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Children in Ptolemaic Egypt: What the Papyri Say

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter queries a textual corpus comprised of tax records, petitions, contracts, laws, business correspondence, and private letters written in Ptolemaic Egypt (305–30 BCE). Although most of the contexts in which children appear are more revealing of the values, concerns, and expectations of adults than they are of children’s own experiences and motivations, the papyri nevertheless reveal how children were invested with the transmission of the distinct cultural identity of their social (Greek or Egyptian) environment. The chapter examines the family unit in the early decades of the Greek occupation of Egypt, noting the marked underrepresentation of girls in Greek households, and then traces the course of children’s lives, from pregnancy to birth and birthday, from toys to school or workplace, and, for too many, to premature death.

Keywords: Ptolemies (or Ptolemaic), Egypt, papyri, letters, petitions, tax records, contracts, exposure, birth, toys, schools, death


Even if the poets of the Hellenistic period did not “discover” childhood (Golden 1997: 179; Ambühl 2007), they were exceptionally skilled at conveying the gestures and moods of children: little Artemis, perched on Zeus’ knees, vainly reaches for her father’s beard (Callimachus, Hymn 3, 4, and 26–7), a toddler grows anxious as his mother gossips about his father (Theocritus, Idyll 15, 11–13), and a boy loses himself in the plaiting of a cage for his crickets (Theocritus, Idyll 1, 52–3). These vignettes, strikingly lifelike and endearingly universal, offer only glimpses of actual experiences and prove inadequate guides to the historian wishing to document the lives of children and their place in family and society. This essay will query instead the record preserved in the papyri written in Egypt when the descendants of Ptolemy son of Lagos ruled the country—from the first decades of the third century to Cleopatra’s death in 30 BCE—in the slender hope that out of a textual corpus comprised of tax records, petitions, contracts, wills, business correspondence and private letters, a portrait of children as they were might emerge. This enterprise is wrought with difficulties. One major hurdle is the relative scantiness of the Ptolemaic materials available compared to those of Roman date (on which see the chapter by Pudsey in this volume). Another lies in the ambiguity of the terminology associated with childhood (the ambiguity encompasses age, status, and gender), and a third is owed to the fact that the children glimpsed in the papyri essentially reflect the perspectives, concerns, and interests of adults. The first hurdle will occasionally be circumvented with evidence of Roman date, but only when behavior or mentalité can be safely assumed to have persisted over time. (p. 466)

Words for Children

Any discussion of the Greek terminology of childhood begins with Mark Golden’s essay on the noun pais in the Athenian vocabulary, where it is a referent both for child and young person (boy and girl) and for a slave of any age, does not connote extreme youth (i.e., a pais is not a baby), and may describe any age up to adulthood (Golden 1985: 91–3). Other words include paidion, meaning “child” and “young slave,” paidarion meaning “small child” and “young slave,” and paidiske meaning “young girl” and “slave girl.” In contexts emotionally charged, such as occur in tragedy, teknon is regularly used (pp. 96–7). An examination of teknon and pais in the papyri has confirmed the affectionate overtones of teknon in nonliterary contexts and established the second main use of the noun (often in the plural) as the designation for “offspring of a parent” in the formulaic parts of Ptolemaic wills and in marriage contracts (Stanton 1988: 464–6). Since pais, paidion, and paidarion can be used to designate freeborn children and slaves, the context in which the words occur is often the best guide to the status of the individual mentioned. Thus, in the extensive third century BCE archive of Zenon, pais and paidarion are used more often for slaves than for free persons, and paidiske, usually taken to designate a slave, can occasionally refer to a freeborn individual (Stanton 1988: 468–76). None of the terms implies a specific age.

Greek letters preserved on papyrus are filled with words for children, some referred to by name, many identified only by kinship term (i.e., child, son, or daughter) or by a combination of kinship term and name. Assembling a corpus of 4,738 papyrus letters, dated to the third century CE and earlier, Eleanor Dickey (2004) showed that the highest incidence (1,586 instances) of words for children occurs in letters of the third century BCE (the next highest frequency [1,057] is found in the second century CE), that pais is virtually absent from the letters from the third century BCE onward except in the sense of “slave,” and that after the third century BCE paidarion completely eclipses pais as the term used in reference to a slave. She further observed a marked expansion over time in the use of teknon and paidion meaning “child” rather than “little child” (p. 121) and pointed out that, while the nouns “son” and “daughter” are used in the singular in third-person reference to a single male or female offspring, the plural forms paidia and tekna are employed, apparently interchangeably, when referring to multiple children, no matter their gender (pp. 128–9).

The lessons of the linguistic evidence are clear: while words for children are frequent in the papyri, they do not necessarily refer to individuals in the time of life we might call “childhood,” they are not solely employed to describe familial relationships, and when they do they generally convey the affective bond of an adult for a child rather than that of a child for an adult. Searching for children with dictionary in hand is an instructive start, but looking for them in their families is a better place for inquiry. (p. 467)


The world experienced by the Greeks and Macedonians who immigrated to Egypt in the third century BCE, drawn by the economic possibilities opened up by the first Ptolemies, was not one and the same. The citizen population in the newly founded Greek cities of Alexandria (on the Nile delta) and Ptolemais (in the southern part of the country) was and remained solidly Graeco-Macedonian, whereas large numbers of newcomers—reserve troops allotted parcels of land (kleroi) by the crown and civilian entrepreneurs seeking opportunities—settled in the countryside (known as the chora) among the native Egyptian population. Given that the first waves of immigration had involved single men mostly, many Greeks took Egyptian women as wives and, by the second century BCE, through intermarriage and the social mobility which often went hand in hand with it, the population of the chora was, variously but unmistakably, mixed (Clarysse 1985; Bagnall 1988: 22–4; Thompson 2001).

