BMCR 1999.06.13

Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt: A Sourcebook

, Women and society in Greek and Roman Egypt : a sourcebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xviii, 406 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780521582124. $24.95 (pb).

Because of conditions in Egypt advantageous for the preservation of papyri and other materials, we have the opportunity to hear more women’s voices from Graeco-Roman Egypt than usually expected in the ancient Greek and Roman world. Rich documentation of everyday lives is available: contracts, petitions, bequests, family letters, school books, census records, etc. Until now, these documents were primarily in the domain of specialists such as papyrologists, Egyptologists, epigraphers. This is the first book to make a collection of this rich material on women’s lives easily accessible to the general reader. Eleven distinguished scholars collaborated on this splendid source book, and we are deeply indebted to them.

The dearth of documents available in translation for students has made it traditionally difficult for courses on women in the ancient world to spend much time on the non-royal women of Greek and Roman Egypt. This source book fills the gap very successfully. Careful, informative discussions introduce each main chapter, and just the right amount of context is provided for each item to allow thoughtful, well-informed interpretations by readers, without preempting the pleasure of discovery. Provenance and date are carefully noted (dates range from the fourth century BC to the tenth century AD and attention is also paid to issues of papyri survival and the use of scribes. The book is organized thematically as follows: 1, “Introduction”; 2, “Royalty and religion”; 3, “Family matters”; 4, “Status and law”; 5, “Economic activities”; and 6, “Being female.” There is a wealth of reader’s aids: maps, glossary, notes on dating, money, weights, and measures, index of texts, bibliography, and general index. This book would provide an excellent addition to a course on women in antiquity.1 In fact, with all its highly useful discussions and contextual information, this book could almost stand alone as an introductory text for studying the economic and social lives of women in Greek and Roman Egypt.

This book takes advantage of the enormous range and wealth of the material available for studying Greek and Roman Egypt, including the important census records.2 Documents offer glimpses of a richly heterogeneous culture (e.g., a Jewish synagogue purchases the freedom of a mother and her children, AD 291, #143) and intimate views of interactions between natives and colonizers (e.g., a woman complains to Greek authorities of being scalded by an Egyptian bath-attendant, 220 BC, #130; an Egyptian widow complains to a Greek authority that a man has stolen the ass she uses to transport her beehives, 256 BC, #162). Documents reflect how Egyptian laws and customs helped open up legal opportunities for Greek women in Egypt (e.g., in a land transaction, a mother acts as guardian for her son, a provision possible in Egyptian marriage contracts but not Greek, 142 BC, #125). Women are shown buying and selling property, leasing land, inheriting property, borrowing money. Documents show how the coming of Roman rule affected women’s legal opportunities and modes of behavior (e.g., a woman petitions the prefect of Egypt that she be allowed to act without a guardian by the Roman right of three children, AD 263, #142). Many of these documents illustrate patterns of social life that would also hold for women elsewhere in the Greek and Roman world, whose voices have been lost (e.g., a grandmother proposes a name for her daughter’s baby, second century BC, #225; a beer-shop owner complains that her daughter has run off with a married vine dresser, 253 BC, #209). The documents extend to lower levels of society than usually heard (e.g., a poor widow gives up her daughter for adoption, AD 554, #234), and Christian documents are plentiful (e.g., a nun describes a dispute with her mother over four gold coins, AD 585, #62).

There is some room for improvement in future editions of this source book. The book seems to follow the tendency to present Athens as the standard for women’s roles in Greek cities (e.g., p. 162), but Athens was a peculiar case in many ways (for other models, see Gortyn, Sparta, etc.). The source book includes precise references and a very full bibliography on the social, economic, and papyrological side, but literary documents are rare, with almost nothing in the way of references or bibliography,3 and historical references sometimes seem less than adequate.4 References to discussions of controversial topics are sometimes missing, for example, regarding female circumcision (pp. 99-100).5 There is an excellent introduction to Julia Balbilla’s commemoration of Hadrian’s visit to Memnon’s statue (pp. 309-10), but a reference to English translations of other Memnon inscriptions of Balbilla and Caecilia Trebulla,6 rather than to just the original inscriptions (note 1), would be useful.

