Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.29

Hélène​ Cuvigny (ed.), Didymoi: une garnison romaine dans le désert oriental d'Égypte. II - les textes. Fouilles de l'Ifao, 67​.   Le Caire:  Institut français d'archéologie orientale​, 2012.  Pp. xv, 453.  ISBN 9782724705867.  €45.00.  

Reviewed by Eleanor Dickey, University of Exeter (

[The full table of contents is given at the end of the review.]

This exciting volume presents more than 400 new texts, mostly in Greek but with a substantial minority in Latin and a few in Palmyrene. They come from the Roman army base at Didymoi in Egypt, which was occupied from the late first century AD to the middle of the third, and provide a treasure trove for historians and anyone interested in the day-to-day workings of life in the Roman empire.

The volume presents an engagingly integrated discussion of texts that would in many traditional treatments have been separated: inscriptions, graffiti, papyri, and inscribed objects are treated along with the ostraca that form the vast majority of the texts. Ostraca are often considered poor relations of papyri because they tend to provide shorter texts, but not all ostraca are small: many of the Didymoi ostraca provide substantial texts of ten lines or more, and some run to 30 or 40 lines. Moreover, ostraca are more durable than papyri and are therefore more likely to be found intact (or to survive in pieces that can be joined; the individual ostraca in this volume have sometimes been pieced together from fragments, which may number more than a dozen per ostracon), so the texts in this volume are remarkably complete when compared with those in many papyrological publications. This completeness must also be due to a selection process, for the ostraca published here represent only about half of those recovered by the excavators (cf. p. 6). The omitted material comprises not only that which is too fragmentary to be interesting, but also all the literary, para-literary, and scholarly texts, which are destined for separate publication.

Although Cuvigny is listed on the title page only as the editor, she is also the author of the majority of the chapters. Adam Bülow-Jacobsen is responsible for one (long) chapter, and other scholars for individual short sections.1 The result is a multilingual volume: the sections written by Cuvigny herself are in French, but Bülow-Jacobsen’s and some other sections are in English. At first the alternation of languages is a little startling, for a single ostracon may be published in English when all the rest of the material in its chapter is published in French (no. 39), but on reflection I find it an excellent system: all authors write in the language in which they can best express themselves, which makes for a well-written publication, and as for the readers, some will prefer one language and others the other, so this system is much fairer than one in which one set of readers is consistently privileged. Both the English and the French, by the way, are clear and accessible: as those familiar with the work of Cuvigny and Bülow-Jacobsen will expect, there is no obfuscation lurking in either portion of the book.

The texts are not all presented with the same information: translations are provided about two-thirds of the time and photographs only occasionally. Photographs of all the ostraca are, however, published online at The photographs are remarkably good, providing a genuinely clear picture of the letters; this must have been very difficult to achieve (particularly in the case of the inscriptions) and makes it possible to verify the readings provided. Such provision is particularly impressive since this is a very reasonably priced volume. More translations, however, could easily have been provided: very few of the texts are so fragmentary as to be genuinely untranslatable, and some of the ones for which no translation is provided are, if not complete, certainly substantial (e.g. number 18 has ten lines of text, of which the first five survive completely intact); it is a real pity that more translations are not given, because even if the interpretation of the surviving words is not completely certain, and even if most readers can read most of the Greek, an editor who has deciphered and studied a text will inevitably produce a better interpretation of it than the casual reader.

The work opens with a detailed and interesting introduction by Cuvigny, providing background and collecting the historical information that can be gained from the texts. This is wide-ranging, covering both the expected (e.g. the movements of army units at the base, the food and other supplies purchased) and the unexpected (e.g. the mechanics of prostitution at the army base). This is followed by a chapter, also by Cuvigny, on the nine inscriptions (seven Greek and two Latin) and one graffito (Greek) recovered from the site. This material is unfortunately rather fragmentary, but it has been well treated to get the maximum out of what remains, and every inscription is accompanied by both a translation and a photograph.

Next follows a chapter, also by Cuvigny, on the terms δεκανία and δεκανός, which have a variety of meanings referring to groups of small size and their leaders; the question is what exactly these terms mean in the context of the army base at Didymoi. No simple answer emerges, but the discussion is illuminating in many respects, not least the relationship between these terms and Latin decuria and decurio, which cannot simply be their sources (δεκανός is in origin a rank in the Macedonian army) but are nevertheless likely to have been influential in shaping their usage. A set of 21 Greek ostraca using these terms closes the chapter.

