BMCR 2007.01.29

Ostraca de Krokodilô. La correspondence militaire et sa circulation (O. Krok. 1-151). Praesidia du désert de Bérénice II. Fouilles de l’IFAO 51

, Ostraca de Krokodilô : la correspondance militaire et sa circulation, O. Krok. 1-151. IF ; 923. Le Caire: Institut français d'archéologie orientale, 2005. xi, 283 pages : illustrations ; 33 cm.. ISBN 2724703707 €35.00.

Hélène Cuvigny is a distinguished expert on the area of the Egyptian Eastern desert between the Red Sea and the valley of the Nile in the Roman period. Since 1994 in the context of a research project which is funded by the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale in Cairo she has been entrusted with the exploration of the network of the small Roman forts (praesidia) along the 180 km road leading from Qift (ancient Koptos) to Qusayr on the Read Sea. Almost at the beginning of this project it turned out that Qusayr or (to be more precise) the ancient site of Qusayr al-Qadîm, 5 km north of the modern town, is the ancient sea port of Myos Hormos, which had until then been located in historical maps of the region about 160 km further to the north along the Red Sea coast.1 A first important outcome of this research project was the book “La route de Myos Hormos. L’armée romaine dans le désert Oriental d’Égypte I: Praesidia du désert de Bérénice” (Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, Le Caire 2003) edited by Cuvigny in collaboration with J.-P. Brun, A. Bülow-Jacobsen, J.-L. Fournet und M. Reddé. This book is now the most comprehensive study on the history and archaeology of the eastern desert region of Egypt in the Roman period. In this book Cuvigny also gave a first overview of the written documents which came to light in the different Roman praesidia along the road to Myos Hormos. In most cases these are ostraca, by means of which the commanders of the several praesidia (who bore the title of curator) communicated with each other or recorded their notes on the daily military routine of their fort. Although papyrus also was used as a writing material in this region (as is attested by some references to papyrus in the ostraca from the Eastern desert) it was used with great parsimony. In the second volume of “La Route des Myos Hormos” Cuvigny illustrated the functioning of the network of the Roman praesidia which were placed alongside the road to Myos Hormos like the links in a chain to control the traffic on this important trade route, and were under the command of the praefectus montis Berenicidis, who probably resided in Koptos and whose title derived from the harbour of Berenike on the Red Sea coast about 270 km south of Myos Hormos.

With the book under review (henceforth O.Krok.), which contains the edition of about 150 ostraca from Krokodilô, a Roman praesidium 63 km east of Koptos, Cuvigny now begins the series of the systematic publication of the ostraca found in the excavations of the several praesidia alongside the road to Myos Hormos. In the introduction to this volume Cuvigny informs the reader that the ostraca of Krokodilô now provide the most substantial information on the internal organisation and functioning of the several praesidia and for this reason deserved to be edited first. Ostraca have also been found in the praesidia of Maximianon and Didymoi and will be published at a later date. The ostraca stored in the depot of Krokodilô were deciphered by the author with the help of A. Bülow-Jacobsen, Fr. Colin and J.-L. Fournet during two campaigns in 1996 and 1997. The 151 ostraca published in the present book are only a part of the written material found on the site and, as several quotations from the unpublished O.Krok. in the book under review show, there are many more interesting ostraca from Krokodilô still waiting to be published.

The introduction to the volume is brief, with good reason because the organisation and functioning of the praesidia-network has already been described in detail by the author in “La route de Myos Hormos”. This applies likewise to such fields of social and cultural history as the relationship between the soldiers of the praesidia-garrisons and civil persons or the role of Greek and Latin as written or spoken languages in the military or its civil surroundings (the latter field having been explored by J.-L. Fournet in the same volume). The reader interested in such questions should therefore refer to the volume “La route de Myos Hormos”. In O.Krok. he will only find information on the internal military routine of one of the praesidia, but these are of no less interest than the above-mentioned historical problems.

The introduction also deals with the period of time covered by the ostraca in the volume. Concerning the dated ostraca or the ostraca in which dates are at least mentioned this period extends from 102/03 AD (year 6 of Trajan) to 118 (year 2 of Hadrian). The undated ostraca can be dated with some certainty according to their findspots in the archaeological stratigraphy of the site which had been established during an earlier campaign.2 More recent archaeological investigations of the fort of Krokodilô and of the neigbouring praesidia as well as the dedicatory inscription of the praesidium of Sikayt have confirmed that the praesidium of Krokodilô and the praesidia network as well were established during the reign of Vespasian (69-79 AD). But unfortunately most of the Flavian archaeological evidence in Krokodilô has been destroyed because of the frequent inundations of the nearby wadi.

