As far as we are aware, only three children’s letters from Greco-Roman antiquity have survived the ages and present themselves to us, so the text above is quite exceptional. It is a letter written on papyrus, found in the city of Oxyrhynchos (now El-Bahnasa), some 200 km upriver from the present-day Cairo and 400 km from the sea and Alexandria, Roman Egypt’s cultural and administrative centre. The dating of the letter is uncertain, but most probably it dates to the second or third century CE. In any case, the calendar date is January 13th (or 14th, if the year in question was a leap year). The translation above is based on that of Peter Parsons, but it is modified by Ville Vuolanto. For the original Greek text with technical information, see papyrus.info.
Even though the letter does not mention its author age, we can reasonably expect him to have been rather young. He seems to have written (and composed) the text by himself, and had therefore already been able to acquire some literacy skills. On the other hand, he is by no means allowed to move around freely and, above all, his way of behaving and expressing himself certainly does have the air of childlike sentiment and concern. This boy was, presumably, over ten years of age, but still not yet reached the legal majority (fourteen).
The text combines two different rhetorical strategies: first, the adult-tone, with recourse to irony: ‘so nice of you’, and with the present, and the socially correct means of addressing and elder. On the other hand, there is the childlike-tone, featuring attempts at emotional blackmail: he won’t speak, greet or eat if his hopes are not fulfilled. Theon even refers to the words of his mother, playing his parents off against one another to back up his claim that he is indeed very, very disappointed.
The translation cannot do full justice to the textual characteristics of the original letter: the editors, Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, remark that it is ‘[w]ritten in a rude uncial hand, and its grammar and spelling leave a good deal to be desired’. A good illustration of this is the writer’s problems in reporting indirect speech. Not surprisingly, there are many problems in translation, as it is not always clear what is going on in the text. For example the reference to the present is not completely clear. The word is arakia, which literary means chickling beans (lathyrus sativus). Thus, a translation such as ‘beans’ would be possible. However, here, in line with the general stroppy tone of the letter, if we interpret this to denote ’weed’,’refuse’ (or ‘rubbish’, here, as Jaakko Frösen has pointed out), then we may be more to the point.
We have here a boy whose father does not want take him along with him out into the big wide world of the Roman empire’s second biggest city, Alexandria. Yet, we also have here a, dare we say, precocious child, who certainly is privileged compared with most of his peers: he has access to education and he comes from a fairly wealthy family. His father is doing business in Alexandria for a longer period, and he himself has access to papyrus to write on – and he took full advantage of his situation. Naturally, to write a letter may have been the idea of Archelaos (perhaps an older relative, or a teacher) but the wording shows that the ideas presented were boy’s own. The letter is written in Theon’s home estate, which his father has left without informing his son, to take the boat from the city of Oxyrhynchos further down the Nile. And from Oxyrhynchos the letter was finally found, thus, most probably, it was originally sent – even if we cannot know whether Theon’s father ever received and read it.
Sculpture of an under-age boy with his hair worn in the Egyptian style with a “lock of Horus”. The side-lock of hair was cut off and dedicated to the gods in connection with the coming-of-age ceremony marking the transition to adult life. From the first half of the second century CE. Museum of Cultural History, Oslo. (Photo: Museum of Cultural History)
So what can we learn about children’s lives in Egypt from such a letter? We have here an example of a child’s multi-layered agency: Theon wants to experience Alexandria, and he pesters his mother and goes to the effort of writing a letter; he is also proclaiming his agency by greeting or not greeting his father, and – though perhaps not so convincingly – by eating or not eating. Certainly, he presents himself as a subject in his own life. The intervention of an adult may account in part for the idea of writing a letter in the first place, or in formulae of address and conclusion (although these could simply reflect such well-embedded cultural conventions, that a boy Theon’s age and position could discern and mimic them). In particular the shifting tone at the end of the letter is amusing, and shows that ‘I pray for your health’ is there because (and only because) one should end letters with this expression in polite circles. It is also of interest that at the beginning of the letter he uses his real name, Theon – but when adding the address, he shifted to use his pet name, Theonas.
Theon is actively trying to influence decision-making in the family. The letter is a rhetorical exercise. He tells what he chooses to tell about his experiences: he works hard to convince his father of his deep disappointment at the family decision. The interplay of social conventions and his immediate concerns are made visible in an exceptional manner: he is socialized with regard to his ‘family culture’ rather than with the requirements of the wider cultural discourses. There is little sign of the kind of filial piety which ideally should permeate all interaction between children and their parents. The milieu in which his action takes place is convincingly depicted: a household with his mother and some other people, with freedom to action and to express his opinions and experiences. Perhaps the most interesting point in our present context is that he seems to think this actually could help. Theon is not an oppressed or frightened child. He is not afraid of losing the emotional support of his nearest and dearest even if he is himself angry and irritating.
As such, this is an isolated text, and, as noted, nearly unique. No firm conclusions about the ‘usual’ experiences of childhood or prevalent patterns of family dynamics can be drawn from this kind of anecdotal evidence: it is his own world Theon is experiencing. But it shows what was possible within certain limits, at least in some contexts and in some families. This kind of micro-historical evidence of life in the ancient world’s cities and communities, is invaluable in showing us the cultural expectations and the, usually well-hidden, lives of their inhabitants.