Blog: The origin of the leap year

Every four years, the month of February counts 29 instead of 28 days. Yesterday, this happened again. In this way, our calendar keeps up with the astronomic speed with which the earth runs its course around the sun. Adding this day to February was a measure implemented by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE. It was part of a larger calendrical reform meant to get rid of a discrepancy of no less than 90 days (!) between the Roman calendar of his day and the seasons the months and festivals referred to. Some authors, like Appian and Dio Cassius, say the Egyptian way of measuring time in a calendar had inspired Caesar.

Egypt was indeed clearly ahead of Rome in terms of calendrical knowledge. Before Caesar’s reform, Rome had a calendar of 12 months (of 31, 29 or 28 days) which together formed a 355-day year. This year was irregularly expanded with an intercalary (i.e. thirteenth) month. Such a system of inserting an intercalary month also existed in ancient Greece, but there the months strictly followed the moon, and a regular cycle for intercalation was developed to keep the lunar year in line with the solar year, which made the result less chaotic. Egypt, on the other hand, had long had a perfectly regular 365-day calendar, with twelve 30-day months and five epagomenal (i.e. additional) days at the end of year. The Egyptian astronomers realized that this calendar too moved out of line with the seasons. Already in 238 BCE, there was an attempt to add an extra day to the end of the year every four years to solve this problem. This was decided in the so-called decree of Kanopos, which was inscribed on stone in both Greek and Egyptian. In this decree, priests from all over Egypt expressed their intention to honor the royal couple of Ptolemaios III and Berenike II with a special feast day. To ensure the Egyptian New Year would always coincide with the rising of Sirius, ‘the star of Isis’, this royal holiday was planned as an extra epagomenal day in a four-year cycle. Sadly, this plan was never really implemented, probably due to the unwillingness of priests themselves.

Priestly unwillingness probably also played a role in the persistence of Rome’s flawed calendar. Here the pontifex maximus was responsible for intercalation. Although the problems of the Roman calendar were well known by the second century BCE, the pontifices were very reluctant to change anything to the traditional calendar, which was charged with religious meaning. Their decision whether or not to add an additional month, on the other hand, was often given in by political motives, even when this led to a clear discrepancy between calendar and astronomic reality. When Caesar became pontifex maximus he decided to bring an end to this. To remedy the calendar’s backlog, he added three extra months to the year 46 BCE. For the next years, he added one or two additional days to seven of the months, and turned the king’s intercalary month into an intercalary day. But he was very careful not to change too much, realizing very well that calendar change is a very sensitive topic. He for example kept the alternation between longer and shorter months (which survives up to today), and added the leap day to February, after the sixth day before the Calends of March, that is at the same moment the intercalary month had traditionally been added. This insertion in this particular place is also why the leap day was known as the ‘bissextus’, the ‘second-sixth’ day before the 1st of March.

Caesar sorted out the problem, but those who came after him managed to make a mess out of the calendar again. His successor to the function of pontifex maximus of Rome added the intercalary day every third year instead of every fourth, which again led to a discrepancy between calendar and astronomical year. The emperor Augustus finally restored order to the galaxy by correcting this pontifical mistake.

Caesar’s reform assumed that the length of an astronomical year is exactly 365,25 days long. This is just a tiny bit too long. Only by the sixteenth century CE, the slowly growing discrepancy became an issue. It again was a pontifex maximus of Rome, pope Gregory XIII, who reformed the calendar. His primary concern was not, however, a perfect synchronization of the calendar with the astronomical year in the way it had been designed by Caesar. Gregory wanted to celebrate Easter as the first Council of Nicaea (in 325 CE) had decided a good Christian should. Therefore he only skipped 10 days. Three more would have brought us back in line with Caesar.

Kevin Hoogeveen and Sofie Remijsen


The main source for this blogpost was: Roland Färber and Rita Gautschy (eds.), Zeit in den Kulturen des Altertums. Antike Chronologie im Spiegel der Quellen (Cologne 2020).

