Papyrology, Gender, and Diversity: A Natural ménage à trios

M. G. Parca
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Preoccupation with issues of identity and difference permeates our world. Such interest also permeates the fields of Classics and Gender Studies. Some of the academic wars waged in the wake of the publication of Black Athena (1987, 1991) have led scholars to look East and South, to Egypt, in search of another face of Greece (Burkert [1992] & West [1997]). Those debates have also prompted reflection from within. Jonathan Hall’s Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (1997) pondered the question of who the Greeks thought they were and why, pinpointing the fashioning of a subjective sense of “Hellenic” identity around Thessalian hegemonic designs in the late archaic period. And in his recent Hellenicity (2002) that same scholar examines the shift from ethnic to cultural criteria of identity in Athens’ own formulation of “Greekness” in the course of the fifth century. The image of Greek culture that has thus emerged is at once sharper and less neat. The multiplicity and fluidity of culture forms the object of Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke’s Cultures within Greek Culture (2003), a collection meant to recognize and probe “the ways in which Greek culture is actively engaged in a complicated process of negotiation, conflict, and collaboration between cultures or subcultures” (2). As scholars of Egypt or of the Near East under Greek and Roman rule, papyrologists also have become attuned to the subtle game of tension, adaptation, and reciprocal influence between native and imported traditions and practices.

Born of the cemeteries, temples, houses and rubbish heaps of Graeco-roman-egyptian-syrian-mesopotamian-judaean towns and villages, papyrology is a good medium with which to tackle the issues of cultural diversity “in place” which this conference sets out to explore. All too often narrowly understood as a discipline concerned with the edition and explication of Greek and (for the most part) documentary texts recovered in Egypt, papyrology may actually be defined so as to include any writing in ink on portable (and hence generally perishable) materials—papyrus, parchment, wood, leather, and potsherds.1 And while the vast majority of those texts have come out of the papyrus-friendly sands of Egypt, the Roman Near East has also yielded substantial numbers of documents on perishable supports (more than 600 are recorded in the latest survey published in 1995).2 Papyrology has come to mean Greek papyrology because the texts which most of us encounter in research and teaching are those studied by philologists, archaeologists and historians of classical antiquity—most of whom are neither trained in Egyptology nor able to read Demotic, Coptic, Aramaic, or Hebrew. Greek papyrologists are of course aware of the existence of copious parallel documentation (principally for the Ptolemaic period) in Egyptian vernacular, just as historians of the Roman Near East know that the literary and epigraphical sources in Latin and Greek do not tell the whole story.3

The point here, however, is not to expound the challenges of the discipline but rather to discuss papyrology as it relates to issues of gender and diversity. My goal is to sketch a historiographical and prosopographical survey of the pioneering landmarks, later advances, and current directions of this “auxiliary” field of inquiry. The survey, inevitably, is selective.4

The Early Days

Interest in women emerged early among papyrologists. One of the first books on the subject was published in 1939. It was written by a woman, Izabela Biezunska, who sought to explain why the legal status of Greek women in Hellenistic Egypt was different from that enjoyed by women in classical Athens. Another study, Lea Bringmann’s 1939 Bonn dissertation, had little impact,5 but Izabela Biezunska lived long enough to offer a critique of her conclusions. Reflecting on her own work some fifty years later, she remarked that while the novelty of her approach lay in applying the methods of social anthropology to the study of women in antiquity, her insistence on using classical Athenian law as her point of reference led her to disregard the distinct social structures, legal traditions, customs and practices of the many other Greek communities that made up the Hellenistic world.6 Her pioneering efforts, she acknowledged, lacked the crucial perspective of diversity (diversity within Greek culture, that is).