Records of capitation charges the new Macedonian regime levied on the people of Egypt provide a view of this population. The collection of those taxes was based on a population count, by household and according to occupation: the Ptolemaic census can be inferred from the extant evidence of a few personal household declarations and the more ample, if fragmentary, tax registers drawn up on the basis of presumptive population lists (Clarysse and Thompson 2006, vol. 2: 10–35). The main capitation charge was the salt tax, paid in cash. It was levied on most adults, male and female, although particular groups (teachers, athletics coaches, actors, doctors, priestly personnel, and policemen among them) were exempted (pp. 123–86). Note how some of the fiscally privileged groups reflect the cultural agenda of the new regime: the Macedonian kings were committed to ensuring that the teaching and practice of Greek culture flourish in the new land through Greek education, the gymnasium, athletic games, and the performing arts (Thompson 1994: 75–8; 2007: 128–31).

The majority of these tax registers (published as P.Count) emanate from the Fayum (or Arsinoite nome), a marshy area reclaimed by the early Ptolemies and used by them as a prime area for the settlement of soldiers (cleruchs) who supported themselves and their families from allotted parcels of agricultural land. The Greek presence in the Fayum was therefore particularly high, civilian and military elements making up more than 30% of a population of roughly 85,000 (Thompson 2009: 401). Once discarded from government offices, the tax records were recycled into mummy cartonnage and buried in the local cemeteries. Cartonnage texts were recovered during early twentieth-century excavations of those burial grounds and in all P.Count include nearly fifty papyri, most of which date from the mid-third century BCE. Written in either Greek or Egyptian demotic, they preserve lists of adults, organized by village, occupation, and social group and by household, together with the (p. 468) taxes paid on their persons, livestock, and trades. Although they inventory adults only, the records reveal distinct attitudes toward children in this culturally mixed rural society.1

Fewer Girls

The database of 427 tax-paying Greek and Egyptian households derived from these registers documents differences in marriage patterns (in the third century BCE, about 8% of Greek males are married to Egyptian women, while none of the husbands with an Egyptian name is listed with a Greek-named wife) and the average size of immigrant and indigenous families. The larger households of the Greeks stand out (one comprises twenty-two adults, another fifteen, and two include eleven members, whereas the largest Egyptian household numbers eight adults), with the marked difference in the size of the households reflecting the respective economic status of the two segments of the population (Thompson 2002: 140–4; Clarysse and Thompson 2006, 2: 230–46; Thompson 2009: 402–3). More importantly for our subject, Greek households also stand out by a marked underrepresentation of daughters, a characteristic not shared by Egyptian families. Indeed, as is well-known, classical authors singled out the Egyptian practice of raising all the children born to them as strikingly different from the Greek attitude to the birth of daughters (cf. Diodorus Siculus 1.80.3, writing in the first century BCE, and Strabo 17.2.5 in the early empire). Such imbalance between the number of registered sons and daughters in the Greek households may therefore provide supporting evidence for the practice of exposure of newborn girls among the settler community (Thompson 2002: 152–3; Clarysse and Thompson 2006, 2: 308–12). And in a social group with a fairly high military component, the restriction that the kleros be transmitted to a son may have exacerbated the cultural predisposition to view daughters as a financial burden. However, a first-century BCE temple regulation from the Greek city of Ptolemais specifying the length of the purification period required of men (lines 3–8) and women (lines 10–4) before they can enter a sacred place following acts or events deemed defiling (such as intercourse, birth and death), suggests that the practice of exposure remained alive in the Greek community throughout the Ptolemaic period:2

Men who enter into the [sanctuary] must wait to be pure in accordance with the following: (for the pollution deriving) from one’s own [or another’s] illness, seven days; from death, [… x (days)]; from miscarriage, [… x (days)]; from (a woman) who has given birth and is nursing, [x (days)], and if she exposes (the child), fourteen. Men after (sex with) a woman, two days. Women, as in the case of men, (but?) from a miscarriage, forty. (p. 469) A woman who has given birth and is nursing, forty, but if she exposes the child, [x]‌. From menstruation, seven. (After sex with) a man, two days, and [she shall bring?] myrtle.

(SB 1.3451 = SEG 42.1131)

Getting Ready for Baby

Exposure, whether motivated by economic, health, or cultural reasons, must have been an exceptional measure. Then as now, children were wanted so that the household (oikos) may endure and because they were to care for their parents in their old age. Formal complaints lodged with the authorities against grown children reveal that aging parents could sometimes be sorely disappointed:

To King Ptolemy, greeting from Ctesicles. I am being wronged by Dionysius and my daughter Nice. For though I have raised her, being my own daughter, and educated her and brought her up to womanhood, when I was stricken with physical infirmity and with failing eyesight, she would not furnish me with any of the necessities of life.

