphronios. And when their teacher wrote for all of them, he also wrote the second letter for Symphronios. He then left while they were sitting in the school’s courtyard and the teacher went home to eat bread.”

With the teacher, Silvanos, out of the way, the students – led by Alexandros – now take matters into their own hands.

“Alexandros and the older students said to the small young boy, the holy Symphronios, ‘Quickly, show us your writing-board, so that our teacher will not […] us for your aptitude.’ Immediately, the young boy Symphronios got up and showed the letters with great cleverness, like someone who had spent a long time in the classroom. The student Alexandros – the Devil filled all his body – jumped upon the young boy Symphronios. He grabbed his two thumbs, on his left hand and on his right hand, and bent and pulled them until their bones dislocated from their joints. Then he said to him, ‘Try to hold the pen now, peasant!’”

With his mutilated hands, Symphronios remained silent, leaving the matter to the Lord. During this time, Symphronios was friends with another boy, Panew, in whose company he sought solace. Panew informed the teacher that it was Alexandros who had committed the act, but when it was time to fetch him for punishment, Alexandros was nowhere to be found. Symphronios returned to his mother’s house for three nights. On the fourth day, he returned to Panew to go to school, for the Lord had miraculously healed his hands during the night.

The manuscripts break off after this point. But, from this episode Symphronios earned his new name: Panine, ‘he of the thumbs’.

The schoolroom setting allows the God-given cleverness of Symphronios/Panine to be displayed – and sets the scene for the miraculous healing that he received following the assault by Alexandros – but in doing so it provides glimpses into the atmosphere inside a late antique classroom in the city. Here, the young smart kid received the brunt of the jealous anger of the older students. Bullying is certainly nothing new.

Technical Details
Provenance: White Monastery, Sohag, Egypt
Date: 9th-11th century CE (date of manuscripts; composition date 6th/7th century CE)
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: Vienna, Austrian National Library (P.Vindob. K 9613, 9614, 9615); Naples, National Library (1B9)
Designation: Life and Martyrdom of Panine and Panew
Bibliography: Walter C. Till (1935) Koptische Heiligen- und Märtyrerlegenden (Rome), pp. 55–71; Tito Orlandi (1978) Il dossier copto del martire Psote, Milan), pp. 93–115; Theofried Baumeister (1991) “Panine and Paneu”, in The Coptic Encyclopedia, ed. Aziz S. Atiya (New York), vol. 6, pp. 1880b–1881a.

See also: Cult of Saints Database entry, ID E03514

Select literature on ancient education:
Scott Bucking (2011) Practice Makes Perfect. P.Cotsen 1 and the Training of Scribes in Byzantine Egypt. Los Angeles.
Raffaella Cribiore (1996) Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt. Atlanta.
Raffaella Cribiore (2001) Gymnastics of the Mind. Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Princeton—Oxford.
William H. Harris (1989) Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, MA.
Mark Joyal, Iain McDougall, John Yardley (2009) Greek and Roman Education: A Sourcebook. London.

Panine and Paneu - Vienna page (v)

Page from the Vienna Manuscript: P.Vindob K. 9615 (verso) © Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Renting, Tenants, and Landlords in Egypt

Jennifer Cromwell

There are several constants in life. Taxes, prostitution, death, and renting. Whether moving to a new city or new country, you need a place to live and for many this means navigating the vagaries of letting agents, landlords, and contracts. Having just moved to a new city – in my third country in seven years – the problems of finding a place to live quickly and going through the process is fresh in my mind. But this is by no means a modern problem.

On 14the June (Paone 20) of a fourteenth indiction year* in the eighth century, the master builder Zacharias signed a contract to rent several rooms in the house of Phoibammon in Hermopolis (Coptic Shmoun, modern el-Ashmunein). The contract survives in two main fragments, one in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the other in the British Library in London, although it is not complete and holes in the two pieces have caused some loss of information (including the total duration of the rental agreement). However, the key details are remain.

Zacharias rents three rooms and has access to common areas, including the entrance room and the stairs. These rooms include a veranda – a room that would have been open or columned on one side – on the second storey and a bedroom on the third storey of the building. His annual rent, paid in one lump sum at the end of the rental year, is one gold tremis, which equates to one-third of the principal gold coin of the time (Greek nomisma, Coptic holokottinos, often referred to by the Latin term solidus).

