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

Snapshot from a letter

For centuries, letters have been the main means of communication in the private as well as in the public sphere. Letters were used between friends and relatives generally to share information about each other’s life and health, between managers and their colleagues or subordinates to discuss work-related matters, between public officials to give instructions on how to follow specific administrative procedures. The list of reasons for a writing a letter is almost endless.

Letters never fail to reveal something about the sender and the recipient, and in the case of private letters their content provides us with a snapshot of the life of the people involved and often allows us to immerse ourselves in someone else’s thoughts many centuries later. In antiquity private letters became a proper literary genre, the most famous example being Cicero, author of collections of letters to his friends and relatives in the first century BC. Though labelled as private and often exhibiting a colloquial tone, Cicero’s letters still keep their literary verve.

Bust of Cicero, Capitoline Museums, Rome

The same goes for the letters written by Pliny the Younger, the Roman writer who in a letter to the historian Tacitus documented the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania, Italy, in AD 79. Despite being addressed to friends and relatives and often discussing everyday life topics, his letters seem to lack a certain spontaneity, as they were essentially written for publication.

Pliny the Younger and his mother at Misenum when Vesuvius erupted (Kauffmann, 1785)

Private letters we find on papyri are different. They were not written for publication, and as a consequence they still preserve a certain feel of genuinity. Even centuries later, reading a letter of a mother to his son inquiring about his health almost feels like invading someone’s privacy. Yet, this kind of letters sheds light on an essential part of the ancient society that otherwise would remain unknown: personal relationships.

Waiting to be read, some 1,900 years later, is a private letter which, through a series of unlikely scenarios, was eventually delivered to the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, Berkeley, despite being addressed to someone in Tebtunis, Egypt!

The original recipient was a person probably named Philotas (the name is partly lost), addressed by the sender as ‘brother’. The two correspondents, however, were not necessarily siblings, as it was common for husband and wife to address each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. Unfortunately the name of the sender is lost so we cannot be sure of the nature of the relationship between the two. There is no doubt though that they knew each other well. After asking for something to be done, the addressee sends his greetings ‘to her’, and asks for the cloak to be given to her. Who was this woman? It could have been their mother or sister, if the two were actually siblings; it could have been their daughter if the two were married instead. But there are other possibilities. The letter ends with the phrase ‘I pray for your health, brother’, commonly used in letters from Graeco-Roman Egypt. The exact context is still not entirely clear, but more can be reconstructed, and the letter has already found in Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, a member of our team, a new recipient, willing to recompose the puzzle.

Most certainly Philotas received this letter and did what he was asked. Then the letter was forgotten, kept maybe in Philotas’ house, for centuries until 1900, when it was found again and brought to Berkeley. Now that the letter has been found again, it won’t be forgotten.

Greek in Tebtunis at CTP

The Center for the Tebtunis papyri (CTP) at UC Berkeley possesses one of the largest collections of papyri in the world. These texts come from the village of Tebtunis in Middle Egypt and range in time from the third century BCE to the third century CE.

Lion statue

Lion statue at the entrance of the village of Tebtunis

Since its foundation (2000), CTP has facilitated and supported research on the Tebtunis papyri, a body of texts that has greatly advanced our knowledge and understanding of village life in Greek and Roman Egypt.

In this blog you will find information and updates about Greek in Tebtunis, a research project currently underway at CTP. The project is being carried out by Dr. Micaela Langellotti, postdoctoral fellow, under the supervision of Prof. Todd Hickey.

Greek in Tebtunis focuses on the decipherment, interpretation and digitization of the Greek papyri of Berkeley’s largely unpublished Tebtunis collection.

The aims of the project are threefold:

  • To investigate how far Greek structures and culture had an impact on this ancient village.
  • To assess the contribution of individuals and families of Hellenic status or descent to the village’s economy and society.
  • To determine what Greek books were read in Tebtunis and what kind of documents were deployed (and the circumstances of their deployment).

Greek in Tebtunis has been made possible by the generous support of the Elios Charitable Foundation and the National Hellenic Society.

The CTP team

Todd Hickey

Associate Professor of Classics at UC Berkeley and Director of the Center for the Tebtunis papyri

His research interests lie in the social, cultural and economic history of Graeco-Roman Egypt. His first book, Wine, Wealth, and the State in Late Antique Egypt: The House of Apion at Oxyrhynchus (Ann Arbor 2012) concerns the best documented estate from the postclassical Mediterranean, that of the Flavii Apiones at Oxyrhynchus, and challenges recent arguments that this entity was a profit-driven enterprise. He is currently writing a ”collective biography” of the crocodile priests of Tebtunis.