The question of the status of women in the Hellenistic kingdoms, and in Egypt in particular, was also addressed by Claire Préaux. An economic and social historian, Préaux showed that political incapacity did not mean fiscal exemption for women in Egypt: in so far as they were economic agents, women paid the taxes pertaining to the activities they were engaged in (such as taxes for the right to work as artisans, taxes on the revenue of the land they owned or leased, or yet taxes on the sale of real property, animals and slaves). Ethnic affiliation, on the other hand, dictated different legal capacity. The tutelage of women continued to be observed in Hellenistic Egypt among the population of Greek origin whereas Egyptian women enjoyed a legal capacity equal to that of men and, therefore, acted independently in matters connected with law and justice. Papyri show Greek women (kyrios in tow) and Egyptian females (acting alone) buying and selling real estate, lending and borrowing, party to work contracts, making wills, receiving bequests, and sometimes even drafting their own marriage contract.7 Préaux also points out how widows and partners in a union not legally sanctioned enjoyed extensive materna potestas (they could, for example, give away their daughter in marriage or apprentice their child to a master craftsman), and some (on the basis of testamentary disposition) administered the property of a child. Thoroughly mindful of the two distinct cultural and legal traditions, Préaux, in the end, was unable to view the extended legal capacity of Greek women living in Egypt as a possible result of the influence of the Egyptian milieu onto that of the newcomers. A proponent of cultural imperviousness (“étanchéïté des cultures,” in her own words) she preferred to view the development as the result of an evolution already begun in classical Greece.

Enter Feminism

One of the first American classicists to bring an explicitly feminist approach to the study of ancient history was papyrologist Sarah Pomeroy whose “Selected bibliography on Women in Antiquity” (issued in 1973), Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves (first published in 1975), and 1983 NEH seminar have shaped the way we “do”, teach and write “women’s history.”

Owing to the largely documentary nature of the evidence found in papyri (where we encounter, to name but a few, official decrees, administrative correspondence, census lists, wills, contracts, and private letters) the research conducted on women in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt tends to be empirical: it reaches the objective reality of women’s lives and experiences with an immediacy rivaled only by epigraphy and apprehends women as subjects and agents defined and motivated by specific social and cultural norms, expectations and restrictions. However, because papyrology is a rather technical discipline and because its materials stem from regions of the ancient Mediterranean perceived as neither fully Greek nor Roman, its far-reaching lessons are easily overlooked.8

The 1980s and 1990s were productive years for “feminist papyrology” (a phrase surely to remain a hapax). A clearer picture of the social and economic life of women in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt emerged both from the publication of new texts and from new questions asked of texts long available. For example, Deborah Hobson looked at women property owners in Roman Egypt (1983, 1984) while Sarah Pomeroy examined the impact of landownership by women on family relationships and on the female literacy rate (1988). Keith Bradley looked at wet-nursing contracts in order to expose the sexual regulations that governed the transactions (1980), and Hans Hauben compiled a list of Ptolemaic women owners and leasers of boats with a view to elucidating their link to the royal house (1993). Jennifer Sheridan updated the list of women who act without a guardian in documents of Roman date (1996) and later examined the correlation between economic power and female literacy in late antique Egypt (1998). Raffaela Cribiore (2001) has now gathered the extant evidence on women teachers in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt and compiled a corpus of women’s personal correspondence—comprised of private and business letters, self-written or dictated, isolated or part of archives—that illuminates the place of women in family and society, correlates status and education, and shows that literacy to some extent shaped the way women thought and communicated.9

These important studies evidently drew mostly on texts written in Greek, gender rather than diversity being their guiding principle. In the meantime, Egyptologists-demoticists did much to inform the debate over whether Ptolemaic society was defined by the reciprocal exclusiveness between Greeks and Egyptians (Claire Préaux’ position) or was rather characterized by a blurring of ethnic distinction and a certain fluidity in ethnic self-definition.10 Historians of ‘Greek’ and Roman Egypt are now becoming increasingly sensitive to the cultural bilingualism which the Leiden and Leuven schools have shown to be crucial to signaling or concealing difference.11 Three Dutch-speaking scholars stand out here for their agile weaving of an almost seamless fabric out of the tattered fibers of Greek and Demotic texts. I highlight Pieter Pestman’s 1961 Marriage and Matrimonial Property in Ancient Egypt and his repeated ventures in Greek-demotic bilingual familial archives (1981, 1985), as well as Jan Quaegebeur and Willy Clarysse’s brilliant “proofs” of the rewards to be reaped from such collaboration, in arenas as varied as dynastic cult, popular religion, onomastics and prosopography (see bibliography). On this side of the Atlantic, Life in a Multi-Cultural Society (1992), the proceedings of a symposium organized by Janet Johnson at the Oriental Institute of Chicago, inscribes itself in that particular interpretive school.

