Blog: The popular legacy of an ancient Roman festival

A great feast, celebrated with family and friends, tables loaded with delicious food and sweet things, plenty of wine, houses decorated with boughs, the habit of giving each other gifts, sometimes singing songs together- of course I’m talking about the feast of … New Year!

Our New Year’s festivities have a long history and can be traced back to the Romans, where it was known as the Kalends. In the Roman calendars, the Kalendae are always the first day of the month. The Kalends of January therefore means the first of January and the start of the new Julian year. It was historically celebrated in Rome to mark the appointment of the new consuls for that year, with a public feast and a sacrifice to Janus, the god of the beginning and end, after whom the month was named. In the first centuries of the common era the Romans had conquered a large part of the Mediterranean region, and while they imposed their governors and administration on the whole Empire, they did not impose their own calendar on the provinces. Nevertheless, the Kalends of January festival became popular in the areas under Roman rule. This is striking, as many of the provinces had their own local calendars and their own New Year’s traditions, on a different day of the year.

In the provinces the Kalends appear to have been mainly an occasion for private feasts within the household, or possibly with extra guests, where gifts were sometimes exchanged. A particularly nice example is the following letter, from a girl called Therpe to her father, sent in Egypt sometime between the late fourth and fifth centuries:

‘To the master of my soul, truly the most esteemed, my father Theon, Therpe. Before anything I pray God the Almighty about your health. (…) Inform me so that I receive the leg ornaments so that I can wear them at the feast, because mine broke. Don’t I deserve the cakes and the spiced wine of the Kalends? You did not send me anything, not even a bit of money for the feast. Send D… so that she makes my himation. Do not forget the ornaments. I pray for your health for a long time, lord father.’[1]  

We see here that Therpe is looking forward to the delicacies and that she is eager to make a good impression at the feast itself. She complains almost petulantly about the lack of gifts from her father, so it is clear that these kinds of things were expected at the festival, at least in the higher classes, to which Therpe appears to belong.

A social gathering with a nice dinner and gifts, – what could possibly be wrong with that?

But some people disagreed. In the fourth century, Christianity became more and more dominant and church leaders grew more influential. When he was a priest in Antioch, the later archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom, for example, wrote about Christians participating – to his horror – in the Kalends festival. According to him, this was a ‘pagan’ festival, and celebrating it was an affront to the Christian faith, and very inappropriate for pious Christians. People shouldn’t give presents with the expectation to get a present in return, it was much better to give alms out of charity, without expecting anything back. Instead of indulging in food and drinks, fasting was the better option for ‘real’ Christians. The fact that he felt obliged to speak about these matters, however, proves that many Christians did participate in the festivities. Therpe was one of these. At the beginning of her letter she writes: ‘Before anything I pray God the Almighty about your health.’ This formula is an indication that she considered herself to be a Christian, but that didn’t stop her from celebrating the Kalends. The festival also survived in a purely Christian world; in later Islamic sources we find warnings for Muslims to stay away from the ‘Christian’ Kalends festival, which indicates that it was still celebrated by later Christians.

From other sources we learn that from the fourth century onwards, the festivities on the first of January became rowdier and wilder in Rome and the provinces. There is talk of masquerades in the streets, with people dressed up as animals (see the image below), as a different gender or as the traditional gods, singing loudly until the early hours of the morning. Sometimes, children or adults were said to go by the houses, singing and asking for sweets or coins. To the modern observer, these are of course recognizable features, reminiscent of Carnival and Halloween, or in the Netherlands ‘Sint Martin’ in the north, and Three Kings Day in the south. In the Roman world, these rowdier elements had originally belonged to the Saturnalia, a festival celebrated in December – very close to January. The period between the old and the new year is sometimes portrayed as a grey area, an in-between zone, where the normal rules of society don’t apply, but a certain festive license reigns. This is still recognizable in the modern feasts mentioned above.

Ironically, many of the characteristic elements of the Kalends feast such as the decorating of the houses and presents, have found their way to a popular Christian feast today, Christmas, despite the quite harsh criticism from the Christian authorities. How precisely that has happened, is still, up to a certain point, shrouded in mystery. Christmas is a newer festival that started to appear in the late fourth century, when the Kalends festival was already widespread and popular. In my research I will further look into this interconnectedness between festivals. It seems safe to say that festivals within the same season influenced each other to a certain degree, the newer Christian feasts included. The way the early Christian church used its influence to gain a measure of control over the festival calendar by appropriation, among other tactics, is still speculative at this point. But regarding the Kalends feast, it appears to be a case of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’.

