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.
*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.
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.
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 Gnomonof 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.
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.
“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.
TechnicalDetails 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.
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.
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!’”
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
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.
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!”
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.
What legal rights did a farm labourer have in ancient Israel? A rare glimpse is offered by an ostracon (inscribed pot-sherd), which was discovered in 1960 in the guardroom of a small Iron Age fortress, approximately 17 km south of Tel Aviv.
The ostracon contains a judicial petition from a harvester to the commander of the fortress. In it, the worker, who does not identify himself by name, asks the commander to intervene and ensure the return of his garment, which had apparently been confiscated for his alleged failure to meet a work quota. The petition reads:
“May my lord the governor hear the appeal of his servant: Your servant was harvesting in Hazar-asam. Your servant harvested and measured as always before stopping. And when your servant had measured the harvest and stored it as always, Hoshavyahu ben Shobay came and took your servant’s garment. When I had measured my harvest as always he took the garment of your servant! All my brothers will testify for me; those harvesting with me in the heat of the sun, they will confirm that it is so. I am innocent of guilt. Now, please return my garment. Again, I petition the commander to return the garment of your servant. Grant him mercy and return the garment of your servant and do not confound me!”
The custom of taking a garment as surety is attested in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Exodus 22:26–27; Deuteronomy 24:17; Amos 2:8), where there is a special concern for the plight of the poor and vulnerable (cf. Deuteronomy 24:12–15).
Although the phrasing of the petition reflects the usual politeness of someone writing to a social superior, the wording is repetitive and gives some sense of the worker’s anguish – notice the ad hoc manner in which the appeal switches between the first, second, and third persons. Even so, the ostracon seems to have been written by a trained scribe, since it is unlikely that a poor farm labourer in Iron Age Israel would have been able to read and write. Was it commissioned as a formal letter of appeal? Or is it a transcription (or summary) of a spoken plea?
Sadly the governor’s decision is not recorded, so we don’t know the outcome of the petition – after all, we only have the harvester’s word that he filled his work quota. Whatever the case, it is remarkable that even a poor labourer could have recourse to a formal appeal such as this.
Technical Details Provenance: Meṣad Ḥashavyahu (near Yavneh Yam), Israel Date: 7th century BCE Language: Hebrew Collection: Israel Museum, Jerusalem Designation: KAI 200 Bibliography: J. Naveh (1960) “A Hebrew Letter from the Seventh Century B.C.,” in Israel Exploration Journal 10/3: 129–39; J. M. Lindenberger (2003) Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters. 2nd edition. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature [see pp. 107–110].
How early was too early to marry in the ancient world? If the answer is connected to being an adult, then what is an adult? And does that question differ for men and women? Is it simply a question of reaching sexual maturity (puberty), which was older in the ancient world than it is today, or are there different societal constraints on what it means to be grown up? While we’re asking questions, how much do modern, western views (with our longer life expectancies and lower child and childbirth mortality rates) impact our understanding of this issue?
A letter written on a limestone ostracon by “the humblest Mark”, a well-known figure and priest, to a couple, Papnoute and Elisabeth, concerns a “young girl” that is in their care, who has run away from her husband:
“You know that I wrote, advising you, again, saying “You are my brethren and I do not want to hear anything ugly against you!” Now, I have been informed that you are holding onto the young girl who is with you. … If you continue not to teach the man’s wife that she is to join him and obey him, just like every wife, and to do his bidding, then know that I will excommunicate you, until she stops being so disturbed.”
The tone and content, advocating subservience of the wife to her husband – and stating that any other behaviour is “disturbed” –, is jarring to many modern readers. But to an early Christian audience, leaving your spouse without just cause was not permitted, and the only just cause was adultery. In a letter, bishop Abraham, who founded a monastery at Deir el-Bahri (on top of the mortuary temple of Hatschepsut), expounds against divorce (O.Crum 72): “I have been further informed that some have divorced their wives, without reasons of adultery.” Anybody culpable in divorce will be excommunicated, including:
the woman who abandons her husband and marries another;
the person who causes a married couple to separate;
the scribe who draws up a divorce document.
In order to support his stance, Abraham quotes Luke 16:18: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another is an adulterer, and he who marries a divorced woman is an adulterer.”
For the church, the ideal state was for a man and wife to remain together. In our first letter, the bride is called a young girl. Does Mark’s use of this designation mean that she (and she is never named) was considered young for marriage, even by the standards of the day – maybe only on the cusp of puberty? Perhaps Papnoute and Elisabeth were her parents, to whom she fled, away from her older husband.
No further letters from Mark to or from Papnoute and Elisabeth are known; we are left with only silence surrounding the ultimate fate of the girl.