(P.Enteux. 26, 222 BCE)

To King Ptolemy, greeting from Pappos. I am wronged by Strouthos, my son. I sent him to school and gave him a good education. When I grew old and could not provide my own subsistence, I appeared [?]‌ in the village of Arsinoe before Dioscourides, your deputy [?], who ordered him to furnish me with one artab of wheat and four drachmas per month, in which terms Strouthos himself concurred. But despite that he has given me nothing of what he has agreed to, and whenever he meets me he abuses me most shamefully.

(P.Enteux. 25, 221 BCE)

Fortunately, papyri do more than document paternal disappointment: private letters reveal that the birth of a child was a family event anxiously awaited (“Be sure to write to me about Dionysarion, how many months (pregnant) she is” [P.Oxy. 46.3312, second century CE]) and that family and friends wished to be of assistance to the pregnant woman (“At my request, do me the favor of bringing my daughter so that she may give birth” [P.Oxf. 19, after 208 CE]). A midwife was generally present during labor and delivery, assisted by other women (relatives, friends, or neighbors) who stood by and lent the pregnant woman moral and physical support. The use of a birth stool like the wooden one of Pharaonic date in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (no. 56.353: Hanson 1994: 166–8; Rowlandson 1998: 288, pl. 33a) or the one seen in the Egyptian terracotta figurine of Roman date (British Museum, GR 1992.8.11.1: Rowlandson 1998: 288, pl. 33b) on which a pregnant woman sits, knees apart, is documented in the Ptolemaic period as well. One painted limestone funerary stele from the Ibrahimieh necropolis in Alexandria, of the late fourth/early third century (p. 470) BCE, shows a woman in childbirth. She leans back on a chair padded with fabrics: one attendant stands before her, holding her right arm, while another woman stands behind her and supports her under the left arm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 04.17.1; see Venit 2002 for a discussion of early Hellenistic tombs).

The Greek doctor Herophilus, who made important discoveries in general anatomy and gynecology while conducting dissections at the Museum in Alexandria in the third century BCE, has been credited, more optimistically than is warranted by the primary evidence, as an advocate for “a sitting position for delivery that offered support for the parturient’s back” (Rowlandson 1998: 289). Herophilus did write a treatise on midwifery (von Staden 1989: 296–9), whose only extant passage is quoted by Soranus in his own Gynecology (4.1 [53]; text and translation in von Staden 1989: 367–8). The passage surveys the reasons for difficult childbirth (dystocia), some of which are internal, such as the presentation of the fetus, others external to the uterus, such as the parturient’s diet or some skeletal malformation of the loin and spine (lordosis). Herophilus was the first to isolate this condition among the causes of dystocia (Hanson 1994: 197), and this fact has prompted the clever but unproven suggestion that when the poet Callimachus, a fellow Alexandrian scholar, has the goddess Leto give birth to Apollo by sitting and supporting her shoulders against the trunk of a palm tree (Hymn to Delos, lines 206–11), the poet wittily “writes” Herophilus’ medical finding into Leto’s posture (Most 1981: 192–5). But Herophilus is not known to have advocated the sitting position (the presumed therapy for lumbar lordosis) assumed by Callimachus’ goddess, and Leto’s position is the “normal position of Greek women in childbirth” (von Staden 1989: 394–5). This is the way babies were born in the capital and elsewhere in Egypt.

The testimony of private correspondence makes it clear that men of the household could, if they so chose, help with advance preparations before a delivery, and several letters of Roman date show them involved in gathering items for use in birth (Hanson 1994: 159–60 with Bagnall and Cribiore 2006: 167–8). In a letter written sometime in the first century CE, a man even calls on his father to care for a friend’s pregnant wife as she approaches full term in her husband’s absence: “please, father, go to her toward the end of Mecheir (February) or the middle of Phamenoth (March), so that you will be there before she comes to term....Everything has been adequately prepared for her childbed” (BGU 2.665; transl. Lewis 1985: 80).

Children were born at home, perhaps in a room designated for women, if the custom of reserving separate quarters for the women of the household evidenced among Greek families of Roman Egypt (Hanson 1994: 169, n. 26) was a practice most families could materially afford. Relatives of the new mother breathed a sigh of relief at the news of a successful birth, as in this second century BCE letter in which a grandmother ventures a name for the newborn girl:

Your mother [name lost] to Ptollis, Nicander, Lysimachos, and Tryphaina, greetings. If you all are well, it would be as I wish. I pray to the gods to know that you all are healthy. We received the letter from you in which you (Tryphaina) announce that you have given birth. I kept praying to the gods every day on your behalf. Now that (p. 471) you have escaped, I shall spend my days in the greatest joy. I sent you a flask full of olive oil and [...] pounds of dried figs. Please empty the flask and send it back to me safely because I need it here. Don’t hesitate to name the little one Cleopatra, so that your little daughter…

(P.Münch. 3.57; trans. Rowlandson 1998: 291)

Of the nursing contracts preserved on papyrus only one is of Ptolemaic date (232 BCE). This unique document, written in Demotic, records an agreement between two Egyptians (Thissen 1984; Legras 2010: 50–3). The Egyptian text (P.Cairo dem. Inv. 30604) is accompanied by a short Greek subscription recording the contract as duly registered (P.Tebt. 2.279); together the two texts constitute our oldest wet-nursing contract (C.Pap.Gr. 1.1 = TM 3544).3 The dearth of Ptolemaic examples suggests that such agreements were routinely made verbally and that Greeks, too, entrusted their children to nurses is known from allusions in various contexts: P.Heid. 3.232 (155 or 144 BCE) is a letter in which Theon asks Paches to secure the services of the wet nurse Tetosiris by paying her a year’s salary in advance.