The third chapter, also by Cuvigny, comprises 24 Greek documents with official correspondence and records of the receipt and sending of such correspondence, which give the dates and times of the arrival and departure of couriers. Didymoi was a stop on the imperial postal route, and when couriers arrived with official letters for destinations further along the route the postmaster recorded the date, time, origin, and destination of the letters and made sure that they departed immediately (on a fresh mount) for the next leg of their journey. Many of the departure times recorded are nocturnal, which seems surprising as one does not normally picture a Roman postal courier galloping across the desert in the dark, but Cuvigny points out (p. 81) that in the summer months desert travel may have been much more feasible at night than during the day. One letter (36, which is not fully transcribed) is in the Latin alphabet.

The fourth chapter, again by Cuvigny, concerns other administrative documents. Civilians could not travel in the eastern desert of Egypt without a pass proving that they were authorized to do so (p. 117); such passes usually specified the number of men and animals in the party and their destination and so are useful for understanding desert travel. Also in this chapter are orders for the collection of food and other goods, receipts, lists of personnel, accounts, labels (little ostraca containing only a name or a name and a number; their purpose is uncertain), and private legal documents (several of which are on papyrus rather than ostraca). There are 98 texts in the chapter, two of which are in Latin (47 and 63) and two bilingual (142 and 144).

The fifth chapter covers writing on objects. Many of these objects are pot-sherds, but they are seen as objects rather than as ostraca because the writing was done while the pot was still intact, as opposed to ostraca, which were used for writing after the pot had been broken. The difference is meaningful, as the former writings are largely restricted to the ownership of the container, its contents, and numbers that may indicate the container’s position in a larger group of goods, while the ostraca are vehicles for writings about other topics. This chapter also includes sealings of unbaked clay and plaster, perfume burners, and other objects; the writing on such objects is sometimes done in ink and sometimes incised. The 171 texts in this chapter are short and generally of limited interest; most are in Greek, but two (285 and 286) are in Palmyrene and thirty (204-223, 275-84) in Latin.

Chapter six, by Adam Bülow-Jacobsen, contains 149 private letters, which in my opinion provide the most interesting material in the volume. Many of these are substantial documents of 15 lines or more, offering their original texts complete or nearly complete. Often multiple letters come from the same writer, allowing us to build up a picture of his network of associates, business dealings, and travels. The most common topics of discussion are the sending of goods and the passing on of greetings, but there is also mention of clothes being sent away for washing, the training of army recruits, concern for a missing dog, workers in the emerald mines, numerous arrangements for prostitutes (including in one case a man renting out his wife as a prostitute), and an apparent attempt at collusion to swindle someone out of a substantial sum of money. Several letters were sent to and/or from women, including prostitutes. Most are in Greek, but twelve are in Latin (326, 334-6, 362, 417, 419-20, 429, 455-7).

Chapter seven, by Hélène Eristov, presents fourteen ostraca containing pictures; a few of these also have writing on them. Photographs are regularly provided in this chapter.

The texts from Didymoi have, of course, much to offer linguists as well as historians. Misspellings in the Greek texts provide considerable information about the pronunciation of Greek in this part of Roman Egypt (see especially pp. 297-8). Much of the Greek shows Latin influence, either from being written by a Latin speaker (e.g. 339) or from using Latin loanwords, which are very common in these texts. The treatment of such Latin words can be surprising; for example we would expect the genitive Lusitanorum to be rendered into Greek with Λυσιτανων (the Greek genitive ending) or possibly Λυσιτανωρουμ (a transliteration of the Latin genitive ending), but in one of the inscriptions (I.Did. 7) we find Λυσιτανωνρομ, which can only be an amalgam of the two. The Latin too often reveals foreign influence, sometimes from Greek (417) and sometimes from another language that may be Thracian (334-6). Several of the Latin texts have regular interpuncts.

The book is lavishly produced, with generously-sized pages and splendid photographs; this is particularly impressive given its very reasonable price. The quality of the proofreading is generally good, but not flawless.2 The table of contents, reproduced below, is probably the best I have ever seen and should allow most readers to find exactly what they are looking for, but multiple indices are also provided.