The military garrison of the several praesidia along the road to Myos Hormos consisted of 3-5 cavalrymen and 8-10 infantry. Cuvigny mentions the striking difference in onomastics between the cavalrymen who have foreign non-Roman names (mostly of Dacian origin) and the infantry with their simple Latin names. According to Cuvigny this could indicate that the cavalrymen stuck to their origin at least inasmuch they were allowed to keep their foreign names, whereas the infantry changed their Graeco-Egyptian names for Latin ones. We shall refer to this problem again a little later. Every time a cavalryman is mentioned in the ostraca, his turma is also given, but never his unit. But it is quite certain that all the cavalrymen who appear in the O.Krok. served in the ala Vocontiorum, which was stationed in Koptos. To which unit the infantry belonged remains unclear.

The ostraca provide in particular valuable insight into the system of information transfer between the praesidia by means of single cavalrymen serving as couriers. The mail they transported and delivered mainly consisted of letters or administrative or military circulars for the curatores of the praesidia. But the cavalrymen not only had the task of information transfer within the network of the praesidia but also of escorting travellers on the road to Myos Hormos. That it was from time to time dangerous to travel this route is illustrated by attacks of Bedouins from the desert, to which, as we will see a little later, there are a couple of references in the military and administrative correspondence recorded in O.Krok.

Following the introduction the volume is divided into 11 chapters, in which Cuvigny deals with several groups of ostraca. Chapter I treats the diaries of military service of the praesidium of Krokodilô during the prefecture of the praefectus montis Berenicidis Cosconius in the reign of Trajan (O.Krok. 1-4). Chapter II concerns a dossier of official documents of Capito who served as curator of the praesidium of Krokodilô between November 108 and January 109 AD (O.Krok. 5-23). Chapter III again deals with diaries of military service, this time those from the prefecture of Artorius Priscillus. They date from May to November 109 (O.Krok. 24-40). Chapter IV contains official circulars for the curatores of the praesidia, again from the year 109 (O.Krok. 41-59). In Chapter V once more official circulars are edited, but these texts cannot be assigned to one of the known dossiers mentioned above (O.Krok. 60-63). Chapter VI collects letters from and to several curatores of Krokodilô (O.Krok. 64-81). Chapter VII contains other official letters, which again cannot be assigned to one of the known dossiers (O.Krok. 82-86). In Chapter VIII Cuvigny deals mainly with one very big ostracon containing military reports on assaults by Bedouins and related documents (O.Krok. 87-92). Chapter IX contains private letters of soldiers to fellow soldiers (O.Krok. 93-100). Chapter X contains various dipinti mentioning the names of single soldiers (O.Krok. 101-119). Chapter XI, finally, collects notes concerning the daily military routine, which very probably formed the basis for the composition of the official reports of the curatores of the praesidia. Also in this chapter are little potsherds carrying the parole or watchword for each day of a month, by means of which the soldiers of the praesidia network could identify themselves to each other, in particular by night (O.Krok. 120-151).

The book concludes with the usual detailed indexes, a concordance of publication- and inventory numbers and the illustrations. The black and white photographs of the ostraca are throughout of very good quality on a scale of 1:1. In cases of very large ostraca (in particular O.Krok. 1 and 87) Cuvigny kindly provides enlarged photographs of single sections of the ostraca with the help of which the reader is able to check the reading for himself and to understand better the disposition of the text on the larger ostraca.

The texts Cuvigny edited in O.Krok. provide plenty of information on the military, social and cultural history of the area of the Eastern Egyptian desert during the reigns of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, which cannot be dealt with in the manner it deserves within the limited space of this review. But in the following I at least want to try to highlight three ostraca which I think belong to the most important documents of the volume.

I start with the very first number: O.Krok. 1. This ostracon is an official diary or journal of the daily military routine of information transfer of the praesidium of Krokodilô covering the time between February 8 and March 28 of 109 AD. Entries for each day record the name of the cavalryman who delivered mail. In most of the cases this mail comes from one of the neighbouring praesidia, that is to say Phoinikon, 29 km west (if one is heading for Koptos) and Persou, 24 km east (if one is heading for Myos Hormos) of Krokodilô, which is situated between these two praesidia. The entries record what type of mail was sent (e.g. circulars or letters from certain officials) or (sometimes) the goods which were delivered and then the name of the horseman who transported them to the next praesidium. The curatores of the single praesidia had to process incoming official correspondence to the praesidium which came next on the route, either to Myos Hormos or to Koptos, indicating who delivered the mail, the time when it was delivered and to whom it was handed over to be transported to the next station. A well-trained horseman should have made the journey between two praesidia in no more than 2-3 hours. Having arrived at their destination the cavalrymen didn’t wait for another job but (having delivered whatever they transported) immediately returned to Krokodilô to be at their curator’s disposal again as soon as possible. In addition to mail, transports of fish to Koptos are quite often mentioned. Maybe these fish were destined for the military commander of the garrison of Koptos or even for the dinner table of the prefect of Egypt, the governor of the province, who at the time was holding his conventus for upper Egypt and therefore currently residing in Koptos.