Where are we now?

Recent publications reveal at least two major trends: first, the desire to make the largely untapped resources of papyrology available to a wide readership; second, the expanding horizons of papyrological research as it relates to gender and diversity.

The desire to make the abundant papyrological evidence available to non-specialists has resulted in (among other publications) the volume Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt, edited by Jane Rowlandson (2001). This anthology of over 300 texts translated from Greek, Latin, and Egyptian is articulated around five major themes—“Royalty and religion”, “Family matters,” “Status and law,” “Economic activities,” and “Being female.” The selection reflects the conscious attempt to document the diversity of women and the richness of their varied experiences in time and place. On the topic of status and law, for example, the unit opens with texts that highlight the treatment of women in Egyptian law, followed by texts that reveal how the colonial setting opened up new possibilities for legal activity for Greek women; Roman legal transformations are surveyed next,12 and the unit closes with Coptic documents that expose the mechanics of marriage and divorce between the 6th and 8th centuries C.E.

And it is worth pointing out that two collections of essays published at the same time as this anthology feature papyrology as well: I, Claudia II (2000) includes a piece by Diana Delia on Greek matrimonial property agreements “Egyptian style” and one by Ann Hanson on the social and economic aspects of widowhood, especially that of young women. A shorter version of Raffaela Cribiore’s chapter on women’s letters also appeared in Laura McClure and André Lardinois’ Making Silence Speak (2001).13

Alongside such “outreach” ventures, specialists are also pondering questions surrounding the role and status of women in a multicultural society, and I will briefly present three examples rich in lessons about gender and diversity in place.

Katelijn Vandorpe (2002) re-tells the story of Apollonia, a businesswoman from Pathyris. Located south of Thebes in Upper Egypt, the town has left hundreds of papyri and pot shards (ostraka), in Greek and Demotic, most of them belonging to family-archives. One such archive is that of Dryton,14 a cavalry officer from Crete. Eventually posted to Pathyris, Dryton met and married Apollonia, a local girl. He was 42, she about 20. Her family, also Greek, had been living in Egypt for several generations and had adopted Egyptian ways and customs. This is why Apollonia (“The one of Apollo”) also bore the Egyptian name Senmonthis (“Daughter of Montou”).

Dryton was both an officer and a well-to-do businessman, and his young wife followed his example. She has left us eight loan contracts dating from the period c. 145–126 B.C.E.; these are loans in wheat, barley, spelt, and money. Three of the contracts are drawn up in Greek, five in Demotic. All five Demotic ones are drawn up according to Egyptian practice, that is without a guardian. In two of the five contracts (drawn up by an Egyptian notary), Apollonia presents herself as a Greek woman, bearing a double name, with the Greek one mentioned first. The other three texts are acknowledgements of debt for very small loans, written by the debtor himself.15 When higher amounts are lent out, as is the case in the three Greek contracts, Apollonia goes to the Greek notary16 and Dryton is named as her guardian.17 When doing business, then, Apollonia presents herself as a Greek woman. In private letters and papers, on the other hand, she is known only as Senmonthis. Apollonia, then, grew up as an Egyptian girl, but when she married a Greek officer, she seized the opportunity to reap the benefits of her Greek background and opted for social advancement over legal independence.18