A masquerade like the ones practiced during the Kalends festival in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, from the “Alexander Romance.” MS Bodley 264, fol.21v. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Elsa Lucassen

[1] SB 20.14226, translation R. Bagnall & R. Cribiore. Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC – AD 800, Ann Arbor 2006, 237-38.

Blog: Glocal dating. The reception of Justinianic reform in dating formulas.

In 537 CE, emperor Justinian ordered all officials charged with drawing up documents and all notaries of the Eastern provinces to have their dating formulas comply to a format that named him and his successors first. Egyptian scribes were used to a different system. Did the scribes pay heed to this imperial instruction? In this blogpost, we look at the speed of the implementation of this Justinianic instruction in the provinces. First, we turn our attention to how scribes used to count regnal years in Egypt. Then we dive into Justinian’s reform in more detail, after which we return to papyri from Egypt. We end with a short excursion outside of Egypt, to test whether it is justified to draw more general conclusions from the known Egyptian situation.

In Egypt, scribes tended to count the first regnal year of an emperor from the day of his accession until the Egyptian new year’s day, the 1st day of Thoth, 29 August (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 43). For Hadrian, to name just one example, this meant that the first year of his rule lasted from 8 August 117 until 29 August 117, not even one month (Sijpesteijn & Worp 1978: 239 n.3). The regnal year of an emperor was, in other words, not counted as the 365 days between the day of the emperor’s accession, his dies imperii, but in civil years according to the Egyptian calendar, from 1 Thoth to 1 Thoth, starting in the year of his accession.

In the sixth century, the emperor Justinian tried to reform the ways in which the officials and notaries of his realm dated documents. While placing himself in a long illustrious line of Aeneas ‘King of Troy and Prince of the Republic’, Romulus, Numa Pompilius and Augustus, Justinian ordered all scribes of the Empire to date documents in the following way: “The year of the reign of the most holy and august emperor”, followed by consul of that year, the indiction, the month and the day (Nov. 47). Cities that, according to local traditions, used to count years in local eras, often starting at the day of their independence, were still allowed to do so. Scribes could add it after the prescribed formula. Askalon in the First Eparchy of Palestine, for example, was one of the cities that had such a system.

Justinian’s justification for his reform, according to the novella’s text, was not increased efficiency thanks to the standardisation of dating formulas, but the surety that the name of the emperor would become immortal like that of Augustus. He also wanted every official document to be a reminder of the Empire. Justinian, furthermore, made clear one had to count a regnal year from the day of accession until the next day of accession, as had long been the normal practices in most provinces apart from Egypt.

As Bagnall and Worp have already established, dating by regnal years virtually disappeared in Egypt from 337 AD onwards, except for in the Herakleopolite and Oxyrhynchite nomes, where it persisted until the end of the fourth century (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 45). Oxyrhynchus developed its own Era based on counting post-mortem regnal years (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 56-58). The first known papyrus that contains the ‘correct’ Justinianic formula is P. Harris 2.238 from 539, but ‘wrong’ formulas keep occurring for a long time afterwards. During Justinian’s reign, the provinces of Arkadia and the Thebaid developed distinctive interpretations of the Justinianic prescription as they used two different regnal formulas: one calling the emperor ‘most holy’ (in the Thebaid) and the other calling him ‘most holy and most pious’ (in Arkadia) (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 47). Soon after, more variations come into use, of which Bagnall and Worp provide an overview (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 48-54).

A quick look at a non-Egyptian papyrological dossier from Nessana, Palestina, shows Justinian’s novella was implemented in a different way in this formerly Nabatean city. In 537, the year the emperor issued his novella, we see how the year of the Bostran Era follows the consulate without any mention of the emperor in P. Ness. 1.3. In 566 (P. Ness. 3.22), 569 (P. Ness. 3.24), and 570 (P. Ness. 3.26), approximately thirty years after novella 47, the Bostran Era is consistently inserted between emperor, regnal year and consulate on the one hand and month and day number on the other. Justinian’s instructions were to add local dating customs after month and day number. Papyri from Nessana provide us with only a snapshot of society in the Negev and the province of Arabia Petraea. Nevertheless, it is remarkable to see yet another local reception of imperial legislation.

