Theon, an Angry Boy from Roman Egypt (P. Oxy. I 119)

Theon to his father Theon greetings. It was so nice of you not to take me with you to the city. If you refuse to take me with you to Alexandria I won’t write you a letter or speak to you or wish you good health. So, if you go to Alexandria I won’t take your hand or greet you ever again. If you refuse to take me, this is what will happen. And my mother said to Archelaos that he is upsetting me, take him away! It was so nice of you, sending me these great presents, just rubbish. They put me off the track on the 12th, the day when you sailed. Well then, send for me, I beg you. If you don’t, I won’t eat, I won’t drink; there! I pray for your health. Tybi 18th.

Deliver to Theon from Theonas his son.

As far as we are aware, only three children’s letters from Greco-Roman antiquity have survived the ages and present themselves to us, so the text above is quite exceptional.[1] It is a letter written on papyrus, found in the city of Oxyrhynchos (now El-Bahnasa), some 200 km upriver from the present-day Cairo and 400 km from the sea and Alexandria, Roman Egypt’s cultural and administrative centre. The dating of the letter is uncertain, but most probably it dates to the second or third century CE. In any case, the calendar date is January 13th (or 14th, if the year in question was a leap year). The translation above is based on that of Peter Parsons, but it is modified by Ville Vuolanto. For the original Greek text with technical information, see

Even though the letter does not mention its author age, we can reasonably expect him to have been rather young. He seems to have written (and composed) the text by himself, and had therefore already been able to acquire some literacy skills. On the other hand, he is by no means allowed to move around freely and, above all, his way of behaving and expressing himself certainly does have the air of childlike sentiment and concern. This boy was, presumably, over ten years of age, but still not yet reached the legal majority (fourteen).

The text combines two different rhetorical strategies: first, the adult-tone, with recourse to irony: ‘so nice of you’, and with the present, and the socially correct means of addressing and elder. On the other hand, there is the childlike-tone, featuring attempts at emotional blackmail: he won’t speak, greet or eat if his hopes are not fulfilled. Theon even refers to the words of his mother, playing his parents off against one another to back up his claim that he is indeed very, very disappointed.

The translation cannot do full justice to the textual characteristics of the original letter: the editors, Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, remark that it is ‘[w]ritten in a rude uncial hand, and its grammar and spelling leave a good deal to be desired’. A good illustration of this is the writer’s problems in reporting indirect speech. Not surprisingly, there are many problems in translation, as it is not always clear what is going on in the text. For example the reference to the present is not completely clear. The word is arakia, which literary means chickling beans (lathyrus sativus). Thus, a translation such as ‘beans’ would be possible. However, here, in line with the general stroppy tone of the letter, if we interpret this to denote ’weed’,’refuse’ (or ‘rubbish’, here, as Jaakko Frösen has pointed out), then we may be more to the point.

We have here a boy whose father does not want take him along with him out into the big wide world of the Roman empire’s second biggest city, Alexandria. Yet, we also have here a, dare we say, precocious child, who certainly is privileged compared with most of his peers: he has access to education and he comes from a fairly wealthy family. His father is doing business in Alexandria for a longer period, and he himself has access to papyrus to write on – and he took full advantage of his situation. Naturally, to write a letter may have been the idea of Archelaos (perhaps an older relative, or a teacher) but the wording shows that the ideas presented were boy’s own. The letter is written in Theon’s home estate, which his father has left without informing his son, to take the boat from the city of Oxyrhynchos further down the Nile. And from Oxyrhynchos the letter was finally found, thus, most probably, it was originally sent – even if we cannot know whether Theon’s father ever received and read it.


Sculpture of an under-age boy with his hair worn in the Egyptian style with a “lock of Horus”. ­The side-lock of hair was cut off and dedicated to the gods in connection with the coming-of-age ceremony marking the transition to adult life. From the first half of the second century CE. Museum of Cultural History, Oslo. (Photo: Museum of Cultural History)

So what can we learn about children’s lives in Egypt from such a letter? We have here an example of a child’s multi-layered agency: Theon wants to experience Alexandria, and he pesters his mother and goes to the effort of writing a letter; he is also proclaiming his agency by greeting or not greeting his father, and – though perhaps not so convincingly – by eating or not eating. Certainly, he presents himself as a subject in his own life. The intervention of an adult may account in part for the idea of writing a letter in the first place, or in formulae of address and conclusion (although these could simply reflect such well-embedded cultural conventions, that a boy Theon’s age and position could discern and mimic them). In particular the shifting tone at the end of the letter is amusing, and shows that ‘I pray for your health’ is there because (and only because) one should end letters with this expression in polite circles. It is also of interest that at the beginning of the letter he uses his real name, Theon – but when adding the address, he shifted to use his pet name, Theonas.