Micaela Langellotti

Elios and National Hellenic Society Postdoctoral Fellow

Her research interests focus on the social and economic history of Graeco-Roman Egypt, and more broadly of the Roman empire. She is currently completing a book entitled Village economy and society: early Roman Tebtunis, which aims to construct the first detailed village study for the Roman empire. At CTP she is investigating the unpublished Greek papyri of the Tebtunis collection in order to examine how far Greek culture and structures had an impact on an Egyptian village in the Roman period.

Michael Zellmann-Rohrer

His primary research interest is in the diachronic study of magical ritual from Greek antiquity through Byzantium and into modern Greece, for which papyri are a crucial source of evidence. He is also interested in Greek epistolography, Classical and Byzantine, and is studying several personal letters on papyrus from the Tebtunis collection in that context.

Krista Griffiths

She oversees CTP’s reference library by submitting requests for new library materials, catalogs library materials into the department’s database and organizes the reference materials according to Duke University’s Checklist of Editions of Greek, Latin, Demotic, and Coptic Papyri, Ostraca and Tablets. In addition to overseeing CTP’s library she is involved in two other projects here at CTP. The first is performing a complete inventory of the Tebtunis Papyri Collection. The second project is to assign P.Hearst numbers to each of our Hearst Papyrus fragments and then enter a description of each one into our papyri database

Caroline Cheung

She is primarily interested in the Roman economy and ancient agriculture. Her overall work aims to evaluate the economic and social realities of Roman imperialism by examining a wide range of material evidence and textual sources. More recently she has been cultivating an interest in Egypt especially, thanks to opportunities to study papyrology and work with artifacts from Tebtunis at CTP.

Matters of clothes and money

When dealing with papyri, it often happens that two fragments, previously catalogued independently, join together and provide new information about the nature and content of the original text. One example has already been discussed in a post published on November 7, 2014, in which the reunion of two papyrus fragments revealed the names of several tax payers in Roman Tebtunis ( ). A further example can be found in this post.

Another two pieces of the Tebtunis collection have been found to belong to the same papyrus sheet. At first glance they don’t seem to have anything in common, yet they have the same processing number. What is this number? Many of the Tebtunis papyri here at CTP are identified by a T-number, where T stands for Tebtunis. This number was assigned to them by Grenfell and Hunt, the two Oxford scholars who directed the archaeological excavation at Tebtunis in 1899/1900 and recovered the papyri which are now kept at CTP. The T-number served for internal references, so, conceivably, papyri bearing the same T-number are to be seen somehow in connection with one another (as belonging to the same sheet of papyrus, or found in the same place).

The two fragments in question are written on both sides and reveal (at least) two different contents.

The first piece, which we’ll call fragment no. 1, is unpublished. On its main side (so called recto, where the writing follows the same direction as the papyrus fibers), we find a list of numbers, which probably indicate the days of a month. On the far left there are traces of a few letters which do not seem to belong to the main text.

On the back of the papyrus there is a list of dates followed by other numbers, most likely payments. A name can be read in the first line, Diodoros, but his role is unknown.

The second fragment, which we’ll call fragment no. 2, is published (P.Tebt. II 405).

On the main side is a dowry inventory dated to the third century AD, that is a list of personal personal items belonging to a woman’s dowry. Interestingly all of the items, with the exception of a basket, are clothes. Here is a translation:

‘A green tunic worth [..] drachmas; a white outer cloak, worth [..] drachmas; a small mulberry-colored cloak, worth [..] drachmas; 2 veils, purple and scarlet, worth [..] drachmas; an Italian mantle, worth [..] drachmas; a white mantle, worth [..] drachmas; a new basket, worth [..] drachmas; a purple tunic, worth [..] drachmas; a sapphire Dalmatian vest, worth [..] drachmas; a Leontine mantle, worth [..] drachmas. And in parapherna: a sulphur-colored tunic [..]; a mulberry-colored tunic [..]’

The value in money (drachmas) of each item was indicated, as was common in this type of documents, but unfortunately the amounts are lost. What is really interesting to note is the presence of fine imported articles: an Italian mantle, a Leontine mantle (most probably from the Sicilian Leontinoi, modern Lentini), and a Dalmatian vest (from the province of Dalmatia, which included roughly modern Serbia, Croatia, and other areas of the Adriatic coast). In Egypt the main fabric used for clothes was wool, and a very active textile production is attested throughout the Roman period. Imported goods were expensive, and the presence of such articles in our papyrus suggests that we are dealing with a well-off woman.

On the left of the papyrus there are traces of another documents written in the opposite direction to the main text. These traces clearly match those that can be seen on the left margin of fragment no. 1 (main side).