Variations are minimal, but as we see provinces and regions develop their own ways of implementing imperial legislation regarding dating formulas, inside and outside Egypt, we can plausibly conclude that dating formulas bear witness to a glocalised reception of Justinian’s intructions in (at least) the Eastern provinces. Glocalisation is the adaptation, or rather local translation, of global phenomena according to local custom. To what extent this was the case for other legislation remains to be seen. The fact that something as relatively insignificant for the lives of people as a dating formula cannot escape the influence of local tradition begs the question of how Justinianic law was received regarding topics more imbued with tradition and with a larger impact in the private sphere, such as inheritance.

Kevin Hoogeveen

Blog: Sunday rest and discourses of difference

The rhythm of our modern lives is set by the alternation of weekdays and weekend. This alternation between work and rest goes back to the early Jewish and Christian introductions of the Sabbath and the Sunday respectively as a weekly day of rest. This one day apart sets the pace of peoples’ lives. Jewish communities were – by far – the first to live according to a seven-day pace, but it was with the Christian day of rest that this lifestyle spread far and wide.

Although we can barely imagine life without these regular days of rest, the Christian Sunday was not introduced easily or quickly, even though the concept of a cycle of seven days was already known in the Roman Empire before Christianity. (For the planetary week, see the earlier blog by Elsa Lucassen.)  In the early days of Christianity, when Christian communities were actively trying to distance themselves from their Jewish heritage, the Sunday was strictly a day of religious celebration, not one of rest. In 321, however, the Roman emperor Constantine decreed that all judges, artisans and people in the cities should abstain from work on the holy Sunday. The closing day of the court was quickly implemented, as attested in the proceedings of a low-profile court case in a provincial town in Egypt in 325. But the Roman authorities had little influence of the everyday lives of artisans and city-dwellers. The broad survey of precisely dated papyri in the Lived Time project shows exactly how little.

For our project, we look, among other things, at precisely dated activities in texts. Often the date of the activity is the same as that of the text, as the production of a text (e.g. a contract, an account, a meeting etc.) is a side-product of the activity. The temporal patterns in the production of texts therefore represent the temporal patterns of a broad spectrum of economic, administrative and social activities; and the patterns for specific types of texts reflect the rhythms of specific activities. If one would look at the temporal patterns in modern text production, one would see, a steep decline of work emails and bills in the weekend, but perhaps a rise of shopping receipts on Saturdays. In the documents written in fourth-century Egypt, we find no such pattern: people produced just as many documents (of the same variety of types) on Sundays as on other days of the week. This is similar in the fifth century, but starts to change in the sixth century, when the documentary record clearly drops on Sundays and peaks on Mondays.

To get a better sense at what was happening here, we can zoom in on the papyri of one town in Egypt, Aphrodito. The discovery of the enormous archive of the local big man Dioskoros, which relates to both his and his father’s personal administration as well as to the village more broadly, has made this small town in the sixth-century in the words of Giovanni Ruffini “the best document place per capita in the entire ancient world”. This archive suggests that every administrative office representing the Roman authorities was closed on Sundays. This is in line with Roman law, which had, since the first law by Constantine, added more and more aspects of government that were not allowed on Sunday, such as tax collection. Sermons by high profile clergymen show that the Church too promoted Sunday rest in the sixth century (see the SOLA database). This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the ‘sabbatization’ of Sunday.

Instances of activities in 6th-century Aphrodito sorted by weekday
Instances of activities in sixth-century Aphrodito sorted by weekday

But the local population had clearly not yet interiorized this idea of obligatory rest. The pattern (somewhat fewer private documents than on other days, followed by a peak on Mondays) suggests they worked somewhat less on Sundays, but they were hardly restful. The most logical scenario is that on Sundays they spend a part of the day normally devoted to work to attending mass (a regular activity that did not produce texts, and is therefore much harder to locate in our evidence) and that they used this religious get-together also as a social occasion to arrange more complex business meetings on the following day, hence the peak on Monday. As major transactions generally involved a notary and witnesses acceptable to both parties, this kind of business could not be done on the spot.

