Uptown Girls in Roman Oxyrhynchos?

Mummy Portrait of a girl, 120-150 CE, Liebieghaus Sculpture Museum

Mummy Portrait of a girl, 120-150 CE, Liebieghaus Sculpture Museum

In a world where gender, age and social group so heavily defines an individual’s life and their access to socio-economic and political power it’s easy to imagine that, in antiquity, girls would perhaps have had a tougher time of things than most, and that different expectations were placed upon them by their families, peers and communities. But how did a gendered experience manifest in a place like Roman Egypt? And how did gender cut across the influences of the other defining factors such as social status, location and age? In the first of a series of posts on girls in Oxyrhynchos, we examine some of the documented girls from our sources. As we might expect, the evidence for girls’ experiences and concerns in Antiquity is quite sparse and often limited to ideal notions of what adults think girls ought to be concerned with. Our analysis of the papyri from Oxyrhynchos gives us some indication of the lives and experiences of girls growing up in this particular city. Life appears to have been different for girls, but in some perhaps unexpected ways…

The Apprentice

From the Hellenistic period onward we have evidence of girls becoming apprentices, particularly in weaving workshops; they were contracted specifically to learn the craft often alongside other girls and boys under the same apprentice master. But these were usually girls of slave status and most frequently found in the towns and villages of the Fayyum region, like Tebtynis – one example, P.Mich. V 241 (16 CE), text and translation here, details a contract in which the prominent local weaver Orsenouphis agreed with Herakleon to teach his slave girl Helene the art of weaving, for the standard two and a half year period in which he would be obliged to feed and clothe her. In general, girls who were contracted as apprentices in weaving, whether slave or free, were subject to the same sorts of contracts for work and learning the craft. In Oxyrhynchos we have plenty of apprenticeship contracts for boys (we’ll come to those in a future post) but very few for girls.  There was also another side to the apprenticeship deal for freeborn children: the contracts often featured details of loans which had been made to the parents of the child being apprenticed, and a suggestion of a repayment schedule in line with the duration of the apprenticeship. In the only apprentice contracts for a freeborn girl in Oxyrhynchos, Aurelius Polydeuces arranged for his young daughter Aurelia Aphrodite to learn the craft of weaving for four years. She would live with the weaver master (here a woman) until the loan he had simultaneously taken was repaid by the girl’s work. Accordingly, she was to live with the master rather than go home at the end of each day:

‘…for this period of time her father will see that his daughter abides with Thonis, not spending a night or a day away, being fed and clothed for the whole period by Thonis instead of receiving wages…’  P.Oxy.  LXVII 4596 (264 C.E.). in Greek, here.

It seems it was only because of the father’s financial situation the girl was to leave the protective sphere of her own household. Thus, here the focus of the apprenticeship was not necessarily borne of the desire for the girl to learn a trade, instead it was a convenient means of securing a loan to the family — of course, it’s difficult to say how this might have impacted on Aurelia Aphrodite’s experience of that four years with Thonis the weaver (it may well have made little difference…).

The Pastry Cook and the Donkey-Driver

From the daughter of a family in significant debt, to girls who were slaves. Girls of this status appear frequently throughout these documents, in a number of scenarios. In one very heavy-handed petition to the local strategos (a high-ranking official) Aurelius Aphynchis sought redress from a pastry-cook who he claimed had assaulted the young slave girl Sarapias who ‘belonged’ to his son (both Sarapias and Aurelius’ son were children). Aurelius claimed that the pastry cook had damaged Sarapias’ lip and then, quite audaciously, assaulted Aurelius himself in a later confrontation about the incident:

‘…hand[s] in the petition and request you to order him to be brought before you and to proceed against his outrages so that the girl can receive redress and treatment.’ P.Oxy. XXXIII 2672 (218 CE)  (trans. adapted from original editors), in Greek, here.

