Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Light reading in 100 AD

Guest poster Colin Fisher ponders reading choices and national identity in politically interesting times.

Reading, by Sir Edward Poynter

Reading, by Sir Edward Poynter

Like many Scots I was reminded by the stramash over the referendum recently to consider whether I am Scottish, British or a combination of both. In my case, I also have an English professional life and a personal life that I pass in Spanish to fit into my identity profile. However, as the writer of Ecclesiastes points out, there is nothing new under the sun. People have always had to decide on which side of the fence they wish to stand. One such Everyman faced with these questions was a man called Socrates.

He lived in Egypt in the second century A.D. in the Fayum, the fertile district of land that borders the western bank of the River Nile. From excavations carried out by archaeologists from the University of Michigan in 1926 we know where he used to store his light reading papyri, in a building now called B.16, one of the largest in the ruined village of Karanis. Inside they found approximately 200 papyrus documents and from these they were able to reconstruct something of his life. He was a rich man, a tax collector for over thirty years. He had two sons and a daughter, yet he never married their mother, Sempronia Gemella. They most probably spoke, read and wrote Greek: he owned a copy of Menander’s comic play Epitrepontes (Greek), and in the house associated with Sempronia a copy of The Iliad was found (also Greek). Socrates was, in law, an Egyptian, one of the descendants of the Greek settlers who had colonised large parts of Egypt in the centuries following the conquests of Alexander in 332 B.C.. He could not marry a Roman citizen such as Sempronia without paying a large financial penalty under the social legislation of the day that tried to limit mixed marriages.

Socrates and Sempronia lived in Roman-occupied Egypt within a distinct Greek culture. For example, if you enter The Aeneid (Latin) into the search engine of the Oxyrhynchus Project website (the century-long project to translate the thousands of ancient manuscripts found on the site of the vanished Fayum city of Oxyrhynchus), you will get information on five papyri fragments, one of them a couple of lines copied out as an exercise by a Latin scribe. The Iliad elicits 50 bits of text, but the Oxyrhynchus archive records nothing by Ovid, Seneca, Lucan or Martial, for example: none of the Latin greats.

a fragment of the Acta papyri

a fragment of the Acta papyri

Among the documents found by the archaeologists in Socrates’ house there were fragments of papyrus documents which come under the title of the Acta Alexandrinorum, or, the Acts of the Pagan Martys. Because of their poor state of preservation it is hard to be sure about the story they tell. They do include stories of difficult relations between Jews and Greeks, probably in Alexandria and probably involving violence to young boys, attacks by soldiers and a woman pleading for her own life or for that of her son. Their importance becomes clear when they are put in the wider context of the Acta Alexandrinorum. They are written in Greek, in the style of court records, and describe representations made by leaders of the Greek community to the Emperor in Rome. It is possible that these, apparently falsified, accounts of complaints to the Emperor were taken from contemporary accounts of legal proceedings or from reports brought back from Rome by real embassies. In these papyri the Emperor acts as judge while the Greeks and Jews present their cases. According to the Greeks, the Jews of Alexandria are troublemakers. They argue their case with the Emperor, who usually sides with the Jews; the Greeks are heroic, doomed and die nobly. They are also very rude to the Emperor – being the cast-off son of the Jewish Salomé is one of the insults directed at the Emperor Claudius.

So why did Socrates, after a long day poring over tax returns, pick up a copy of the Carry On-like Epitrepontes – a farcical case of mistaken identity, a selfish husband, a father intent on disinheriting his daughter and a showgirl with a heart of gold – and a falsified account of riots in Alexandria? Was being Greek enough of a reason? Given an opportunity to read The Aeneid, for example, would he have said: “I liked his early work, but I’ve heard he’s gone off the boil a bit with this one”? Given the choice to reread Virgil’s Eclogues or The Aeneid, I know I would stick with the happy herdsmen and their interminable singing competitions. Were the politics of The Aeneid not to the liking of Socrates? After all, an account of the triumph of Troy’s defeated heir might not suit a Greek tax collector who, although doing very well out of helping to run the country, did so under the authority of an Empire that believed, as The Aeneid made only too clear, that it ruled the world because Jove, and not Zeus, decreed it. Zeus, The Iliad points out, presided over a world of mortals where personal honour was valued much higher than any abstract concept such as state or empire.

an attempt at transcribing the Acta

an attempt at transcribing the Acta

So, this was an insular society in the Fayum, separated by distance from Greece but identifying with its history, culture and politics. The evidence of contact between Greeks and Jews in Roman Egypt is clearly very negative: the Greeks complained that while they put statues of the Emperor in their temples, the Jews did not. The Acta Alexandrinorum also made fun of the Emperor. So, the Greeks had their cake and got to eat it too. However, Socrates’ partner was Roman by birth so he can’t be accused of prejudice against Romans even though he may have objected to their political control of Egypt. Among the papyri is a reference to a young man called Apollinarius, a Greek-Egyptian in service with the Roman navy, writing to his mother Taësis (who may have had to get a translator for the Greek in which her son wrote) via Socrates because he had access to the Imperial postal service. So she was an Egyptian grandmother speaking Demotic, with a grandson with a Greek name serving in the Roman navy, in contact with a Greek nationalist tax collector with privileged access to imperial communications. Evidence of links across classes and cultures were not limited to Socrates’ papyri. In a building in Karanis identified by the archaeologists as being used by Egyptian priests, fragments were found of Herodotus and Plato’s Phaedo (Greek). Demotic writing, an ancient Egyptian script, was found in eight houses in Karanis and used in some of them to translate the Tales of Euripides (Greek). Socrates, should he have bumped into an Egyptian priest in the street, would have had more to talk to him about than the level of the Nile that year.

Would Socrates have described himself as Greek? His books would seem to say “yes.” Would I describe myself as Scottish? Yes and my books, as I look at them now, would seem to say “no.” Would Socrates, like me, have followed up with a qualifying “but…”? Identity, unlike the leopard and his spots mentioned by the prophet Jeremiah, is rarely fixed and escapes even from ourselves.


For further reading I would recommend the City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish by Peter Parsons (Phoenix, 2007. 978-0753822333. £7.98). It is aimed at the general reader and gives both an overview of the Oxyrhynchus papyrus project and an insight into the lives of the people who lived in the Fayum in the second and third centuries. A little more academic, but free from any theorising, Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt – The Case of the Acta Alexandrinorum (Cambridge University Press, 2011. 978-0521182584. £21.37) by Andrew Harker goes into detail about the Acta Alexandrinorum and the role played by the discoveries in the buildings in Karanis associated with Socrates in determining their readership.

Colin Fisher is the author of A Republic of Wolves.

One comment on “Light reading in 100 AD

  1. Jackie
    November 13, 2014

    This was very interesting and educational about a topic I don’t know much about. In some ways, the world seemed more cosmopolitan in those days, or perhaps it was more the location than the time period?
    I also like the bigger question of what our personal libraries can tell us about our identities. Nicely done.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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