Aphrodito is also the finding spot of another large archive, this time from the early eighth century. This second find creates the opportunity to see how the rhythm of village life had evolved in the intermediate 150 years, during which Egypt transformed from a Roman province to an integral part of a Muslim empire. The archive of Basilios, the local head of the administration who was in direct contact with the Arab governor in Fustat, contains little information about private activities, but an analysis of the temporal patterns shows clearly that he organized his administration in contrast to the rhythms set by Fustat. The governor sent him a never-ending stream of orders. Repeatedly, messengers arrived at his door on Sunday. This kind of demands on his time were outside his control. But every activity the Christian Basilios did have under control had to wait: he and his team stuck to their day of rest. This shows that under this new foreign domination, the observance of Sunday rest shifted from a norm set from above, but often ignored in private contexts, to a practice valued by the local population as a mark of their own Christian identity in a discourse of difference.

Sofie Remijsen

This blog is based on: Remijsen, S. (2022). Business as Usual? Sunday Activities in Aphrodito (Egypt, Sixth to Eighth Century). In U. Heil (Ed.), From Sun-Day to the Lord’s Day: The Cultural History of Sunday in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Turnhout, pp. 143-186.

Seminar on the study of ancient religion

On 19 September, ancient historians, Copticists and researchers of ancient religion came together for the first project-organized seminar of the academic year. Mattias Brand (University of Zürich), in his lecture titled “Lived Religion, Multiple Identities, and Monocausality in the Historical Study of Religion\s”, argued for a situational approach to ancient religion and introduced the concept of ‘group styles’ is a helpful concept in thinking about religious practices without the pitfalls of thinking in groups as stable, easily distinguishable social entities united by a shared doctrine. Brand also broke a lance for historically contextualized comparative research in the study of religion

Blog: How monks at a hermitage in Kellia established the time for eating

In Late Antiquity, Kellia (“the Cells”) was an internationally renowned monastic community located ca. 60 km southeast of Alexandria, on the edge of the Western Desert. According to monastic tradition, it was founded by the fourth-century hermit Amun of Nitria. Following the advice of Antony the Great, “the father of Christian monasticism” (d. 356), he chose a location twelve miles from Nitria, so that hermits from this community could first eat at the ninth hour (ca. 3PM) and visit the brethren in Kellia before sunset, and vice versa. Being known as a place where hermits lived a more strict ascetic life, Kellia was famous for its holy men, who attracted admirers seeking spiritual edification or intercessory prayer. Notable pilgrims from abroad include Rufinus of Aquileia (Italy), translator of the History of the monks in Egypt, and Palladius of Galatia (in central Turkey), author of the Lausiac History, an account of Egyptian and Palestinian monasticism. Kellia is also known as one of the main locations in various Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which exists in several versions, has been translated in many languages and is still popular as spiritual literature today.

Covering an area of about 11 km (7 miles) in length, Kellia consisted of more than 1,500 buildings, organised in seven clusters ranging in number from 30 to 550 constructions, including churches and freestanding hermitages. The earliest hermitages are likely to have been very simple, consisting of at least a cell and a prayer niche, but the buildings uncovered during French and Swiss excavations include more facilities, for the hermit himself and his disciple (or disciples), and represent a later development (sixth century). They were surrounded by a rectangular enclosure wall and comprised the habitation unit of the elder in the northwest, a kitchen in the northeast and a courtyard with a well and probably a vegetable garden in the east. The elder’s rooms included an oratory with a niche in the east, a cell with a store room and a workroom, which were usually separate spaces. The disciple had his own habitational unit, usually to the south of the elder’s rooms, which also consisted of separate spaces for living, praying, working and storing food. Depending on the number of occupants, there were two or more latrines against the south wall of the enclosure. One of the larger hermitages in Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat, called Kom 88 by French archaeologists (the Arabic word “kom” refers to an archaeological mound), also included a multi-storey tower against the south wall, where the elder and his disciple could hide in case of attacks by marauders.