Blog: When do we get to see bears and panthers fighting?

Roman animal hunts, so called venationes, were rare occasions. Seeing wild animals in the arena as they attacked each other or were confronted by human fighters was an exciting sight that spectators did not often get to experience. Outside of Rome and Constantinople, these spectacles were organized in the context of the imperial cult. The priests, who took on the office for the duration of one year, had the responsibility to put on festivities for the civic community. In the case of provincial high priests, these annual festivities involved inviting delegations of all cities of their province to the capital and putting on lavish shows for their entertainment. Invitations to the spectacles were placed in the cities of the province, advertising the duration of the event as well as what types of animals would be shown. However, not every priest could afford to present animal hunts and thus opted for less costly displays instead. This means that in the provincial cities of the late antique Roman empire, animal hunts were at most a yearly occasion.

The financial possibilities of the priests limited how often animal hunts were shown. But the spectacles also had to adhere to imperial legislation, which restricted when they were allowed to be presented. In Late Antiquity, the emperor issued several laws that aimed to reconcile Christian feast days with the spectacles, which were denounced by Church leaders as immoral. By the end of the fourth century, it was no longer allowed to show spectacles on Sundays and by the early-fifth century, the period of Lent and Easter was supposed to be spectacle-free, as were Christmas and Epiphany. These measures can be understood as an attempt by the imperial government to appease Christian voices who relentlessly polemicized against the spectacles and at the same time recognized that they were popular entertainment which the population expected in regular intervals.

For fourth-century Antioch, the capital of the province of Syria, we have insights into the intricacies of organizing animal hunts for the provincial assembly through the correspondences of the Antiochean rhetor Libanius. He tells us that the games had lapsed for a long time before his cousin decided to take on the heavy financial burden of procuring animals and hunters from far-away regions. The population of Antioch thus lived several years without animal hunts being shown in their city. All the more excitement and anticipation was attached to the shows of the cousin, for which Libanius aimed to acquire panthers and bears. We also learn from the rhetor that the spectators were so excited to see the animal spectacles that they would arrive on the previous evening at the amphitheatre and sleep on the stone seats to reserve the places with the best view:

“In the case of other entertainments, people stroll along to them at daybreak, but for the beast fights, they suffer under the night sky and think the stone benches softer than their beds, and the spectators’ eyes anticipate the beast fighters in action!” (Lib.ep.1399, transl. by Bradbury (= B4))

In fact, getting to the venue in time seems to have been crucial to obtaining a good seat. Some tried to reserve a seat by inscribing it – we find such inscriptions in all types of venues, from amphitheatres and theatres to stadia and hippodromes – but this approach seems to have had its limits. A seat inscription from Aphrodisias in Asia Minor reads: “Reserved – don’t quarrel” (Jones 2008, cat.-no. 65.86) which, in turn, tells us that quarreling was not uncommon, with or without inscribed reservation.

The most exciting part of animal hunts were the wild animals themselves. But they also provided the biggest hurdle for the organiser: transporting lions, panthers, or bears to a city just in time for the spectacles was a challenging endeavour. Negligent planning could easily lead to trouble. A fifth-century law from the Codex Theodosianus tells us about wild animals that were on their way to Constantinople and had been kept in the city of Hierapolis in Asia Minor for an astonishing four months, forcing the city to provide shelter and fodder for the animals while the presence of the ferocious lions terrorised the population. The imperial law reacted to this unbearable situation by limiting the amount of time wild animals transports were allowed to stop in any provincial city to seven days.

Vessel in the shape of a kept bear, Western or Eastern Rome, 3rd-4th century AD, cast copper, 13.8 x 16.7 x 9.2cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), acc.-no.: 66.18. Photo credits: Metropolitan Museum of Art, digital catalogue.