“[…] your share of the house in the street [of the Archangel …] i.e., one veranda on the second storey; [… and the] roof over it; the bedroom on the third [storey …]; the share in the entrance room and the hut [… the entrance and exit]; the ascent and descent, [in general] every legality belonging to this share in the houses in this city Shmoun. I will live [with you and pay] you its rent: one gold tremis, being seven carats and a quarter, [i.e.,] 71/4 gold carats. This rent, then, I will pay you at the end of my year, annually.”

The contract also includes a clause making provisions for what should happen should either party terminate the contract early. If the tenant, Zacharias, vacates the property before the end of the year, he will pay the entire annual rent. However, if the landlord, Phoibammon, evicts him before this time, Zacharias only has to pay the rent up to that time.

“[If, then,] at the end of my year, you want me to vacate my share of the house, then I will release it to you, [completely, with] its door with the iron keyhole to the veranda’s door, just as I received it. If I vacate, before the end of my year, I will pay the complete rent. If you evict me from [this share of the house] before its end, then I shall pay the rent for what I have used.”

The contract ends with the signatures of Zacharias and two witnesses, a priest Collouthos son of Theodorake and Hllo son of Apa Theodorake (perhaps brothers), and the scribal statement of the notary Mone.

From the Roman period, houses in Egypt were typically built on a small plot and had several storeys (often three or more). How impressive or standard Phoibammon’s townhouse was is impossible to determine based on this contract. Furthermore, little survives of the city in the archaeological record – as a result of the long and continuous occupation history at the site – and it is difficult to reconstruct the domestic spaces of Hermopolis. The remains of houses in other, smaller towns and villages, give an idea of what the house may have looked like, for example the houses excavated at Karanis in the Fayum or Djeme in western Thebes (parts of the latter can still be seen today on top of the mudbrick enclosure wall of Medinet Habu). Terracotta models from Roman Egypt also provide a glimpse of these tall, thin Roman house-types that Zacharias would have lived in.

Left: Two model houses in the collection of the Petrie Museum, London (UC33427 and UC50615); Top right: excavations at Karanis (image from Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan); Bottom right: remains of late houses at Medinet Habu (photo my own, taken March 2010)

*Indiction years refer to a fifteen-year tax cycle, introduced during the reign of the emperor Diocletian. Without any further information (or a fixed reference point), it is not possible to ascribe an absolute date to an indiction year.

Technical Details
Provenance: Hermopolis (al-Ashmunein), Egypt
Date: 8th century CE
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (no inventory number) and British Library (Or. 5993)
Designation: P.Hermitage Copt. 1 + P.Lond.Copt. I 1017 = SB Kopt. III 1401 (for papyrological sigla, see the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: T. Sebastian Richter (2002) “Koptische Mietverträge über Gebäude und Teile von Gebäuden,” Journal of Juristic Papyrology 32: 113–168 (pp. 127–130).

Further reading on houses in Roman and late antique Egypt:
Richard Alston (2001) The City in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. London.
Anna Boozer (2015) “Inside and Out: Romano-Egyptian Housing from the Fayyam and Dakhleh,” in Housing and Habitat in the Ancient Mediterranean: Cultural and Environmental Responses, edited by Bruce E. Parr, Angelo A. Di Castro, and Colin A. Hope. Leuven.
Geneviève Husson (1983) Oikia. Le vocabulaire de la maison privée en Egypte d’après les papyrus grecs. Paris.

Baby Exposed, Baby Snatched, Roman Egypt-Style

Katherine Blouin

Babies being abandoned by or snatched from their family is, sadly, not a recent phenomenon. One papyrus from 1st-century CE Oxyrhynchus offers a glimpse into how these scenarios were legally dealt with when Egypt was ruled by the Romans.

Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt at Oxyrhynchus (c) Egypt Exploration Society

The document contains extracts from the court proceedings of Tiberius Claudius Pasion, who was the strategos (top official) of the Oxyrhynchite Nome or district. It is the earliest such legal document from Roman Egypt to have come to us. It was, however, not found in an administrative building, but rather in a pile of rubble, together with other documents that were once the personal archive of a man named Trypon. In total, the archive currently includes 44 documents, whose dating ranges from c.15–16 to 83 CE. Thanks to these, we know, among many other things, that Tryphon was a resident of Oxyrhynchus, that he was weaver by trade, and that he got married twice. His second wife, named Saraeus, is one of the main actors here.

On 3 January 46 CE, Saraeus gave birth to a baby boy named Apion (his birthdate can be deduced thanks to his horoscope, which was also found; P.Oxy. II 307). Having breastfed then weaned Apion, she undertook a wet-nursing contract for a man named Pesouris (the document was actually signed by Pesouris’ son Theon). Pesouris had rescued the “male slave” in the rubbish heap – that is at the outskirt – of Oxyrhynchus. In other words, the baby had been abandoned there by his birth family. Since the contract was drawn on year 7 of the emperor Claudius (46–47 CE), we can deduce that little Apion was between 8 and 20 months when his mom started nursing the other baby.

Now things turned sour when, some time after the contract expired and money was exchanged, the little foundling, then aged around two, passed away. This led Pesouris to snatch Apion, alleging that he was his slave. After Saraeus broke into his home to get little Apion back, Pesouris brought the case forward in front of the strategos, Tiberius Claudius Pasion:

“Pesouris against Saraeus. Aristokles was advocate for Pesouris.”

Note how Pesouris, who is the plaintiff, was represented by a lawyer. This, as well as the fact that he could afford to hire a wet-nurse for the baby he rescued, indicates that he was substantially more affluent than Saraeus, who rented her services as a wet-nurse and, according to the text preserved on the papyrus, represented herself in court.

The court hearing quotes both parties’ versions of the events. Judging from the native names of many of Tryphon’s family members (the name Saraeus is of unknown origin) and of Pesouris, the protagonists of our legal story were not part of the ethno-civic “Greek” élite, but rather belonged to the (potentially mixed or Hellenized) Egyptian community of Oxyrhynchus. Whether Saraeus could speak Greek fluently enough to plead in court is unknown. Should that not have been the case, she could very well have had her speech translated by an interpreter. As for Aristokles, since he was a professional lawyer and Greek was the only official language accepted by the Roman administration in the province, chances are he was fluent in Greek. His speech is quoted first:

“Pesouris, for whom I am speaking, raised up from the dung-heap a male slave child named Heraklas in year 7 of Tiberius Claudius Caesar (= 46–47 CE). He turned the baby over to the defendant, and a nursing contract was handed over here (=in Oxyrhynchus) to Pesouris’ son. In the first year she took her wages for nursing. When the stipulated day came round in the second year she also took them again. The proof that I speak the truth is the written receipt through which she agreed that she had received her wages.”

 In Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, the “exposure” (that is, abandonment) of unwanted newborns was more commonly associated to Greek communities of higher socio-economic status than to native ones (it was, in other words, an “import” from the Greek world). As Marilyne Parca observes in a recent article on wet-nurses in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, “[c]hild exposure was … not rare in the Greek communities of Roman Egypt, and we may recall how Diodorus Siculus (1.80.3) and Strabo (17.2.5) singled out the Egyptian practice of bringing up all the children born to them as the mark of a deep cultural gap between Egyptians and Greeks”. Parca also highlights how a substantial proportion of the babies attested in known wet-nursing contracts seem to have been “”taken up” (ἀναίρετον) from the rubbish (ἀπὸ κοπρίας) and to be raised (and sometimes sold) as slaves: σωμάτιον ὃ ἀνείρεται ἀπὸ κοπρίας εἰς δουλείαν (CGP I 14, 15, 23).” Seen in that light, then, to have an exposed Greek baby taken, entrusted to a paid wet-nurse, and raised as a slave in an Egyptian family such as Pesouris’ was not, as far as rescued babies were concerned, out of the ordinary.