In the Demotic contract, Sponnesis the nurse declares that she will “suckle and feed and care for and protect from all error and harm” the little Petesouchos in the house of his father Phanesis for a period of three years (lines 2–4). Her compensation will be paid monthly, in kind (wheat, oil, laundry) and in money (for her “subsistence” and clothes). The 250 drachma salary recorded in the Greek registration calls to mind the allowance of food and clothing the wife receives from her husband in some Egyptian “annuity contracts” (Johnson 1996: 180–1; Rowlandson 1998: 156–7). The substantial sum could be explained by the fact that Phanesis is a widower and that the nurse is expected to incur the expenses the wife herself would incur, were she alive (Legras 2010: 53).

Precious little is said about the nursling or about the “error and harm” the nurse promises to protect him against. It is possible that lacking milk and being pregnant or ceasing to care for the child for another reason, circumstances that would void the contract and make the nurse liable for damage (as spelled out in lines 7–8), are situations deemed harmful to the infant. From the lengthy nursing period stipulated in this text, it appears that suckling continued after the child began to eat solid food. Also, from the fact that wet-nursing contracts were often drawn up for a period ranging from eighteen months to two and a half years, it is likely that mothers who nursed their own children also breastfed them for a similar length of time (see also Parkin in this volume). The iconographic type of the divine mother Isis holding or nursing her son Harpocrates (e.g., Rowlandson 1988: 51, pl. 11, 129, pl. 16), widely documented in Egyptian art in various mediums, was also extremely popular among the mass-produced terracotta figurines (p. 472) used in domestic worship in Hellenistic times, and the remarkable favor with which the archetypal image of motherhood met in the population suggests that many purchased them, either as thankful gifts for the goddess or as objects believed to confer protection and sympathetic benefit on mortal women (Dunand 2004: 14; see further Tran Tam Tinh 1973; Dunand 1979).

The papyri do not document the mother’s and nurse’s physical handling of young children—not a word about swaddling, cradling, rocking infants, bathing and weaning babies, calming the angry child, soothing the sick or frightened one, guiding the toddler’s first steps, or socializing and supervising her at play. However, it would not be wrong to import the child-rearing practices Ann Hanson (2003) brilliantly revealed by “juxtaposing what the Iliad tells about the early life of Achilles and other young children of epic” to Galen’s pediatric theory and practical advice into the world of Hellenistic Egypt. For just as “such a comparison not only highlights some repetitive themes in the conservative atmosphere of raising Greek children over the longue durée, but also reveals that the Iliad presupposes the young Achilles to have enjoyed a normative upbringing” (p. 188), such universality can be safely assumed for the Ptolemaic context.

Birthday Parties and Toys

Papyrus accounts, orders of payment, and letters document the celebration of the birthday (called genethlia or genesia) among Greeks living in Egypt (birthdays are rarely mentioned in Demotic texts), and several references to the first birthday in particular suggest that it was especially important, understandably given the high infant mortality (Perpillou-Thomas 1993: 4; see also Parkin in this volume). While private birthday celebrations became frequent in the Roman period and are therefore amply documented (Perpillou-Thomas 1993: 5–8; Rowlandson 1998: 296–7), the Ptolemaic attestations are few and generally not concerned with children but for one fortunate exception. In a letter dated to the mid-third century BCE, Demetrios reminds Zenon that the birthday (genethlia) of his “little” Demetrios, perhaps a son of the writer, falls on the seventeenth of the month Phamenoth and asks him to provide wine, a suckling pig, and flour (for bread and cakes) for the birthday feast (P.Cair.Zen. 3.59419 = P.Cair.Zen. 4, p. 289). As the list of goods requested makes clear, little Demetrios’ birthday party is both a private occasion for entertaining relatives and friends and a social event meant to strengthen the unity of the group by promoting and maintaining shared customs. The supplies, writes Demetrios, are needed “in order that his [i.e. the child’s] mother spend the day as is customary” (lines 8–9).

The feast on “the fortieth day of the little one” mentioned in a private letter of Roman date (tetrakosta tou mikrou, P.Fay. 113.14 [100 CE]) is likely to have been observed among Greeks in the Ptolemaic period, and we will recall that the lex sacra of Ptolemais discussed above prohibits women who have given birth from entering a sanctuary within a forty-day interval after delivery. That the same number of days was particularly critical (p. 473) for the child as well is explained by Censorinus (third century CE): “For forty days after the delivery, most mothers are rather heavy and continue to discharge blood; the babies, particularly fragile through those days, do not smile and are not free from danger. This is the reason why, past that day, the custom is to hold a feast day, which occasion is called ‘the fortieth day.’ Now, before the fortieth day the new mother does not enter a shrine” (De die natali 11, 7). The fortieth-day feast may therefore have celebrated the child’s survival and marked his birth in social terms as well as his mother’s return to a state of ritual cleanliness and social acceptance (Montserrat 1996: 33–4).