Kom 88 measured about 28 × 39 m. The French team partly excavated it, uncovering the habitation unit for a disciple, a silo, communal rooms and a kitchen on the north side, and part of the tower and a room with two latrines against the south wall (Fig. 1). The habitation unit of the elder and the vestibule leading to it were located to the northwest. Two rooms preceding the vestibule probably served as waiting rooms for visitors wishing to meet the elder: the walls were decorated quite elaborately, with crosses and floral designs, and many visitors left (Bohairic) Coptic graffiti with requests for prayer for deceased loved ones or for their own sake. Another Coptic inscription, in the niche in the west wall of the southern room, was painted by an occupant for a practical reason: it is a shadow table recording the average length of a shadow in feet for each Egyptian month at the ninth hour, which enabled the hermits to determine when it was mid-afternoon – time to break their fast and eat a meal, usually the only one of the day (Fig. 2).

The columns of the months and the length indications are badly aligned, as if the hermit painted them one after the other and got confused about which lines should correspond, but the table is supposed to indicate that it was time to eat in Paoni (end of May and most of June), when the shadow measured 7 feet (2,13 m), and in Koiak (end of November and most of December) when it was 15 feet (4,57 m). The other values increase and decrease according to a regular pattern (Fig. 3). It is the only known shadow table in Kellia and differs from other examples in Egyptian monasteries, which record shadow lengths for multiple hours per day (at Deir Abu Hennis, south of Antinoöpolis, and at Deir Anba Hadra near Aswan) or for the first and fifteenth days of each month (Bawit).

The shadow measured for calculating time was usually that of a standing man and the lengths recorded in the table are not exceptional, but if a man cast the shadow, another person was needed to measure it, as the standing man could not move. For a single person it would be easier if a fixed pole of similar height was positioned in such a way that even the longest shadow would remain completely visible on a flat surface, without colliding with the shadows of other constructions. As Egypt is located in the Northern Hemisphere and the sun moves from east to west, causing the shadow to turn to the northeast, the best position for a standing man or pole seems to have been in the southwest, so that the shadow would fall between the elder’s rooms and the tower.

Inspired by anecdotes in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, I can imagine that the usual routine of the occupants of Kom 88 was as follows: while the elder followed his own regime of praying, meditating and working in his habitation unit, the disciple would prepare the meal and check the length of the shadow. At the ninth hour, he would call the elder through a conduit in the northwest corner of the room where the shadow table is, and they would eat together. When the elder was entertaining guests, they would be invited to join them, before returning home.

Renate Dekker

Further reading

  • [D. Brooks Hedstrom], “Yale Monastic Archaeology Project North (YMAP-North): Kellia and Pherme”, Yale Egyptology: Current expeditions, Yale University 2023 (with further references).
  • R.-G. Coquin and several others, “Neuvième campagne de fouilles aux Kellia (avril 1983): rapport préliminaire”, Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 70 (1984-1985), 107-124 (esp. 117-124 and pls. III-V on hermitage 88).
  • R. Dekker, “Amoen van Nitrië”, Lucepedia: Digitale theologische encyclopedie, Tilburg University, 2012.
  • A. Delattre, “Une curieuse table d’ombres au monastère de Baouît”, Le Muséon 123 (2010), 273-286 (re-edition of the shadow table at Bawit, with a list of other shadow tables in Egypt and Nubia, including the one at Kellia, on p. 7, under e.)
  • A. Guillaumont and others, “Kellia”, in: A. S. Atiya, The Coptic Encyclopedia 5, New York 1991, 1396b-1410a, available online in the Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia, Claremont Graduate University, 2009–present.

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

Seminar on the Festival Calendar of Egypt in Late Antiquity

June 13th, Dr. Élodie Mazy (UCL) shed her light on the festival calendar in Egypt from the fifth until the eight century AD in her talk titled “Ἔργα καὶ ἑορταί: works and feasts in Late Antique Egypt”. Not only did she show how she has used Greek and Coptic papyri and ostraca to reconstruct the festival calendar, but she also expanded on the socio-economic circumstances of the celebration of these feasts. Easter, for example, was a moment to open the books and account for expenses of the past year, next to a religiously motivated feast that was preceded by fasting. Dr. Mazy’s research touched upon several topics under investigation by the project team and her talk was followed by an interesting exchange of ideas. Elsa Lucassen afterwards showed how, during the first year of the project, she has been investigating the impact of the changing festival calendar in Egypt on social cohesion in Late Antiquity. She used the Calends, Roman New Year, as case study to look at the role of festivals in changing times.

Blog: The Era of Oxyrhynchus: A Political Statement?

