BMCR 2022.05.09

More texts from the Archive of Socrates

, , More texts from the Archive of Socrates: papyri from house 17, level B, and other locations in Karanis (P. Cair. Mich. III). Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete. Beiheft, 45. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. xviii, 214. ISBN 9783110714289 $114.99.


Papyri from Karanis were well represented on the Egyptian antiquities market following the first Fayum find of 1877, but it is archaeology that makes the village special. Pioneering excavations by the University of Michigan (1924–1935) documented the site in detail and unearthed nearly 5,000 papyri and ostraca (among countless other artifacts).[1] In the last quarter century, the work of publishing and contextualizing them has increasingly incorporated legacy data from the dig.[2]

In 1952–1953, Michigan repatriated nearly 3,000 of the inscribed objects it had excavated, following their recall by the Egyptian Antiquities Service.[3] The papyri sat unopened in a cupboard within the Egyptian Museum until 2010, when Cornelia Römer launched a project in collaboration with Egyptian scholars to sort, conserve, and study them. The project bore fruit quickly. A new volume of Cairo papyri from the Michigan excavations (= P.Cair.Mich. II) appeared in 2015 and (a global pandemic notwithstanding) the volume here under review followed in the summer of 2021. Ample introduction, commentary, translation, and a color illustration accompany each edition, and gratitude is owed to the volume’s editors and contributors for adding them to the ever-growing corpus from Karanis, which now numbers nearly 2,500 published items.

Many of the papyri in this volume were found in the vicinity of house B17, purportedly the home of a local tax collector named Socrates, son of Sarapion. Römer’s compact introduction addresses immediately the thorny matter of Socrates and the context(s) of his “archive”. She acknowledges the challenges – the scattering of the papyri, but also the theoretical question about the type of archaeological deposit – but argues inclusively that we do indeed have a portion of his personal papers. Additionally, because of Socrates’ social standing and the neighborhood’s affluence, she deems it likely that house B17 was his residence, though it has elsewhere been argued that papyri were only dumped there.[4]

Readers will be grateful for the catalogue of papyri from the neighborhood that the introduction provides but should be warned that it does not attempt a critical assessment of the archive, its contents, or its contexts. There are a number of papyri from B17 and its immediate surroundings that do not obviously pertain to Socrates or his family,[5] and much remains to be done on the archaeology of this neighborhood. That work is beyond the scope of this volume. Despite its optimistic title, of the papyri it publishes, only 13 – perhaps written in Socrates’ hand and involving his brother in-law – as well as 19 have any obvious relation to the archive.

In typical papyrological fashion, seven literary texts are given pride of place at the head of the volume. They include five new fragments of the Iliad and additional fragments of two items first published in P.Cair.Mich. II: Demosthenes’ On the Crown (6) and a list of comedies and satyr-plays (7). It is unsurprising that rolls of Homer were prevalent in Karanis, but perhaps more noteworthy that Demosthenes is the village’s next best attested author: On the Crown is the third of his works turned up by the excavations. The literary papyri are all expertly edited, but a concern is that no palaeographical parallels are offered in support of the second-century date assigned to each text.[6]

Textual critics need not be alarmed, as the literary fragments’ readings are primarily of orthographic interest.[7]There are nevertheless several other curiosities that warrant mention. The Demosthenes fragments, for one, were excavated in entirely disparate areas of Karanis (an archaeological red flag!). The case of 3 also stands out: Römer ponders at length whether it should be joined to P.Cair.Mich. II 2 before rejecting that hypothesis for reasons both palaeographical and papyrological. She is certainly correct, and I would add a further argument regarding the roll’s organization: the layout of P.Cair.Mich. II 2 indicates that its columns contained ca. 34 lines and that the second one likely began with Il. 2.758 (or, less probably, 2.759). Because Römer reads both of those lines at the bottom of the column preserved on 3 (a column which is broken off, moreover), the two fragments cannot derive from the same bookroll.

The bulk of the volume consists of twenty-four documentary editions, representing several standard types, in various states of preservation. There are letters (14, 26), petitions to the prefect (11, 15), receipts for rent / taxes (19, 20), lists / accounts (16, 23, 24, 28), an extract from a census declaration (21), two copies of a will (8), leases (9, 13, 22), a revenue report (12), proceedings of a boulê (25), a land declaration (18), application for epikrisis (27), dating formula (17), and a trio of “semi-literary” texts (3133).