The general tone of this petition suggests not only that Aurelius feels he has been done a dishonour,  but that the family was in fact concerned for Sarapias as a member of their household. It was common for children of slave status to live and be raised in the same household as freeborn children their own age (as we see in the many census returns from Roman Egypt – which I discuss in detail in this book); so it’s perhaps not surprising to observe close bonds forming between those children over the course of their lives as they grew up. In another petition from a woman, Thermuthion, to the local strategos, we see a slave girl – “a little maidservant of mine, slave by birth, Peina” –  who had been injured by a donkey driver in the streets as she accompanied certain Eucharion, a freedwoman, around the city. Thermuthion claimed that she loved and cared for her as a little daughter:

“… in the hope that when she came of age I should have her to tend my old age, for I am a woman helpless and alone”

Peina would had taken the role of a biological child in securing the old age well-being of a lonely woman in a society without pension system. The petition further claims that the incident wasn’t reported straight away,  but that Peina’s hand was crushed, most of it mutilated and:

“… the rest is gaping open … since it is incurable and I cannot bear distress about the maidservant – when you see it with your own eyes you too will be upset. Then I have fled to you…”  P.Oxy. L 3555 (60-130CE) (trans. adapted from original editors)

Both of these girls lived as slaves in households in Oxyrhycnhos, and we see them here as particularly  significant, even cherished members of those families.

Uptown Girls?

It seems that in Oxyrhynchos, girls experienced their surroundings in slightly different ways, but these ways very much depended on their social position. For some upper class girls, growing up meant putting their girlish concerns and fears behind them as they prepared for the trappings of womanhood: marriage. In Egypt women could legally own, inherit and sell property, and they were very active in their children’s affairs. Unquestionably, we have more information about women’s agency from Egypt than from other parts of Graeco-Roman world, but is this simply because of the differences in our sources, or did women actually have more freedom to act? The case is not closed. For freeborn girls within other social groups, apprenticeships may have been an option, but this was a double-edged sword: it’s possible that the these contracts are little more than a simple pledging of children against a loan, disguised as apprenticeships. In any case, their youth was a period to prepare for married life and household tasks it included. For girls of slave status, working filled their days, and apprenticeship was for many a very real option, particularly to learn the trade of weaving. Still, the documents seem to reflect a certain degree of compassion, friendship and concern in their daily household lives. In one Hellenistic literary text found from the city we can catch a glimpse of the concerns of a young woman looking back on her childhood as she set aside playing with her dolls and prepared for marriage. This poem, The Distaff, was written by Erinna, an educated and literary woman; her narrated self claims to have been only nineteen when she wrote the text in memory of her girlhood friend, Baucis, in the 4th century BC.  For someone in Oxyrhynchos this text was relevant and meaningful enough to be copied out in the first century BC:

“. . . . These things I
 lament, sad Baucis.
 These are my memorial,
 warm trails back through my heart:
 now all we once shared, smoulders in ash. Young, without a care, we held our miming girl dolls in the pretense of young brides 
(and sometimes I was playing mother, allotting dawn wool to women,
 calling for you to help spin out the thread). 
What trembling when we were small and feared Mormo —
 huge ears, long tongue,
 forever walking on all fours, always changing from one shape to other. But mounted in the bed of your husband, Baucis, 
you forgot things heard from mother,
 while still we were children.
 Fast Aphrodite set your
 heart and your memory deceived you. Here is my lament,
 my neglected friend:
 I can’t bear this darkness, my feet may not leave this house, nor I will cut my hair nor cry to disgrace your corpse
. O Baucis,
 purple grief lays hold of me.
 Wretched Erinna! Nineteen, 
I moan with a blush to grieve. . . . mortal bloom of women growing old . . . . cries out the laments . . . flame . . . O Hymenaeus! . . . .” PSI IX 1090 (1st c BCE) (trans. adapted from the transs. by Daniel Haberman 1993 and Josephine Balmer 1996).

Usually, the voices of the ancient elite shout louder than those across the rest of the social spectrum; from Oxyrhynchos, the voices of ‘uptown’ girls are matched by those of all sorts of girls working, living, learning and playing in and around the city…

It’s Worth A Stay at the… gymnasium

Last November this blog caught a brief glimpse of fame as a University of Oslo press release drew attention to our research on Growing Up in an Ancient Metropolis. Somewhat unexpectedly, the press’ attention was directed towards our thoughts on the gymnasium and its role in the lives of this ancient city’s youths. Some journal and internet articles likened the the activities of the gymnasium to the more modern experience of ‘a scout group’, other youth organisations and even a kind of fore-runner to the Y.M.C.A. Of course a (perhaps nostalgic/haunting) association with secondary schooling lurked behind some of these comparisons; activities familiar from our own childhoods often present a convenient short hand for the customs of raising and training children in ancient cities. It’s very easy to understand why we might want to compare some aspects of life in the ancient world with their more modern counterparts, when we’re dealing with an experience as universal as moral and civic education of children.