Dating formulas abound in Roman Egypt. One could, for example, name the acting consuls to identify the year, or count the regnal year of the reigning emperor(s). Eras, that is a continuous count of years from a significant moment, were late-comers in Egypt. The common era, which counts the years since the birth of Christ, was an invention of the sixth century, and took several centuries to spread. In the fourth century CE, however, another, remarkable era appears in Egyptian documents from the city Oxyrhynchus, which consists not of one year count, but, e.g. year ρπθ ρνη = 189/158. This is quite practical. Instead of writing down entire names, a few numerals suffice to pinpoint exactly which circle around the sun is meant by the author. This comes in very handy when one orders a delivery of wine, or when one sends a very short note to a servant. And when one year is badly legible, the other number will bring clarity. But where does this dating formula come from?

According to Roger Bagnall and Klaas Worp (Chronological Systems of Byzantine Egypt, 2004: 55-58), who in turn refer to the early twentieth-century scholars Preisigke, Grenfell, and Hunt, the formula, in the static form we encounter it from the fourth to sixth century, is based on continued use of the regnal years of Constantius II (324-361) and Julian (355 – 363). Julian was Constantius’ cousin, whom he co-opted as (junior) co-emperor to manage the enormous Roman Empire. The ‘real’ first year of Era of Oxyrhynchus would then be, according to Bagnall and Worp, 40/9 (cf. P. Oxy. 63.4373), that is: 363-364 AD – the year in which Julian’s reign ended and the decision to nevertheless continue to count his regnal years was taken. For the attentive reader: that they continued to count Constantius’ years after his death in 361 is not taken as significant, as they did the same with the regnal years of his father Constantine the Great, who had likewise made his sons co-emperor. But this lasted only briefly, whereas the count of the regnal years of Constantius II and Julian was continued for centuries.

At first sight, the choice for Constantius II and Julian II is an odd one in the Later Roman Empire, in which Nicene Christianity eventually turned out to be the dominant religion. Constantius II was an Arian (a form of Christianity that got the label of ‘herecy’). Julian is often nicknamed ‘the Apostate’ because he swore off Christianity altogether. People could have opted to restart counting with the regnal years of new emperors, as they had done before. Is there some secret message behind the use of Julian’s regnal years? Did it start out as a declaration of loyalty from Oxyrhynchite crypto-pagans to the last pagan emperor? Or were people in Oxyrhynchus simply tired of keeping up with who was emperor at which point in time? 

Let us take a look at the ‘political option’. How conscious are we, today,  of the exact meaning of our dating formulas? It is not likely a lot of people – in the Netherlands, at least – think of baby Jesus when they write down the present year, even though there is no Dutch equivalent for ‘Common Era’ and dating things in temporal distance to the birth of Christ is still very much in use, especially when someone is talking about something before the year 1 AD. Even though most people know the medieval monk who calculated the birth of Christ probably was four years off, everyone sticks to 1 as a point of reference for BC and AD. It seems to be a matter of convenience, certainly when 1 forms the divide between the secular BCE and CE. People who employ the Anno Mundi (3761 BC(E)) or Hegira (622 AD/CE) in a country that in majority uses ‘1 AD’ appear to make a more conscious, religiously motivated choice – to give examples of non-convenience motivated choices. 

So, is there a secret message behind using the unending reigns of Constantius II and Julian II as dating formula on short notes from Oxyrhynchus? There sure was not at the beginning of the sixth century, in 513 AD. When on P. Oxy. 16.2005 Ioannes, a village elder of Sephta, acknowledges he has received money for the repair of a wall, he adds a (Christian) cross to the note he dates with the reigns of Constantius and Julian and starts the summary on the back of the note with a chi-rho. Ioannes seems to have been consciously Christian and unknowingly using the reign of the last pagan emperor to date his little note. Ioannes might not have been aware of the origin of his dating formula. Were people in the centuries before him?