A similar inconvenience happened to Libanius’ cousin while he was trying to put together his animal hunts in Antioch. A letter from the emperor arrived, telling him that he was not allowed to proceed with his shows as planned. The reason was that the emperor himself was to arrive at Antioch and he wanted to enjoy private animal hunts for himself and his close circle. The cousin was supposed to reserve the bears and panthers he had acquired for the enjoyment of the emperor. This meant, as Libanius laments in his letter, that the cousin was either to disinvite all delegations from the provincial cities or to display the animals without killing them as to preserve them for the emperor – but what fun would that be?

“So tell me, what’s he going to do? Will he call off the assembly by announcing that people are to remain in the country and wait for winter? What could be more embarrassing or more costly? For what crime will he endure that punishment? Or will he be obliged to invite the cities and do the rest of it, but then pray over the bears and order no one to wound them even with a judge’s staff? What sort of pleasure is that? How is that not laughable?” (Lib.ep.218, transl. by Bradbury (= B3))

Additionally, the cousin would have to continue to feed the animals until the emperor would reach Antioch, which apparently could take several more weeks or even months. Libanius warns that the costs of keeping the animals much longer than planned could turn out ruinous for his cousin. Unfortunately, we don’t know how the situation resolved since only two of Libanius’ letters on this issue survive. But of course we hope that the cousin in the end was able to present his animal hunts the way he planned and that the people of Antioch got to enjoy a spectacular show.

Konstanze Schiemann

Cited sources:

  • Libanii opera. Vol. 10: Epistulae 1-839, ed. by R. Foerster, Leipzig 1921.
  • Libanii opera. Vol. 11: Epistulae 840-1544, ed. by R. Foerster, Leipzig 1922.
  • Selected Letters of Libanius. From the Age of Constantius and Julian, transl., introd., and with notes by S. Bradbury (= Translated Texts for Historians 41), Liverpool 2004.
  • Jones, T. 2008: Seating and Spectacle in the Graeco-Roman World, PhD-thesis, McMaster University, Hamilton. Accessed online 18th September 2023:

Blog: Coptic expressions for the days of the week

In Sahidic, the main variant of Coptic in late antiquity and the early Islamic period, there are three incomplete sets of names for days of the week (Table 1). Words for Sunday, Friday and Saturday were adopted from the Greek version of the Bible, whereas the days from Monday to Friday were numbered and written in full in Coptic. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the Austrian Coptologist Walter C. Till gradually identified a third set of names that refers to “fasts” and “intervals”, but until recently, scholars still struggled to interpret these. When writing his PhD dissertation (published in 2020), Frederic Krueger rediscovered both their meaning and Till’s findings. As all these publications are in German, and not all of them are available online, it is good to discuss Coptic expressions for the days of the week in a more accessible medium. In addition, the Lived Time project offers the opportunity to examine the use of different sets of names in particular types of texts and regions.

The names of Biblical origin include:

  • ⲧⲕⲩⲣⲓⲁⲕⲏ, “the Lord’s day”, for Sunday (Κυριακή, short for  Κυριακὴ ἡμέρα; Rev. 1:10);
  • ⲡⲥⲁⲃⲃⲁⲧⲟⲛ, “the Sabbath”, for Saturday (τό Σάββατον, from the Hebrew Shabbat, “rest”; Ex. 20:10);
  • ⲧⲡⲁⲣⲁⲥⲕⲉⲩⲏ, “the Preparation (day)” for the Sabbath, for Friday (παρασκευή; Luke 23:54).

The Coptic versions are preceded by a definite article, which is a ⲧ- before the feminine nouns, and the masculine article ⲡ- before ⲡⲥⲁⲃⲃⲁⲧⲟⲛ. Sometimes, ⲡⲥⲁⲃⲃⲁⲧⲟⲛ means “the week”.