Technical Details(Text 1) Provenance: Western Thebes, Egypt. Date: Early 7th century CE. Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect). Collection: Egyptian Museum / Ägyptisches Museum, University of Leipzig, Leipzig (inv. 502). Designation: O.Lips.Copt. 24 (previously O.Crum Ad. 13); see Checklist for publication information. Bibliography: T. Sebastian Richter (2014) “Daily Life: Documentary Evidence,” inCoptic Civilization: Two Thousand Years of Christianity in Egypt, edited by Gawdat Gabra, 131–144. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press. (see pages 135–136).
Technical Details (Text 2) Provenance: Western Thebes, Egypt. Date: Late 6th / early 7th century CE. Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect). Collection: British Museum, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan (EA32886). Designation: O.Crum 72; see Checklist for publication information.
Following the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641 CE (or Islamic conquest, it’s frequently referred to as both or either), a new tax was added to the growing list of impositions placed on the country’s population: the poll tax, payable by all non-Muslim adult males. For over two centuries after the conquest, the majority of Egyptians were Christian, creating at least in theory a considerable body of men liable for paying this tax.
A large body of documentation survives concerning how taxes were managed, including registers, demands, and receipts. Letters from or to tax officers also reveal different aspects of the system, especially problems. Of the Coptic evidence from the eighth century, one letter in particular stands out. It was written from a Muslim official, Ibrāhīm ibn ‘Abd al-Raḥmān to a Christian man, Theodore, from the village Titkooh (closely linked with the monastery of Apa Apollo at Bawit near Hermopolis).
“So that you know that I have appointed Serenos over you to [collect? the] tax. I have not appointed him over you so that he may pay anything for you. So then, pay the stipulated amount as your instalment. Collect and bring it to this person (i.e., Serenos). If you seek to break anything in it, I will send one who will extract it from your bones.”
Chilling stuff. The threat is not subtle. The content is direct, without any framing that is typical of letters. How should we understand this short text? Is its tone reflective of increasing tensions between the minority Muslim rulers and the Christian majority? Or was religion not a factor and the harsh warning is issued from a frustrated tax official to a non-paying citizen? Threatening tax officials aren’t exactly unfamiliar nowadays, and neither is tax evasion, for which the evidence in the ancient world is ripe (and if the tax man can bring down Al Capone …).
Other letters from the same period show much more conciliatory language between Muslims and Christians. A roughly contemporary letter (it, like the previous one, is not dated) from Ṣāliḥ to Chael son of John concerns an instruction for the latter to collect and deliver money. However, the tone is much gentler and polite, and Ṣāliḥ calls Chael ‘my beloved brother’ (CPR II 237). Taking each letter in isolation seems to present very different pictures of relationships between Muslims and Christians. Yet, religion is just one part of the story and the true nature of relationships are more complex: do the parties know each other, what are their respective roles in the situations, where does power lie? Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder, but that’s only one way to look at things.
Technical Details Provenance: Titkooh, Hermopolite nome. Egypt. Date: 8th century CE. Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect). Collection: Papyrology collection, University of Michigan (inv. 6861). Designation: P.Mich.Copt. 15 (sigla following the Checklist of Editions). Bibliography: Alain Delattre (2015) ‘Le monastère de Baouît et l’administration arabe’, in Documents and the History of the Early Islamic World, edited by A. T. Schubert and P. M. Sijpesteijn, pp. 43–49 (Leiden: Brill).
In a Coptic letter from the 7th century CE, a wet nurse Maria expresses her grief and condolences over the death of a young girl (P.Amh. II 188 desc.; edition by Alain Delattre et al., 2018).
“My heart grieved when I heard about my daughter, that she had died.”
Maria then goes on to wish a long life to another girl, Anastasia. Rather than reading the text literally, the girl who died is most likely the daughter of the recipients of the letter, not Maria. What seems to be the clinching detail in understanding the relationships in this letter is that Maria identifies herself as a wet nurse in the letter’s address:
“Give it to my sister Talau, from the wet nurse Maria.”
The letter is short and its contents incredibly sad. But – and here is where some scholarly distance comes in to play – one of the most notable features is the identification of Maria as a wet nurse. There are almost no Coptic documents that involve a wet nurse (the Coptic word is moone) – the title occurs in a list on a papyrus in the Austrian National Library in Vienna (CPR XII 5; inv. K. 4494), but we know nothing about the individual mentioned there. Why are wet nurses almost never mentioned, then, in Coptic texts?
In Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt (ca 3rd century BCE to 4th century CE) there isn’t the same absence. Wet nurse contracts are known from this period in which a woman is hired to nurse an infant. The earliest contract that we know of comes from the site Tebtunis in the Fayum and dates to 7 May 231 BCE. The bulk of the document is written in Demotic (P.Cairo dem. 30604), with Greek lines noting its place and date of registration (P.Tebt. II 297). In this case, the woman Sponnesis daughter of Horus and Taues is contracted by the man Phanesis son of Nechtyris to nurse his son Petesouchos for three years: “I am for you the wet nurse, my milk being good from both breasts.” She promises to care for, nurture, and protect the boy. (For more about this text and other early wet nurse contracts, see Parca 2017, noted below.)