Puberty rituals marking the child’s change of status based on physical maturation are not documented in papyri of Ptolemaic date, but their attestation in both classical Greece and Pharaonic Egypt and their occurrence in Roman Egypt suggest that their existence in the Hellenistic period cannot be ruled out. The possibility is suggested by dinner invitations of Roman date to two festivals little understood: the mallocouria, seemingly for adolescent boys; and the therapeuteria, perhaps only in honor of unmarried girls. Dominic Montserrat (1991: 45; 1996: 39–41) persuasively suggested that the former could have celebrated “the occasion of hair-cutting,” a ritual of transition either imported from Greece or adopted from the Egyptian lock of youth (or Horus-lock) worn up to puberty, and speculated that the latter could have been a temple ritual “perhaps performed at menarche or as a preliminary to marriage” (1991: 48).

Historians of childhood have long probed the archeological record as a vast repository of evidence for children’s physical experiences, be they feeding bottles, high chairs, rattles, tops, wheeled horses, miniature carriages, or dolls (Rowlandson 1998: 139–40, 236; Neils and Oakley 2003: 263–82). In discussions of toys in particular, children tend to be viewed as users of artifacts purchased or made by adults with a view to “suggest and enforce certain norms of behavior for children based upon their gender, age, socio-economic class and even socio-cultural ideals of beauty” (Wilkie 2000: 101). Toys as tools of cultural and gender identity constitute a vast and complex subject; however, the scarcity of materials of Ptolemaic date dissuades me from pursuing the topic here.4

Among the various toys recovered in funerary, domestic, and religious contexts in Egypt, dolls have received ample scholarly treatment (Elderkin 1930; Janssen 1996; Johnson 2003; Fluck 2004). Whether purely playthings, former playthings that later become offerings to the gods or gifts to the dead, amulets, or tools of magic, dolls may have had multiple meanings and functions reflecting the worlds of leisure and ritual. They may also have been objects that children themselves altered or made (Janssen 1996: 232; Fluck 2004: 400) from materials such as scraps of wool, wood, or papyrus. This possibility restores a measure of agency to antiquity’s children and establishes them not solely as passive users and consumers of objects chosen for them by adults (Wilkie 2000: 102; see also Langdon in this volume). (p. 474)

Going to School

If the Hellenistic period conjures up terracotta figurines of girls dressed for school and carrying books (Pomeroy 1990: 60, Harris 1989: 136–7), the opportunity to learn to read and write was undoubtedly not a reality for most children in Egypt, whether they lived in urban centers or in villages of the countryside.5 For both Egyptians and Greek settlers literacy was a means of asserting and improving one’s social status (Maehler 1983), but it is unlikely that Greek and indigenous schools catered to children from a wide range of social backgrounds. In some cases, the first elements of reading and writing may have been taught at home, with a parent, a friend, or someone hired to teach, and in others they were acquired in a school setting, be it “a private house, the shaded porch of a temple, or the dusty ground under a tree” (Cribiore 1996: 6). Learning with a teacher involved fees, and most families would not have been able to afford them. The expense, however, was often considered worthwhile: the aged fathers we encountered earlier suggest that while educating their children was a sacrifice it was also an investment in the future, theirs included. The notional pupil, therefore, is generally considered to be socially privileged, whether he learns to write Demotic under the guidance of priests in a temple compound and prepares himself for a career of scribe and notary (Maehler 1983: 192–3; Morgan 1998: 274; Marganne 1999: 31, 32 = 2004: 4, 6; Legras 2010: 81–4) or whether he is introduced to Greek letters and culture via hired teachers and the cultural opportunities of the gymnasium (Legras 2010: 85–8).

The full course of ancient education comprised three levels, each supervised by a different teacher.6 The pupil began learning letters under the guidance of an instructor called grammatodidaskalos or didaskalos, and the curriculum focused on learning to read and write. The student next passed under the supervision of a grammatikos, charged with teaching language and literature. The last stage included the study of rhetoric and public speaking with a sophistes or a rhetor. Promotion to the different levels of schooling was based on ability, not age. Thus, in Herodas’ skit “The Schoolmaster,” written in the early third century BCE, the pupil, old enough to gamble money away, has yet to master his letters (“He does not even know the letter Alpha, unless someone shouts it at him five times”; Mimiambs, 3.22–3). In Rome, pupils appear to have begun school at age seven, graduating to the grammarian’s instruction at about twelve and to the study of rhetoric around fifteen (Harris 1989: 240). The vast corpus of school exercises assembled and scrutinized by Raffaella Cribiore (1996: 173–284; see also Morgan 1998: 275–322) illustrates the graduated course of the literary education dispensed in Greek and Roman (p. 475) Egypt (Morgan 1998). The school materials cannot, however, be correlated with precisely delineated age groups.

