Blog: Another Busy Day at the Office

The rhythm of our lives is largely structured by obligations for work or studies. Many of us keep track of work activities and appointments in a calendar, creating an overview of what we still have to do, while at the same time recording what we have done for future reference.

Within the papyrological sources from Egypt we find some examples of similar overviews of working activities. It is, however, highly doubtful if these sources help us to answer questions about a typical workday of, let’s say a magistrate:

‘22nd                         Nothing.
‘23rd                          Nothing.
’24th                          Nothing.
‘25th                          Nothing.
‘26th                          Nothing.
‘27th                          (dies) Iovis.
‘28th                          Nothing.
‘29th                          Nothing.
‘30th                          Concerning the opening of the will of . . . sister-in-law(?) of Apius(?), assessor . . .
‘Phaophi 1                Nothing.
‘2nd                            Nothing.
‘3rd                            Nothing.
‘4th                            (dies) Iovis.
‘5th                            Asclepiades, in charge of baggage-animals somewhere(?), made a deposition containing an accusation that the mules were not given their fodder.’

This excerpt of a daybook from Oxyrynchus can be dated to 313 CE. Some have argued that this document, usually referred to as P. Oxy. 54 3741, must stem from the office of the logistes, the main magistrate during these times. We cannot be sure, but it does appear to register the activities of some sort of official charged with legal business. The document is unfortunately incomplete. The preserved dates run from the 4th of September (Thoth 6) until the 8th of October (Phaophi 10), where the fragment shown above shows the dates from Thoth 22 to Phaophi 5. It is presumed that the original document started with the 29th of August, since that date corresponds with the first day of the Egyptian year, Thoth 1.

The first thing that catches the eye is the sheer number of times the word οὐδέν (nothing) is used – this was not a busy official. Would a logistes not have had more work to do, being one of the foremost authorities of the city? Surprisingly, he readily admits his inactiveness, which gives rise to the question what the purpose of this overview was. It certainly does not look impressive. In all probability, these kinds of official records simply had to be kept, perhaps only noting the legal matters the official was involved in.

The other remarkable feature of this document is the significance of the word Dios, the Greek genitive of the name Zeus, whom the Romans called Jupiter. This word appears every seven days, which leads to the conclusion that the term was used for the same day of the week. The year 313 is the most likely in a list of possible years, in which the Dios-dates of this daybook fell on a Thursday, the day named after the god of thunder. On these days no (official) work was done, but the word οὐδέν is missing. Apparently, it being the day of Zeus was reason enough to refrain from work on these days. The occurrence of Dios in this daybook seems to indicate that Thursday was a special day in honor of Jupiter, at least in an administrative environment. This practice is not well documented, but there are two other papyri, dated to the late third and early fourth centuries, that hint at this custom as well (P. Oxy. 22 2343 and P. Oxy. 60 4075). Perhaps this sacred day was inspired by the Jewish Sabbath, a tradition the Romans were quite familiar with, as a ‘pagan’ version of a day upon which working was not allowed, as Ilaria Bultrighini (2018) suggests. In this sense, Thursday could be seen as a predecessor of the Christian Sunday as well.

In 321 the Christian emperor Constantine made it official by law that no legal activities were permitted on a Sunday. The first evidence from Egypt that this was put into practice is found in the proceedings of a court case dated 325 (P. Oxy. 54 3759), indicating Sunday as the Lord’s day. This is only four years after Constantine’s law and a mere twelve years later than the daybook. The changes in temporal practices happened fast in fourth century Egypt. It was only in the course of the sixth century that Sunday became a day on which any kind of work was prohibited.

It would seem that the Sunday replaced the Thursday in this respect, but interestingly enough, this does not seem to have been the case everywhere. In sixth-century Gaul church leaders, notably Caesarius of Arles and Martin of Braga, condemned the ‘pagan’ custom of refusing to work on Thursdays, possibly by people who called themselves Christian:

‘No one shall dare to observe the fifth feria (= Thursday) in honour of Jupiter by abstaining from work. I confirm, brothers, that nobody, man or woman, shall observe this practice, unless they wish to be regarded by the Lord as pagans, rather than Christians. For they sacrilegiously transfer to Jupiter’s day ( = Thursday) what should be observed on the Lord’s day (= Sunday).’

(Caesarius, Sermon 19.4)

There is no further evidence from Egypt regarding the Thursday as a special honorary day. For the official of the daybook this practice meant even more days without work. In total, he did not work on 20 of the listed 35 days, meaning he had time off for 57% of the time. You would be hard pressed to find such a work-leisure ratio in our modern schedules.

Elsa Lucassen