Portraits of women

The woman is wearing a purple tunic maybe similar to that of the daughter of Heraklas (P.Ryl. 151) © The Manchester Museum

Manchester Museum inv. 2266 (Hawara, Fayum, 138-160 AD) The woman is wearing a purple tunic maybe similar to that of the daughter of Herakleos (P.Ryl. 151)
© The Manchester Museum

Last week I had a meeting with Campbell Price and Bryan Sitch at the Manchester Museum to discuss a project for enhancing the use of artefacts in the teaching of Roman history. We were looking for objects that enlighten the life of ancient individuals and I complained about the lack of women from our list. In fact, if we turn our attention to papyri, women do appear in surprising ways; papyri offer views on women’s life as no other kind of sources do.

Petitions are intriguing. In these one-sided accounts we would expect to find women as the victims of violence and injustice, but we do actually find them acting on both sides, as victims and perpetrators.

 Herais attacks the daughter of Herakleos

P.Ryl. 151: http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.ryl;2;151/

P.Ryl. 151 recto© The John Rylands Library

P.Ryl. 151 recto
© The John Rylands Library

To Gaius Iulius Pholus, head of the policemen (epistates ton phylakiton), from Herakleos, son of Pathermouthis, from Euemeria in the district of Themistes. Herais, the wife of Heraklas, son of P…., of the same village, having entered into my house in the village and seized my daughter, gave her many blows all over the body, stripped and tore off her purple tunic and carried away 100 drachmas from those of the gymnasiarch[1] which I administer. For this reason write to the chief of the police (archephodos) …

(second hand) To the chief of police (archephodos): send them up!

Year 5 of Gaius Caesar Emperor Augustus Saviour, the 20 of Sebastos (= 17 October 40 AD).

(On the verso the editors read traces of an address ‘ To the chief of police (archephodos) of Euemeria’ and date now disappeared)

Among many other things, the papyrus informs us on the way public order worked in the early Roman period. Herakleos, the father of the woman attacked, petitioned the head of the police at the nome (regional district) level to intervene on the village police highest authority, the archephodos. But isolated as it is, the petition does not allow us knowing if the story is true and how the quarrel ended up. We may wonder about the reasons behind the attack. Herakleos administers the treasure of the local gymnasium: were there shortfalls in the gymnasiarch account that he had to explain, and then he made up a story? Or was Herais mad at the girl for some reasons?

Soueris, a runaway girl

P.Ryl. 128: http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.ryl;2;128/

To Serapion, head of the policemen, from Hatres, son of M…, oil-maker of those who are in Euemeria, in the division of Themistes, of Gaius Iulius Ethenodoros and Tiberius Calpurnius Tryphon. Soueris, daughter of Harsuthmis, olive-carrier that works with me under contract changed her mind, left the mill, and escaped persuaded by her father Arsuthmios as long ago as the 19th of Mecheir of the 16th year of Tiberius Caesar Augustus (= 13 February 30 AD), her father being oblivious of what he with his wife owes me according to a contract of engagement (paramone). And she carried off from my house a cloak worth 4 silver drachmas and 40 silver drachmas, which I was keeping for payment of the rent. Therefore I have suffered not a minor damage. For this reason I ask the accused persons to be brought to you for the ensuing punishment. Farewell.

Hatres, aged 35, with a scar in the middle of the forehead.

Soueris, daughter of Arsuthmios, was due to work as olive-carrier with Hatres at an oil-mill probably for repaying the interests on a debt contracted by her parents. This seems alluded by the mention of a paramone contract (l. 20), usually a contract of service to fulfill the payment of interests (or the capital) of a loan, meaning that a loan was fulfilled by staying at the service of the creditor. But Hatres complains that the girl ran away on suggestion of her father bringing with her a cloak and a sum of money. We can exercise our imagination on the reasons behind the escape, in view of the very weak position the girl must have had at the factory. How was life for a girl at the house of a 35 years old man with whom her family was indebted?

Aplounous, Thermis and Eudemonis, a day at the village baths…

P.Ryl. 124: http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.ryl;2;124/

Through this illiterate petition we enter into the village baths of Euemeria and see women quarrelling and fighting. The text of the petition begins on one side of the papyrus, continues on the back; it has mistakes and corrections, and is incomplete, which indicate that it was a draft.

From Hippalos, son of Archis, farmer of public land inhabitant of the village of Euemeria in the division of Themistes. On the 6th of Tubi (1 January), as my wife Aplounous and her mother Thermis (were bathing?), Eudemonis, daughter of Protarchos, Etthutais, daughter of Pees, Dius, son of Ammonios, and Heraclous attacked them and gave my wife Aplounous and her mother in the bath of the village many blows all over the body, so that she is laid up in bed, and in the struggle she lost a golden ear-ring weighing three quarters, a bracelet of unstamped metal weighing sixteen drachmae, and a bronze bowl worth twelve drachmae, and Thermis her mother lost a golden ear-ring weighing two and a half quarters, and … (here the text stops)

The three papyri here discussed belong to a larger group of petitions, all dated to the first half of the first century AD, acquired on the antiquity market by B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt and then assigned to the John Rylands Library. The documents (P.Ryl. 124-152) were published in the second volume of the Catalogue of the Greek Papyri in the John Rylands Library at Manchester (1915). Few other papyri belonging to the same lot are now dispersed in other collection. These petitions concern people from the village of Euemeria (Fayum), but are addressed to the head of the police or other officers in the nome capital, Arsinoe. Through them we can observe the early Roman administration at work in Egypt. The distance between the two localities was of about 40 km. The first petition here reported reveals details of the process. It was endorsed and addressed on the verso to the archephodos in Euemeria, therefore it seems reasonable to think that the document was written in or sent to the capital of the nome, Arsinoe, presented successfully to the head of the police there, and then sent back to the village police authority in order to bring the people involved to the capital.

If you want to know more about petitions in Roman Egypt I recommend B. Kelly, Petitions, Litigation and Social Control in Roman Egypt, Oxford 2011.


[1] The head of the gymnasium. The gymnasium was a cultural and educative institution where boys were admitted at the age of fourteen. It was also a center for the promotion of the Greek culture, and a sort of a gentlemen club. The gymnasium had a political dimension since only the Hellenised elite was admitted in.

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