The writing tablets, the papyrus notebooks, and the reused potsherds provide windows on the training of the hands, eyes, and minds of teachers and students. A few texts from the Zenon archive—an extensive third-century BCE collection of papers kept by Zenon, an immigrant from Caunos in Asia Minor and a prominent man in the expanding village of Philadelpheia in the Fayum—allow glimpses of the learners and of their caretakers and lend understanding to the cultural importance the Greeks recently settled in Egypt attached to educating their young (Clarysse and Vandorpe 1995: 58–62; Legras 1999: 23–30; Thompson 2007: 131–5). Various letters document Zenon’s personal involvement in the schooling, physical training, and material well-being of male youths (and their mothers), in all likelihood the orphan sons of soldiers (Clarysse and Vandorpe 1995: 62) whose care and education the state entrusted to locally prominent individuals. In a letter dated to 257 BCE, Hierocles writes to Zenon: “You wrote to me about Pyrrhos to train him, if we know for sure that he will win but, if not, to avoid that he turn away from his study of letters and incur useless expenses. He has not at all turned away from his study of letters, but he applies himself to it, and to the other subjects as well (mathemata). As far as the certainty of success is concerned, the gods would know best, but Ptolemaios [the trainer] says that he [Pyrrhos] will by far outdo the current competition” (P.Lond. 7.1941, lines 2–6). A promising athlete sent to Alexandria for training, Pyrrhos is expected not to fall behind in his literary studies. Another protégé of Zenon is mentioned in PSI 4.364 (251/250 BCE), in which Zenodoros proudly reports that his brother Dionysios won the athletic contest (agon) held at the Ptolemaia, acknowledges receipt of a cloak shipped by Zenon, and requests another (of thicker and softer wool this time) because Dionysios needs one for the upcoming Arsinoeia festival. And, in P.Lond. 7.2017 (242 BCE), Heracleotes, an aspiring musician-vocalist, details to Zenon his material needs for the next two years as he readies himself for various public performances. Training for athletic and musical contests sponsored by the state took place in the gymnasium,7 an institution in which Greek education (literary, musical, and athletic) and dynastic cult asserted, through their joint practice and celebration, the distinct cultural identity of the Greek population in the new society (Clarysse and Thompson 2006, 2: 125–38; Thompson 2007: 135–7).

With the last text, dated to the second century BCE, we move away from the privileged Greek milieu of Zenon’s entourage to catch a tantalizing glimpse of the culturally mixed reality of Ptolemaic society. The congratulations a woman (whether a mother, sister, or wife is not known) addresses to a young man who is learning Demotic Egyptian reveals that the benefits of bilingualism were not lost on the newcomers: “Discovering that you are learning Egyptian letters, I was delighted for you and for myself, because now when you come to the city you will teach the slave boys in the establishment of Phalou...the (p. 476) enema doctor, and you will have a means of support for your old age” (UPZ 1.148, trans. Bagnall and Cribiore 2006: 113). The slaves must be Greek speaking; they learn Egyptian to master a specifically Egyptian medical skill (Maehler 1983: 201–2; Legras 1999: 22–3).

Hard Lives

Most children did not attend school, and many learned practical skills “by doing,” whether at home, in the fields, or in workshops. The least lucky ones were children sold into slavery abroad and imported into Egypt where they served Greek households. Several papyri from the Zenon archive show Zenon conducting business on behalf of Ptolemy II’s finance minister Apollonios, including the purchase of young slaves in Palestine. P.Cair.Zen. 1.59003 (259 BCE) records the sale of the slave girl Sphragis, “about seven years of age,” to Zenon, and two years later, Toubias, an important Palestinian functionary, announces a gift of four male slaves (aged seven to twelve) to Apollonios in Alexandria (P.Cair.Zen. 1.59076). Nothing is known of the fate of these children once they reached Egypt. The distress felt from being separated from their parents and their physical and cultural disorientation once in the Egyptian capital can only be surmised.

For Greek children, too, socialization into a life of work and service could be brutal, as Simale informs Zenon in a letter:

Simale, the mother of Herophantos, to Zenon, greeting. Since I heard that my boy (paidion) had been mistreated and rather badly, I came to you and after arriving I wanted to petition you about these matters. But when Olympichos prevented me from seeing you, somehow I was brought in the presence of my child and I found him lying down in a hardly laughable state and seeing him was enough for me to grieve. But when Olympichos arrived he said that by beating him rotten he would make him—or that he had already made him—someone who was already nearly decent. Thus I beg and beseech you to concern yourself with these matters and to report to Apollonios in which way my child has been continuously maltreated by Olympichos as if he were responsible for his illness. For I, in addition to the fact that I have received exactly nothing for a year already except for the mina and 3 artabs of wheat since the month Dystros when Herophantos has come to you—the boy himself tells me of the goodwill of Apollonios and yourself that you keep on showing to him. I ask you, therefore, and beg you that, if Apollonios has ordered to pay him anything, his wages be paid to me. Rest assured that as soon as the god sets him free I shall bring him back to you so that I may see you with regard to the rest. Learn the rest from the person who brings you this letter, for he is not a stranger to us. Farewell.

(P.Col. 3.6, March 257 BCE, trans. Bagnall and Cribiore 2006: 100)

The mother complains to Zenon that her son Herophantos, attached to the retinue of the finance minister Apollonios (a favor she and her son warmly acknowledge), was badly (p. 477) treated by Olympichos. The argument invoked by the brutal overseer, that beating will make (poiesein) the child into someone “nearly decent,” reminds us that children were “liable in law and custom to physical violence, often in a disciplinary context” and that “corporal punishment was also a mark of identification, the immediate physical consequence of social inferiority, for slaves and children alike” (Golden 1985: 101–2). And it is also possible that “the economic value of children as labor force may have influenced the way people behaved towards them. It may have been usual to accustom the child to the world of work and labor by the use of physical persuasion” (Laes 2005: 87). Simale’s complaint that she did not receive the promised wages suggests that the boy was put to work for a salary and that she has a claim on the money he receives because he is a minor. She has taken Herophantos home and will return him to his employer when he is restored to health.