Table of Contents

Introduction [H. Cuvigny]
I. De la fondation à l’abandon: un ambitus chronologique complet
II. Les ostraca de Didymoi: deux corpus aux profils différents
1. Provenance et datation
2. D’une époque à l’autre: nature des textes et faits de langue
3. La mode du proscynème épistolaire
III. L’organisation des transports sur la route de Bérénice
1. Le commerce érythréen
2. Les messageries
A. Les messagers officiels: cavaliers, galearii, monomachoi
B. La probolè
C. La poreia
D. Ânes et âniers
IV. L’armée dans les ostraca et les inscriptions de Didymoi
1. Les unités mentionnées
A. Première période (76/77 - c. 150)
B. Seconde période (176/177 - c. 250)
2. Grades et fonctions militaires
V. La vie de garnison
1. La société des praesidia
A. Discrète présence de la familia Caesaris
B. L’enclavement des échanges
2. L’habitat: kella, contubernium (et synkellarios, contubernalis)
3. Relève et permissions: klèros, allagè, commeatus
4. La prostitution et la question du conductor
5. La nourriture des hommes
A. Le blé et le pain
B. La viande
C. Les boissons alcoolisées
D. L’huile
E. Les légumineuses
F. Légumes et herbes
G. Les fruits frais. Le baukalion
6. La nourriture des bêtes
A. L’orge
B. Les menues pailles et le fourrage
VI. Note sur les lemmes

Chapitre I: Les inscriptions de Didymoi (I.DID. 1-10) [H. Cuvigny]
I.Did. 1. La dédicace du fort: construction du praesidium et de son puits
I.Did. 2. Construction d’une grande citerne
I.Did. 3-9. Les inscriptions lapidaires de l’aedes
I.Did. 3. Reconstruction du praesidium sous Marc Aurèle
I.Did. 4. Fragment de fronton avec dédicade religieuse faite par un fantassin
I.Did. 5. Dédicace religieuse faite par quatre soldats
I.Did. 6. Dédicace d’une statue par le curator praesidii et ses camarades
I.Did. 7 et 8. Deux dédicaces de Vettius Crispinus, fantassin de la cohors Lusitanorum
I.Did. 9. Dédicace faite par Iulius Clemens, curator praesidii
I.Did. 10. Graffito érotique

Chapitre II: Décanies et dekanoi [H. Cuvigny]
I. Status quaestionis
II. Décanies et dekanoi dans les carrières du désert Oriental
III. Décanies et dekanoi à Didymoi
1. Les décanies ravitaillent-elles la garnison ou s’y ravitaillent-elles?
2. De l’archive de Nikanôr au temps des décanies
3. Liens avec les ostraca de Bérénice
4. Décanies et décuries
5. Une préfiguration des dekanoi-liturges du IIIe siècle?
6. L’anthroponymie des décanies
7. Les conducteurs affiliés aux décianies étaient-ils des chameliers ou des âniers?
8. Signification du symbole: dekanos ou dekania?
IV. Les textes (1-21)

Chapitre III: La correspondance officielle et sa circulation [H. Cuvigny]
I. La poste officielle (22-26)
22. Journal de poste (IIIe s.)
23. Fiche éphéméride sur la réception de courrier officiel (IIIe s.)
24-25. Billets concernant les rations de monomachoi (IIIe s.)
26. Lettre du monomachos Kylindros (IIIe s.)
II. Copies de correspondance reçue (27-30)
27. Copie de correspondance officielle (IIe s.)
28. Copie d’une lettre d’envoi circulaire (176 ou 208 AD)
29. Copie de correspondance relative à une lettre impériale (236 AD)
30. Copie de correspondance officielle (IIIe s.)
III. Lettres de soldats et de curateurs (31-40)
31. Demande de palmes pour décorer les principia (c. 176-220)
32. Fragment de lettre du curateur d’Aphroditès (IIIe s.)
33. Fragment de lettre d’un fantassin à un curateur (IIIe s.)
34. Doublon du texte précédent?
35. Fragment de lettre du curateur d’Aproditès à celui de Didymoi (IIIe s.)
36. Fragment d’une lettre grecque en caractères latins (IIIe s.)
37. Fragment de lettre (IIIe s.)
38-40. Lettres de curateurs au préfet du deesert (IIIe s.)
IV. En attendant les Blemmyes (41-46)
41-43. Un hypotyrannos des Barbares (IIIe s.)
44-45. Deux lettres du monomachos Eukylistros (IIIe s.)
46. Lettre du curateur d’Aphroditès à celui de Didymoi au sujet des Barbares (IIIe s.)

