The People of Oxyrhynchus Trexler Library | Muhlenberg College

The population of Roman Egypt was mixed: native Egyptians (itself a mixture of peoples, including Nubians from the south, who usually spoke “demotic” or popular Egyptian, or Coptic); Greek-speaking people of varying backgrounds and Romans.  Jews also came into Roman Egypt both “pushed” by political and social unrest in Roman Palestine, and “pulled” by the commercial, military, and social opportunities in Roman Egyptian society.

Greeks were first “allotted” territory conquered by Hellenistic armies under Alexander and his successors, and they spread the use of Greek throughout the country.  The crucial institution for Greek was the “gymnasium” where young men were educated, both physically and intellectually, in Greek culture and the ways of the world. The Greeks influenced the higher social classes of Egyptian society, which was very heavily class-based, with slaves at the bottom.  Romans succeeded Greeks and in fact sometimes became historically indistinguishable from them, especially since so many Roman citizens in the eastern portion of the Empire spoke Greek.

Some individuals are named in the Muhlenberg Papyri; many others are tacitly acknowledged or can be reasoned to have been present.  Slaves are invisible in this particular collection.

In papyrus 911 (Lease of a House) we meet Aurelius Demetrius, also called Zoilus (possibly an Egyptian name), described as “ex-chief priest, exegetes, and councilor,” another person, Aurelius Theogenes, son of a father also named Theogenes, an un-named “subscriber” acting on behalf of Aurelius Theogenes (“who has weak sight”) as appointed by the strategus (an official) named Aurelius Dionysius, also called Ammonius.  “Also called” is a signal that a person had two names: one in Greek (Aurelius Dionysius) and one in demotic or Coptic (Ammon, hellenized as Ammonius).

In papyrus 934 (Letter of Aurelius Stephanus) we meet Aurelius Stephanus, and "brother" or, Aurelius Chaeremon –two brothers, one with a Greek personal name (Stephanus, or “crown”) and one named Chaeremon, a more Egyptian name.  Stephanus paid 60 drachmae to a rope-weaver, Petobastis, clearly an Egyptian name, in the presence of Kopreus, and more to an individual named Kale.  These names all indicated the mixed nature of Oxyrhynchus society, with Greek names predominating in the upper classes –the rope-weaver Petobastis was clearly a tradesman.

Women also appear in these papyris: Flavia Euphemia, who owns property leased in papyrus 1038 (Lease of Part of a House), and leases it to Aurelius Stephanus, a baker, through the agency of Flavius Anastasius, Flavia Euphemia’s agent, and Jeremias, her collector (an accountant of some kind).  The date of 568 and these names show the adoption of Christianity at this point: Euphemia, Anastasius, and Jeremias are all biblically-based names, as is the name John, who wrote the document.

Another woman, Sinthonis, wrote to her brother Tereus in papyrus 1215 (Letter of Sinthonis), several centuries earlier than Flavia Euphemia (previous).  The modern editors indicated that this “illiterate”  letter appeared in “large, uncultivated” handwriting –there are certainly minor mistakes in formal grammar which appear, but this may also indicate that Sinthonis herself wrote the letter.

Two tax-documents, papyrus 1113 (Return of unirrigated land) warranting the return of unirrigated land (which was taxed differently from irrigated land) in 203 AD were undoubtedly removed from old files and sent to trash later.  But they witness the presence of Didymus (or Didymion) ex-chief-priest of the “most august temple of Hadrian” since these were pre-Christian times in Oxyrhynchus.

There are many other such people in the many Oxyrhynchus papyri –which give us an unparalleled look at the common workings of Roman Egyptian society in a large regional town.

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