BMCR 2006.11.19

Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt. 300 B.C.-A.D. 800. With contributions by Evie Ahtaridis

, , Women's Letters from Ancient Egypt. 300 B.C.-A.D. 800. With contributions by Evie Ahtaridis. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006. xiii, 421. $75.00.

This important collection makes available to students and scholars a vast trove of letters attributed to women that is unparalleled in the ancient world. These documents were written on papyrus and ostraca and appear here in English translation. Ninety-seven pages, nearly a quarter of the book, are devoted to introductory chapters of varying length. These include: Ch. 1 Introduction: This Book and How It Came to Be Written; Ch. 2 Why Women’s Letters?; Ch. 3 About the Corpus of Letters; Ch. 4 Late Medieval Letters as Comparative Evidence; Ch. 5 Writing and Sending Letters; Ch. 6 Handwriting; Ch. 7 Language; Ch. 8 Economic and Social Situation; Ch. 9 Household Management and Travel; and Ch. 10 Practical Help in Reading the Letters. The letters follow, 161 pages that are part of Archives and Dossiers and 148 individual letters grouped according to themes such as Work, Religion, and Literacy and Education.

Within each rubric the texts are arranged chronologically, but on the whole they do not show change over time; nor is it possible to detect any difference between private lives under Greek or Roman rule. The letters do, however, clearly reflect the changes in women’s status in Hellenistic period. Of particular note throughout is women’s freedom to act in the public sphere, seen in petitions to government officials and in business transactions regarding substantial amounts of property.1 Though the majority of the letters were written by male scribes, the collection also provides good evidence for some increase in women’s education and literacy, an improvement which facilitated women’s participation in many of the same activities as men.2

The book is well-indexed with a six-page general index and a three-page index of sources. As the index of sources makes clear, most of the letters are in Greek. There are a handful in Coptic and very few in Demotic. This ratio is consistent with that of the general bulk of published papyri. In the past many more papyrologists could read Greek than could read Demotic and Coptic, and there has been far more interest in the Greeks than in the natives in Greco-Roman Egypt. The current interest in multi-culturalism and in subject peoples may change this picture. Valuable as this collection of letters is, it will need to be continually updated as new letters are discovered and published. The authors have promised an electronic version of the volume where additions can easily be made.

The only illustrations in the book are of papyrus documents. Thus it is clear that the authors did not intend to present a complete picture of women’s life. Moreover, some of the more crucial papyrological sources for women in Egypt from this period are not included because they are not women’s letters, but men’s. Two well-known examples are a petition from a male recluse in Memphis concerning the circumcision of an Egyptian girl, and a letter from Hilarion to his pregnant wife Alis directing her “If you bear a child and it is a male, let it live, but if it is female, expose it.”3 These documents may be found in Jane Rowlandson, ed., Women & Society in Greek & Roman Egypt (Cambridge, 1998). Rowlandson’s collection also includes illustrations of such items as birthing stools and sculptures of women and goddesses, but these are so poorly reproduced that they do not present the graphic evidence in a useful way.

Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt attempts to reach several disparate audiences, achieving this goal with varying success. For most casual readers the word “Egypt” modified by the adjective “Ancient” evokes the period preceding the Greek and Roman conquest, and thus the book tries to appeal to Egyptophiles. The earliest documents in this book, however, texts from the Zenon archive, were written during the reign of Ptolemy II and the latest date to the 8th century. Moreover, the lack of illustrations other than papyrus texts limits the appeal to the lay reader or the undergraduate. On the other hand, social historians and those interested in the history of women will be able to exploit these primary sources, and some will use them to aid in answering such questions as whether women’s lives in Egypt were the same or different from those of women elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. Most readers will doubtless ignore the physical descriptions of the papyri and the handwriting that introduce the discussion of each document and precede the brief historical analysis or paraphrase of each text. It is no secret that papyrology is dear to the hearts of the authors. Nevertheless, this admittedly esoteric focus is one reason why the book will be of most use to graduate students and ancient historians with some knowledge of papyrology who want to explore the world of women in Egypt. It could also be used by undergraduates writing special reports on women. Certainly a copy should be available in the library of any educational institution where Ancient History is taught.

How do the translations compare with other contemporary versions? We may examine the first part of a letter from a woman involved in managing her family estate in the 2nd century A.D. ( P. Hamb. I. 86).

Bagnall and Cribiore include the letter under the rubric “Legal Matters” and translate (p. 314):

Ptolema to Antas her brother, greetings. You write to Longinus (?) to expect the prefect. Look, the prefect went upriver. If you extricate yourself safely, come quickly before the prefect, so that if we can we have the boy examined. All the fields are in good condition. The southern basin of the 17 ( arouras) has been sold for the cattle….

Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant, in Women’s Life in Greece & Rome publish the same letter in their chapter on Private Life:4

Ptolema to her brother Antas, greetings. You write to Longinus to await the prefect’s arrival; but look, the prefect has already started on his journey. If you can disentangle yourself safely, get here soon, before the prefect, so that we can have the little one evaluated. All the fields are in good condition. The southern irrigated field of the 17 arurae has been sold for grazing of cattle….

In their introduction Bagnall and Cribiore compare the documents in their collection to the Paston letters of the fifteenth century. In elegance and grace, perhaps the Lefkowitz and Fant version are comparable. Bagnall and Cribiore better reflect the laconic, even awkward, style of the Greek original. The Lefkowitz and Fant version is more accessible to undergraduates; the Bagnall and Cribiore is intended for a more sophisticated audience of scholars and advanced students.

The study of women in antiquity is interdisciplinary. Every genre of evidence, written and material, must be exploited not only to compensate for the paucity and diversity of the textual sources on women, but also because the material context of the world in which they lived is a necessary part of the picture. The history of women in Egypt must be written by examining their depiction in art and by investigating archaeological evidence indicating how they lived and the implements they used. Demographic data must be assembled by reading census records showing sex ratio and marriage and fertility patterns, from studying skeleton remains, and from current anthropological data concerning women in rural Egypt. The historian must read diverse texts, including not only the works of Theocritus and Callimachus and the Alexandrian erotic fragments, but also Herophilus’ writings on gynaecology, treatises on cosmetics attributed to female authors, and the letters of Neo-Pythagorean women in Alexandria. Letters from women also constitute an important primary source. For senior scholars to publish a collection like this one is an act of altruism for which all who study women must be grateful.


1.See further Sarah B. Pomeroy, Women in Hellenistic Egypt from Alexander to Cleopatra (New York: Schocken, l984; pb. with new foreword, Detroit: 1990, ACLS History E-Book.

2. See further Raffaella Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Princeton, 2001).

3. UPZ I 2 [ BL VIII 499], Memphis, 163 B.C., P. Oxy. IV 744 [ BL IX 181] Oxyrhynchus, 2 B.C.

4. Third ed. (Baltimore, 2005), pp. 203-4, # 269.