Children and Death

Death came to children at any time (Marganne 1999: 32–5 = 2004: 6–9; see also Parkin in this volume). Many mothers and children did not survive childbirth (cf. P.Fouad 75, 64 CE). Miscarriages were sometimes caused by physical violence sustained by expectant mothers, and in the reports filed with the authorities the potentially grave effects of the battery onto the victim’s condition were naturally emphasized (Parca 2002: 292–3). The beating of a pregnant woman is reported in a letter written by Sabbataios, the victim’s husband: “ consequence of the blows and the fall she is suffering severely and, since she has had to take to her bed, the child which she is carrying is in danger of being miscarried and of passing away. I present to you this petition in order that, when you have come to the spot and observed (?) her condition, Johanna may be secured until the outcome is apparent and that it may not happen that Johanna in case of any untoward event goes unpunished....” (P.Tebt. 3.800 = C.Pap.Jud. 1.133 of 153 or 142 BCE).

Sabbataios’ request that the assailant (perhaps Jewish, like Sabbatios and his wife?) be imprisoned until the outcome of the attack is known suggests that when he mentions the risk of miscarriage he anticipates the danger to his wife’s life. In a petition of 47 CE, the petitioner similarly associates miscarriage with the threat of death: “he also mercilessly rained on my wife Tanouris many blows on whatever part of her body he could reach, even though she was pregnant, with the result that she miscarried and was untimely delivered of a dead fetus and she herself is bedridden and in danger of her life” (P.Mich. 5.228; trans. Lewis 1985: 79). Bodily harm inflicted on a freeborn person was a crime of hybris in Ptolemaic and Roman penal law, and serious threat to the health of the victim constituted an aggravating circumstance that worsened the criminal’s penalty (Taubenschlag 1955: 435–42): if the pregnant victim died, the assault against her would be treated as murder. In none of the papyri concerned with battered pregnant women is either punishment or compensation for the unborn child’s death sought (Adam 1983: 16–9). (p. 478)

Given the extreme reticence surrounding the representation of children’s death in the art and literature of ancient Egypt, archeology provides the bulk of our information on child mortality, with the caveat that conclusions based on the evidence of a few necropoleis cannot be generalized for all regions or all periods (Dunand 2004: 15–6). Drawing on fieldwork carried out on three cemeteries (Douch, Aïn el-Labahka, and El Deir) of Ptolemaic and Roman date in the oasis of Kharga in the western desert, Françoise Dunand (pp. 21–8) examined the material evidence for infant and child mortality in a rural region of Egypt and offered a preliminary synthesis worth recalling here. The necropolis of Douch yielded several tombs with groups of very young children, one (Tomb 19) containing the remains, barely mummified, of about ten individuals ranging in age from newborn to twenty-four months, deposited directly in the ground, in shallow depressions cut in the floor of the funerary chamber, another (Tomb 73) holding about thirty individuals (fetuses, newborn, very young children), poorly preserved and probably not mummified. The communal resting place of children of widely disparate ages and the seemingly hasty and rather summary preparation of their bodies suggest that they may have died in an epidemic, for the regular practice at Douch was for children, one year old and older, to be carefully mummified and buried with their parents. Such was also the custom both in the Aïn el-Labahka necropolis where, incidentally, no remains of newborns were recovered, and in the El Deir burials (Tomb N11 held the remains of eight adults and five children ranging from a few months to four years old, and eleven of the seventeen individuals buried in Tomb N18 were children). The first birthday generally seems to have been a critical milestone; past that age the deceased were embalmed and their bodies often adorned with gold leaves, bronze earrings, pearl necklaces, and bracelets made of glass beads. The care brought to preparing the young deceased for their “second life” bears witness to the regard and love society bore them (Dunand 2004: 29; Dasen and Späth 2010: 4).

Before Life and Beyond Death

Unborn children were the objects of legal dispositions inasmuch as they were to become part of their father’s household (oikos). In a legislative act on divorce from the Greek polis of Ptolemais, the text of which is preserved in a papyrus dated to the early imperial period, we learn of the husband’s obligation to provide an allowance to his wife, should she be pregnant at the time of the divorce (apopompe, literally “sending away”), and to his child, after birth (P.Fay. 22, lines 20–9; Yiftach-Firanko 2003: 75–6, 92–3).

The act of divorce was informal in Ptolemaic Egypt: all it took was the interruption of the joint life by one of the spouses, either “going away” or “sending away.” The Greek marriage document, which included clauses describing the obligations of the spouses toward each other as well as the consequences of their contravention, in effect also provided the contract with a divorce clause (Yiftach-Firanko 2003: 197–219). Provisions (p. 479) regulating the recovery of the dowry in case of divorce were regularly included, and, in marriage documents from Oxyrhynchus in the Roman period, there was the added consideration of the welfare of joint children once the marriage was dissolved. Several documents (Adam 1983: 9–16) reveal that if a marriage should end in a divorce with the wife pregnant at that time, the husband must provide an allowance for her delivery and see to the support of mother and child after the birth. “Such provision goes back, in all probability, to the Ptolemaic period” (Yiftach-Firanko 2003: 211). Particularly noteworthy in the Oxyrhynchite contracts is the further stipulation of the husband’s obligation in divorces (appalage, “going away”) initiated by the wife (P.Oxy. 3.496, dated 127 CE, and P.Oxy. 10.1273, dated 260 CE).