Mixed marriages are also part of Dorothy Thompson’s stimulating reflection (1997) on the cult of Demeter in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. She proposes that the cult offered a locus of joint identity for different groups and may have helped introduce Egyptian wives to the culture of their Greek husbands. She further suggests that while the prominent role of women in the cult of Demeter was probably crucial to its wide popularity, the association of Demeter with secret rites of initiation must have played a part as well. Those rites were ceremonies in which social boundaries were transcended, personal identity was affirmed and women were key players—all aspects beneficial to the settlers and their bi-cultural families. And there is also the fact that the story of Demeter, who sought and retrieved her daughter from the realm of death, provided an accepted parallel to the myth of Osiris, dismembered and made whole again by his wife Isis. In the multi-cultural context of Egypt, then, Demeter spoke both to those anxious to preserve their Greek heritage and to those who looked to the native gods for guidance.

Lastly, a profile of the female indigenous clergy emerges from Frédéric Colin’s (2002) superb study of indigenous female priesthoods through a meticulous examination of the extant Greek and Egyptian materials of Ptolemaic and Roman date. He shows that Egyptian priestesses, like their male counterparts, could accede to the rank and status of priestly personnel, played a concrete role in the performance of particular rituals and received the economic profits attached to their function, and could join others in a professional association.

Albeit written on perishable material, papyri are one of the most enduring repositories of primary evidence on gender and diversity in Greek and Roman Egypt and beyond. This natural ménage à trois has been long lasting.


General Bibliography

Bernal, M., Black Athena. The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985; II The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence (New Brunswick NJ 1987-1991).

Burkert, W., The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age, translated by M. E. Pinder and W. Burkert (Cambridge MA 1992).

Dougherty C. and Kurke, L. (eds.), The Cultures within Ancient Greek Culture: Contact, Conflict, Collaboration (Cambridge, U.K.-New York 2003).

Hall, J., Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge U.K.-New York 1997).

Hall, J., Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture (Chicago 2002).

Parca, M., “Local Languages and Native Cultures,” in J. Bodel (ed.), Epigraphic Evidence. Ancient History from Inscriptions (London-New York 2001) 57-72.

West, M.L., The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth (Oxford-New York 1997).

Gender and Papyrology: Select Bibliography

The Early Years

Biezunska-Malowist, I., Etudes sur la condition juridique et sociale de la femme grecque en Égypte gréco-romaine (Lwow 1939).

Biezunska-Malowist, I., “Les recherches sur la condition de la femme grecque en Égypte grecque et romaine, hier et aujourd’hui,” Antiquitas 18 (1993) 15-21.

Bozza, F., “Il matrimonio nel diritto dei papiri dell’ epoca tolemaica,” Aegyptus 14 (1934) 205-244.

Bringmann, L., Die Frau im ptolemäisch-kaiserlichen Ägypten (Bonn: Scheur 1939).

Castiglioni, A., “La donna in alcuni papiri recentemente scoperti in Egitto,” Vita e Pensiero 9 (Milan 1919) 343-348.

Préaux, Cl., Le statut de la femme à l’époque hellénistique, principalement en Égypte, “Recueils de la Société Jean Bodin” XI: La femme (Brussels 1959) 127-171.

Schubart, W., “Die Frau im griechisch-römischen Ägypten,” Internationale Monatschrift für Wissenschaft, Kunst und Technik 10 (1916) 1503-1538.

The Years of Growth

Bradley, K.R., “Sexual Regulations in Wet-Nursing Contracts from Roman Egypt,” Klio 62 (1980), 321-325.

Clarysse, W., “Greeks and Egyptians in the Ptolemaic Army,” Aegyptus 65 (1985) 57-66.

Clarysse, W., The Eponymous Priests of Ptolemaic Egypt (Leiden 1983).

Cribiore, R., Gymnastics of the Mind. Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Princeton-Oxford 2001) [Chapter 3: Women and Education]

Cribiore, R., “Windows on a Woman’s World. Some Letters from Roman Egypt,” in A. Lardinois and L. McClure (eds.), Making Silence Speak (Princeton-Oxford 2001) 223-239.