In earlier periods of Egyptian history, breastfeeding is not an uncommon topic in art. One of my favourite statues (shown above) dates to Egypt’s Old Kingdom and is today on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A woman kneels down with a child on her knee and she holds out her breast for the child to suckle, while another child takes matters into his own hand and pulls her other breast under her other arm in order to feed as well. Dating over a thousand years later, a sketch on a limestone ostracon from the village Deir el-Medina (on the west bank of the Nile opposite Karnak/Luxor) in the British Museum’s collection shows a woman sitting and breastfeeding (shown below).
And so why are wet nurses – or breastfeeding itself – so rare in Coptic documents? In Coptic literature concerning the holy family, passages state that Mary was breastfed until she was three years old, while she in turn breastfed the infant Jesus until he was the same age. At the same time, paintings of Mary suckling Jesus adorned churches across the Mediterranean world. There was no censor of the idea or the image.
This brings us to a wee problem in using written sources for the study of the ancient world. There is so much about which we may want to know that simply is never mentioned. Why would somebody need to write to somebody else about their breastfeeding plans? If they ever had to discuss the matter, they’d do so in person. For many periods and places, using a wet nurse may have been such a common event that it did not need to be written down in a formal contract. The Coptic letter from Maria reminds us, in case we were in any doubt, that wet nurses existed, even if we rarely read about them.
Technical Details (Papyrus) Provenance: Unknown. Date: 7th century? CE Language: Coptic; Sahidic dialect. Collection: Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (purchased 1912 from the Amherst collection). Designation: P.Amh. II 188 descr. (note: ‘descr.’ indicates that no edition was published, just a description; for the papyrological sigla, see the Checklist of Editions). Bibliography: Alain Delattre, Perrine Pilette and Naïm Vanthieghem (2018) “Papyrus coptes de la Pierpont Morgan Library II: Lettre de condoléances d’une nourrice,” Journal of Coptic Studies 20: 1–10 (available online here).
Technical Details (Object #1) Provenance: probably tomb of Nikauinpu, Giza, Egypt Date: Dynasty 5, Old Kingdom (ca. 2420–2389 BCE). Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art: 26.7.1405 – on display in Gallery 103.
Technical Details (Object #2) Provenance: Deir el-Medina, Egypt Date: Dynasty 19 or 20, New Kingdom (1295–1069 BCE). Collection: British Museum, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan: EA8506.
Some bibliography Burt Kasparian (2007) “La condition des nourrices sous le Moyen Empire,” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie Orientale 107: 109–126 (available online here – open access). Maryline Parca (2017) “The Wet Nurses of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt,” Illinois Classical Studies 42: 203–226 (available online here – if you have JStor access).
Life in the ancient world, before the development of modern medicine, was hard. Child mortality rates were high, life-expectancy was much lower than it is today, and illnesses and injuries that are easily cured now were often fatal. Life out in the oases of the western desert must have been especially difficult.
For the past three decades, a team of researchers fromMonash Universityled by Colin Hope have excavated the village Kellis, modern Ismant el-Kharab, in Dakhleh Oasis. This work resulted in the discovery of hundreds of Greek and Coptic documents, as well as a smaller number written in Syriac, found within buildings of the village and dating to the fourth century CE. They provide insights into different aspects of the lives of the inhabitants, mostly contained in letters that villagers wrote to family members working in the Nile Valley. The letters are full of details about daily affairs going on at home, keeping the absentees up-to-date with what they were missing. Among the business matters that are related, and general greetings, are topics of a less happy nature.
In one letter, the woman Tegoshe writes to her *brother Pshai of tragic events that prevented her from leaving the oasis:
“The children of Nonna fell ill and died. I, myself, developed pus and have not been able to come. But, you, my brother, do not forget me! Rather, just as you took care of me here, do not abandon me now! Greet me warmly to my lady, my sister Tapshai. Tell her that I was set to come to Egypt, myself and the little girl. Then death forced itself on me and carried her away. I am powerless! It is not only her – Nonna’s children have also died.”
P.Kellis VII 115
In an earlier letter (P.Kellis VII 92), Timotheos tells his *sister Kyra that “Our sister Nonna and her daughters are all well.” So what happened between the writing of these two letters? Did the girls succumb to a wider epidemic blighting the community? Or are their deaths reflective of child mortality rates in the ancient world? This textual evidence can be compared with the human remains from the Kellis 2 cemetery, where 61% of the 635 burials are for juveniles. The human remains have been the subject some studies, but continuing work and future publications will hopefully reveal more about health issues and causes of death.