Because of differences in the ways documents are organized in the different chapters (for example, chapter 3, “Family matters,” is organized chiefly by archives) and the frequent relevance of documents to a number of topics, the index is especially crucial for locating documents. This index is laudably full, but there are possible improvements to be made in future editions of the book. For example, there is the confusion of separate entries for Amun and Ammon, and a third spelling in the entry Amon-Re. Under the entry “wet nurses,” there is no locator for the interesting case of the wet nurse accused of kidnapping a baby (#91, pp. 117-118), and there are a few typos (e.g., under “wet nurses,” page 286 instead of 296). Also, there are inconsistencies in the use of italics throughout the book (glossary, index, text).

Some of the translations might be revisited in future editions, for example, the awkward phrase, “this room which is built which is equipped with beams and doors downstairs” (#185). Also, in the famous passage from Herodas’ Mime 1 (p. 6), the oath μὰ τὴν Ἄιδεω Κούρην (singular in number, probably referring to Persephone) is translated as “by the daughters of Hades,” and the phrase πρὸς Πάρινὤρμησαν as “induced Paris” rather than “hastened to Paris.” Odd spellings occasionally appear, for example, Adoneia instead of Adonia (p. 27). Perhaps the resolution of a photo of two folded letters found in Taesion’s house (p. 132) could be improved or the letters highlighted in some way. It would also be helpful to have chapter numbers, in addition to text numbers, in the running headers. These small suggestions for improvements in future editions in no way detract from the enormous service this book provides.

This is a tremendously welcome book for scholars and students of women in the ancient Mediterranean world, ancient history, social and cultural studies, Egypt. There will no longer be an excuse to neglect the rich documentation of the lives of women in Greek and Roman Egypt when teaching courses on women in the ancient world and when studying issues of gender.


1. Good background readings could include Sarah B. Pomeroy, “Families in Ptolemaic Egypt,” in Families in Classical and Hellenistic Greece: Representations and Realities (Oxford, 1997), 193-229; Dominic Montserrat, Sex and Society in Graeco-Roman Egypt (London, 1996); Jane Rowlandson, “Beyond the Polis: Women and Economic Opportunity in Early Ptolemaic Egypt,” in The Greek World, ed. Anton Powell (London, 1995), 301-22; Roger S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity (Princeton, 1993), esp. “Women” and “People and Families,” 92-99, 181-207; Sarah B. Pomeroy, “Women in Roman Egypt: A Preliminary Study based on Papyri,” in ANRW II 10.1 (1988), 708-23; Sarah B. Pomeroy, Women in Hellenistic Egypt: From Alexander to Cleopatra (New York, 1984).

2. See too Roger S. Bagnall and Bruce W. Frier, The Demography of Roman Egypt (Cambridge, 1994); Deborah W. Hobson, “House and Household in Roman Egypt,” YCS 28 (1985), 211-29.

3. For example, there are extensive excerpts from Theocritus’ Idyll 15, yet no references to discussions of women’s issues raised in the poem, e.g., Joan B. Burton, Theocritus’s Urban Mimes: Mobility, Gender, and Patronage (Berkeley, 1995); Frederick T. Griffiths, “Home before Lunch: The Emancipated Woman in Theocritus,” in Reflections of Women in Antiquity, ed. Helene P. Foley (New York, 1981), 247-73. Herodas’ Mime 5 appears last and in its entirety in the source book, yet we miss references to such discussions as David Konstan, Sexual Symmetry: Love in the Ancient Novel and Related Genres (Princeton, 1994), 162-66.

4. We miss references, for example, to Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, trans. F. Lyra (Cambridge, Mass., 1995); Stanley M. Burstein, “Arsinoe II Philadelphos: A Revisionist View,” in Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Macedonian Heritage, ed. W. Lindsay Adams and Eugene N. Borza (Washington, DC, 1982), 197-212.

5. A reference to Montserrat’s (n. 1 above) discussion and cautions would be welcome, 41-46 (the book is included in the bibliography).

6. Easily available in Women’s Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation, ed. Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, 2d ed. (Baltimore, 1992), 9-10.