Delia, D., “Marriage Egyptian Style,” in I Claudia II, 139-147.

Hanson, A., “Widows too Young in their Widowhood,” in I Claudia II, 149-165.

Hauben, H., “Femmes propriétaires et locataires de navires en Égypte ptolémaïque,” Journal of Juristic Papyrology 23 (1993) 61-74.

Hobson, D., “Women as Property Owners in Roman Egypt,” TAPA 113 (1983) 311–321.

Hobson, D., “The Role of Women in the Economic Life of Roman Egypt: A Case Study from First Century Tebtynis,” Echos du Monde Classique/Classical Views 28 (1984) 373-390.

Hobson, D., “House and Household in Roman Egypt,” Yale Classical Studies 28 (1985) 211-229.

Kleiner, D.E.E. and S.B. Matheson (eds.), I Claudia II. Women in Roman Art and Society (Austin 2000).

Pestman, P.W., Marriage and Matrimonial Property in Ancient Egypt: A Contribution to Establishing the Legal Position of the Woman (Leiden 1961).

Pomeroy, S. B., “Selected Bibliography on Women in Antiquity,” Arethusa 6 (1973) 125-152.

Pomeroy, S. B. (with R.S. Kraemer and N. Kampen), “Selected Bibliography on Women in Antiquity. Part II, 1973-1981,” in J. Peradotto and J. P. Sullivan (eds.), Women in the Ancient World. The Arethusa Papers (Albany N.Y. 1984).

Pomeroy, S. B., “Women in Roman Egypt. A Preliminary Study based on Papyri,” ANRW II 10.1 (1988) 708–723 = Reflections of Women in Antiquity, ed. H. Foley (London 1981) 303-22.

Pomeroy, S. B., Women in Hellenistic Egypt. From Alexander to Cleopatra (Detroit revised ed. 1990).

Pomeroy, S. B., Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece. Representations and Realities (Oxford 1997).

Quaegebeur, J., “Cleopatra VII and the Cults of the Ptolemaic Queens,” in R. Bianchi (ed.), Cleopatra’s Egypt: Age of the Ptolemies (New York 1988) 41-54.

Rowlandson, J., “Beyond the Polis: Women and Economic Opportunity in Early Ptolemaic Egypt,” in A. Powell (ed.), The Greek World (London 1995) 301-322.

Sheridan, J.A., “Not at a Loss for Words: The Economic Power of Literate Women in Late Antique Egypt,” TAPA 128 (1998) 189-203.

Sheridan, J.A., “Women without Guardians: An Updated List,” BASP 33 (1996) 117-131.

Diversity in Place

Bagnall, R. and R. Cribiore, Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC-AD 800 (Ann Arbor 2005, forthcoming).

Clarysse, W., “Some Greeks in Egypt,” in Life in a Multi-Cultural Society, 51-56.

Clarysse, W., A. Schoors and H. Willems (eds.), Egyptian Religion. The Last Thousand Years. Studies Dedicated to the Memory of Jan Quaegebeur. 2 vols. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 84-85 (Leuven 1998).

Colin, Fr., “Les prêtresses indigènes dans l’Égypte hellénistique et romaine: une question à la croisée des sources grecques et égyptiennes,” in H. Melaerts and L. Mooren (eds.), Le rôle et le statut de la femme en Égypte, 41-122.

Cotton, H.M., “Women and Law in the Documents from the Judaean Desert,” in H. Melaerts and L. Mooren (eds.), Le rôle et le statut de la femme en Égypte, 123-147.

Johnson, J. H. (ed.), Life in a Multi-Cultural Society: Egypt from Cambyses to Constantine and Beyond (Chicago 1992).

Johnson, J. H., “Women, Wealth and Work in Egyptian Society of the Ptolemaic Period,” in Clarysse W., A. Schoors, and H. Willems (eds.), Egyptian Religion, vol. 2, 1393-1427.