Most of the documents we possess are fairly neutral. A shipmaster declared he had received a certain amount of grain in 371 (P. Oxy. 48.3395) and Nikon paid his debt in 391 (P. Oxy. 72.4897). In 392, the Oxyrhynchus Era was used to describe the start of a period in which Apollonia, a perfume-seller, had to pay a certain amount of money on a daily basis to Syrion, master of the guild of perfume-sellers (P. Oxy. 75.5064). The only ‘political receipt’ we find comes from 362, a time in which Julian was still alive. On the back of an order to pay dated by the reigns of Constantius II and Julian II, someone had felt obliged to write down a confession of his faith: ‘There is one god’ (P. Oxy. 7.1056). The contents of the receipt have nothing to do with Julian, so we cannot conclude this profession of faith was somehow anti-Julian. What we do find, is the fact that using his regnal years for dating e.g. the reception of grain has survived his damnatio memoriae.

Oxyrhynchus seems to have been the only Egyptian city to have used the reigns of Constantius II and Julian II for their ‘Era’. Was the choice efficiency-driven? Starting anew after the death of every emperor, might, eventually, cause confusion. What if the same combination of numbers occurs twice, e.g. 40/9? All in all, the most probable explanation is that people in Oxyrhynchus decided to keep on counting the years of Constantius and Julian this makes business a lot easier. If, hypothetically, a contract has a duration of four years, one would not have to convert the dates to the new system of regnal years in case both emperors died during the four years agreed upon in the contract. The main reason for sticking to two (controversial) emperors appears to have been a matter of efficiency, nothing more. The orders of wine and other short receipts (with and without crosses) dated in years of the Oxyrhynchus Era probably are not very political. Optimalisation of business operations is likely to have been a goal of government officials, household servants and entrepreneurs alike. More detailed research into the use of this dating formula will have to establish whether this suspicion is correct.

Kevin Hoogeveen

Blog: How the Lived Time Database Contributes to the Study of the Workweek of Scribes in Eight-Century Egypt

In the first months of my postdoc project, I have been entering information on dated Coptic texts in the Lived Time database, including deeds, tax receipts, letters and inscriptions. Sofie had already imported sources available at the papyrological platform, and I expanded the corpus with texts from less easily accessible publications or recent editions. Databases are wonderful tools for organising different kinds of information that are difficult to present in a clear overview in any other way. Normally, they can only display the data that has been entered, but what I appreciate about our database most is that it adds the day of the week, which offers the possibility of examining the working week of well-attested persons.

Such a study can only be successful, if the dates in the database are correct, and dating Coptic texts is a challenge: many documents, such as tax receipts, are not precisely dated, but refer to an indiction year (in a 15-year cycle which was used for taxation purposes), resulting in two or more options, e.g. 715 and 730 AD. Fortunately, researchers can propose specific dates by arranging such texts in a relative order on the basis of the persons involved, some of whom are also known from precisely dated deeds. In recent years, colleagues in Coptic papyrology checked and, where necessary, corrected many of the tax receipts published decades ago. As a result, it is possible to reconstruct to a certain degree the administrative apparatus of the town of Jeme, west of modern Luxor, from the 6th to the 8th centuries AD. 

Sometimes, I need to correct the precise date given in older editions. About twenty years ago, colleagues became aware that the indiction year started four months earlier in Upper Egypt than was previously assumed: not on the first day of the Egyptian calendar (August 29), but around the first of May. Consequently, texts dated to May–August turn out to be a year older, and to have been written on a different weekday. In the case of single documents the difference is trivial, but when reconstructing the administrative network in Jeme and its development under Islamic rule, it is crucial that the dates are calculated correctly. 

The tax receipts published so far were issued by village headmen in the period 710-730. Many of them refer to the poll tax, which non-Muslim (Christian) men had to pay to the Umayyad authorities. The scribes known by name included Psate, son of Pisrael (ca. 713-726), Psan, son of Basilios (717-719), Anastasios (719), Ktistes (726), Johannes, son of Lazaros (726-727), Kyriakos, son of Petros (727), and Aristophanes, son of Johannes (727-730). By exporting the dates of their receipts from the database to Excel, we can create tables that show to what extent their tenures overlapped (Table 1) and in which months, or on which weekdays, they were most active (Table 2).

Table 1 suggests that the tax administration intensified: Psate’s activity is spread over fourteen years, but he wrote most receipts during the winter (December–March) and harvest (April–July); Aristophanes was active for four years, but wrote more receipts, almost as much during the inundation (August–November) as during the harvest. Other scribes worked for increasingly shorter periods, ranging from two years according to the Julian calendar, but only during part of the year (Psan and Joannes), to a month (Ktistes, but his dossier is likely to be incomplete).