On the back of fragment no. 2 there is part of an account – a few figures and the slanting check-marks can still be seen (for a comparison see the tax register in the post of November 7, 2014

What did this document originally contain? How do fragment no. 1 and fragment no. 2 fit together?

It is very likely that the document contained some of the affairs of a wealthy family, including a marriage. On the main side of the original sheet of papyrus was a draft including several administrative texts, one of which was a list of clothes belonging to a well-off woman’s dowry. The presence of possibly several days of a month suggests that the document also included some kind of payments. On the back there was an account, which involved a person called Diodoros. Now the questions is whether the two texts, the one on the main side and the one on the back, were connected to or independent from one another. The handwriting on both sides seems to be same, although this is not certain. In any case, what we have here is good example of a draft document which could have been either owned privately (in which case Diodoros could have been the owner) or produced by state officials for administrative purposes.

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.

A new tax from Tebtunis?

So yesterday, on my way to CTP, I had to stop at the payroll office to submit some forms. For a few days now I have been reading about taxes, tax exemption and filling out numerous forms. You might wonder now what this has to do with papyri and Greek at Tebtunis. Well, the whole experience has put me in a particular ‘tax mode’, and the result of this is the post you are about to read.

We all pay taxes, but taxes are not a modern invention. During the Roman empire, for example, the population paid a variety of taxes to the central government, both in money and in kind, and Egypt was not exceptional in this. Taxation was an essential component of the economic and social life of Egypt, not only during the Roman domination but also during the Ptolemaic kingdom (indeed it was the Ptolemies that introduced taxes in money in the third century BCE). A large number of tax related documents have survived from Egypt, which enabled studies of various aspects of taxation in the country. Every now and then new papyri are published, and new information is added to our knowledge of the taxation system and of how the tax burden affected the different strata of the population. Taxation is also one of my favourite research fields, so deep-down I hoped that sooner or later I would come across a tax-papyrus in my search for new texts at CTP. And yesterday I did.

These are the two pieces that first caught my eye yesterday morning.

Both belonged to the same sheet of papyrus, which originally included two columns (at least). What is so particular about this text? The slanting check-marks, of course. This type of check-marks are found in numerous tax and contract registers in Roman Egypt, and are annotated to the left of the line to mean that that entry had been checked off by the scribe – one possibility is that the scribe, in the copying process, was checking these entries against another record. I looked at the text more closely, and found that the format is typical of tax registers: each entry included the tax-payer’s name and patronym (the name of his/her father), and a curious abbreviation, followed by the month and day. What did this abbreviation mean? Given the format of the text and the position of the word/symbol, I concluded that it was a tax that was paid in monthly instalments. I then started to look for a possible match in other papyri, but with no luck. Unfortunately part of the abbreviation is lost, which makes the reconstruction difficult, and what can still be read doesn’t seem to be attested anywhere else. Was it a special tax only paid by certain people? Or was it a local tax?

I turned the papyrus over to see whether more could be said about it, and found lines of another tax-register. The format is simple: a list of tax-payers, for each of whom the amount of money paid is indicated. Money is computed in drachmas, which was the Greek currency introduced in Egypt by the Ptolemies, and kept by the Romans in the centuries of their domination. Again, the name of the tax is lost.

The small and very cursive hand-writing suggests that this was a draft document, maybe notes which were to be copied in another register. It is difficult to tell whether the two sides were written by the same scribe, but they were certainly close in date. This is a good example of how the back of some papyri were often reused to write notes, letters, and so on.

The story about this papyrus is still not over. After examining the texts on both sides, I decided to move on with my search. Only three papyri later, though, I came across a fragment written in the same hand-writing as the tax-register with the slanting check-marks. A quick check revealed that the two texts perfectly joined together and belonged to the same sheet of papyrus.

Here is an image of how the fragments are pieced together.

Now it is possible to read the names of a few tax-payers: Apianos (or Apiane), Akousarion daughter of Heron, Anoubion son of Areos. With the exception of the name Anoubion, which is a combination of Greek and Egyptian, the others are all Greek names. The abbreviation still remains unknown, which means that the nature of the tax has to be remain obscure to us, at least for the time being…or until another papyrus comes up and solves the puzzle.

Diodoros, Herodes, Didumos: the elite of a village?

In the last week or so I have been going through over 60 Greek papyri at CTP, all dated to the Roman period. They are mostly administrative and economic documents (contracts and registers), but there are also some letters and curious lists of names.

What I would like to discuss in this post is a common feature that I have observed in these texts: the frequent occurrence of certain Greek names. The papyrus I have been looking at this morning, for example, includes the names Diodoros, which means ‘gift of Zeus’, and Herodes. Incidentally, the name Herodes is widely attested in numerous papyri from first-century CE Tebtunis.

