Pastoral life in Tebtunis

In the Greek and Roman world, shepherds and goatherds find their place in a long-standing literary tradition that depicts them as romantic figures, gentle poets who lived in beautiful and often idyllic settings. Even before pastoral literature flourished in the third century BC, shepherds were often portrayed as idealized figures living in idealized natural spaces, often surrounded by mythological creatures, and engaging in singing contests with other herdsmen. The most famous shepherd in world literature is probably Paris. Though of royal descent (he was son of Priam, king of Troy, and Hecuba), Paris was brought up by a shepherd and spent his youth looking after his cattle on Mount Ida, near Troy. One day, while attending his duties, he met the nymph Oenone and fell in love with her. Although we know that that love wasn’t meant to be, this episode perfectly embodies the essence of pastoral literature in the Greek world.

Paris and Oenone. Jacob de Wit (1695-1754), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Outside of the world of literary fiction, shepherds were far from being poets or singers. They were real workers in a rural society where pastoralism constituted an essential part of the local and global economy. Pastoralism was widely practised in the Mediterranean countries, from Britain and Gaul to the Italian Apennines and Greek mountains. Despite the lack of mountains and the presence of deserts, pastoralism was also deeply embedded in the society and economy of Egypt.

In early Roman Tebtunis shepherds gathered together to form an association – that is a group of members practicing the same profession, who provided mutual economic support in times of difficulty, and feasted together at least once a month. Shepherds were not the only ones involved in pastoral activities. There were the sheep and donkey feeders, professional cattle breeders who, like the shepherds, formed a professional association in Tebtunis, and there were the cattle-keepers, who are attested in the whole Arsinoite district, but not in Tebtunis…until yesterday. In one of the papyri I was working on I could read clearly the word ‘ktenotrophos’, that is cattle-keeper.

Given the role pastoralism played in Tebtunis, the presence of cattle-keepers is not really surprising, and the lack of attestations could be attributed to the role of chance in the survival of papyri. However, the opposite could be argued, that in Tebtunis there were not many cattle-keepers. In other sites of the Arsinoite district they formed associations of private or public cattle-keepers, but in Tebtunis no association of this kind is attested. Our new papyrus, though fragmentary, shows that there were cattle-keepers in Tebtunis (or at least there was one!), but they must have been in a limited number. Full details of our papyrus cannot yet be given, but we can see that it is an administrative document in which a few people are making a payment. A name that recurs twice is Artemidoros, that is ‘gift of Artemis’. It is unclear whether Artemidoros was the name of the cattle-keeper, but it seems very likely. As opposed to shepherds, cattle-keepers enjoyed reasonably good economic conditions. In Tebtunis, however, their number was not large enough so as to make an impact on the local economy. As far as the evidence goes, in the village it appears that there were rich landowners who leased out plots of land, wealthy creditors who lent money, but not many cattle-keepers who managed private or public animals.