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Child Labor in Greco-Roman Egypt: New Texts from the Archive of Harthotes

W. Graham Claytor and Elizabeth Nabney

The archive of Harthotes, priest and public farmer of Theadelphia, is a rather enigmatic group of texts.  Early interpretations focused on the family’s chronic debt as evidence of a threadbare existence (Casanova, 130), but more recent commentators have pointed out that the family was able to repay all of their loans, while leasing fairly substantial tracts of land and engaging in a variety of economic ventures (Rowlandson, 189).  Perhaps because of these conflicting views, historians have not given the archive the attention that it deserves.  The recent discovery of twelve more papyri belonging to the archive, including contracts, petitions, and another census declaration, therefore offers a welcome opportunity to reassess this important family archive from the early days of Roman rule.

In the first part of the paper, we draw on these unpublished texts to provide a fresh overview of the archive, including its acquisition history, types of documents, and earlier interpretations.  We are inclined towards a relatively favorable view of the family’s economic position and point to a new work contract in which Harthotes appears as a foreman for 12 harvest workers (P.Mich. inv. 4436g+4344, 12/11 BCE).  Then, we focus on a group of unpublished contracts that shed light on a previously unknown aspect of the family’s activities.  They are paramone (service) contracts in which young members of the family are indentured in exchange for advance payments or interest-free loans.  By locating these contracts within the archive and drawing on recent work on the family in Roman Egypt (Huebner, Pudsey), we argue that these are not acts of desperation, but rather part of a strategy for dealing with persistent cash flow problems.  The family’s repeated recourse to mortgaging their children’s labor fits with their advance crop sales and loans in a web of financial obligations that implicated the whole family.

The longest and most complete example is P.Mich. inv. 931 + P.Col. inv. 7 (9 CE).  In this contract, Harthotes arranges for his young daughter Taphaunes to work at an oil press on the estate of Livia and Germanicus for two and a half years, a renewal of a similar arrangement from two years earlier (P.Mich. inv. 4346+4446f, 7 CE).  The return on his daughter’s labor is an advance payment of 80 drachmas, but since the employer was obliged to feed and clothe her, the family also benefitted from hidden savings on her maintenance, perhaps amounting to some 100 drachmas per year.  Much earlier, Harthotes (acting with his mother Esersythis) had sent off his younger brother to work in another household in the village for four years (P.Mich. inv. 4299, 20/19 BCE), in this case for an interest-free loan, and a later contract suggests such practice continued in later generations (P.Mil. I2 7, 38 CE). 

These contracts and the other unpublished documents promise to open up a new chapter in the study of the Harthotes archive and to provide valuable evidence for the financial and social strategies available to village families of Greco-Roman Egypt.

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Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

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