Not only children died unexpectedly. In P.Kellis VII 73, Pegosh writes to Pshai:
“I greet you my loved [brother, for] how is it since the boy heard that his sister had died and left two daughters? When he heard, he said: ‘Write to him that he may send one of them to me,’ so that I can keep her for you. He said I will take care of her like a daughter.”
P.Kellis VII 73
The two girls have been left orphaned – their father is not mentioned, but the content of the letter suggests that they were already fatherless and new arrangements for their care need to be made. The girls’ uncle will take in one of them, while Pegosh goes on to say that he will take the other sister. Such fostering (or informal adoption) of orphaned children must have taken place all the time throughout Egypt, but few adoption contracts survive. In this case, if Pegosh hadn’t been so far from home, we probably wouldn’t have heard about this situation either. More often than not, events – even tragic ones such as these – were not recorded, but were simply taken care of within the community. It is only in exceptional situations, of distance or unusual circumstances, when such matters were written down.
*Kinship terms throughout the documents may not actually refer to biological relationships, but are used as terms of endearment.
**The translations above are those of the original editors (Iain Gardner, Anthony Alcock, and Wolf-Peter Funk), whose work on these difficult fourth century texts I cannot improve – I have made a few minor adjustments only.
Technical Details Provenance: Kellis (Ismant el-Kharab); Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt Date: 4th century CE Language: Coptic (Lycopolitan Dialect) Collection: Storeroom in Dakhleh. Designation: P.Kellis VII 73, 92, and VII 115 (sigla according to Checklist of Editions)
Some bibliography: For Kellis’ human remains, see: S. M. Wheeler, L. Williams, T. L. Dupras, M. Tocheri, and J. E. Molto. 2011. “Children in Roman Egypt: Bioarchaeology of the Kellis 2 Cemetery, Dakhleh Oasis, Egypt,” in (Re)Thinking the Little Ancestor: New Perspectives on the Archaeology of Infancy and Childhood, edited by M. Lally and A. Moore, pp. 110–121. Oxford: Archaeopress. For child mortality and demographics generally, see: R. S. Bagnall and B. W. Frier. 1994. The Demography of Roman Egypt. Cambridge: CUP.
It’s a story that resonates throughout the ages: a man abandons his wife and their children for another woman. The story could be of a woman abandoning her husband and kids, but the story on this 7th century AD papyrus is of a man who leaves his wife. His sick wife. And their four children.
“… listen to my mistreatment by Paul, my husband […] I had three children with him before I became ill. God knows that after I became ill, I had another [child …] When he saw me, that God had brought his illness upon me, he abandoned me and left with another woman. He left [us …] and I was abandoned.”
SB Kopt. IV 1709
The unnamed wife was awarded an annual alimony (here, the Greek word analôna) from her ex-husband of barley, oil, wine, and items of clothing – the staples of life in Egypt – to support herself and her children. Paul, however, had failed to provide the full amount, giving his ex-wife only one-quarter of the stipulated quantity of barley. He was in breach of contract and so she wrote this petition in order to exact the full amount owed her: “I am not asking for anything except the alimony that he established with me, because I am ill […] so I can live on it.”
Marriage in Egyptian villages was quite an informal matter, with cohabitation and societal recognition of this as the important factors. In Coptic, marriage was loosely referred to as sitting with another individual. There are almost no marriage or divorce documents written in this phase of the language (there were some, and more in earlier periods and in Greek, but these will be left for other Papyrus Stories). Yet, women did have access to authority figures who could assist them in difficult times, as this document tells us. In this particular case, our abandoned woman could call for official assistance against her husband because the only cause for divorce in the Christian period was adultery, and Paul was guilty of that. Whether or not he remained guilty of not providing alimony is another matter.
The papyrus document preserving this matter is not the finished text that was sent to an official, but most likely an earlier draft, as indicated by several factors: the papyrus was used for multiple texts, including three lists and writing exercises. The petition itself also lacks an address and even the name of the woman in question is not stated—the only name is that of the negligent husband, Paul. Such a document would not be sent to an official. Instead, the scribe first produced this draft to ensure the details were correct before producing a more formal piece of writing.
Technical Details Provenance: Egypt; unknown location Date: 7th century CE Language: Coptic (Sahidic Dialect) Collection: Austrian National Library, Vienna; P.Vindob. K. 950 Designation: SB Kopt. IV 1709 (see ‘Checklist of Editions‘) Bibliography: H. Buschhausen, U. Horak, and H. Harrauer (1995) Der Lebenskreis der Kopten. Dokumente, Textilien, Funde, Ausgrabungen (Vienna: Hollinek) pp. 10–11 [#10]; Jane Rowlandson, ed. (1998) Women & Society in Greek & Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 216; Walter C. Till (1938) “Eine koptische Alimentenforderung,” Bulletin de la Société d’Archéologie Copte 4: 71–78.