The numerical names start with Sunday as the first day of the week: as the seventh day of Creation, on which God rested, was a Saturday, Creation must have started on a Sunday. Monday is ⲡⲉⲥⲛⲁⲩ, “(day) two”, Tuesday ⲡϣⲟⲙⲛ̄ⲧ, “(day) three”, Wednesday ⲡⲉϥⲧⲟⲟⲩ, “(day) four”, Thursday ⲡϯⲟⲩ, “(day) five”, and Friday ⲡⲥⲟⲟⲩ “(day) sixth”. These words consist of a Coptic cardinal number and the definite masculine article ⲡ-/ⲡⲉ-. Sometimes, the numerical names are spelled with ⲙⲉϩ-, the prefix to ordinal numerals, from ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲛⲁⲩ, “the second (day)”, for Monday, to ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲟⲟⲩ, “the sixth (day)”, for Friday.

Walter Till played a significant role in establishing the third set of names. When publishing Coptic farmers’ almanacs, collections of calendrical and meteorological omens used for planning agricultural activities, he discovered that ⲧⲕⲟⲩⲓ ⲛ̄ⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ, “the little fast”, and ⲧⲛⲟϭ ⲛ̄ⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ, “the great fast”, indicate Wednesday and Friday respectively (1943). ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ ϣⲏⲙ, “the little fast”, and ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ ⲱ (or ⲟⲩ), “the great fast”, are attested as well (1947). These expressions refer to the early Christian tradition to fast every “fourth day” to remember Jesus’ betrayal by Judas,[1] and every Friday to remember his crucifixion (Didascalia v. 13), two weekly fasts that are still observed by the Coptic Orthodox Church. Till surmised that Thursday was ⲡⲟⲩⲱϣ ⲛ̄ⲧⲙⲏⲧⲉ, “the interval in between”, or just ⲡⲟⲩⲱϣ, “the interval” (1947). His hypothesis is confirmed by a Sahidic lectionary fragment from Aswan (tenth century?), which also demonstrates that the hitherto unclear expressions ⲡϣⲟⲣⲡ ⲛ̄ϩⲟⲟⲩ ⲛ̄ⲟⲩⲱϣ, “the first interval day”, and ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲛⲁⲩ ⲛ̄ϩⲟⲟⲩ ⲛ̄ⲟⲩⲱϣ, “the second interval day”, refer to Monday and Tuesday (ed. Drescher 1951). Till discussed these alternative names in a festive volume (1953), and included them in the revised edition of his Koptische Grammatik (1961).

A quick survey for the Lived Time project reveals the text types and regions in which the expressions for week days appear (Table 2). Apart from the documentary texts, most examples postdate late antiquity. Interestingly, the day of the week is never included in dating formulas in Coptic contracts, which indicates that they were not considered relevant for calendrical purposes. In funerary inscriptions they are rare as well, appearing only in two epitaphs from the Monastery of St Jeremias at Saqqara, which refer to Thursday and Sunday by Greek numerical names written in digits: ἡ(μέρας) ε, “day 5” (AD 787), and ἡ(μέρας) α, “day 1” (AD 806).

As for the names of Biblical origin, ⲡⲥⲁⲃⲃⲁⲧⲟⲛ and ⲧⲕⲩⲣⲓⲁⲕⲏ indicate Saturday and Sunday in all text types. ⲧⲡⲁⲣⲁⲥⲕⲉⲩⲏ only occurs in a homily and in the lectionary from Aswan, which records no less than three words for Friday, as the three scribes who compiled it used different words.

Coptic numerical names are rare as well: they are only found in the lectionary from Aswan (ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲛⲁⲩ–ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲟⲟⲩ), and in a note in a literary manuscript from the White Monastery near Sohag (ⲡⲉϥⲧⲟⲟⲩ and ⲡⲥⲟⲟⲩ).