Yet such practices, as well as the apparent adoption of foundlings by some Egyptian families, were not to the liking of Roman authorities. Thus the Gnomon of the Idios Logos (= BGU V 1210; P.Oxy. XLII 3014; a document meant to “guide” the high official in charge of all matters dealing with confiscated and abandoned properties such as productive and unproductive land, temple properties and offices, and issues dealing with inheritance and civil status) stipulated that Egyptians who either adopted exposed babies or “raised up” male foundlings from the rubbish heap were to see 25% of their property confiscated at death (par. 41 and 107). What seems to have bugged the Romans is the idea whereby babies from a higher ethno-civic status (“Greek”, that is either citizens or, in metropoleis like Oxyrhynchus, members of the local “gymnasium” class) were integrated into “native” (laoi; a status which applied to the vast majority of the population and came with the highest set of fiscal burdens) families. Be it as it may, judging from known papyri documenting the hiring of wet-nurses for babies who had been raised up from the dung-heap, either these Idios Logos policies did not exist or they weren’t properly implemented before the 2nd century CE.

Screen Shot 2018-06-28 at 18.15.03
P.Oxy. I 37;  from M. M. Masciadri and O. Montevecchi. 1984. I contratti di baliatico (Milano).

Let’s now get back to Pesouris’ version of events. Aristokles goes on:

“When the slave child became emaciated, Pesouris snatched him away. After this, when Saraeus found an opportune moment, she penetrated the house of my client and grabbed the child away, and she wants to carry the slave child off on the pretext of (its being) freeborn. I have, first of all, the written contract of nursing; and second, I have the receipt (of wages) for nursing. I ask that these contractual agreements be safeguarded.”

So according to Aristokles, Saraeus snatched Heraklas after Pesouris took him away from her due to him being dangerously thin. Note how there is no mention of Apion nor of any baby dying. Let’s now see what Saraeus had to say:

“Saraeus: I weaned my own baby, and their slave child was turned over to me. I received from them eight staters in all.”

Jane Rowlandson, whose translation I borrow here, observes that the wages provided to Saraeus in exchange for her nursing of Heraklas is “a low salary in comparison with contemporary nursing contracts”. She wonders whether the scribe made a mistake. If not, then, it seems like Pesouris was cheap or Saraeus desperate for money, or both.

Saraeus continues:

“After this the child died, although x staters remained for me. Now they want to snatch away my own child.”

Follows a quick note by Theon, Pesouris’ son:

“We have documents concerning the slave child.”

How did the strategos rule? In that case, version of the events did not prevail. His decision relied on two main points: The resemblance between Apion and Saraeus; and previous “rulings” from the prefect (governor) of the province:

“The strategos ruled: ‘Since from its appearance the baby seems to belong to Saraeus, if she and her husband will sign a sworn affidavit that the slave child turned over to her by Pesouris has died, my opinion, in accordance with the rulings of our lord prefect, is that she should have her own child, provided she pays back the money she received.”

Pasion’s verdict indicates that little Apion – who was then a toddler – was either present in court, or had been seen by witnesses or official staff. The fact that he looked like Saraeus is invoked as a proof of his biological link to her. In a world where many children were breastfed and raised by other individuals besides their biological parents or even family members (the case of Heraklas being one of those), to resemble one’s parent was the closest one could get to a DNA test. This was enough to invalidate Aristokles’ twisted (as Tryphon’s overall archive confirms) narrative. As for Saraeus needing to give back the money she had received from Pesouris, this decision is in line with standard clauses from other nursing contracts, which stipulate that wages have to be repaid in the case where the child dies. That being said, we are of course in the dark as to the actual cause of Heraklas’ death. We also need to keep in mind that according to available data, the mortality rate among children younger than 5 years old was high.

Our story doesn’t end here. In a petition dated from 49 CE (thus written seemingly a few months after the court hearing), Tryphon complained to the prefect that Pesouris (called Syrus this time) “refuses to comply with the judgement, and hinders [him] in [his] trade” (P.Oxy. I 38). How Pesouris hindered Tryphon’s weaving trade is unknown. What is known, though, is that Apion did remain with his family after all. On 14 June 56 CE, a receipt for the weavers’ tax (SB X 10247) was issued in the name of the apprentice Apion, son of … Tryphon.