Chapitre IV: Petits documents administratifs, comptables et juridiques [H. Cuvigny]
47-51. Laissez-passer
52. Fiche sur les mouvements du personnel
53-56. Orders de livraison
57-62. Reçus
63-74. Listes des noms
75-96. Comptes
75-82. Première période
83-96. Seconde période
98-130. Tickets et étiquettes
98-115. Première période
116-130. Seconde période
131-137. Actes de croit privé
138. Requête?
139-145. Textes de nature indéterminée

Chapitre V: Instrumentum inscriptum [H. Cuvigny]
I. Inscriptions vasculaires (146-285)
1. Supports et contenus
2. Inscriptions vasculaires de la première période (146-223)
146-195. Tituli graeci
196-203. Tituli au pinceau
204-223. Tituli latini
3. Inscriptions vasculaires de la second période (224-285)
224-274. Tituli graeci
224-229. Hauts fonctionnaires
224-225. Un préfet à Didymoi
226-229. Epitropos, eisagôgeus
230-239. Militaires avérés
240-269. Civils et statut indéterminé
266-269. Le vin εὐώδηϲ
270-274. Numéraux
275-284. Tituli latini
285-286. Tituli palmyréniens [Fr. Birquel-Chatonnet]
II. Objets inscrits (287-310)
1. Capsules (287-303)
287-292. Capsules en plâtre
287. Capsule en plâtre estampillée
288-292. Tituli à encre noire sur capsules en plâtre
293-303. Capsules en argile crue timbrées
2. Matrices (304-310)
3. Autres objets inscrits (311-316)
311-312. Brûle-parfums en grès
313. Bille en argile crue
314. Plaquette votive en stéatite
315. Poids en grès
316. Timbre amphorique d’AE3

Chapitre VI: Private letters [A. Bülow-Jacobsen]
I. The Flavian period (76/77 - c. 96 AD)
317-326. Letters from Iulius to Valerius, Antonius and Dolens. Sertorius
327-330. Albucius
331-333. Iulia
334-336. Three letters written by Cutus
337-338. Epaphroditos 1
339-352. Gaii and Longini in Phase 2
1. Classification
2. Where did the ‘hand of the Gaii’ stay?
3. Table: Gaii and Longini in phase 2
339-341. Letters from Gaius Antonius to Longinus Crispus
342-346. Gaii and Longini: Longinus’ archive
347-350. Gaii and Longini: Marcus Longinus’ archive
351-352. Gaii and Longini: unclassified
353-354. Letters sent by Herennius
355-360. Letters sent or written by Maximus
361-362. Two letters to Arrius (the same?)
363-364. Two letters of Diokentes
365-375. Letters not attached to a group
II. Letters of the middle period, c. 96 - 150 AD
376-399. Philokles, pimp and green-grocer
1. Philokles in the O.Krok. and in the O.Did. – two different periods?
2. Whence did Philokles write?
3. Formal characteristics of Philokles’ letters
4. Philokles’ correspondents at Didymoi
376-382. Letters send by Philokles to Kapparis
383-386. Sknips at Didymoi
387-391. Letters sent by Philokles to various persons (other than Kapparis and Sknips)
392. Another letter to Avizina
393-398. Letters written in Philokles’ hand but without a prescript
399. Letter from Mokotralis, in Philokles’ hand
400-410. Nemesous, Theanous and other contemporaries of Philokles
411-412. Letters to Ammonios
413-414. Letters to Diogenes
415-416. Letters to Epaphroditos 2
417-420. Latin letters: Claudius, Crescens and ‘Numosis’
421-425. Theotimos
426-427. Thaisous
428-450. Letters not attached to a group
III. Letters from the late period, c. 176-230 AD
451-454. Phase 11 of the rubbish dump
455-460. Fort: north-west corner
455-457. Aelius Silvinus
461. Fort: north-east corner
462-465. South-west corner

Chapitre VII: Ostraca figurés (466-479) [H. Éristov]
I. Empereurs et années régnales
II. Mois
III. Anthroponymes
IV. Géographie
V. Religion
VI. Professions, occupations, titres civils
VII. Armée
VIII. Monnaies et mesures
IX. Impôts et taxes
X. Index général
XI. Index latin
XII. Symbols et abréviations
XIII. Notabilia

Concordance des numéros d’inventaire
Table des figures


1.   Text 39 was edited by the late Traianos Gagos, 285-6 (the Palmyrene texts) by Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet, and 466-79 (the pictures) by Hélène Eristov. The title page also lists as contributors Jean-Pierre Brun, Dominique Cardon, Hero Granger-Taylor, Martine Leguilloux, Witold Nowik, Michel Reddé, Margareta Tengberg, Florence André, and Khaled Zaza.
2.   A few of the mistakes are misleading, for example the statement that ‘there is no reason to believe that neither Serotrius nor Iulius Bithynus nor Longinus were Latin speakers’ (p. 243), which to judge from the context appears to have an extra ‘no’. ​

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