The Egyptian papyri are a gold mine for research on wide-ranging topics in ancient cultural and social history. This was proved to us when we decided to take part in the conference On the Road: Travels, Pilgrimages and Social Interaction. Passages from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, held in Tampere, Finland, in early August 2015. Had Ville not been on the organizing board of the event, this theme may not have registered on our radar and attracted our attention. But now it gave us a chance to see how far our material could get us in terms of ‘social approaches to travelling, mobility and cultural exchange’. Thus we set off on our own road to exploring children’s mobility around Roman Oxyrhynchos, hoping to follow in their tiny footsteps…
Our first road block: papyri from the Oxyrhynchos area do not in fact feature many travelling children (statistically speaking) – but our material does include some 35 cases which can be interpreted as referring to some kind of travel for children outside of their local environments. For the majority of children, it was only in their early teens that their perspectives would have widened beyond the household; for most, this was due to their work in fields, workshops or even in other households. Elites children were in a position to move away from their homes for a higher education in the city centre of Oxyrhynchos, or in some cases much farther away – 200 kilometres downriver in Alexandria.
The most well-recorded group of travelling children in our sources were of slave status, who were recorded in documents related to transactions of slave-trading. This kind of movement – born of circumstances beyond the person’s control – was a huge feature of mobility in the ancient world; the results of such trading in people, and often movement of free people in the aftermath of war or political turmoil, accounts for the overwhelming majority of mobility in the Roman world.
For these recorded slave children, we can see clearly that they were freely sold and separated from their families of origin, and that many of them had to travel far from very young ages. This was not an uncommon experience, given the size of the slave population across Antiquity and the scale of slave-trading. Among these traveling slaves, those working or studying were mainly boys, but girls were equally prominent. One example is recorded in the middle section of a slave sale transaction record found from Oxyrhynchos:
Aurelius Quintus son of Hilarius of the city of Caesarea [of Mauretania] … has sold through the landed bank under the herald Marcus Aurelius Dionysius son of Dionysius son of Dionysius son of Aponetus, a slave girl (korasion) called Vic… [alias?] Rufina aged ten… , a mauron by birth, at the price of …50 denarii. Aurelius Epimachus … has bought [her?].
Here, a slave girl, Rufina, who was originally from Caesaria Mauretania (present-day Cherchell, near Algiers), was sold in Rhodes (where this document was drafted) when she was ten years old (the age can also be as high as nineteen). Rufina eventually ended up in Oxyrhynchos (P.Oxy L 3593). Quite a journey, quite a fate.
Working and Walking the Land
It was not only children of slave status who were on the road, even if for them their travels were unquestionably much longer and farther than for others. A primary example of this is shepherd named Petemounis, mentioned to be a minor (thus under fourteen), whose home was at the village of Kerkemounis in the upper toparchy (1st pagus), but who was pasturing in the neighbourhood of the town of Pela in western toparchy (3rd pagus), at minimum some fifteen kilometers from home. While this distance easily could have been covered on foot in a half a day when off duty, he is also mentioned occasionally to have tended his flock ‘throughout the entire nome’, that is, even much farther away from home. For him, the rural areas of the Oxyrhynchite nome must have become quite familiar early on, with also the responsibility of the flock – mentioned to consist of twelve sheep and three goats with their lambs and kids in 29 CE (P. Oxy XXXVIII 2850).
If any of our readers has any idea how quickly such a flock with a shepherd can move (km per day?), we would be happy to hear!
The experience of children’s lives was not universal (as it is still not, today), and for many children in or from Roman Oxyrhynchos their local environment extended beyond their immediate home and family into wider communities, environments and sometimes other countries. Such mobility would have had significant cultural, social and psychological impact on those children, and undoubtedly would have helped them to shape their lives and the meaning they attached to the world around them.
Refugees and Mobility
A case in point are the Goths in service at the Apion estates near Oxyrhynchos in 560s AD, who seem to have formed a small Gothic community of their own, with their wives and children. These immigrants or refugees in the aftermath of the Gothic wars – which had laid waste much of Italy – found a new home far away across the Mediterranean. You can listen to a podcast of Professor Peter Heather (of King’s College London) speak on refugees in the Roman Empire, here as part of the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre.
The ‘new world’ was peaceful and gave people their daily bread (see PSI VIII 953 and 956 with Norman Underwood’s fascinating article online), but for their children the cultural shock must have been tremendous.
There are many more cases of mobile children in the material, and we’re putting together an article on what these might tell us about the impact of travel for any reason on children’s lives. Further cases of child slaves or children in refugee communities are giving us a lot to think about, particularly in terms of children’s agency and emotion, in terms of coping, obligation and duty as they find themselves Anywhere on this Road…
Lhasa de Sela, Anywhere on this Road