The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

History, as taught in classrooms is always about great men and their doings. We never learn about the little people. What did they do? How did they view the world? What did they say to each other? How did they love? What were their hopes and fears?

Rarely has any text about the common folk survived to present times. We obtain indirect evidence of their lives from church rolls - births, marriages and deaths - and tax records and legal edicts that affected them. Occasionally, as in Pompeii, we see graffiti, clothes, the remains of the food they ate. Invariably, tales from years past are about the good and the great. But once in a very blue moon, we obtain details of such richness that the past comes alive before our very eyes. Such a blue moon occurred in 1897, in a dig of sand-covered mounds in a village south of Cairo.

These turned out to be rubbish dumps of a thriving city named oxyrhynchos, in Greco-Roman Egypt. So many papyri were found, shreds, rolls, entire collections of literature and the quotidian, that even today, more than a century since their uncovering, they have not all been collated and deciphered and published. Five hundred thousand fragments were found, ranging from sublime masterpieces to early Christian texts to letters to legal titles and shopping lists. We finally hear the voices of linen-traders and farmers and mendicants from the years of the Ptolemies to the collapse of Roman rule.

The personal details are immensely moving, testament to the immutability of human nature and wants and needs across the millennia. There is love and longing. Here is Didyme, writing to her itinerant husband:

To Apollonios, her brother and sun, greetings. Be aware that I do not see the sun, because you are not seen by me; for I have no sun but you...

There was estrangement and despair. Here is Serenos, writing to his wife, Isidora, who had left him:

Before all else, I pray for your health. Every day and evening I make your obeisance with the goddess Thoeris who loves you. I want you to know that from the time you went away from me, I have been mourning, weeping by night and grieving by day. Since we bathed together on Phaophi 12, I never bathed or anointed myself until Hathyr 12. You sent me letters that could shake a stone, so much your words have moved me... Look how often I have sent to you! Let me know whether you are coming or not coming.

There was disappointment and one-sided friendship. Horis wrote to Horion:

Before all else I pray for your health. This is the second letter I'm writing to you and you haven't written back a single one. I love you always, but you rate me nowhere...

There was filial love and delight. Harpocras, pleased to hear from his father, wrote back:

Knowing you will be delighted, I felt bound to write to you that there's nothing wrong with me, well, I was rather dim for just a very few days and felt better long since and there is nothing wrong with me. I was greatly delighted reading through your letter, in which I saw that you were in the best of health, my lord father, and because since I was in swaggering spirits at receiving your letter I at once thought it could be an oracle from god and I am all the more remarkably healthy.

And here is an absolute gem from a boy, upset at having been left behind when his father travels, writing to complain:

Theon to Theon his father, greetings. A nice thing to do, not taking me with you to the city. If you refuse to take me with you to Alexandria, I shall not write you a letter or speak to you or wish you good health. So: if you go to Alexandria I shall not take your hand or greet you ever again. If you refuse to take me, this is what happens. And my mother said to Archelaos, "He is upsetting me, take him away!" A nice thing to do, sending me these grand presents, a hill of beans. They put us off the track that day, the 12th, when you sailed. Well then, send for me, I beg you. If you don't send for me, I shan't eat, I shan't drink. So there! I pray for your health.

There was fear and desperation in the face of disease, so much deadlier then than now. A frantic Isidora wrote to her travelling husband, Hermias:

Do everything you can, put off everything, come tomorrow. The child is sick, it's become thin, it doesn't eat, it's six days. I'm afraid it may die while you're not here. I tell you, if it dies when you aren't here, keep away, you'll find me hanging.

And, there were commiserations in times of death:

Irene to Taonnophris and Philon. Be of good courage! I felt as much grief, and wept as much, for the deceased as I wept for Didymas, and I did everything that was proper and so did all my people, Epaphrodeitos and Thermouthion and Philion and Apollonius and Plantas. Yet one can do nothing in face of such things. So comfort yourselves. Farewell!

But we can't end on a low, can we? So there was ribaldry and good-natured humour among friends, parodying sometimes the language of official communications (here accompanied by an anatomical drawing describing their sophomoric intentions):

Apion and Epimas say to their very dear Epaphroditos: "If you let us bugger you and it's OK with you, we shall stop thrashing you - if you let us bugger you." Keep well! Keep well!

Over twenty centuries later, all these people have achieved an intimate mortality that so many of their rulers craved. Their quotidian lives and fortunes have passed the test of time and we revel in their rebirth.


[All translations by Peter Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: The Lives of the Greeks in Roman Egypt, Phoenix, 2007.]

  1. The Oxyrhynchos Papyri, vol XLII, no 3059. (1898-2006)
  2. ibid., vol III, no 528
  3. ibid., vol XIV, no 1757
  4. ibid., vol XLVII, no 3356
  5. ibid., vol I, no 119
  6. Berichtigungsliste der griecheischen Papyrusurkunden aus Aegypten, vol 1; 6.
  7. The Oxyrhynchos Papyri, vol XLII, no 3070. (1898-2006)


Space Bar said...

whoa. what's with the all caps?

Guru said...

..yes the eternal timelessness of us humans. We are all the same although the outer appearances does lead us astray.
You know the subalterns tried to rectify this anomaly of great men bias in history but they too are dogged by 'prejudice'.

Fëanor said...

SB: Thought I'd experiment with fonts. Crap, I've forgotten what this one's called. Like it?

Guru: Can you recommend any popular history books written from a subaltern point-of-view?

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