While the Graeco-Roman world was described by elite, literate men who lived within it as a “man’s world” and thus patriarchal, evidence from material culture and papyri in particular has nuanced this understanding (just Google the Babatha archive). Consequently, we have been forced to adjust our definition of what patriarchal meant not only for the time period, but also for different places around the diverse Mediterranean world.
For example, consider the following letter, which is a petition from a woman named Tapentos to Poleman who was an official of the village Kerkeosiris. In the following document, Tapentos complains that another woman named Arsinoe and her son Phatres have broken into her home and absconded with some of Tapentos’s personal documents:
“To Polemon, Epistates of Kerkeosiris, from Tapentos daughter of Horos, of the same village. An attack was made upon my dwelling by Arsinoe and her son Phatres, who went off with the contract relating to my house and other business documents. Therefore since I am seriously ill, being in want of the necessaries of life and body . . . [the papyrus breaks off] (P.Tebt. 1.52; APIS translation; http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.tebt;1;52?rows=3&start=44&fl=id%2Ctitle&fq=series_led_path%3Ap.tebt%3B1%3B*%3B*&sort=series+asc%2Cvolume+asc%2Citem+asc&p=45&t=198)
|Picture of the papyrus translated above, P. Tebt. 1.52|
A few things about this papyrus are noteworthy. The woman Tapentos had a personal archive that she kept in her house. The documents that made up this archive are described as a contract relating to her house, which could be a leasing or purchasing agreement, and “other business documents.” However, we are told nothing else. Nevertheless, Tapentos equates them with a necessity of life! As a result, they were something of great value to her.
With regard to what we can extrapolate about the lives of women in Egypt in the second century BCE (and probably down into the Roman period) they are as follows. First, Tapentos either owned or rented a home, which may have been a common occurrence for women in second century BCE Egypt. Second, Tapentos conducted business and collected an archive for herself. It is highly likely that other women also conducted business for themselves and collected archives as well. Third, Arsinoe stole documents from Tapentos’s home. Thus Arsinoe was a female thief!
Be that as it may, this letter provides a unique peak into the lives of at least two women in Egypt in the second century BCE who were definitely not bare foot and pregnant in the kitchen.