The next ostracon I want to single out provides in my opinion the most interesting text in the whole volume. This is O.Krok. 87, a big fragment of the neck and shoulder of an amphora, 55 cm high, on which in two columns the copies of several official circulars are written down in the chronological order of the receipt of the original letters. They date from 9 March and 2 April of 118 and report several violent encounters with armed groups of nomads. This shows how dangerous this area was and illustrates the important role of the network of the Roman praesidia on the two major traffic routes through the Eastern desert — from Myos Hormos and Berenike respectively to Koptos — which guaranteed at least a certain measure of security. The circulars report attacks and violent encounters with Bedouins at certain places and served to inform the other posts along the road about these incidents and thereby prompt them to reinforce their security measures. Despite the fact that these reports are styled in the typical prosaic and laconic tone of the official documents of civil or military authorities one can see that these violent incidents were sometimes very dramatic. In col. I 26-50 there is a report of an attack of 60 nomads (“barbaroi” as the Greek text names them) on the praesidium of Patkoua, which took place on 13 March 118. These Bedouins fought with the Roman soldiers from the 10th hour of the day (about 4 p.m.) until the 2nd hour of the night (about 8 p.m.); afterwards the enemy laid siege to the praesidium until the morning. Then follows in the report the account of the casualties: The soldier Hermogenes was killed, a woman and a child were abducted by the enemy and another child was killed as well. On the following morning of the 14th the fighting continued and the cavalryman Damanais was killed or at least severely injured (the text being not quite clear at this point).

The last ostracon I want to highlight is O.Krok. 98 dating from the year 109 containing a letter of the horseman Dekinais to his fellow soldier Kaigiza. First of all he gives his regards to two fellow cavalrymen named Zoutula and Pouridour. All four soldiers have Dacian names and it appears that these Dacians were assigned to the Roman auxiliary forces and transferred to Egypt shortly after the incorporation of their homeland into the Roman Empire following Trajan’s second Dacian war in 105/06. In the course of this it was seemingly official policy to respect the ethnic identity of the Dacians, because all the cavalrymen mentioned in the O.Krok. bear their Dacian names instead of having them changed to Latin ones as this was a common procedure in integrating foreigners into the Roman auxiliary units. Dekinais continues his letter by saying that he has heard that the praefectus Aegypti Sulpicius Similis had issued the order that “all Dacians” should be led to Alexandria. Unfortunately we are not told the reason for this order. Cuvigny assumes that the governor perhaps either wanted to stage a kind of a military show by moving into Alexandria escorted by hundreds of Dacian horsemen or (which appears more probable in my opinion) that it was intended that the Dacian cavalrymen, who were until then only in a provisional way distributed among the the auxiliary units of Egypt (as in our case the ala Vocontiorum in Koptos), should be joined to form a regular Dacian auxiliary unit (an ala or cohors Dacorum actually) and probably also were destined to leave the country again to serve somewhere else in the empire.

These three examples hopefully have shown what kind of exciting material concerning Roman military history is collected in O.Krok. Cuvigny’s editorial craftmanship throughout the book is — as was to be expected from an expert of her standing, skill and experience — always of great diligence and accurate precision in every detail. The reviewer in particular admired the wealth of the editor’s detailed historical and philological commentaries by means of which she illuminates the often obscure sense of the difficult Greek texts, whose meaning is often obscured by the influence of Latin military terminology (or “slang”). “Ostraca de Krokodilô” is an exellent edition of interesting and valuable documentary sources and again (as with “La route de Myos Hormos”) a very important book, which is very much to be recommended not only to papyrologists or specialists in the field of the history of Roman Egypt but also to all those scholars who deal with the diverse problems of Roman military history.


1. A. Bülow-Jacobsen — H. Cuvigny — J.L. Fournet, Myos Hormos: New Papyrological Evidence, BIFAO 94, 1994, 27-42.

2. La route de Myos Hormos 83-90.