Yet there are some very important differences between the ancient gymnasia (plural for gymnasium) and modern scouts organisations. These institutions were prevalent not just in Egypt, but were a continuation of sorts of the classical Athenian gymnasium which we know about from some of our classical sources:

“Some rich persons have private gymnasia, baths, and dressing-rooms, but the people have built for their own use many wrestling-quarters, dressing-rooms, and public baths. The rabble has more enjoyment of these things than the well-to-do members of the upper class.” (pseudo-Xenophon Constitution of the Athenians 2.10)

And from classical Greek vase paintings:

Attributed to the Ambrosios Painter (Greek (Attic), active 510 - 500 B.C.) Attic Red-Figure Cup Type C, about 510 B.C., Terracotta 6.5 x 25.1 x 18.9 cm (2 9/16 x 9 7/8 x 7 7/16 in.) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California

Attributed to the Ambrosios Painter (Greek (Attic), active 510 – 500 B.C.)
Attic Red-Figure Cup Type C, about 510 B.C., Terracotta
6.5 x 25.1 x 18.9 cm (2 9/16 x 9 7/8 x 7 7/16 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California

In our research, we take into account that we are not dealing with the gymnasia of Athens, known to Pericles, Aristotle and other writers. Many hundreds of years and many hundreds of miles separate the gymnasia of Roman Egypt from their classical and Hellenistic predecessors, even if they still were considered as the cradle of the civilized urban life. Indeed, one of the aims of our project is to achieve an overall picture of the working of the gymnasia in connection to the city life in general, and its role in the lives of young men in particular.

Our research in this area is still preliminary, but we can say a few things about the gymnasium in Oxyrhynchus.

First of all, the gymnasium was not open to everyone. Unlike the origins of the Scouts  and the Young Men’s Christian Association ancient gymnasia were only open to the youth of the privileged groups. In Oxyrhynchus we lack detailed information on the initial ‘birth’ of the gymnasium – when this institution starts to show in our sources, in the latter half of the first century, it was already welcoming new generations of young men in through its doors through a recruiting process of scrutiny (epicrisis). The family background of the applicants was the deciding factor in this scrutiny; boys turning thirteen or fourteen (or rather their fathers or guardians, sometimes even mothers) had to prove that from both sides of their family, their older male relatives had been also been accepted into the gymnasium (usually in the same city). Secondly, the gymnasium was the focus of an entire social and political group, the gymnasial group. In fact, people of privileged status in Oxyrhynchos were divided in two: the metropolitan group, which represented the lower elite status group who enjoyed reduced taxation and presumably functioned as a recruitment pool for the top group of the city, and the gymnasial group. From the gymnasial group were recruited the members of the city council (boule) and the highest officials of the community – and it was only  the male offspring of this latter group who were given access to the gymnasium proper.

A Sporting Chance?

