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

Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: City of the Sharp-Nosed fishes…

Newcastle-Upon-Tyne’s history stretches back a long way. Labour and movement in and around the North East, and cultural integration, are prominent features of its history, and Newcastle is now host to a number of immigration and refugee services. This kind of movement is, of course, not new. People travelled widely in the ancient world and landed in the big cities for strikingly similar reasons. Flight from war and its aftermath, political turmoil and religious and other persecution was not uncommon, and mobility for economic reasons was a huge part of life across the ancient Mediterranean.  Its impact and influence on families – and children in particular – would have been vast, either negatively or positively.

So how can we use the ancient world to help children in Newcastle frame their own experience of meeting other children and families in circumstances like these? And, of course, vice versa: what can children’s perspectives on mobility today tell us about likely patterns in the past?

Where better to explore this locally than with children in West Jesmond Primary School? A school which teaches pupils from an extraordinary wide range of ethnic, social  and religious backgrounds, and works hard to bring the University and local community into its pupils’ education (see their Twitter account!).

Beyond Frontiers

For a research contribution to Newcastle University’s new Beyond Frontiers project, I created two workshops for Year 4 pupils. Our research on the Children in Oxyrhynchos project (Pudsey and Vuolanto) seemed like a good opportunity to test the waters: how do children in modern-day Newcastle think about movement to a new city and all that it entails? Beyond Frontiers provided a chance to ask that question of children, using role play scenarios based on the lives of their ancient counterparts — and to use ancient historical research to do so. The pupils were of course enthusiastic about the workshops (and not only because it got them a few afternoons off school…), and I learned a good deal about what sorts of perspectives children can take on cultural diversity.


Role play scenarios in Oxyrhynchus. Photo: Arto Polus

Role-play scenarios

After some introductory family-tree-building with Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits,  each class of Year 4 pupils was set the task of exploring the city of Oxyrhynchus (specially set up in their classroom with the help of inflatable crocodile and ‘nile boat’, and a weaving loom) in search of their missing neighbourhood  cat, Sarapis. The pupils had to set themselves in the role of the city’s children and ask questions of the people they encountered in order to find out why Sarapis the cat had visited each location…


Pupil with mummy portrait of young girl: what’s her story? Photo: Arto Polus


Meeting the Mummy Embalmer, Stephanos (Jordan Bayley, MA student) visiting Oxyrhynchus from Greece. Photo: Arto Polus

On their travels, our intrepid young adventurers met Stephanos, a Greek man who had travelled from Greece to become a mummy embalmer in the village of Tebtynis, and then moved to the city of Oxyrhynchus. The pupils were guided to ask questions about why Stephanos was embalming a crocodile in the first place, and thought about the importance of local and regional beliefs and customs. How important is this sort of religious worship to people who practice it? Why had Stephanos become an embalmer and moved to Egypt, and then this city? What was different here for him? What animal would they embalm and use to represent Newcastle?


Contract for an apprenticeship in Seuthes’ weaving workshop (Chris Mowat, PhD student). Would you sign…? Photo: Arto Polus

Next stop, they met the owner of the local weaving workshop, who asked if they wanted to sign a contract to become an apprentice in his workshop. The pupils cautiously examined an adaptation of an actual contract from second century A.D. Oxyrhynchus, and asked questions about the experience of working there (see our previous posts on these pages, on Romano-Egyptian apprenticeships).


Apprenticeship contract.


How many other children were there? Where had they come from? Would they all share the same language and play the same games? Did they have to live together? I was surprised by how many of the pupils were so keen to sign a contract which had them working from ‘sunrise to sunset’ largely, it seemed, out of intrigue and excitement for talking and playing with other kids from different places…


Meeting Marcus the Nile Boat driver (Maria Dougan, PhD student), in search of his brother… Photo: Ato Polus


After a brief visit to the ancient city’s theatre and markets, our explorers finally met Marcus, a  Nile boat driver and Roman citizen searching for his brother who had fled from war in Dura Europos. Marcus’ missing brother had gone ‘somewhere with a river’ — was it the Nile? Or the Tyne? Marcus carried with him an amulet which his brother had given to him as a memento, and the pupils thought about what kinds of objects from their homes they would give to family members and friends travelling away. They shared drawings and discussion about objects of their own they would like to keep with them if they left home (ranging from cuddly toys and kitchen implements, to super-soakers and smartphones with the family photographs on them). This tied in nicely with one of the other workshops the pupils had done on the biography of objects, based on one of our undergraduate Archaeology modules.