Theon is actively trying to influence decision-making in the family. The letter is a rhetorical exercise. He tells what he chooses to tell about his experiences: he works hard to convince his father of his deep disappointment at the family decision. The interplay of social conventions and his immediate concerns are made visible in an exceptional manner: he is socialized with regard to his ‘family culture’ rather than with the requirements of the wider cultural discourses. There is little sign of the kind of filial piety which ideally should permeate all interaction between children and their parents. The milieu in which his action takes place is convincingly depicted: a household with his mother and some other people, with freedom to action and to express his opinions and experiences. Perhaps the most interesting point in our present context is that he seems to think this actually could help. Theon is not an oppressed or frightened child. He is not afraid of losing the emotional support of his nearest and dearest even if he is himself angry and irritating.

As such, this is an isolated text, and, as noted, nearly unique. No firm conclusions about the ‘usual’ experiences of childhood or prevalent patterns of family dynamics can be drawn from this kind of anecdotal evidence: it is his own world Theon is experiencing. But it shows what was possible within certain limits, at least in some contexts and in some families. This kind of micro-historical evidence of life in the ancient world’s cities and communities, is invaluable in showing us the cultural expectations and the, usually well-hidden, lives of their inhabitants.


[1] Another is SB III 6262 (Third century, of unknown provenance). The third case is a fourth century BCE lead table found in the Athenian Agora (Agora inv. IL 1702).


Your hand-picked song to go with this blog text is Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want by the Smiths:


Children on the Road in Roman Egypt

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.

Forced Mobility

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.

Map for on the road

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.


footsteps 2

April and Ville presenting to the enthusiastic audience (photo by — seated in front of more enthusiastic audience! —  Samuli Simelius)

The conference was live-tweeted, and you can see some of the comments on the discussions here (like: ‘Overheard at the conference “17-year-old is too old for us”‘ (Reima Välimäki)).


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

Children and asceticism in Late Antiquity

“He has children, he is not dead”

Cover Vuolanto

In Late Antiquity, asceticism challenged the traditional norms and practices of family life. The resulting discussions of the right way to live a Christian life provide us with a variety of texts with information on both ideological statements and living experiences of Late Roman childhood and children. Ville’s book, which came out in April 2015, Children and Asceticism in Late Antiquity. Continuity, Family Dynamics and the Rise of Christianity, is the first major book-length study of the interplay between children, family and asceticism in Christian ideology; it is also the first to scrutinise in depth the roles of children in family dynamics for any area of the Roman World.

“Better than to have children is childlessness with virtue, for in the memory of virtue is immortality”  (Wisdom of Salomo, 4.1)

Why did parents want their children to become ascetics instead of contributing to their family lineage and, thus, their own continuity? By taking this question as its starting point, the study contributes to the discussions on family ideology, role of children and family dynamics in Late Roman world; to the study of Christian asceticism in Late Antiquity; and to modern theories on family strategies and continuity. Christian authors of the late fourth and early fifth centuries challenged the traditional Greco-Roman view that family was the central means by which the immortality in the continuity of the name, lineage and memory was assured, pointing to the superiority of asceticism in safeguarding meaningful life. “‘I will give you an eternal name’ … what more do you seek?” (Augustine, On Holy Virginity 25).

In the book, childhood and children are approached both from the ideological and social historical perspectives: first, what was the place reserved for children in the emerging Christian family ideology; second, what was the place for children in the actual family dynamics and life course; third, what were the limits of children’s own action? In analyzing the ideological side, the stress is on Christian family rhetoric: evading death and striving for continuity through family life is shown to have been conceived as a basic component for good life in the Late Roman world. “Each day we die, each day we change, and yet we are convinced that we are eternal” (Jerome, Letters 60.19)

Indeed, old ways of life were deeply embedded in the culture. It is shown in the book how asceticism fitted into the upper class culture and mentality, and how it was put into practice on the family level and in the lives of children, with some promised to God at their birth, some others driven to conflicts with their parents. These processes are informative in showing how the late Roman elite families worked, and what was the role of children in the contemporary culture.