Other Greek names which I have come across in the Tebtunis papyri so far are Didumos, Herakles/Herakleides, and Kronion. In my post on October 11, 2014 ( I have already discussed the significance of certain Greek names in a specific type of contract, the cession, and concluded that there was a landowning elite of Hellenic descent at Tebtunis.

But who were these people? And what was their role in the village? Were they only landowners?

Identifying single individuals is not always possible, but the fact that certain names frequently recur in many Tebtunis papyri, both from Berkeley and from other collections, allows for some important remarks.

First, these people seem to have been quite wealthy or at least reasonably well-off. Mostly they appear in the capacity of lending money or leasing land.

One example is Herakleides son of Didumos the younger, son of Herodes, attested in a declaration of property from the Tebtunis collection (P.Tebt. II 522 descr. = SB XII 10842).

Herakleides belonged to the Hellenized group of the ‘6475 katoikoi (Greek men) in the Arsinoite nome’, who were probably the descendants of the Greek and Hellenized soldiers settled in the Arsinoite district by the Ptolemies (III-II cent. BCE). In the year 133 CE he was a former gymnasiarch, that is a magistrate of Arsinoe, the district capital, and owned a house and other properties in a village near Tebtunis. [The gymnasiarch was a civic magistrate in charge of the games and festivals of the gymnasium, centre of the Hellenized elite.]

Several families of Hellenic descent are attested in the first and second century CE, and the names Herakleides, Didumos, and Herodes recur very often. Interestingly, a few of them appear to have owned property both at Tebtunis and in the district capital. Many owned big houses in the village, and large plots of land in the surrounding area.

The number of these families and their members is not easy to calculate, but there is no doubt that they played an essential role in the local economy and formed a large part of the elite of the village. Many of them were not only landowners, but also wealthy creditors and held prestigious administrative posts in the district capital.

Mummy portrait of Artemidoros the younger (from the necropolis of Hawara, Fayum).

Members of the local elite represented in the Fayum mummy portraits show elements of Greek and Roman culture.

Homer in Tebtunis

At first glance it might just look like a small papyrus with a few letters on it, but a closer look soon reveals a beautiful hand-writing, a medium-sized uncial (that is a script in capital letters) typical of ancient literary texts. It is a section of the Odyssey I have been looking at today! The Tebtunis papyrus in question contains parts of five lines of Book XII, 136-139 and 142 – incidentally, the scribe skipped two lines.

These are the lines in which Circe warns Odysseus that his future adventures in his journey home to Ithaca will be full of dangers, but that there are ways to make it through.

Here is a translation of the passage referred to in our papyrus:

‘These their honored mother [the nymph Neaera], when she had borne and reared them [her daughters Lampetia and Phaetusa],
Sent to the isle Thrinacria to dwell afar, and keep the flocks of their father [Helios] and his sleek cattle.
If you leave these unharmed and heed your homeward way,
Verily you might yet reach Ithaca, though in evil plight.
But if you harm them, then I foretell ruin
For your ship and for your comrades. Even though you might escape yourself,
You will return home late and in evil case, after losing all your comrades.
So she spoke, and presently came golden-throned Dawn.’
Most interestingly, the same hand-writing is to be found in another papyrus from the Tebtunis collection, already published, containing lines 428-440 of Odyssey Book XI (P.Tebt. II 431). The two papyri clearly belonged to the same manuscript, and can be dated to the late first or early second century CE, demonstrating the circulation of Homeric poems in a village of the Roman empire.

About Greek contracts: a cession of land

A few days ago, while going through one of the folders of papyri kept in the vault at CTP, I was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful example of an unpublished cession of land in Greek.

First of all, what is a cession? A cession was the legal instrument used for the transfer of catoecic land, that is the land that was originally granted to the Greek settlers in the Ptolemaic period (III-II BCE).

Our papyrus contains a cession of a relatively large plot of catoecic land (around 6,890 square meters), dated to the Roman period (I-II CE). Not surprisingly, the people involved in the transaction had Greek names: one woman named Zois and a man called Didumos.

The contract was most probably registered at the local notary office, the so-called grapheion, which produced a considerable number of cessions of catoecic land for the Roman period. One example, which is also a good parallel to our text, is a papryus from the Michigan collection (P.Mich. V 262), which contains a cession of catoecic land executed by Didumos son of Lusimachos, a man belonging to a well-known family of Greek descent.

It is very interesting to note that, in the majority of cases, the contracting parties mentioned in cessions of land have Greek names.

The practice of ‘ceding’ (that is, in other words, selling) catoecic land is well attested in Tebtunis in the Roman period, confirming the presence of a landowning elite of Hellenic descent in the village.