Technical Details
Provenance: Egypt, Oxyrhynchus
Date: 29 March 49 CE, and some time after that date
Language: Ancient Greek
Collection: London, British Library (inventory: Papyrus 746)
Designation: P.Oxy. I 37 = CPGr. I 19 (signal according to the Checklist of Editions)
Select bibliography: Roger S. Bagnall and Bruce Frier (1994) The Demography of Roman Egypt (Cambridge: CUP) chapter 7; Maria Biscottini (1966) “L’archivio di Tryphon, tessitore di Oxyrhynchos,” in Aegyptus 46.1: 60–90; James Keenan, Joe Manning, and Uri Yiftach-Firanko, eds. (2014) Law and Legal Practice in Egypt from Alexander to the Arab Conquest : A Selection of Papyrological Sources in Translation, with Introductions and Commentary (Cambridge: CUP) pp. 487–489 (=10.3.1); Maryline Parca (2017) “The Wet Nurses of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt,” in Illinois Classical Studies 42: 203–226; Monica Piccolo (2003) “Osservazioni ad alcuni papiri dell’archivio di Tryphon,” Aegyptus 83: 197-213; Jane Rowlandson, ed. (1998) Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: CUP) pp. 112–118; Jean A. Straus (1988) “L’esclavage dans l’Égypte romaine,” in ANRW Principat 10.1: 854–856.

Bee Stories

Jennifer Cromwell

‘King of Lower and Upper Egypt’; Karnak

In honour of World Bee Day: 17 August

Whether it was for consumption, offerings to the gods, or for healing wounds, honey was important in ancient Egypt and so were bees. The honey bee is one of the earliest known hieroglyphs and was a symbol of kingship itself – together with the sedge sign, it represented the King of Lower and Upper Egypt. Here are some short stories about honey and bee-keeping from the Middle Kingdom, Ptolemaic Period, and late antiquity. These are just a selection of the huge volume of texts that could have been chosen – here’s to many more stories about bees for centuries to come (#savethebees).
A short book on bees and apiculture in ancient Egypt provides easy access to a lot more information: The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt by Gene Kritsky.

Horizontal, cylindrical beehives from the tomb of Pabasa (TT279), western Thebes, Saite Period (6th century BCE)

Late Middle Kingdom
The collection of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London holds a large body of papyri from the Middle Kingdom town of Lahun (also known as el-Lahun and Kahun). One letter, the central section of which is lost, reports an incident in which honey assigned to a servant was eaten by an unnamed Asiatic. And why? Because it was too sweet. And who can blame him.

 “… given that, as for the hin (ca. half a litre) of honey (already) assigned to the servant-there, the servant-there has discovered that the Asiatic has drunk it up, reporting to the servant-there: ‘Look, it was the sweetness that made me do it!’”

UC32124: Letter from Lahun. (c) UCL

Ptolemaic Period
In July 256 BCE, the widower Senchons wrote to the well-known figure Zenon about her donkey, which she needs returned to her in order to move her beehives to higher ground, so that they don’t get destroyed during the inundation. Zenon was the secretary to an important governmental official and lived in Philadelphia, in the Fayum region. The documents associated with him are among the earliest Greek texts from Ptolemaic Egypt, dating to the reigns of Ptolemy II (283–246 BCE) and Ptolemy III (246–222 BCE).

“To Zenon, greetings from Senchons. I petitioned you about my female donkey, which Nikias took. If you had written to me about her, I would have sent her to you. If it pleases you, order him to return her, so that we can transport the hives to the pastures, so that they won’t be ruined and of no profit to yourself or the king. And if you examine the matter, you will be persuaded that we are useful to you.”

P.Mich. I 29
P.Mich. I 29: Letter to Zenon (c) University of Michigan

Late Antique Egpyt
On the 12 June of an uncertain year, three monks (Elias, Papnoute, and Germanus) from the monastery of Apa Apollo near Hermopolis lease 214 beehives from the beekeeper Lazarus. This is just one contract with beekeepers that the monastery had, showing the importance of honey in their monastic diet. Individual monks also kept bees (and the document protects Lazarus from any complaints from a rival beekeeper, Enoch).

“I, the papa Elias with Brother Papnoute and the notary Germanus, the monks of the topos of Apa Apollo, write to Lazarus the son of Apollo, the beekeeper from Tbake. You drew up a lease for us for 214 beehives. Now, we are liable to you for Enoch, the beekeeper, so that he does not sue you over them. If he or anybody associated with him sues you, you are safe from them, for we have reached an agreement with him.”