Noteworthy editions include 10, an additional fragment of the oath of mutual liability published as P.Cair.Mich. II 14. All parties and activities in this papyrus are now certainly located in the Meris of Themistos, in the western Fayum (it is unclear how or why the papyrus ended up in Karanis). 13 preserves a lease of sows, the first example of a document type whose existence has been inferred from Ptolemaic rent receipts – a “known unknown”, of sorts.[8] On a single sheet are preserved 15 and 16 – the former a draft of a remarkable plea to the prefect from a septuagenarian seeking release from liturgical service, the latter (on the obverse) a list of individuals. A brief memo written below 15 is treated as part of that text, but is wholly unrelated. Although it includes one of the names listed in 16, it should be treated as a third text: the two principal texts’ hands are quite different. I was especially intrigued by 22 (an offer to lease) and pondered the overlap between its contents and the family archive of Gemellus Horion (TM Arch 90). The text involves an offer to an Antinoite citizen (who may also be a veteran) to lease farmland near Kerkesoucha, submitted by someone descended from an Apolinarius. Members of Horion’s family were also Antinoites and property-owners in Kerkesoucha; his father was also an Apollinarius. I also wondered whether the lessee (Ision, son of P-) is the same Ision son of Ptolemaios to whom the receipt O.Mich. 1.276 (204/233) was issued: Πτολεμαίου would fit the lacuna in l. 3 well. In 28, meanwhile, we find a noteworthy mention of a ἱεροποιός (= overseer of temples/rites), an office that is poorly attested and understood, and in 33 an oracular question is addressed to Soxis Pnepheros: “is it my fate to travel to Alexandria?” The prospect of a visit to the polis was evidently no trivial matter, but the business potentially to be conducted there, alas, cannot be discerned.

The texts in this volume collectively speak to the broader administrative, agricultural, and social contexts in which Roman Karanis and its inhabitants were embedded. The concerns to which the papyri bear witness are variously personal, local, regional, provincial, and imperial. They may have all been excavated at Karanis, but they frequently involve a larger network of relationships and transactions that spill over from individual houses and neighborhoods to the nome capital, the Fayum’s other Merides and communities, and the larger province of Egypt.

Like P.Cair.Mich. II, this new volume of Cairo papyri from the Michigan excavations at Karanis is primarily an Egyptian effort. In addition to its editors (Römer and Mohamed G. El-Maghrabi, both well-known experts in the field, who each submitted multiple editions), over a dozen other students and faculty contributed their work: Yosra Ahmed, Seham Aish, Shereen Aly, Graham Claytor, Rasha el-Mofatch, Fatma E. Hamouda, Sahar Hassan, Shaymaa Moussa, Haytham A. Qandeil, Noha Salem, Eman Selim, Suzanne Soliman, and Mervat Zaki. It is a fitting reminder that Egypt is both the modern source of antiquity’s papyrological legacy and has for centuries been its steward. It also demonstrates that papyrology in twenty-first century Egypt is thriving.


[1] Previously, in the winter of 1895/6, David Hogarth and Bernard Grenfell excavated briefly for the Egypt Exploration Fund and identified Kûm Aushîm as the site of Karanis. On excavations at Karanis, the indispensable resource remains P. Davoli, L’archeologia urbana nel Fayyum di èta ellenistica e romana (Naples: 1998) 74–89.

[2] E.g., P. van Minnen, “House-to-House Enquiries: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Roman Karanis,” ZPE 100 (1994): 227–251; W. G. Claytor and A. Verhoogt, Papyri from Karanis: The Granary C123 (Ann Arbor: 2018).

[3] For the history of the partage agreement and repatriation, see B. Haug, “Politics, Partage, and Papyri: Excavated Texts Between Cairo and Ann Arbor (1924–1953),” AJA 125 (2021): 143–163.

[4] P. van Minnen, “Archaeology and Papyrology: Digging and Filling Holes?” in K. Lembke, M. Minas-Nerpel and S. Pfeiffer (eds.), Tradition and Transformation: Egypt under Roman Rule (Leiden 2010): 463, revising the argument of his seminal 1994 article.

[5] E.g., from house B17, SB 6.9247, SB 6.9430, SB 12.11105, and P.Mich. 6.381; from street BS1, SB 12.11104, SB12.11124, SB 14.12082; P.Mich. 6.366, P.Mich. 6.380, P.Mich. 8.495, and P.Mich. 9.522.

[6] I am mindful of the methodological anxieties surrounding palaeographical dating articulated in B. Nongbri, God’s Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts (New Haven: 2018) 47–82. The date of the “archive” of Socrates makes it easy in this case to situate the literary papyri in the second century.

[7] A trio of orthographical variants in 3 are shared with the so-called Hawara Homer (= TM 60571). The discussion of 3.8 (= Il. 2.741), however, is at odds with its apparatus criticus. The latter is correct: Zenodotus is unique in preferring accusative ἀθάνατον and the papyrus agrees with Aristarchus and other mss.

[8] See D. J. Thompson, “Ptolemaic Pigs: An Ecological Study” BASP 39 (2002): 129–130.