The examples for “the little fast” and “the great fast”, on the other hand, are more numerous. The spellings with ⲕⲟⲩⲓ and ⲛⲟϭ appear in a letter from the Hermopolite region, a Coptic farmers’ almanac, a literary manuscript, and the lectionary from Aswan. These attestations do not point to a particular region or period, unlike ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ ϣⲏⲙ and ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲉⲓⲁ ⲟⲩ, which are found in monastic / ecclesiastic correspondence from early seventh-century Western Thebes. Some letters were addressed to the hermit Epiphanius (ca. 615–620), the leader of a hermitage, and to Bishop Pesynthios of Koptos, who stayed at this hermitage in the 620s. The expressions were used by monks, clergymen and laymen.

Expressions with ⲡⲟⲩⲱϣ for Thursday are recorded in different kinds of sources from all over Egypt: letters from Western Thebes, an inscription at the Monastery of St Jeremias at Saqqara, a literary text from a monastery near Edfu, and the lectionary from Aswan. The “first interval day” and “second interval day” for Monday and Tuesday appear in letters from Western Thebes (the hermitage of Epiphanius) and in the lectionary from Aswan, where “first” and “second” are replaced by digits (ⲁ ⲛⲟⲩⲱϣ and ⲃ ⲛⲟⲩⲱϣ).

In short, a quick survey reveals that ⲧⲕⲩⲣⲓⲁⲕⲏ and ⲡⲥⲁⲃⲃⲁⲧⲟⲛ are the standard words for Sunday and Saturday, whereas there are no less than five different words for Friday (ⲧⲡⲁⲣⲁⲥⲕⲉⲩⲏ, ⲡⲥⲟⲟⲩ, ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲟⲟⲩ, ⲧⲛⲟϭ ⲛ̄ⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ and ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ ⲟⲩ). In general, numerical names for Monday to Thursday mainly appear in lectionaries, and alternative names for Monday to Friday in letters. Most examples of alternative names come from a mixed monastic / ecclesiastic milieu in Western Thebes (early seventh century), where monks, clergymen and laymen alike used the expressions ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ ϣⲏⲙ and ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲉⲓⲁ ⲟⲩ, “the little fast” and “the great fast”, for Wednesday and Friday respectively. By contrast, ⲧⲕⲟⲩⲓ ⲛ̄ⲛⲉⲥⲧⲓⲁ and ⲧⲛⲟϭ ⲛ̄ⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ, which have the same meanings, appear in sources from different parts of Egypt and in different types of texts. Interestingly, Biblical, numerical and alternative names can also be found together in a single source: the lectionary from Aswan, which was compiled by three scribes, who used different expressions. Further research is likely to reveal more (late) examples of names of week days in lectionaries and literary texts.

Renate Dekker

Relevant literature

  • Till, W.C. “Bemerkungen zu koptischen Textausgaben. 7–8”, Orientalia. Nova Series 12 (1943), 328–337, particularly 330–332.
  • Till, W.C. “Neue koptische Wochentagsbezeichnungen”, Orientalia. Nova Series 16.1 (1947), 130–135.
  • Till, W.C. “Die Wochentagsnamen in Koptischen”, Publications de l’Institut d’études orientales de la Bibliothèque Patriarcale d’Alexandrie 2 (= Tome commémoratif du millénaire de la Bibliothèque Patriarcale d’Alexandrie), Alexandria 1953, 101–110.
  • Till, W.C. Koptische Grammatik, Leipzig 1961 (revised version; first edition: 1955), 88–89.

[1] Two interesting things come into play here. First, the day did not start at sunrise, but in the night before, just as “there was evening, and there was morning – the first day” (Gen. 1:5). Second, according to the Didascalia (preserved in Syriac and Latin), the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest took place on Tuesday eve (that is, Wednesday), Jesus remained in detention on Wednesday, and was handed over to Pilate on Thursday. In general, the Eastern and Western Church traditions remember Judas’ plan to betray Jesus on Wednesday, the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest on Thursday, and his delivery to Pilate on Friday.

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, 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.

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

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’.

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.

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

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