Table 2 seems to confirm the impression that tax-related scribal activity increased in Aristophanes’ days: whereas his earlier colleagues were most active during particular months and on specific weekdays, but hardly on Sunday (the Christian day of rest), Aristophanes was called upon during most of the year and every day of the week, including Sunday, which happened quite frequently. Friday, the day on which Muslims gather for prayer in the afternoon, appears to have been a fairly quiet day for most scribes. It would be interesting to know to what extent office days for Muslim officials influenced the workweek of the Christian scribes at Jeme, and whether they could choose their workdays.

Further research is necessary to explain these patterns. My analysis of scribal activity could be refined by adding more tax receipts, written by the above-mentioned scribes or less well-known ones, and the same method can be applied to the village authorities and tax collectors who issued and checked the receipts. Still, even in this very preliminary stage, it demonstrates the value of the database for reconstructing the administrative apparatus of Jeme, which in turn can lead to a more thorough study of the history of one of the best recorded towns in Egypt in the early Islamic period.

Renate Dekker

Blog: Being Late at a Party

After a wonderful night of dancing at the royal ball, Cinderella – in the exquisite dress given to her by her fairy godmother – looks at the clock and notices to her great dismay that it is already almost 12 o’clock. Afraid of being too late and being unmasked as an intruder to the high society assembled for the occasion, she panics, starts running and loses her slipper.

The ancient mosaic shown here reminds the viewer of this story. It portrays a nicely dressed party-goer looking at the clock (an ancient model, namely a sundial). The person realizes it is getting late and starts to run, losing a slipper in the process. This mosaic was made in the third or fourth century CE in Antioch in Syria (modern-day Antakya, Turkey), one of the largest cities of the ancient Mediterranean. Next to the similarities there are also some major differences with the fairy tale. The protagonist of the mosaic is male and the time on the clock is not midnight – a sundial is in fact useless at night– but the ninth hour of the day (the symbol Θ above the clock is the Greek numeral 9). Greco-Roman hours are not easy to convert exactly, because the duration of daylight was always divided into 12 hours, on short winter days as well as during long summer days. In any case, since the count started at sunrise, the ninth hour is always in the (later) afternoon. 

Image adapted from this source
For information about its discovery, see here

The protagonist on the mosaic is, moreover, not running away from a party, but heading to one. The Greek letters ΤΡΕΧΕΔΙΠΝΟΣ (trechedipnos) explain that he is a man running (trecho) to dinner (deipnon). There are many ancient texts, and a few more mosaics just like this one, confirming that the ninth hour was indeed the normal time for the start of dinner parties. There are even ancient invitation cards on papyrus confirming this. But, of course, not everyone ate their dinner in the middle of the afternoon. The average farmer or artisan would still be at work: in winter, when days were short, workers were still taking advantage of the natural light, and at summer the scorching midday heat was just receding, making working conditions ideal again. So, what we have here is the dinner time for special occasions and for the leisured classes who could afford to have lazy dinners every day of the year.

Despite all these differences, a comparison between the mosaic scene and the famous fairy tale works when we interpret both events in terms of social anxieties. Cinderella is anxious not to leave the ball too late, for she knows that when the magic wears off, she will show her real situation in life, namely that she is an impoverished orphan who would not be accepted by the high society assembled in the palace. Our anonymous party-goer likewise dreads to be late. The old figure behind him is labeled on the mosaic as ΑΚΑΙΡΟΣ (akairos means ‘ill-timed’) and is therefore a personification of bad timing. This gives the otherwise amusing scene a dark undertone – which is reinforced by the fact that the symbol Θ is, besides the numeral 9, also an abbreviation of the word ‘death’ (thanatos). The fear of being late was also a social anxiety in the Roman empire: only poor people needed to work and would not be available in the middle of the afternoon. A well-integrated member of the elite had all the leisure in the world, had internalized elite temporal norms and hence always arrived on time. One of the stock characters from Greek comedy is the so-called parasite, a flatterer who tries to get introduced into elite circles well-above his own station to get free meals. But to get accepted into these circles and to get these free meals, he does need to come on time. Arriving too late at a dinner party means running the risk of being seen as a parvenu, and our Roman-day Cinderella does not want to run that risk!

Sofie Remijsen