“Thus, happy are those who leave behind children to succeed them and take over their possessions. He has children, he is not dead”  (Augustine, Expos. on the Psalm 48, 1.14)


You can purchase Ville’s book online from Ashgate, with a 20% discount (just click this text)

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

Science Daily

Ancient Origins

Message to Eagle

History of the Ancient World


Zamora proto historica

Alpha Galileo

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


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!

Children and Everyday Life in the Roman World – in Oslo

Ville Vuolanto and April Pudsey


This May saw the three-day international workshop at the University of Oslo with the title Children and Everyday Life in the Roman World. The main purpose of this workshop was for leading experts in fields relating to the history of ancient children to present and develop articles for a new publication which would address the everyday lives of children in Late Antiquity. Children, and their perspectives, served as the starting point and, in as far as possible, their experiences and agency were our central focus. The initial call was to push the very limits of our previous knowledge and to explore new means of tracking children’s cultures, experiences and agency as far as possible from the evidence, and from interdisciplinary approaches.

Both workshops

Participants of the Children and Everyday Life -workshop, along with remnants of an Origins of Western Childhood workshop which took place earlier the same week.

Together we were twenty experts in ancient childhood, education, families and popular culture. Participants were well prepared, having read and digested pre-circulated drafts of one another’s papers, which created a good opportunity for in-depth discussions. As such, this was the first academic meeting of its kind – one in which we attempted a task often viewed as near-impossible, to view children’s lives in the ancient past from the perspectives of those children themselves. This approach, as yet un-developed in publications on ancient children, yielded many exciting results.

Scholarship, new and bit older, on children in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Pretty much the entire scholarship on children in Antiquity and the Middle Ages!

In two particularly inventive papers, for example, we pondered how the cityscape would have appeared to the eyes of a child, both from the perspective of Roman children in Pompeii, and that of a Jewish boy in Tiberias; discussions of the graffiti inscribed by children added interestingly to this discussion on children’s spaces and agency. Children’s environments comprised not only walls, streets and fields, but also people; these interpersonal contexts and social environments were dealt with in our paper on children and the wider network of relatives in Oxyrhynchos, in Roman Egypt, using children’s relationships with their uncles and aunts as a case study for exploration.

How children spent their time was one of the main areas for discussion throughout the workshop, and presentations on children’s leisure and play spoke directly to this question. While child-work was not much discussed, a paper from a paediatric surgeon on ancient children and accidents gave many insights into the (often perilous) activities of children, showing them taking care of carrying items and caring for animals, for instance (and, of course, the expected collection of breakages, cuts and swallowed items!). The lives of children in the margins were tracked through the themes of illegitimate and disabled children, both in law and in practice. Some children, naturally, also had access to formal education with strict discipline in schools and, later, monasteries. Also here, the theme of emotions and responses to adult expectations was a central one, and the papers on death on one hand and touch on the other were involved directly with the issues.

While it was sometimes difficult to focus on children’s perspective and culture, the workshop well presented the newest wave of childhood studies in antiquity: the discussions prompted by Philippe Ariès, that is, the need to challenge the notion of a lacking in parental emotional investment in their children and of childhood as a separate phase in life in ancient world, are now over, and the field is open for other questions and inspiration from modern childhood studies. It will be very interesting to see the final versions of the chapters in the forthcoming volume.

Reidars presentation

The workshops were organized under the aegis of the project “Tiny Voices From the Past: New Perspectives on Childhood in Early Europe” (University of Oslo / Norwegian Research Council), with prof. Reidar Aasgaard as the project leader – in the picture above he presenting the project; standing on the right Director of the host institute (IFIKK), Mathilde Skoie.

The project (2013–2016) studies the lives of children and attitudes to childhood in a culturally formative stage of European culture: Antiquity and the Early/High Middle Ages. Please visit for fuller information.