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…


Growing Up in an Ancient Metropolis

Everyday Lives and Cultures of Children in Roman Oxyrhynchos

April Pudsey and Ville Vuolanto


We’re currently working on our joint project ‘Children in Oxyrhynchos: Everyday Life in an Ancient Metropolis’. In it we aim  to reconstruct as possible the lives of children within the particular physical and social environment of a populous and diverse (and well-documented!) ancient metropolis. We’re systematically analysing the environments, activities and experiences of children in the city, their web of social relationships, and their agency in shaping these aspects of their lives.

Our case study is Oxyrhynchos:  a major, heavily populated and Hellenised metropolis in the Roman empire at the centre of administrative, political, religious and socio-economic life for an urban population.  Over 2,000 literary and 4,000 documentary papyri edited so far make up our source material and are testament to a range of socio-political statuses within the population. The ruling elite of the city were known as the gymnasial group – a hereditary social through which local and regional political power was distributed, within which there were Hellenised, literary circles who read, learned and adapted classical Greek literature. Beyond the gymnasial group were sub-elite and ordinary families, households and individuals, slaves, lodgers, tradesmen and migrants — all of whom are represented in the papyrological documents from Oxyrhynchos.

We are in the process of collating and analysing these texts, especially those which explicitly relate to children.   These documents range from household census returns, to official applications, petitions, legal documents and school texts and even private letters between family members and friends.


Why did Didyme do what she did?

Children of various ages, social groups and both boys and girls, feature in these documents and their experience of life in a Hellenised city in the Roman empire is here evidenced. The papyrus below, from the collection in the University of Oslo, tells an intriguing story about living conditions and housing in Oxyrhynchos – you can read a translation of the text, here.

POslinv1482  P.Osl. inv. 1482 (3rd century CE)

In this document Aurelius is writing to petition  the local police magistrate (ἐπεὶ τῆς εἰρήνη̣[ς]), complaining that he has been treated with insolence and assaulted by  a woman named Didyme, the wife of Agathos Daimon the cook, when staying in his home. It seems from this petition that Didyme came in, insulted and physically struck him, and then railed furiously at some of his daughter’s sons (whom he now calls as witnesses).  There are lots of interesting questions that this document raises. First,  the sons mentioned here are living with their maternal grandfather (their mother’s father) and are to be relied upon to provide valuable witness. How common was it for grandparents to share an active role in children’s home lives and up-bringing? And where are the children’s parents in this household? Second, the implication here is that Didyme has accused the boys of having done something to warrant her anger — but what? Third, the children were living in a household environment in which non-kin household members, or even adjunct family units (in this case a cook and his wife) were workers and/or lodgers — how common was this?

Barber Boy

Children also feature in contexts outside of the family home. From the age of 10 years upwards boys (and sometimes girls) could be contracted as apprentices  for a specified nubmer of years to learn trades such as weaving, and were often sent to live with their new apprentice master or at least work with them ‘from sunrise until sunset’. Numerous formal contracts are testament to some of the working and learning arrangements in place. Conditions for children learning a trade would have varied – particularly if there were other children engaged in work at the same workshop – and it is possble that, once they grew up, children maintained a strong relationship with their master.  In  a letter (P.Oxy. LV 3809, 2nd/3rd c. CE) a young barber writes proudly to his former master to give news of his success in finding a job – he boasts about his responsibilities and asks to pass on greetings to his fellow apprentices and former peers.

The children of Oxyrhynchos experienced life growing up in a major metropolis from a range of perspectives, and their experience was often determined by their age, gender and social status. We have documents telling us about: the movement of children who were bought and sold as slaves; applications for boys’ (and sometimes girls’) registration into the metropoliltan urban elite group known as the gymnasium (the group to which 14 year old boys would have been officially registered, in a similar manner as the ephebate in Classical Athens); and private letters referring to children in affectionate terms. Others children were involved in aspects of religious, cultic, economic, or political life in the city.

Seen and not heard?

So why is it interesting to study children in the context of this ancient metropolis? The demographic profile of the ancient world was such that we can expect the populations of Roman Egypt to have been very ‘young’, that is, the proportion of children to adults was relatively large by modern, western standards. This means there were plenty of children around within households, around the city and in the fields. Why do we know so little about their perspectives on life in the ancient world? Children are a group (if we can consider them a social or cultural group) whose voices are rearely heard from the sources,  but the ways in which children viewed and negotiated their physical, social and cultural environment, and their place within it, tells us a lot about those cultures.

All children, of course, grow up. Transitions from birth, through infancy, childhood and adolescence to adulthood are culturally construed and determined. If we can reconstruct children’s lives in an ancient metropolis like Oxyrhynchos then this can tell us a lot about everyday life in general in an ancient city. This enriches our understanding of how ancient societies and cultures operated and varied.