Marriages were not ended by divorce alone, and the premature death of a husband naturally greatly affected his wife and their children. The pregnant widow was entitled, if she so wished, to live in the house of her deceased husband until the time of her delivery (Adam 1983: 10). The material support extended to her simultaneously recognized her continued (albeit irremediably altered) tie with her husband’s family and claimed the child she carried as belonging to the paternal oikos. However, pregnant widows and their in-laws may have preferred to sever such ties. In a document executed in 8 BCE between Dionysiarion, recently widowed and pregnant, and Hermione, mother of Dionysarion’s deceased husband, Dionysarion acknowledges that she has recovered her dowry from Hermione and renounces any future litigation regarding the dowry, the husband’s estate or any other matter. In addition, “since Dionysarion is also pregnant, she shall not bring action about the expenses of the child’s birth...and she is allowed to expose her infant (to brephos ektithenai) and to be joined to another man in marriage” (BGU 4.1104, lines 22–5; Evans Grubbs 2002: 267–8; see also Evans Grubbs in this volume). In effect, Dionysarion’s forfeiture of childbirth expenses achieves her complete financial severance from her deceased husband’s family. She thereby obtains the right to abandon the infant (if she chooses) and the right to remarry, a pairing suggesting that her remarriageability would be impaired by raising the child of her deceased husband (Rowlandson 1998: 171). Can Hermione’s relinquishing any interest in the fate of her unborn grandson be read as an act of solidarity toward her daughter-in-law? Or is it motivated by the desire to free herself from the financial burden of raising the young orphan? Hermione’s guardian is her brother’s son, suggesting that she herself is a widow and that the son she lost was perhaps her only son.

Marriage contracts also included, inserted after the divorce clause, provisions for the conveying of the property of the predeceased spouse to the surviving partner and their joint children (Yiftach-Firanko 2003: 221–9), as in this contract of the second century BCE: “if either of them [the spouses] should suffer mortal fate and die, let the property left behind belong to the surviving spouse and to the children whom they will have from one another” (P.Gen. 1.21 = P.Münch. 3.62, lines 15–6). That such clause appears in marriage agreements drawn at an early stage of a couple’s shared life, sometimes before children had been born, affords another view on the central importance of children in Ptolemaic family and society, even when conjured in the theoretical context of law. (p. 480)


Despite the elusiveness of Ptolemaic children in the papyrological record, they have, perhaps, not succeeded in hiding altogether. We see them at a multiple remove—a mother’s anguished letter, the school tablet of a teacher, the remains of a common grave—variously transformed by the contexts in which they make their brief appearances, their ages unrecorded, their wit and words elided, yet never completely erased. Indeed, even if most of the contexts in which children appear are more revealing of the values, concerns, and expectations of adults than they are of children’s own experiences and motivations, the papyri show that adults readily recognized and valued children as social beings and cultural agents. Just as children have been shown to be key actors in the transmission of social memory in Roman culture by their sharing in the social identities created within the family (Dasen and Späth 2010), the behaviors, traditions, and memories of specific social groups were carried on through children in Ptolemaic Egypt, as seen already, for example, in the underrepresentation of girls in Greek settlers’ households, large socials celebrating a child’s birthday, or the importance accorded Greek education, athletic games, and musical training. At the same time, papyri alert us to the plurality of childhoods: all children have a childhood, and each lives this period of life in ways prescribed by the variables of gender, legal status, economic class, ethnicity, and the “domestic politics” of the family unit (James and James 2005: 4–5). Little Sphragis from Palestine and Simale’s sick indentured son, known to us only through an irreparably fragmented and hence all the more valuable corpus of papyri, offer rare glimpses of the diversity of experiences in Ptolemaic children’s lives.


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                                                                                                                              (1) Ptolemaic wills, which routinely mention the wife or the children of the testator as heirs, do not specify the age of the children, many of whom were not adult (Clarysse et al. 1991: 34–5).

                                                                                                                              (2) The translation quoted here is adapted from Rowlandson 1988: 65, no. 40, itself informed by Bingen’s 1993 reassessment of the mutilated text and its contents. Bingen’s translation (1993: 224, 227, reprised in Legras 2010: 42–3) handles the abandonment of the newborn (ἐὰν ἐχῇ in line 7, [ἐ]ὰν ἐχῇ τὸ βρέ in line 12) with language so tactful (“si elle s’ est séparée de l’enfant”) that it obscures the reality. Pace Pomeroy 1986: 162; 1990: 136, published prior to Bingen’s article. On infant exposure, see further Evans Grubbs in this volume.

                                                                                                                              (3) A complete bibliographical profile of the texts can be found on Trismegistos (TM), a portal of papyrological and epigraphical resources dealing with Egypt. Available at: For wet nurses in Pharaonic Egypt, see Spieser (2012), and for wet nurses in Roman Egypt, see Pudsey in this volume.

                                                                                                                              (4) Mary Harlow’s chapter in this volume examines the material culture of Roman childhood.

                                                                                                                              (5) On women’s education in the Hellenistic period, see, for example, Pomeroy 1990: 59–72; Morgan 1998: 48–9, and n. 149; Cribiore 2001: 74–101; on female literacy, see Bagnall and Cribiore 2006. See also Dillon’s chapter in this volume, and more generally Bloomer’s chapter in this volume.

                                                                                                                              (6) This brief description is adapted from Cribiore 1996: 13, herself indebted to the pioneering works of Marrou 1975 and Bonner 1977.

                                                                                                                              (7) Remijsen 2009 examined the Ptolemaic focus on sports as a means of asserting the Greek identity of Egypt’s new rulers.