Writing letters

Letters are certainly among the most fascinating documents we have from Roman Egypt. A section of Faces&Voices presents some samples from our collection, you can read the texts in translation in Keeping in touch: Writing letters.

You’ll discover that people were writing letters for reasons very similar to us: for getting in touch with family and friends, for pleasure, for work and so forth. Some letters look like our postcards, just greetings, while others are longer reports of events and facts.

We find women writing too. A piece I would have liked to include in the exhibition if I had more space is P.Ryl. 243, sent by two women, Demarion and Irene, to Syros, probably their steward.

P. Ryl. 243 © The John Rylands Library

Demarion and Irene to their dearest Syrus, many greetings.

We know that you are distressed about the lack of water; this has happened not only to us but also to many others, and we know that nothing has happened for your fault. Even now we know your zeal and that you attend to the work of the allotment, and we hope that with god’s help the field is sown. Put down to our account everything you expend on the cultivation of the allotment. Receive from Ninnarus for Irene’s account the share belonging to her, and similarly from Hatres for Demarion’s account the share belonging to her. We pray for your health.

(Address on the back): To Syrus from Irene and Demarion.

We don’t know where the letter was found and the dating to the second century AD is based on paleaography.

The tone is kind and reassuring. The letter shows that the women, possibly two sisters or members of the same family, were involved in the management of their land and the accountancy. The handwriting of the letter is that of a professional scribe, we may imagine that a slave or an employee wrote for them.

Papyri give insights on women lives and activities rarely attested in other sources. I recommend two books on this topic, J. Rowlandson (ed.), Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt. A Sourcebook, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998 and R.S. Bagnall & R. Cribiore, Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt 300 BC-AD 800, Ann Arbor: The Michigan University Press 2006.

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