Trip to the city

Today, if you live in the Bay Area in California, you commonly refer to San Francisco as ‘the City’. Around two thousand years ago, if you had lived in the Arsinoite nome (modern Fayum), in Egypt, the city would have been either Alexandria or the district capital, Arsinoe, also known as Arsinoiton polis, ‘the city of the Arsinoites‘.

Today’s post is about a trip to the city that a person from Tebtunis took some time in the first or second century AD. The trip is documented by a letter, which survived in two fragments. Like the one discussed in the post on 4 December, 2014, this letter too eventually made its way to Berkeley!

Despite the fragmentary state of the papyrus, much of the text can still be read. The names of both the addressee and the recipient are lost, but the situation is quite clear. Here is a brief summary. The addressee is writing from the ‘city’ (polis in the papyrus) to someone in Tebtunis (where the letter was found). He informs his correspondent that he met a certain Artemidoros, and that he has received a letter from the manager (epitropos), which he will submit to a public official, probably the strategos (the main official in charge of the administration of the district). In the closing of the letter, he then sends his greetings to the father (or mother), brothers, sisters and daughter of his correspondent.

Now, a few questions need to be asked: What city do they refer to? Who are the people involved? What is the addressee doing in the city?

The city mentioned in the letter is most likely Arsinoe. A possible reference to the strategos, who resided in the district capital, would prove it. That from Tebtunis to Arsinoe was not a long journey, and could have been done in less than 10 hours (by donkey).

Here is a google map giving modern walking directions from Tebtunis (modern Umm el Baragat) to Arsinoe (modern Medinet el Fayum).

Although the identities of the two correspondents are not known, there are hints that they were business partners. To confirm this is a reference to a manager, so called epitropos. The epitropos was the person in charge of the administration and management of private estates in Roman Egypt before the third century AD. The one mentioned in our letter was most likely the manager of an estate owned by the addressee. It is also possible that the estate was jointly owned by the two correspondents. The estate itself was located somewhere in the district, either near Tebtunis or somewhere near the capital. The purpose of the trip was business. The addressee needed to submit a document, maybe a petition, to a public official in the city, and it was important that this piece of information was communicated to his business partner in Tebtunis. A meeting with Artemidoros was certainly an another reason for the trip. About the content of the document to be submitted we can only speculate, but given the circumstances it is possible that it had something to do with the estate(s) that the correspondents owned; maybe a case of maladministration?

Besides the real motive of this trip, our letter gives us a good insight into a practice which has become with time an integral part of our modern society, that of traveling for business. The two correspondents belonged to the well-off strata of the population of Tebtunis, most probably to the category of landowners of Hellenic descent, and were familiar with the people and administrative practices of the city. More on the role of people of Hellenic descent from Tebtunis can be read here