Life and Death in Roman Egypt: Artemidoros and his family

Artemidoros junior, Artemidoros senior and Thermoutharin


Artemidoros junior, British Museum EA 21810

I spent last Bank Holiday weekend in the British Museum and paid a visit to Artemidoros junior. This spectacular mummy case of the Roman period (ab. 100-120 AD) was found by Petrie in Hawara together with other two, that of an older Artemidoros, now in Manchester (1775), and another of a woman, Thermoutharin, now in Cairo (33231). The three were maybe members of the same family. They were not only buried together, but the style of their cases looks very similar, probably coming from the same workshop. A Greek inscription on the cases wishes them a safe trip to the underworld. ‘Farewell Artemidorus!’ — with a misspelling here, Ἀρτεμίδωρε εὐψύχι (instead of εὐψύχει).

Artemidoros inscription

The inscription: Farewell Artemidoros!

While the two men have a typical Greek name (Artemidoros, ‘the gift of Artemis’), the woman has a name that although written in Greek derives from the Egyptian goddess’ name Thermouthis (Renenutet, later Thermouthis a fertility goddess connected with Isis). This offers an interesting insight into questions of identity in Roman Egypt. Under the Roman rule, the Hellenised elite maintained the privileged status acquired during the Ptolemaic period, so it was important to publicise your ‘Greek’ face. However we can see through papyri that men often had double names, a Greek or Latin one and an Egyptian, while women were often given names connected with native deities. Moreover despite their Roman togas, jewellery and portrait style, it is Egyptian funerary religion that these people chose for assuring their souls an afterlife.

The finding

The three mummies were discovered in 1888 while the famous German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was visiting Petrie in Hawara, as recorded by the same Petrie with a note of pride: “By the time they [Schliemann and his two companions] have lunched a procession of three gilt mummies is seen coming across the mounds, glittering in the sun. These are of fresh style, three painted portraits, but the body covered with a bright red-brown varnish and scenes in relief gilt all over it. The name on each mummy across the breast. These I must bring away intact, they are so fine and in such good condition.”[1]

Life and death: Artemidoros and his family

Artemidoros senior

Artemidoros senior, Manchester Museum 1775

The mummy of Artemidoros junior had been at the centre of scientific research, which has established he died when he was about 19-21 years old. The Manchester Artemidoros will be soon processed through CT-scanning and other inspections that will tell us more about his life and death. He has a beard that made scholars infer he was older than the other Artemidoros when he died, but on the basis of these data we cannot be sure about the relationship between the two men and the woman. A scientific study of the three mummies would be ideal since it would definitely help answering questions about the eventual family relationship between the three that some scholars have questioned.

[1] Petrie, MS Journal, 16 December 1887-12 May 1888, pp. 80-81 cited from S. Walker and al. (eds.), Ancient Faces. Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, London 1997, 57.

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