So, what is a gymnasium in Roman Egypt? We don’t know much about this side of things for many ancient cities at all but our systematic approach to the Oxyrhynchus material has led us down some interesting paths. Certainly, the gymnasium in Roman Egypt represents a later interpretation of the classical institution, in which the boys ideally developed ‘a sound mind in a sound body’. The gymnasium was still used (also) as a bath-house; in one document we note that clothes were checked at the door of the gymnasium, as in any bath house in the Roman world (P.Giss. I 50).
In this period, the gymnasium seems still to have been still used both for learning grammar, literature and the art of public speech, and as a premises for practicing sports (esp. wrestling and running) for public games and festivals. Victory in these games would have been a thing to be commemorated in many public contexts for the rest of one’s life, and so was a potential source for honour and pride. We can see this in this panegyrical poem to celebrate Theon, a youth who had made a donation to the gynmnasium and was later appointed to the position of gymnasiarch:
“Hermes, do you yourself hasten to sing for me of your young interpreter, and help the bard, striking with your hand the seven-stringed many-toned lyre, which you yourself first made new-dropped at your mother’s feet and gave to Apollo in ransom for his oxen; therefore do latter-day bards celebrate your service of the Muses, and herdsmen in the fields proclaim thee as pastoral god, while athletes in the stadium call on Hermes ruler of the games, and cities hymn you as warden of the gymnasia. And here too this youth, O King, honours you in your hallowed folk, pouring a fount of oil for the citizens. For it is not newly that we know you, Theon, holding chief office among your youthful comrades, but of old, whether anointing ourselves with oil-distilling flasks, or partaking of the gifts of chaste Demeter. Such blessings did you of your favour bestow on the folk; and blessings on blessings here you give now to the youths, yea more precious still. For those in truth a rich man too might bestow, since vainglorious are the gifts of vain wealth; but these come from a man learned in the wisdom of the Muses. Therefore we honour you more highly for these than for them, because they were taught you by your father, and these by the Muses.”  (adapted from P. Oxy 7 1015 (3rd c CE))
Here it is clear that social status and wealth was used in accumulating social capital for advancement in the local community. But the gymnasium also had a peculiarly military connection in some instances, which appears by this time to be purely symbolic or administrative. For the families, also the prospect of reduced tax played an important incentive to register also other family members than their sons, like daughters and slaves, as having a ‘gymnasial status’. In one document we find details of the epicrisis held in Alexandria by the prefect of the fleet, even though the children were from the Oxyrhynchos area (nome); it appears that this examination was held in Alexandria, as the family members held Roman citizenship, a formal status valued differently in different cities, but particularly strongly in Alexandria.  The thirteen-year old son and eleven-year old daughter of a Roman veteran were here entered into the epicrisis together with their three home-born slaves (aged nine, five, and one unknown). Their widowed mother was in charge of making the declaration:
“… of which a copy is appended, with three witnesses, to the effect that Trunnia Marcella is the sister of Trunnius Lucilianus, and of the examination of my slaves Euphrosynus, …olytus and Plutarchus; and I swear the usual oath made by the Romans that they are my children and I have made no false return…” (extracted from P.Oxy. 12.1451 (175 CE)) 
It seems that the gymnasium as both a place and an institution of sorts, was primarily one in which sons of the urban elite were to learn how to be good citizens, while growing up to conserve the values of a particular social group with a very distinct heritage in the city. Training in both sports and the principles of classical Greco-Roman learning (paideia), were a highly suitable means of achieving and perpetuating this kind of group social identity, and of being able to serve their city as adults (for instance, as benefactors or as members of the town council, the boule). And what was important was that they made connections between themselves for their future success, seemingly even across the gymnasia of different cities.

Eton Mess?

At this point in our research, the answers to some quite crucial questions remain beyond our grasp, and that of the source material. How many of the city’s boys got to engage with gymnasial life: was it indeed reserved only for the boys from the highest echelons of the local community, the uncontested local elite –  this would mean only five percent or less of the age group. But if the selection (epicrisis) was more liberal, and the status had spread during the many decennia of the institution’s history, we might be dealing with even 15 to 20% of the age bracket. And given its upper-status character, how much privilege, power and networking was actually preserved for the futures of the young members of the Oxyrhynchos elite?
In all, as we already warned, if we are going to draw parallels with more modern groups of boys and young men being trained for future success by their social group, we might better look in this direction. The gymnasium in Roman Oxyrhynchos seems to have been more of a state-sustained elite club than anything like this:

Media Spotlight for Oxyhrynchos’ Kids

Over the past week, our project has caught the attention of the world’s media, following the University of Oslo’s Press Release of a brief interview with Ville. Something about children’s lives in the past, and what we know about them, has struck a chord in the hearts and imaginations of many of those who have (re-)tweeted, republished and re-blogged the interview.

 

Well, who wouldn’t want to know more about how we can relate to children in the past, as we do our own children? Who wouldn’t want to know what they did for work and play, where they learned, and how they engaged with their families and the bustling urban world around them — including with other children? The wonderfully-documented ancient metropolis of Oxyrhynchus is the perfect place to look. In later blog posts we’ll show you some of the most interesting (we think!) of these aspects of children’s lives in the city of Oxyrhynchus; watch out for the wrestling match, the big-brotherly advice, the friendship between a young boy and the girl living with his family as a slave, the pushy parent getting his son into the city’s gymnasium, the aunts and uncles and relatively young grand-parents who look after their orphaned younger relatives…

 

Talking about children 

The most significant – and terrifying! – episodes in this surge of interest were our interviews with @bbcworldservice for the Newsday breakfast radio programme, aimed at African audiences. Both of us had the opportunity to talk on the issue for a few minutes (Ville was even brave enough to do it live!)  So, not enough time for a very deep analysis but at least the children of this ancient multi-cultural city with one leg firmly in the Egyptian tradition, the other in the Classical, got some world-wide attention after 2,000 years sitting quietly, being seen and not heard, on many a set of library shelves…

 

Ville: unplugged (short interview from 55’53”)

April, speaking from the comfort of her office: link to follow

You can also see April speak in relation to this project in her interview with Classics Confidential earlier this year

 

 

Sarah Griffiths of the Mail Online was particularly interested in aspects of the gymnasium. It was genuinely pleasant to be able to talk about our research, in a way which would be presented to a public audience with interests in the past.