Melaerts, H. and L. Mooren (eds.), Le rôle et le statut de la femme en Égypte hellénistique, romaine et Byzantine. Studia Hellenistica 37 (Leuven 2002).

Quaegebeur, J., “Greco-Egyptian Double Names as a Feature of a Bi-Cultural Society,” in J. H. Johnson (ed.), Life in a Multi-Cultural Society, 265-272.

Rowlandson, J., (ed.), Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt. A Sourcebook (Cambridge 1998, reprint 2000).

Thompson, D., “Demeter in Graeco-Roman Egypt,” in W. Clarysse, A. Schoors and H. Willems (eds.), Egyptian Religion. Vol. 1, 699-707.

Vandorpe, K., “Apollonia, a Businesswoman in a Multicultural Society (Pathyris, 2nd-1st Cent. B.C.,” in H. Melaerts and L. Mooren (eds.), Le rôle et le statut de la femme en Égypte, 324-336.

Wilfong, T.G., Women of Jeme. Lives in a Coptic Town in Late Antique Egypt (Ann Arbor 2002).

1 H.M. Cotton, W.E.H. Cockle, and F. Millar, “The Papyrology of the Roman Near East: A Survey,” JRS 85 (1995), 214.

2 JRS 85 (1995), 214-235 (n. 1 supra). The archive of Babatha, found in Roman Judaea, is discussed here by Ann Hanson in her essay on women and family archives.

3 On local languages in inscriptions from Roman Africa and Palmyra, see Parca (2001), 70-2.

4 While my paper is meant to “set the stage”, the other two participants in the ‘papyrology panel’ whose articles appear here engage with specific issues: whether gender plays a role in the archiving of personal letters (Hanson) and whether language choice in the bilingual (Greek & Coptic) written environment of late antique Egypt was at all motivated by gender (MacCoull)

5 The vicissitudes and outcome of the Second World War may explain Lea Bringmann’s short-lived career and the relative obscurity of her book.

6 Antiquitas 18 (1993), 19-20.

7 On indigenous women and work in Ptolemaic Egypt, see now Janet H. Johnson (1998).

8 Were it not for syntheses such as Pomeroy’s Women in Hellenistic Egypt (1984).

9 Archives collected by illiterate women document those women’s business acumen and awareness of legal matters: cf. Ann Hanson’s paper. See also MacCoull’s essay (p. 4) on women’s choice of Coptic over Greek for the writing of private letters in late antique Egypt.

10 The work of Leslie MacCoull and others (see her essay) carries the diversity debate into the Greco-coptic context of Egypt in the early Byzantine period.

11 Cultural duality in Egypt under the first Ptolemies is explored in: S. A. Stephens, Seeing Double. Intercultural Poetics in Ptolemaic Alexandria (Berkeley 2003) and R. L. Hunter, Theocritus. Encomium of Ptolemy Philadelphus (Berkeley 2003).

12 The Gnomon of the Idios Logos or “rule book” of Augustan date, includes several clauses regulating status, marriage, and inheritance.

13 A corpus of letters by women from ancient Egypt, prepared by Bagnall and Cribiore, should appear later this year (2005).

14 On which see n. 1 in Ann Hanson’s paper.

15 The acknowledgements are written by the debtor himself who, being Egyptian, uses Demotic.

16 The legal material from pre-641 Aphrodite (Upper Egypt) examined by Leslie MacCoull (pp. 9-11) includes women clients hiring both Coptic-writing and Greek-writing notaries.

17 In the remaining loan contracts from Pathyris in which a woman is lender or borrower, the women are all women with Egyptian names, who act on their own and without a kyrios (Vandorpe 331).

18 Their family papers are now reunited in K. Vandorpe, The Bilingual Family Archive of Dryton, His Wife Apollonia, and their Daughter Senmouthis (Collectanea Hellenistica IV) Brussels 2002.

8 June 2005