As it turned out, Sarapis had been hiding out on Marcus’ boat all along with vague hopes of catching sight of the elusive and eponymous ‘Sharp-Nosed Fish’ of Oxyrhynchus. She’d been following our young explorers around the city and listening in to each encounter they had, hoping to find clues of her own. Ultimately, leading them a merry dance around the city…


Sarapis the cat: on the hunt for the ‘Sharp-Nosed Fish’ of Oxyrhynchus.

Mummy Portraits

I ran follow-up sessions as part of the project, in the Great North Museum: Hancock. In these sessions the same pupils in groups of three or four used sample mummy portraits to think about creating their own characters and then to paint portraits of them onto canvas. Each portrait character needed a back story, for which the children used those role play encounters as a guide. Who was their character? How had they come to be in the city? What cultures, dreams and attributes had they brought with them? As I was shuffling around the small groups (ensuring some of the paint hit the canvas!) I overheard pupils  compare these experiences with friends in their class, or people they knew about on t.v. or in their street. We learned about these made up characters’ likes, dislikes, fears, hopes, families, friends and travels — and it was clear the children had associated with these imagined situations in Roman Egypt, their own school, neighbourhood and city.

This idea of using an ‘imagined contact’ is a widely acknowledged theoretical approach to the question of how, psychologically, social prejudices can be addressed and reduced. You can read about Richard Crisp and Rhiannon Turner’s work on this, here.


Painting ‘David’, the Greek man in Oxyrhynchus. He likes pizza, music and his family.  He has traveled around the Mediterranean. Photo: April Pudsey.


Painting ‘David’, the Greek man in Oxyrhynchus. He likes pizza, music and his family. Photo: April Pudsey.


‘Tom’ has traveled throughout the desert and is worried about getting lost and finding his way home. He likes his family, but is frightened of snakes. He wears clothing that his family gave to him. Photo: April Pudsey


Painting with April Pudsey and Joe Skinner at the Great North Museum: Hancock. Photo: Jordan Bayley.


Painting with Joe Skinner at the Great North Museum: Hancock. Photo: April Pudsey


‘Maximus the III’ has traveled away from home, bringing stuffed toys with him to remind him of his pets and family. Photo: April Pudsey

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This man wears special clothing that ties him to his local social and religious group.

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This woman wears a special design on her clothes, that reminds her of home. She also wears an amulet, given to her by her sister to remind her of home.


Thinking of questions you would ask a new person in your city. Photo: April Pudsey


Jacob, who wears a tuxedo and plays the saxaphone. He’s travelled to the city to be a musician. Photo: April Pudsey










The Children in Oxyrhynchus activities made up the research element of the Beyond Frontiers project.  Colleagues in Classics and in Archaeology at Newcastle (Dr Joseph SkinnerDr Sally Waite, Dr Mark Jackson and Rose Mockford), along with those in the Great North Museum: Hancock, ran workshops in tandem, based on our undergraduate teaching: coinage and local identity; and on important and significant personal objects – object biographies.


An Inspector Calls…!

All Year 4 pupils had the opportunity to participate in the full range of activities, and to think and talk about cultural diversity in the ancient world, applying it to their own modern-day life in the city of Newcastle.

The theme was prominent in the Year group’s work for the year, and the success and innovative nature of Beyond Frontiers activities were mentioned in the school’s ‘outstanding’ Offsted report (we were lucky enough to meet Offsted inspectors on a day when these workshops were happening!).

In addition to the workshops in the West Jesmond Primary School and the Great North Museum: Hancock, the Beyond Frontiers project also held an exhibition for parents in West Jesmond Library, an exhibition for parents and teachers in Newcastle University, and a public exhibition in the gallery of the Great North Museum.

IMG_0068      IMG_0075Exhibition of the pupils’ work for parents and teachers, at Newcastle University. Photo: April Pudsey

For more details on the whole Beyond Frontiers project, you can watch this two-minute Video documentary featuring both myself and Dr Joseph Skinner, who co-ordinated the BF project. 

Beyond Frontiers is a collaboration between the School of History, Classics & Archaeology at Newcastle University, West Jesmond Primary and the Great North Museum: Hancock.

You can email the project on The website for the project will be updated with material soon.