Oxyrhynchus papyri offer glimpse of life in Roman Egypt
Researchers studying thousands of ancient documents are getting a better idea of what childhood was like in Roman Egypt. Dating to the first six centuries C.E. and originating from Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, the papyrus texts show a range of children’s experiences, from the free-born to the enslaved, from boys to girls. According to a press release from the University of Oslo, childhood has never before been studied so systematically from papyri.
The Oxyrhynchus papyri include literary texts, personal letters and administrative documents. Oxyrhynchus was established as a Greek city after the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E. In the Roman imperial period, the city was a heavily populated metropolis and served as an important source of textiles for the empire. Historians Ville Vuolanto of the University of Oslo and April Pudsey of the University of Newcastle are studying the Oxyrhynchus papyri as part of the research project “Tiny Voices From the Past: New Perspectives on Childhood in Early Europe.”
Some of the papyri document the enrollment of boys from wealthy free-born Egyptian, Greek and Roman families in the city’s “youth organization”—called the gymnasium. The gymnasium originated as an ancient Greek institution devoted to physical education and the cultivation of a sound mind and a sound body. In Roman Egypt, the gymnasium served as a place that marked elite boys’ transition to adult life.
“Children of the urban elite would attend the gymnasium and learn how to be good citizens, in part through sports and athletic games in a very classical tradition—one document tells us about match-fixing in a boys’ wrestling match!” Pudsey told MailOnline. “It was different from schools because the focus was less on reading and writing, and more on growing up to conserve the values of a particular social group with a very distinct heritage in the city.”
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Vuolanto and Pudsey’s study of the papyri adds a deeper level of understanding of the everyday interactions between local elites and individual gymnasia, as well as the dynamics of identity-building among the elites.
“There are references to the fact that there were individuals applying to have their children registered with the gymnasia group in Oxyrhynchus even in cases when they were likely not from Oxyrhynchus themselves,” Vuolanto said in an email to Bible History Daily.
“These are signs of networking among the privileged groups of different cities in Egypt in spite of the originally quite local hereditary nature of these privileged groups.”
Girls couldn’t enroll in the gymnasium, but the Oxyrhynchus papyri often mention their names when citing boys’ siblings—likely to reference the family’s status or tax class.
Some boys began working as apprentices before their teenage years. Among the Oxyrhynchus papyri, there are about 20 apprenticeship contracts for two- to four-year services, most in the weaving industry. While girls typically stayed in the home to do domestic work, one apprenticeship contract was drawn up for a girl. Her case was special, however, because she was orphaned and had to work to pay her deceased father’s debts.
Enslaved children could also become apprentices, as the Oxyrhynchus papyri reveal, but they lived with their owners or in their master’s home. Contracts show that children of slaves were separated from their parents and sold as early as at age two—confirming that life was especially harsh for child slaves.
Most of the information we know about children and their experiences are gleaned from official documents, which children don’t usually appear in until their early teens.
“It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” Vuolanto explained in the University of Oslo press release. “By examining papyri, pottery fragments with writing, toys and other objects, we are trying to form a picture of how children lived in Roman Egypt.”
Follow Vuolanto and Pudsey’s research on their website PAIDES, “a blog about everyday lives, children and cultures in the ancient world.”
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