 

Other archaeology/history specific news sites around the globe were also keen to pick up on this theme, and on the different experiences of boys and girls in Egypt — there’s a surprising range of general and specific interest sites who judged their readers would be interested in children’s lives 2,000 years ago! Happy Reading! (And I bet you’ll leave to the tune of Y.M.C.A….)

 

Heritage Daily

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of Archaeology

Past Horizons

Archaeology News Network

Scott.net

Archaeology.org

Archaeology.wiki

Science Daily

Ancient Origins

Message to Eagle

History of the Ancient World

Barbaricum

Zamora proto historica

Alpha Galileo

NewsSoftpedia – *** note: Y.M.C.A. ! ***

Newslocker

Colorado Newsday

The Cairo Post

 

April  & Ville.

 

 

Below is an edited version of the original press release:

***

In Roman Egypt, 14-year-old boys were enrolled in a youth organization in order to learn to be good citizens. So says social historian and historian of ideas Ville Vuolanto, University of Oslo, who has joined forces with Dr April Pudsey of Newcastle University to dive deep into a mass of material of around 7,500 ancient documents written on papyrus. The texts comprise literary texts, personal letters and administrative documents. Never before has childhood in the ancient world been researched so systematically using this type of material.

The documents originate from Oxyrhynchos in Egypt, which in the first five hundred years CE was a large town of more than 25,000 inhabitants. Oxyrhynchos had Egypt’s most important weaving industry, and was also the Roman administrative centre for the area. Researchers possess a great deal of documentation precisely from this area because archaeologists digging one hundred years ago discovered thousands of papyri in what had once been the town’s rubbish dumps.

Little is known about the lives of children until they turn up in official documents, which is usually not before they are in their early teens. It seems that children began doing light work between the ages of seven and nine. Typically, they might have been set to work as goat-herds or to collect wood for fuel.

Camelboys Konstantinopel

Boys on a camel. Mosaic from late antiquity, early 6th century CE. Great Palace Mosaic Museum, Istanbul. (Photo: Reidar Aasgaard)

Only boys born to free-born citizens wealthy enough were entitled to be members of the town’s youth organization, which was called a gymnasium. These boys were the children of local Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Their families would necessarily have been quite prosperous, and have had an income that placed them in the ‘12 drachma tax class’. It is uncertain how large a proportion of the population would have qualified, probably somewhere between 10 and 25 per cent, Vuolanto explains.

Girls were not typically enrolled as members of the ‘gymnasium’, but are often mentioned in the administrative documents as being the boys’ siblings, and in a few cases enrolled alongside them. This may have had to do with family status or tax class. Both girls and women could own property, but in principle they had to have a male guardian.

There were probably a good number of children who did not live with their biological parents, because the mortality rate was high.

Some boys were apprenticed, some children enslaved

For boys from well-off families of the free-born citizen class, the transition to adult life started with enrollment in the gymnasium. Other boys started working before reaching their teens, and might serve an apprenticeship of two to four years. The researchers have found about 20 apprenticeship contracts in Oxyrhynchos, most of them relating to the weaving industry.

Oslo inv 1470r

A father, Ophelas, requests that his underage son, Pakhois, be registered as an apprentice in the tax lists for the weaving industry. The document is dated 11 June in the year 70 CE. (Photo: Papyrus Collection, University of Oslo Library)

Most girls remained and worked at home, and learned what they needed to know there. They generally married in their late teens – thus younger than boys who usually married only in the ir early twenties at the earliest.

“We have found only one contract where the apprentice was a free-born girl,” Vuolanto remarks. “But her situation was a little unusual – she was not only an orphan but also had her deceased father’s debts to pay.” *

But life was different for slave children. Vuolanto says they have found documents to show that children as young as two were sold and separated from their parents.

In one letter, a man encourages his brother to sell the youngest slave children, and some wine — whereas his nephews should be spoiled. He writes “…I am sending you some melon seeds and two bundles of old clothes, which you can share with your children.”

“It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. By examining papyri, pottery fragments with writing on, toys and other objects, we are trying to form a picture of how children lived in Roman Egypt,” explains Vuolanto.

 

 

 

* There are other cases: more to come in later blog posts!