Skip to main content

Over 150 petitions from women survive from Roman and Byzantine Egypt. Along with reports of proceedings on papyrus and imperial rescripts from outside Egypt, these constitute the best evidence we have for provincial women’s engagement with the law and help shape our view of the social position of women in the Roman Empire. Taking the terminus of B. Kelly’s recent study as a starting point, I first discuss petitions from women in the “long” fourth century (284-400 CE) as a whole, and then examine the cases in which we can learn a little more about the women involved in litigation, in the context of archives. I close by touching on the larger issues raised by Kelly and others, such as the agency of female petitioners and whether the legal system tended to undermine or reinforce traditional gender roles.

I focus on the “long” fourth century for three reasons. First, Kelly’s study on petitioning and social control ends in 284 CE, the traditional papyrological divide between “Roman” and “Byzantine” Egypt. R.S. Bagnall, however, has shown that the real break was from the late fourth century on, when evidence for female petitioners is much scarcer and largely restricted to wealthy, educated widows (Bagnall, “Women's Petitions in Late Antique Egypt,” in Denis Feissel and Jean Gascou (eds.), La pétition à Byzance [Paris, 2004], 53-60). The fourth century evidence continues to be marked by Kelly’s two “ideal types” of female petitioners: one, the woman isolated from male support through death, divorce, or other circumstances; the other, the woman of relatively high standing whose economic engagements brought her into legal conflict (Kelly, Petitions, Litigation, and Social Control in Roman Egypt [Oxford, 2011], 235ff.). Thus, we can study these petitions in close comparison with the earlier period and in contrast to the later period.
A second reason is the prominence of female petitioners in the period 284-400. From about 15% of total petitioners in the period 30 BCE - 284 CE, the percentage of female petitioners rises to over a quarter in the ‘long’ fourth century, then falls to about 10% after 400. This paper explores the reasons behind this apparent surge, which is paralleled also in imperial rescripts, and argues that it represents a real rise in women’s participation in the legal sphere and independence, at least during the Tetrarchic period.

Third, the archives of this period offer the opportunity to learn more about the family situation and economic engagements of certain female petitioners. I focus on the archives of Isidoros, Sakaon, Aurelia Demetria, and the descendants of Alopex in Panopolis. The first archive presents a pair of sisters, Taesis and Kyrillous, whose engagement with litigation came early in life due to the deaths of both parents: their coming of age is marked by a struggle against their uncle for the control of their inheritance. In the archive of Sakaon from Theadelphia, Artemis the daughter of Paesios and Heros uses the legal system to protect her children’s property after the death of her husband. Finally, the archives of Aurelia Demetria and the descendants of Alopex give us valuable details from urban settings. In Hermopolis, Demetria petitions about a disputed sale of land, and in Panopolis, we meet the oil-seller and landlady Theodora, whose business interests lead her to petition the prefect about a defaulting debtor.

This period offers us unparalleled evidence for women’s engagement in legal processes. Through both a broad survey and a microhistorical approach, I argue that women in the ‘long’ fourth century actively engaged in legal processes to achieve their own goals and that this period of transition witnessed a slight relaxing of traditional gender roles. Both trends were halted by the end of the century and reversed in the centuries to follow.