P.Mon.Apollo Ι 47

In the Valley of the Kings, the tomb of Rameses IV (KV2) was later reoccupied by monks. The monks left behind themselves many signs of their habitation. As well as graffiti throughout the tomb, the excavators also found upturned jars (amphorae) that had been used as beehives.

Technical Details: Hieratic Document
Provenance: Egypt, Lahun.
Date: Late Middle Kingdom (ca. 19th century BCE)
Language: Middle Egyptian; hieratic script.
Collection: Petrie Museum, London: UC32124.
Bibliography: Mark Collier and Stephen Quirke. 2002. The UCL Lahun Papyri: Letters. Oxford: Archaeopress. Pp. 58–59.

Technical Details: Greek Document
Provenance: Egypt: Philadelphia, Arsinoite nome (Fayum).
Date: July 256 BCE.
Language: Greek.
Collection: University of Michigan, Papyrus Collection: P.Mich.inv. 3198.
Designation: P.Mich. I 29 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: John L. White (1986) Light from Ancient Letters (Philadelphia: Fortress Press) [#20].

Technical Details: Coptic Document
Provenance: monastery of Apa Apollo, Bawit (near Hermopolis)
Date: 12 June, uncertain year (7th century)
Language: Coptic (Sahidic)
Collection: Princeton, University Library (inv. AM 15960 G)
Designation: P.Mon.Apollo I 47; SB Kopt. I 52 (according to the Checklist of Editions)
Bibliography: Helmut Satzinger and Pieter J. Sijpesteijn. 1988. ‘Zwei koptische Papyri aus der Papyrussammlung aus der Princeton University,’ in Enchoria 16: 49–53.

Potential Paternity Problem

Jennifer Cromwell

Where in the ancient world could you turn when you had a serious family scandal to talk about? Well, in western Thebes in the early 7th century, one option was to write to local church figures. A papyrus preserves a letter from a man, seeking advice about another man’s paternity problem. The beginning of the letter is lost, but the juicy details survive:

“After they were united, they fought and bickered constantly. [Then] she left him, up until now. Yet, look, she gave birth this month and he came to me, saying ‘The little girl that she gave birth to is not mine! She conceived her, deceiving me, for it has been six months since I united with her.’ Here, then, I have sent him to you. Please, listen as he recounts his business. What you shall command, write it to us!”

P.Pisentius 17

A tempestuous relationship and questioned paternity – the things talk shows are made of. As the infant girl here seems to have survived, it is unlikely that she was born so premature. So, if the man’s claim is correct, that they were only together for six months, then it surely wasn’t his daughter.

Unfortunately, the letter’s address, with the name of the sender and the recipient, is lost, as are the names of the couple concerned (if they were mentioned by name, that is). But, this letter is believed to be one of many that were written to bishop Pisentius.

Pisentius was bishop of Coptos (Coptic Keft, modern Qift) in the early 7th century. He fled south to western Thebes during the Persian invasion and conquest of Egypt in the 620s (a short-lived conquest of a decade during the Byzantine-Sassanian War, before emperor Heraclius regained the country in 629). Local villagers – both men and women – sought his council on a range of affairs.

In this instance, we have only the man’s side of the story. If the bishop wrote down his response, as requested, that letter is lost (or maybe remains to be discovered!). And how the woman’s story may have differed will never be known.

Technical Details
Provenance: Western Thebes, Egypt.
Date: Early 7th century CE (after 620).
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: Louvre Museum / Musée du Louvre, Paris (inventory number unknown)
Designation: P.Pisentius 17 (for this sigla, see the Checklist of Editions).
Bibliography: A new edition of this text and others associated with bishop Pisentius is nearing completion by Prof. Jacques van der Vliet (Leiden University). Until this is published, T. G. Wilfong, Women of Jeme (2002, University of Michigan Press) discusses some of the letters written to Pisentius and his role in the Theban communities.

There is no published image of the papyrus (yet), so instead here is an aerial view of western Thebes, the setting of our story, by Steve Cameron.