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The Impact of Labour and Mobility on Family Structures in Roman Egypt

Elizabeth Nabney

University of Michigan

I shall present a small portion of my dissertation, which examines the wide-ranging effects on families when one or more members left home to work in another town or village, or even another country. The papyri provide evidence for a variety of arrangements where people of all ages left home for work, ranging from young children leaving their parents and siblings to work as apprentices or on agricultural labour contracts, to the head of the household leaving to serve in government positions or the military. The effects of the separation of family members manifested in wide-ranging ways, from concerns over practical matters (the process of sending and receiving letters and exchanging goods; inconveniences caused to a family due to an absent head of household), to the emotional and psychological toll of separation (anxiety over the health and safety of absent family members, and in some cases a deliberate lack of communication). In this presentation I will examine how two families sent items between members across significant distances, as well as what types of objects were deemed necessary to transport, and I will contrast their different approaches to this necessary task.

The archive of Tiberianus and Terentianus (first quarter of the second century CE) preserves the correspondence of Terentianus to a man he addresses as his father as well as a few letters from other family members, most of whom were located in the area around Alexandria. Many of the items sent between family members in this archive are related to the military lifestyle of Tiberianus and Terentianus, such as clothing and provisions. This is typical of other documentary texts relating to soldiers found in Egypt; however, Terentianus frequently mentions sending collections of assorted items to Tiberianus such as goblets, papyrus, and large quantities of glassware and clothing which are less clearly related to military concerns.

The archive of Apollonios (first quarter of the second century CE) is a large family archive, mostly consisting of personal and business letters between members of a wealthy family. Apollonios’ appointment in 113 CE as strategos of Apollonopolites Heptakomia in Upper Egypt resulted in the division of his family and business concerns between two locations: his mother and eldest daughter remained with the family estate and factory in Hermopolis, while he took his wife and their younger children with him to his posting almost 150 km away. The family and their employees regularly sent items relating to their weaving business as well as personal belongings between Hermopolis and Heptakomia.

Tiberianus and Terentianus experienced considerable anxiety over how to convey items between different family members in a secure manner. The letters between the two men are full of references to what containers they used to send items, whom they asked to convey various items, what seals and other security measures they used, and an inventory of the precise contents of each parcel. By contrast, Apollonios and his family sent items back and forth frequently, but did not express any anxiety over the method of transportation or the security of their items in their letters.

It is possible that wealthier families like that of Apollonios did not need to worry about such matters because they could employ trustworthy messengers to deliver their items. Less wealthy families had to use less reliable methods of transportation such as acquaintances who happened to be travelling in the right direction, and so therefore had to take more precautions to protect the goods they were sending.

Session/Panel Title

Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

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